With the exception of Quarterbacks, rookies get thrown into the fire in today’s NFL. They are expected to be up to NFL speed physically and mentally after four short months of rookie minicamp, OTA’s, training camp, and preseason. Coaches understand that these players are rookies, and they are bound to make mistakes. However, the leash shortens drastically after their rookie season. Meaning these players have to show that they can help their teams win on a consistent basis if they want to have a future in the NFL. Right or wrong, there are no excuses (based on youth) in this league. This is why there are 5 third year players in particular that need to take the next step in 2018.
- Shaq Lawson DE, Buffalo Bills.
The Bills took Lawson with the 19th overall pick in 2016. Many believe that you cannot miss on a defensive lineman from Clemson, yet Shaq hasn’t lived up to Clemson’s pedigree. In his rookie season he dealt with a plethora of injuries. His shoulder caused him to miss the first half of the season, while also having groin issues. When he finally played, he hurt his ankle which put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season. The injury gods were better to Shaq in his sophomore campaign. His play wasn’t affected by any nagging injuries (at least to my knowledge). However, he struggled in 2017. When I broke down his tape the first thing that I noticed was that his pad level was terrible. Shaq pops straight up out of his stance, allowing his opponents to get under him. In the trenches the low man wins, and he was rarely the low man. I also noticed that he does not consistently have a new plan of attack. Meaning he didn’t use a variety of premeditated moves on how he was going to beat his man. Shaq tried the same power rush over and over again which was easily neutralized by offensive tackles because they knew what was coming. He doesn’t have elite athleticism that he can get by on, so he must improve his techniques.
Lawson might have the most to prove to his team because the current regime did not draft him. Bills’ GM Brandon Bean has wasted no time replacing Doug Whaley’s player (former Bills’ GM) with his own guys. He has been very transparent about Shaq’s situation by saying, “Shaq is a guy that this franchise put a lot of stock in with a first-round pick. It’s no secret he hasn’t lived up to that. We try not to be rude, but we don’t beat around the bush. We laid out the expectations for Shaq.” It’s going to be even harder this year for him to see the field because the Bills signed veteran pass rusher Trent Murphy. Shaq has to have a stellar 2018 season or he can expect the Bills to cut bait with him in the near future.
- Vernon Hargreaves CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa has had a revolving door at Cornerback over the years. Their General Manager Jason Licht attempted to obtain some stability at the position in the 2016 draft, by drafting Vernon Hargreaves with the 11th overall pick. The Gator product hasn’t worked out thus far. He had a historically bad rookie campaign, being the only player to ever allow 1000 passing yards in a single season. Vernon looked better in when he moved to nickel in 2017, but still had some hiccups. A lot of his issues I saw on tape were because he was unfamiliar with Tampa’s defensive scheme. Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator runs a lot of zone and off coverage. In order for this scheme to be successful, defensive backs have to be able to recognize and anticipate different route combinations. While in college, Vernon was in an entirely different system. For the most part he was in press man coverage, which doesn’t require as much thinking. Tampa is trying to change their identity into a more physical team, so maybe they will be more aggressive with their coverages (which would benefit Vernon’s skill set more). Even though he is better at man coverage, he still needs to improve. He has to be versatile enough to adjust to whatever scheme the Bucs want to run.The Bucs put Hargreaves on notice this year by drafting cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart. They brought in some real competition, so he is going to have to fight for his spot. His production and tape shows that he clearly hasn’t lived up to his billing, making his 2018 campaign the most crucial season of his career.
- Josh Doctson WR, Washington Redskins.
The Redskins haven’t had a true number one wide receiver under coach Jay Gruden. They decided to change that by selecting Josh Doctson with their first round pick in the 2016 draft. Unfortunately, he missed his entire rookie season with an achilles injury. I thought this injury could’ve really hurt his development. Receivers that come from the Big 12 spread systems (like Josh at TCU) usually have a hard time adjusting to the NFL. The routes receivers have to run are more complex at the next level, so rookies tends to struggle due to the learning curve. While his tape supported my claim, Josh struggled separating against press coverage. He consistently got jammed up at the line of scrimmage, and let corners stay on top of him. He still has a long way to go as a route runner. However, I thought that Josh could still make an impact (even with his route running limitations) because he is such an elite athlete. I believed he would’ve helped the Redskins the most (initially), in the Redszone where he could use his size and 40 inch vertical to win 50/50 balls. Though he wasn’t great at that role either, I still believe Josh can be special. He only has two years left on his rookie deal, so he has to take to a substantial step forward in 2018, and prove to the Redskins that he can be their go to guy.
- Darron Lee LB, New York Jets
I think the way General Manager Mike Maccagnan has put together the Jets’ roster is very unusual. All of his first round selections (since he became GM in 2013) have been defensive players with the exception of Sam Darnold. I have liked some of his selections, but he ignored arguably the 3 most important positions in QB (until this year), OL, and edge rusher. This is why I was confused when they selected Darron with the 20th overall pick. I also didn’t love Darron as a prospect. He had phenomenal combine that showed the NFL how athletic he really was however, being a Linebacker in the NFL requires much more than being athletic. With the exception of Quarterback, Linebackers have to think the game at the highest level. Their responsibilities require them to diagnose plays in a split second, and put themselves in the right position to make play. Darron hasn’t been able to do that on a consistent basis. When I watched his film he was regularly out of position, not reading his keys. He hasn’t shown me that he can sift through the trash and find the ball. Darron is going to have to take giant strides this season, and show the Jets that he can be the “Quarterback” of this defense moving forward.
- Artie Burns CB, Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ever since their last Super Bowl run, the Steelers’ defense has been transitioning.. They were once led by veterans like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, James Harrison, and others. Now, all of those players are retired, and the Steelers have spent a majority of their first round picks on potential replacements. They selected Artie to emerge as their number 1 lock down corner however, he hasn’t lived up to his first round selection. He was the second most penalized corner in the NFL last season with 8, and when I watched his tape. I wasn’t surprised by that statistic. He tends to grab and tug in man coverage. There were times when he was in good shape coverage wise, and he would just grab the receiver because he panicked. Artie can also be too aggressive. He frequently bit on double moves in off coverage. Even with his flaws, I still saw flashes of Burns that makes me believe that he can still become a promising man to man corner. The only problem is that the Steelers are a zone heavy team.
When I watched his games against the Packers and Patriots, he made some crucial mistakes. He played the coverage wrong. Players who don’t understand basic zone responsibilities don’t last long in the NFL, especially with the Steelers. There were talks last season that Artie could lose his starting job to Cam Sutton. It is going to be interesting to see if they will have open competition for the right corner spot. Not only does the Miami product have to have a huge 2018 regular season, but Artie might have to have a monster preseason/training camp to keep his starting job.
- “2016 NFL Draft Tracker – NFL.com.” NFL.com, National Football League, www.nfl.com/draft/2016/tracker#dt-tabs:dt-by-round/dt-by-round-input:5.
2. Jones, Mike. “Redskins Place Josh Doctson on Injured Reserve.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Oct. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/football-insider/wp/2016/10/21/redskins-place-josh-doctson-on-injured-reserve/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.30a2419ef511.
3. Patra, Kevin. “Bills GM: Shaq Lawson ‘Hasn’t Lived up to’ Draft Status.” NFL.com, National Football League, 21 June 2018, www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000937993/article/bills-gm-shaq-lawson-hasnt-lived-up-to-draft-status.
4. Thomas Lott Omnisport. “Steelers CB Artie Burns in Danger of Losing Starting Job.” Sporting News, Sporting News, 24 Dec. 2017, www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/nfl-joe-haden-injury-update-steelers-secondary-cameron-sutton-artie-burns/1tu2t5hj2w8tj1h431jr3ogzqw.
5. “Vernon Hargreaves Speaks out about His Troubles: I Haven’t Been Producing’.” Tampa Bay, Florida News, 1 June 2018, www.tampabay.com/blogs/bucs/2018/06/01/vernon-hargreaves-speaks-out-about-his-troubles-i-havent-been-producing/.