Melvin Gordon III. Played with a bum knee and shoulder as a rookie. Played behind a tattered offensive line. Epic. Bust.
The public can be incredibly impatient with rookies. It's what happens when the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement creates an environment that pressures teams to play rookies earlier than ever before.
While I dislike the story deck that claims "football is worse than ever," The Ringer's Kevin Clark wrote an excellent story on this subject that I encourage you to read for details. Here are the basics:
Despite coaches’ concerns, though, a collision of forces has made the age trend too fierce to counteract. The short version: In the past five years, NFL teams have committed heavily to cost-effective rookies, reserving lucrative second contracts for the game’s biggest stars. At the same time, the number of third-year juniors leaving college has swelled due in part to what Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said is accelerated physical development and in part to a desire to get to the second, big-money contract sooner despite the low odds of most players actually cashing in. And though many of those early entry players are great talents, they face a steep learning curve when they enter the NFL. Because of strict roster limits on the number of players a team can carry and an uptick in the number of packages that rely on extra personnel, it’s now far harder to hide a less prepared draft pick on a roster — and that creates problems on the field. Further complicating matters, coaches and executives think rookies are less prepared than ever, but the new CBA restricts padded practices and offseason contact between players and coaches, limiting learning opportunities. Looming over all of that is teams’ reliance on the rookie salary scale, which since the 2011 CBA has guaranteed teams access to cheap players for four years and created a world in which older players have to break out in a big way to stick around after their first deal expires. And yes, that’s really the short version.
“It’s just a fact, you have to continue to load your team with younger players, in hopes they are ready to go and ready to play productive football,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “And yet, they are staying less in college, the rules are prohibitive, and [college] coaches are spending less time with players in college. The process from the bottom-up is shrunk, and you have to try to move them forward as quickly as you can.”
A lot of rookies aren't ready for the roles they're given. Fewer coaches are equipped to transition these rookies from collegiate stars to productive pros.
If you look at Michael Thomas' usage with the Saints you're likely to see a young receiver in an offense with a limited range of routes and responsibilities. Sean Payton is one of the smartest offensive minds in football. He has a history of finding receivers that fit his scheme and giving them defined roles without overloading them with new criteria right away.
Norv Turner had a great career, but he didn't operate this way. He didn't like starting rookies—especially in the passing game—because he didn't run a system that encouraged specialization.
Stefon Diggs' performance last year was a reflection of his unusual versatility and intellectual capacity to learn new material fast and translate it to the field. Far too often, we make 1:1 comparisons between players and teams that aren't fair to the player on the bad side of the analysis.
Michael Thomas stepped into New Orleans and he's playing well enough that he's an every-week fantasy starter. Stefon Diggs came in halfway through the 2015 season and became a reliable option with big play ability. What's wrong with Laquon Treadwell that he isn't even playing?
As I've written much of the season, Treadwell faced scenarios with the Vikings that Diggs did not in 2015:
- Diggs earned time halfway through 2015 and none of Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson, nor Jarius Wright were performing well.
- Adam Thielen was a first-year UDFA still learning Norv Turner's system despite showing preseason promise. He was also on the bench.
- Diggs played with the same quarterback and offense since his first day of camp.
- Treadwell played hurt the entirety of 2015.
- The Vikings' starting quarterback got hurt days before the season opener and it precipitated a dramatic change in quarterback and scheme.
- Diggs was a fifth-round pick, Treadwell a first-round pick. The public expectation of performance changes with the range of the draft pick.
- Mike Zimmer hired Pat Shurmur to have input into the offense and when Teddy Bridgewater got hurt, that changes that chafed Turner included shorter passes that encourage additional use of Cordarrelle Patterson, a player that had multiple years of difficulty learning Turner's system but possessed top-tier skill after the catch.
While reports indicated that Treadwell was inconsistent and overthinking his responsibilities during the preseason and he was still making mistakes, the perspective of the writers was steeped in the expectation of Treadwell as an instant impact first-round pick. There's a significant difference between characterizing a player's performance as inconsistent and intellectually challenged.
Unlike many rookies, Treadwell is also learning all of the receiver spots. This alone will make most first-year players overthink their actions and display hesitancy on the field. According to recent practice reports, Treadwell appears far more comfortable and big plays are happening with greater routine during practice.
I have little doubt that Treadwell's work will translate to the playing field next year. He's the top player from the 2016 class that I'd be patient with
This week's Gut Check features several talents from the 2016 rookie class that I'd recommend patience. Don't sell them low, don't cut them from your dynasty leagues, and most important, change your perspective of player development.
Turning the Corner now, expect more next year
RB Kenneth Dixon: My No.3 RB in the 2016 Rookie Scouting Portfolio Pre-Draft Publication, Dixon's balance, second effort, agility, and versatility reminds me of a young Frank Gore. His role has grown steadily since a late preseason MCL strain and in recent weeks he has earned significant time in a committee split with Terrance West.
The Ravens gave Dixon the vast majority of the touches against the Patriots and his 11-for-39 rushing stat line was deceiving. Dixon had multiple runs up the middle on first and second down from predictable runs sets that earned 4-9 yards and the first defender had difficulty bringing him down. Check out this yards-after-contact run in the fourth quarter where defensive end Chris Long fails to take Dixon to the ground.
Although Dixon dropped two passes in this game, they were uncharacteristic drops for a prospect with excellent hands. He still finished Monday night with 8 catches, 42 yards, and a score.
West deserves a lot of credit for his play, but it's clear that the Ravens believe in Dixon as its future workhorse. With a good camp, Dixon will be a good candidate for consistent RB2 production next year and RB1 upside if the line and Joe Flacco can stay healthy.
WR Tyreek Hill: He reminds me of the best moments of former Raider and Clemson receiver, Jacoby Ford. In other words, he's a good tier below Steve Smith. I'd be surprised if he ever truly earns a reputable mention in the same category because he lacks Smith's strength and skill in tight coverage. But Ford was a promising player early in his career and Hill's hands, skill after the catch, body control, and blazing speed makes him a player worth projecting fantasy WR3 numbers and WR2 upside in 2017.
WR Malcolm Mitchell: His run of production in the red zone is indicative of the trust that the Patriots staff has in him. As mentioned on Monday Night Football, Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniel says Mitchell is one of the rare rookies that has gotten better as the season progressed. It's not a surprise when you consider that Mitchell had difficulties reading at a high level when he arrived at Georgia, developed into a good student, and even wrote a children's book by the time he left Athens. It's this kind of mentality and work ethic that separates good players from good athletes and Mitchell is also a fine athlete. Here's a 2016 RSP sample profile on Mitchell.
TE Hunter Henry: The Chargers successfully schemed to get Henry open for big plays earlier in the year. Although the touchdowns are still coming—3 in the past 4 weeks—he hasn't earned more than 20 yards receiving in a game since Week 6. Expect Henry to earn a larger role next year and with that will come those games of 60-80 yards that he earned between Weeks 3-6 when Antonio Gates wasn't a factor.
flashes, but time and work needed
QB Paxton Lynch: Blessed with a strong arm, size, and mobility, Lynch has performed well in practice throughout the preseason and regular season. The greatest issue for Lynch has been calling plays. Gary Kubiak's West Coast offense is like most WCOs—rife with unwieldy strings of verbiage that we football fans commonly refer to as play calls.
Much has been made about Jared Goff not being prepared to play right away, but in respect to one's ability to call the plays accurately in a huddle or at the line, Lynch was in a similar boat with a much better offense around him. When a quarterback is thinking about calling the right play, much less remembering it, the effort detracts from his diagnosis of a defense. As Marcus Mariota explained to the CBS broadcast crew last week, it takes multiple performances against several pro defenses to internalize concepts and react to them without overthinking it.
Lynch will be going through this process next year, at the earliest.There's a possibility that Trevor Siemian convinces the Broncos brain trust that he could be the team's starter for another year or two, but Lynch performed well enough against the Buccaneers earlier in the season and has a better intermediate and deep game. I anticipate that Lynch will be much harder to keep off the field next fall.
RB Devontae Booker: The addition and use of Justin Forsett as the primary back this week, a runner cut twice this year, is an indication that the Broncos aren't satisfied with Booker's performance to date. Two offseason surgeries leading to his rookie year in addition to the rigors of a much longer season are valid reasons for some of Booker's struggles.
There's real credence to the difficulties that come with adjusting to the grind of a professional season. Mental errors and sloppy play become more commonplace.
I had additional concerns about Booker as a prospect. He was a confusing player because a lot of his work appeared effortless, including setting up blocks at the line of scrimmage. He was too upright for my taste and I wondered if he truly saw the field as well as it sometimes appeared.
I'm still seeing some of these issues with the Broncos. There isn't great pad level on this cutback run and it gets him stuffed in a short-yardage situation where he should have earned the first down. Booker clearly spots the cutback opportunity as the lineman collapses the defender inside, but he should see the linebacker coming downhill for him and he remains upright.
Booker either didn't anticipate the tight squeeze between the tackle and the oncoming linebacker, meaning he didn't see the linebacker and/or he needs to work on altering his stride length to the entrance of crease—another thing I never saw him do at Utah because he was almost always hitting the hole at top speed.
Booker won't earn a free pass to the starting role in 2017. Kapri Bibbs has steadily improved and C.J. Anderson is a good starter when healthy. If the rookie works on his game, specifically his footwork and pad level, he has the other skills to become a fantasy RB1. I'm not sold, but I'm still interested.
WR Tajae Sharpe: Marcus Mariota leaned on Sharpe hard during the preseason and early in the year. While Sharpe hit a wall by mid-year, I think the experience will help him prepare for 2017. His dedication to craft, skill in tight spaces, and early confidence to win a starting job are all positives to build on.
WR Will Fuller V: He must learn to get his hands in the proper position to catch the football with every target. It was clear that he overthought this process last year and on selected targets this. If he can make this second nature, he becomes one of the best vertical threats in the league. As of now, he has the potential to become one of the best vertical threats in the league. Bryce Brown had the potential to become a great running back. A big gulf exists between "potential" and "great."
WR Robby Anderson: The speed and skill at winning the ball are there. He needs to get stronger and continue working on his routes and releases. If he can become a master technician, he could become a fantasy WR1 and primary receiver in New York. He could also get pigeon-holed as a vertical threat that earns limited targets, but capable of strong production on an inconsistent basis.
TE Austin Hooper: Matt Ryan's game is based on timing and rapport. Stanford's academic schedule doesn't coincide with NFL rules, which means Hooper had to miss much of spring and early summer camp. It put him behind and he never earned enough reps to become a featured option in the passing game. He's had productive moments, but often as the second tight end in two tight end sets.
Hooper flashed all the skills he'll need to develop into a go-to receiver for Ryan. The biggest area of development that he'll face this offseason is run blocking. He's young for an NFL player, so I expect him to add weight and learn the craft during the offseason. If he does, look for a much stronger rapport between Hopper and his Pro-Bowl quarterback.
overriding external factors
QB Jared Goff: It's unfortunate that Goff is on a team in turmoil. It decreases his likelihood of developing into a long-term success. It's far from impossible, but the Rams are behaving like a bad reality show. If L.A. makes a dumb hire that isn't a good match with Goff—it's entirely possible—Goff could lose out.
Bloggers are nitpicking Goff's technique right now. I hate to say it's little more than click-bait, but it's not far from the truth.
Bad offensive line play will deteriorate a quarterback's mechanics. I saw a blogger on Twitter make an illogical criticism of Goff's footwork and release stride on a play where it was obvious that the pass rush was the cause.
So far, I've seen some good pre-snap reads of disguised blitzes, accurate throws downfield, toughness in the pocket, correct movement in the pocket under pressure, and the willingness to sacrifice his body to keep a game close. Even so, Goff's future has an extremely high boom-bust rate at the moment because of the unknown of a new coaching regime.
A new coach may not have to be tied to Goff as much as one may think. Goff was not a polarizing prospect so that's an element in his favor. We have to wait and see about the coach and the philosophy that will be in LA in 2017—and how much additional work it will mean for Goff.
Considering how bad the offensive line is, Goff is at best another year away from reliable fantasy performance (2018).
WR Josh Doctson: Two remotely comparable situations involving high-profile receiver talents essentially taking a redshirt year are Kevin White and Breshard Perriman. Both flashed during their second seasons. White is injured yet again, but Perriman is earning and making good on red zone looks and deep targets.
Doctson has more skill as a route runner than both White and Perriman. Not as fast as the two, Doctson is more flexible and better with the ball in the air.
With DeSean Jackson likely elsewhere in 2017; Pierre Garcon aging gracefully but no longer a top option; and Jamison Crowder a great complement but unlikely a primary option, Doctson has a golden opportunity to become the man in short order. I just wonder how much faith Jay Gruden has in making Doctson the guy right away. I'm betting on a big hedge during free agency that could cloud the picture for Doctson in 2017.
hidden gems, depth chart obstacles
WR Leonte Carroo: The Dolphins loved Carroo at Rutgers and he earned compliments from Richard Sherman after the opener. But Carroo isn't the classic burner that DeVante Parker is and he was asked to learn all the receiver positions during his rookie year. This slowed Carroo's path to the field. So did Parker's production. I still believe Carroo has the skills to become one of the better receivers in the 2016 class, but the bigger question is Ryan Tannehill's development if Adam Gase keeps the quarterback in Miami.
If Miami can woo Tony Romo, Carroo becomes a far more attractive option because Romo manipulates the defense and spreads the ball around. Stay tuned for free agency developments before acting on Carroo.
RB Jalen Richard: Some might think I'd place him in one of the first two tiers, but we need to maintain a skeptical outlook. The Raiders used Richard as a third-down back, return man, and change of pace complement most of the time. It could mean he'll be pigeon-holed here for the duration of his tenure in Oakland.
Then again, Richard earned short-yardage looks and outplayed DeAndre Washington, a runner GM Reggie McKenzie evaluated as an every-down runner. Richard is big enough to add that "Ray Rice weight." If he does, it could enhance his stop-start explosion in addition to his strength.
If the Raiders don't re-sign Latavius Murray and wait after the fourth round to draft a running back, it's a sign that Richard will earn a true shot as the every-down back. Too many ifs to consider him as more than a deep roster hold, but stranger things have happened in the NFL.
TE Tyler Higbee: Tight ends rarely produce as rookies and Higbee proved no exception. He did make a lot of plays in training camp, which is a good sign for the future. He's fluid, quick, tough to bring down in the open field, and sure-handed. He's also behind Lance Kendricks, a steady pro with few holes in his game even if there's little upside to his athletic profile.
RB Brandon Wilds: The former South Carolina Gamecock earned a call-up from the practice squad last week and saw two carries in the 49ers game. He's a big back with good quickness, underrated agility, and excellent vision. The Falcons made a mistake to give him an injury settlement because he out-played Terron Ward and Tevin Coleman on the field in preseason games. I wouldn't be surprised if he wins the RB3 spot on the Jets depth chart in 2017 and plays well enough to challenge Bilal Powell for a committee role. There's starter potential for Wilds in 2-3 years.
RB Dwayne Washington: The Lions' runner exceeded my expectations this year. I loved his talent but not his skills at the position. He shored up enough of his flaws as a runner and receiver that he earned playing time when I expected a practice squad spot would be a rookie victory. Washington ran hard and if he can develop a little more patience and understanding of various blocking schemes as well as improve his pass protection, he could challenge for the starting role. Still, a few more ifs than I'm comfortable with, but he's a definite hold for your dynasty squads.
RB Peyton Barber: I've profiled him all year. He has proven he can play, but with Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Charles Sims in the fold, he's on the roster bubble. Joique Bell, LeGarrette Blount, and Tim Hightower are among the many backs that have bounced around early in their careers.
RB Jonathan Williams: I wasn't as bullish about Williams as most, but he has the NFL power and burst to develop into a contributor and maybe a starter. LeSean McCoy remains an excellent starter and Mike Gillislee has proven his worth as a valuable reserve.
RB DeAndre Washington: I wouldn't give up on him despite Jalen Richard outplaying the rookie from Texas Tech. But I wouldn't pencil him ahead of Richard heading into 2017 training camp. Inconsistency was his issue and that's often a product of overthinking. Give him the offseason and we could see an improved player capable of challenging for playing time.
Long shots I like
WR Tanner McEvoy: The 6-6, 230-pound Seahawk was a former safety at Wisconsin. He's earning playing time in the lineup and producing when called upon. His hands are reliable and he makes plays after the catch. His limited playing time has a lot to do with his knowledge of routes and defenses. If he proves a quick study during the offseason, he has the athletic ability to shine in a starting lineup.
RB Troymaine Pope: The Seahawks describe Pope as one of the most natural, instinctive runners they've seen and the team felt compelled to give him time on the field. If Pope can develop his third-down game, he could have great value as an injury-sub or free agent for another team.
WR Roger Lewis: He didn't do much in the starting lineup with his midseason opportunity with Victor Cruz got hurt, but he did enough in training camp and practice to earn the playing time. As a rookie free agent, that's saying something. A smooth vertical route runner, Lewis lacks great speed but has a knack for getting open and his teammates like him. Look for the Giants to draft another receiver if Cruz isn't in next year's plans, but also give Lewis a shot to compete for the No.3 job.
WR Mike Thomas: The Rams receiver might qualify more as a long shot because of an impending regime change. But if he can return to Rams' camp with a good offseason of work and a real opportunity to compete for an open-minded head coach, he has the ball skills to develop into a good starter. The bigger questions will be the state of the offensive line, the new offense Thomas will have to learn, and whether the new coach will bring in "his" guys at receiver. It makes one of my favorite 2016 sleepers a long shot.
This is not a comprehensive list. For more on this rookie class, prior classes, and 2017's crop, check out the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.