It seems as if the expectations for rookies get higher every year. For example, first-round quarterbacks used to sit on the bench behind a veteran for several years, even if they were more talented. Teams simply didn't like rookies getting thrown into the fire before they were ready. Now, with coaches constantly fighting for their jobs and fans being less patient, rookies are thrown into the fire right away if coaches feel they have a higher ceiling than the veterans. It's a riskier proposition, but also arguably gives teams a higher ceiling. As for the 2016 season, we have some rookies set to break out right away. However given that teams reached for quarterbacks in the draft, they're inevitably going to disappoint fans this coming season.
Jared Goff was selected first overall, with the Rams even paying a steep price to trade up for him. Despite that, he's inactive for Week 1 and it's very concerning he couldn't even beat out Sean Mannion for the backup job.
Others however, are set to take the league by storm, as they find themselves in favorable situations like Ezekiel Elliott. While Tony Romo is injured, which will cause teams to load the box against Dallas, the fact remains that Elliott will get plenty of opportunities behind a great o-line.
Without further ado, here are 8 NFL rookies who will thrive and 8 who will struggle this season.
16 Thrive: Vernon Butler
The Carolina Panthers clearly took the philosophy of just taking the best player left on the board when they were on the clock at 30th overall this past April. Vernon Butler merely provides them with another big body up the middle.
Butler has a great opportunity to thrive in Carolina because Ron Rivera loves to rotate defensive linemen every play. Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson aren't expected to be on the field for more than 35-40 snaps a game, which will give Butler plenty of opportunities on fresh legs.
Butler joins arguably the best front-seven in football, which is going to help him transition smoothly into the NFL. The knock on Butler coming out of Louisiana Tech was that he had trouble finishing plays, but on a team like Carolina, he's going to be surrounded with plenty of help. He might even challenge for more snaps by the time the season ends.
15 Struggle: Jaylon Smith
Jaylon Smith is in a tough spot, given that he suffered a bad knee injury in Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. He begins the season on the non-football injury list, but the Cowboys are expecting him back at some point this season. To think Smith will just step up in the middle of the season coming off a knee injury is a tough thing to expect. The Cowboys seemed to take Smith as a luxury pick this past April, which is quite odd considering the Cowboys were coming into this season needing immediate help. Their defense struggled heavily last year and Smith won't be able to help them until much later in the season.
Smith seems like the kind of player that will have to wait until his sophomore season to really make an impact. While his 2017 season will likely have many bright spots, his 2016 campaign will be an uphill battle.
14 Thrive: Myles Jack
Myles Jack was initially expected to be a top-5 pick, but a torn meniscus early in his college season at UCLA severely hurt his draft stock. Jack's injury concerns are following him heading into his NFL career, as there are concerns he will eventually have to undergo microfracture surgery.
So why will Jack thrive in Jacksonville this year? Well, it's because he's coming in at just the right time for the Jags. This team is finally starting to mold into what Gus Bradley had in mind when he took over as head coach back in 2013. The Jags have spent the offseason loading up on the defensive side of the ball, signing Malik Jackson in free agency and going defense with their first two draft picks. They are also getting Dante Fowler, their 2015 first rounder back after he suffered a torn ACL last spring.
Jack may eventually have knee troubles, but he'll get off to a good start in his NFL career.
13 Struggle: Kevin Dodd
Kevin Dodd will be joining 2015's worst team in the Tennessee Titans, who used one of their three second round picks this past April on the OLB out of Clemson. Dodd began camp on the PUP list and didn't look good when he got preseason action late in August. Dodd was able to play second fiddle to Shaq Lawson with the Tigers, as offensive linemen made it a priority to stop Lawson, giving Dodd the luxury of favorable matchups.
Dodd's not going to have that in Tennessee, as the Titans don't have that dominant edge rusher on the outside. Odds are Dodd is simply going to be a rotational player this season, as he hasn't shown that burst you want out of a starter. Perhaps his career will pick up when the Titans find themselves a more dominant edge rusher to line up opposite of Dodd.
12 Thrive: Corey Coleman
After a couple of extraordinary wide receiver classes, 2016 was a bit of a letdown, as there wasn't exactly a bevy of top end talent at the WR position. Corey Coleman was the first receiver off the board this past April when the Cleveland Browns took him 15th overall. Coleman is now coming into a low pressure situation, as there are virtually no expectations of the Browns this season.
Robert Griffin III is set to lead the Browns at starting quarterback and Coleman will likely be his top target until the return of Josh Gordon. In addition to that, even when Gordon does return, it will give opposing defenses something to worry about on the opposite side of Coleman. I think Hue Jackson is going to lead an eventual turnaround in Cleveland and Coleman will be key in getting the Browns off to a promising start.
11 Struggle: Will Fuller
Will Fuller was the second receiver taken off the board at the 2016 draft, as the Texans took him 21st overall. Fuller will eventually be expected to develop into a solid no.2 WR behind DeAndre Hopkins, but there have been some troubling signs for Notre Dame product.
While Fuller has shown that he's a speedster, evidenced by his sub-4.4 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine, but there are several holes in his game. Fuller has the habit of catching the ball with his body rather than his hands, which is a habit that will bite him at the NFL level. He's had inexcusable drops which is a tough habit to break. He has the advantage of not having to be the no.1 receiver but his bad habits will take a little while to kick before he can truly emerge.
10 Thrive: Leonard Floyd
The Chicago Bears are in the midst of trying to bring respectability back to their defense. With John Fox now in his second year in Chicago, this is truly his time to put his stamp on the team and Fox's usual trademark is to build a team with a solid defense. Floyd has been inconsistent in training camp, with his own defensive coordinator Vic Fangio going as far as to say that he has been 'choppy'.
Floyd now has a chip on his shoulder to try to prove his DC wrong. Injuries have been a reason for his inconsistency in camp, but that should all work itself out by the time the season is in full swing.
“I’m as ready as I can be,” Floyd said. “Whenever my number is called, I’m going to go out there and do whatever it takes to help us win.”
9 Struggle: Josh Doctson
It's going to be extremely tough for Josh Doctson to make an immediate impact, as he has spent the last three months rehabbing an aching Achilles tendon. Doctson only started practicing with the team this week and he's coming into a very delicate situation in Washington. The Redskins are no longer the hunters in the division, but now the hunted. They won the NFC East last year despite not beating any team with a winning record and they will now have to face the likes of Carolina, Arizona and Minnesota this season, all with very tough defenses.
Doctson went 22nd overall in April and was the third receiver off the board. He was expected to be a new weapon to help Kirk Cousins capitalize on his breakout 2015 season, but it's hard to see Cousins replicating his success this season, which will hurt Doctson's numbers further.
8 Thrive: Derrick Henry
Even though he was a second round pick, we felt the need to include the reigning Heisman Trophy winner on this list. Derrick Henry was taken 45th overall by the Titans, which was a bit of a surprise, considering the team had already traded for DeMarco Murray earlier in the offseason. Henry drew immediate comparisons to Trent Richardson, given that they are both Alabama alumni, but early signs point to Henry being a much smarter runner than Richardson.
Henry has shown the ability to hit the running lanes in a hurry and he's very physically imposing.
The Titans are going to try to run a very old school style offense, centered around a smash mouth running game with a one-two punch at RB with Murray and Henry. The Titans' moves on offense this offseason all revolved around improving their running game and Henry will have a great rookie season, perhaps even challenging Murray for the starting job.
7 Struggle: Joey Bosa
Joey Bosa held out for most of the offseason as he and the Chargers couldn't agree on the pay structure of his rookie contract. Things got very ugly, with Bosa's mother going so far as to say that "We should have pulled an Eli Manning" on draft day. Bosa was taken third overall by the Chargers, and he hopes to give them an immediate burst in the pass rush. Given that he basically missed all of training camp in his holdout, it's hard to believe Bosa won't have a slow start to his NFL career.
Another factor to take into consideration is just how much bad blood may have been stirred between Bosa and the Chargers. Bosa insists that's not the case, as he said following his holdout: "We came to a fair deal," Bosa said. "There's no animosity between any of us." It's still hard to believe their relationship will be all sunshine and rainbows.
6 Thrive: Laremy Tunsil
Laremy Tunsil was expected to be the first overall pick in this year's draft as late as two weeks away from it. Things changed when the Titans traded their first overall pick to the Rams, who were clearly trading up to take a QB. Still, things looked good for Tunsil, as he was then expected to be the first non-QB off the board. Just minutes before the draft though, a photo surfaced online of Tunsil smoking a bong, which immediately scared teams off. Tunsil ended up slipping all the way to the Dolphins at 13th overall.
“Man, it was a mistake. It happened years ago,” Tunsil said on draft night. “I’m going to show everyone what type of person I am.”
That bong video doesn't change the fact that Tunsil was the best talent going into the draft and with him having slid all the way to 13th, he'll have an enormous chip on his shoulder. That will work out well for the Dolphins, who got Tunsil to protect Ryan Tannehill.
5 Struggle: Carson Wentz
Things just aren't looking good for Philadelphia going into this season. Even with the struggles of their division rivals, the Eagles are still in cleansing mode, trying to rid themselves of any players and decisions made from Chip Kelly's tenure. They paid a pretty significant price in April to trade up to the no.2 pick. With it, they took Carson Wentz, who has yet to see elite players lining up opposite of him, as he played college ball at North Dakota State.
Wentz was originally going to begin the season behind Sam Bradford on the depth chart, but when the Eagles got an offer from the Vikings, they shipped Bradford off for a first round pick in 2017 and a fourth rounder in 2018. That puts Wentz in the starting job, even after Wentz suffered a rib injury earlier in the preseason. This all reeks of rushing Wentz before he's ready which is never good for a rookie QB.
4 Thrive: Jalen Ramsey
Jalen Ramsey finds himself on the list for a similar reason as Myles Jack. Ramsey is joining an up and coming Jacksonville Jaguars team. The knock on Ramsey coming out of college was that he wasn't a big enough playmaker at Florida State, failing to pile up on interceptions. Despite that concern, many would argue that Ramsey was the best defensive player in the 2016 draft, yet he found himself going down to fifth overall.
This just feels like the year where everything is going to start coming together for the Jaguars. The AFC South feels wide open and the Jags have made significant improvements to their defense this offseason. Ramsey will be tested by opposing QBs this season, which will give him the opportunity to show if he can be an elite playmaker.
3 Struggle: Robert Nkemdiche
Robert Nkemdiche has all the physical tools to be an elite defensive lineman in the NFL, but he has a very bad habit coming into the NFL that many players never shake. Nkemdiche had the bad habit of taking plays off in college back at Ole Miss. That's what caused him to slide all the way down to 29th to the Cardinals. If Nkemdiche had applied himself more in college, odds are he could have been a top-five pick.
Nkemdiche is joining a fantastic defense in Arizona and he has a great coaching staff to work with him led by Bruce Arians. Arians isn't the kind of coach that's going to tolerate any of his players taking plays off. Nkemdiche also has too much competition to get significant playing time right away, so this season will be a bit of a learning curve for him.
2 Thrive: Ezekiel Elliott
Tony Romo's injury raises some question marks in Dallas, as teams will now likely stack the box to do whatever they can to stop the run. The trend in recent years has been to wait to take running backs, as they're just about the riskiest players to draft high. Jerry Jones said to hell with that though, and went for the big splash. Elliott is one of the most promising running back prospects to come along in years, as he can run, catch and even block for his QB. He begins the season with Dak Prescott handing him the ball, but he also has an elite offensive line which will help his transition into the NFL.
The Cowboys will lean heavily on the running game and that will allow Elliott's stats to climb. It's very likely that he'll at least surpass 1,000 yards if he stays healthy. He has to be considered the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
1 Struggle: Jared Goff
There's a ton of pressure on Jared Goff to succeed in the NFL. His team is in a new city and are trying to land the attention of a very fickle fan base in Los Angeles. The Rams want to get over the hump this season and to stop toiling away at 7-9, which has been a recurring theme of Jeff Fisher's tenure.
While it's understandable that Goff didn't beat out Case Keenum for the starting job, given that this was an entirely new offense to the Cal quarterback, it's concerning that he couldn't beat out Sean Mannion for the backup job. Nowadays, no.1 overall picks are expected to start opening day. Given that the Rams paid a huge price to move up in the draft (a total of six picks, including two first rounders), it was expected Goff would shine in his rookie season, but he sits inactive for Week 1. Odds are, he'll eventually see action, but it might be when the Rams are out of playoff contention and trying to garner attention in L.A.
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