by Sean Tyler @seantyleruk
Some first-round NFL Draft choices are obviously destined for superstardom; they wouldn’t be selected that early otherwise. But the college draft process is an inexact science and whether it’s due to scheme fit, lack of opportunity or injury, that first NFL season doesn’t always go the way it would have done in the movies.
So which Round 1 rookies didn’t have the best of times in 2019 and need to take a step forward in the coming season if they’re to live up to their billing?
Clelin Ferrell – DE, Las Vegas Raiders (pick #4)
What he needs: To play in position more regularly
If you pick a guy at #4 overall, you’re probably expecting him to be a difference maker from day one. However, the general consensus was that the Oakland Raiders (as they were at the time) had reached for Ferrell, even though the pass-rushing DE had won two championships with Clemson.
As Head Coach Jon Gruden was in the midst of a defensive rebuild, Ferrell played out of position (on the interior) quite a bit. And it showed in his production: he gained just 4.5 sacks and gave away seven penalties, the third-most among DEs.
Last year, the Raiders’ defence went from dead last in scoring and sacks to 24th in both categories, which is at least a step in the right direction. However, some of that uptick should be attributed to fourth-round success story Maxx Crosby, who nabbed 10 sacks in his debut season.
It feels like Vegas can improve further with Ferrell anchoring the D-line and, if he gets to play more on the outside this year, we should see him post numbers more akin to a top-five draft pick.
TJ Hockenson – TE, Detroit Lions (#8)
What he needs: An injury-free year
On paper, Hockenson looked a decent acquisition with good pass-catching and improving blocking skills. The Iowa product definitely showed flashes of promise early doors but his inaugural year in the NFL was limited to 12 games due to a concussion, a shoulder issue and then a season-ending ankle injury.
In Week 1 against the Cardinals, it looked like Detroit had grabbed themselves a stud. Hockenson exploded for 131 yards and a TD on six receptions on his NFL debut. But that was as good as it got; he ended the year on 367 yards from 32 receptions and only got one more score to his name.
They say that the most valuable ability is availability and, for TJ to become the red-zone threat he was touted as coming into the league, he needs to stay on the field. If he does that – and QB Matt Stafford does the same this time around – Hockerson could become a vital cog in the Lions’ machine in 2020.
Rashan Gary – OLB, Green Bay Packers (#12)
What he needs: Better technique and more snaps
For the 12th overall pick, Gary had quite a limited role in 2019 but it was probably a deliberate ploy by Green Bay to ease him in gently. He was competing for snaps with Messrs Smith and Smith – Za’Darius and Preston – who totalled 25.5 sacks between them so it’s not surprise he didn’t really break through. On the flip side, those two stalwarts gave the Packers the luxury of not having to hurry Gary’s development.
He only saw about 15 snaps a game, and totalled 21 tackles, three QB hits and two sacks. He relied on his size, speed and power at college in Michigan but needs to refine his technique as a pass rusher to become a more impactful player in the big league.
With such a limited role and meagre production, Gary still has a lot to prove next year. However, if his last three games of 2019 are a sign of what’s to come – a sack, seven tackles, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit in just 45 snaps – then Gary might be ready to take the next step after all.
Dwayne Haskins – QB, Washington Redskins (#15)
What he needs: Ron Rivera to work his magic
Maybe Haskins would’ve been a Day 2 pick this year but in 2019, with the Redskins in dire need of a quarterback, the Ohio State prospect was snaffled halfway through Round 1.
During his only full season as a starter in college, he threw for 4,831 passing yards with 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions, completing 70% of his passes; he added 108 yards and four TDs on the ground. That’s quite a season and yet, he couldn’t usurp Case Keenum and Colt McCoy to start with. He only got his opportunity once head coach Jay Gruden was fired mid-season.
With four interceptions in his first two weeks when he came on mid-game, he looked like a rabbit in headlights but by the end of the season, he didn’t appear quite so lost. He finished up with seven TDs and seven interceptions from nine games, threw for 1,365 yards and had a completion rate of 58.6%.
The situation he found himself wasn’t ideal: not just Gruden’s departure but the Trent Williams sit-out, having three rookie wide receivers, missing both starting tight ends and being constantly under pressure thanks to a porous O-line (he got sacked 29 times). But maybe, with better personnel around him and a more stable coaching situation, Haskins could become the real deal.
I’m not holding my breath quite yet though: he still has plenty to prove as a potential franchise QB as he enters his second campaign. But at least Ron Rivera is steering the ship now, and he worked wonders with Cam Newton, so that’s a plus, right?
Andre Dillard – OT, Philadelphia Eagles (#22)
What he needs: To step out from Jason Peters’ shadow
Dillard was presumably selected as the eventual replacement for left tackle Jason Peters. He has the ability, for sure, and has been praised for his tenacity and athleticism, but the Washington State offensive tackle has some big shoes to fill.
Although he featured in all but one of Philly’s regular season games, he only started in four. Three of those were filling in for when Peters was injured, and one was an experiment, trying him out at right tackle against the Seahawks when Lane Johnson was unavailable (let’s just say he isn’t one).
To his credit, Dillard allowed only four sacks and had just one penalty so if the 24-year-old gets a strong off-season and training camp under his belt, he could quieten the dissenters. Replacing a nine-time Pro Bowler and 16-year veteran is quite an ask for a second-year pro but with Peters now a free agent, it could be Dillard’s time in the limelight.
Tytus Howard – OT, Houston Texans (#23)
What he needs: To stay healthy all year
Immediately after the draft, pundits were saying that Howard was more of a Day 2 pick and that the Texans had snared him early.
Alas, we didn’t really get too find out quite what the Alabama State tackle has to offer over a whole campaign as his debut season was curtailed after starting eight games – seven as right tackle and one as left guard – with an MCL injury. He landed on IR at the end of November after playing 488 snaps, incurring five penalties and allowing two sacks by the end of Week 12.
He’s a work in progress but with Laremy Tunsil further along the O-line, he should pick up a few top tips along the way. As long as injuries don’t hamper Howard’s second season, he should build on a promising start to his NFL career.
Jerry Tillery – DT, Los Angeles Chargers (#28)
What he needs: More playing time
Although Tillery featured in 15 games, he only started three so if the defensive tackle from Notre Dame is going to kick on in 2020, he’s going to need more time out on the field.
In his first 11 games, he recorded five tackles and 1.5 sacks and, although he finished the season with just one more half-sack, he did get up to 17 tackles by the end of the campaign. The Chargers also removed him from passing situations so maybe that’s a weakness that needs addressing.
Tillery often found himself down the pecking order behind veterans like Justin Jones and Damion Square. Square signed for another season in March so Tillery still faces competition for snaps but now that he has that first year under his belt, he may enjoy a greater role next year.
LJ Collier – DE, Seattle Seahawks (#29)
What he needs: A full pre-season
Collier was a late bloomer in college, only becoming a starter in his senior year at TCU, which made him a bit of a risky first-round pick by Pete Carroll. Then the defensive end suffered a sprained ankle in training camp, which meant he also got off to a slow start in the NFL.
Collier made the field in 11 games but only registered three tackles in his rookie campaign. He was also a healthy scratch a couple of times, which suggests he wasn’t quite on his game. Behind productive vets such as Jadeveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah in the depth chart, it shouldn’t be that surprising that Collier didn’t force his way into a playoff team.
With Ansah now a free agent and Quinton Jefferson leaving for Buffalo in March, maybe Collier will get more opportunities to shine. A healthy pre-season should help him take a step forward in 2020.
DeAndre Baker – CB, New York Giants (#30)
What he needs: To step up on all fronts
On reflection, Baker may well be the most disappointing first-rounder from the class of 2019, especially as the Giants traded with Seattle and moved up to secure his services. The former Georgia corner had a rocky start to his NFL career and needs a massive improvement in year 2.
Baker had a number of issues last year, both on and off the field. Behind the scenes, his work ethic was called into question by his teammates, and he was caught catching 40 winks in meetings. On the field, he gave away 10 penalties, coughed up seven TDs through the air (the fourth worst in the league) and secured no interceptions, resulting in a disappointing 48.4 grade from PFF.
No one wants their first-round picks to be busts so can Baker make the necessary adjustments and push on in 2020? That’s the big question… we await the answers.
N’Keal Harry – WR, New England Patriots (#32)
What he needs: To gel with Cam
Bill Belichick selected Harry, a big-bodied pass-catcher, as the last Day 1 pick of the 2019 Draft. It was a bit of a gamble and it didn’t really pay off, although that wasn’t really Harry’s fault.
An ankle injury forced the former Arizona State wideout to miss the first 10 weeks, severely impacting the trajectory of his debut season. With the offence uncharacteristically misfiring (Gronk had retried, albeit temporarily, and Julian Edelman was the only receiver of note for TB12 to look for), N’Keal was rushed off injured reserve in Week 11 and dropped straight into the starting line-up. His production for the rest of the season was naturally underwhelming – 105 yards and two touchdowns from just 12 receptions – and Harry took some flak, somewhat unfairly.
With just Jason Stidham and Brian Hoyer in the QB room, the future wasn’t looking all that promising for the forthcoming year either. But things have taken a turn for the better recently, with former MVP Cam Newton now in the building (at least metaphorically in these COVID-constrained times).
Harry showed enough at the tail end of last year to suggest that things might pan out and, with Cam under centre, he should have a much better year.