Rough Diamonds: 2020 Rookies Who Will Look to Improve in Year Two

Every year in the NFL, a number of the higher draft picks, for various reasons that range from poor scheme fit to injury, struggle to make it happen in their rookie season. Some come flying out the gates like Justin Jefferson and Chase Young, and you can see some of the other high performing rookies in last Sunday’s article should you want a bit more of a positive spin on the 2020 NFL draft.

Sadly, I’ve got the task of picking out those that didn’t quite live up to expectations in their first professional season but have the chance to still hit their prime as we look ahead to 2021/22 and their first year with fans in the stands. So who will be trying to forget their rookie year and who has the chance to make a big second year jump with some more hard work and luck?

Photo: AP Photo – Aaron Doster

ROUND 1

#1: Cincinnati Bengals – Joe Burrow (QB, Clemson)

I’m a huge fan of Burrow and I really think that his ability and work ethic give him a serious shot at turning out to be the franchise Quarterback that the Bengals thought they were taking as the shadow of a post-Andy Dalton existence covers Cincinnati (as a Cowboys fan, cheers for passing on that talent). That being said, as his left knee destruction in Week 11 showed, my fear remains that even under talented head-coach Zac Taylor, the Bengals remain the Bengals and protecting their quarterback doesn’t tend to be something they’ve had good history with.

#4: Detroit Lions – Jeff Okudah (CB, Ohio)

Starting an NFL career at corner with Aaron Rodgers on the opposite side is never going to end well however good you were in college, and Okudah found this out rather distressingly by giving up 7 catches on 10 targets for 121 yards on his debut. And while very few corners could have done much better against the Green Bay machine, things barely got better on the year as PFF ranked the corner as the worst on the outside in yards per snap allowed, at 2.1. Add to this that injury ended his season in November and you have a tough first outing for Okudah who will be hoping for some rapid improvement under new head-coach Dan Campbell in year two if he is to successfully replace Darius “Big-Play” Slay.

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#12: Las Vegas Raiders – Henry Ruggs (WR, Alabama)

This one feels a bit harsh on Ruggs who didn’t have a terrible year and it certainly wasn’t his decision to get picked as high as 12th overall, but 452 yards and just two scores is always going to cause some questions to follow so here we are. I understand the selection to some degree, a 4.27 40 is always going to get some heads turning, even if that means skipping over both CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy, neither of which you will be seeing on this list. That being said, Raiders GM, Mike Mayock’s recent comments that Ruggs needs to improve his strength and getting out of breaks tells you everything you need to know about the internal view of Ruggs potential to improve in year two.

#29: Tennessee Titans – Isiah Wilson (OT, Georgia)

Given that I hardly have the athletic ability to play in the NFL, I have tried to be fair with most of the names on this list, but for the Titans first round pick, I think we can call this an unmitigated disaster. The pick was always seen as a brave one, with several other tackles listed above Wilson with the mammoth Georgia Bulldog considered a long term development rather than a starting player. Even with injury to Taylor Lewan, Wilson got no-where near playing for the team, and with two spells on the COVID-19 list, a trespass warning for a party, an arrest for driving under the influence and a suspension for breaking club rules – its fair to say that Wilson’s chances of ever making it as a professional are seeming rather slim. The trade to the Dolphins on Monday might reignite his chances to grapple with some of the on-field issues with greater effort but its going to be a struggle for a player who seemingly doesn’t forgot he was meant to be a football player at all in 2020.

Photo: AP Photo – Mark Humphrey

ROUND 2

#43: Chicago Bears – Cole Kmet (TE, Notre Dame)

In one of their two second round selections, the Bears decided on selecting Notre Dame tight-end Kmet to add to their already bursting group at the position. Behind Jimmy Graham, Kmet managed only 243 receiving-yards and a pair of scores in 9 starts across his opening gambit, with Graham well out ahead with eight scores and over 450 yards meaning the Kmet gets his name associated with this particular group of candidates. That being said, no receiver for the Bears has had great luck with quarterback play in recent years and their could be some big changes to the offence come next season so I’ll keep his removal from this group in mind.

#48: Seattle Seahawks – Darrell Taylor (EDGE, Tennessee)

Before the NFL draft, it was clear that the Seahawks needed some extra help with getting to the passer, and as the season developed it became clear that that couldn’t have been more right with Seattle putting out one of the most anaemic defences in the league. Their second round pick of Tennessee edge-rusher Taylor was a strange one given that he had played the entirety of his Senior Year with a fractured fibula and had surgery not long before the start of week one which would eventually keep him out of his entire rookie season. With no game-tape as a professional, it’s possible that Taylor earns his name off of this list quickly in year two but either way he is stuck here for the time being.

 #54: Buffalo Bills – A.J Epenesa (EDGE, Iowa State)  

Regarded by many in around Buffalo as an old-fashioned steal on the second day of the mainly virtual draft in 2020, Bills fans will have been hoping for far more production out of a player who had flashed on the line in college. Despite posting just a single sack and 14 tackles in the whole of his rookie season, it seems as though Epenesa was distracted with getting ready off the field, dropping from 280 to 260 pounds over the course of his first year in Buffalo and maybe setting himself up for a vast improvement in his sophomore year.

Photo: Jasen Vinlove – USA TODAY Sports

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