NFL News & Analysis

10 NFL players who struggled as rookies but are under pressure to perform in Year 2

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) warms up before the game between the New York Giants and the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

In an ideal world, rookies make an immediate impact on the teams that drafted them, propelling that team into a different stratosphere, but it doesn’t always work that way. For every Ja’Marr Chase, there is a player that struggled as a rookie and enters Year 2 under pressure to prove that they are the player their team thought they were at draft time — not the next draft disappointment. 

So here are some of the players under the most pressure to improve after their rookie seasons.

QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

Few players have entered the league with Lawrence's hype and expectation. From very early in his college career, he was hailed as the next great quarterback prospect, and the hyperbole only intensified as he approached the draft. Lawrence was seen as the best prospect since at least Andrew Luck (2012), but potentially even as far back as Peyton Manning (1998) or even John Elway (1983).

He was viewed as a truly generational prospect in the intended sense of that term, he posted a 59.6 overall PFF grade as a rookie while averaging just 6.0 yards per attempt and throwing five more interceptions than touchdowns.

While he made mistakes and had some growing pains, his lack of truly impressive flashes was the most concerning aspect of his rookie year. Obviously, the situation around him was a mess. Urban Meyer fronted one of the most dysfunctional regimes in NFL history, and the supporting cast was far from ideal, leading to an environment that Lawrence was never likely to overcome. Nonetheless, he needs to show some of that promise in his second season. Jacksonville threw money around this offseason, but the franchise's biggest move was likely removing Meyer and replacing him with Doug Pederson, whose main task now becomes to coax some encouraging play from Lawrence.

QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets

Though Lawrence was seen as a special prospect, there were people that had Wilson ranked ahead of him due to his special arm talent. Wilson has a rocket arm, and for people that buy into the physical upside above all else, Wilson’s ceiling was higher than Lawrence's.

Unfortunately, he posted a similarly disappointing rookie season, recording a 59.3 overall PFF grade. Wilson averaged 6.1 yards per attempt and also threw more turnovers than touchdowns while also missing some time due to injury. Like Lawrence, Wilson rarely flashed the potential that made him such an enticing prospect, as he accumulated a 2.5% big-time throw rate — 30th in the NFL.

The Jets have continued to build around him this offseason, drafting a new No. 1 receiver in Garrett Wilson as well as adding more talent to the offensive line in free agent Laken Tomlinson. Wilson now has a good supporting cast, which shifts the pressure to him to prove he can take advantage and showcase his talent.

QB Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

Lance is in a slightly different situation than the rest of the quarterbacks that underwhelmed as rookies because he barely saw the field. Jimmy Garoppolo stayed healthy for most of the season, which led to Lance playing only 179 snaps (including the playoffs) and dropping back to pass 86 times.

San Francisco didn’t even elect to use him as a gimmick player for most of the season, and so far, the 49ers have been unable or unwilling to trade away Garoppolo this offseason. An injury to Garoppolo reportedly made that difficult, but the fact remains that he currently stands between Lance and the starting job, and the 49ers haven't exactly displayed total confidence in Lance, either.

A year ago, San Francisco traded three first-round picks to move up to No. 3 overall and select Lance despite that Garoppolo was already entrenched as the starter. Lance enters Year 2 under pressure to prove that was the right move, and his biggest issue so far is being afforded the opportunity to show it.

QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

Unlike the other quarterbacks, Fields has the pressure to prove himself to a regime that did not draft him, as Chicago cleaned house following a disappointing 2021 season. Even Lawrence still has Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke in place after the team fired Meyer. Chicago changed head coach and general manager, which means Fields has to show he can be the future to a regime that had no prior attachment to him despite an ugly-looking supporting cast.

General manager Ryan Poles has stripped the franchise back to bare metal before the restoration can begin, effectively starting a multi-year rebuilding process, but it also means Fields enters the season behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league while throwing to one of the worst groups of receivers in the league.

As a rookie, Fields flashed legitimate playmaking ability, but he also had some disastrous performances and struggled in certain areas —for example, he held onto the ball too long and earned a PFF grade of 43.3 under pressure. Fields needs to show something this season, or it will be difficult for the Bears to avoid looking at competition in next year’s draft, and he may have the most difficult task of any of the quarterbacks on this list to do so.

LB Zaven Collins, Arizona Cardinals

Arizona raised eyebrows when it drafted an off-the-ball linebacker in the first round for the second year in a row last year, and it didn’t help matters when Collins struggled to see the field all season, playing just 228 snaps including the playoffs. To his credit, Collins didn’t play poorly when he was on the field, earning a 66.5 PFF grade and showing up on special teams as well, but any first-round linebacker needs to show he can be an every-down force to justify that kind of investment, which will be Collins’ task as a sophomore.

OL Alex Leatherwood, Las Vegas Raiders

Leatherwood was disastrous at right tackle as a rookie — so much so that the team kicked him inside to guard, where he was much better.

Leatherwood allowed the most pressures of any offensive lineman in the NFL as a rookie (65) and had a 29.0 PFF pass-blocking grade. He recorded four separate games with a sub-20.0 pass-blocking grade, and even if he was seen as a reach at pick No. 17, he is now under huge pressure to show he can be a viable starting offensive lineman for a team that wants to contend in 2022.

EDGE Jaelan Phillips, Miami Dolphins

Phillips was the first pass-rusher selected last season (assuming Micah Parsons was originally intended to be a true off-the-ball linebacker), and he played extensively as a rookie, posting 10 sacks but only managing 39 pressures from 402 pass-rushing snaps while earning a 53.7 overall PFF grade.

His best play came when he was moved around and allowed to exploit more favorable matchups against interior offensive linemen. Phillips flashed playmaking ability, but he was drafted to be a difference-maker on the Miami defensive line, and he hasn’t yet come close to that. He had just one or fewer pressures in nine games as a rookie, which is something that won’t cut it if he wants to be an elite pass-rushing force at the NFL level.

LB Jamin Davis, Washington Commanders

Few positions in the league have become so focused on raw athleticism as off-the-ball linebackers, and the Commanders selected Davis in the first round due to his dynamic speed, burst and athletic traits. Nonetheless, that was negated as a rookie by the speed of the professional game.

In college, Davis could fly to the football and make spectacular plays against inferior athletes. In the NFL, he appeared to slowed down by the complexity of NFL offenses. He displayed hesitation or delay when diagnosing the offense's attack, which often caused him to get caught up in traffic or out of position, rendering those athletic gifts moot. He needs to eliminate that processing time in Year 2 if he wants to become an elite linebacker in the NFL.

WR Kadarius Toney, New York Giants

It’s never a great sign when the team drafts a player that appears to be a natural replacement for someone who was drafted at the same position the year before, but that’s the reality facing Toney after the Giants selected Wan'Dale Robinson in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Toney flashed unbelievable talent as a rookie but has struggled to stay on the field. Additionally, there has been quiet chatter about his attitude and dedication. Toney was always going to be a difficult player to mesh seamlessly with an NFL offense due to his unique talent and playing style, but now, he has to show he can do that and stave off the threat of another unusual athlete for a new regime in New York. Toney has incredible ability with the ball in his hands but is already under pressure entering Year 2.

EDGE Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs were able to draft a raw prospect in the first round because they knew the depth chart didn't have many open slots. Injuries ended up giving Tryon-Shoyinka ample opportunity to play (560 snaps in the regular season alone), and while his athletic talent was obvious, his lack of production was concerning. He managed just 33 pressures from 344 pass-rushing snaps, and he was blanked completely in two separate games in which he rushed the passer at least 25 times.

Tryon-Shoyinka was always supposed to be a longer-term project, but his development was accelerated due to injury, and now, he needs to show he can turn that speed and burst into consistent pressure.


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