News & Analysis

10 NFL players under pressure to perform in Year 2

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) celebrates his first touchdown pass to Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker (11) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, November 1, 2020. (ALLEN EYESTONE / THE PALM BEACH POST)

Every fan expects their team's newly drafted rookies to make an immediate impact and propel their team to the promised land, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the development curve is a tougher one to climb and rookies struggle right off the bat.

After that tough first year, these players face mounting pressure to prove they can be who they were drafted to be and not become engulfed by the dreaded “bust” label.

Here are 10 players who are under real pressure for a big Year 2 jump, either because they got off to underwhelming starts or simply because the circumstances around them have changed for the better.

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QB Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

No second-year player is under as much pressure as Tagovailoa is in Miami. The Dolphins eschewed making a big move for a proven superstar like Deshaun Watson and even moved down in the draft, taking themselves out of the market for a potential upgrade via that avenue.

Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow both hit the ground running last season, only making Tua look worse by comparison, as did Brian Flores' decision to repeatedly bench him for Ryan Fitzpatrick in crucial situations when the team really needed some plus play from its quarterback. Tua acknowledged that he didn’t really have a great handle on the offense, given the lack of a real preseason in 2020, and all of these factors combine to put him under huge pressure as the leader of a team that is ready to win now.

The now second-year quarterback's 63.9 PFF grade last season wasn’t terrible — though it was more than 10 grading points lower than Herbert's or Burrow's — but the real issue was a big-time throw rate of just 2.3%, the single-lowest figure in the NFL. Tua needs to show a big jump this year, or it changes Miami’s entire timetable for contending.

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WR Henry Ruggs III, Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders went out on a limb and selected Ruggs over Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb in 2020, even though we possessed several years' worth of evidence that Jeudy was the superior receiver in the Bama passing offense, and few had ranked him that high in the pre-draft process. That kind of gutsy move is fine, and it can pay dividends, but you need to be right. In a year of exceptional rookie receivers, Ruggs ranked 16th out of 17 qualifiers in terms of overall PFF grade (54.0), generating just 1.32 yards per route run.

What was even more concerning was that he wasn’t even able to own the deep threat role within the offense, which Nelson Agholor was able to win despite no clear evidence he would be that guy before last season. Only Tyreek Hill produced more deep touchdowns than the six Agholor did last season, while Ruggs managed only two. He has the opportunity to be that guy this season, but the team brought in a contingency plan in the form of John Brown in case he doesn’t.

Like Tua, the comparison between him and other players from his draft class isn’t helping, especially since several of them found success at the NFL level early on, but he needs to prove that the Raiders got at least one of their many recent first-round selections right.

CB Jeffrey Okudah, Detroit Lions

Few players had a worse rookie year than Okudah, who was seen as one of the best and cleanest cornerback prospects to enter the league in years. Rookie corners generally didn’t fare well in 2020 — a year of record-setting offense across the board — but the Ohio State product was routinely torched even by those standards.

Okudah gave up a catch on 76.0% of the passes thrown into his coverage for a passer rating of 112.0 over his rookie year, managing only one interception and one pass breakup. The Lions then proceeded to clean house at the end of a disappointing season.

The second-year cornerback is now under pressure to show that he does have what it takes to be a shutdown cover corner at this level — and to get from where he was as a rookie to even close to that will take a huge leap in Year 2.

T Andrew Thomas, New York Giants

Thomas was the first tackle taken in the 2020 NFL Draft and the No. 1 ranked player at the position on PFF’s Big Board. Still, he struggled compared to the rest of his peers, who hit the ground running with almost unprecedented success.

Thomas needed to have some of his technique reworked for the NFL, and with no preseason to get that accomplished, it meant that he was learning on the job against NFL competition. He allowed at least four total pressures in his first five games and took until Week 8 to earn a PFF pass-blocking grade north of 60.0.

His terrible start clouded the fact that over the second half of the year — one disaster against Haason Reddick notwithstanding — he was actually vastly improved. There were three games down the stretch where Thomas didn’t allow any pressure at all and one more where he allowed just one. Now, he needs to show he can carry that development into Year 2 or risk being left behind by the likes of Mekhi Becton, Jedrick Wills Jr. and Tristan Wirfs.

LB Isaiah Simmons, Arizona Cardinals

Few players were surrounded by the kind of hype Simmons was during the pre-draft process. A height/weight/speed monster who had spent much of his college career actually playing defensive back — or a role more like “positionless destroyer of offenses” — the idea of what Simmons could do at the NFL level had people incredibly excited.

Then along came the giant bullseye that Kyle Shanahan painted all over Simmons before Week 1. The 49ers exploited Simmons’ inexperience of actually playing linebacker so badly that he was effectively benched; he didn’t see more than 20 snaps until Week 6 and didn’t clear 30 until Week 8, but as the year wore on, we started to see what he could do when he puts it all together.

At least in his rookie season, the idea of Isaiah Simmons was significantly more attractive than the reality of his play, so now Year 2 gives him the opportunity to prove all of those proponents correct with a big step forward.

T Austin Jackson, Miami Dolphins

Jackson was seen as a bigger reach than the rest of the tackles drafted in the first round in 2020, and because of that, it wasn’t a surprise to see him struggle more than most. His overall PFF grade of 52.3 was the lowest of the group, and he had surrendered 38 total pressures by the end of the season despite Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa getting the ball out of their hands incredibly quickly by league standards.

What puts Jackson under pressure for a big step forward in 2021 is that the Dolphins — despite being loaded with extra draft capital — essentially placed trust in their young linemen and their improvement rather than drafting real competition for those starting spots. If Jackson doesn’t take a big step forward and instead fails to come good, Miami then has a problem spot to address without a built-in contingency.

WR Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles

Reagor is one of the most unfortunate players on this list because he isn’t just consistently compared to another player from the same school or draft, but he is also inexorably tied to Justin Jefferson, the target for a huge section of Eagles fans who went on to see the team pass on the LSU star in favor of Reagor. The Vikings pounced on Jefferson one pick later, and he of course went on to break the rookie record for receiving yards in a season despite being used sparingly in the first two games. Reagor, meanwhile, was injured and ineffective during his rookie year.

The TCU product is too dynamic a player to be as bad as he looked in Year 1, but cast in the shadow of Jefferson's sheer dominance, he is under real pressure to show that in his sophomore year. The Eagles changed coaching staffs from the one that didn’t seem to know how to fit him into the offense, and he will hope that results in some better opportunities than 12 of his 51 targets being contested by defenders.

CB Damon Arnette, Las Vegas Raiders

The story is the same with almost all of the Raiders’ first-round picks in recent seasons — a player who was viewed as a major reach at the time now needs to up his game to prove the team was right to pull the trigger.

You can effectively write off Arnette's entire rookie year. Between a thumb injury and concussions, he was limited to just 343 total snaps. Those snaps weren’t good. He managed to miss almost a third of the tackles he attempted — though he was hampered by that thumb injury — and give up a passer rating of 129.2 when targeted.

Giving Arnette the benefit of the doubt of writing off that year as beyond his control is fair, but now he enters his first real season already under pressure to prove the Raiders didn’t squander another first-round selection on a player most thought wasn’t a first-round talent.

WR Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts

Pittman looked quite good as a rookie, catching 68.2% of the passes thrown his way and enjoying some solid single-game grades over the year, but now he needs to step up and assume the role of a true No. 1 receiver because the Colts didn’t pursue or acquire anybody else who can.

The Colts of course traded for Carson Wentz earlier in the offseason and now need to piece his game back together, which will necessitate some improved play at the wide receiver position. It’s possible that T.Y. Hilton can up his game and rediscover his best play, but at 31 years old and given his skill set, that feels optimistic at best. That leaves Pittman as the player most capable of taking that step and giving Wentz a true top target to be comfortable with.

The Wild Card: QB Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers

If Aaron Rodgers really has played his last snap in Green Bay, all of the pressure in the world then falls onto the shoulders of Jordan Love, a player the team was so enamored with that they traded up to secure him in the first round of the draft and accelerated Rodgers' departure timetable by at least a year over whatever plan they had been kicking around previously.

Love showed he has talent by earning an 82.8 overall PFF grade at Utah State in 2018, but it is a huge stretch to project that season to a level that won’t draw fierce criticism in his first year replacing Rodgers, if it comes to that.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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