A lot of qualities young players show early on won’t be the same five years from now, while others might not even have come up properly yet and the player is just scratching his surface. I want to use this article to point out the one quality for the rookies from last year heading into the 2017 season, that will help them make a living in the NFL. These are traits that give them a very good shot at being able to perform at a high level for a long time. I’m not going to put Ezekiel Elliott’s name up because he is widely considered one of the premiere running backs in the game already and was talked about all year. Neither will you see the Bear’s Jordan Howard or Michael Thomas, because they were number three in rushing and number nine in receiving yards respectively. And one more name you won’t find is Tyreek Hill, since he was on the highlight reel almost every week.
I listed those ten second-year players according to the spot they were drafted in.
Carson Wentz: Velocity
I liked Wentz much better than number one pick Jared Goff coming into last year’s draft, because I thought he was the total package. He offers a prototype body for the position, can read the entire field and has outstanding athleticism for a quarterback. What stood out to me about his throws though was the velocity the ball had coming out of his hand. On short to intermediate throws he will fire it right on target and had his receivers not dropped that many balls Wentz would have completed even more than 62.4 percent of his attempts. The second overall pick came out of the gates running, throwing seven touchdowns in his first four starts before being picked off in the last moments of the Detroit game, where they had to put points on the board to win the game. His 16:14 touchdown-to-interception ratio might not impress that many people on paper, but the way he can separate his receivers from defenders at the top of their routes and drop the ball in a bucket for them streaking downfield has proven to me he will be a franchise QB.
Joey Bosa: Arm technique
After sitting out the majority of the offseason programs and then missing the first quarter of the season due to injury, Bosa burst onto the scene like no defensive rookie in years. The former Buckeye ranked first in tackles for loss and added 16 QB hurries to his 10.5 sacks. There’s no real secret to his success. The reason he was productive in college and now is in the NFL is his attention to detail and the way he uses his hands. Bosa has a strong club to throw off the hands of opposing offensive linemen and keeps them off himself. Of course he combines that with a relentless attitude, but it’s the way he controls blockers by stacking and shedding them. He was the best arm-technician coming into the draft for as long as I’ve been watching college football and he will continue to be successful because of that quality. I’m excited to see what he can do in a full season with time to prepare in OTAs and other offseason activities.
Jalen Ramsey: Physicality
Similar to Bosa, Ramsey was the highest-graded defensive back I’ve studied on tape in years. He’s more than a bump-and-run corner, he can backpedal, read the quarterback’s eyes and redirect receivers with his long arms. The thing that sticks out to me though, is the physicality he displays when matched up against receivers. His first punch on them is crazy. I mean he knocks some dudes down. When the pass-catchers try to get into their routes Ramsey stays engaged throughout plays and he shows the attitude to not back down against anybody. What comes to mind initially when I think of his style of play, are his two matchups against DeAndre Hopkins. Nuk is an incredibly physical player himself, probably more so than any other receiver in the league, but the rookie out of Florida State didn’t let the star-receivers bully him around. At some point he flicked a switch and started giving it back to the Pro Bowler. Those two guys were basically fighting and, even though I’d say the Texans receiver won the battle in the biggest moments, I think his brand of football will make him a long-time number one corner in the league.
Ronnie Stanley: Foot quickness
I know an offensive lineman’s biggest strength once was the ability to take another human being and drive him as far off the ball as possible, but times have changed. In today’s passing league the most important asset to a left tackle is to protect the quarterback and it all starts with the feet. Stanley’s lower body is phenomenal. His lateral movement skills and the flexibility in his hips are elite already. The former Notre Dame standout weighs 320 pounds and when he starts rolling his hips more into his blocks he will become much more of a mauler in the run game, but what tells me he will make a living on the blindside is the fact he can stay in front of anybody. In 12 starts he only allowed a single sack and while there have been some growing pains against power-rushers, I have no doubt he can become a franchise left tackle due to his footwork.
Sheldon Rankins: Upfield burst
I was very high on Rankins coming into last year’s draft because he reminded me a lot of All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald from the Rams. That lack of height and quickness for interior guys on the D-line was pretty similar and I was hyped to watch Rankins start his pro career. Unfortunately it took him half the season before he even hit the field because of a broken fibula, but once he put on cleats he showed how disruptive he can be. Much like edge rushers nowadays are rated based on their get-off, upfield burst for a three-technique player is valued more and more. When I watched Rankins at the Senior Bowl more than a year ago I thought he got off the ball with tremendous quickness and leverage, giving him an advantage right from the get-go. That showed up against the pros as well. The big difference between him and Donald is that Rankins is about 20 pounds heavier and uses that mass very well to anchor against the run game, but what makes both their games work is how they win off the snap.
Keanu Neal: Thump
When Dan Quinn arrived in Atlanta he tried to build a defensive scheme resembling the one he coordinated in Seattle. He added a lot of speed to that unit with Vic Beasley off the edge and even last year with linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, but he had to get somebody to fill out the Kam Chancellor-role and he got that player when he drafted Keanu Neal out of Florida in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Falcons love to run cover three and they needed somebody to deliver big shots in underneath coverage. When Neal comes up to hit people he arrives with some thump. That’s the word I always think of when I see him play. As the season progressed DQ started running more cover-one, where his rookie strong safety was asked to play some man-to-man coverage, but what he is best at is dropping down and delivering big shots to make receivers feel his pressure and at some point avoid his area. He’s a hammer, who will be in the league for a while due to his ability to change games with big hits.
Sterling Shepard: Route-running / Separating
We all get so caught up in height and speed when talking about NFL receivers, but really a receiver just has run his routes the right way and catch the ball. Shepard is a feisty competitor, who runs crisp routes and wins his match-ups in the slot. When covered man-to-man the former Sooner runs with a lean into his defender to create separation with his breaks and against zone he finds the seems to open up throwing windows. Not only is he a smart player, he has outstanding quickness to gain a step on the competition, which at the same time helps him setting up double-moves. In his rookie year in New York, Shepard caught 65 passes for 683 yards and 8 touchdowns. Those are pretty good numbers already, but he also was a major contributor on third downs and made Victor Cruz dispensable. I think with the additions of Brandon Marshall (free agent) and Evan Engram (first-round pick from Ole Miss) to the Giants offense, plus the attention Odell Beckham Jr. receives, Shepard will be matched up against weaker competition and eat those guys alive. I’ve been a big fan of him since I first saw him at Oklahoma and I think his route-running savvy will lead a long, productive career.
Cody Whitehair: Grip
Whitehair started four years at left tackle for Kansas State, but he doesn’t the length you need on the outside, so he was seen as a guard at the next level. After the Packers surprisingly released guard Josh Sitton and the Bears picked him up, the coaching staff decided to move the former Wildcat to center though, where he performed like a top ten guy at a position he never really played before. People knew about his athleticism coming into the league and he has shown bear-strength, but what makes him a great player is the grip he has on defenders from first contact on. Off the snap he shoots his hands into the chest of defensive linemen and when he gets them inside their frame, it’s over. There’s a bunch of guys around the league that you feel like have glue on their gloves because they don’t let the defenders go and Whitehair is the newest to come to mind. That quality will help him make a living in the league, because not only can he withstand bull-rushers, he also maintains contact throughout any secondary moves defenders try against him.
Deion Jones: Speed
If somebody asked you thirty years ago about the best ability of a linebacker and you said speed, they would have looked at you funny, but with the way the game is spread out today and how fast the skill position players on offense are, you need people who can match that. Jones ran sub-4.6 at the combine last year, but his play speed is even better. He flies sideline to sideline and gets involved in every play. That resulted in 108 tackles and three interceptions, with two of them going the distance. Therefore I would have personally voted him Defensive Rookie of the Year, since he played in all but one contest and showed the potential to change games with just one play. I have to admit that I had my doubt with Jones coming out of LSU because of slim 225-pound frame, but the Falcons have allowed him to stay clean and run around to make plays. He’s shown me much better instincts than what I saw coming out of college and with the speed to run through gaps, as well as making up for misreads, his aggressive style of play has made him one of the best young linebacker’s in the league.
Dak Prescott: Poise
What impressed me the most about Dak’s rookie season wasn’t the mobility or arm strength or even the touchdowns. It was the poise he displayed. Nobody thought he’d take away Tony Romo’s job before the season and even after an impressive preseason showing and heading into the regular campaign. Every week people discussed when Romo would be back and everybody in the organization agreed it was still his team, even Prescott himself. Yet with the way that magical season went and how the fourth-round pick stayed cool and calm in the biggest moments, Dallas had no other choice than riding with the rookie. Outside of a very difficult situation in general, what Prescott did on the field was nothing short of spectacular. It just seemed like he was never rattled. He stood strong inside that pocket and trusted his big offensive line to keep him clean while scanning the field and going through his progressions. When it was time to take off he didn’t hesitate and got downfield. I know having the best O-line in football and the league’s leading rushing makes you much more comfortable, but I was so impressed by how maturely he played as a rookie.