We spend so much time each offseason analyzing comings and goings and dissecting rookie and free-agent classes that it can be easy to forget another method by which teams can improve: internal reinforcements.
Although the dog days of the offseason that are quickly approaching are voluntary, they can also be vital, especially when it comes to coaxing necessary improvements from younger players.
Today our objective is to focus specifically on the “rookie redshirts,” players who were nonfactors in Year 1 — whether the result of injuries, inexperience or it simply wasn’t yet their time to shine. Rest assured, if they’re on this list, their teams are expecting that time to be now.
New England Patriots OT Isaiah Wynn
Imagine suffering a season-ending ruptured Achilles in your first preseason, only to see your team win the Super Bowl with your college teammate and fellow first-rounder serving as a catalyst, then being thrust into a more prominent role in your redshirt season than the one you were ticketed for out of the gate.
Wynn doesn’t have to imagine. After being selected 23rd overall and penciled in as New England’s starting right tackle, his rookie campaign ended after only nine preseason snaps, when he fell awkwardly into Tom Brady following a push from Eagles Pro Bowler Michael Bennett.
Nine months later, Wynn has yet to be cleared for activity but already is being penciled in as the replacement for Trent Brown, the NFL’s largest man, with its largest contract belonging to an offensive lineman.
Did we mention Wynn, who started 15 games at left tackle for the Bulldogs in 2017, is tasked with protecting the GOAT’s blind side?
Washington RB Derrius Guice
After his tumultuous pre-draft process ended last year with a tumble to Washington in the latter part of Round 2, the former LSU feature back tore his left ACL only six carries into his preseason debut. It was actually a carry called back by penalty after going for 34 yards and both displaying Guice’s exceptional abilities and derailing his rookie season.
Although Guice’s injury in many ways foreshadowed another disastrous season in Washington ransacked by ailments to many of the team’s most important players, he watched future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson arrive as his replacement days later and author his eighth 1,000-yard season. If that wasn’t hard enough, Guice also saw A.D. re-signed in March to a contract worth up to $8 million before Washington drafted another back with a recent ACL tear, Stanford’s Bryce Love.
Just as Guice can offer a layer of insurance in front of Love, Peterson’s presence should prevent Washington from calling on the sophomore any sooner than needed. But all eyes will be on Guice and whether after two years of disappointing setbacks, he can rediscover the devastating 2016 form that once seemingly made him a first-round lock.
Cleveland Browns OG Austin Corbett
So he wasn’t up to the task of replacing legendary LT Joe Thomas? Few would be. Now the question becomes whether Corbett — the first player drafted last year on Day 2, at No. 33 overall — can fill the shoes of Kevin Zeitler, who was shipped from Cleveland to New York in exchange for pass rusher Olivier Vernon.
While the two O-linemen selected immediately after him were forging All-Rookie campaigns, Corbett logged only 14 snaps for a Browns team that arguably was still flying somewhat under the radar after drafting Baker Mayfield and appearing on “Hard Knocks.” Enter OBJ, Kareem Hunt, Vernon, Sheldon Richardson and rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens on the heels of Mayfield’s oft-spectacular debut that yielded seven wins — three more than the previous three seasons combined — and Cleveland is a legitimate playoff hopeful and must-see theater.
That actually might work to Corbett’s advantage, allowing him to toil in obscurity as he takes his lumps. That could change fast, though, the first time the Browns projected starting right guard is whipped by — :: checks Cleveland’s schedule:: — any of the star DTs he’ll see in the first month of the season, including Tennessee’s Jurrel Casey, Jets No. 3 overall pick Quinnen Williams and two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones
The good news for Jones: the Bucs didn’t draft a running back and incumbent starter Peyton Barber is imminently replaceable. Bruce Arians is installing a big-strike offense that can create chances underneath for Jones, who entered the league with a reputation for being an explosive playmaker. Plus, Arians has flowered his young back with praise this offseason.
The bad news for Jones: his rookie season was so awful that only four qualifying backs in the league ranked worst in Football Outsiders DVOA metric than the former Trojan, who was never even truly considered to replace Barber after being selected 38th overall. He finished more than a yard under the “Mendoza line” for running backs.
The ugly news for Jones: He’s yet to show little at any level as a pass catcher, unlike former Cardinal Andre Ellington, who reunited with Arians this spring. Jones also might never be the type (unlike the bigger back Barber) who’s able to consistently create his own holes, and Tampa’s O-line is among the league’s most overrated.
New England Patriots CB Duke Dawson
Despite returning from injured reserve from a hamstring injury by mid-November, Dawson became the first second-rounder of the Bill Belichick era not to dress as a rookie, according to Patriotswire.com. That’s not great, especially since JC Jackson emerged from the UDFA ranks to become one of the league’s stickiest cover men as a rookie.
Dawson now not only must compete with the bigger Jackson but King-sized second-rounder Joejuan Williams, whom Bill Belichick moved up to select in Round 2. Though it could prove problematic for Dawson, it’s a typical good problem for the Patriots. To wit: New England has among the NFL’s biggest incoming draft classes — 10 men, bested only by Arizona, Seattle and Minnesota — is projected to have another double-digit draft haul with multiple third-round compensatory picks next year and is the only team to appear twice on this list.
Just missed the cut:
Minnesota Vikings CB Mike Hughes
It appears Minnesota might manage its significant cap constraints without trading one of its promising corners in contract years, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. But Hughes had provided some nice flashes prior to ripping up his knee in Week 6 and will need to reemerge on special teams, if not ‘D,’ in a make-or-break year for the Vikings.
Miami Dolphins RB Kalen Ballage
The ‘Phins speedy big back has caught the attention of new coach Brian Flores and managed 5.1 yards per carry, albeit only 36, under Adam Gase. He has soft hands to help in the receiving game, too, but Miami is throwing a ton in its RB corps to see what sticks.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR DJ Chark
The tantalizing second-round size-speed prospect wasn’t ready to be a rookie factor, which wasn’t unexpected after he was rarely utilized at LSU. The Jaguars need Chark (and 2018 first-rounder Taven Bryan) to be ready this year as the replacements for Donte Moncrief and Malik Jackson.
Los Angeles Rams OL Joe Noteboom
Noteboom actually fared OK in the regular-season finale, when he spelled LT Andrew Whitworth in his easily his most extensive rookie action. He could be OK inside, too, where he’ll have a chance to replace departed Rodger Saffold or deficient Austin Blythe. But the Rams O-line turnover is worrisome with Jared Goff not known for his resourcefulness.