As we enter the 2015 NFL season, we’ll talk early and often about the impact of the 2015 NFL rookie class, but it’s going to be equally important to monitor the progress of the 2014 NFL rookie class. With a year under their belts, these players will be looked upon to take a next step forward and be a bigger part of their team’s success.
Some will succeed. Some will fail. Here are three players who need to step up and why they will — or won’t.
Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have done a ton to put Bridgewater in a position to succeed in his second year. They added Mike Wallace as a vertical threat, worked with Bridgewater to improve his deep ball (including adding some strength and weight per the Star-Tribune’s Sid Hartman) and made peace with running back Adrian Peterson.
This all should be a huge help to exceed the bar Bridgewater set himself by being the 15th best quarterback in the NFL, according to the analytics website Pro Football Focus.
That’s a tough thing to do for a young quarterback, but there’s ample evidence that he’s going to have a big season.
While many people point to a lack of deep ball success last year, a closer look at the numbers shows something a little different. While he did throw six of his 12 interceptions on passes over 10 yards — and completed just one pass over 20 yards in the middle of the field — he was very good throwing deep to his right side (completing 8 of 14 with four touchdowns) and improved his accuracy as the season wound down.
There are several reasons for this, and all will help improve his game even more in his second season under center.
While his arm strength is a bit of a concern, his footwork, ability to lead his receivers in tight coverage and his coolness in the pocket while under pressure are all skills that many quarterbacks never develop. He does a fantastic job moving through his progressions (in other words, looking from receiver to receiver to see who is the best and most open option) and does a very good job in feeling the pass rush.
On top of all that, he has Peterson back. We cannot overstate how helpful it is for a young quarterback to have a running back who will keep defenses honest the way Peterson can. No defense can just focus on the pass this year — they have to account for Peterson.
When they do, Bridgewater is poised to make them pay.
Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears
There is a lot to like about Kyle Fuller, and he is well on his way to be an exceptional NFL cornerback. It’s just going to be a rough season for him in 2015.
It actually started to go that route toward the end of the 2014 NFL season, after he suffered a minor MCL sprain. He returned in Week 13, but quarterbacks threw for 419 yards and completed 60 percent of their passes thrown in his direction. Fuller especially struggled against Detroit in Week 13 and Week 16 and Week 15 against New Orleans.
In all three games, Pro Football Focus attributed more than 100 yards to passes thrown at him, and in all three cases he allowed an average of 35 yards after the catch.
That’s rough. At least he has Tim Jennings across from him to help out. Oh wait, no he doesn’t — the Bears cut Jennings recently and replaced him with the underwhelming Tracy Porter, who missed most of last season with hamstring and shoulder injuries.
Normally, that might give Fuller relief as the ball would get thrown at the weaker Porter, easing pressure on Fuller. Unfortunately, there’s a strong chance that what it really means is Antrelle Rolle or Brock Vereen will need to shift over and assist Porter rather than Fuller.
That leaves the second-year cornerback on an island against players like Calvin Johnson, Randall Cobb, Larry Fitzgerald and Keenan Allen this season.
On top of all of that, we’re talking about a unit which was, according to Football Outsiders, ranked No. 28 in defensive efficiency last season and No. 29 against the pass. While they sat in the middle of the NFL in sacks with 39 (per NFL.com), they frequently struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks. That makes a cornerback’s job harder as he has to maintain coverage longer.
All this points to a tough season for Fuller despite obvious talent. The Bears defense is a work in progress, and while Fuller is clearly a critical piece, there’s only so much he can do.
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Like Fuller, there is no denying the Buffalo Bills wide receiver has massive talent. Sammy Watkins is fast, a natural hands-catcher and a guy who can add yards after the catch.
He’s just in one of the worst situations in football.
This is less about Watkins than it is about the quarterback and offensive scheme. The Bills are trotting out a raw quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, who is more of a runner than a passer at present, and their offense is geared heavily toward a ground attack.
In so far as opportunity goes, there doesn’t seem to be a lot coming Watkins’ way. Sure, he’ll be the go-to guy when a pass is needed, but if the defense plays as well as we expect, the Bills won’t have to pass — and head coach Rex Ryan wants to run the ball. A lot. As he told NFL.com in early August:
“We’ll have probably the biggest playbook in the history of man in our running game. Why? Because it’s important to us. We want to be multiple in the running game, and that’s what Greg (Roman) does. He’s as multiple as … like some people are in the passing game, we can be that way in the running game as well.”
That doesn’t bode well for similar production to his 2014 numbers on the part of Watkins. Last season saw the Bills pass the ball 578 times compared to the 366 plays that were runs. It sounds a lot like that will flip this season, with the runs outnumbering the passes if Ryan has his way.
On top of that, Watkins struggled toward the end of the 2014 season, though some of that was due to a hip injury. He had surgery for that this off-season, so he should at least be 100 percent healthy.
Whether because of injuries or not, in Watkins’ final eight games, he had just one 100-yard game and one touchdown.
While he has the ability to improve and he is now healthy, his situation indicates he is going to regress in his second year.