2016 NFL Draft: Grading Every First-Round Pick After Rookie Year
With the regular season officially over, it’s time to take a look back at the first-round picks of the 2016 NFL Draft and grade their rookie seasons.
The 2016 NFL Draft was definitely an interesting one. There were some serious steals, a few mind-boggling reaches, and plenty of star power in the first round. Now that the 2016 season is in the books, it’s only natural to take a look at how the Day 1 players fared as rookies.
That’s why I’ve put together grades for each of the first-round picks of the 2016 NFL Draft.
These grades take into consideration the production, impact and potential shown during their first years as pros. Be aware that there will be some guys who stuffed the stat sheets and still got average grades. There will also be guys who didn’t produce a ton but still received positive marks for their efforts.
Also keep in mind that these grades are based on my opinions of these players. Everyone will have different takeaways for different players—just take it for what it is.
With that in mind, here are my grades for each of the 2016 NFL Draft’s first-round picks. For reference, here are my initial grades from back in April.
1. Jared Goff, QB – Los Angeles Rams
2016 Stats: 1,089 passing yards, 5 TDs, 7 INTS, 54.6 percent completions, 63.6 passer rating
Boy, this looks like a horrible pick after one season. The Rams were bad this year, but the addition of Jared Goff was expected to at least give them a small boost on offense.
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Instead, the rookie quarterback failed to earn the starting job until Week 11. When he did finally take over for Case Keenum, the results were uninspiring to put it nicely. Just look at the above stats if you need further evidence of his ineptitude. It’s even sadder when you consider three of those five touchdowns came against the New Orleans Saints’ miserable pass defense in garbage time.
Goff appeared completely overwhelmed under center. Although you can put part of the blame on his miserable offensive line and lackluster receiving corps, the Cal product looked like he belonged back in college. He lacked confidence in the pocket, and made far too many errant throws.
The Rams at least won four games under Keenum. After Goff became the starter, he managed a pitiful 0-7 record while never managing to put more than 21 points on the board in a given game. A new head coach may help, but the early signs aren’t promising for Goff.
2. Carson Wentz, QB – Philadelphia Eagles
2016 Stats: 3,782 passing yards, 16 TDs, 14 INTs, 62.4 percent completions, 79.3 passer rating
It wasn’t all daisies and rainbows for Carson Wentz, but we saw plenty for the Eagles’ young quarterback to build on moving forward.
The rookie gunslinger got off to a terrific start in 2016, leading Philadelphia to a 3-0 record to start the year. While it got increasingly more difficult for him to shine, Wentz definitely has the look of a franchise quarterback. Compared to the guy who was drafted before him, he looks like a bona fide superstar.
Realistically, it’s up to the Eagles to help him live up to his potential moving forward. They can start with giving him more weapons to work with, as Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz were his only reliable options in 2016. Adding more quality targets to his arsenal would be a wise move.
Wentz has the talent and upside to be the Eagles’ starter for the next decade. As long as they provide him the support he needs, we should see a significant step forward during his sophomore campaign.
3. Joey Bosa, DE – San Diego Chargers
2016 Stats: 41 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Joey Bosa was everything the Chargers could have wanted and more. They spent the No. 3 overall pick on the Ohio State product, and got a guy who should have been first off the board.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bosa finished the regular season as the fifth-ranked edge defender in the entire NFL. That’s an impressive feat for a rookie who missed significant practice and playing time early in the year.
Not only did Bosa do a great job of getting after opposing quarterbacks, but he was a menace against the run. The young defender spent much of his year in opponents’ backfields, helping him to finish with the highest sack total among rookies. Chances are very high he gets serious consideration for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
The only reason Bosa doesn’t get an A+ is because he missed the first three games as a result of his ugly holdout. It seemed like he’d be traded at one point, which was a small black eye during an otherwise sensational start to his career.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB – Dallas Cowboys
2016 Stats: 1,631 rushing yards, 15 TDs, 5.1 YPC, 32 receptions, 363 receiving yards, 1 TD
I had very high expectations for Ezekiel Elliott when the Cowboys spent the No. 4 overall pick on him. However, I had no idea he’d be as big of a star as he was during his rookie campaign. Not only did he win the NFL rushing title, but he was one of the driving forces for the Cowboys’ impressive 13-3 season. He had only one game during which he racked up fewer than 80 yards, and routinely carried the Dallas offense when the passing game couldn’t get going.
More than anything, Elliott brought a certain swagger to the Cowboys offense that it hasn’t had in some time. Despite being a rookie, he looked like a man among boys and made sure his opponents knew he was making big plays. You better believe he’s going to be a force in Dallas’ Divisional Round game.
Based on his play, Elliott is the favorite to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. On top of that, there are many folks out there who believe he belongs in the MVP conversation. While I’m not sure he was that elite as a rookie, his play in 2016 is more than deserving of the highest grade possible.
5. Jalen Ramsey, CB – Jacksonville Jaguars
2016 Stats: 65 tackles, 14 passes defended, 2 INTs, 1 TD, 1 forced fumble
Was Jalen Ramsey a star for the Jaguars as a rookie? I don’t know if I’d go that far. However, there’s no denying he was an impact player whose future appears very bright.
More than anything, he was a playmaker in the Jacksonville secondary. As you can tell by the above stats, he did a great job of finding the football and putting himself between it and his receiver. He finished the year ranked 21st out of 119 qualified cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
While the Jaguars were a huge disappointment this year, they fielded the NFL’s fifth-best pass defense. Ramsey was a big part of their success, and should continue to be a staple of the Jacksonville defense for the foreseeable future. As PFF pointed out, he was the top-ranked cornerback from Week 13 to Week 17.
Ramsey is an exciting athlete who brings playmaking ability and instincts to the secondary. It’s unfortunate he’s stuck on a team that can’t get out of its own way, but he’ll likely play a big part if the Jaguars ever turn it around.
6. Ronnie Stanley, OT – Baltimore Ravens
2016 Stats: 8th-ranked pass protection (via Football Outsiders), 28th-ranked rushing offense
By what we’ve seen through one year, the Ravens got an absolute steal with their selection of Ronnie Stanley. The former Notre Dame star had some red flags heading into the draft, but quelled any concerns during his rookie campaign.
Stanley immediately earned the starting left tackle job in Baltimore, trusted to protect Joe Flacco’s expensive blindside. Although he missed four games in the middle of the season due to a foot injury, he showed extremely well for a first-year player when he was on the field.
As Pro Football Focus points out, Stanley was outstanding in pass protection. While he’s still got some ground to gain as a run blocker, everything he put on film as a rookie indicated he should be a star for the Ravens.
Coming into the draft, Stanley looked like a boom-or-bust type of prospect. However, through one year, it appears he’s leaning heavily towards the “boom” category. For the Ravens’ sake, I hope that’s the case.
7. DeForest Buckner, DE – San Francisco 49ers
2016 Stats: 73 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 pass defended, 2 fumbles recovered
There was a lot of hype surrounding DeForest Buckner heading into the draft. Some saw him as the next star interior pass rusher, which is why he came off the board at No. 7 to the 49ers.
While I wouldn’t say he fully lived up to expectations as a rookie, the overall production we saw from Buckner was impressive. Throughout the year, he was one of the lone bright spots for a San Francisco defense that was among the worst in the NFL.
Buckner made a big impact as a pass rusher, tying with Ahmad Brooks for the team lead in sacks. He routinely found his way into opposing backfields, making life difficult for blockers and quarterbacks alike. He’ll need to show improvement as a run defender, but the overall outlook is undoubtedly bright.
There’s not a lot to like about this 49ers team right now. However, Buckner is one of the few pieces the incoming coaching staff will be excited to work with.
8. Jack Conklin, OT – Tennessee Titans
2016 Stats: 16th-ranked pass protection (via Football Outsiders), 3rd-ranked rushing offense
One of the best moves of the 2016 NFL Draft might have been the Titans moving back up to snag Jack Conklin at No. 8. The rookie offensive tackle didn’t disappoint, turning in one of the top performances by any tackle this season.
Just ask Pro Football Focus, which ranked Conklin as the No. 5 tackle of 2016. He even earned better marks than teammate Taylor Lewan, who is widely considered as one of the best young left tackles in the game.
Put simply, Conklin dominated from his right tackle position. Not only did he help pave the way for DeMarco Murray to have a huge comeback year, but he excelled at keeping Marcus Mariota well protected. The Titans boasted one of the best front fives in the NFL this year, and Conklin played a big part in earning that designation.
At this point, Conklin already looks like a finished product. If he continues to grow and develop as an NFL-caliber talent, we could soon see him emerge as an annual Pro Bowler.
9. Leonard Floyd, OLB – Chicago Bears
2016 Stats: 33 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovered
I was very skeptical of this selection back in April. With the way Leonard Floyd played in 2016, I’ll convinced I was on the mark with my pessimistic view of the pick.
Now don’t get me wrong—Floyd wasn’t a complete disaster during his rookie season. Obviously he excelled at getting after the quarterback, evidenced by his seven sacks on the year. However, as many critics echoed before the draft, the Georgia product is a bit one-dimensional.
Throughout the year, Floyd struggled to make an impact as a run defender. He failed to get off blocks quickly, leaving the Bears already-weak defense even more exposed on the edges. We all knew he needed to get a lot stronger coming out of college, and his lack of NFL strength showed on game days. He also battled injuries throughout the year, which didn’t help his stock.
I’m not saying Floyd doesn’t serve his purpose as a pass-rushing specialist. However, I don’t think you spend the No. 9 overall pick on a one-trick pony. Floyd had his bright spots as a rookie, but will need to develop as an all-around defender moving forward to warrant such a high selection.
10. Eli Apple, CB – New York Giants
2016 Stats: 51 tackles, 7 passes defended, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovered
Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure on how to grade Eli Apple. The rookie showed well during his first year in the NFL, but was overall unspectacular. As part of the Giants’ suddenly sensational defense, he failed to stand out.
Still, he held his own. The Ohio State product was a reliable presence in the secondary, often keeping his receiver at bay without too much trouble. He suffered the usual rookie struggles at times, but was far from a disappointment for a first-round pick. Being in the same secondary as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins and Landon Collins definitely helped.
The one area I believe Apple needs to work on is his effectiveness against the run. While he is a willing run defender, he wasn’t always as aggressive as he could have been and looked a bit overwhelmed at times against more experienced opponents.
Overall, the outlook is positive for Apple. Especially with more time to learn from his veteran teammates, the No. 10 pick of 2016 should prove himself to be a quality cornerback in time.
11. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016 Stats: 76 tackles, 9 passes defended, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble
Throughout the season, it seemed like there were more positive plays than negative plays for Vernon Hargreaves III. Unfortunately, taking a deeper look shows how ineffective he was at times as Tampa Bay’s other starting cornerback.
Across from a revitalized Brent Grimes, Hargreaves was often picked on as the No. 2 cornerback and rookie. When that happened, opposing teams tended to have significant success against the Florida product.
According to Pro Football Focus, he finished the year as the 99th cornerback out of 120 qualified players. If it wasn’t for his efforts as a plus run defender, he might have been even closer to the bottom of the rankings. Overall, it was a lopsided showing from one of the 2016 draft class’ most hyped defenders.
There’s still a lot to like about Hargreaves, who faced a difficult situation in Tampa Bay. Grimes’ success made teams to look elsewhere, and he was forced to cover two of the NFL’s best passing attacks (Atlanta and New Orleans) in four separate games. We’ll see how he progresses in Year 2 before making any further judgment.
12. Sheldon Rankins, DT – New Orleans Saints
2016 Stats: 20 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble
After missing the first seven games of the year due to a fractured fibula, Sheldon Rankins returned to the mix for Saints carrying overwhelming expectations. Unfortunately, New Orleans learned the hard way that not all early-round rookies live up to expectations in Year 1.
Rankins, hyped as the next Aaron Donald, struggled to show the all-around dominance many thought they’d see. While he did show a spark as a pass rusher with his four sacks, he was routinely beaten in the run game.
When all was said and done, Rankins had earned Pro Football Focus’ 106th ranking among 123 qualified interior defenders. Both his run and pass rushing grades were far from impressive, leaving a lot to be desired for an early first-round pick. Just for reference, Donald earned PFF’s top ranking for interior defenders.
I’m still confident Rankins can be a star for the Saints in the near future. He’s got all of the physical tools to light up this league, but clearly needs some more time to hone his skills. My guess is he sees a huge uptick in effectiveness when he returns (hopefully healthy) in 2017.
13. Laremy Tunsil, G – Miami Dolphins
2016 Stats: 22nd-ranked pass protection (via Football Outsiders), 9th-ranked rushing offense
On draft day, Laremy Tunsil took a big tumble after a video of him smoking a substance surfaced on social media. The assumed Top 5 pick fell to the Dolphins at No. 13, and has spent his entire rookie campaign looking like a steal.
It’s even more impressive when you consider Miami moved him away from his natural tackle position. Despite the switch, Tunsil has held his own at guard, managing well against bigger, stronger defensive tackles. I mean, look at the damage Jay Ajayi has done this year behind Tunsil and the Dolphins front five.
Tunsil has had his inconsistencies this year. There are still areas of his game that need significant improvement—winning in the running game would be one of them. Despite all of that, there’s no denying he was a welcomed addition in Miami this year.
Especially once he makes the move to left tackle, Tunsil should assert himself as a rising star for the Dolphins. The only direction for the Ole Miss alum to go from here is up.
14. Karl Joseph, SS – Oakland Raiders
2016 Stats: 60 tackles, 6 passes defended, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovered
If I had to pick one word to describe Karl Joseph’s rookie season, it would be “solid.” The first-year safety wasn’t a star, but he definitely wasn’t a disappointment either. All in all, he was a solid piece of the Raiders defense.
Luckily for Oakland, I believe he can get a lot better in the coming years. Just based on what we saw in 2016, there’s a ton of potential for the former West Virginia playmaker to develop into a sensational talent.
Throughout the year, Joseph was limited by injuries. He was already working his way back from a torn ACL when the Raiders drafted him, and a toe injury kept him out of the final four games. If it wasn’t for all of the health issues, though, Joseph easily could have earned an A.
He flies to the football, does an exceptional job in coverage and brings a contagious passion to the field. Given some time to develop his skills, get healthy and hone his ability to make plays on the football, Joseph could find himself taking yearly trips to the Pro Bowl.
15. Corey Coleman, WR – Cleveland Browns
2016 Stats: 33 catches, 413 receiving yards, 3 TDs
At the start of the season, it looked like the Browns had found themselves a star. Corey Coleman got off to a hot start, putting up big numbers in his first two contests. Then a broken hand in Week 3 put a quick stop to it.
Six missed games later, and it was too late for Coleman. Cleveland had already found its No. 1 receiver in Terrelle Pryor, and the quarterback situation was an unmitigated disaster. He had his opportunities and made some plays, but the damage was already done after his return in Week 9.
Don’t worry—there’s no reason to throw in the towel. Everything that we saw during Coleman’s rookie season was extremely promising. He was a sparkplug, giving the Cleveland offense an obvious boost when on the field. It has to have this coaching staff excited about what the 2017 campaign could bring.
Especially if Pryor leaves via free agency, the go-to receiver role will be his to lose. Coleman has the mix pf speed, athleticism and instincts to be a electric playmaker for the Browns—that is, if he can stay healthy.
16. Taylor Decker, OT – Detroit Lions
2016 Stats: 18th-ranked pass protection (via Football Outsiders), 30th-ranked rushing offense
I can admit when I’m wrong, and in the case of Taylor Decker, I was wrong.
I never thought his talents warranted a first-round pick. When the Lions took him off the board at No. 16, I was confident they’d be regretting the decision in the not-so-distant future. Instead, the exact opposite played out during the 2016 campaign.
Now, Decker is headed to the playoffs as the Lions’ starting left tackle. Throughout the season, he impressed with his clean technique and ability to use leverage to win battles in the trenches. His presence obviously helped Matthew Stafford, who had a career year for Detroit.
Decker may never be a superstar on the blindside—I don’t think he has the athleticism for that. However, if he continues to build on his rookie season, he could very well cement himself as the Lions’ left tackle for the next decade. I’m pretty sure Detroit couldn’t have asked for more than that with the No. 16 overall pick.
17. Keanu Neal, FS – Atlanta Falcons
2016 Stats: 106 tackles, 8 passes defended, 5 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovered
Honestly, I would have never guessed Keanu Neal would have had nearly the type of impact he did for the Falcons in 2016. The rookie burst onto the scene with surprising tenacity, helping the Falcons emerge as one of the top contenders in the NFC.
While the Atlanta defense wasn’t great this season, they did boast a few rising stars in players like Deion Jones, Vic Beasley and Neal. All three gave us reason to expect even greater things in the future, but Neal appears to be the guy who will give this Falcons secondary the boost it so desperately needs.
Just look at his tackle total for the year. He finished only two behind Jones, the Falcons’ rookie middle linebacker. It’s rare you see a rookie safety stuff the stat sheet like that, but the Florida product did without too much trouble. It’s even better when you consider some of the ferocious hits he put on film this year while racking up all of those tackles.
Atlanta appears to have a keeper in Neal. If he can improve on his angles in run defense, we should soon see him emerge as one of the league’s best safeties.
18. Ryan Kelly, C – Indianapolis Colts
2016 Stats: 28th-ranked pass protection (via Football Outsiders), 23rd-ranked rushing offense
It’s never easy stepping in from Day 1 and anchoring an NFL offensive line. However, in 2016, Ryan Kelly did exactly that and he did it well.
While the Colts offense was a huge letdown this year, Kelly gave Indianapolis fans something to look forward to. The rookie earned the starting job right off the bat, and never looked back. He and Andrew Luck immediately clicked, and he showed impressive leadership and toughness at the center position.
We knew he wasn’t going to be a road-grader based on his relative lack of size and strength, but he wins with a relentless motor and strong mechanics. He did a tremendous job of keeping Luck well protected up the middle throughout the 2016 campaign, and should solidify himself as a mainstay on the Indy offensive line in the coming years.
I was a bit surprised when the Colts spent the No. 18 overall selection on a center. However, with their need to protect Luck better, it seems as though they made the right call.
19. Shaq Lawson, OLB – Buffalo Bills
2016 Stats: 13 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble
All in all, it was a disappointing start to Shaq Lawson’s NFL career. Before his rookie season even got under way, he suffered a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the first seven games of the year.
Even when he did return, Lawson failed to earn a prominent role in the Buffalo defense. With that being said, he did show some spark as a pass rusher and gave this team a reason to be excited about the Clemson alum’s future.
The most important thing for Lawson right now is getting healthy and staying there. Battling injuries is never easy in the NFL, and the rookie had to learn that early in his professional career. He’ll most certainly benefit from a full offseason, adding some strength and seeing the field more in 2017.
The potential is sky high with Lawson, who could develop into one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers in time. For now, though, it’s safe to say his rookie season was a letdown. We’ll see if things get better come next December.
20. Darron Lee, OLB – New York Jets
2016 Stats: 73 tackles, 1 sack, 3 passes defended
I know the stats paint a pretty picture, but this was not a good debut season for Darron Lee. The Jets’ rookie linebacker appeared out of sorts and unprepared for full-time action, but got the starting nod in nine games.
On paper, Lee has the tools to be an outstanding linebacker for New York. He’s an elite athlete with the speed and versatility to fly all over the field, but was often overmatched by bigger, stronger opponents.
The big thing for Lee was that he appeared to lack that instinctive edge on the field. He can make up for it at times with his athleticism, but he wasn’t diagnosing plays or finding the football at the speed of a first-round pick. I mean, there’s a reason Pro Football Focus rated him as the fourth-worst linebacker this year.
I’m guessing the Jets defense will undergo some significant change in 2017. Hopefully the addition of some new bodies and another year in the NFL will help Lee overcome some of the issues that plagued him as a rookie.
21. Will Fuller, WR – Houston Texans
2016 Stats: 47 receptions, 635 receiving yards, 2 TDs
Through the first few weeks of the season, it looked like Will Fuller was going to be a huge steal. In his first four games, he hauled in 19 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns. It appeared as though he should have been the first wide receiver off the board.
And then, Fuller came crashing back down to Earth.
For the remainder of the year, he never topped 60 yards in a game and never found the end zone again. While he didn’t necessarily fall out of favor in the Houston offense, it was clear opposing defenses quickly figured out how to corral the speed demon. He’s still got a lot of growing to do as an NFL talent, with some work needed with his route running and effectiveness on shorter routes.
Despite these issues, I won’t grade Fuller too harshly. He showed immense potential early in the year, and suffered in part due to the miserable play of Brock Osweiler. If the Texans can get some better quarterbacking in 2017, the Notre Dame product should have a huge sophomore campaign.
22. Josh Doctson, WR – Washington Redskins
2016 Stats: 2 catches, 66 receiving yards
Despite playing in two games, Josh Doctson’s rookie season was essentially a redshirt year for the TCU product. After missing most of training camp and the preseason, he saw action in the first two weeks before spending the rest of the year on IR with an Achilles injury.
Even when he was on the field, he was fairly ineffective. He caught only two of his six targets, one of which was a 57-yard bomb. It was clear his Achilles injury nagged him through those first two weeks, eventually ending his season before it had really even begun.
Luckily, there’s room for him to grow into the Redskins’ No. 1 receiver in the near future. Both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are headed for free agency, and neither has a ton of tread left on the tires. Doctson was drafted to be the go-to target in the passing game, and will be expected to assume that role sooner rather than later.
Assuming he gets healthy, I’d expect big things from Doctson in 2017. The tall, physical receiver was a star in college, and should be able to replicate that success in the pros as long as he stays off the injury report.
23. Laquon Treadwell, WR – Minnesota Vikings
2016 Stats: 1 catch, 15 receiving yards
Wow. I’m not sure Laquon Treadwell’s rookie season could have gone much worse than it did. Despite playing in nine games and having numerous opportunities to prove his worth, the rookie failed to capitalize. In fact, he spent most of the year inactive or watching from the sidelines—he saw only 79 snaps on the season.
Even when he was on the field, Treadwell was wildly ineffective. He struggled as a blocker, caught only one of three targets, and made several mental mistakes when given a chance to play significant snaps. While some would chalk it up to a nagging foot injury, what we saw on game day was an unprepared youngster.
Still, the potential is there for him to develop into a playmaker for Minnesota. The Vikings still need a big, physical presence in the passing game, and Treadwell has the tools to fill the role well. If he can catch up mentally and learn the Vikings offense this offseason, he could be well on his way to a much more impressive 2017 season.
For now, though, he gets the worst grade possible.
24. William Jackson III, CB – Cincinnati Bengals
2016 Stats: Spent entire season on IR with a torn pectoral muscle
William Jackson III has all of the makings of an outstanding NFL cornerback. Unfortunately, we were unable to see any of his talent in action in 2016 after he suffered a season-ending pectoral tear in August.
While Jackson wasn’t even slated for starting duties, there was a lot to like about the Houston product. He’s an exceptional athlete with terrific instincts and awareness in coverage. While he doesn’t have blazing speed, Jackson wins with his ability to consistently put himself between the ball and his receiver.
With an entire season off, though, I’d expect him to be at full strength come OTAs. At that point, we’ll be able to see what type of impact he can have for the Bengals’ pass defense.
It won’t be easy earning snaps at a position that includes Adam Jones, Dre’ Kirkpatrick and Josh Shaw, but Jackson has the skills to shine. If he’s healthy in 2017, look for the former first-round pick to carve out a role for himself in Cincinnati.
25. Artie Burns, CB – Pittsburgh Steelers
2016 Stats: 65 tackles, 13 passes defended, 3 INTs
The Steelers went into last offseason knowing they needed to add a playmaker at cornerback. Well, they did exactly that with the selection of Artie Burns in the first round.
On top of sporting the ideal size/length combination, Burns has been a tremendous addition to the Pittsburgh secondary. He’s displayed excellent ball skills and a nose for the football, intercepting three passes for the Steelers. On top of that, he isn’t afraid to get dirty against the run game.
His abilities as a run defender could use some more work, but all of the pieces are falling into place for him to be a big part of the Pittsburgh defense. Even with William Gay and Ross Cockwell still set to be in town in 2017, I’d expect another step forward for the young cornerback.
The Steelers gambled when they took Burns off the board back in April. It appears to be paying off in big ways, and earlier than I would have guessed. The Pittsburgh secondary suddenly isn’t looking so bad with the former Hurricane doing his thing.
26. Paxton Lynch, QB – Denver Broncos
2016 Stats: 497 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 59 percent completions, 79.2 passer rating
When you look at the stats, they aren’t that bad. Paxton Lynch had more touchdowns than interceptions, and ended the year with almost the same passer rating as Carson Wentz. However, if you saw him play, you know his stats don’t tell the whole story.
In his two starts, Lynch looked completely overwhelmed. He wasn’t ready to lead an NFL offense, and it showed with his inability to move the offense efficiently. In his game against the Jaguars, he mustered just over 100 yards and took way too many sacks in his first start against the Falcons.
It was clear that Trevor Siemian was the better option under center. However, with a new head coach, Lynch will be given every opportunity to secure the starting job in 2017. It’s clear he’s got the potential based on what he showed during his days at Memphis. Sometimes young quarterbacks just need more time. His rookie campaign was a prime example of that, but there’s still a lot to look forward to as Lynch’s career progresses.
27. Kenny Clark, DT – Green Bay Packers
2016 Stats: 21 tackles, 2 passes defended, 2 fumbles recovered
I had high hopes for Kenny Clark when he landed with the Packers. He filled a significant need for Green Bay, and flashed the upside at UCLA to be an early difference maker in the NFL. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite pan out that way during his rookie campaign. In fact, it’s safe to consider Clark a disappointment with the regular season now in the books. The impact he made during his first year in Green Bay was average at best.
Clark started only two games this year, and has failed to fill the stat sheet the way the Packers hoped he would. While nose tackles obviously aren’t known for racking up huge amounts of tackles, the fact he only had two tackles for loss is cause for concern. Clark was drafted to be a run stuffer, but there wasn’t much stuffing of the run on his part in 2016
There’s still reason to believe Clark can live up to his draft status. He’s got the size, strength and explosiveness to be a monster along the Packers’ defensive front. For now, though, all we can do is reflect on what should have been.
28. Joshua Garnett, G – San Francisco 49ers
2016 Stats: 30th-ranked pass protection (via Football Outsiders), 4th-ranked rushing offense
When the 49ers traded up to get Josh Garnett at the end of the first round, it seemed like a laughable decision. Most saw the Stanford guard as a mid-round talent at best, yet San Francisco actually moved up to grab him. No wonder Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke both just got the ax.
Still, the 49ers are stuck with him.
It took Garnett until the fifth game to earn a start, and that was after he was a healthy scratch in Week 1. He started the rest of the year, but failed to impress anyone. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers first-round rookie was among the worst in the NFL in 2016—he finished ranked 72nd out of 76 qualified guards.
During his rookie campaign, Garnett showed the strength that made him a worthy prospect. However, his inconsistency and poor overall protection has to have San Francisco concerned. Hopefully new leadership can make the most of his potential, or this pick will quickly be labeled a bust.
29. Robert Nkemdiche, DT – Arizona Cardinals
2016 Stats: 1 tackle, 1 pass defended
I’m not sure what’s been up with the Cardinals’ first-round picks lately. In 2015, they whiffed with the selection of D.J. Humphries. In 2016, they gambled on the boom-or-bust talents of Robert Nkemdiche and got nothing in return.
In fact, Nkemdiche finished the year with a whopping one tackle. Although injuries played a part in it, he was only active for five games while struggling with his adjustment to life in the NFL. At one point, head coach Bruce Arians even called him out for his poor work ethic, saying that even Humphries worked harder (via NFL.com).
Throughout the year, Nkemdiche only saw 82 snaps and made almost no impact. It doesn’t come as a surprise considering the Ole Miss product was draped in red flags before the draft. Still, it’s not a good sign for the Cardinals if they’re hoping to get something in return for their Day 1 roll of the dice.
Maybe Arizona can figure out how to motivate Nkemdiche in Year 2. Based on what we saw and heard this season, though, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
30. Vernon Butler, DT – Carolina Panthers
2016 Stats: 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 pass defended, 1 fumble recovered, 2 blocked kicks
When the Panthers spent their first-round pick on Vernon Butler, it seemed like an underrated addition that could pay huge dividends in a hurry. However, the rookie ended up struggling to earn a significant role and looked out of place at times.
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An early-season ankle injury didn’t help, especially when the effects appeared to linger for a few weeks. Even when he got back to full health, though, Butler was an afterthought along the Carolina defensive line. Then again, that’s not totally surprising when you’re stuck on a depth chart that includes Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei.
Realistically, the Panthers gave him plenty of opportunities to shine. Butler flashed some serious pass rushing ability along the interior, but failed to impress as a whole.
Like all of the guys on this list, there’s always next season. Butler still has a lot to offer this Carolina defense, but needs to get healthy and start making a bigger impact when he sees the field. For now, though, we’ll say he didn’t answer the call in 2016.
31. Germain Ifedi, G – Seattle Seahawks
2016 Stats: 25th-ranked pass protection (via Football Outsiders), 25th-ranked rushing offense
The Seahawks were desperate to find some answers along the offensive line last offseason. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite get the returns they were hoping for when they invested a first-round pick in Germain Ifedi.
The rookie was thrust into a starting role right out of the gate. Although it may have been more out of necessity than merit, Ifedi showed enough potential to warrant a look along the interior. A rough 2016 campaign, though, was what followed for the Texas A&M product.
Seattle’s front five was a mess this season, and Ifedi didn’t help much. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the worst guard among 76 qualified players. Although he held his own as a run blocker, his inability to protect Russell Wilson was embarrassing. All season long, Ifedi looked uncomfortable and out of his element as a pass blocker.
Realistically, Ifedi has a ton of upside but is a major project. With more coaching and experience, he could eventually turn into a quality starter. For now, though, we haven’t seen much to warrant optimism. The only reason he earns a higher grade than Garnett is his higher ceiling.
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