Every year, there are those rookies who defy the odds and put up impressive numbers their first year, making the transition from college to the NFL look like a relative breeze. In 2014, receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. of the Giants made spectacular catch after spectacular catch, looking almost uncoverable at times. Oakland's Khalil Mack turned Oakland's defense into something special at times with his efforts, amassing four sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries while establishing a dominance in his run defense.
Who will beat the rookie curve in 2015? Raw talent helps a lot, but the marriage of player and scheme is the most important factor in that transition. Here are four offensive players who could have extraordinary rookie seasons, thanks to an ideal offensive setup.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
If Gurley had played more than six games in 2014, the Georgia star may have reached a level on the field that you only see once in a generation. As it was, Gurley carried the ball 123 times for 911 yards (a 7.4 yards per carry average) and nine rushing touchdowns. He also caught 12 passes for 57 yards, but has shown much more than that—in 2013, he had 37 receptions for 441 yards and six touchdowns. Moreover, Gurley did some of his best work against the NCAA's best defenses. Clemson had the best collegiate defense in 2014 from a sabermetric perspective, and in the season opener, Gurley ran over that same defense, rushing 15 times for 198 yards and three touchdowns, and adding a 100-yard kick return for good measure.
Despite what seems to be an aversion to drafting running backs early in the NFL, it wasn't a surprise when the Rams took Gurley with the 10th pick in the 2015 draft—not only because he's a rare talent, but also because Rams coach Jeff Fisher has long believed that you build your offense around a dominant back. That's what he had in Eddie George during his glory days in Tennessee, and that's what Gurley could be. The Rams have done their due diligence on his knee, and there are indications that Gurley may be ready for the start of the 2015 season.
“Clearly, he was set back because of the injury, but the athletic ability, the strength, the explosion, the acceleration, the instincts that he has as a runner -- and he’s also got great hands out of the backfield. He’s that complete back,” Fisher said last Thursday.
"This is the running back of our future, and it makes no sense to put him in a bad situation sooner than we have to. We’ve got outstanding backs on our roster. He’s going to add to that group. When that happens, we don’t know. But, he’s going to be the running back of the future for a number of years.”
The Rams had two good backs in 2014—rookie Tre Mason rushed for 765 yards and four touchdowns on 179 carries, and Zac Stacy (who was traded to the Jets last week) added 293 yards and one touchdown of his own, which isn't bad, but clearly the Rams want more. They also had to rebuild most of their offensive line, which was affected by injuries and ineffectiveness last season, and selected four linemen in the draft to get that process going.
The Rams are a power-running team that can mess up the best defenses when things are going right, and Mason's 28-yard run against the Seahawks in Week 7 is a prime example. Here, he shows good patience to follow his blocks, and the speed and agility to break outside when the opportunity arises.
Mason does these things well, but this run against Clemson in that 2014 season opener shows Gurley's elevated speed, agility, power and balance in a similar structure.
“This is kind of one of those players at the position that really only comes around once in a great while,” Fisher concluded. “We’re very excited about him.”
Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers
In 2014, the Chargers went 9-7 despite a rushing attack that was anything but dynamic. Veterans Ronnie Brown and Ryan Mathews didn't provide much, and the lion's share of San Diego's ground game was left to undrafted rookie Branden Oliver, a 5'7", 208-pound bowling ball who had a couple of nice stretches in his debut campaign, but ended his season with just 582 yards and three touchdowns on 160 carries. General manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy knew something had to be done, and they acted decisively in the draft, trading up from the 17th pick to the 15th pick in the first round to select Wisconsin back Melvin Gordon. The consensus second-best back in this class behind Todd Gurley, Gordon comes into the NFL with quite the prolific resume.
Gordon didn't do much in his first two seasons with the Badgers, but started knocking it out of the park in 2013, when he gained 1,609 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on 206 carries. And last season, he led the nation in rushing yards (2,587) and rushing touchdowns (29) on 343 carries. This included a record-setting day against Nebraska in mid-November, when he carried the ball 25 times for 408 yards and four touchdowns. Wisconsin's offensive system wasn't really diverse, but the Chargers saw more than enough to believe that Gordon was their man.
"We're excited about him," Telesco said of Gordon. "He brings a dynamic presence to our offense, and that's something we've been looking to add the last couple of years. We just felt that with his impact ability, we had to go up and get him. He's got three-down capabilities. He can make people miss in space. He's 6'0" and 215 pounds, so he can lower his pads and run through tackles. He's got good hands, which he showed in the offseason. I know Wisconsin doesn't use their backs in the passing game a lot, but he's got ability there. He can pass-protect, so it's time for him to come in and see what his role's going to be."
It's not that Oliver will be left out completely—he has a powerful running style with the ability to step out of trouble and jump gaps quickly, as he displayed against the Jets in Week 3 with this 15-yard touchdown.
But when it comes to bouncing outside quickly, Gordon may be the best back in this class. Wisconsin certainly trusted him to take the ball out from its own one-yard line against Ohio State's estimable defense, and Gordon responded with an important eight-yard run. Watch the combination of lateral speed and balance—Gordon keeps his shoulders square and his eyes ahead when a lot of backs would let their mechanics drop.
Could Gordon be the difference between another 9-7 record and the top of the AFC West? The Broncos will have a lot to say about that, but the Chargers have a compelling new name in that debate.
Devin Smith, WR, Jets
After two seasons and 29 NFL starts, the Jets are still trying to figure out whether they have a franchise quarterback of the future in Geno Smith. He didn't help his case in 2014, completing 59.7 of his passes for 2,525 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. A league-leading eight interceptions came on passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, which was partially Smith's problem and partially an issue of player and scheme. Smith's deep targets included Eric Decker (who isn't a consistent deep threat), Percy Harvin (who doesn't create separation unless he's running in a straight line), sub-receivers like T.J. Graham and David Nelson, and quite a few targets to tight end Jeff Cumberland (this speaks for itself).
Smith went from a spread-ish playbook at West Virginia to Mary Mornhinweg's West Coast offense in his first two years, and he'll now be transitioning to Chan Gailey's system, which endeavors to make things easier for quarterbacks with that kind of history. Still, Smith will have to learn to time up with receivers on deeper routes—this was a fairly serious issue last season—and let the ball go at the right time. That's on him, but it would help if Smith had a target with the ability to create separation with more than just speed.
Enter Ohio State receiver Devin Smith, selected in the second round of the 2015 draft. In four years with the Buckeyes, Smith caught 121 passes for 2,503 yards and 30 touchdowns, including 33 receptions for 931 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. That's a fairly ridiculous 28.2 yards per catch average, and Smith ranked first overall among all NCAA receivers in College Football Focus' deep passing metrics—he caught 17 passes of 20 yards or more on 26 targets for 754 yards and 10 touchdowns. Smith can also take shorter passes to the house, but it's clear that the Jets were using their second-round pick on a guy who could help Geno Smith make better things happen downfield. Getting Brandon Marshall in a trade will also help, but Devin Smith is a burner on a different level.
"What stood out on tape is that Devin has the vertical skills to stretch the field," first-year general manager Mike Maccagnan said. "We felt his hands were good, and at the Senior Bowl we thought he had all the skills, quickness out of his breaks, ability to track the ball.
"Then at his pro day he ran a variety of routes. You could see all the physical ability there to be able to do it. I know he could be perceived as only a deep threat, but the grouping of players there, he provided the best value return and fit for what we were looking for at that point in time."
It's an important point—Smith is more than just a straight-line deep guy. But when your best speed receiver is Percy Harvin, as Geno Smith's was last year, you have games like Smith's against the Bills in Week 8 of the 2014 season. Smith completed two passes in eight attempts for five (five!) yards and three (yes, three) interceptions. His three picks came on deep throws to three different receivers, and the one to Harvin showed Smith's errant delivery under pressure in the pocket and Harvin's inability to use size or elusivity to get free from cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who boxed him out with inside position at the top of the route.
Conversely, here's Devin Smith against Michigan State's outstanding defense on a third-and-23 situation. Anyone with half a brain knew that Smith would be the target here, and he did a brilliant job of separating from cornerback Darian Hicks to bring in the ball. Hicks took his eye off Smith just long enough for Smith to trail out to the boundary for a 43-yard gain.
Later in the second quarter, Smith caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from J.T. Barrett, and Ohio State beat the Spartans, 49-37. The Buckeyes rolled up 568 yards in total offense, and Smith was the main man with six catches for 129 yards. The Jets certainly hope that Smith can provide similar dynamism to their offense -- and to a quarterback who could use all the help he can get.
Kevin White, WR, Bears
When the Jets acquired Brandon Marshall from the Bears for a fifth-round pick in March, it effectively ended the two-city relationship between Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler and his favorite target. Cutler and Marshall were first put together in Denver in 2006, when Cutler was selected in the first round of the draft, and Marshall was taken in the fourth. The two were incredibly prolific together in the Mile High City for three years before Cutler was traded to Chicago, and then they were prolific again when the Dolphins (who had acquired Marshall the year before) offloaded him to Chicago for a couple of middling picks. Marshall had a career year in 2012, catching 118 passes for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns, but those numbers decreased over the next two seasons, and Chicago's new regime decided to cut bait.
Cutler has another talented receiver in Alshon Jeffrey, but part of the unique on-field relationship between Cutler and Marshall was Marshall's ability to get himself open when Cutler threw—often erratically and with weird mechanics—in his area. And that's why that same new regime—general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox—effectively replaced Marshall with West Virginia receiver Kevin White, perhaps the most physically gifted receiver in this class. Pace didn't hesitate to take White with the seventh overall pick, despite the fact that White was a JUCO transfer with just one big season at the major college level—2014, when he caught 109 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns. Despite the fact that White's route concepts are still underdeveloped (his palette consists of comebacks and go routes, for the most part), Pace saw only potential, and a lot of it.
"When I hear that—and I did a lot of work on that—you think about a receiver when you hear the word ‘raw' and you think maybe route quickness or those things," Pace said last Thursday. "At West Virginia his route variety sometimes you question. [But] I saw every route I needed to see from that player.
"One of the most difficult routes for a receiver to run is a comeback route. You see that from him. You see it at his Pro Day. You see it at his workouts. If you watch enough film on him, you see all that. This guy is a special athlete for his size. He's big and he runs 4.3, and he's strong after the catch, and he's a physical blocker. He really checks all the boxes you're looking for in a receiver in our offense."
White will check all the boxes for Cutler, because like Marshall, he is fanatically competitive when it comes to beating physical coverage and demanding that the ball belongs to him. Here, by example, is a 45-yard touchdown from Cutler to Marshall in the third quarter of Chicago's loss to the Packers. The Bears were trounced because their defense couldn't keep up, but on this play it was Green Bay's defense that lagged behind. Marshall outboxed and outfoxed cornerback Sam Shields and ran right by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for the score.
And here is White catching a touchdown in West Virginia's 2014 opener against Alabama. The Mountaineers lost this game, but it was a proving ground for White, who set the tone for the rest of his ridiculous season with a nine-catch, 143-yard, one-touchdown performance. No catch was more impressive than the touchdown, scored with 11:58 left in the first half over the head of cornerback Bradley Sylve—who, at 5'10" and 180 pounds, was placed in a scenario that should not have occurred.
"I can probably tell you right now that the most excited guy in the building is Adam Gase," Pace said of Chicago's offensive coordinator. "This is good, guys. This is a big-play weapon for us, a competitive, tough player. We couldn't be more thrilled to have him."
The only guy more excited to have White on the roster might be Cutler, because he just got a faster and more dynamic version of his favorite playmaker.