Seven NFL Rookies Who Are Under Pressure to Perform Quickly

Whether they were polarizing picks, thrust into the spotlight or tasked with big shoes to fill, these seven NFL rookies are under pressure right away.
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This article is about rookies who will face the most immediate pressure in 2020, but let’s be clear about one thing: This stress will be shared—and perhaps shouldered more heavily—by the coaching staffs who are inheriting these talents. It’s more likely these days that an underperforming young star results in the firing of a coaching staff before a coaching staff is allowed to move on from a promising young star (See: any highly-drafted quarterback of the last 20 years).

That said, there were some polarizing picks in 2020 who will immediately garner a spotlight, for better or worse. Here’s a look at who and why.


The Giants have been largely scorned by their last two high-profile acquisitions on the offensive line. Ereck Flowers, a former top 10 pick, bottomed out before reviving his career in Washington and is now in Miami as a guard. Nate Solder, who was signed to a four-year, $62 million deal back in 2018, has also struggled to live up to expectations. 

Enter Thomas, who is GM Dave Gettleman’s latest attempt at reviving a Giants offensive line that has not been stable since the Tom Coughlin era. Why is the pressure significant on Thomas in particular? He is the pick of an embattled general manager who chose Thomas first amid a run of first-round offensive tackles. The class was as deep at the position as it had been in decades, meaning there will be plenty of picks in a similar range for Thomas to be compared to. 

By all accounts, he seems to be the most complete player in this class and will be a godsend to Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones. Also, the Giants’ offensive line is looking increasingly more complete on paper and could evolve as a unit under new head coach Joe Judge.

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Like Thomas, Ruggs was the first in a long run at his position taken in this year’s draft. The Raiders seem largely unconcerned with the opinions of the football world at large. Each of Mike Mayock’s first two drafts with the club have elicited surprise selections that seemed to buck conventional thinking. 

Ruggs may not have been as surprising as Damon Arnette, but he was almost certainly not the consensus top wideout in the class (Ruggs was a distant third on his team in receiving this past year, 37 catches behind Jerry Jeudy, who went a few picks later to the Broncos). A simplistic analysis might also suggest that, because Ruggs’s speed (and what that speed does to coverages) is his greatest asset, it adds to the boom-or-bust feel that this pick carries.

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He's the only player on this list who will likely not play a down this season, unless the Packers are blowing out an opponent or an unfortunate injury has taken place. By no fault of his own, Love has likely been wedged into a very serious discussion about the future of the quarterback position in Green Bay and whether the time was right to consider replacing one of the most purely talented throwers of his generation. 

In a lot of these cases, that means the younger player is often subjected to boundless naval gazing from the outside world and relentless nitpicking in close quarters. Will his comparable stats be charted in training camp? How many times can a person be asked about and judged on his answer to a question about eventually replacing one of the most important players in franchise history? 

Love said on draft night that he spoke to Rodgers, which appears like a fortuitous start to their time together. How long will that last, though, and when will we get an accurate picture of how scorned Aaron Rodgers actually feels?

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It’s difficult to be any first-round pick who is so obviously a 1-for-1 replacement of a departed talent. With Stefon Diggs getting his wish and landing elsewhere, Jefferson comes in to try and replicate Diggs’s role in a great receiver tandem with Adam Thielen. In Minnesota, this might be especially difficult given the low margin for error there. 

Assuming the team keeps a similar vibe offensively without coordinator Kevin Stefanski (now the head coach in Cleveland), their most popular personnel groupings on both first and second down were looks with two tight end and two wide receivers, meaning that Jefferson will be expected to click right away if he wants to see the field. 

The Vikings obviously deserve credit for the way they were able to identify and develop Thielen, an undrafted free agent, and Diggs, a fifth-round selection. However, their recent history also includes notable first-round swings and misses at the position, in 2016 with Laquon Treadwell and 2013 with Cordarrelle Patterson (an All-Pro returner, but a guy who never amassed 500 receiving yards in a season). The depth of this year’s class and the steady presence of Kirk Cousins should ease some of those concerns, though there is still going to be a significant amount of legwork put in to readying Jefferson for Week 1.

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Simmons was so exceptional in college. Thankfully for us, he also had a defensive coordinator in Brent Venables who embraced the modern “positionless football” philosophy that elevated Simmons to the top of the first round. However, recent comments from Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph indicate that we might see Simmons as more of a static player at the next level.

“It’s a lateral, it’s a speed game, it’s a three-wide-receiver game. Some of the things he did at Clemson, it’s going to be realistic, some of it won’t be,” Joseph told reporters. Perhaps some of this is just the getting-to-know-you phase (and would Joseph actually detail how he was going to use Simmons on a post-draft conference call?) but the gamble with Simmons was always going to be finding a coach who was interested in keeping pace with all of his athletic tools. If Simmons becomes a more conventional player, where does the blame fall?

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This is an obvious choice, but Burrow faces the most unprecedented offseason in modern NFL history before taking the reins of a woebegone franchise. This isn’t a small task. Unlike other quarterbacks who have come before him, he seems uniquely up to the challenge. The question is whether or not the Bengals are in lockstep. The weight placed on a No. 1 pick is always absurd and unfair. So much of a player’s development is dependent on outside factors and nearly all of the avenues by which to improve those factors will be condensed or eliminated altogether this spring and summer.

Add in the fact that the division around the Bengals took a quantum leap forward this offseason—the Steelers will get Ben Roethlisberger back and added a legitimate second receiving threat behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Ravens restocked their linebacking corps with a pair of blue-chip players and the Browns finally fortified their porous offensive line—and the climb for Burrow only looks steeper from here.

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As we’ve detailed in the past, receiver development is difficult in the NFL as it is. This has changed a bit over the last two years as NFL and collegiate offenses have come to more of a middle ground, but Reagor comes into a situation where he’s going to be forced to be spectacular right away. The Eagles’ aging, injury-prone receiving corps dragged down the offense late in the season and was difficult to replenish in one offseason, despite a solid draft and trade for Marquise Goodwin.

Reagor was in the slot 14% of the time at TCU last year and ran 13 different route concepts. The diversification of his responsibilities will broaden in Philadelphia. 

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