The transition from college football to the pro game cannot be understated, and players of varying levels of talent play on different arcs. Some blend right into the scheme and the moment as rookies, like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota did. Others enjoy a more gradual climb after the introduction period.
Plenty, of course, simply bust.
Although it’s too early to judge how successful members of the 2015 draft class will turn out as pros, certain ones are in better positions to take that next step than others. Here are five who didn’t exactly flash as rookies who could be in prime position to reward their clubs with progress this season:
- Dante Fowler Jr., Jaguars defensive end: Fowler didn’t get a chance to impress or not impress as a rookie, as he tore his ACL in one of his very first practices. Like with Bears receiver Kevin White (No. 7 overall) and Ravens receiver Breshad Perriman (No. 26), any step would be an improvement for Fowler, but the No. 3 overall pick might be in a better position than either of those recovered players. He’s had the longest to rehab, and now, he’ll get to play alongside Jacksonville’s new $42 million man, Malik Jackson. It’ll remain to be seen how Jackson handles the big paycheck, but he runs stunts as well as any defender in the league, and that could play perfectly into giving Fowler the kind of rush opportunities he’s been waiting for.
- Kevin White, Bears wide receiver: It’s only fair to take a wait-and-see approach with Perriman, who only a couple weeks ago was cleared to practice. But White has been able to invest an entire offseason and preseason and spent time on the active roster last year, as well. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound speed threat theoretically fits well opposite Alshon Jeffery, and he’ll provide the Bears and quarterback Jay Cutler with a much more talented wideout than they had for much of last season through a variety of injuries. White’s adjustment to an NFL route tree and pro coverages after a year off will be steep, but he should be able to offer some splash catches and a red-zone target as soon as he steps on the field.
- Melvin Gordon, Chargers running back: No first-round rookie struggled more on the field last season than Gordon, who finished with 3.5 yards per carry and zero touchdowns on a 4-12 San Diego team. By the end of the year, his six fumbles were costing him snaps. Fixing that part is on Gordon, the No. 15 pick in last year’s draft, but the Chargers have taken a number of strides to fix the myriad offensive line issues that ultimately gave his straight-line running style no chance to succeed. In addition to returning linemen to health, San Diego added Gordon’s former Wisconsin fullback, Derek Watt; road-grading free-agent center Matt Slauson; and two new offensive line coaches, including Joe D’Alessandris, who designed runs for Adrian Peterson and the Vikings for the past five seasons. Gordon has shown gradual improvement as a receiver and an inside runner and should now have a much better chance of showing off his blazing open-field speed.
- Cedric Ogbuehi, Bengals offensive tackle: The No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft didn’t get to play in his rookie season until the 12th game, as he was rehabbing the ACL he tore in his final game at Texas A&M. Ogbuehi showed enough promise as a rotational lineman in five games and a playoff matchup that the Bengals let long-time starting tackle Andre Smith walk to the Vikings in free agency and then handed the job to Ogbuehi over last year’s second-round pick, Jake Fisher. Aside from health, Ogbuehi’s biggest concern entering the draft was his strength, and after a year in the Bengals strength program, he should be ready to start making an impact.
- D.J. Humphries, Cardinals offensive tackle: The Cardinals opted to essentially redshirt Humphries last season, spending the year developing his strength and hand technique in hopes of getting him ready for the starting job he has now. It’s no small task, protecting the right side for 36-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer and Arizona’s deep-route passing game. Humphries plays with a quick set and recovery speed that fits the system he’s in. He’s had an up-and-down preseason, but the Cardinals will hope he continues to develop with live reps against top-flight pass rushers.
- Shaq Thompson, Panthers outside linebacker: The No. 25 overall pick played a healthy amount in the Panthers run to the Super Bowl, as he notched 10 starts and 448 snaps with impressive if not flashy production. This season, he’ll still be distantly Carolina’s third-best linebacker behind Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis, and he’ll face plenty of competition for tackles. But as he grows into a full-time starting role, he could find more chances to shine on passing downs. As opposed to using the traditional nickel corner, the Panthers could opt for the linebacker-safety hybrid in Thompson, whose development in that area would fit snugly into a scheme that employs linebackers in coverage as much as any.
- Malcom Brown, Patriots defensive end: The last pick of the 2015 first round turned in a quietly impressive rookie season that could springboard him toward a breakout second year. Brown played in all 16 games last season in New England’s hybrid defense, where he consistently flashed as a run stopper. This offseason, he reportedly became a more vocal leader as well as one of the team’s more disruptive forces on the field. It’s coming at the right time for the Patriots after the trade of Chandler Jones, the triceps injury and PED suspension for Rob Ninkovich and the release of Terrance Knighton. Brown should command many more than the 287 run snaps he played last season, and his pass rushing appears advanced from the 3 sacks he totaled as a rookie.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.