I can remember reading the words like it was just yesterday. "He's the next Joe Thomas." That's a pretty high standard, and one that few - if any - rookies should be held to. There's a reason we talk about Joe Thomas' rookie season - it was pretty rare. Yet, those very words were uttered about Jake Matthews just a couple of years ago. Needless to say, his rookie year didn't meet those lofty expectations.
But was the problem Jake (who was admittedly injured most of the year) or was it the expectations placed on him?
When it comes to rookies - especially first rounders - the expectation is for them to come in and contribute immediately. For some fans, though, contribute means to play at a Pro-bowl level. For those people, let me say this: you need to get your expectations in check.
No time to prepare
Here's the reality of what it means to be a rookie in the NFL. You've likely spent a large portion of your off-season training and preparing for the NFL Combine. Your immediate goal was to turn in an impressive performance to help your draft stock as much as possible. On top of all that training, you're visiting teams, going through your school's pro-day and in many cases, you're still going to school.
Once drafted, the world changes. Chances are, you're drafted by a team in another state. So now you have to relocate to be closer to the off-season training grounds. You're young, so you've probably never had to shop for a house before - which can be overwhelming by itself.
Within days of the end of the draft, you almost immediately head to rookie training camp. Here, the coaches overwhelm you with their defense/offense that you need to learn, as well as showing you all the technique issues you need to work on this year. Oh, and you also need to change up your diet, because the trainer wants you to gain/lose some weight as well.
This is just the tip of the iceberg really. People often forget that these rookies have little to no time to prepare for the season, and yet they're expected to come in and contribute at a high-level immediately. It's a ridiculous expectation that ignores the reality that these young men face year after year.
The speed of the NFL
Considering everything above, you have now also gone from being one of the best athletes in your field to being "one of many." Those running backs you chased down in college? They're faster here. Those receivers that ran a 4.6/40? Now you're lined up across from ones that run a legit 4.4/40. That 290 pound offensive lineman you were used to seeing as you rushed the QB? Well, he's now 320 and faster than any lineman you've ever seen.
Most college players come into the NFL having faced a smattering of talented players here and there. Now, they're facing them all at once. The things that they used to get away with are exposed even more at this level. There's no such thing as "slow" in the NFL, just "less fast." That speed adjustment is often the most jarring thing that every football player talks about and it simply takes time to get used to it.
Year one rarely predicts a career
Remember those expectations thrust onto Jake Matthews? Some people were ready to label him a bust after a rough rookie year, but he bounced back significantly and turned in a fine 2015 season. I've already seen people calling Vic Beasley a bust after only turning in 5 sacks in his rookie year. Good thing they didn't pay attention to the numbers of guys like JJ Watt and Justin Houston, who both only turned in 5.5 sacks in their rookie seasons. One of the greatest wide receivers of this past generation - Calvin Johnson - had 48 receptions for 756 yards and 4 TDs in his rookie year. Not exactly a dominating set of numbers.
Don't get me wrong. There are definitely rookies who come in and make a splash in year one. Desmond Trufant had a fantastic rookie season and has only built on it from there. Von Miller had 11.5 sacks in his rookie season with the Broncos. If you end up with a rookie like this - thank your lucky stars, because they are so very rare. The majority need that first true "off-season" to be able to train properly and adjust to their new lives. They need that time to get used to the longer football season and to get their heads around their new playbook. These are, after all, young men who are just beginning their careers.
So, before anyone goes and hastily labels a player a bust, please keep these things in mind. You'll feel much better about our young players if you manage to keep your expectations in check.