As we head into the third week of the preseason, it’s worth noting that the NFL is a far step harder than college football. Why do I bring this up? Because the Falcons are poised to potentially start several rookies in 2016 and fan excitement is particularly high for several of these players. While it’s great to be excited and hopeful about what they can offer, we also need to pump the brakes a bit on what we can reasonably expect out of these young players.
Training camp and preseason games have a way of making players look incredible (or poor) without ever giving us a real glimpse at reality. We see it ever year, and I am caught up in it as much as anyone.
A few years back, Falcons fans were glowing with reports that Jake Matthews was looking amazing in camp. While his rookie season was impacted as much by his ankle injury as anything, he fell incredibly short of the “Joe Thomas” expectations that many began associating him with. I’m a huge fan of Matthews and love his growth and potential, but there’s a reason we always bring up Joe Thomas when talking about rookie offensive tackles: he was the exception, not the norm.
As for 2016, there’s a realistic possibility that the Falcons could start three rookies on defense. It’s already a given that Keanu Neal will be our starter at strong safety. Deion Jones has impressed and could be our day one starter at middle linebacker. Fourth round surprise De’Vondre Campbell is making a strong case to be a starter at the weakside spot.
While there’s little doubt in my mind that these guys can be an upgrade over what we had in those respective positions in 2015, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be “good” in their first year. We’ve seen far too many players come into camp and impress, only to see them struggle consistently once the season rolled around. This happens at every level, from first rounders to undrafted free agents.
That’s not a bad thing, either. The hope is that these guys will improve with each season, as many do. Take Ryan Schraeder as a perfect example. When he first joined the Falcons in 2013, he was a player with vast potential. However, he was inconsistent and often looked lost when he took the field early on. Fast forward a few years, and he’s grown into one of the better young tackles in the league. As a rookie though, the game was clearly “too big” for him at times.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very excited to see many of these young players on the field this year. I love the potential they bring to this team, but I’ve grown to realize that few rookies come in realizing their potential out of the gate. It can be frustrating to watch - painful, even - but as long as we remind ourselves that these growing pains can pay off in the long term, it will help set aside some of the frustration that inevitably sets in.
I’m as optimistic about this team as I have ever been, so this reminder is as much for me as it is for anyone. Let’s give these rookies room to grow.
Our livers will thank us for it.