NFL 2019: Six young players who are in need of a position, scheme, or role tweak
These six young pros have the talent to be productive, but need to be utilized properly
Not every disappointing start to an NFL career is on the player.
Position, scheme, role -- however you want to categorize it -- matters in the NFL. A lot. And too often pro teams draft or sign a young player, then plug him into a spot in which he's not comfortable or hasn't experienced before.
Let's pinpoint the youthful NFL players in need of a position, scheme, or role tweak in 2019.
Solomon Thomas, DL, 49ers
Pre-draft position rank: No. 1 defensive lineman
Tweak needed: Position, from defensive end to defensive tackle
Change coming? Looks like it.
No young player needs a position change more than Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 Draft. Early in his 49ers career, the former Stanford star has been mainly deployed as a defensive end.
And that role didn't make much sense. In his final year at Stanford, before he skyrocketed up draft boards, Thomas made hay as a "nickel rusher" on the inside of the Cardinal front with a rare blend of immense speed-to-power capabilities and pass-rushing moves. At the 2017 NFL Combine, Thomas weighed in at 6-foot-3 and 273 pounds, which sparked an idea that he wasn't big enough to play on the interior in the pros and was perfect to be a sturdy edge defender.
If he was compared directly to every defensive tackles at the combine starting in 1999, Thomas' 40-yard dash, broad jump, and three-cone drill would've all landed in the 99th percentile.
Unsurprisingly, on the outside in San Francisco, Thomas has been a dud through two seasons with just four sacks in 30 games across a collective 60.1% of the defensive snaps in those years. While his 270-plus pound frame lends itself to a base defensive end role in today's NFL, with Nick Bosa and Dee Ford firmly entrenched as the top edge rushers in San Francisco, the 49ers no longer have a need for highly talented edge-rushing help.
Thomas would be one of the "smallest" interior rushers in the league, but he was most productive at defensive tackle in college, and his elite athletic gifts coupled with effective hand usage would make him a formidable pocket collapser for Kyle Shanahan's club.
He's appeared in one preseason game thus far and saw close to en even split of reps on the outside and on the interior, a step in the right direction role-wise.
Mike Gesicki, TE, Dolphins
Pre-draft position rank:
Tweak needed: Role, from in-line blocker to move tight end
Change coming? Possibly.
Gesicki was a part of the Penn State's All-Combine Team in 2018, a group headlined by Saquon Barkley. He was only the third tight end since 2000 to hit the 40-inch vertical (41.5 inches) and 128-inch broad jump (129 inches) markers. His three-cone drill time placed him in the 98th percentile at the position.
No question about it, Gesicki's an athletic freak of nature. And with the Nittany Lions, he used his 6-5, 247-pound frame, long arms, and huge hands to secure 105 catches for 1,242 yards and 14 touchdowns in his final two seasons in State College. While he got experience in-line as a traditional tight end, Gesicki was a clear liability when asked to block. He primarily played split out from the formation as a big wideout and flourished burning down the seam and in jump-ball situations.
After being picked in the second round of the 2018 Draft, Gesicki's rookie season in Miami was a massive flop. He caught 22 passes for 202 yards on 43.4% of the team's offensive snaps. Then there was this from training camp this summer.
Adding more bulk to survive in the trenches was a logical move for Gesicki, but he shouldn't be attached to the line very often anyway. The Dolphins signed veteran blocking-specialist tight end Dwayne Allen in free agency as well as Nick O'Leary -- an adequate blocker -- and Durham Smythe was grabbed two rounds after Gesicki in 2018. He played his college ball at Notre Dame in an offense that frequently uses its tight ends in-line as blockers.
In three preseason games, Gesicki has been aligned in the slot or out wide more than twice as often than in-line, an encouraging tweak for him in hopes of shaking off a ghastly rookie year and developing in Year 2. He had three grabs for 59 yards against the Jaguars in the third exhibition contest. Yes, it's a major luxury when your tight end can block. But the vast majority of them can't, and when you have someone as athletically gifted as Gesicki, he needs to be (almost) strictly utilized as a target in the pass game.
Frank Ragnow, C, Lions
Pre-draft position rank: No. 1 center
Tweak needed: Position, from guard to center
Change coming? Yes.
Ragnow was my No. 1 center in the 2018 class because of the effortless power he showcased while playing the position and the steady movements he displayed in the run game. His brute strength was the anchor of his pass-protecting prowess, and he routinely put defenders on their backs.
Playing in Arkansas' power-based offense, Ragnow wasn't asked to move laterally often -- most climbs to the second level were short and jagged. The Lions picked him at No. 20 overall, but he played guard as a rookie thanks to the presence of 2016 third-rounder Graham Glasgow.
In a new role from where he dominated in the SEC, Ragnow labored through some rookie growing pains. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 36 pressures on 1,074 snaps as a rookie, which equates to a less than ideal pressure rate. His rookie-season grade of 61.9 is considered below average.
But Ragnow and Glasgow flipped positions this offseason and through the summer. While it may take some time to acclimate to the speed and power of inside rushers in his second season, Ragnow should settle nicely into his comfy spot at the pivot for Matthew Stafford, Kerryon Johnson and Co. in 2019.
Allen Lazard, WR, Packers
Pre-draft position rank: No. 11 wide receiver
Tweak needed: Role, from big slot to outside wideout
Change coming? Looks promising
After a reliable, four-year career at Iowa State, Lazard, the former No. 10 overall receiver recruit in the nation per 247 Sports, went undrafted. And he probably wasn't used right in his short stint with the Jaguars last preseason.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Lazard only saw 20 catchable targets in the slot in 2017 at Iowa State and turned those into 18 catches for 222 yards (12.3 yards per) with three touchdowns and 11 first downs. However, 74 catchable targets came out wide. On those plays, Lazard had 53 grabs for 719 yards (13.5 yards per) with seven scores and 34 first downs.
Last August in Jacksonville, Lazard basically saw an even split on the inside and in the slot. No bueno. He had four catches for 46 yards in the preseason and was cut by Jacksonville at the outset of September but was signed to the practice squad. Green Bay snagged him to their active roster on Dec. 18.
Thus far, in three exhibition games with the Packers, Lazard has predominately aligned as a perimeter target -- his familiar spot from his senior year at Iowa State -- and has reeled in six passes for 114 yards with a touchdown. The Packers have a crowded yet unproven receiver group outside of Davante Adams. While Lazard can moonlight in the slot on occasion, playing him at the specific position he's most comfortable with from his collegiate days will bode well for his future as a big-bodied target in Green Bay.
Josh Jackson, CB, Packers
Pre-draft position rank: No. 1 cornerback
Tweak needed: Scheme, from man coverage to zone coverage
Change coming: Unlikely
Jackson's 2017 was as ridiculous of a play-making season as I've scouted at the cornerback spot. He had 18 pass breakups and a whopping eight interceptions, two of which were returned for scores.
And the majority of Jackson's snaps in coverage in his masterpiece of a year came in zone -- although some of those snaps started in press.
In zone as a senior, per SIS, he was targeted 51 times (32 deemed catchable). On those throws, Daniels surrendered just 24 receptions for 246 yards with two touchdowns, five interceptions, and nine pass breakups. That all equated to a paltry passer rating of 41.7, per SIS. In man, 33 targets were sent his way (20 catchable) and amounted to 12 catches for 174 yards with two scores, two picks, and nine pass breakups. While he wasn't totally lost in man, his otherworldly ball skills, deflection radius, plus instincts, and impressive length are best suited for a zone scheme.
Jackson isn't a twitchy, super-fluid corner with tremendous mirroring ability. He needs to have his eyes on the quarterback and the route concepts in front of him so he can react and attack.
As a rookie in Green Bay, the 2018 second-round pick played in Mike Pettine's man-based scheme. Per SIS, the Packers played straight man coverage at the third-highest rate in football (just over 50% of the time). While Jackson finished with 10 pass breakups, he received a below-average PFF grade of 60.3.
With Pettine still calling the shots on defense, Jackson is likely bound to the man-based scheme, but hopefully for him, he'll be able to pounce on the opportunities when Green Bay does mix coverage (and he's in zone) or simply when Pettine deploys straight zone coverage in 2019.
James Daniels, C, Bears
Pre-draft position rank: No. 2 center
Tweak needed: Position, from guard to center
Change coming? Yes
Only behind Ragnow on my center rankings in the 2018 draft, Daniels' combination of explosive movement skills, balance, and power made him an impressive prospect. He mostly excelled in the run game for the Hawkeyes from the center spot with an array of outstanding lead blocks at the second level.
While not as tremendous in pass protection, Daniels' lightning-quick feet allowed him to deal with one-gap penetrators on the inside and not get pushed off his base as easily as slower blockers do.
After going to the Bears in the second round, Daniels played guard as a rookie. He started slowly before coming on strong late in the season. Read this, from Pro Football Focus:
From Weeks 4 to 9, Daniels' 56.9 overall grade ranked 52nd among guards with 90 or more snaps. His overall grade over the last three weeks, though, is a vastly improved 77.7 — fourth among guards and the best mark among rookie offensive linemen in that span. Even with the early struggles, Daniels has yet to allow a sack on the season.
He'll take over the pivot position on the Bears offensive line in 2019, a vital spot on a vastly underrated group.
So while it was far from a completely forgettable season for Daniels at left guard, he has the elite skill set to be one of the league's most dynamic centers. Oh, and he doesn't turn 22 until Sept. 13. With a full year in Chicago's strength and conditioning program under his belt, Daniels likely added the power he needed to get "NFL strong," which coupled with his twitchiness is a scary thought for interior defensive linemen and linebackers.
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