Michael Jordan once told a young Kobe Bryant, “you can wear my shoes but you can never fill them.” This is a theme that can haunt a young player’s psyche at the start if they are expected to perform early. This is most evident if the player’s draft or individual standing is high profile.
Often times rookies are brought in to bolster a weak position or become the new face of a franchise. Those are a dime a dozen and unless you’re picked in the top 10, this condition doesn’t apply to you. Most first year guys have to come in a replace a departing veteran. If that vet was key to the team’s success, the pressure becomes almost unbearable.
These rookies will have to deal with that pressure in their first year:
Kristian Fulton, Cornerback, Tennessee Titans
Drafted: 2nd Round
Replacing: Logan Ryan
The Tennessee Titans had a long drought in the defensive back department before Logan Ryan arrived in 2017. Ryan was one of the most consistent defenders on the team and helped bolster an otherwise laughable position group for the Tennessee franchise.
Ryan departed the team this past offseason and left a big void in the pass coverage department. His 18 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and 4.5 sacks made him a more than valuable asset to the Titans’ defense. His biggest contribution was to the locker room and setting the culture for this team.
Fulton, a rookie out of LSU, will have to do his best to come in and be an instant performer. Even with the signing of veteran Jonathan Joseph, Fulton has to at least account for half of what Logan Ryan brought to the table. Shouldn’t be hard though, the kid is well coached and has shown to have the work ethic to make his transition smooth.
Javon Kinlaw, Defensive Lineman, San Francisco 49ers
Drafted: 1st Round
Replacing: Deforest Buckner
Super Bowl caliber teams don’t normally trade superstar assets away in the offseason, unless you’re talking about the San Francisco 49ers. John Lynch and the Niner brass decided it would be a great idea to trade one of the biggest pieces of their defensive front for an unproven first round pick. That piece was none other than All-Pro Deforest Buckner.
Buckner was a terror in 2019, posting 7.5 sacks from the interior, after rallying 12 sacks in 2018. His combination of size, strength and athleticism make him a monster to stop in the run or pass rush. The 49ers are hoping their first rounder is able to duplicate that success.
Javon Kinlaw is the guy that will have to do just that. Lynch is hoping that Kinlaw’s quick first step and strong hands will be effective clogging the middle of that 49ers’ defense. At 6’5”, he has the stature of a monster but can he what Buckner was for this San Fran D?
Only time will tell.
Jeff Okudah, Cornerback, Detroit Lions
Drafted: 1st Round
Replacing: Darius Slay
Everyone knew two things about the Detroit Lions when Matt Patricia took over:
One, the defense would improve drastically and be one the most well coached units in the NFL. Two, Darius “Big Play” Slay would see his numbers sky rocket due to Patricia’s love of bump and run coverage.
Those two assumptions were correct and Lions fans, though not enjoying playoff success, are happy with what they have seen out of their team’s defense thus far. Slay’s numbers made him an arguably top five player at his position and he wanted to get paid as such. That prompted him to ask for and receive a trade to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Lions, having the third overall pick, took Slay’s replacement Jeff Okudah out of Ohio State. The 6’1” 203 lb. corner has all the tools to get the job done in the NFL but can he give you what Slay did?
Slay’s numbers over the last three seasons, (149 tackles, 13 interceptions, 56 passes defensed), are tops in the NFL over that span. Okudah can definitely get close to this production: his technique is sound, which bodes well for the young man going forward.
Cam Akers, Runningback, Los Angeles Rams
Drafted: 2nd Round
Replacing: Todd Gurley
I don’t think anyone saw the end of the tunnel for Todd Gurley after the loss in the Super Bowl in 2018. His arthritic knee and constant injury bugs robbed Gurley of his explosiveness and also robbed the Rams of their offensive potency.
Sean McVay could’ve done what many coaches do when they lose a once in a lifetime running back and gone committee but instead they drafted an elusive back out of Florida State.
Cam Akers was touted as one of the best options at the running back position coming out this year and for good reason. His combination of speed, elusiveness in the hole and vision, make him a good candidate to be great at the next level. The question is, can he turn that ability into enough production to fulfill the Rams needs in the backfield?
C.J. Henderson, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Drafted: 1st Round
Replacing: Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye
The Jaguars have undergone what many may called the biggest roster flip in NFL history.
Telvin Smith retired, Malik Jackson is an Eagle, Tashaun Gipson is a Bear, their two most recent starting quaretrbacks are on different rosters…and all of this has happened over the past two seasons. The most impactful of those moves are the loss of bookend corners A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey.
Each were lock down in their own right but Ramsey was traded to the Rams after a contract dispute. His running mate Bouye lasted until the end of the season but was also traded.
C.J. Henderson has to come in and live up to his draft status and the lofty legacy left by his two predecessors. Henderson has the technique of Bouye and the swagger of Ramsey, so it isn’t too far fetched to think he will be great. It’s just that replacing two All-Pro caliber defenders isn’t something you just casually do.
Henderson will have to lockdown receivers and his mental state as he starts his NFL career. It’s his job to know nothing comes easy and he will be targeted as the new guy in the defensive backfield for Jacksonville.
There are many more players that are coming in this season with high expectations but none of them will have it as hard as these chosen few. The season is about a month away so we won’t have long to wait to see if they can fill the shoes left by their predecessors.