Absent From Class: Where Are the NFL’s 2014 Draftees?

Most NFL observers say it takes a minimum of three years to judge a draft class. The 2014 draft class is miles away from proving its eventual worth under those standards, but what we can notice after five weeks is that there are all kinds of first-round picks who just aren’t playing. For teams like the Broncos and Seahawks, who drafted at the bottom of the first round, that wouldn’t be especially surprising; they already have deep rosters, so there’s no reason to think they would rush their first-rounders into the lineup.

What we are seeing with the rest of the league is teams that drafted at the top of the first round have been hesitant to give their fresh blood regular roles. That’s surprising! Some of the players who haven’t seen serious snaps have injury issues that have kept them out of the lineup. Others just aren’t playing. With that in mind, let’s run through the first-round picks who haven’t seen much action, explain why they haven’t played, point out whether they’ve been missed, and try to find a path for them to play later this year.

Snap totals are from the NFL’s media site and documented on Football Outsiders.

1. Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Texans
Defensive Snaps: 23
Path to Playing Time: Get healthy

Clowney, the draft’s first overall pick, hasn’t been healthy at any point during his brief professional career. The former South Carolina star underwent sports hernia surgery six days after signing with the Texans, missed two games during the preseason with an undisclosed injury,1 and then tore his meniscus halfway through Week 1, an injury that was expected to keep him out for four to six weeks. His current target date for a return is Houston’s Week 7 tilt against Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football, which would be almost exactly six weeks on the sideline.

It’s hard to argue Houston wouldn’t be better with Clowney around. It remains to be seen whether he will deliver on the lofty expectations that preceded his entrance into the league, but even with J.J. Watt manhandling offensive linemen, the Texans haven’t mounted much of a pass rush. They have just seven sacks through five games, and their 3.5 percent sack rate ranks 24th in the league. Clowney’s replacement, Whitney Mercilus, hasn’t recorded a sack in his four starts.

2. Greg Robinson, OL, Rams
Offensive Snaps: 10
Path to Playing Time: Rams buy a clue

Yes, that’s right: 10 snaps. Robinson wasn’t expected to be a day one starter at left tackle for the Rams, given that he lacked refinement as a pass-blocker and was seen as a mauler with the athletic skills to eventually develop into a top-tier left tackle. The presence of Jake Long at left tackle made the plan simple: Even if Robinson would eventually end up at left tackle, he would start for the 2014 Rams at right tackle or even right guard.

Instead, despite being healthy and active, Robinson isn’t playing at all. The absolute floor for Robinson as a rookie was supposed to be right guard, but he lost the training camp battle there to 30-year-old Davin Joseph, a former Pro Bowler who left his athleticism on the operating table after a torn patellar tendon in 2012. Joseph signed a one-year deal; he is a stopgap at best. With the Rams not going anywhere, it’s shocking they won’t put Robinson into the lineup and have him get meaningful reps on the job. Even worse, that might tell us how unprepared Robinson is to play.

8. Justin Gilbert, CB, Browns
Defensive Snaps: 129
Path to Playing Time: Regain coaches’ trust

Gilbert’s snaps are trending in the wrong direction. The hope after draft day was that the Browns would be able to spot Gilbert in as the starting cornerback across from Joe Haden. Gilbert didn’t do enough to win the job away from Buster Skrine in training camp, but the Browns still used him as their nickel corner in Week 1, giving him 59 defensive snaps. In Week 2 against the Saints, that fell to 46. That went down to 14 in Week 3, and after Cleveland’s bye, he played just nine defensive snaps against the Titans last week, losing his job to undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams, who missed a crucial tackle that allowed a touchdown and still didn’t give the job back to Gilbert. What gives?

Well, Gilbert has given, and other teams have taken. He was targeted by Drew Brees and Joe Flacco early in the year for reliable yardage and panicked penalties, including a key defensive pass interference call that Flacco drew by deliberately underthrowing Steve Smith. Gilbert is just not ready yet, and it’s a serious problem; Haden missed practice Wednesday and might not play this weekend, which would force Gilbert into the lineup as part of a secondary that will have to stop Antonio Brown.

10. Eric Ebron, TE, Lions
Offensive Snaps: 139
Path to Playing Time: Injuries elsewhere on offense

Ebron’s role has been growing from week to week, but it looks like that’s a product of injuries as opposed to anything else. Through the first three weeks, the Lions played a fair amount of two–tight end sets, but they split the second tight end reps about 50-50 between Ebron and Joseph Fauria. Ebron played between 31 and 43 percent of the offensive snaps in each of those three weeks. Since then, Fauria has been out with an ankle injury for two weeks — and with that, Ebron’s role has grown: He played 51 percent of the snaps in Week 4 before hitting 60 percent last week against the Bills.

Ebron’s performance has been a mixed bag. He has caught eight of the 16 passes thrown to him, scoring once while averaging 10 yards per catch. Ebron could have had a second touchdown last week, but he dropped a pass as he was falling toward the goal line. He’s a work in progress, but with Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, and Joique Bell all various shades of questionable this week, the Lions need an athletic playmaker like Ebron to give Matthew Stafford a weapon to work with.

11. Taylor Lewan, OL, Titans
Offensive Snaps: 33
Path to Playing Time: Wait for me to plan this article

Lewan has mostly been an afterthought during Tennessee’s ugly 1-4 start to the season; his most notable contribution has been a pair of personal foul penalties, including a stupid retaliatory face mask call in Week 1.

Scuttlebutt suggested the Titans might consider inserting Lewan into the lineup to replace struggling big-ticket left guard Andy Levitre, but as I was working on this article, a new role cleared up. Titans left tackle Michael Roos is now expected to undergo season-ending knee surgery, opening up a spot on the line. With Michael Oher already struggling at right tackle, Lewan is likely to step in at left tackle. It’s unclear who he’ll be protecting at quarterback, but if it’s Charlie Whitehurst, Lewan better protect that magnificent haircut.

12. Odell Beckham, WR, Giants
Offensive Snaps: 35
Path to Playing Time: Watch that balky hamstring

Beckham missed the first month with a hamstring problem; the Giants got along fine without him, but they were always going to be better by replacing the likes of Preston Parker with their first-round pick. Beckham played against the Falcons on Sunday and delivered an electrifying NFL debut.

His line wasn’t especially stunning — four catches, 44 yards, and a touchdown — but he was better than the numbers. The Falcons were already clearly terrified of Beckham’s speed, and the Giants exploited their off coverage by throwing comebacks and curls to an open Beckham for steady yardage. A double move sprang Beckham deep for what should have been a long touchdown catch, only for Eli Manning to miss the throw out of bounds. Beckham did eventually score, jumping over Robert Alford on a fade and high-pointing the football for six. If his hamstring doesn’t act up, Beckham should be an exciting weapon as a rookie, if not necessarily a no. 1 receiver.

13. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
Defensive Snaps: 106
Path to Playing Time: A Rams lead

If you told Rams fans before the season that Donald would lead the team in sacks after four games, they probably would have been really excited. Unfortunately, St. Louis stunningly has just one sack, and it belongs to Donald, who took down Josh McCown in Week 2. Donald was supposed to be an athletic freak who would provide a devastating interior pass rush option next to Robert Quinn and Chris Long, but Long has been out since Week 1, Quinn has been a serious disappointment (with just two quarterback hits in four games), and Donald has played just 42.7 percent of the defensive snaps.

Donald’s limited role isn’t as egregious as that of Robinson — the Rams have a pair of talented young defensive tackles splitting time with Donald in Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford — and it seems likely that St. Louis will give Donald more reps in games when they’re ahead and pinning their ears back to rush the passer. They’ll hope to get their pass rush kick-started this week against the 49ers, who have had one of the worst-looking offensive lines in football this season as far as protecting the pass.

22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Browns
Offensive Snaps: 5
Path to Playing Time: Turn Brian Hoyer back into a pumpkin

More opponents have made the “Money Manziel” hand signal on the field than Johnny Manziel has on his own this year. Through five games, Manziel’s most notable NFL action has been a long catch on a trick play that was called back for an illegal shift; it shouldn’t have counted regardless, with Manziel illegally starting too close to the sideline within the Browns’ bench area.

The problem has been that the Browns really haven’t had any need for Manziel. Kyle Shanahan’s unit is fourth in offensive DVOA, with Brian Hoyer completing 62.1 percent of his passes, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt, and throwing six touchdowns against just one interception. Hoyer is not playing like a superstar, but he’s made smart decisions and led the Browns on two comebacks, including last week’s from 25 points down.

And with a dominant Cleveland offensive line helping spring the trio of Ben Tate, Terrance West, and Isaiah Crowell for an average of 4.9 yards per carry, there really hasn’t even been a need for a Manziel package of plays to kick-start the rushing attack. Money Manziel will eventually get his chance, as the Browns didn’t draft him in the first round to get a backup. At the moment, though, the Cleveland offense is far from broke.

23. Dee Ford, LB, Chiefs
Defensive Snaps: 32
Path to Playing Time: Locate the football

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Not yet, no. 55.

24. Darqueze Dennard, DB, Bengals
Defensive Snaps: 16
Path to Playing Time: Injuries to the players in front of him

Nobody places more of an emphasis on depth in the defensive backfield than Cincinnati, which already has a former first-rounder riding the pine and playing special teams in Dre Kirkpatrick. Dennard missed Week 1 with a hip injury, and when he came back, the Bengals were already playing dominant pass defense. Even after getting blown out by the Patriots last week, the Bengals still have the league’s top-ranked pass defense.

Dennard is technically fourth in the cornerback depth chart behind Terence Newman, Leon Hall, and Adam Jones, but given the injury history of those three, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dennard pick up more playing time as the season goes along.

26. Marcus Smith, LB, Eagles
Defensive Snaps: 29
Path to Playing Time: Find a defined role

Buried fourth on the depth chart at outside linebacker behind Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, and Brandon Graham, it always seemed like Smith was going to struggle for regular reps as a rookie. It was surprising, then, that the Eagles gave Smith reps in practice and during the Washington game as an inside linebacker while Mychal Kendricks struggled with a calf injury.

In the long term, it still seems likely that Smith will end up as an outside linebacker; he actually spent most of his time at Louisville as a defensive end, so inside linebacker isn’t really on his résumé. With Graham in the final year of his rookie deal and Cole a likely cap casualty2 after this season, Smith’s landing point is still likely 2015.

32. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings
Offensive Snaps: 106
Path to Playing Time: Prove the anonymous scouts wrong

One of the draft’s most polarizing players, Bridgewater stepped into the Minnesota lineup for an injured Matt Cassel and looked unflappable before leaving his first career start with an ankle injury.

Those first 106 snaps gave credence to the arguments on either side of the Bridgewater debate. Bridgewater backers saw a quarterback with poise, pocket presence, and the ability to look past a pass rush to make accurate throws downfield. The concerns about Bridgewater’s arm strength from his lackluster pro day look overblown, but worries about his frailty and ability to hold up with a small frame also seem valid. Bridgewater’s ankle injury came while scrambling near the goal line and cost him Thursday night’s game against the Packers, which yielded a disastrous performance from Christian Ponder.

As with everyone in the first round of this 2014 draft class, there’s still years of development time for Bridgewater to come. Some of that will come in practice, but for guys like Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, the meaningful reps will need to come on the field. Here’s a look at how frequently each first-round pick has suited up on his respective side of the football through five weeks:

Filed Under: NFL, Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans, Greg Robinson, St. Louis Rams, Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns, Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions, Taylor Lewan, Tennessee Titans, Odell Beckham, New York Giants, Aaron Donald, Johnny Manziel, Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs, Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati Bengals, Marcus Smith, Philadelphia Eagles, Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell