It's not going to be a kind year for rookies.
With the NFL camp cycle and preseason likely extremely limited, if not entirely vacated, rookies will enter Week 1 of the NFL regular season as unprepared as ever before. Of course, teams knew that things were going to be difficult when they drafted these players, but they didn't know it was going to be like this when they first created their draft needs.
Teams who needed rookie starters still need those rookie starters, even if their up against the difficult circumstances. The pressure is on particularly for three later picks in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft who will undoubtedly be starting in Week 1 and fill positions that desperately need high-caliber play.
Jeff Gladney, CB, Minnesota Vikings
The top three cornerbacks for the Vikings last year, in terms of snaps played, were Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander; all of whom will be playing for different teams in 2020. With Rhodes in Indianapolis and Waynes and Alexander together in Cincinnati, Mike Hughes returns as one starting corner at a yet undetermined alignment — slot or outside — and the rest of the cornerback depth chart is up for grabs.
Kris Boyd, a 2019 late-round pick, and undrafted free agent Holton Hill are the primary incumbent competition. In the draft, Minnesota added Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand. Since Gladney was the first-round selection, the onus is immediately on him to win a starting job; but if there is an abbreviated camp and preseason process, Gladney won't have to battle for a spot so much as he'll be handed one.
Immediately, Gladney will face WR2s, potentially grabbing WR1s by alignment in the event that Hughes doesn't travel or plays primarily in the slot. The encouraging news is that Gladney faced a murderers row of wide receivers in his final season at TCU with aplomb and handled a complex coverage system. While Gladney's technique could use some time in the NFL, from a mentality and preparation perspective, he's pro-ready.
The Vikings invest heavily and often in corners, so any defensive back carries the expectation of becoming a solid pro. For Gladney, the need has never been direr, as he steps into a massive position of need in a division littered with talented receivers.
Jalen Reagor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
It was no secret the Eagles were going to grab a receiver in the early rounds of the draft; it was a direct result of their desperate need. No team had worse receiver play last season than the Eagles, and it stunted their offense. They thirsted for big plays and had few plus yards-after-catch threats who could create more than the quarterback offered them.
Enter Jalen Reagor, who has the high-pressure honor of being the fourth receiver selected after the consensus Big 3; and especially in the eyes of Philadelphia fans, the receiver who was selected instead of future Minnesota pass-catcher Justin Jefferson. Reagor's best collegiate season was his first year, and his tail off in production was attributed largely to poor quarterback play. Reagor doesn't need time to come along; he'll contribute and he'll do it this year.
With Nelson Agholor gone and Alshon Jeffery rumored to be on the trade block, there's a chance that the leading target getter is Greg Ward Jr., whose 40 targets came across the final six weeks of the season. With 2019 second-round pick J.J. Arcega-Whiteside proving a huge disappointment in Year 1, there's even more pressure for Reagor to produce so that bad drafting doesn't again handcuff the Eagles’ offense.
As long as Reagor puts out some juicy big plays to fill out his season-long stats, he'll have delivered on his capital for Year 1. But there's also a need for him to become an eight target/game player since such a high-volume option doesn't exist in Philadelphia’s projected receiving corps.
A.J. Terrell, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Quick: Name the Falcons' starting cornerbacks. It's not easy to get both.
There’s 2018 second-round selection, Isaiah Oliver, who hasn't been a starting-caliber player on the outside to this point in his career and 2019 fourth-round pick Kendall Sheffield as the top-two corners entering the season before A.J. Terrell was added.
This pick will go down as one of the most heavily scrutinized. While Atlanta likely didn't have much of a trade back down the order available — Las Vegas was reportedly looking at Terrell with its No. 19 pick — few had Terrell graded as the third-best corner in this class; fewer had him as a top-16 grade or value. This was a reach relative to consensus, even though it filled a position of need.
Terrell now, much like Gladney, will be tasked with immediately starting on the outside regardless of any battle in training camp. The Falcons need Terrell to be able to handle WR1s in the absolute worst division in the world to play corner — at least he misses Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley — otherwise, they'll watch Oliver get regularly toasted on the outside.
Asking Terrell to be Desmond Trufant-esque in Year 1 isn't fair, even with Trufant's deteriorating play, but the Falcons need him to be that and more, as quickly as possible, if they're not going to endure the same coverage issues they did last season.