Some players selected in the first round of the NFL draft live up to their billing, or even exceed already high expectations, right away. Marshon Lattimore and Deshaun Watson did exactly that as rookies last season. However, the norm is for players to begin at a much more modest rate as they learn their craft and continue to grow. In fact, sometimes it takes a couple seasons before a player starts to realize his potential, as we saw last season with 2015 first-rounders like Nelson Agholor and Trae Waynes making a jump as third-year veterans.
Here are five first-round picks from the 2016 draft that I expect to take a big leap forward as third-year players in 2018.
Sheldon Rankins, DT, New Orleans Saints
Rankins, the 12th pick of the 2016 draft, missed a chunk of his rookie season with a broken fibula he suffered during a preseason practice. He still managed to collect four sacks in nine games played, though. In 2017, Rankins started every game, showing good consistency and disruptiveness, but recorded very modest production with 26 total tackles and two sacks. Rankins is in position for a classic Year Three jump based upon his talent, consistency, and experience at the position. This should be the year where we see Rankins come into his own against both the run and pass. A season with 50 tackles and six or more sacks is attainable. If first-round pick Marcus Davenport, an edge rusher, can get out of the blocks quickly, that should help Rankins and the Saints' defense even more.
Laremy Tunsil, LT, Miami Dolphins
After handling starting duties at left guard in his rookie season, the 13th overall pick of the 2016 draft traveled a very bumpy road in his sophomore season as he moved to to his natural left tackle position. Tunsil was drafted to eventually be a tackle, but played guard in 2016 while Branden Albert manned the left tackle spot. After the team traded Albert last offseason, Tunsil was expected to make a smooth transition back outside, but things didn't go according to plan, as he allowed six sacks and committed 12 penalties in his 15 starts. Moving back outside and contending with explosive athletes in space was clearly more of a challenge for him than anyone anticipated. With an offseason to digest his struggles, I expect a much better performance from the talented tackle in his second year as the starting left tackle.
William Jackson III, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Jackson was on my 2016 list of rookies that were likely to be slow starters, but the arrow is pointing way up for the former 24th overall pick in 2018. After missing his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle, Jackson played in 61 percent of the Bengals' defensive snaps and finished with 13 pass breakups in 2017. He recorded only one interception, but Jackson flashed lockdown-cornerback potential. As Jackson becomes even more comfortable in 2018, I expect him to be more productive when it comes to takeaways and I think he'll be less prone to penalties (eight last season). Jackson might be ready to take over as one of the league's top young cornerbacks.
Josh Doctson, WR, Washington Redskins
Doctson, the 22nd overall pick in 2016, recorded just two catches in two games in his rookie season before being placed on injured reserve with an Achilles injury. His catch total improved to 35 last season as he started all but two games, but 35 grabs is still below his expected level of production as a former first-round selection. However, brighter days are ahead for the former TCU star. It's common for receivers to sharpen their routes and display a better feel for creating separation once they get to Year Three. Plus, Doctson's ability to win jump balls and contested catches only helps his cause. Alex Smith is the new QB in Washington, and history tells us he is less likely to target outside receivers than Kirk Cousins was during his time with the Redskins, but that's not necessarily a bad thing for Doctson. The team showed a willingness to allow Doctson to operate from the slot last season. If they do so at an increased rate this season, he should be in for a big jump in production as one of Smith's go-to targets.
Joshua Garnett, OG, San Francisco 49ers
Garnett is yet another 2016 first-round pick (28th overall selection) who has been slowed by injury. He suffered a knee injury last season in training camp and was placed on injured reserve, ending his 2017 campaign before it started. Garnett might not be a sexy pick for this list as an interior O-lineman, but I expect him to make the 49ers and their fans -- who are in desperate need of a quality guard -- very happy. He has dropped about 25 pounds, according to a video he posted to social media last month, and might be in the best shape of his life. Garnett proved to be a proficient zone-scheme blocker at Stanford and with his newfound weight loss and added quickness, he should win a starting job. He'll fit right into Kyle Shanahan's zone scheme, which will bolster the 49ers' rushing attack and help take pressure off of Jimmy Garoppolo.