Devin Bush has heard it his entire life. He’s undersized. He’s too small. He’s not big enough to be a dominant football player.
Bush, the Steelers‘ first-round pick out of Michigan, hasn’t let his doubters deter him. Instead, the 5-foot-11, 234-pound inside linebacker is letting those doubters fuel his fire. Bush is also out to prove that Pittsburgh knew what they were doing when they traded two draft picks to move up 10 spots to land him with the 10th overall pick in the draft. The last time the Steelers traded up in the first round to draft a defender? In 2003, when they nabbed future Hall of Fame safety, Troy Polamalu. No pressure there.
Bush, who alluded to his doubters when he recently launched his own clothing line (its unofficial title is Undersized, appropriately enough), is off to a strong start in Pittsburgh. In spring practices, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year was calling plays for the Steelers’ defense, receiving first-team reps ahead of veteran free agent acquisition, Mark Barron. During the early portions of training camp, he was excelling in pass coverage, covering backs and receivers on intermediate routes and routinely coming up on the winning side of the matchup.
While he has the full confidence of his teammates, Bush is still carrying a chip on his shoulder heading into his rookie season. And while he is hoping to do many of the same things that Ryan Shazier did during his two Pro Bowl seasons in Pittsburgh, Bush is also trying to make his own mark on a team rich in tradition at the linebacker position.
“Every day I just go out there and treat it as football and have fun with it,” Bush said during the spring, per 105.9 the X. “I’m not trying to overthink my position and what’s expected of me. I’ve kinda gone into it with an open mind. I don’t try to add any more pressure than I already have with just learning.”
Bush, part of the new breed of athletic inside linebackers, said that his youth experience as a running back and as a cornerback will benefit him at the next level.
“The running back part, just being able to have a vision. See the field and make explosive cuts and recognize the plays shape before it happens,” he said. “At cornerback, it’s having sound feet, technique and being able to turn your hips and run. That’s a lot of things I have to do at the linebacker position. It just compliments a lot of the things I have to do now.”
Is there any part of him that’s worried that his size will hold him back at the next level?
“Nah, I don’t think [his size] is a knock on me nor do I think it’s a minus on me,” Bush said. “I kinda use my height and how I’m built to my advantage. I’m not a huge target, nor am I a big body to hit. So I can get up under taller guys and guys who are longer than me.”
Bush is aware that his success will largely be measured by how well the Steelers do in 2019. After missing the postseason last season after failing to adequately address the loss of Shazier, a second consecutive non-playoff season in 2019 would be considered unacceptable in a town that prides itself on the success of their professional sports teams.
“Win as many games as possible,” Bush said of his goal for the upcoming season. “Get to the playoffs, and handle business from there.”
Bush is one of several rookies who will be under pressure to step up and make an immediate impact. Here are a few others you should keep your eyes on during the preseason.
Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf
Metcalf, a rookie receiver who was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, has no questions with regard to his size. A chiseled, athletic playmaker at 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, Metcalf’s size, speed (he was clocked at a 4.33 in the 40-yard-dash prior to the draft) and a knack for making highlight-reel catches in college drew loose comparisons to Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, the owner of the greatest rookie receiving season in NFL history. Many thought Metcalf would parlay all of his pre-draft hype into a first-round selection.
Instead, Metcalf found himself still available on Day 2 of the draft before Seattle snatched him up with the 64th overall pick.
Despite his clear tangibles, questions about his route-running, inconsistent hands and lack of eye-popping stats at Ole Miss led to his fall to the second round.
With Doug Baldwin no longer in Seattle, the pressure is certainly on Metcalf to make an immediate impact. Metcalf certainly appears to be up for the challenge, making several impressive catches during a recent practice that included a one-handed grab on a pass from quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson has obviously been impressed with is new target, recently stating that he believes that Metcalf has “Hall of Fame potential.”
While making those times of proclamations are a tad bit premature, Metcalf is looking to live up to his pre-draft hype while proving his naysayers wrong in the process.
“You know, I was a nobody at one point in my life,” Metcalf said following a recent practice, per the Seattle Times. “So I’ve just got to keep that same mentality.”
Jets edge rusher Jachai Polite
Polite, another rookie who saw his stock fall during draft weekend, hasn’t been as fortunate as Metcalf. An outside linebacker out of the University of Florida, Polite fell to the third round following a poor performance at the NFL combine.
Polite, who racked up 11 sacks, six forced fumbles and 19.5 tackles for loss during his final season with the Gators, hasn’t exactly been turning heads at Jets‘ training camp. He’s received mostly third-team reps while working through the challenges of learning an NFL playbook.
Adam Gase, who is entering his first season as the head coach in New York after three years as the head man in Miami, believes that the preseason could be Polite’s chance to truly show what he can do after a rocky 2019 so far. Some athletes are just pure performances, players that don’t time or practice well but know how to turn it on when it’s really time to go.
Gase is hoping Polite falls under that category of athletes.
“Getting into real games for him is going to be the thing that, where I think he’ll show up a lot,” Gase said, per the New York Post. “We’ll notice him after preseason games where he’ll be that guy that gets a sack or a couple sacks in a preseason game and I think that’s what he needs. That’s only going to help his confidence.”
It’s hard not to mention the parallels between Polite and another former Florida pass rusher, Javon Kearse. Nicknamed “The Freak” for his innate ability to rush the passer while wreaking havoc on opposing offense, Kearse earned All-Pro honors as a rookie in 1999 while helping the Titans advance to the Super Bowl.
While having a season like Kearse did 20 years is the dream, Polite is staying focused on what he needs to do on a day-to-day basis.
“I’m just working on learning the plays,” he said from Jets’ training camp, per the Post, “and then time will tell in that part.”
Browns linebacker Mack Wilson
Wilson, an inside linebacker out of Alabama, plummeted ever further in this draft. Initially projected as the third-best inside linebacker in the draft (behind Bush and Devin White, who was selected by Tampa Bay with the fifth overall pick), Wilson fell to the fifth round before he was picked up by Cleveland with the 155th pick.
Why did Wilson fall? Despite his successful run at Alabama, many detractors questioned Wilson’s ability to play through contact, his ability to make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, and his struggles when it comes to shedding blocks.
There were also questions about Wilson’s football IQ and his overall maturity, both on and off the field. All of these questions, however, don’t appear to be coming to fruition at Browns training camp.
While the news regarding him has been somewhat slow, ESPN’s Tony Grossi recently offered a positive update on Wilson from Browns’ training camp.
“Frankly, Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert look like lame-duck starters,” Grossi wrote. “It’s just a matter of time before Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson take over. It may be a year, or a month into the season. The conversion to a 4-2-5 base alignment appears to be in full swing.”
This may be true, but Wilson will need a solid preseason to increase his odds of becoming a starter sooner rather than later.
Browns corner Greedy Williams
The Browns have not one but two rookies who fell in the draft after getting first-round pub. The other is Andreaz “Greedy” Williams, a 6-foot-2, 182-pound cornerback who picked off eight passes while breaking up 19 more during his last two seasons at LSU. Williams ultimately went unpicked through the first round before falling to Cleveland with the 46th overall pick.
Williams’ decline in the draft is simple: he’s not known as being a good, or willing, tackler. That’s a stigma he will have to shed this preseason in order to earn a starting job alongside Pro Bowl corner Denzel Ward.
Williams, who saw first-team reps during Wednesday’s practice, received praise from Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who said that he hasn’t necessarily been having his way when matched up against Williams.
“I know OBJ,” Williams said when asked about guarding Beckham, per the NFL Network. “He’s a spectacular catcher. He’s fast. So just knowing your receivers, and knowing who you’re going against, I try to stay on top of him as much as I can. Just try to deny him the ball. He’s a great receiver. It’s difficult sometimes, but I’m just trying to hold my own against him.”
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones
While Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins has received his fair share of doubters, no rookie in this year’s draft has received more flack than Daniel Jones. Jones, the former Duke signal-caller and sixth overall pick, has been ripped and ridiculed ever since his name was announced during the draft in Nashville. And his recent play at Giants camp hasn’t helped matters, either.
After already enduring several uninspiring practices, Jones struggled again during a midweek Giants practice during the second week of camp. While his end-zone interception to fellow rookie Corey Ballentine stood out most, Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News described another play that has symbolized Jones’ early struggles.
“There was also a play when Jones had Russell in one-on-one coverage with no safety help to the right side,” Jones wrote, “but [Jones] threw incomplete up the left seam to tight end Scott Simonson, and it was batted down by strong safety Michael Thomas.”
These are some of the issues brought up before and after the Giants’ selection of Jones. While his athleticism, intermediate accuracy and early recognition of deep ball opportunities are among his strengths, Jones has received criticism for his loss ball handling in the face of pressure, his willingness to throw up too many low percentage passes, and his average release speed. Jones has also been stripped of his play-action/RPO happy scheme that Duke heavily employed during his time in Durham.
Jones does have time on his side. He’s not expected to start this season and, with Eli Manning enjoying a strong start to camp, Jones, pending an injury to Manning, will get a chance to watch before being thrown into the fire.
New York GM Dave Gettleman, however, may be running out of time. For the rookie’s sake as well as Gettleman’s, Jones needs a strong preseason to restore hope to a Giants fan base that is in desperate need of some.
“You’re going to evaluate him over time,” Gettleman recently said of his young quarterback, per News Day. “I don’t believe in taking temperatures every day. … It happens over time is what you’re looking for. We’ll evaluate it, probably once a week, we’ll have personnel meetings. But I don’t believe in every day, Roman Colosseum thumb up or thumb down, thumb sideways.”