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Ten NFL Rookie Stories That Should Serve as Cautionary Tales

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IJanuary 8, 2017

Ten NFL Rookie Stories That Should Serve as Cautionary Tales

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    The New York Giants return to defend their title.

    The New Orleans Saints attempt to deal with the post-Bounty Gate suspensions.

    The New England Patriots look to avenge another Super Bowl defeat.

    These are just a few of the big headlines surrounding the upcoming NFL season.

    Trailing right behind that collection of team-wide plot lines to keep an eye on is the future of this year's incoming rookie class.

    Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon, Ryan Tannehill, etc. will all be watched with great interest this year. 

    Every rookie class has it's share of successes and dunces, and while it will probably take a while to determine the former, the latter almost always seems to crop up instantly, either for on- or off-the-field reasons. 

    So, every one of the 300-some rookies coming into camp this year should view with great interest the plights of these 10 former rookies. 

No. 10: Perrish Cox, CB, Denver Broncos

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    Drafted: fifth round, 2010

    The bulk of this list contains "cautionary tales" related to off-the-field and legal problems. So, we'll start with one of the most recent of these cases.

    No matter what, the incoming rookie class always features a few guys with what is now commonly referred to as either "character issues" or "baggage." Usually, those issues don't stop a player from being drafted reasonably high, but it does often mean that they are under the microscope (for their behavior) more than their colleagues. 

    So, players coming into the league with a strike already against them (like Mike Adams, Janoris Jenkins, and Bruce Irvin) should be extra vigilant about what they do off the field so as not to follow the example Perrish Cox set. 

    As a senior at Oklahoma State, Cox was arrested for driving with a suspended license. Later that season, he was suspended from the Cotton Bowl for violating team rules. 

    Then, once he became a pro, he found himself in even hotter water when he was arrested for two counts of sexual assault. He was later exonerated and found a new home with the 49ers, but the cautionary tale here is this:

    When you already have a history of run-ins with the law, your team, the press and your fans are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt. 

    Even if you're ultimately proven to be not guilty, which Cox was, a team is much more likely to cut ties with you like the Broncos did. 

No. 9: Todd Marinovich, QB, Los Angeles Raiders

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    Drafted: first round, 1991

    Although Marinovich's substance abuse issues are the most infamous element to his fall from grace that ultimately earned him a spot on most people's all-time "bust" lists, that's not the the reason he's on this list.

    Remember, he was never reported to have off-the-field problems as a rookie in 1991. Before and after, yes, but not during the 1991 season. 

    No, instead, the reason he's a cautionary tale as a rookie is for what took place in one week in December of that season.

    In the Raiders regular season finale against Kansas City—his NFL debut—Marinovich was magnificent, completing 23 of 40 attempts for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a close loss. 

    That day he looked like a steal as a late first rounder and every bit the college superstar he was at USC. 

    But just six days later, in a rematch with the Chiefs in the Wild Card round, Marinovich was awful, throwing four picks as the Raiders failed to score a touchdown in a 10-6 loss.

    Marinovich proved that rookie success can be fleeting and that NFL defenses have a way of adjusting and instantly finding a rookie's weaknesses. 

No. 8: Duane Thomas, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Drafted: first round, 1970

    Although, for a number of reasons, the NFL of the early 1970s barely resembles the NFL of today, there is one consistency: holdouts. 

    Young superstars who aren't happy with their rookie contracts often hold out to be paid what they think they're worth—look at DeSean Jackson last year. Despite being one of the game's best play makers, he wasn't even making $1 million per season, and he wasn't happy about it.

    That situation resolved itself quickly, and Jackson ultimately got a new deal—presumably, no harm, no foul.

    But the next youngster may not be so lucky.

    Duane Thomas wasn't.

    As a rookie, Thomas was one of the NFL's up-and-coming stars. He led the NFL in yards per carry and had two blistering playoff performances (57 carries, 278 yards in wins over San Francisco and Detroit) as the Cowboys reached the Super Bowl. 

    But he complained all off-season about his contract, and although he received his wish of being dealt later that summer, prior to the 1971 season, it was eventually voided by the commissioner, and he was sent back to Dallas.

    Heading back to that locker room filled with veterans who had been around a lot longer than him and who only cared about winning that elusive Super Bowl must have been difficult, especially after he had bashed the Cowboys organization as "dishonest and racist."  

    Thomas may have just been searching for what he felt was fair and reasonable in terms of money—and considering how great he played as a rookie, maybe he was justified in his complaints—but rookies have it hard enough in NFL locker rooms without being so outspoken and public in their financial demands. 

No. 7: Maurice Clarett, RB, Denver Broncos

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    Drafted: third round, 2005

    We all know that Maurice Clarett is a cautionary tale for several reasons, namely his run-ins with the law and his decision to challenge the NFL's rules against freshman leaving for the NFL.

    But the reason he's on this list is a bit simpler.

    After all the problems he had with the league and the law, after all those people saying he would be lucky to be drafted at all and after landing in arguably the best setup possible for a running back (Mike Shanahan's zone scheme that routinely turned "nobody's" into 1,000-yard rushers), he had an obligation to take advantage of all those free passes and strokes of good fortune.

    But he didn't. He came into camp overweight and reportedly had a few "incidents with coaches."

    There are several rookies out there with similar (although maybe not as high profile) baggage as Clarett's when he came into the NFL. Unlike Clarett, they should know that when given a second (or maybe third, fourth, or fifth) chance, they should value it. 

No. 6: Pacman Jones, CB, Tennessee Titans

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    Drafted: first round, 2005

    Similar to Clarett, this selection is pretty obvious. 

    No one doubted Pacman's athleticism or potential as an NFL star. That's why the Titans showed little reservation in selecting him sixth overall in 2005, making him the first defensive player drafted that year.

    But, as they feared, he couldn't stay out of trouble.

    Prior to playing in a single game with Tennessee, he was arrested in July 2005 for assault and vandalism, and he put his probation status (from incidents from his time as a student at West Virginia) at risk twice more later in the season, once in September and again in October.

    Clearly, Jones' troubles escalated later on (the Las Vegas shooting in 2007), but long before that, he was already a cautionary tale for what all rookies—both those with troubled pasts and those without—should strive to avoid.  

No. 5: Brian Bosworth, LB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Drafted: supplemental draft, 1987

    Bosworth is a cautionary tale because of his abrasive and obnoxious personality more than for drug use, arrests or anything really that egregious. 

    Sure, he had a great career at Oklahoma, but steroid use and the subsequent punishment  took some of the luster off his legacy.

    So, when he turned pro, maybe talking about himself like he was the next Dick Butkus wasn't such a bright idea.

    Not only did he openly tell teams not to select him in the supplemental draft (so that he could be a free agent and choose to play in Los Angeles or New York, like he wanted), but he continued to self promote and even threatened to take late shots at John Elway prior to his NFL debut against the Broncos. Denver crushed Seattle in that game; Elway threw four touchdowns.

    Later that year, he turned his blabber mouthing on Bo Jackson, prior to the Seahawks-Raiders Monday Night game in Week 11. The Boz said that he and the Seattle defense would bottle up Bo. Nope. 

    Jackson scored three touchdowns, ran for 221 yards, including a 91-yarder and one from the goal line where he ran Bosworth over to reach the end zone.

    Veterans who back it up can talk trash. Rookies who can't back it up shouldn't. 

No. 4: Ryan Leaf, QB, San Diego Chargers

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    Drafted: first round, 1998

    To make a long story short, Ryan Leaf did everything wrong as a rookie. As early as his introductory press conference when he (according to one reporter) showed up "after an all-nighter in Vegas), he was painting a bull's-eye on his back. 

    Despite some decent play in his first two games (close wins for the previously awful Chargers), the bottom quickly fell out. In Weeks 3 and 4, he threw a combined six picks and, in a loss to the Chiefs, he went 1-for-15 throwing the ball.

    Then, the infamous blow-up ("Knock it off!) with beat writer Jay Posner, followed by a disingenuous, almost mocking apology showed that he was destined to fail in San Diego. So too was the fact that he was seemingly the only San Diego Charger (ever) who didn't get along with Junior Seau.

    Much like The Boz, Leaf is a cautionary rookie tale not because of any off-the-field legal incident, but for embodying the high-draft pick, entitled ego that many rookies are perceived to bring in. 

No. 3: Gabriel Rivera, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Drafted: first round, 1983

    One of the truly sad, tragic and oft-forgotten stories in NFL history, Señor Sack, as Rivera was known, was a high draft pick of the Steelers in 1983.

    There was so much promise surrounding the Texas Tech defensive tackle (presumed to be the team's next Mean Joe Greene) that the Steelers actually passed up drafting local hero Dan Marino with their 21st overall selection. 

    But six games into his rookie season, while reportedly driving drunk, he got into a car accident and sustained several serious injuries. He was permanently paralyzed.

    The recently named College Football Hall of Famer would never play again. 

No. 2: Dimitrius Underwood, DE, Minnesota Vikings

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    Drafted: first round, 1999

    Underwood had serious (undiagnosed at the time) mental issues that caused erratic and destructive behavior even before his rookie season commenced. 

    His reported struggles with bi-polar disorder didn't completely ruin his career (he continued to play 19 games with the Cowboys), but he couldn't live up to his promise as a first round pick. 

    Much like Gabe Rivera, Underwood's tale is a cautionary one that applies not just to rookies, but to all NFL players, especially today, where several NFL stars have committed suicide after struggling with psychological issues that may or may not have been related to concussions.

    Still, you've got to think that because Underwood and Rivera were rookies at the time of their tragedies, that would hit closer to home for today's rookies. If you're looking to tell a cautionary tale, the best way to reach someone is by sharing a story that speaks directly to the listener.

    Maybe none of the 2012 NFL rookies have psychological issues or will ever get into a drunk driving accident. But, if nothing else, when they hear about Underwood and Rivera, maybe they'll realize that no professional athlete is invincible. 

No. 1: Art Schlichter, QB, Baltimore Colts

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    Drafted: first round, 1982

    Again, as was the case with the previous two slides, Schlichter's sad and cautionary tale isn't necessarily rookie-specific. It's also not just because Schlichter was known to be addicted to gambling long before Baltimore spent the fourth overall selection on the Ohio State product; it's not like becoming an NFL player turned him into a gambling addict. 

    But Schlichter's case does speak to a larger issue.

    The moment he joined the NFL, Schlichter was given boatloads of money with which he could do whatever he wanted. He chose to feed his addiction with it. Just a few months into his rookie season, he reportedly bet-away his entire $350,000 rookie signing bonus.

    Not only did gambling cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, it ultimately cost him his career as well. He was banned from the league for the 1983 season, and despite some brief stints with other teams, no one was really willing to commit to a player with that type of baggage. 

    Even if gambling isn't their vice, many rookies are going to be susceptible to similar temptations. Give any 22-year old six, seven, or even eight figures and it gives them ample chances to make bad decisions. 

    Schlichter is proof that that vulnerability can ruin a very promising career, even before it really gets started. 

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