How Good NFL Rookies Go Bad

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 1, 2013

JACKSONVILLE, FL-  DECEMBER 12:  Wide receiver Reggie Williams #11 of the Jacksonville Jaguars is on the sidelines during the game against the Chicago Bears at Alltel Stadium on December 12, 2004 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jaguars won the game 22-3. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

We now know exactly what the NFL's 2013 rookie class will look like, giving us a chance to forecast who will succeed and who will fall short of expectations in their first NFL seasons.

The sad reality is just about as many rookies fail as succeed. Inevitably, some of this year's top picks will become busts. Some of those busts will have nobody to blame except themselves, but some will forever wonder if better circumstances might have helped them start their careers in a smoother fashion. 

Organizations absolutely possess the ability to ruin rookies—and often by extension, ruin careers. Sometimes, those damaged rookies recover and get their careers on track, either with their original teams or elsewhere. But sometimes, the career in question simply can't be revived. 

Let's look at why some rookies fail to live up to expectations as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again, we're not talking about the JaMarcus Russells and Aaron Maybins and Vernon Gholstons of the world. We're talking about the Jamaal Andersons. 

Examples and explanations:


A team overestimates a rookie's immediate value

While prospects are being groomed to start from the get-go at a higher rate now than ever before, there have still been indications that throwing a rookie into the lion's den right off the bat could be hazardous. If that rookie isn't ready, it could do a number on his and the team's short-term performances, as well as his psyche for years to come. 

In San Francisco, Alex Smith probably would have benefited from a full year on the sideline. He was the first overall pick in 2005, but he struggled so badly in nine starts as a rookie that playing did more harm than good. Meanwhile, in Green Bay, fellow first-round quarterback Aaron Rodgers was biding his time, holding a clipboard while getting acclimated for three whole years. 

Joey Harrington and Mark Sanchez also qualify here. But there are examples that complicate things. For example, Eli Manning was terrible in his 2004 rookie campaign, but he kept progressing from that point forward. Now, he's a two-time Super Bowl MVP.

Rookie non-quarterbacks who had too much on their plates too early: Aaron Curry, who could have used some time to adjust in Seattle in 2009; and Reggie Williams, who had just 27 catches in 15 starts with the Jaguars in '04. 

Potential 2013 victims: Lane Johnson (Eagles), Ziggy Ansah (Lions), Dee Milliner (Jets), E.J. Manuel (Bills)

Johnson is considered to be pretty raw still, while Ansah is boom-or-bust. Milliner will have a lot of pressure as an underclassman replacing Darrelle Revis, and Manuel was the only quarterback taken in Round 1. 


A team miscasts a rookie

Three contemporary examples of top 10 picks being drafted for the wrong purposes: Robert Gallery in Oakland in 2004, Antrel Rolle in Arizona in 2005 and Reggie Bush in New Orleans in 2006. 

Gallery was never cut out to be an elite left tackle, but he became a solid guard. Bush wasn't supposed to be a featured back, but he's still a valuable contributor if utilized properly. Rolle was drafted as a cornerback. Injuries held him back as a rookie anyway, but he was looking like a bust until Ken Whisenhunt came in and moved him to safety. 

Potential 2013 victims: Justin Pugh (Giants)

Some experts think Pugh lacks the wingspan to play tackle and would be better off as an interior offensive lineman, but early indications are the Giants are going to start him out at right tackle. 


A team doesn't have the staff and/or personnel to support a rookie

This comes down to quite literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

How was David Carr's career ever supposed to get on the right track when he was sacked a record 76 times with the expansion Texans in 2002? He simply didn't have the pass protection or the receivers right off the bat. 

I think rookie receivers are victimized by personnel-related downfalls the most, since their production is tied to having a decent quarterback and decent fellow receivers.

That's a big reason why 2003 first-round pick Bryant Johnson never made it in Arizona. As a rookie, he was catching passes from Jeff Blake and Josh McCown. Anquan Boldin benefited that year from being a safety valve and a slot option, but Johnson was drawing the tough coverage, and his quarterback couldn't get him the ball. And you could argue that Michael Floyd suffered from the same problem this past year with the Cardinals and their terrible offense. 

And then there are guys who were drafted by teams that had a dangerous combination of bad coaching and a bad roster.

For example, Ted Ginn Jr. was drafted ninth overall by the Dolphins in 2007. As a rookie, he was stuck on a 1-15 team coached by Cam Cameron (who was obviously on his way out), taking throws from Cleo Lemon, Trent Green and John Beck. Ginn hasn't done a whole lot since in San Francisco, but can you blame the guy for only putting up 420 yards and scoring two touchdowns in his rookie season?

That very same year, Jamaal Anderson was drafted one spot ahead of Ginn by the Falcons. But that was the infamous Bobby Petrino season in Atlanta, and the Falcons went 4-12. Anderson was useless despite starting all 16 games for a team that had just 25 total sacks. 

One year later, Chris Long was drafted second overall by the Rams. But Scott Linehan was fired one month into a two-win season for a St. Louis team that had the second-worst defense in the NFL. Long had only four sacks in 16 starts, but was that his fault?

Potential 2013 victims: D.J. Hayden (Raiders), Darius Slay (Lions), Ziggy Ansah (Lions), Dee Milliner (Jets)

Not intending to pick on cornerbacks, the Lions or Ansah and Milliner in particular, but the Raiders, Lions and Jets aren't exactly looking like contenders this year, and all three of those defenses were pretty weak in 2012. 


So essentially, I've listed seven 2013 rookies who could fall victim to circumstances beyond their control and have poor years. But keep in mind that the vast majority of early draft picks don't pan out because they don't have the skill or work ethic, not because they have bad luck. And consider, too, that dozens of rookies succeed every year despite bad coaches, bad teammates and bad timing.