Who Are the NFL's Biggest Underachievers?

Luke Easterling@@LukeEasterlingCorrespondent IJuly 4, 2014

Who Are the NFL's Biggest Underachievers?

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    When William Shakespeare wrote, "Oft expectation fails, and most oft there, where most it promises," he could have been talking about any number of would-be NFL stars.

    Every year, scouts get enamored with elite measureables and physical traits that certain prospects bring to the table.  Some rookies deliver on their lofty potential, while many others fail to live up to the high expectations. 

    There are plenty of NFL players who are still waiting to break out and prove that they're not worthy of the dreaded "bust" label.

    Who still has time to right the ship and have a productive career?  Who is running out of sand in the hourglass?  Who will just be another in a long list of gifted athletes who simply couldn't translate to the NFL game?  Let's take a look.

    *List only includes players who are currently on an NFL roster.

Colts RB Trent Richardson

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    The paradigm of running backs no longer being worth a high first-round pick is growing, and Trent Richardson could easily be the poster child.

    After a dominant career at Alabama, Richardson was chosen third overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2012 after the team moved up one spot to secure him. 

    Though Richardson rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, Richardson averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and put the ball on the ground three times.  After averaging just 3.4 yards per carry over the first two games of last season, the Browns traded Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

    Things didn't improve for Richardson in Indianapolis.  Over the final 14 games of the 2013 season, Richardson rushed for just 458 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 2.9 yards per carry and fumbling twice.

    Two seasons is obviously a small sample size, and Richardson will still be just 23 years old when the 2014 season kicks off.  He's still got plenty of time to turn the tide and live up to the high expectations of a top-five draft pick, and the Colts still have plenty of confidence in him, per Jim Trotter of ESPN (via Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com. 

    He should improve as he continues to feel more confident in his new surroundings, and Andrew Luck's presence should help keep defenses honest, allowing Richardson every chance to be productive.

Chiefs WR A.J. Jenkins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The San Francisco 49ers raised a few eyebrows when they selected A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.  The eyes under those brows are still waiting to see anything that resembles a first-round pick.

    Thought by many to be a mid-round talent, Jenkins parlayed an impressive 4.39-second 40-yard dash into a late rise up the draft board.  But as a rookie, Jenkins appeared in just three games for the 49ers and didn't register a single reception.  Following that season, the Illinois product was unceremoniously dealt to the Kansas City Chiefs for another underachieving receiver in Jon Baldwin.

    Jenkins dressed for all 16 games last season in Kansas City, but he only made one start, managing just eight receptions for 130 yards and no touchdowns. 

    Jenkins only has two NFL seasons under his belt, so there's still plenty of time for him to get his NFL career on track.  But if he doesn't start soon, he could easily be just another cautionary tale in a long list of first-round busts.

Cardinals LB Ernie Sims

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    With his first draft pick as head coach of the Detroit Lions, Rod Marinelli likely saw the chance to grab the second coming of another former Florida State linebacker whom he had seen dominate for years in Tampa Bay.

    But Ernie Sims never came anywhere close to being Derrick Brooks for the Lions after being chosen as the ninth overall pick in 2006.  Similarly undersized with great athleticism, Sims was never the playmaker he was expected to be as a top-10 selection. 

    Though he racked up plenty of tackles during his tenure in Detroit, he didn't create turnovers or big plays with any regularity, posting just 2.5 sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles in four seasons with the Lions.

    Since departing Detroit, Sims has made stops with the Philadelphia Eagles, Colts and Dallas Cowboys over the past four seasons before signing this offseason with the Arizona Cardinals.

    After making 71 starts over his first five seasons, Sims has started just 16 games over the past three years.  The big plays still aren't there, as he currently sits on 5.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and that lone interception for his career.  He's become nothing more than a role player at this point, and with 2014 being his ninth NFL season, it's unlikely that will ever change.

Raiders RB Darren McFadden

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    Another frustrating example of rare athletic ability being marred by injury and inconsistency, Darren McFadden has struggled to give the Oakland Raiders an equal return on the investment they made with the fourth overall selection in 2008.

    McFadden ran all over the SEC during his three years at Arkansas, joining Ricky Williams as the only players to win the Doak Walker Award twice as the nation's best running back.  McFadden also finished as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in back-to-back seasons.

    McFadden has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, which has kept him from being able to reach his full potential.  His best season came in 2010 when he rushed for 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns, while adding 507 yards on 47 catches and three touchdowns through the air.

    Unfortunately, in the other five seasons, McFadden has failed to rush for more than 707 yards, and he's yet to stay on the field for a full 16-game season.  In 2013 alone, he missed time due to injuries to both his ankle and hamstring.

    McFadden has shown flashes of his elite natural talent, but they've been too few and far between, and his durability issues haven't helped.  He's still south of the dreaded age of 30 for running backs, but he'll have to prove he can stay on the field consistently if he wants to prove he wasn't a draft-pick bust.

Cardinals WR Ted Ginn Jr.

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    Miami fans reacted infamously when their team selected Ted Ginn Jr. with the ninth overall selection in the 2007 NFL draft, booing mercilessly. 

    But, though Brady Quinn—the player many Miami Dolphins fans wanted instead—hasn't panned out either, it doesn't dull the sting of missing out on a top-10 pick. 

    Ginn had his share of highlight-reel moments at Ohio State, and though his thin frame was a concern for many at the next level, his explosiveness was too much for the Dolphins to pass up.  But over his three years spent in Miami, neither the big plays nor the consistency as a receiver were frequent enough to warrant such a high selection.

    That theme has continued for Ginn throughout his career in the NFL.  Aside from his 2008 campaign—56 catches for 790 yards—Ginn has failed to top 40 catches or 600 yards receiving during his seven-year tenure in the league.  His five touchdown catches in Carolina last season were one less than he'd tallied in his previous six years combined.

    Many will point to his value as a return specialist as a plus, but even with three kick returns and three punt returns for touchdowns in his career, he simply hasn't been the type of playmaker worthy of a top-10 draft pick.

    Ginn signed with the Cardinals this offseason, which will be his third different stop in as many seasons.  He still has value as a slot receiver and return specialist, but that has been and will continue to be his ceiling, which is far less than the ninth overall pick should have garnered.

Steelers WR Darrius Heyward-Bey

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Known for valuing athleticism and gaudy workout numbers during Al Davis' tenure overseeing personnel, the Raiders made Darrius Heyward-Bey the first receiver off the board in the 2009 NFL draft.

    Despite pedestrian production while at Maryland and the fact that most believed Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree was the draft's best pass-catcher, Oakland took Heyward-Bey, who posted a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the combine. 

    But the former Terrapin's rare combination of size and speed hasn't translated into a productive NFL career.  Despite making 11 starts as a rookie, Heyward-Bey caught just nine passes for 124 yards and one touchdown.  His best season came in 2011, when he tallied 975 yards on 64 catches with four touchdowns, but he has failed to top 400 yards receiving in every other year except for 2012 (606 yards).

    DHB will be with his third team in six seasons after signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason.  In addition to having breakout star Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh also signed former New Orleans Saints receiver Lance Moore in free agency, which could make it tough for Heyward-Bey to see significant targets. 

    Ben Roethlisberger is the kind of quarterback who could help Heyward-Bey reach his full potential, but he's running out of time to prove that he has in fact already done so.

Eagles OLB Brandon Graham

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    When the Philadelphia Eagles traded up 11 picks in the first round of the 2010 draft, most assumed it was for Texas safety Earl Thomas.  Instead, the pick was spent on an athletic edge-rusher in Michigan's Brandon Graham, who has yet to fulfill the expectations of being a top-15 pick.

    In four NFL seasons, Graham has managed just 11.5 sacks, despite being the first defensive end drafted in 2010.  Graham tore his ACL late in his rookie season and required microfracture surgery the following offseason.

    Weaving through scheme changes, injuries and weight fluctuations due to position changes, Graham has struggled to give the Eagles any consistent production as a pass-rusher.  In his first season under the Chip Kelly regime, Graham was on the field for just 27 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps in 2013.

    Earlier this offseason, rumors began to swirl that Graham was included in a potential trade offer to the Dolphins for last year's third overall pick, Dion Jordan. 

    Graham is still just 26 years old, so there's still hope that he can become the presence off the edge that he was drafted to be.  With this being the final year of his rookie contract, it would be the opportune time for him to prove he can still be an impact player.

Jets WR Stephen Hill

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    The New York Jets hoped they had stolen a future playmaker when they traded up four spots in the second round to draft Stephen Hill.  Entering his third NFL season, the team is still waiting on Hill to break out.

    A raw but athletic target, Hill dazzled scouts with his combination of size and speed at the combine, weighing in a 6'4", 215 pounds and running his 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds.  These traits led to comparisons to another former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket—Calvin Johnson—but Hill has yet to come anywhere close to such expectations.

    Over his first two seasons in the league, Hill has made 19 starts but only totaled 594 yards receiving on 45 catches with four touchdowns.  Two years isn't enough of a sample size to call any player a bust, but Hill hasn't taken advantage of his opportunities to show that he can consistently stretch the field at the NFL level.

    The Jets are reportedly skeptical of Hill's ability to develop into a reliable target in the future, which was likely part of the reason their 2014 draft class was riddled with pass-catchers

    General manager John Idzik drafted three wide receivers and spent a high second-rounder on a versatile, playmaking tight end in Jace Amaro.  Throw in the addition of free agent Eric Decker and Hill should be plenty nervous about his future in New York.

Honorable Mention

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    • San Francisco 49ers RB LaMichael JamesAn explosive playmaker at Oregon, the 61st overall pick in 2012 has just 184 yards rushing over his first two seasons, but he could still develop into a solid return man if he can stay healthy. 
    • San Diego Chargers OLB Larry English16th overall pick in 2009, the undersized but athletic edge-rusher has just 11 sacks in five starts over his five seasons in San Diego and is running out of time to shake the "bust" label. 
    • San Francisco 49ers WR Jon BaldwinA massive target who was the 26th overall pick in 2012 by the Chiefs but was dealt after two disappointing seasons.  He has just two touchdown catches in three seasons, but he still has plenty of time to turn it around. 
    • Tampa Bay Buccaneers DE Da'Quan BowersOnce projected as the top overall pick in 2011, his stock fell due to a knee injury, and he was considered a potential steal as the 51st overall pick.  But with only 5.5 sacks over three seasons, 2014 might be his last chance to prove he can stick.