Which NFL Players Are Trending Toward 'Bust' Labels in 2017?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 18, 2017

Which NFL Players Are Trending Toward 'Bust' Labels in 2017?

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    Every high-end NFL draft pick has boom potential as well as bust potential. Some are better bets than others, but nobody is immune from being a boom-or-bust proposition.

    Looking at recent draft classes, we can already identify some booms (Andrew Luck, Khalil Mack, Vic Beasley, Ezekiel Elliott) as well as some busts (Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Luke Joeckel, Dion Jordan). 

    Meanwhile, plenty of young players are trying to establish themselves as success stories or avoid becoming labelled as busts. 

    Here are 10 guys drafted in the top 15 in the last four years who risk becoming busts in 2017. 

    Oh, and Los Angeles Rams fans might want to look away. 

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Despite added support on both sides of the ball, Blake Bortles has seemingly regressed since coming into the league as a No. 3 overall pick with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014. He's completed fewer than 59 percent of his passes in all three of his NFL seasons, and the majority of his rate-based numbers plummeted in his third year. 

    The Jags have won just 11 of Bortles' 45 career starts, and he's coming off a year in which he ranked in the bottom five among qualified quarterbacks in terms of completion percentage (58.9), yards per attempt (6.25) and passer rating (78.8). 

    Pro Football Focus rated Bortles as the third-worst qualified quarterback in the league last season, and the two guys below him—Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick—are no longer employed by the teams they started for. His passer rating on throws that traveled 20-plus yards was 17.5. Seventeen point five! A total of 30 other quarterbacks attempted at least 25 such throws, and none had a rating below 45.0. 

    Year 3 is supposed to be a breakout season for talented young quarterbacks, but Bortles fell on his face. Now, if the 25-year-old can't step up with even more support in 2017, he's in jeopardy of following in the footsteps of the last Jags bust, Blaine Gabbert. 

Bills WR Sammy Watkins

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    The Buffalo Bills surrendered two 2015 draft picks (a first-rounder and a fourth-rounder) in order to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins fourth overall in 2014, and it's beginning to look as though that was a terrible move by the previous regime.

    Watkins has yet to make a Pro Bowl and has just one full season under his belt. He's missed 11 games in the last two years due to injury and is recovering from foot surgery. The Bills recently declined to pick up his fifth-year option for 2018, and Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News has doubts the team is motivated to keep him around beyond the 2017 season. 

    That shouldn't be surprising because even when healthy, he hasn't lived up to expectations. The guy has caught just 57.7 percent of the passes thrown his way the last three seasons.

    Watkins is still only 23, but if the Clemson product can't stay healthy and put up elite numbers in his fourth season, he'll likely be viewed as a bust when he hits free agency next spring. 

Rams QB Jared Goff

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    I know it's early, but 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff was such a train wreck as a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams that one more bad year will inevitably result in folks using the "B" word to describe his NFL career. 

    The stakes are higher because the Rams didn't simply spend a top pick on him. They also traded 2016 selections in the first, second and third rounds in exchange for that top pick (along with first- and third-rounders in 2017).

    That's a lot to process, but the point is the team mortgaged its future for Goff, and the Cal product hasn't come close to delivering. It took him more than half the season to break into the starting lineup, despite the fact the Rams weren't getting solid production out of stopgap starter Case Keenum and clearly weren't contenders. 

    And when he finally did get a chance, the 22-year-old lost all seven of his starts while throwing more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five). His 63.6 passer rating would have been the worst by a wide margin among qualified QBs on ESPN

    Keenum's 43.4 QBR was the worst among qualifiers, but Goff had a 22.2 mark in his seven starts. 

    Successful quarterbacks have had worse rookie seasons (see: Eli Manning, John Elway, Troy Aikman), but if Goff doesn't get his act together as soon as possible, he'll be featuring in a lot of conversations that involve the word "bust."

Rams RB Todd Gurley

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's a little less early for the Rams' top pick from 2015, Todd Gurley. And the No. 10 overall selection is trending in a bad direction after taking the NFL by storm as a rookie running back. 

    Gurley rushed for 1,106 yards despite starting just 12 games that year, finishing the season with a 4.8 yards-per-attempt average and a league-high five runs of 40-plus yards. But the yards gained on those home runs might have inflated his numbers a bit, and that wasn't sustainable in 2016. 

    Gurley had zero 40-yard runs and only two 20-yard gains as his yards-per-attempt average plummeted to 3.2 last season. That tied for second-last among 42 qualified backs, and among 25 backs who carried the ball 160-plus times, he was the only one without a 100-yard performance. 

    And no, it didn't help that the Rams had the lowest team passer rating in the NFC. But that was also the case in 2015. In fact, the passing offense finished one spot better overall in 2016 compared to its last-place finish when Gurley lit up defenses as a rookie.

    The offensive line wasn't good either—left guard Rodger Saffold was the only starter to receive strong grades at PFF—but when we take that unit out of the equation, things look even worse for Gurley. Second-level yards measure production from a team's running back between five to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Football Outsiders ranked the Rams 31st in that category and 30th in terms of open-field yards (production from a team's running back more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage). 

    Maybe it was just an off year and Gurley will return to Pro Bowl form in 2017. But if 2015 was the anomaly and opposing defenses figured him out last season, it might not be long before we view the 22-year-old Georgia product as a one-hit wonder. 

Rams OT Greg Robinson

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Some might already view 2014 No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson as a bust, since the Rams have replaced him at the left tackle position after the Auburn product took 40 penalties, surrendered 18 sacks and was consistently graded by PFF as one of the worst offensive tackles in the NFL during his first three seasons. 

    But he's only 24 years old, and he's still projected to be a starter next season for the team that drafted him. The Rams declined to pick up Robinson's fifth-year option, though, which means another poor season at a new position could spell the end for the 6'5", 332-pounder. 

    Robinson could excel with less pressure (literally and figuratively) at right tackle in a new offense in 2017. But free-agent acquisition Andrew Whitworth isn't giving up that all-important left tackle spot, and it'll still take a minor miracle for No. 73 to avoid that bust label in 2017. 

Rams WR Tavon Austin

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    That's right—we're giving you four consecutive Rams first-round picks, culminating with 2013 No. 8 overall selection Tavon Austin. The Rams haven't given up on the speedy 5'8" receiver just yet, despite the fact he's failed to catch 60 passes, accumulate 600 yards or score six touchdowns in any of his four NFL seasons. 

    In fact, ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez reported that new Rams head coach Sean McVay wants Austin to become more of a deep threat in the mold of three-time Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson, whom McVay coached in Washington. 

    That's a tall task for a short man. 

    Austin had a career-high 58 receptions for 509 yards last year, but he averaged just 8.8 yards per catch. And he pulled in only 54.7 percent of the passes thrown his way. Among the 48 NFL players who were targeted at least 100 times in 2016, Jackson ranked second with 10.1 yards per target, while Austin ranked dead last at 4.8.

    Nobody else had a yards-per-target average lower than 5.8. 

    A new system could help because he was too much of a gadget in a bad offense during the Jeff Fisher years. But it's unlikely that a new role will prevent the remarkably unproductive Austin from becoming a bust at the age of 27. 

    OK, Rams fans. I promise we're done with you guys now. 

Chiefs OT Eric Fisher

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Another bust-in-the-making drafted early by a Missouri-based team in 2013 is Eric Fisher, who was supposed to become a cornerstone left tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs but has failed to live up to the hype as a No. 1 overall pick. 

    Fisher is coming off a mediocre fourth season in which he took 10 penalties and allowed six sacks while posting a slightly negative PFF grade. That's far from ideal considering that the Chiefs signed him to a four-year, $48 million contract extension with $22 million guaranteed last summer. But that was a strange decision in the first place because the Central Michigan product was arguably worse in his first three seasons. 

    Fisher is still a serviceable 26-year-old starter with a chance to become an asset at left tackle. But the Chiefs picked him first overall four years ago, and he's yet to sniff a Pro Bowl. Unless that changes soon, he'll be on track to cement himself as a bust. 

Giants OT Ereck Flowers

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    New York Giants offensive tackle Ereck Flowers surrendered more quarterback pressures than any other left tackle in the NFL in 2016, and PFF graded him as the worst player at that position as a rookie in 2015. 

    Somewhat surprisingly, it appears the Giants are going to stick with the No. 9 overall pick on the blind side after they decided against bringing in competition in free agency or the draft. 

    Giants general manager Jerry Reese has expressed confidence in Flowers in that spot, and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said the 23-year-old looks leaner and quicker this offseason, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post.

    If that doesn't lead to a much better showing in 2017, the Giants likely won't pick up Flowers' 2019 fifth-year option next offseason. And if that's how things play out, we'll start calling him a bust. 

Bears WR Kevin White

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    Tae-Gyun Kim/Associated Press

    Two seasons and two major leg injuries into his NFL career, Chicago Bears wide receiver Kevin White has just 19 receptions for 187 yards in four games. He's yet to score a touchdown, and he's caught less than 55 percent of the passes thrown his way. 

    Now, with two-time 1,000-yard receiver Alshon Jeffery gone, the Bears are counting on the 2015 No. 7 overall pick to become a No. 1 target in 2017. 

    Head coach John Fox did remark recently that White "looks very healthy," according to ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson. But even when he was healthy last fall, the 24-year-old said he had "a lot of work to do" to become a better player, per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune

    If he doesn't do that work and remain healthy in 2017, the Bears are probably not going to pick up his fifth-year option for 2019, leaving White facing bust status entering a contract year. 

Bears CB Kyle Fuller

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Kyle Fuller can tell White just how that feels. The Bears just declined Fuller's fifth-year option after the cornerback missed the entirety of his third season because of a knee injury, and now the 25-year-old is entering a walk year that could decide if he becomes a solid NFL starter or a bust. 

    It's a little surprising it's come to this. Fuller had three interceptions and two forced fumbles in his first three games as a rookie No. 14 overall pick in 2014. But he had just three more picks and one forced fumble over the course of his next 29 outings before hurting his knee last offseason. 

    Big plays come and go, though, and Fuller's advanced coverage numbers from PFF improved quite a bit in his second season. Was his quick start the anomaly? Or was it his lack of playmaking from then on? Which version of Fuller will show up with everything on the line in 2017?

    Will he show up at all? 

    The Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs doesn't expect Fuller to make the final roster. But even if he does, he'll have to fight to avoid becoming a bust. 

    Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.


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