Bust or Nah: Which Disappointing 2016 NFL Rookies Will Bounce Back?
The fight against the bust label begins immediately for every NFL rookie.
The path to becoming a regular contributor is often winding. There are early pitfalls due to injuries or a stocked depth chart above a rookie. Even the most talented college prospects often need time to make the transition and develop at the professional level.
No two disappointing rookie seasons are quite the same. Some come with optimism after flashes of quality play. In the case of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, offseason additions will greatly help him during his sophomore NFL season. Others provide a scary glimpse into the future, which happened every time Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff tried to navigate a clean pocket last season.
Which disappointing rookies from 2016 will be fine? Which will flounder? Let's look into the future with a few of the most notable disappointments.
Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz needed development when he arrived in the NFL. A passer typically doesn't go from slinging it for North Dakota State against FCS opponents to embarrassing NFL defenses on a weekly basis.
Wentz started his rookie season hot, throwing five touchdowns and zero interceptions while averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. After that three-game winning streak, the Eagles lost nine of their next 11 games as he threw 13 interceptions and averaged only six yards per attempt.
Which Wentz will the Eagles get going forward? If the improvements in his supporting cast are any indication, he'll be far closer to the former than the latter in 2017.
Wentz's deep accuracy played a role in his struggles as a rookie. As ESPN.com's Tim McManus noted, he completed just 46.3 percent of his passes on throws that traveled 10-plus yards in the air. But the top three Eagles receivers in 2016 dropped a combined 26 catchable passes, according to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com.
To rectify that issue, the Eagles brought in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency, who should help turn more of those catchable throws into, well, actual catches. In turn, that will help to sustain drives and build Wentz's confidence.
Wentz has the arm strength and pocket mobility to be a successful NFL quarterback. He now must develop more consistent mechanics, which he's focused on this offseason while working with throwing instructor Adam Dedeaux.
When it all comes together—Wentz's booming arm and his athleticism—we saw what he's capable of in those first few games. With an improved wide receiver corps, we should see more of that in 2017.
Prediction: Not a bust
Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams
It's hard enough having "starting NFL quarterback" as your job title. When "franchise savior" is also added to your responsibilities, the weight begins to feel crushing.
That's what Jared Goff faced when the Los Angeles Rams made him the first overall pick in 2016. Sam Bradford, the last savior, fizzled due to both injuries and ineffectiveness. Now it was Goff's turn to restore relevance to the Rams.
As Wentz and Goff both demonstrated, rookie quarterbacks typically endure growing pains. But unlike Wentz, Goff didn't have even a brief flash of brilliance in 2016.
The alarms were blaring before he took his first regular-season snap. Goff completed just 44.9 percent of his preseason passes, which often came against second- and third-team scrubs. He couldn't beat out Case Keenum for the starting job. Keenum went on to throw 10 interceptions over the Rams' first seven games.
When the Rams finally gave in and started Goff, he was often under immense pressure while playing behind a poor offensive line. The 22-year-old was sacked 26 times over only seven starts. L.A. signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth this offseason, which should provide Goff with better protection this season.
Even when Goff had time to scan the field and throw, Football Outsiders rated him as the worst performer without pressure since 2010, ranking lower than the likes of Brady Quinn, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. Barring drastic improvement this season, that casts serious doubt over his NFL future.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Minnesota Vikings
It's easy to look at Laquon Treadwell's lost rookie season and label him a bust. The reality is more nuanced.
Treadwell suffered a gruesome leg injury late in the 2014 college football season with Ole Miss, breaking his left fibula and dislocating his ankle. He recovered enough to be effective during the 2015 season, finishing with 1,153 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. But the demanding schedule of both the season and the draft preparation that followed kept the injury lingering.
For much of his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings, he wore special cleats to mitigate his foot pain, per Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune. Combine that with a broken finger, a pulled hamstring and another ankle injury, and Treadwell was physically sapped of what made him the 23rd overall pick. He caught just one pass and played only 80 snaps.
During OTAs this year, Treadwell lined up as the No. 3 receiver. That's an encouraging development after his derailed rookie season, especially after the Vikings signed Michael Floyd during free agency.
"He came back and he was really on point with what he's supposed to be doing mentally," Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur told Ben Goessling of ESPN.com in May. "He's been out here competing and doing a nice job running routes and catching the ball. Understanding where he fits in the running game and who to block. To this point, we've been really pleased with his progress based on a year ago."
Treadwell might not make a bounding second-year leap, as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are blocking him atop the Vikings' wide receiver depth chart. But a healthy Treadwell should continue to rise steadily and make a valuable contribution.
Prediction: Not a bust
Will Fuller, WR, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans' problems at quarterback in 2016 were a frequent source of frustration. The receivers on the other end of Brock Osweiler's wobbly passes couldn't have been pleased, either.
Osweiler's ineffectiveness didn't prevent rookie wideout Will Fuller from being white-hot over his first two career games. He used his 4.32 speed in the 40-yard dash to accelerate downfield often, as he needed only nine receptions during those two weeks to pile up 211 receiving yards (23.4 yards per catch).
However, Fuller plummeted over his final 14 games, recording only 424 yards.
The entire Texans passing offense circled the drain, finishing the year ranked 29th while averaging just 198.5 yards per game. But Fuller was still responsible for his own downfall because of a troubling problem: drops.
Fuller dropped five catchable passes on his 92 targets as a rookie, according to Jeff Risdon of Texans Wire. Drops were also a persistent issue for him throughout his time at Notre Dame, which kept him from fully capitalizing on his speed. He had a drop rate of 13.9 percent in 2015 and a 12.6 percent drop rate in 2014, per Pro Football Focus.
While Fuller could improve his technique and cut down on his drops moving forward, the last three years don't paint a positive picture in that regard.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills had to wait until late October to get a look at Shaq Lawson, their 2016 first-round pick who was supposed to be the centerpiece of a ferocious pass rush.
When Lawson finally recovered from a shoulder injury, he was playing out of his element while being asked to stand up as an outside linebacker. Yet he was still reasonably productive, especially considering the layers of rust that had accumulated as he missed six games.
Lawson finished the year with two sacks over 10 games, in part due to his spotty use in a rotational role. Despite playing only 22.1 percent of the Bills' defensive snaps, he still managed to notch that pair of sacks and 13 tackles.
With Sean McDermott having taken over as head coach in Buffalo, the Bills have switched to a 4-3 defense. That'll enable Lawson to put his hand back in the ground as a defensive end and focus solely on pursuing the quarterback, which is how he recorded 12.5 sacks during his final year at Clemson.
Speaking to Jake Hamilton of the Bills team website in mid-June, Lawson sounded like he's back in his comfort zone.
"I will always have my hand in the dirt I was always an attack defensive end," he said. "You know not having to stand up and drop into coverage a lot of the times. It's what I've been doing and it's what got me drafted in the first round, things like that. I'm just very comfortable with it because I've been doing it all my life."
Prediction: Not a bust
Germain Ifedi, OT, Seattle Seahawks
It takes a true nightmare season to almost be a first-round bust after a single year. After logging just 13 starts, that's where Seattle Seahawks guard-turned-tackle Germain Ifedi finds himself.
The Seahawks selected Ifedi with the 31st overall pick in 2016, hoping he could make quarterback Russell Wilson's life less painful. Every year, the Seahawks take an, um, creative approach to solving their offensive line issues. And yet, Wilson has been sacked 40-plus times each of the past four seasons.
Seattle slotted Ifedi in at guard in 2016, but the former Texas A&M standout allowed 38 pressures over his first dozen games, per PFF, the fourth-worst total among guards. He was only a minor obstacle as opposing pass-rushers collapsed the pocket and regularly disrupted the Seahawks' passing offense.
Seattle's experiment with Ifedi may get worse, too. Earlier in the offseason, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told ESPN's John Clayton he's moving Ifedi to right tackle, which will leave him exposed and with less help on the outside.
Perhaps Ifedi can save his already sinking career, but his showing as a rookie makes that hard to believe.
Braxton Miller, WR, Houston Texans
To become a better slot receiver, seeking guidance from one of the best slot receivers ever is a fine idea.
Houston Texans slot receiver Braxton Miller is doing just that with Wes Welker, who's now an assistant offensive coach with the Texans. Welker starred as the New England Patriots' slot dynamo for years while topping the 1,100-yard mark five times. One of those seasons (2011) came with Texans head coach Bill O'Brien as his offensive coordinator.
Miller is now picking at Welker's brain constantly as he continues his transition from quarterback to receiver.
"The role he played is the type of role I'm playing in this offense," Miller told Drew Dougherty of Texans.com in May. "So it's a great opportunity for me to learn from one of the greatest slot players to play the game. Especially in this type of system."
Miller's rookie season produced mostly frustration after hamstring and shoulder injuries cost him six games, but he's too naturally athletic to stay silent for long when healthy. With a full calendar NFL year behind him, a breakout could be coming once Welker helps him clear any remaining mental hurdles.
Prediction: Not a bust
Roberto Aguayo, K, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Don't blame Roberto Aguayo for being a waste of a second-round pick.
There's no excuse for selecting any kicker that high. Even one like Aguayo, who nailed 88.46 percent of his field-goal attempts over three seasons at Florida State, which still stands as the third-highest success rate in NCAA history.
Kickers are vital in the modern NFL, especially with extra-point attempts moved back. But they're not nearly important enough to justify selecting one in the second round.
In 2016, the Buccaneers did that and more. They coveted Aguayo so strongly that general manager Jason Licht traded up to get him, sending his third- and fourth-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Aguayo's career may have cratered even if he was a later-round pick. But the pressure of his high draft status and the Buccaneers' trade up didn't help him succeed at a position where mental demons can creep in quickly.
Aguayo converted a league-low 71 percent of his field-goal attempts as a rookie, and his longest successful field goal sailed just 43 yards. The 23-year-old may now lose his job to veteran Nick Folk, who the Bucs signed to a contract worth $750,000 in guaranteed money, per Spotrac.