Sink or Swim: Young NFL Players in Danger of Flaming Out

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 26, 2017

Sink or Swim: Young NFL Players in Danger of Flaming Out

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    Several hundred new players break into the NFL every year, but only a minority of that group actually sticks around for the long haul. 

    Of course, higher draft picks typically have better chances of becoming quality NFL players and earning lucrative second contracts. But there's plenty of evidence that even a first-round pick is a crapshoot.

    Let's take a look at several young players who came into the league with high expectations but are now facing forks in the roads that represent their NFL careers. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Giants OT Ereck Flowers: The 2015 No. 9 overall pick has been a huge bust so far, but he continues to hold down that starting left tackle job. If he struggles again in 2017, he won't likely remain in a starting role and could have his fifth-year option declined. 

    Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence: The 2014 second-round pick flashed with eight sacks in 2015 but was limited by an injury and a suspension and struggled when he was on the field in 2016. With top pick Taco Charlton joining the fray at defensive end in Dallas, Lawrence is entering a make-or-break year.

    Eagles DE Marcus Smith: The 2014 first-rounder has arguably already become a flameout, but he remains on the Philly roster despite just 23 tackles and four sacks in three NFL seasons. This is certainly his last shot.

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars exercised "franchise quarterback" Blake Bortles' fifth-year option for 2018, but that doesn't mean this won't be a do-or-die season for the 2014 No. 3 overall pick. That option is guaranteed only for injury, and another poor season from Bortles would likely cause the Jags to look for replacements under center. 

    The 25-year-old has won just 11 times in three NFL seasons. And yes, it's a team sport. But his sub-60 completion percentage, 6.6 yards-per-attempt average and sub-80 passer rating are evidence that Bortles hasn't delivered. 

    He surely has the ability—he was lights-out at Central Florida and was a top-three pick for a reason—and it's not to late. He received praise on his corrected mechanics from new Jags executive vice president Tom Coughlin on NFL Network and is working with quarterback guru Tom House, according to Josh Ciganek of Florida Football Insiders. He'll face less proverbial (and probably actual) pressure with Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Leonard Fournette in the backfield, and he told reporters that he's been focusing on limiting his "stupid" turnovers.

    But it's extremely discouraging that most of his rate-based numbers plummeted in 2016. He could still bounce back, and he could be a late bloomer like Terry Bradshaw or Eli Manning, but in this impatient league Bortles is running out of time. 

Rams RB Todd Gurley

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    I know it seems soon to start asking about whether Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley has it, considering the 22-year-old was an absolute stud as a rookie in 2015. But this league doesn't wait for running backs, and Gurley is entering what should be his prime at a position that has the shortest shelf life in North American professional team sports. 

    The 2015 No. 10 overall pick rushed for 1,106 yards despite starting just 12 games as a rookie, 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 probably inflated his numbers, 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 in 2016. That tied for second-worst 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 ranked one spot better overall in 2016 compared to its last-place finish when Gurley lit up opposing defenses as a rookie.

    Regardless, it's good news that the offense has at least added a Pro Bowl left tackle in Andrew Whitworth. And if 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff can deliver in his first full season as the starting quarterback, Gurley could benefit from having more support. 

    If he doesn't, Gurley could realistically be fighting to have his fifth-year option picked up next year.

Rams WR Tavon Austin

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    Gurley isn't the only member of the Rams offense facing immense pressure to deliver in 2017, because we're reaching a point at which we have to wonder if Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin will ever live up to being a 2013 top-10 pick. 

    The team wants to believe he still can. 

    "He's done a lot of great things on tape," new Rams head coach Sean McVay said in June, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez, "but until you're actually able to get out on the grass with him and watch him do some of the things that we're asking him to do, it does make it a little bit more difficult. But we're certainly projecting him to be a big part of our offense. How exactly we use him is to be determined."

    In fact, Gonzalez reported earlier this offseason that 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. 

    Austin had a career-high 58 receptions for 509 yards last season, 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 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. 

    That's discouraging to say the least, considering the comparison from McVay. The reality is this might be the real Tavon Austin's last chance to stand up. 

Bears WR Kevin White

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Two seasons into his NFL career, Chicago Bears wide receiver Kevin White has suffered two major leg injuries and scored zero touchdowns. The 2015 No. 7 overall pick has just 19 receptions for 187 yards in four games, and he's caught less than 55 percent of the passes thrown his way.

    Now, with veteran Alshon Jeffery gone, the Bears are counting on White to become a strong, starting-caliber receiver in 2017.

    Precedent isn't on his or the team's side. Per Rotoworld's Evan Silva, Yatil Green, R. Jay Soward, A.J. Jenkins, Rashaun Woods, Marcus Nash and White are the only first-round receivers who have caught fewer than 20 passes through their first two NFL seasons in the last two decades.

    In other words, he's looking to become the only first-round wideout this century to go on to have a successful career after starting that slowly. 

    White's left leg, which had a stress fracture in 2015 and a fibular spiral fracture in 2016, is apparently fully healed, according to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, and he's still only 25 years old. 

    "Knowing his work ethic and his approach and his support system, I know he's going to come back ready to go," Bears general manager Ryan Pace told reporters in April. "He has just got to shake off some of that bad luck. Kevin is going to have to step up and stay healthy."

    If he doesn't, his fifth-year option will almost certainly come off the table while the Bears look for better options in the receiving corps. 

Eagles WR Nelson Agholor

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    White isn't the only first-round wide receiver trying to boom rather than bust in 2017. Nelson Agholor of the Philadelphia Eagles is in a similar boat after catching just 52.2 percent of the passes thrown his way for 648 yards in his first two seasons. 

    Those numbers partly reflect the fact the 24-year-old has been prone to mental miscues, but there's hope, considering the show he's apparently been putting on this offseason. 

    "I'll tell you, he's been explosive in there," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said of Agholor at the conclusion of the team's June minicamp, per Matt Mullin of Philly Voice. "He's made some big plays for us in there this spring. And his confidence level is high right now. I'm excited to see him grow in that position, and it's been valuable for him.”

    "He's always been an explosive guy, but boy, it sure seems like he might have gotten quicker and more explosive this offseason," added quarterback Carson Wentz, per ESPN.com's Tim McManus. "He's getting open, making plays. It's good to see."

    It's clear the Eagles realize they have to give Wentz better weapons, which explains why they brought in Jeffery and veteran Torrey Smith in free agency. If Agholor has indeed turned a corner, he'll likely play a major role regardless of how deep that unit is. But the margin for error is tiny. 

Bengals OT Cedric Ogbuehi

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    The man drafted one spot behind Agholor—Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi—hardly saw the field as a rookie in 2015, earned a starting job at right tackle but struggled immensely and was benched in 2016, and is now being moved to the left side in 2017. 

    If he doesn't excel soon, he'll likely stop receiving promotions based mainly on the fact his ceiling is high after he starred at Texas A&M. And protecting quarterback Andy Dalton's blind side in place of departed Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a heck of an ask, so the leash might be short.

    The Bengals also have third-year second-round pick Jake Fisher and versatile veteran Andre Smith on the roster. And they say they remain confident in the two youngsters. 

    "We just have the belief in the two young guys at tackle," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in March, per Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Thought that was the best thing to bring Andre back and have the opportunity at guard to see what happens. Eventually, we are going to get the best five guys out there anyway."

    So if Ogbuehi doesn't show signs of improvement early, expect in-season changes. And if that happens, we can probably start using the B-word to describe him.

Panthers DT Star Lotulelei

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    Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has started all but five of the 64 regular-season games the Carolina Panthers have played since drafting him 14th overall in 2013. But Lotulelei hasn't made many plays and has failed to stand out for much of that four-year stretch, and now he's entering the final season of his rookie contract. 

    Don't be surprised if it's also his final year as an NFL starter, because he might have already lost that job if not for the fact the Panthers have probably been holding out hope that they'd get a larger return on their investment. After all, Lotulelei was Dave Gettleman's first draft choice as general manager there, but Gettleman was abruptly fired last week.

    With that connection gone and two other highly talented defensive tackles—the well-paid Kawann Short and 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler—also on the roster, the Panthers don't have a lot of incentive to stick with Lotulelei much longer. 

    An argument could be made that after a decent-but-unspectacular start to his career, Lotulelei is regressing. And he's running out of time to reverse that.

Jaguars DE Dante Fowler

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Talented young Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler isn't on the verge of flaming out, but it'll become a possibility if he can't get it together fairly early in 2017. 

    The 2015 No. 3 overall pick missed his entire rookie season due to a torn ACL. He followed that with an underwhelming 2016 campaign in which he recorded just four sacks in 16 games. And earlier this month he was arrested on misdemeanor charges of simple battery and mischief. 

    That was Fowler's second arrest in 16 months, according to records obtained by Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, which is a tad concerning. That, combined with all of the above, clouds the fact that in June defensive coordinator Todd Wash told Mike Kaye of WTLV that he had "matured a lot."

    Of course, there is a good chance he'll continue to mature on and off the field, since the Florida product is still just 22. But it'll be hard to overcome a third consecutive disappointing season, if that's how things play out.

Texans CB Kevin Johnson

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    Bob Levey/Associated Press

    A No. 16 overall pick just two years ago, Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson had some good and bad moments as a rookie spot starter. But a foot fracture held him back that year, and he suffered another break to the same foot six weeks into a promising sophomore campaign. 

    Now the Wake Forest product is trying to get healthy in time for what might be a crucial third pro season. With A.J. Bouye gone, only veterans Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson (combined age: 62) have depth-chart priority over Johnson, and neither stood out in 2016. 

    It's easy to imagine the talented Johnson becoming the team's new No. 1 corner in 2017, but if he can't get and remain healthy and take another step forward as a player—he was beaten too frequently in coverage as a rookie and we don't have a large enough sample from 2016—there's a chance he'll wind up taking a back seat to the rising Robert Nelson and/or rookie fifth-round pick Treston Decoud before the season is through. 

    If that happens, his fifth-year option becomes a question mark. 

    On the bright side, Johnson was feeling healthy and confident this spring. 

    "It feels great to have my health back," he said in May, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "I'm just rehabbing and working hard, working out and feeling great, feeling real confident about myself. I'm excited to get this next season going on."

    He'd better be. It's a big one.

Buccaneers K Roberto Aguayo

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Not only did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select a kicker in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft—marking the first time in over a decade that's happened—but they also traded up to do so. And they're already taking heat for that, because Aguayo was statistically the worst kicker in the league as a rookie. 

    He made just 71 percent of his 31 attempts, which was by far the worst qualified rate in the NFL. And he missed a pair of extra points. 

    Now he's just trying to stay employed. 

    He's facing competition from veteran Nick Folk, and Bucs general manager Jason Licht told Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds this offseason that the 23-year-old Florida State product "needs to have a great camp."

    It's a small sample, but Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times reported that Aguayo missed five of the nine attempts he took during portions of two OTA practices open to the media in May. From the same distance, Folk was 9-of-9. 

    If that trend continues, Aguayo's career could be in jeopardy. 

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