NFL Players Trying to Avoid the Bust Label in 2018
There's no more feared word in an NFL front office. OK, except for maybe "fired."
But the first word can certainly lead to the second.
No NFL general manager wants to watch a first-round pick fall flat. And yet for all the players here, that's exactly what has happened. In their NFL careers, each has failed to stay healthy and/or failed to perform.
For most of them, 2018 represents a last chance. Some are in the final years of their rookie deals. Others could be in the same boat a season from now—playing out the string after their teams pass on a fifth-year option.
The situations may differ a little, but one thing is constant for every player included here: Each is precariously close to having a scarlet "B" stitched on their jersey.
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In some respects, it's hard to qualify Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston as a bust.
In two of Winston's three NFL seasons, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards. Winston's completion percentage has climbed all three years, from 58.3 as a rookie to 63.8 in 2017. Winston posted a career low in interceptions last season and had the highest passer rating of his short career at 92.2.
And yet, here we are.
While Winston threw a career-low 11 interceptions in 2017, he also missed three game and still hit double-digits in picks again. He has averaged almost 15 interceptions per season. Winston's 19 scoring passes in 2017 were a career-low and nine fewer than the season before, and even taking into account his missed time (three games), his touchdown percentage was down relative to 2016.
Then there's the one stat that sticks out like a sore thumb with Winston. Wins—or the lack thereof.
After going 9-7 two years ago, Winston and the Buccaneers fell apart in 2017. Winston won just three of his 13 starts last season, dropping his career record to 18-27.
Granted, it's not entirely Winston's fault that the Bucs backslid last year. But he's the quarterback—so guess who gets the blame?
Considering, off the field, Winston is also the subject of an NFL investigation into a groping allegation and faces a potential suspension, 2018 could be the year that defines his career.
For better or worse.
Eli Apple, CB, New York Giants
To say that the 2017 season was a disaster for New York Giants cornerback Eli Apple is an affront...to disasters.
After a decent rookie season, the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft saw his level of play go off a cliff. And that was only half of it. Apple feuded with coaches and teammates so much that, per ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan, safety Landon Collins called him a "cancer."
Apple, who attributed his behavior to family problems, told Raanan that he's no longer the same player or person.
"Because obviously there was stuff that happened," he said. "I want to continue to work on myself, communicate better, not let certain stuff get to me. Continue to strive and get better every day."
To his credit, new head coach Pat Shurmur said the Apple's he's seen lately is closer to the player the team hoped they were going than that lost youngster of a year ago.
"You hear things, but I'm sure glad that I truly believe in a clean slate," Shurmur told Raanan. "He's been nothing but professional, he's been out here competing, he's one of the guys that has been here almost every single day, and I haven't seen anything that somebody might have thought I heard. He's been great."
We'll see if that sticks, although the pressure's certainly on.
Next spring, the G-Men will have to decide whether to pick up Apple's 2020 option.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Like Apple, Hargreaves showed some promise as a rookie. And like Apple, Hargreaves took a step backward in Year 2. After starting all 16 games as a rookie, Hargreaves was in and out of the lineup a season ago, playing in just nine games and failing to record an interception for a Tampa secondary that ranked dead last in the NFL in pass defense.
As Rick Stroud reported for the Tampa Bay Times, Hargreaves didn't sugarcoat his struggles:
"Well, the first two years I've had, they've been down years. They've been average. You know, as a first-rounder, obviously, they're expecting production. It's plain and simple. ... I haven't been producing.
"But they believe in me. They know what I can do. They're moving me inside and outside. That just shows the amount of faith they have in me, and I'm grateful. And they know what I can do. They're just telling me to get it going. I've got to make some plays and find a way to be productive."
If Tampa has any chance at contending in 2018, the team's pass defense has to become markedly better. And If the Buccaneers are going to be motivated to consider picking up Hargreaves' option next year, he's going to need to be a big part of that improvement.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins is one of the elder statesmen of this list, about to enter his fifth NFL season.
It also might seem odd to include a player here who was just handed $30 million in guaranteed money on a contract that averages $16 million a season.
The thing is, Watkins' career hasn't come close to justifying that kind of cheese.
In four NFL seasons, Watkins has topped 1,000 receiving yards exactly once—back in 2015 with the Buffalo Bills. Since then, Watkins has missed nine games and barely cracked 1,000 yards in the last two seasons combined. The same Bills team that traded an extra first-round pick to Cleveland to move up and draft Watkins passed on picking up his option and dealt him to Los Angeles.
Last year with the Rams, Watkins did score eight touchdowns. But he reeled in just 55.7 percent of his targets and managed just 593 yards.
Watkins told Lindsey H. Jones of USA Today that he saw the opportunity to get things back on track with Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs.
"I didn’t want to be with an older quarterback" Watkins said. "I came here to be with a young guy that I can grow with. I'm young, he's really young. It's a young team in general.”
OK—because Jared Goff was so ancient.
That truck filled with money may have been a factor, too.
The question a year from now may be why the Chiefs paid it.
DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
It's summer time. In Miami, that usually calls for breathless proclamations that this is going to be the year that Dolphins wideout DeVante Parker goes ballistic and joins the NFL's elite.
A funny thing happened on the way to the hype machine though. This year, according receivers coach Ben Johnson, the Dolphins are skipping the preseason grandstanding.
"With DeVante individually, it's just that whole understanding that, 'I've got to fight through injuries,'" Johnson told Chris Perkins of the Sun-Sentinel. "And the biggest thing for him is we were making these giant claims about him last year. For us right now ... it's a one day at a time mentality. We're just trying to improve from yesterday. ... We'll keep stacking good days on top of each other and that's how we're going to keep improving."
Injuries have indeed played a part in slowing Parker's development. He's missed games in all three of his NFL seasons and been limited by injuries in numerous others. But injuries alone don't explain why Parker's yet to tally even 750 receiving yards in a season and has just eight scores in three years.
The Dolphins aren't quite ready to throw in the towel on Parker—the team has already picked up his 2019 option.
But that option is guaranteed against injury only, and if he has another disappointing season, there's still time for the Dolphins to change their mind.
Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns
It's almost as if drafting a wide receiver in the first round over the last few years has been...problematic.
Corey Coleman has become the poster child for the unending misery that has been the Cleveland Browns in recent years. The 15th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Coleman has been an abject failure over the first two seasons of his career. After just 33 catches for 413 yards and three scores as a rookie, Coleman actually managed to be worse last year with 23 grabs for 305 yards and two touchdowns.
Sure, the quarterback situation in Cleveland has been awful, but so has Coleman. The fourth-down drop that sealed Cleveland's 0-16 2017 campaign is the perfect metaphor for his career to date.
New Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com that 2018 is a pivotal year for the young receiver.
"He's been out here working," Haley said. "I've seen him every day. He understands this is a big, big year in his career. Year three is usually the make-or-break year of what kind of you're going to be. I've made that clear to him. He understands it, and he's working hard accordingly to try to be the best that he can be."
How good Coleman can be remains in doubt though. According to Scott Petrak of BrownsZone, Coleman's "work ethic and football IQ" have been called into question recently.
Such a Cleveland pick. The Cleveland-est.
Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears
One more wide receiver. The biggest disappointment of them all was saved for last.
Chicago's Kevin White has already been labeled a bust with good reason. White has missed a staggering 43 of a possible 48 games and has all of 21 catches for 193 yards in three seasons.
That the Bears decided to pass on White's 2019 option was the least surprising personnel move in NFL history.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the scrap heap. ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson labeled White a surprise standout in camp this year, writing that the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft, "stayed healthy throughout Chicago's offseason program, where he looked better than expected running routes in coach Matt Nagy's West Coast offense."
That may not mean much if White can't stay healthy (again). Even wide receivers coach Mike Furrey admitted to Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times that expectations for White are nonexistent.
"There's no expectations. Come here, work hard, do what you're supposed to do and learn," he said. "I don't have any expectations for him. We don't know that yet."
But given this is the best news we've heard regarding White since he was drafted, it bears mentioning.
It also may be his last chance to come close to realizing the promise the Bears believed he had coming out of West Virginia.
Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Arizona Cardinals
Robert Nkemdiche is becoming old hat at this whole bust thing.
Back in 2013, Nkemdiche was considered arguably the No. 1 college prospect in the entire nation. The wildly athletic defensive lineman turned heads by electing to attend Ole Miss.
He had his moments with the Rebels, but there were as many disappointments as big plays in a collegiate career that didn't come close to matching the hype.
Still, the Arizona Cardinals was something they liked and drafted Nkemdiche with the 29th overall pick in 2016.
Since then, Nkemdiche's done nothing—unless you count ticking off his head coach as an accomplishment. In two years, Nkemdiche has all of 11 tackles without a sack. The next game he starts will be the first game he starts.
New Cardinals defensive coordinator Al Holcomb told Bob McManaman of AZ Central back in January that he feels there's enough there to mold Nkemdiche into an effective NFL player.
"From the little bit of film I've observed ... he obviously, at times, jumps off the tape," he said. "He's got some ability. ... We're going to sit down and discuss some things and try to find out exactly what makes him tick. And as a coaching staff, we have to try to do the best thing that we can to get the most out of him and continue to develop his talents and get him on the field.”
If there's real potential there, Nkemdiche's done one heck of a job hiding it.
Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Cincinnati Bengals
The 2018 season is probably Cedric Ogbuehi's last stand—at least in the Queen City.
When the Bengals took Ogbuehi 21st overall back in 2015, the former Texas A&M star was supposed to be the successor to Andrew Whitworth at left tackle. Ogbuehi was going to watch Andy Dalton's backside for years to come.
Instead, Ogbuehi's been a turnstile at both tackle spots—so much so that he lost his spot in the starting lineup and the Bengals have already declined his fifth-year option for 2019.
However, with a new offensive line coach in town in Frank Pollack, there have been some signs of improvement from Ogbuehi. Geoff Hobson of the team's website went so far as to single out the 6'5", 310-pounder as enjoying a "revival" under the new coach.
Of course, minicamps and OTAs are a time of year when most reports are glowing. It's hard to judge how well linemen are playing when they aren't even really hitting one another. And with Cordy Glenn on the left side and Jake Fisher on the right, Ogbuehi appears slated to be the team's swing tackle.
But if he wants more than just short-term prove-it deals in Cincinnati or elsewhere, he's going to need quite the rebound year in 2018.
Because right now, Ogbuehi's a bust and then some.
Shane Ray, OLB, Denver Broncos
The make-or-break season of Denver Broncos outside linebacker Shane Ray may already be broken.
Per ESPN.com, Ray recently underwent a fourth operation on a wrist he injured in training camp in 2017. Not only will that wipe out most of Ray's offseason, but it jeopardizes his availability in Week 1.
It's something of a double-whammy for Ray, who the Broncos selected 23rd overall in 2015. After showing promise with an eight-sack 2016 season, Ray's production fell off last year. That injury and the selection of Bradley Chubb fifth overall in this year's draft led Denver to pass on Ray's fifth-year option.
This year for Ray is as much an audition for the NFL's other teams as a chance to get his career in Denver back on track.
He remains confident that if he can get the wrist right, he can recapture past form.
"Obviously, anybody who's watched me in my first two years knows what I'm capable of, and last year I wasn't the same me due to injury," Ray said. "For people holding that against me, it is what it is. I don't care. I'm just going to go out here and do what I can for my team."
Pass-rusher is a premium position. And when healthy, Ray's shown more than a little ability to get after the quarterback.
But sometimes, the best ability is availability.