NFL Players Trying to Avoid the Bust Label in 2019
It takes at least three or four seasons to properly evaluate an NFL draft class. So this fall, it's make-or-break time for prospects from the 2016 and 2017 NFL drafts who underwhelmed over their first few seasons.
It's too late for a few highly touted prospects, many of whom have already moved on from their original teams. There's no reason to rehash the failures of Eli Apple, Corey Coleman, Darron Lee or Paxton Lynch.
For potential first-round draft busts still with their original squad, they'll have to overcome poor play, injuries or extenuating circumstances (like scheme or coaching changes). It's now or never for many of them.
Players from the 2016 draft class are entering the final year of their respective rookie deals—none of the ones featured here had their fifth-year options exercised—while teams must contemplate whether to pick up options for those in the 2017 class.
If the following players don't break out in 2019, there's no avoiding the dreaded bust label.
S Karl Joseph, Oakland Raiders
When a team drafts a player's replacement, he can either use that as motivation or slink into obscurity.
Three years after spending the 14th overall pick on safety Karl Joseph in 2016, the Oakland Raiders selected safety Johnathan Abram with the 27th overall pick this April. Head coach Jon Gruden loved Abram and desperately wanted to draft the hard-hitting defensive back.
The Raiders landed Gruden's preferred choice even though he played the same position as Joseph.
Prior to the draft, the Raiders signed fellow safety Lamarcus Joyner to a four-year, $42 million free-agent deal. Joseph now looks like the odd man out at safety, but defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said he's handling the situation well so far, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Scott Bair.
"I think he's responded to the situation great. He knows this will be a good year for him to go out and play good and make us give him a contract. ... If you don't perform, you're probably looking for somewhere else to go and if you do perform, you're going to get rewarded."
DE Shaq Lawson, Buffalo Bills
Shaq Lawson knows he'll no longer be a member of the Buffalo Bills if he doesn't produce this fall.
"No, I ain't concerned. It's motivation. I know what time it is. It's do or die," Lawson said in reference to the Bills declining his fifth-year option, per the Buffalo News' Thomas J. Prohaska. "I've been through a situation like this before. It's just a small step. Me, I'm just gonna go out there and ball this year and see where everything falls."
Buffalo's front office didn't make any significant moves this offseason to replace Lawson other than signing Eli Harold as an extra edge-rusher. But the 2016 first-round pick must provide more value on passing downs moving forward.
In three seasons, Lawson has managed a meager 10 sacks. Harold and Lorenzo Alexander opposite Jerry Hughes are more effective options in sub-packages.
The Bills left the door open to a long-term relationship if Lawson does improve this fall.
"It doesn't necessarily mean after this year we will go our separate ways," head coach Sean McDermott said of the team's decision to decline Lawson's fifth-year option, per Nick Wojton of USA Today's Bills Wire. "We like the work he's put in."
WR Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins
Washington Redskins wide receiver Josh Doctson no longer feels the pressure of being a first-round pick. Doctson is now considered a veteran leader, although he's on the league's worst receiver corps.
Washington's offense will likely lean on younger options like Trey Quinn and rookie third-round pick Terry McLaurin.
"There's been, what, three or four first rounds since me? So that pressure is on them more so than I am, I can just play ball now," Doctson said, per Jake Kring-Schreifels of the team's official site. "It's a good thing and a bad thing I guess, maybe. But it is what it is."
The 26-year-old is fooling himself. Since Washington lacks a true No. 1 target, he needs to have a breakthrough season.
Doctson's two straight 500-yard campaigns aren't good enough. Tight end Jordan Reed led the offense a year ago with 558 receiving yards.
If Washington plans to start rookie Dwayne Haskins at quarterback, he'll need help from his receivers. As a result, Doctson should receive one more opportunity to prove he's the target the team originally envisioned.
WR Laquon Treadwell, Minnesota Vikings
The first-round wide receivers from the 2016 draft class have been a disaster.
The Cleveland Browns traded down to No. 15 and made Corey Coleman the top-drafted wide receiver. He's now on his fourth team. Will Fuller V of the Houston Texans is injury-prone. We just covered Josh Doctson.
To make matters worse, Michael Thomas, whom the New Orleans Saints drafted in the second round, led the NFL last season with 125 receptions.
Minnesota Vikings wideout Laquon Treadwell is arguably the most underwhelming of the bunch. In three seasons, he's produced only 56 receptions for 517 yards and one touchdown.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer's frustration came to the forefront over a year ago.
"Laquon has had every opportunity to succeed," Zimmer told KFAN. "It's up to him. One of these days, you either got to figure it out, or maybe get a change of scenery, I guess."
Treadwell's opportunities are running out with Chad Beebe impressing behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. He may be closer to getting cut than being given another chance this fall.
CB Artie Burns, Pittsburgh Steelers
Playing cornerback requires two specific traits: outstanding athleticism and supreme confidence.
Pittsburgh Steelers corner Artie Burns is naturally gifted, but he lacks the short memory to let bad plays go.
"Artie lost his confidence and wasn't where we needed him to be and was replaced in the starting lineup," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said on 93.7 The Fan's The Cook & Joe Show. "He's had a good offseason. ... We had good meetings with him. He wants to be back where he was."
The 25th overall pick in 2016 started opposite Joe Haden before he got benched midway through last season. It'll be difficult for him to regain that starting gig since Pittsburgh signed Steven Nelson in free agency, drafted Justin Layne with a third-round pick and still have Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton on the roster.
Burns' bravado better return, or he won't be around for long.
"Get right or get going," Burns said, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Joe Rutter. "It's that simple."
OG Joshua Garnett, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers guard Joshua Garnett hasn't started a game since the 2016 campaign.
The 28th overall pick in 2016 suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the start of the 2017 season, struggled to come back and lost a competition at right guard to Mike Person. The 49ers signed Person to a three-year, $8.25 million contract extension this offseason, which blocks Garnett's path toward a starting role.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan still isn't giving up on Garnett, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Jennifer Lee Chan.
"I would love for Garnett to step it up. He showed us some good things this year, but he has just not been able to stay healthy long enough to become a consistent enough player of his ability.
"That's what I'm hoping for him. It's nothing against him because when he was healthy for us, he really worked. He never took a day off. The problem is he couldn't string enough days together to where he could really have consistent improvement."
The 49ers added experienced depth along the interior by signing Ben Garland in free agency. As such, Garnett must stay healthy and fight for a roster spot.
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona Cardinals
Robert Nkemdiche's career has reached a point where it's less about his on-field disappointment and more about getting his life together.
According to the Arizona Republic's Bob McManaman, Scottsdale (Arizona) police arrested the defensive lineman on June 6 on suspicion of speeding and driving on a suspended license. The officers also found and impounded a metal credit card case that had a white powdery residue "consistent with cocaine" on it, though the substance wasn't tested.
As a result, Nkemdiche may now be facing discipline from the league. But even before the arrest, his standing with the team was precarious at best.
"If Nkemdiche is known for anything, it's clearly not for his love or commitment to football," McManaman wrote. "He has been a major disappointment after three years, and it won't be a surprise if the team moves on from him at some point this offseason."
A new coaching staff might have given Nkemdiche a second chance, but this latest misstep may have sealed his fate.
DT Vernon Butler, Carolina Panthers
Everything the Carolina Panthers needed to say about their belief in 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler can be ascertained through their decision to sign Gerald McCoy.
McCoy is a six-time Pro Bowl selection, but the Panthers likely wouldn't have brought him in had Butler performed to expectations.
That isn't the case. However, it also isn't the end of Butler's time in Carolina.
Butler is currently the team's fifth-best defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. He could excel after a defensive scheme change, though.
Carolina will feature more three-man fronts, and Butler could thrive as a 5-technique instead of working the interior. The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs moved him along the defensive front during his collegiate career.
As a member of the Panthers, Butler hasn't created much pressure, as evidenced by his two career sacks. A continued inability to do so will likely drive him off the roster either via trade or release.
DE Solomon Thomas, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers selected Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick in the 2017 draft, but they've had no real plan how to utilize him.
At Stanford, Thomas dominated as a base end on early downs, as he has the size and strength to hold up at the point of attack. He then moved inside to take advantage of his athleticism against bigger and slower interior blocker on passing downs.
The 49ers primarily played Thomas as an end during his first two seasons, but they started to use him more as an interior defender as the 2018 campaign progressed. However, he's managed only four sacks so far.
Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek believes Thomas is ready for a third-year leap, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Jennifer Lee Chan.
"They say NFL players usually take the biggest jump from their second to their third year. And based off the way he's been working, from the day I got here, whether it be in the classroom, film study, in the weight room, and then on the practice field, he's got that look in his eye he's ready to get better."
WR John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals
Speed kills, but a player has to be on the field for it to matter.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross played in 16 of 32 possible games across his first two NFL seasons. He showed some improvement last year with 21 receptions for 210 yards but struggled to find a role in the offense.
Ross is excited about the Bengals' head coaching change from Marvin Lewis to Zac Taylor, per Laurel Pfahler of the Dayton Daily News.
"I think that's the message from everyone on the team, the coaches, the training staff—'just be you, run fast and have fun.' When I'm having fun, I'm a completely different person than the uptight person I've been the last two years, overthinking and letting things get to me that I shouldn't. I'm having fun out there, and I probably had one of the best weeks of my life at OTAs last week. I just need to keep having fun, flying around and making plays."
While a coaching change can be a boon, it's a double-edged sword for Ross. If the 2017 No. 9 overall pick doesn't immediately contribute, the new staff doesn't have any investment in him.
DE Taco Charlton, Dallas Cowboys
Underwhelming play through two seasons, shoulder issues and the numbers game are holding Dallas Cowboys 2017 first-round pick Taco Charlton back.
Charlton produced four sacks through two seasons, and the Cowboys are much deeper at defensive end than they were a year ago. They traded for Robert Quinn, signed Kerry Hyder in free agency and selected Miami's Joe Jackson and Oregon's Jalen Jelks on the third day of the draft.
Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay placed big expectations on Charlton in an appearance on 133.3 ESPN (via Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams).
"I'm expecting Taco to strap on his pads, put on his helmet and go out there and compete every day to prove that he belongs on this roster. The injury and all those things, he's going to have to overcome that and be available. But I expect Taco to put his best foot forward and battle and compete for a spot. But you know what? We're not going to hold the train for anybody."
The Cowboys solidified a weakness this offseason without the help of their former first-round pick. If Charlton doesn't improve, Dallas will go in another direction.