Don't Give Up on Me: NFL Rookie Busts Who Could Break Out in 2020
Is it fair to judge an NFL player after only one season? Of course not. A look back to legendary quarterback Peyton Manning and his dismal 1998 rookie campaign—complete with a league-high 28 interceptions—should be proof enough of that.
However, the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and fans and analysts alike are quick to hand out the bust label.
With a quarter of the 2019 season remaining, plenty of rookies can already be viewed as disappointments. But as Manning proved over the next 17 years of his Hall of Fame career, players have plenty of time to turn their trajectory around.
Here, we'll examine some of this year's first- and second-day draft picks who have largely underwhelmed but could rebound with a breakout season in 2020. Players who have missed all or most of the season because of injuries aren't eligible for consideration.
The guys at Stick to Football break down potential NFL job openings for the 2020 season and then run through a new mock draft highlighting several potential rookies who could join the guys on this list next year. Check out the latest episode here.
Quinnen Williams, DT, New York Jets
New York Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams hasn't been completely invisible. However, his production to this point—23 tackles and 1.5 sacks—has not measured up to his status as the third overall pick in the draft.
Williams has been a solid rotational defensive lineman, but teams expect to get a difference-maker with the No. 3 pick.
The 21-year-old's role in Gregg Williams' 3-4 defense is partly to blame for his lackluster production. He hasn't had many opportunities to pressure the quarterback since that's typically a job for the linebackers.
"Quinnen is handicapped, in my opinion, by the defense. You put him in Philly, he's Fletcher Cox," former NFL pass-rusher Chuck Smith told Matt Stypulkoski of NJ Advance Media in late November.
If Gregg Williams returns as New York's defensive coordinator in 2020, his younger namesake's breakout potential will hinge on an expanded role. As Williams grows into an NFL veteran, he'll likely get a larger percentage of snaps—he's played only 48.2 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps this season, according to Football Outsiders—and more opportunities to make the sort of impact plays that he made at Alabama.
Clelin Ferrell, Edge, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders dropped jaws around the league when they took Clemson edge-rusher Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick. Many analysts viewed Kentucky's Josh Allen as the No. 2 edge-defender in the draft after Nick Bosa, who went second overall.
Allen has outproduced Ferrell since the draft—he has 9.0 sacks to Ferrell's 3.5—but that likely isn't why many fans view Ferrell as a disappointment. Instead, the fact that Raiders fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby (7.5 sacks) has been the better pass-rusher makes Ferrell's production look even worse.
The efficacy of a pass-rusher isn't measured in sacks alone, and Ferrell has put plenty of good plays on tape. Learning to finish is a challenge for even the NFL's best sack artists, and Ferrell will have the opportunity to change the narrative as he sees more playing time as a pro. After all, Khalil Mack had only 4.0 sacks as a rookie and was named Defensive Player of the Year two seasons later.
If the Raiders can improve their secondary, it will also benefit Ferrell. The Raiders rank 24th in pass defense and often haven't held coverage long enough for Ferrell to hit home.
If that changes in 2020, so should Ferrell's sack numbers.
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Washington Redskins
The early returns on Washington rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins are not promising. He wasn't able to beat out journeymen Case Keenum and Colt McCoy early in the season and only got a legitimate opportunity after head coach Jay Gruden was fired.
In six appearances (including four starts), Haskins has completed only 54.1 percent of his passes for 801 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions. He's also taken 22 sacks and has fumbled five times.
Haskins wasn't ready to be a rookie starter and wasn't put in a position to succeed as one. The entire Washington organization has been in turmoil for much of the season. From Gruden's firing to the ongoing drama surrounding offensive tackle Trent Williams, instability has been a major theme.
The talent around Haskins has been questionable, too. With Williams out, the Redskins have relied on Donald Penn at left tackle, and he has been responsible for nine penalties and six sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Washington's running game ranks 20th in the NFL, and there is a severe lack of receiving talent outside of rookie Terry McLaurin.
With a better supporting cast, a more stable coaching situation—Gruden didn't want to draft Haskins, according to the Washington Post's Les Carpenter—and another year of NFL exposure, Haskins will have a legitimate chance to grow into a capable starter.
Jerry Tillery, DT, Los Angeles Chargers
Though he isn't a top-five draft pick like Ferrell or a potential face of the franchise like Haskins, Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was still expected to make a significant impact as a rookie. The Chargers took the Notre Dame product with the No. 28 pick in hopes of upgrading their defensive front and their interior pass rush.
However, Tillery has produced only 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 12 appearances.
Tillery has not made a quick adjustment to the NFL—which is not uncommon—and has often found himself playing behind veterans like Justin Jones and Damion Square. He's played only 40.8 percent of the Chargers' defensive snaps this season, according to Football Outsiders.
Another year of experience in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's system should help Tillery reach his potential. An expanded role should help as well.
With Square playing on a one-year deal, Tillery may get the opportunity to take on a bigger role in the defensive line rotation moving forward.
L.J. Collier, DE, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks made some significant changes to their defensive front in the offseason. They traded away defensive end Frank Clark, traded for Jadeveon Clowney, signed Ezekiel Ansah and drafted TCU defensive end L.J. Collier with the 29th overall pick.
To this point, Collier has been a complete afterthought. He's played only 12.5 percent of Seattle's defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders, and has two tackles in seven appearances.
Collier's small role shouldn't come as a major shock. The Seahawks are an experienced team in win-now mode, and they don't have a habit of rushing players onto the field when productive veterans are ahead of them. Last year's first-round pick, running back Rashaad Penny, carried the ball only 85 times as a rookie.
Putting Collier on the field just isn't the best option for Seattle right now.
"He's just a young guy getting going," head coach Pete Carroll said in early November, per Andy Patton of Seahawks Wire. "Go back, he missed a lot of camp time. That time is so important for the young guys to develop."
With another year of experience under his belt—and with Ansah, who's playing on a one-year deal, potentially departing in free agency—Collier should get an opportunity to break out in 2020.
Drew Sample, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals have gotten nothing from first-round pick Jonah Williams because he landed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury during the offseason. They've gotten little out of second-round pick Drew Sample for a variety of reasons.
Cincinnati took the Washington tight end with the 52nd overall pick in the draft. However, he hasn't carved out a major role in the offense to this point. Instead, he's been buried on the depth chart behind veterans Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah.
Sample has only five receptions for 30 yards in nine appearances.
With Eifert and Uzomah on the roster, Sample was never likely to see a major offensive role as a rookie. Playing on what's been a brutally inconsistent Bengals offense for much of the season hasn't helped his production, either.
Sample is much more likely to break out in 2020. Eifert is playing on a one-year deal, and if he leaves in free agency, Sample should rise up the depth chart.
Darrell Henderson Jr., RB, Los Angeles Rams
Selected in the third round (70th overall), Memphis running back Darrell Henderson was expected to provide the Los Angeles Rams with an explosive complementary back to pair with Todd Gurley II. The 8.9 yards-per-carry average he had at Memphis in 2018 seemed indicative of a home run hitter at the next level.
Yet in his first 10 NFL games, Henderson has been anything but. He's averaged only 3.8 yards per carry and has played primarily behind Gurley and veteran backup Malcolm Brown.
Henderson's disappointing play isn't entirely his fault, though. Pro Bowl guard Rodger Saffold left in the offseason, and the entire running game has been a disappointment as the Rams have searched for answers along the interior. As a team, L.A. has averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, right in line with Henderson.
If the Rams can improve their interior offensive line this offseason, Henderson will benefit. He could also see a bigger role in 2020, as Los Angeles can release Brown with only $50,000 in dead money remaining on his contract.
With an expanded role and better run blocking, Henderson should be closer to the explosive back he was in college.
Sione Takitaki, LB, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns used the 80th overall pick on BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki, hoping to upgrade their depth at the position. However, the rookie has barely gotten on the field on defense, playing only 4.3 percent of the defensive snaps in 11 outings, according to Football Outsiders.
Takitaki's inability to get on the field and to contribute—he has only 12 tackles on the season—has a lot to do with defensive coordinator Steve Wilks' reliance on a 4-2-5 base defense. Rookie fifth-round pick Mack Wilson has worked his way into a starting role, and only he and Pro Bowler Joe Schobert have played more than 16 percent of the defensive snaps among linebackers.
Christian Kirksey is next with 15.8 percent of the defensive snaps, and he hasn't played since Week 2.
The opportunities haven't been there for Takitaki, but that could change in 2020. If the Browns make a coaching change following the season—a real possibility given the high expectations that Freddie Kitchens has failed to meet—a more traditional defensive base could provide Takitaki a starting opportunity.
Even if the Browns don't make a coaching change, a starting job could open, as Schobert is in the final year of his rookie deal.
All contract information via Spotrac.