7 Young NFL Players in Danger of Flaming out in 2020
The NFL stands as the ultimate "what have you done for me lately" league, a reality that is best exemplified by its quick turnover of younger players.
This notion will find footing again this season as the timer ticks on young players who've failed to meet expectations. Free agency and the annual influx of talent from the draft, combined with organizational pressure from the top down to win now, mean these players risk losing their jobs.
Players in Years 3-5—likely with fifth-year options declined or in contract seasons—are at a career crossroads in 2020. Naturally, some of the potential flameouts could end up breaking out as it all suddenly clicks on a slower developmental track and/or via supporting upgrades.
Here's a look at seven young flameout candidates with verdicts on their fates.
Solomon Thomas, DL, San Francisco 49ers
It was no great shock to see the San Francisco 49ers declined the fifth-year option on Solomon Thomas.
Thomas, the third pick in 2017, hasn't come close to meeting the expectations that come with such a lofty positioning. While he's only missed two games over three seasons, the former Stanford star has tallied all of six sacks.
Normally, sacks aren't the be-all and end-all for production. But Thomas' other numbers haven't been great, either, hence the 56.7 grade from Pro Football Focus last year while he played a career-low 41 percent of defensive snaps.
It's hard to see the clear trends changing now for Thomas, as he's had the benefit of playing on good lines with names like Nick Bosa. The 49ers just spent a first-round pick on Javon Kinlaw, which could again limit Thomas' chances to show he's finally putting it all together.
Haason Reddick, LB, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals tried to make Haason Reddick a versatile Swiss Army knife-type of defender who can play all over the place after making him the 13th pick in 2017.
But it just hasn't panned out, and Reddick spent last season taking snaps at inside and outside linebacker on 61 percent of the defense's total snaps. He tallied one sack with 76 total tackles, earning a brutal 40.1 PFF grade in the process.
While Reddick hasn't missed a game over three seasons, he's managed just 7.5 sacks and last year allowed a 75 percent completion rate on 56 targets, including seven touchdowns.
Fast-forward to the present: The Cardinals declined Reddick's fifth-year option and just used the eighth overall pick on Isaiah Simmons, yet another hybrid player they hope to move all over the place.
John Ross III, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
John Ross III has been one of the more up-and-down young wideouts since joining the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017 via the ninth overall pick.
He only got on the field in three games as a rookie, and a combination of shaky play and injuries has held him back in the years since.
There's still room for hope with Ross, though. His surrounding pieces figure to dramatically improve in 2020 with the arrival of Joe Burrow and what should be an ascending offensive line with Jonah Williams at left tackle, as well as attention-grabbing pieces like A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon.
Ross also at least flashed big-time in 2018 when deployed as a mismatch creator in the red zone with seven scores, using his speed and separation at the line to put up points on quick-hitting throws. And a season ago, he briefly led the NFL in receiving and finished the year averaging more than 18 yards per catch over eight games.
None of this means Ross gets a big extension after the team declined his fifth year, but if the injury issues subside, few players offer what one of the NFL's outright fastest weapons does at the age of 25.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
JuJu Smith-Schuster enters 2020 in a contract year with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it feels like there has been zero traction toward an extension.
It's not hard to see why after his flop last year in which he caught 42 of 70 targets for 552 yards and three touchdowns. He picked up just 23 first downs compared to 67 the year prior, and his drop percentage jumped 6.9 percent on 96 fewer targets.
And yet, those targets tell part of the story for the 2017 second-round pick, as JSS endured most of last season without Ben Roethlisberger under center. If Big Ben is back and additions like Eric Ebron help a spread-it-around attack, he shouldn't have a problem stabilizing.
Granted, JSS probably isn't going to hit 166 targets again and won't benefit from playing alongside a top-five talent like Antonio Brown as he did in a Pro Bowl 2018 campaign. But he's not going to flame out unless things turn disastrous around him again and he's tasked with carrying the entire passing game by himself.
Ronald Jones II, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ronald Jones II is potentially the latest in a long line of high-profile running backs quickly shuffled out of the picture at a position with quite the limited shelf life.
Jones, selected in the second round of the 2018 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hasn't been able to take command of what should be his backfield. Over two seasons, he's rushed 195 times for 768 yards and seven scores, averaging 3.9 yards per carry with 38 catches.
To make matters worse, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht told ESPN's Jenna Laine on April 9, "We have a lot of faith in Ronald. We have more faith in him than we ever have." Licht and the front office used a third-round pick on running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn a few weeks later.
There's still hope, however. Jones should obviously play in a better offense this season with Tom Brady aboard and the line potentially better due to the arrivals of Joe Haeg and first-round rookie Tristan Wirfs. He only averaged 1.8 yards per carry before contact in 2019, yet still averaged 4.2 yards per carry on the season. With a little more room in a better offense, he's a breakout candidate ready to rewrite a narrative.
Garett Bolles, LT, Denver Broncos
Few offensive linemen are on the hot seat the way Denver Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles is in 2020.
Even Broncos general manager John Elway would seemingly agree, as he told Cecil Lammey of 104.3 The Fan: "The hard thing is that Garett is under the microscope. He's under the microscope and anytime they say '72,' it brings down the whole stadium. That happens. He got himself in that position, so we'll continue working at it."
These issues for the 20th overall pick in 2017 easily explain why Elway and Co. declined Bolles' fifth-year option, making 2020 a critical juncture for all involved as the team tries to eke the most out of Drew Lock.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears
It's clear things haven't gone as planned for Mitchell Trubisky with the Chicago Bears.
The Bears declined the fifth year on a quarterback selected No. 2 overall in 2017 and added serious competition in the form of Nick Foles.
Not too hard to see why. The Bears regressed from 12 wins to eight last season in Trubisky's third as a starter, a point when teams generally like to see the developmental arrow for a passer point firmly up.
Trubisky struggled, completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 3,138 yards and 17 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt, even worse than his rookie season, keeping his bad-throw percentage at a notable 18.4.
At this point, there's no guarantee Trubisky can even win the starting gig in 2020. But he's bound to be in the lineup one way or another considering Foles is merely a 61.9 percent career passer who hasn't attempted more than 195 regular-season passes in a campaign since 2015. But given the trend so far, it's hard to project anything but more of the same in Chicago.