7 NFL Players Who Could Shed the 'Bust' Label in 2021

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 20, 2021

7 NFL Players Who Could Shed the 'Bust' Label in 2021

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    What is a bust? In the impatient NFL, it doesn't take long for a disappointing young player to be labeled that way or for him to reach a point at which he's beyond redemption.

    Considering the crapshoot nature of the NFL draft, let's agree that to become a bust, you have to at least be a first-round pick with more than one year of service under your belt. Meanwhile, it's pretty difficult to shed that label once you're beyond your four-year rookie contract and fifth-year option.

    With that in mind, let's look at first-round picks from 2017, 2018 and 2019 who should be considered busts but could have ample opportunities to redeem themselves in 2021.

Honorable Mentions

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    New York Giants WR John Ross III: The 2017 No. 9 overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals is one of the fastest players in the league, but he caught just 51 passes for 733 yards in four seasons there. Still, he's only 25 and he could benefit from a fresh start in New York.

    Las Vegas Raiders DL Solomon Thomas: Similar deal here. Thomas went third overall in the same draft, started just 30 games in four years with the San Francisco 49ers and now finds himself in a new setting. He'll have to fight to earn reps in Las Vegas but a fresh environment could help.

    Philadelphia Eagles OT Andre Dillard: Injuries and a lack of opportunity often factor in when assessing busts, and that's definitely the case with the 2019 No. 22 overall selection. If he can return from a biceps injury and beat out Jordan Mailata to win the starting left tackle spot this summer, he'll have a chance to avoid the bust label. If not, it'll be tough to recover.

Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The New York Jets have already given up on 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold at quarterback, but the USC product is still just 23 and arguably didn't get a fair shake while working under Adam Gase with limited support in New York.

    At least the Carolina Panthers appear to be giving him a strong chance to get it together in 2021.

    In Carolina, Darnold will have a new environment without Gase's stink. He'll have an elite running back in Christian McCaffrey, a talented receiving corps and a solid offensive line (although I'll bet he wishes Carolina drafted offensive tackle Rashawn Slater instead of cornerback Jaycee Horn in the top 10).

    He also likely knows this is a do-or-die season, but that he'll at least have breathing room with no other viable starters on the Panthers' quarterback depth chart.

    Altogether, he's in a pretty good spot. And while it's concerning that he's by far and away the league's lowest-rated qualified passer since coming into the NFL, he had some decent stretches in New York.

    We'll see if he can have extended versions of those runs in 2021. I wouldn't rule it out, because the talent is there.

New York Giants QB Daniel Jones

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones is a year behind Darnold, but in that market, the 2019 No. 6 overall pick won't likely last as a starter if he can't completely turn around his career in his third NFL campaign.

    Most of his rate-based numbers declined in 2020, but Jones' excuse is that he wasn't totally healthy and he wasn't well-supported. He lost veteran left tackle Nate Solder (COVID-19 opt-out) prior to the season, star running back Saquon Barkley spent most of the year on injured reserve with a torn ACL, and the line and receiving corps weren't great to begin with.

    Now, however, Solder and Barkley are expected back, while Jones' arsenal is greatly improved with prized free-agent addition Kenny Golladay, the speedy Ross, first-round pick Kadarius Toney and veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph joining Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram in the pass-catching corps.

    Like Darnold, Jones is just 23. And like Darnold, he's had some encouraging moments and streaks. He hasn't paid off at all so far for Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, but the stars are pretty well aligned entering 2021.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    I know, Leonard Fournette played a major role in helping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV, but that doesn't compensate for the fact that the 2017 No. 4 overall pick failed to live up to his draft status during his first three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Heck, even in Tampa last year, Fournette's regular-season yards-per-attempt average of 3.8 was no bueno (and lower than his career average of 3.9). He has zero 1,200-yard seasons on his resume and is not even considered the clear-cut top option in the Buccaneers backfield.

    Still, he joined the Bucs late last offseason and was likely playing catchup. His 4.7 yards-per-attempt average and 448 scrimmage yards in last year's playoffs indicate he found a groove late in the year.

    If he can keep that momentum going in 2021, he should easily become the main guy ahead of Ronald Jones II and break free of the bust stigma that plagued him in Jacksonville. That said, it's probably now or never considering he's a 26-year-old at that short-shelf-life position.

Carolina Panthers Edge Haason Reddick

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    Darnold could benefit from a new setting, Jones from a new supporting cast and Fournette from momentum. Meanwhile, new Panthers edge defender Haason Reddick appears to have all three of those factors working for him entering a critical 2021 campaign.

    He jumps to Carolina from the Arizona Cardinals, who selected him 13th overall in 2017 but didn't see much return on that draft investment until the Temple product suddenly exploded late in his fourth season.

    After recording 12.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in his first 60 NFL games, Reddick compiled 7.5 sacks and forced six fumbles in his last four outings in 2020.

    It's jarring and somewhat absurd. Now, he'll be out to show it wasn't a fluke with a prove-it contract in Carolina.

    The circumstances are perfect, especially now that he's reunited with his college coaches, Matt Rhule and Phil Snow, and he should have plenty of reps to put it together alongside highly touted young Panthers front-seven defenders Brian Burns and Derrick Brown in 2021.

New Orleans Saints Edge Marcus Davenport

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    Brian Westerholt/Associated Press

    Three years into his career with the New Orleans Saints, 2018 No. 14 overall pick Marcus Davenport has lacked durability, consistency and playing time (he's never been on the field for more than 50 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps).

    But that part should change in 2021 after the cap-strapped Saints lost reigning sack leader Trey Hendrickson to the Cincinnati Bengals on the free-agent market. That likely leaves Davenport as the top option beyond star pass-rusher Cameron Jordan, but he also should have a fire lit beneath him considering the team used its first-round pick on edge defender Payton Turner and signed another (Tanoh Kpassagnon) in free agency.

    The Saints did, however, exercise Davenport's fifth-year option for 2022, which means they have a vested interest in him emerging ASAP.

    He has 12 sacks in his three-year career, but Davenport's still just 24, and he should be expected to take a significant step forward in 2021.

Cleveland Browns Edge Takkarist McKinley

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    We jump from new and returning NFC South edge defenders to one who couldn't cut it with the only team we've yet to discuss from that division.

    Takkarist McKinley compiled 13 sacks despite failing to become a consistent weapon during his first two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. Instead of taking off from there, the 2017 No. 26 overall pick's career went in the opposite direction.

    McKinley had 4.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits in his last two seasons with the Falcons before the team released him in November. He then failed physicals with the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers before catching on with the Las Vegas Raiders, but he was never activated in Vegas either.

    That combined with his cheap one-year contract in Cleveland should tell you all you need to know about the league's expectations of him, but the good news is the Browns are stacked on both sides of the ball, and McKinley should get plenty of action with little attention opposite superstar Myles Garrett on the edge.

    He'll still have to battle fellow incoming veteran edge defender Jadeveon Clowney, but there should be room for both to have an impact regardless. Plus, Clowney is also plagued by questions coming off a two-season span in which he recorded three total sacks.

Kansas City Chiefs CB Mike Hughes

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    A recent trade gave us one final bust in a new setting who could have a chance to get it right with plenty of support. That's 2018 No. 30 overall pick Mike Hughes, who couldn't cut it from a durability or consistency perspective during his three years as a cornerback with the Minnesota Vikings.

    The Central Florida product has two interceptions and 13 passes defensed in three seasons. He's been limited to six or fewer games in two of those three campaigns, and he surrendered a 126.3 passer rating when targeted during minimal action in 2020.

    But Hughes surrendered a not-too-shabby 7.2 yards per target during his only relatively healthy season in Minnesota, and he only just turned 24 so his body could bounce back.

    At least he'll be in a new environment with plenty of support from standout Chiefs defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and L'Jarius Sneed, but also with plenty of opportunities since veteran Bashaud Breeland is unlikely to return.


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