NFL Youngsters Who Appear to Be Shedding the Bust Label in 2021
While it's not entirely fair, highly drafted players come into the NFL with lofty expectations. When those expectations aren't immediately met, the term "bust" tends to get thrown around. While some players never fully leave that label behind, others are able to shed it before the end of their rookie deals.
Quarterback Josh Rosen, the 10th overall pick in the 2018 draft, is a prime example of the former. He posted a passer rating of 66.7 as a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals and was traded the following offseason. He's never reemerged as a full-time starter.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, on the other hand, was taken three spots ahead of Rosen and had an equally frustrating rookie season—one in which he posted a rating of 67.9. However, Allen was given time to develop in Buffalo and became a viable MVP candidate by his third season. He remains one of the best young quarterbacks in the AFC and an example of why judging a player too quickly is foolish.
Here, we'll examine six young players—in their second and third seasons, specifically—who appear to be on their way to shedding the bust label. We'll dive into their early struggles and how they're turning things around in 2021.
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Jordyn Brooks, LB, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks used the 27th overall pick in the 2020 draft on former Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks. As has largely been the case with recent Seahawks first-round picks—particularly, running back Rashaad Penny and defensive end L.J. Collier—Brooks didn't have a significant rookie impact.
Brooks played just 37 percent of the defensive snaps in his rookie season and finished with 57 tackles.
This season, though, Brooks has become a defensive centerpiece. Heading into Week 11, he had already amassed 84 tackles, a sack, four tackles for loss and two passes defended. While not an every-down defender, Brooks had played 79 percent of the defensive snaps. On Sunday, he tallied a whopping 11 tackles, four assists and a tackle for loss.
Brooks has also emerged as a vocal leader, focused on bringing a positive mindset to Seattle's defense.
"We're just moving forward, continuing to practice hard, studying in our meetings, getting together outside of the facility, and just trying to get it right and hopefully make a run here soon," Brooks told 710 ESPN Seattle (h/t Jordan Duncan of the team's official website).
A relatively underwhelming part-time player as a rookie, Brooks is now looking like a future star and potentially a perennial Pro Bowler.
Marquise Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Being the first player off the board at a position is usually going to set the bar high. Not only are such players heavily scrutinized, but they're always going to be compared to the players at the same position drafted after them.
The Baltimore Ravens made former Oklahoma wideout Marquise Brown the 25th overall pick in the 2019 draft. While Brown did flash big-play ability in his first two NFL seasons, he never quite showed the No. 1 potential of later selections like Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf.
Brown had 584 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie and 769 yards and eight scores in 2020. Those are respectable numbers in Baltimore's run-heavy offense, but tight end Mark Andrews served as Lamar Jackson's No. 1 target, not Brown.
That has changed this season, however. Jackson is passing more frequently than in years past, and Brown has become his top option. Though Brown missed Week 11 with a thigh injury, he came into the week leading the Ravens in targets (82), receptions (52), receiving yards (719) and receiving touchdowns (six).
Even with the Week 11 absence, Brown is on pace for 80 receptions, 1,111 yards and nine touchdowns. Those are the sort of numbers fans would expect from the first receiver taken in the draft. Yes, an increase in Baltimore's passing frequency—Baltimore ranked 32nd in pass attempts last season and 16th through Week 10—has played a role, but Brown is also morphing into more than a complementary deep threat.
AJ Dillon, RB, Green Bay Packers
To be fair, Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon was viewed as less of a bust and more as a wasted pick in Year 1.
The 2020 second-round rookie logged just 46 carries last year, playing behind starter Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. With those two on the roster—and with little reliable receiver depth behind Davante Adams for Aaron Rodgers to work with—the selection was widely criticized.
"It's an interesting strategy for a 13-3 team with a cantankerous face-of-the-franchise quarterback. And by 'interesting,' I do not mean 'wise,'" Mike Tanier wrote for Bleacher Report. "Like the player. Don't like the decision."
That decision is looking a lot better this year, especially with Jones sidelined by an MCL sprain. Williams departed in free agency, leaving Dillon free to prove his worth before Week 11.
And the Boston College product has been outstanding. He has compiled 474 yards and two touchdowns on 108 carries while adding another 240 yards and a score on 22 receptions. While he didn't do enough to get Green Bay the win on Sunday, Dillon averaged 4.8 yards per carry and caught six passes for 44 yards.
Far from a wasted pick, Dillon is performing like a difference-maker.
Rashan Gary, Edge, Green Bay Packers
As was the case with Dillon, Packers pass-rusher Rashan Gary came into a situation that didn't allow him to flourish early.
Green Bay added Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith in 2019 free agency. It then used the 12th overall pick on the former Michigan standout.
Unsurprisingly, the Smiths kept Gary in a limited role during his rookie campaign. He logged two sacks but also played just 24 percent of the defensive snaps. Gary played 48 percent of the snaps in 2020 but produced an underwhelming five sacks and 19 quarterback pressures.
Gary has had an opportunity to shine in Year 3, in part because Za'Darius Smith has been sidelined following back surgery. Gary has shown that he can be a high-end pass-rusher, logging 5.5 sacks and 25 quarterback pressures through the first 10 weeks.
"Za'Darius Smith is one of the NFL's best pass-rushers and hasn't played since Week 1 because of a back injury, yet the Packers haven't suffered too much because of Gary's emergence as a rising star in the NFL," Matt Schneidman of The Athletic wrote. "Maybe general manager Brian Gutekunst knew what he was doing with the No. 12 pick in the 2019 draft."
Gary missed Week 11 with an elbow injury, but the third-year man indeed appears to be a rising star.
Isaiah Simmons, LB, Arizona Cardinals
When the Arizona Cardinals took former Clemson defender Isaiah Simmons eighth overall in 2020, the thought was that they were adding a premier linebacker-safety hybrid to the lineup.
"He can handle zone or man coverage from a variety of spots on the field, which gives defensive coordinators a chance to disguise blitz packages and exotic post-snap looks," NFL Media's Lance Zierlein wrote.
However, Simmons was a disappointment in Year 1, particularly in coverage.
After starting the first four games last season, Simmons made only three starts the rest of the way and played more than 55 percent of the snaps in just two of those games. He allowed an opposing passer rating of 102.0—not awful, but not what was expected.
This year, though, Simmons has been a force in the middle of Arizona's defense. Coming into Week 11, Simmons had played 93 percent of the defensive snaps and compiled 67 tackles, three forced fumbles, four passes defended and an interception. He added two solo stops, a sack and a tackle for loss on Sunday.
In coverage, Simmons has allowed an opposing passer rating of only 77.4.
Jonah Williams, LT, Cincinnati Bengals
It's an unfair part of the NFL maturation process, but injuries can lead to a player getting the bust label. Injuries are typically out of a player's control, but availability is a huge asset. This is especially true when a prospect is drafted to be a team's franchise left tackle.
In 2019, the Cincinnati Bengals used the 11th overall pick on former Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams. He missed his entire rookie season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Williams got onto the field in 2020, but injuries once again limited him. He made 10 starts before landing on injured reserve with a knee injury.
Finally healthy, Williams has been a solid member of the Bengals offensive line in 2021. Heading into Week 11, he had played 100 percent of the offensive snaps, and he's been mostly good in pass protection.
According to Pro Football Focus, Williams was responsible for two penalties and four sacks allowed through the first 10 weeks.
While Williams may not be inching toward his first career Pro Bowl, he's looking like a long-term answer on Joe Burrow's blind side.
Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.