In the NFL each team is always searching for the next thing to give them an edge. Some teams go for different innovations which can give them a step ahead of the competition. Chip Kelly’s no huddle offense comes to mind first as a person who thought they could change the NFL. For the most part one of these changes only comes around every 10-20 years in the league.
On the flip side teams look for players that will adjust the way that teams play the game. These players can either be great with the way the NFL is or so good that they change the way other teams look at talent. This is the case with certain players who have joined the NFL and just looked different from the first time they got the opportunity. Running backs like Adrian Peterson or LaDainian Tomlinson who come into the NFL great and never look back. Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning who take over and immediately put up stats. Or wide receivers like Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones who can dominate no matter who is throwing them the ball. Once they burst onto the scene it’s over.
But what fun is that to talk about. Instead we want to look at the players who had us all fooled. Those guys who came out with a great year but never quite were able to reach those levels again given the circumstances. Sometimes it is because they are on a Super Bowl team performing their one role incredibly well, other times they’re in a spot with no expectations and pop onto the scene. Either way here are the seven QBs, RBs and WRs who were one year wonders .
21 QB: Tim Tebow
When Tim Tebow was drafted 25th overall in the NFL Draft it surprised everyone. No one expected Tebow to be a 1st round selection when the Broncos decided to make the move. The former Heisman winner clearly had a lot to work on before going to the next level with the biggest thing being his general mechanics in throwing a football. However, with the Broncos slumping in 2011, Tebow became the starter and put together the most improbable run in NFL history.
It seemed like every game the Broncos were winning in come from behind fashion and people have never been that excited to watch bad football.
Tebow mania reached its peak when he threw the game winning TD in overtime against the Steelers in the wildcard round. After that they got spanked by the Patriots and Tebow’s career as a starter was over.
20 RB: Rashaan Salaam
The Chicago Bears suffered through an extended period of mediocrity after the 1985 Super Bowl, particularly in the 90s. Rashaan Salaam was a Heisman winner in college and was expected to bring an anemic Bears offense to life. It seemed Salaam was well on his way to doing that, as he rushed for over 1,000 yards in his rookie campaign. He added 10 touchdowns and it seemed the Bears had a franchise RB on their hands. However, Salaam's career dwindled from there, as injuries and personal issues affected his play. He would rush for just over 600 yards in years 2 and 3 combined. He would spend one final season with Cleveland and was out of the NFL after four seasons.
19 WR: Josh Gordon
This has quickly become one of the sadder stories in the NFL. No Josh Gordon wasn’t ruined by injuries, but it's still something that is well beyond his control at this point. In college everyone knew that Gordon had some red flags and because of that many teams ignored him as a prospect altogether. He was taken by the Browns in the second round of the supplementary draft in 2012. It seemed like the Browns struck gold when Gordon exploded in year two. He had 1,646 yards receiving and 9 TDs while looking like the best wide out in the NFL for long stretches.
But Gordon has suffered from personal issues since that point and has never been able to play more than five games in a season. It seems like that will be the only flash of greatness we get from his career.
18 QB: Rex Grossman
The Bears defense had been carrying the load of the entire roster for year now. With players like Brain Urlacher and Lance Briggs they had become a slightly lesser version of what was built in Baltimore. But they never had the quarterback play to make a run, that is until Rex Grossman finally exploded in 2006. Grossman was the 22nd overall pick in 2003 but it took him a while to crack the starting lineup.
His “explosion” resulted in 3,193 passing yards, 23 TDs and 20 INTs, not great numbers by any stretch. But all the Bears defense needed was average QB play and they were in the Super Bowl.
There they lost to the Colts and Grossman was never solid again so the Bears' chances quickly evaporated.
17 RB: Jamal Anderson
Most people didn’t think Jamal Anderson would make it in the NFL. The running back went to Utah and most people didn’t think he had the speed to explode on the next level consistently. Anderson was picked in the 7th round in 1994 but never stopped working at making it in the NFL. He had a few 1,000 yard seasons but in 1998 Anderson looked like one of the best running backs in the NFL. He had 1,846 yards with 14 TDs in his incredible year. That, and the creation of the dirty bird, led to the Falcons' quick turnaround and Super Bowl berth in 1998. Because of injuries Anderson could never recapture the magic of 1998.
16 WR: Patrick Jeffers
We're willing to bet not many people remember Patrick Jeffers's career. After all, he never played a full 16-game season in his career and his stints with the Broncos and Cowboys were largely duds. Somehow, Jeffers was the highest paid receiver on the Carolina Panthers' roster in 1999. Jeffers played the most games he ever did in a single season (15) and made it count, as he recorded 63 catches for 1,082 yards and a whopping 12 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Jeffers suffered a major knee injury in training camp the following season. He was never able to regain his 1999 form and was released by the Panthers in 2002.
15 QB: Don Majkowski
The Packers have been lucky to follow up an entire generation of Brett Favre with another golden age of QB play with Aaron Rodgers. However, before the arrival of Favre, the Packers spent years mired in mediocrity. One bright spot was the 'magical' 1989 season of Don Majkowski.
Majkowski reached the 4,000-yard mark (a rare achievement in those days), throwing for 4,318 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Yes, he also threw 20 interceptions, but he made the plays when he needed to, thus earning the nickname "Majik Man". The Packers finished 10-6.
Majkowski would never come close to those numbers again, suffering a torn rotator cuff the following season. After another major injury in 1992, he spent most of his remaining career as a backup.
14 RB: Ickey Woods
Ickey Woods was taken with the 2nd pick in 1988 but no one could have expected what was coming next after the Bengals took the running back. Woods quickly burst onto the scene as a very good player was a very interesting dance. The Ickey shuffle took NFL fans by storm and there was a lot of it in 1988. Woods ran for 1,000 yards and 15 TDs in his rookie year for the Bengals. The team rode his success and went to the Super Bowl in 1988 before Joe Montana came from behind and won the game. It was supposed to be the beginning for Woods’ career but he never reached 300 yards again and was out of the NFL after 1991.
13 WR: Braylon Edwards
Braylon Edwards was supposed to be the next great receiver when he was selected 3rd overall in 2005. However, the Browns didn’t get an immediate return on their investment as Edwards struggled for the first couple of years in his career.
Everything clicked in 2007 when he had 1,289 yards and 16 TDs with a Browns team that won 10 games.
With Derek Anderson throwing him the ball Edwards finally built a chemistry with someone and showed the athletic ability he showed in college. The success didn’t last long though and Edwards never reached 1,000 yards or 8 TDs again after 2007.
12 QB: Matt Cassel
One of the most interesting questions in the NFL last year was this: Who deserves more credit for the Patriots' long term success, quarterback Tom Brady or coach Bill Belichick? Part of this debate has to go back to 2008. Brady went down in the first game of a season after they had just gone 16-0 but lost in the Super Bowl. Matt Cassel came in as a starter after not even starting in college for USC and he did well.
Cassel had 3,693 passing yards, 21 TDs and 11 INTs and the Patriots won 11 games, yet somehow wound up missing the playoffs. Cassel got a huge payday out of the deal but was never seen as quite as valuable outside of the Patriots system.
11 RB: Peyton Hillis
To understand just what Peyton Hillis did in 2010 you have to get the complete context of the situation. Hillis was a 7th round drat pick by the Denver Broncos in 2008. Because the Broncos had a stacked RB core, Hillis didn’t really fit in with the unit. As a result, he went to the Cleveland Browns.
He walked in the door and had a starting job with the Browns. Then in 2010 Hillis ripped off 1,177 yards and 11 TDs.
The most amazing thing isn’t the numbers or the fact that Hillis was never able to reach 600 yards or 4 touchdowns again, but a video game. Madden put Hillis on the cover of the 2012 video game because of his one great season.
10 WR: Brandon Stokley
Everybody gets one. That is the case with Peyton Manning in those years with the Colts. Everyone on the team got one amazing year, courtesy of Manning having the ability to make everyone great if they put in the work. Before 2004 Stokley was a nice slot receiver who never cracked 700 yards or 6 TDs. After 2004 Stokley was a nice slot receiver who cracked 700 yards or 5 TDs. He played 14 successful years in the NFL but in 2004, Stokley had 1,077 yards and 10 TDs for the Colts as Manning went bonkers. You’re welcome Brandon Stokley.
9 QB: Jason Campbell
When Jason Campbell was picked 25th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, the Redskins thought they had their quarterback of the future. Campbell had been a good player at Auburn and in the first couple of years he seemed to be learning the system well. Then in 2008 it seemed to all start clicking for him and the Redskins. For about 12 games of the season Campbell looked like what a young Russell Wilson did. He could create with his legs but never made big mistakes to hurt the team. Him and head coach Jim Zorn had the Redskins at 7-4 and eyeing the playoffs down until it all came crashing down in the last five games of the season. Campbell never looked the same or learned how to create big plays down the field and slowly transitioned into becoming a backup.
8 RB: Chris Johnson
The world knew that Chris Johnson was going to be a problem when he ran a 4.24 at the NFL combine. It was unheard of at the time and even more stunning that a running back could do it. He would have to put everything together first but it was clear Johnson could be dominant in the league with that pure ability.
Johnson had a couple of good seasons, but they were nothing like that 2009 year in which Johnson took the NFL by storm.
He ran for 2,006 yards and 14 TDs. He also broke Marshall Faulk's yards from scrimmage record with 2,509. After his big season, CJ2K demanded a new contract, but after he got one, his game quickly declined and the Titans released him in 2014.
7 WR: Randall Cobb
Randall Cobb is a prime example of how a great quarterback can make the wideout's value extremely inflated. Most people view Cobb as a very good receiver because the Packers are on TV all the time and he’s occasionally on the other end of Aaron Rodgers’ great passes. In reality Cobb is a solid player, who's had one great year in the NFL. That season is 2014 and Cobb has been living off of it ever since. It was the only year he made a Pro Bowl, had over 1,000 yards receiving and had over 10 TD receptions. Cobb will get plenty of chances this year because the Packers don’t have Jordy Nelson but it looks like a one year stand for Cobb.
6 QB: Robert Griffin III
Come on, how can we talk about the NFL's one-year wonders at the skill positions and not include RG3? The Redskins traded up to get Griffin in the 2012 draft and he quickly made them feel good about the sacrifice as he put together one of the most electrifying rookie seasons in NFL history. Not only did he throw 26 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions, but he made plays with his legs and led Washington to the NFC East crown. Unfortunately, Griffin suffered a brutal injury in the Redskins' playoff loss to Seattle and he was never the same after. He eventually lost his starting job to Kirk Cousins and after more injury issues in Cleveland, he was a free agent the entire 2017 season, before Baltimore signed him this spring.
5 RB: Brandon Jacobs
When he was taken in the 4th round of 2005 the Giants didn’t expect Brandon Jacobs to be such a talented player. The Giants wanted Jacobs to be a change of pace running back for Tiki Barber. He got a good number of touchdowns, pounding the ball in his first couple of years before Barber retired.
Jacobs was also solid for the Super Bowl winning team in 2007 before exploding in 2008. Jacobs had a career high 1,089 yards with 15 TDs.
He would have had more but he was sharing touches in the backfield with other backs. Still, his 5.0 yards per rush meant that he had a lot more in the tank in 2008. The rest of his career didn’t show it and he never reached 900 yards or 10 touchdowns again.
4 WR: David Boston
David Boston was supposed to help usher in the next stage of the NFL wide receiver. He was built a lot like T.O. with incredible strength but still had the speed to finish on every route. That combination made him a great player after the catch and a danger to the defensive backs trying to guard him. When the Cardinals selected Boston 8th overall in 1999 they were hoping for these things. In 2001 he delivered with 1,500 yards through the air and 8 TDs. But injuries caught up with Boston and a knee injury in 2004 pretty much ended his career. It was short lived but he did reach the hype for a second.
3 QB: Josh Freeman
Josh Freeman was one of the players would took the league by storm only to quickly disappear. The reason he’s a clear cut one-year wonder is because nothing really stopped him. Injuries didn’t derail his career like Robert Griffin III and he wasn’t clearly lazy like Jamarcus Russell. His rookie year was just a strange mirage. After being taken with he 17th overall pick in 2009, Freeman struggled in his rookie season throwing 10 TDs and 18 INTs.
But in his second year Freeman took a giant leap in all categories. He had 3,400 passing yards, 25 TDs and 6 INTs and led the Buccaneers to a 10-6 record, just missing the playoffs.
Freeman seemed set to improve on those numbers but never reached that height again and was out of the NFL in 2015.
2 RB: Cadillac Williams
First off, what a name. How can you not at least have one great year in the NFL with a name like Cadillac Williams? In his rookie year Williams was on pace to be as great as his name and ran for 1,178 rushing yards and 6 TDs as the team made the postseason. Williams was never able to duplicate his great rookie season and didn’t crack 900 yards or 4 touchdowns again. It's a shame because imagine the great calls we’ve missed out on. “The Panthers have a lot of four wheel drives on the field but none of those are catching a Cadillac, TOUCHDOWN BUCS.”
1 WR: Brandon Lloyd
Brandon Lloyd was just one of those players who never seemed to be able to put it all together, despite clearly possessing some raw talent. After failed stints in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, not much fuss was made when the Broncos traded for him in 2010.
Lloyd unexpectedly broke out in a major way in 2010, recording over 1,000 receiving yards, leading the league with 1,448 yards, as well as recording 11 touchdowns.
Lloyd was eventually traded to the Rams and had a short stint with New England, but never came close to matching his 2010 numbers again.