In today’s NFL, the 24-hour news cycle that’s filled with analysts and talking heads seem to always be quick to rush to judgement. Too often, we want to anoint a player as being one of the best ever (especially with the term G.O.A.T being thrown around), or a massive bust before even having a full season in the league. Rookies are under a microscope thanks to the NFL Draft and the popularity of college football, and we’ve all been guilty of using a bust tag or seeing potential Hall of Fame careers far too soon.
When you let it all play out and get to see an entire career, you can see how wrong some of the predictions have been for some of the league’s most notable players. From Heisman Trophy winners to undrafted rookies, you never know what you’re going to get out of an NFL player until their careers have been fully fleshed out.
Some players were given long leashes after struggling their rookie seasons, eventually becoming Hall of Fame members, showing that you need to have a little patience. Then, there are some that have been handed a gold jacket far too soon, only to ultimately become a bust. Here are 10 of those players that were written off by some “experts” far too soon following a struggling rookie season, as well as 10 of those players that looked like legends after their first professional seasons that eventually fell by the wayside, some of which you might have forgotten about.
20 One-Year Wonder - Rashaan Salaam
Many draft experts are wary of selecting a running back in the first round, because their long-term value can be a little iffy. One of the reasons for that is the career of Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam, the 21st overall pick in 1995. The Heisman winning rusher started strong in the NFL with 1,074 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but it was downhill from there.
Between being popped with suspensions, getting injured and not being able to hang onto the football, Salaam lost playing time and eventually favor with the Bears. He played just two more seasons with just over 600 combined yards, and finished his career with two yards on the Browns in 1999.
19 Bad Rookie - Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney seemed like a sure bet coming out of South Carolina in 2014 as he made the college game look easy. Despite some concerns about his effort and injuries, Clowney was the first overall pick by the Texans that year. He played in just four games in that rookie season, not registering a sack.
Some had wondered if he was already a bust, but Clowney showed more potential in his second season. He then followed it up with two Pro Bowl campaigns including a 9.5 sack season, and has been a strong component of the Texans defense in 2018.
18 One-Year Wonder - Ickey Woods
In terms of memorable touchdown celebrations, few stuck out the same way that the Ickey Shuffle did. The running back responsible for the dance, Ickey Woods, was the 31st overall pick by the Bengals out of UNLV in 1998. He instantly became a touchdown machine with 1,065 yards and 15 end zone trips on the ground, becoming an All-Pro.
Unfortunately, a torn ACL shelved him for most of the 1989 season and he was never the same player again. He played in 10 games in 1990 with just 4.2 yards per carry combined to 5.3 in his rookie season. His final year came in 1991, with just 97 yards, although he did get four touchdowns.
17 Bad Rookie - Jared Goff
If a rookie quarterback doesn’t have a strong start, people are quick to bring out the bust tag much faster these days. 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff is no stranger to that, as he went 0-7 his first year with 1,089 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. There were questions if he’d be the Rams quarterback of the future as new head coach Sean McVay came along.
It turned out that McVay knows how to deal with quarterbacks, as Goff has been a top level quarterback ever since. A Pro Bowler in 2017 with 3,804 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions, Goff has been strong again in 2018. Now, it looks like the Rams have the potential to reach the Super Bowl on a yearly basis.
16 One-Year Wonder - Lawrence Dawsey
When it comes to one-year wonders’ overall career, the one of Lawrence Dawsey is far from the worst. After all, the wide receiver out of Florida State played seven NFL seasons and had over 3,200 yards. However, he peaked in his rookie year with the Buccaneers after being a third round choice.
That rookie year in 1991, Dawsey had career highs in yards (818) and touchdowns (3), getting some Rookie of the Year consideration. It seemed he was on his way to becoming a superstar, but his numbers simply dropped on a yearly basis as he also had time with the Giants, Dolphins and Saints.
15 Bad Rookie - Cris Carter
Wide receiver Cris Carter was highly touted in college, but wasn’t able to play his senior year due to signing an agent that got him in trouble. He became a supplemental pick by the Eagles in 1987, where he’d play nine games in his rookie season. Carter had just 84 yards and two touchdowns that year, and it seemed like he wasn’t going to reach his Pro Bowl potential.
He had decent seasons over the next two years, but didn’t really take off until he made his way to Minnesota. From there, he became a Pro Bowler eight consecutive times, registering a ton of receptions along the way. In 2013, Carter achieved the ultimate goal by becoming a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
14 One-Year Wonder - Michael Clayton
Dawsey isn’t the only Tampa Bay receiver to have peaked in his rookie season. Even more so, 2004 first round pick Michael Clayton seemed like a slam dunk choice of being a perennial All-Pro after posting 80 catches, 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns during his rookie season. Despite playing in 14 games the following year, though, Clayton had just 372 yards and no touchdowns.
This was when fantasy football was beginning to explode, and fantasy owners turned on Clayton quickly. He posted just one season of more than 400 yards (which was just 484) over the course of the final seven years of his career. He ended in 2011 with the Giants, playing in five games with no catches.
13 Bad Rookie - Roddy White
UAB hasn’t produced a ton of pro football talent, though receiver Roddy White became a first round pick by the Falcons in 2005. His first season, White played in every game and had just 446 yards and three touchdowns. He barely improved on those numbers in his second year, leading some to call White a potential bust.
Then, Matt Ryan came along. With a new quarterback, White’s career took off, reaching over 1,150 yards in each of his following six seasons that included four trips to the Pro Bowl and an All-Pro campaign where he had 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. White finished his career in 2015 after playing in 11 seasons in Atlanta.
12 One-Year Wonder - Kendrell Bell
It appeared that the Steelers had gotten a lot of value in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft when they landed linebacker Kendrell Bell from Georgia. In his rookie season, he became a Pro Bowl player thanks to having nine sacks, also winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in the process.
Bell spent just three more seasons in Pittsburgh, though, with those seasons combined matching his rookie sack numbers. He’d finish out in Kansas City for three seasons where he combined for just another 2.5 sacks, making it 11.5 over six years after that strong start.
11 Bad Rookie - Peyton Manning
Unlike Jared Goff, Peyton Manning came from an era where people weren’t so quick to call a rookie quarterback a bust. The 1998 first overall selection, Manning struggled in Indianapolis with 28 interceptions, though did show a lot of potential thanks to 3,739 yards and 26 touchdown passes.
Of course, Manning would cut down on those interceptions throughout his career, while only improving in other areas. The future Hall of Famer won five Most Valuable Player awards, as well as 14 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams. It’s the ultimate story of why you have to be patient with quarterbacks and their interception struggles in their rookie years.
10 One-Year Wonder - Vince Young
Considered one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time after coming out of Texas, there were some that still questioned his pro potential, but was taken third overall by the Titans in 2006. He seemed to silence the doubters by becoming the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, which was thanks in large part to 552 yards rushing, as his passing numbers weren’t great.
After his first season, his rushing numbers were never the same, and he didn’t improve much in the passing game at all. He finished with five more interceptions (51) than touchdowns (46), though finished with a winning record. There was a lot of potential after that rookie season, but was never quite realized in the end.
9 Bad Rookie - Alex Smith
Continuing the trend of quarterbacks drafted first overall, Alex Smith was the top pick in 2005 by the 49ers. He perhaps struggled the most of any quarterbacks on the list, having just 875 yards, one touchdown and 11 interceptions in nine games with San Francisco. He showed improvement in his second season before injuries took a toll, though Smith would bounce back.
By 2011, Smith had become great at protecting the ball, and only improved when he joined Kansas City in 2013. It was there he became a Pro Bowler for the first time, earning that honor twice more, which included a near MVP win in 2017. Unfortunately, it seems that his career may be over in just his first season with the Redskins, but 13 seasons in the NFL is nothing to scoff at.
8 One-Year Wonder - Steve Slaton
Another one of those running backs that everyone selected in their fantasy draft after his rookie season only to be disappointed, Steve Slaton looked like a monster for the Texans in 2008. The third round pick had 1,659 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns, looking like Houston’s running back of the future.
The next year, though, his numbers were split in half and by his third season was almost a non-factor altogether thanks to the emergence of Arian Foster. 2011 was Slaton’s final season, splitting time with both Houston and Miami, finishing that year with just 87 scrimmage yards and a lone touchdown.
7 Bad Rookie - Wes Welker
Nobody knew the type of potential that Wes Welker had while coming out of Texas Tech. The receiver went undrafted in 2004, but still played in 15 NFL games with the Dolphins and Chargers. That year, he was more of a return specialist that didn’t register a single catch at wideout. The Dolphins use him more at receiver the next two years, where he combined for 1,121 yards.
Welker then joined the Patriots, teaming up with Tom Brady to breakout as a star. In five of his six seasons, Welker had at least 1,175 receiving yards, finishing with 37 touchdowns on the team. Welker also had two seasons with Peyton Manning in Denver where he added 1,242 more yards before ending his career in 2015 with the Rams.
6 One-Year Wonder - John Stephens
John Stephens is another one of those players that didn’t have a terrible few years following his rookie season, but peaked very early. The 17th overall pick by New England in 1988, Stephens had an impressive 1,168 rushing yards in his rookie campaign to become a Pro Bowler and Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The next two years, he’d reach just over 800 yards rushing, and then seemed to fall off the map afterward. He’d never reach 300 yards in a season following his third year, spending two more seasons in New England before finishing in 1993 with both Green Bay and Kansas City.
5 Bad Rookie - Melvin Gordon
Wisconsin is a running back haven, but doesn’t always translate to the pros. The Chargers still saw Melvin Gordon’s potential, and made him the 15th overall selection in 2015. That first year, Gordon had just 641 yards on the ground and a paltry 3.5 yards per carry, without a single touchdown. The next year, though, those numbers improved tremendously, and Gordon’s potential bust status was removed.
2017 was another strong year for Gordon thanks to nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns. He’s been solid for the Chargers in the 2018 season, as well, as the team heads to the playoffs thanks to Gordon’s production, especially on a per-touch basis.
4 One-Year Wonder - Robert Griffin III
After struggling for years to find a franchise quarterbacks, the Redskins thought they found one in 2012 when they selected Heisman winner Robert Griffin III out of Baylor with the second pick. The first year, it seemed that they were right, as the Rookie of the Year had 3,200 passing yards with 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions to go along with 815 rushing yards.
That same year, though, injuries mounted late in the season, including the playoffs. RGIII was never the same again. His numbers dropped off as the Redskins started losing, and he was eventually replaced by Kirk Cousins. Griffin played with the Browns in 2016 and was signed by the Ravens in 2018, and has still never had the rebound we’ve all been waiting for.
3 Bad Rookie - Troy Aikman
Just like Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman was a first overall pick (in 1989) that really struggled in his first season. Aikman lost all 11 of the games he started, throwing just nine touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Minor improvements would come over the next two years before Aikman finally had his big breakthrough in 1992.
That year, Aikman had 3,445 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, helping the Cowboys to become a powerhouse in the mid 1990s. He’d win three Super Bowls with Dallas, reaching the Pro Bowl six times and becoming a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
2 One-Year Wonder - Cadillac Williams
Fifth overall pick Cadillac Williams seemed to have it all as a running back. The Auburn product had the name, the size and the speed that made him an effective rookie for the Buccaneers, rushing for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns. However, that effectiveness wasn’t the same in his second season, rushing for only 798 yards despite a whopping 225 carries.
Two injury plagued seasons in Tampa then followed before what seemed to be a bounce back in 2009 with 823 yards. Then, he dropped off once again in 2010 and spent his final season in 2011 with the Rams where he totalled just 361 more yards.
1 Bad Rookie - Terry Bradshaw
Now finishing the trend of first overall quarterbacks, Terry Bradshaw is the Louisiana Tech product that eventually became a Steelers legend. First, though, he had to throw a ton of interceptions (24) and just six touchdowns in his rookie season. The Steelers struggled, but by his third season had become a team that would form a dynasty.
Bradshaw spent his entire 14 season career in the NFL with Pittsburgh, winning four Super Bowls and an MVP award along the way. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989 after throwing for nearly 28,000 yards and 212 touchdowns in an era where passing wasn’t quite as prevalent.