The drafting of NFL rookies is a lot like investing in stocks. Entities — teams in this instance — perform as much research ahead of time to determine the best fits for the best picks in any given draft. Many players, particularly those taken with first-round selections, are expected to tear it up right out of the gates during their rookie campaigns. Others, however, ultimately flop during their first years in the pro game because of different factors, such as the states of the teams that took them. Then, there are the NFL rookies who won’t even see the field for much, if any, playing time once the preseason comes to an end.
Just as not all players who go on to win Rookie of the Year honors become superstars and future Hall of Famers (looking at you, Robert Griffin III), not all first-year individuals who either flop or fail to see any significant amount of playing time their debut seasons turn out to be wasted picks. Different athletes who play different positions develop at different points of their careers. It’s often said that we cannot truly evaluate a draft class until at least four seasons later. Some who can’t help themselves, though, will be quick to attach the “bust” label to rookies who underwhelm during the 2018 season.
21 Tear it up: Sam Darnold
New York Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold came back down to earth slightly during his second game following an excellent debut, one that began with a pick-six but ended with him guiding Gang Green to a victory over the Detroit Lions in front of a national television audience. Just as much as those who were quick to crown Darnold the next coming of Joe Montana or John Elway needed to pump the brakes after four quarters, anybody doubting his skills after his first loss should take some deep breaths. The 21-year-old has the confidence of those inside of his locker room. He is going to be just fine.
20 Flop: Will Hernandez
The New York Giants hoped that second-round pick Will Hernandez would make a smooth and easy transition to the offensive line beginning in Week 1 of the campaign. That hasn’t been the case for anybody up front for Big Blue. New York’s line has played like a historically bad unit filled with individuals who never met each other before September 9. This could change over time as those guys build chemistry, of course. The worry is those improvements will come too late and after the Giants are already too far back in the playoff race. Hernandez, let alone those around him, doesn't look ready for the bright lights of NFL action.
19 Won’t see the field: Mason Rudolph
The Pittsburgh Steelers are quite the fascinating team at the moment, one that has its franchise running back holding out for money, and its top wide receiver taking to Twitter to comment about being traded so that he can prove his value. Whether or not Ben Roethlisberger is the ideal mentor for rookie signal-caller Mason Rudolph is probably irrelevant as it pertains to the 2018 season. The Steelers will be in even more of a mess if Rudolph, who began the season third on the team’s depth chart, sees the field for more than taking a knee at the end of a game. He’s a project for the future.
18 Tear it up: Calvin Ridley
The Atlanta Falcons took a target perfect for the team’s offensive system when the club drafted wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Ridley found the end zone in his second game, and he is progressing about as well as many imagined after seeing him during summer practices and the preseason. It is likely only a matter of time before Ridley begins taking passes away from veteran Mohamed Sanu, if that has not already begun occurring during games, and the Falcons could even look to move Sahu if a team made Atlanta an intriguing offer. All indications are Ridley can become a star playing alongside Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
17 Flop: Rashaad Penny
The Seattle Seahawks are kind of a mess as of the middle of September, and that is not going to help running back Rashaad Penny find success during his rookie year. Penny is running behind a lackluster offensive line and featuring for a team that is unofficially in a rebuild and could be on the verge of trading its best defensive player, if that transaction has not already occurred before you are reading this sentence. The 22-year-old is only going to average so many yards per carry if those tasked with creating holes and running lanes repeatedly fail him. Penny may find himself wishing he fell to a different team by Week 17.
16 Won’t see the field: Baker Mayfield
There are three ways Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield may see the field in 2018: if Hue Jackson is (deservedly) fired, if Tyrod Taylor suffers an injury that prevents him from playing, or if Jackson is given an ultimatum and is forced to play the first-year pro before the end of his first year in the league. Mayfield may actually give the Browns a better chance to win than Taylor, who has not impressed one bit during his brief tenure with the club. The Heisman winner and first overall pick of the draft deserves to play. That doesn’t mean Jackson will actually pull the trigger on the smart decision.
15 Tear it up: Courtland Sutton
Perhaps those of us who thought that Denver Broncos rookie wide receiver Courtland Sutton was going to take large amounts of targets away from both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders during September games overrated his value on that offense. That doesn’t mean anybody should give up on Sutton making major impacts during games as he adjusts to playing against NFL defenses. The 22-year-old has cemented his spot as the third option in the passing attack, and his size and also ability to hold onto the ball could make him a top-tier option in red zone situations, especially if Thomas experiences more problems with dropping passes.
14 Flop: Mike Gesicki
On paper, former Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki possesses the physical skills to become a Pro Bowl performer with the Miami Dolphins. Gesicki stumbled a bit during the summer, though, and the 22-year-old who is a dynamic athlete has been unable to rise up the depth chart since the start of the campaign. There are good reasons for why the Dolphins spent a second-round pick on Gesicki, and it may just take him some time and in-game reps before he silences any critics. As of the typing of this piece, though, Gesicki is trending more toward being a first-year flop than somebody who will tear it up in 2018.
13 Won’t see the field: Kyle Lauletta
We now know that the current regime leading the New York Giants, one that did not draft quarterback Davis Webb, was not high on the second-year pro, as the front office kept rookie Kyle Lauletta instead of Webb following the preseason. Odds are that Lauletta will never be the guy who takes the job from Eli Manning. Truth be told, the team’s starting QB for the 2020 season likely is not on the roster today. Just as with other QBs mentioned in this piece, Lauletta seeing the field in 2018 would be a sign that the Giants are in disaster mode and won’t be winning anything of note. Then again, New York may already be there with Lauletta on the sidelines.
12 Tear it up: Josh Rosen
How you define “tear it up” may impact where you would put Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen in this list. With that said, there’s little possibility Rosen can perform as poorly as Sam Bradford; right? Rosen dropping in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft was somewhat surprising considering his physical skills, and the fact that he was not given the starting job ahead of Week 1 could add yet another chip on his shoulder. The Cardinals are not going to be Super Bowl contenders with Rosen in the lineup, and he’ll absolutely make some rookie mistakes. Arizona needs to see what he can do unless the plan is to punt on the 2018 campaign.
11 Flop: Josh Allen
Just how bad are the Buffalo Bills right now? Dudes are entering retirement instead of finishing games for the club. Rookie quarterback Josh Allen is probably the best signal-caller on the roster as of September 2018, but he also shouldn’t be on the field this season. He was always meant to be a project for 2019, at the earliest, regardless of the team that selected him, and he is now under center for what may be the worst franchise in the league. Playing him ahead of schedule and in a lousy offense may do more harm than good in the long run. Assuming he flops in 2018, here’s hoping he can rebound starting next summer.
10 Won’t see the field: Derrius Guice
After running back Derrius Guice dropped to the Washington Redskins in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft because of supposed characters concerns, more than a few observers believed he would make every team that passed on him and that had a need at the position regret that decision. The 21-year-old won’t get to prove doubters wrong his rookie season, though, because he suffered a torn ACL during his first preseason game. This is nothing more than awful luck for somebody who was scheduled to become Washington’s main threat out of the backfield. The Redskins expect big things from him come 2019.
9 Tear it up: Lamar Jackson
The Baltimore Ravens need to stop using Lamar Jackson in an experimental role, and either sit him down behind Joe Flacco or just put him into the lineup and get it over with. Jackson could prove to be the top steal of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft as long as those around him and those coaching him buy into his skillset, and as long as the franchise does not rush him onto the field. Say, for the sake of argument, the Ravens are sitting at 6-8 and out of playoff contention later this year. Why not see if Jackson can tear it up and maybe take the gig from Flacco during the last couple of weeks of the season?
8 Flop: Nick Chubb
One could tell by watching the Cleveland Browns during the summer and the first two weeks of the season that rookie running back Nick Chubb could become the No. 1 option out of the backfield as long as he was awarded with more than a handful of touches per game. That has not been the case, though, as head coach Hue Jackson has elected to keep Chubb a spectator behind the more-proven Carlos Hyde. Not known for being a weapon in passing attacks, Chubb may flop as a rookie if only because he is going to struggle earning playing time. Jackson would do well to utilize the first-year pro, especially if Hyde is having an off day or failing to find open lanes.
7 Won’t see the field: Mark Walton
This one is a little complicated. There were concerns in August that rookie running back and fourth-round pick Mark Walton was not going to make the final roster of the Cincinnati Bengals following the preseason. The Bengals showed some faith in the 21-year-old, and he may find that he has a role in the offense with Joe Mixon recovering from a knee problem. If Walton becomes a revelation and performs much better than he did when the games did not matter, it is possible that he could remove his name from such lists. Otherwise, we don’t expect him to see the field as long as others ahead of him on the depth chart are healthy.
6 Tear it up: James Washington
Trying to predict whatever is going on with the offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers as the start of fall approaches is not all that different than trying to guess the weather. One thing we know from the team’s recent history is that Ben Roethlisberger has been keen on targeting rookie wide receivers who create opportunities for themselves, and that could mean big things for James Washington. Others ahead of him on the depth chart will continue to take targets (unless one of those guys is serious about wanting to be traded), but Washington should see some favorable match-ups against poor secondaries throughout his first year.
5 Flop: Connor Williams
Following his first official game in the NFL, Dallas Cowboys offensive guard Connor Williams had to admit that he needed to improve. The second-round pick was not supposed to be starting so early into his first year, and there will, ideally, come a time when he can return to the bench behind others on the roster. Granted, Williams performed better against the New York Giants, but that defensive front is not the Big Blue Wrecking Crew from past seasons. The 21-year-old may flop until he is ready to face better competition, but his ceiling should remain high past his debut season.
4 Won’t see the field: Isaiah Wynn
Fans, particularly those who root against the New England Patriots from September through February (when the Pats make it to the Super Bowl), often feel as if bad luck never truly impacts the club. That was not the case this past August when offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn, the team’s first draft pick of 2018, suffered a torn Achilles, an injury that will cause him to miss the entire season. The thought, at the time that he was downed, was that Wynn could potentially start as one of the tackles later this season, if not during Week 1. The Patriots will now have to wait until next summer to see him on the field.
3 Tear it up: Denzel Ward
The Cleveland Browns drafting cornerbacks with high picks has not always gone well; that Justin Gilbert selection still stings. Denzel Ward is a bit undersized for the position, and there remain concerns that opposing offenses will exploit weaknesses in his game once coordinators around the league have more film on him. Even the most pessimistic of fans who did not love this pick have to admit that Ward has looked the part during the summer and his first couple of games in the NFL. Assuming he will continue to put in the work and improve, Ward could become a cornerstone of the Cleveland secondary beginning his rookie year.
2 Flop: Saquon Barkley
New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley could be the best running back of his generation if all of the right pieces fall into the right slots. Barkley isn’t actually Superman, though, and he can’t be having to routinely spin out of tackles while still in the backfield if he is going to tear it up his first season. Even the best running back in the NFL today, which Barkley probably isn’t, needs at least an average offensive line in front of him. The product of Penn State is probably carrying the football behind the league’s worst front line early into his career. Both he and quarterback Eli Manning deserve better from teammates.
1 Won’t see the field: Mike White
Recently, the Dallas Cowboys landed an absolute gem of a quarterback later in a draft when the team grabbed Dak Prescott in the fourth round in 2016. Odds are Dallas did not repeat that magic by finding Mike White in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Some were surprised the Cowboys decided to keep White on the roster after the team’s final cuts. After all, he did not light scoreboards up or play like a future starter during his first preseason. We’ll see if he develops into anything other than a backup down the road, but it would be a shock, and also bad news for the Cowboys, if he sees the field in 2018.