Success in the NFL is hard to attain and even harder to maintain. One minute you are the talk of the town, you’re VIP in all the clubs, and you turn down better-looking women than you even hooked up with beforehand. Then the next minute you’re a nobody, washed-up, and a flash in a pan. Every year it seems that some of our favorite players move from the former category to the latter category and 2016 claimed a certain cornerback from the New York Jets named Darrelle Revis.
While Revis put in a solid decade of production before his decline, what happens to those players who hit it big as rookies, and then fall flat thereafter? Whether it be them in the right system, with the right teammates, or just plain luck; some guys peak as rookies and then slowly (or sometimes quickly) decline after that. Their great rookie seasons raised fans’ and their team’s expectations of them and for whatever reason they weren’t able to maintain that level of play in subsequent years. Just like that artist that drops a killer debut album and then struggles to repeat the success of it in later attempts; athletes face the same challenges.
It’s time to look back at some of those athletes and specifically the NFL players who hit it big as rookies and then languished as their careers went on. It will be interesting to see which 2016 NFL rookies will end up on this list one day (my money is on Tyreek Hill). While most people think what Hill did last season wasn’t a fluke; the same could be said about what these 15 one-year wonders accomplished as rookies:
15 Michael Clayton
Clayton was one of the seven wide receivers drafted in the first round of the 2004 draft and after his rookie year you would have thought that he would be the best one (Larry Fitzgerald quickly took that throne). In 2004 Clayton had the third-most receiving yards by a rookie since the 1970 merger. He had nearly 1200 yards with the Bucs as they thought he would be the centerpiece of their rebuilding efforts after winning the Super Bowl two years earlier and purging many veterans. However, in later years Clayton suffered with injuries and allegedly an addiction to alcohol which curtailed his production. After 1,193 yards as a rookie, he would never even reach half of that in his next six seasons. Also, after scoring 7 touchdowns as a rookie, Clayton scored just 3 touchdowns over the rest of his career.
14 Rashaan Salaam
The first of two Heisman winners on this list, the former Colorado Buffalo beat out Steve McNair, Kerry Collins, and others to win the award in 1994. After being a 1st round pick by the Bears, he appeared to be living up to the hype after a solid rookie season in which he ran for over 1,000 yards. However, a love for the weed derailed Salaam’s career after that in addition to a litany of injuries. Even though the state of Colorado had not yet legalized marijuana, Salaam must have picked up the habit in college and it never stopped in the NFL. He would only run for about 600 yards over the remainder of his NFL career and later had short stints in both the XFL (speaking of one-year wonders!) and the CFL.
In 2016 he would commit suicide at the age of 42 and just five days before he was scheduled to appear in New York for the annual Heisman ceremony.
13 Don Woods
Shout out to anyone who had Don Woods on their 1974 fantasy football team as he was a beast for the San Diego Chargers. As of 2017, Woods’ debut ranks as the 9th best rookie fantasy football season by a running back in NFL history. He had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage even though the NFL season was just 14 games back then and Woods played in only 12 of those. He got into the endzone 10 times that year, and for good measure, he also threw a touchdown pass. However, Woods can never recapture the lightning (bolt) that he had in his first season with the Chargers and scored just 11 touchdowns over the next six years of his career.
He eventually lost his starting role with San Diego and never even ran for half as many yards in any subsequent season as he ran for in his rookie season. He retired in 1980 but his franchise rookie record for rushing yards would stand for 27 years until LaDainian Tomlinson broke it in 2001.
12 Cadillac Williams
Carnell “Cadillac” Williams had one of the best nicknames in NFL history and one of the best rookie years in recent memory. In 2005 he rushed for the most yards ever by a player in the first three games of his career and, as a result, his cleats were sent to the Hall of Fame. He totaled 1,178 yards on the ground as a rookie which led all first-year players and earned him the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. However this Cadillac was apparently only built for one year as his body would began to break down in later years. He played through nagging injuries in 2006 and then tore his right patellar tendon in 2007 and his left patellar tendon in 2008. He would manage to persevere and overcome those injuries to play in three more seasons, but his lone 1,000 yard rushing season came as a rookie. He retired after the 2011 season and was inducted into the Auburn Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
11 Blair Walsh
Kickers are one year wonders too!! After being drafted in the sixth round in 2012, Walsh looked like a steal as he was a perfect 10-for-10 on 50 yard field goals and led the NFL in made field goals. He also became the first rookie kicker in 15 years to be named a first-team All-Pro selection. Unfortunately for Walsh, his career would peak during that rookie season and things would bottom out for him just three years later. In 2015, and the first year into a new four-year contract, Walsh had the opportunity to send the Vikings into the NFC Divisional Round with a 27-yard field goal against the Seahawks. But Walsh shanked the kick and with just 26 seconds left, the Seahawks were able to run the clock out and defeat Minnesota 10-9.
He was on tilt the following season, missed 4 FGs and 4 extra points, and was released midway through the year. He signed with the Seahawks of all teams for the 2017 season but he has to regain his rookie form or he won’t even make it through training camp.
10 Mike Croel
After a stellar career at Nebraska, Mike Croel was the first linebacker selected in the 1991 draft. He wasn’t much of a pass-rusher in college as he had 12 total sacks but he looked like the second coming of Derrick Thomas in his rookie season with the Broncos as he had 10 sacks. That earned him the Defensive Rookie of the Year award as Denver finished just one game shy of reaching the Super Bowl. But, inexplicably, the Broncos decided to shift Croel from his inside linebacker position to the outside the following year and his sack production was cut in half. Croel would net 5.0 sacks in both 1992 and 1993 before not getting any in 1994. That paved the way for his departure from Denver and he would get just 4 sacks over the rest of his career. Croel can thank the inept Broncos coaches for him appearing on this list as they, for some reason, decided to try to fix what wasn’t broken.
9 Cordarrelle Patterson
After Patterson’s rookie year you would have thought he was a bigger and stronger version of former Viking Percy Harvin. Patterson was a threat from anywhere on the field and scored 4 receiving touchdowns, 3 rushing touchdowns, and 2 kick return touchdowns in 2013. He was named to the Pro Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro as a return specialist. But Patterson’s overall game hasn’t developed since that stellar rookie season and he’s never even reached 50 receptions or 500 receiving yards in any season. He’s still a great kick returner, but he is nothing more than a gadget player on offense and even struggles to get on the field in three-receiver sets.
After scoring 9 total touchdowns as a rookie, Patterson has scored just 7 total touchdowns over the last three seasons and only 4 of those came on offense. The Vikings grew tired of his lack of development and didn’t re-sign him this offseason as Patterson took his talents to Oakland on a one-year deal.
8 Dieter Brock
Brock had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history and one of the greatest final seasons in NFL history…and they were both in the same year! That’s because Brock played just one season in the NFL after spending a decade in the CFL. In 1985 a 34-year-old Brock signed with the Rams, went 11-4 as a starter, and threw for the second most yards in NFL history for a rookie. He also led the Rams to the NFC Championship game where they would be shut out by the historic ’85 Bears. Perhaps getting beat up by Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, and company made Brock reconsider his football future as he decided to retire after that game.
Who knows how the remainder of Brock’s career would have played out had he stuck around for a few more years, but the fact that he retired so quickly tells me that he knew he exceeded expectations in that one NFL season and it would be all downhill thereafter. Brock would then go into coaching in both Canada and the United States and he was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1995.
7 Olandis Gary
Part of the assembly line of Denver running backs in between Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis; Gary actually followed Davis at the University of Georgia and then onto the Broncos. Davis would get hurt early in the 1999 season which derailed the Broncos’ hope for a Super Bowl three-peat and thrusted Gary into the starting lineup. Behind Mike Shanahan and O-line coach, Alex Gibbs, Gary rushed for 1,159 yards as a rookie in 1999 and he did it in just 12 games! However, Gary would suffer the same fate that Davis had suffered the year before as in the 2000 season he suffered a debilitating knee injury and never truly recovered from it. He would return in 2001 to form a three-headed committee at running back with himself, Davis, and Mike Anderson, but after Portis was drafted a year later, Gary’s time in Denver was up. He played his last NFL season in Detroit in 2003 before retiring.
6 Robert Edwards
Oh what might have been with Robert Edwards! He burst on the scene with the Pete Carroll-coached Patriots as a rookie in 1998 by rushing for over 1,100 yards and 9 touchdowns. Then disaster struck at the Pro Bowl of all places. Edwards played in a beach flag football game at the event and suffered a life-altering knee injury. Doctors nearly had to amputate his leg and he was told that he would never walk again. He would have to rehab for three whole years and missed the 1999, 2000, and 2001 seasons. He would return to the field in the 2002 season for the Dolphins but would have just 20 more rushing attempts in his NFL career.
After sitting out another two years, he then joined the CFL in 2005 and played there until the 2007 season. Thus, over a 10 year span he played in five seasons for two different football leagues. After retiring from playing, he then took up coaching and is now a high school coach in his native Georgia.
5 Ickey Woods
Ickey had everything possible going for him as a rookie in 1988. He led the NFL in rushing average while also setting franchise rookie marks for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He was a Pro Bowler on a Bengals team that advanced to the Super Bowl. And maybe most importantly, he launched the Ickey Shuffle which current NFL players still emulate from time to time. But after tearing his ACL in the second game of the 1989 season, Ickey was never the same (even his dance looked a little off after the injury). Ickey’s rehab would spill into the following season and by the time he returned in 1990, he has lost his starting job.
He would hurt his knee again in 1991 which would also be his last season in the NFL. He is still living off the Ickey Shuffle today and recently appeared in some Geico commercials doing the dance.
4 Tom Flynn
We go back to the 1980s to unearth this fluke rookie. Flynn was a 5th round draft pick by the Packers in 1984 who vastly outplayed his expectations. The free safety and punt returner was able to seize both starting positions out of training camp and he would contribute 9 interceptions as a rookie! That was the third most ever for a rookie defensive player and he was named to the NFL All-Rookie Team back when that thing still existed.
Flynn would start 15 games in his second season but his production dwindled as he had just one interception and he lost his punt returning job. After a slow start to the 1986 season, Flynn would be shockingly cut midseason by the Packers. Fortunately for him, he would sign with the Giants who would win the Super Bowl that season, but Flynn never started another NFL game. For his career, 9 of his 11 interceptions would come during his rookie season and Flynn was out of football at the age of 26.
3 Kendrell Bell
Following the likes of Jack Lambert, Hardy Nickerson, and Levon Kirkland, many expected Bell to be the next great inside linebacker for the Steelers. Those thoughts were only fortified after a stellar rookie year from Bell in 2001 in which he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He posted 9 sacks which was the most ever by a Steelers rookie and the second most by a rookie inside linebacker in NFL history. But before the carving of Bell’s bust for the Hall of Fame could begin, he suffered an injury in his first came of his sophomore season and never regrouped.
Despite coming back to start all 16 games in the 2003 season, Bell’s production never returned (though his injuries would return). The 2001 DROY was a backup by 2004 and was on a new team a year later as he joined the Chiefs. He managed to stay relatively healthy and started two years in Kansas City but after having 9 sacks as a rookie, he accumulated just 11.5 over the rest of his career.
2 Steve Slaton
The pride of West Virginia University, Slaton was a speed demon at running back who rushed for 1,282 yards as a rookie in 2008. That total was the sixth-most in the league and most among all first-year backs. However, after his rookie season Slaton decided to bulk up and gained nearly 20 pounds. As a result, he lost much of the speed and explosiveness which made him so effective at WVU and as a rookie. He was benched midway through his second season and his rushing average dropped from 4.8 as a rookie to 3.3 as a sophomore. He never even elevated higher than third-string with the Texans after that and a move to the Dolphins in 2011 didn’t turn his fortunes around.
At 25, his NFL career was over and he dabbled in the CFL but retired from football for good in 2015. Instead of going into coaching or broadcasting like many ex-players, Slaton went into the culinary business and is now a chef in Houston.
1 Robert Griffin III
The second Heisman winner on this list and the unquestionable biggest fluke rookie in NFL history is Roberts Griffin III. The former Baylor Bear set the league on fire in 2012 as he turned around a last place Redskins team and led them to a divisional title and playoff appearance. RG3 set NFL records for the highest rookie passer rating, the best rookie touchdown to interception ratio, and the most rushing yards by a rookie QB. For his efforts, he was named to the Pro Bowl and was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. However, untimely injuries, conflicts with the Redskins, and an oversized ego would derail Griffin off his Hall of Fame trajectory.
After winning 9 games as a rookie, Griffin has just a 6-19 record since then and didn’t play at all in 2015 as the Redskins deactivated him for the whole season. After an expected disastrous year in Cleveland in 2016, Griffin was cut in early 2017 and, as of writing, not only has he not signed with a team, but he hasn’t even visited a team yet. At 27, RG3’s NFL career could be over.
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