Top 15 NFL Draft Busts Who Salvaged Their Careers

NFL players will always get judged insanely quickly. We are a quarter of the way through the 2016 season and there are people who are already calling Jared Goff a bust. While it certainly is concerning that it’s taking him longer than usual to get up to NFL speed (especially considering he was thought to be one of the more NFL ready prospects), it is far too soon to be labeling anyone a failure at this stage.

For example, just last year there were people labeling Melvin Gordon a bust after a highly disappointing first year. However, he’s off to an incredibly hot start in 2016 and well on his way to dropping the tag. Some players just take longer to adjust to the NFL and not everyone can be a star right off the bat.

Regardless, every year analysts and fans are quick to label every under-performing player a bust. Some of these tags are well deserved and the players have short careers and accomplish little. But there are still plenty of cases where everyone jumped the gun and wrote a player off far too soon. These players are able to continue to flash their strengths as they work to overcome their weaknesses.

It isn’t an easy thing to flip first impressions, but it certainly can be done. It happens every year. Here are the top 15 NFLers who everyone gave up on, but came back to have amazing careers.

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15 Emmanuel Sanders, WR

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Emmanuel Sanders began his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers after they used a third round pick to draft him in 2010. Though, in his first two seasons he was used sparingly, recording just over 650 yards over that period.

He had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012, where he recorded 626 yards and a touchdown. He followed up on it with a similar year in 2013. Overall, the Steelers did not consider him to be valuable enough to hang onto when his contract was up.

He was picked up by the Broncos in free agency to replace Eric Decker. Many thought it was a sure downgrade. But Sanders shocked everyone as he recorded an insane 1,400 season – a total that many of the NFL’s best receivers fail to hit.

He had a slight decline in numbers last year, but that can be attributed to the decline of Payton Manning, who suffered an extreme drop off before retiring.

14 Jimmy Smith, CB

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Cornerback and wide receiver are the two positions that are notoriously difficult for college players to adjust to when coming to the NFL. However, it seemed to take Jimmy Smith far longer than normal to get into the swing of things. The corner came into the league as the 27th overall pick by the Ravens back in 2011. Yet, only in the past couple of years has he established himself.

Over his first few years, he continually failed to earn a starting spot and took on a rotational role. Whenever this happens to a first round pick after his first year, he will instantly be written off. It sounds harsh, but the majority of the time these players do end up being busts.

Smith came back though. Not only is he starting, he’s one of the top corners in the league and he's perfectly capable of covering any wide receiver in the NFL. Most have forgotten about him due to his first few seasons and he has managed to fly well under the radar as a result.

13 Mark Ingram, RB

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Mark Ingram was considered the perfect example of why teams should avoid Alabama running backs. After being drafted in the first round by the Saints back in 2011, he spent his first three years failing to earn the feature-back role. Over that period, his best season was in 2012 where rushed for just 602 yards. Not exactly first round production.

However, something clicked for Ingram in 2014, his fourth NFL season. He caught up to the pace of the NFL and looked like a legit NFL running back, someone who could be a star. Over 13 games that season, he had 964 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl selection.

He has looked like the same player ever since, though he has struggled to stay on the field. He’s been dealing with numerous injuries that have made him somewhat unreliable, as he's shook the ‘bust” label but unfortunately replaced it with being “injury prone.”

12 James Carpenter, G

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James Carpenter has had a slow, but steady ride in the NFL. He originally came into the league as a late first round pick by the Seattle Seahawks. It was a prestigious draft position, especially for a guard. Yet, Carpenter was awful. He was a bad football player at the beginning of his career and it was hard to see what scouts liked about him to begin with.

He managed to progress once he got halfway through his rookie deal. He wasn’t a star, but he was at least a serviceable player for a couple years. In the end, they decided not to pick up his option and let him walk following the 2014 season.

He was picked up by the Jets in the offseason and absolutely everything has been clicking since. He has been the team’s best offensive lineman during his tenure and has been one of best, and most underrated, free agency steals in recent history.

11 Kareem Jackson, CB

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Kareem Jackson was selected in the back half of the first round in 2010 by the Texans. He was considered an athletic player who still needed to work on refining his game.

He was likely forced into the starting role too early due to expectations and defensive needs. As a result, he constantly got burned in coverage and he was a corner that quarterbacks loved to pick on. They could rack up tons of yards throwing his way, regardless of who was catching the ball. Even if it was incomplete, there was a good chance Jackson would take a dumb penalty and gift the offense a first down. It isn’t hard to see why many fans gave up on him quickly.

However, in his third year, Jackson surprised many Texans fans, as he was the exact opposite of the player he was in his first two years. He was able to consistently stick with receivers and deny catches. He has quietly become one of the NFL’s top shut down corners. He hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves, perhaps due to Houston’s other defensive stars hogging the spot light.

10 Aaron Williams, S

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Aaron Williams was a player that many Bills fans were hopeful for. He showed off a ton of talent, but couldn’t stop making terrible mistakes. At times, it seemed like he could be counted on to give up two touchdowns per game.

Every team has a guy like Aaron Williams on their team. Someone who could be a star, who always seems close to putting it all together. But watching them screw up on the field makes you want them cut immediately. At the same time though, there’s a terrible fear they’ll sign with a rival and everything will click. But nine times out of ten, these guys are out of the league in a few years.

Aaron Williams is one of the few cases of a player who did manage to make it click late. He has become one of the more underrated defensive backs in the NFL; partly because of his initial status as a bust and partly because he’s been struggling to stay on the field recently. Even still, he is one of the most valuable players on the Bills defense.

9 Vernon Davis, TE

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Vernon Davis had one of the best combine performances ever. He was 6’3” and 250 pounds, but ran one of the fastest 40 times among all prospects. He was the most physically gifted player in the entire draft class.

It didn’t result in immediate success for him though after being drafted sixth overall by the 49ers. In his first three seasons, he combined for just over 1,100 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. While those numbers are okay, it isn’t the type of production that warrants a sixth overall pick.

Things completely flipped in his fourth year though. He nearly doubled his career stats as he recorded 965 receiving yards and led the league with 13 touchdown catches. He continued to produce at that level for the bulk of his tenure with San Francisco. He became known as one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL, which is exactly what he was expected to be coming out of college.

8 Martellus Bennett, TE

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Martellus Bennett opened his career in 2008 as the Cowboys second round pick. The 6’6” tight end was expected to be an unstoppable target in the passing game. Yet, he failed to manage 300 receiving yards in a season over his first four years with the team.

After leaving following the 2011 season, he signed with the Giants, where he had his breakout season. He recorded over 600 yards with 5 touchdowns and started all 16 games. However, he only lasted a single season in New York. From there, he went to Chicago where he continued to improve. His best season came in 2014 where he recorded 900 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Now, Bennett is in New England, where he is doing a fine job playing alongside Rob Gronkowski. The veteran tight end has been one of the team’s top receiving targets and he has come a very long way since coming into the league with Dallas.

7 Whitney Mercilus, DE

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It may not be fair to say that Mercilus was labeled a bust. In his first three seasons, he averaged around six sacks a season. Overall, that’s pretty solid, but perhaps on the low end of what’s typically acceptable for a first round pick. However, Mercilus was faced with a significant amount of criticism for not managing to do more with J.J. Watt taking so much pressure off him. In reality, there hasn’t been an easier team to play edge rusher for than Houston over the past few years.

In 2015, he managed to make the leap and become the player everyone was hoping he would be. He was one of the most productive pass rushers last year with 12 sacks and he has become the player Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to be.

With J.J. Watt going on injured reserve, Houston will be counting on Mercilus to pick up where he left off last year.

6 Reggie Nelson, S

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Reggie Nelson was the Jaguars' 21st overall pick back in 2007. The safety was supposed to be a star in the back end of their defense, but never got things going in Florida. He had talent and potential, but couldn’t put it all together.

After three years, the team decided to give up on Nelson and traded him to Cincinnati in exchange for David Jones, a corner who was selected in the fifth round in 2007. He only lasted two years with the Jags and is out of the league today.

On the other hand, things changed for Nelson in Cincinnati. He showed exactly why he was a first round pick. While many believe he isn’t among the elite NFL safeties, he is certainly in the class of “very good" and became one of the key pieces on a very talented defense in Cincy, before moving over to Oakland this year.

5 Mark Barron, S/LB

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Mark Barron was the most highly praised safety prospect in the 2012 NFL Draft. He was selected by the Buccaneers with the seventh overall pick; a much more prestigious position than what the majority of safeties are valued at. To the dismay of Tampa Bay fans, Luke Kuechly, Fletcher Cox, and Stephon Gilmore were all potential targets at 7.

He was thought to struggle in coverage, but was supposed to be an impressive in-the-box safety (a prototypical strong safety). Scouts at least got one part right, as he was very poor in coverage. They missed on the second half of it though. As a result, he was traded away after just two years to the Rams in exchange for their fourth and sixth round picks.

With the Rams, Barron has changed his position from a pure Safety to becoming more of a linebacker. His role is comparable to that of Deone Bucannon in Arizona and this change has been exactly what Barron needed.

4 Jerry Hughes, DE

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Jerry Hughes came into the league in 2010 with the Colts as the team’s first round selection. He was a highly talented pass rusher at TCU and was expected to be a force on the line in Indianapolis. Unfortunately for the Colts, it didn’t work out as expected. In his first two seasons, he managed to earn a single start and recorded just 10 solo tackles and 1 sack.

His third season was marginally better. He recorded 21 tackles and 4 sacks in 6 starts. However, this is the type of production a first rounder could reasonably get away with in his rookie season. By this point, he should have been a star.

The Colts decided to cut their losses when they traded him to the Bills in exchange for former third round pick Kelvin Sheppard. The trade was unremarkable and many fans glossed over the headline.

However, since coming to Buffalo, Hughes has been a legit star on the defensive line. In his first three seasons with Buffalo, he has recorded an impressive 25 sacks and over 100 tackles. He has been the type of player that Indianapolis thought they were getting when they drafted him with the 31st overall pick.

3 Evan Mathis, G

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In 2011, Philadelphia put together their infamous (and ludicrous) “dream team.” It was comprised of some of the top tier free agents and was primarily supposed to turn their struggling defense into a unit that could properly compliment the high powered offense; one led by Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin.

As it turns out, the best signing from that period was seemed like an afterthought. Evan Mathis was a former third round pick who only managed 22 starts in six years with three different teams. However, after coming to Philadelphia, Evan Mathis completely turned around his career. He quickly earned the starting job and became an instant favorite for many of the advanced stat sites, such as Pro Football Focus. His story and his play on the field quickly made him a fan favorite among Eagles’ fans.

Despite the fact that he isn’t with the team anymore, there were many Eagles fans who were very happy to see him take home a Super Bowl in 2015 with the Denver Broncos. He is nearing the end of his career, but is continually showing he still has a lot of talent left in the tank.

2 Alex Smith, QB

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For half a decade, Alex Smith was the most disappointing quarterback in the league by far. He was selected with the first overall pick in 2005, ahead of Aaron Rodgers. Though, he could never manage to hold onto the starting job, it seemed the 49ers would keep playing him because they simply had no one else to compete at the position. He was just a player who had a terribly low ceiling.

Things changed when San Francisco brought in Jim Harbaugh. The quarterback guru put Smith in the perfect situation to succeed and it worked out very well for him. He revitalized his career and Smith established himself as someone who could be a proper franchise quarterback. At the same time though, Colin Kaepernick was a young, rising star. The team elected to commit to the young kid and sent Smith to Kansas City.

Now, we are in a position where the former first overall bust is leading a team that many believe to be a Super Bowl contender, as Smith has been terrific for KC, throwing for 11,137 yards, 66 touchdowns and 22 interceptions during his time there.

1 Brandon Graham, DE

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Brandon Graham was one the most disliked players on the Eagles since being selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. At the time, many Eagles’ fans felt the team was set on the defensive line, but severely lacked talent in the secondary. When the team traded up, everyone and their brother thought Earl Thomas was going to be their selection. But as it turns out, everyone underestimated Andy Reid’s love for pass rushers.

Over the next few years, Brandon Graham was often injured while Earl Thomas was quickly becoming one of the league’s elite safeties. It isn’t hard to see way many fans began to resent the Michigan defensive end.

However, over the past few years, Graham has been stepping up his game and he now looks like a player worth of a high first round pick. Right now, he is the best pass rusher on a talented Eagles defense. He is continually generating pressure and disrupting the pocket. As a result, he has completely flipped his reputation and become one of the most beloved players on the team.

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