Back in the day, by which I mean around 2000 and later, most young men coming into the NFL were about the worst players in the league. The college game was just so different back then and the NFL wasn’t a multi-billion corporation. Today, kids specialize in a certain sport from a young age and go to all kinds of quarterback camps and special training programs. College football is almost as lucrative as pro football and many head coaches used to coach in the NFL.
What I’m saying is that rookies in today’s NFL are better than ever. Cam Newton, for example, threw for 4,000 yards his rookie year! Compare that to Joe Montana’s 96 yards his rookie year and you might notice a bit of a difference. The players have changed, the level of competition has changed, and the rules have changed so much it’s easy for rookies to come into the league and set the world on fire right away. It’s actually expected of many of them now, and this year’s draft will be no different.
Yet despite how good some rookies have been over the years, there’s also been one sad trend. Some players not only peek in their rookie year, they completely collapse after their first season.
It’s impossible to say why these players were such one year wonders, just as it’s so hard to say why they were so successful in the first place. All the training in the world, millions of dollars and countless hours put into training and development pays off for one brilliant year, then the player totally forgets everything? Maybe it’s the limelight, the sudden burst of success, income, and fame that some players aren’t ready for. Maybe some guys reach the top of the mountain and lose interest. Maybe someone had a great coach that left, or a player that helped them learn that left.
Whatever the reason, here’s our list of the Top 15 NFL Players Who Fell Apart After Their Rookie Season.
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15 Jonas Gray
Maybe Jonas Gray should be higher on this list. He didn’t fall apart after his rookie season, so much as he fell apart after his rookie start. The 2014 rookie quickly found himself in Bill Belichick’s doghouse, which pretty much means he’s in there forever.
After racking up 86 yards in a blowout win against the Bears, Gray was given a start against the Colts two weeks later. He destroyed the Colts, gaining 201 yards and four touchdowns. It looked like the Patriots finally found their running back and maybe one of the best in the league.
But that’s when Gray made the same mistake most of us make. He overslept one day after the game, missing a team meeting. To Belichick, this isn’t a simple mistake, it's sacrilege, akin to an assistant coach suggesting that maybe they don’t cheat for once.
Gray was in Belichick’s doghouse for the rest of the season, barely ever playing. He was then cut in the offseason, and perhaps due to the Belichick Blacklist, he hasn't been able to find a permanent role since.
14 EJ Manuel
EJ Manuel was the quarterback at Florida State before Jameis Winston and after another bust, Christian Ponder. He was seen as better than Ponder, but many analysts had him going in the second or even third round. But this is the NFL and the quarterback position is one teams are willing to reach for.
That’s why, in 2013, the Bills took Manuel 16th overall.
He had a decent first season, passing for 13 total touchdowns to nine interceptions, but he never capitalized on that success. His second year saw such a regression he was benched in favor of the previously retired Kyle Orton. He was given another chance come 2015, but lost his job for good to Tyrod Taylor and was made third stringer behind Matt Cassell.
It remains to be seen if Manuel will ever get another chance, but it’s easy to see that he was thrown in the fire too soon and drafted too high. It’s hardly a unique story, but still a sad one.
13 Kevin Jones
Like any good Lions player, Kevin Jones decided to vanish from the NFL before his time. Unlike those good Lions players, Jones did it by collapsing after his rookie campaign.
After being drafted 30th overall in 2004, Jones had a hell of a rookie season. He rushed for 1,133 yards, 6 total touchdowns, and averaged 4.7 yards per rush. He was just the third Lions rookie to gain 1,000 rushing yards in his rookie season (the other two are Barry Sanders and Billy Sims).
But then the injuries and lack of productivity started piling up. His second season saw a massive drop in yards per rush at 3.6 and he never played more than 13 games in a season. He struggled to get 600 yards his next two seasons,and was cut after just four years with the team. Jones played one season with the Bears but couldn’t muster more than 100 yards and was cut after the season.
12 Michael Clayton
There’s no explaining Tampa Bay Bucs WR Michael Clayton’s sudden drop in production. Drafted the same year as Kevin Jones, Clayton had an equally great rookie year. He hauled in 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns, and he did it all with Brian Griese, Brad Johnson, and Chris Simms at quarterback.
Actually it might not be so hard to explain Clayton’s sudden disappearance after all.
After his stunning rookie season, Clayton failed to ever get more than 484 yards and a single touchdown the rest of his career. He managed to stick around in the league for eight years, eventually signing with the Giants and hauling in a whopping 19 yards in two years with them.
Perhaps this isn’t entirely Clayton’s fault, as he was constantly having to adjust to new quarterbacks. As well as those three surefire Hall of Famers (that was sarcasm, just so we’re clear) he also had to deal with Bruce Gradkowski, Tim Rattay, Jeff Garcia, Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson, and Byron Leftwich. Poor quality aside, that’s a lot of different passers in such a short amount of time.
11 Olandis Gary
Georgia’s Olandis Gary had the thankless task of replacing Terrell Davis in Denver in 1999. He also had to do so without John Elway, who had just retired. Yet, despite missing four games due to injury in his first year, Gary racked up over 1,300 total yards and seven touchdowns.
It looked like, at least at running back, the Broncos would be set for the future. But Gary is on this list, meaning his success didn’t last.
Those injuries started to pile up and over the next two seasons, he only played eight games. When he was finally healthy in 2002, it was too late. The Broncos drafted Clinton Portis and Gary became a backup. He played one more year in Detroit, where he was again a backup, before leaving the league entirely in 2004.
10 Mike Croel
Mike Croel was drafted fourth overall by the Broncos in 1991. He was a defensive end and linebacker, and in his rookie year he lived up to the massive expectations. He recorded 10 sacks and 84 tackles in 13 games. He even went on win Defensive Rookie of the Year.
But after his first season, Croel disappeared. Over the next six years, he recorded 14 sacks for four different teams. Unlike others on this list, it had nothing to do with injuries, Croel really did just disappear.
By 2001, he was out of the league, playing for the XFL’s Los Angeles Xtreme. The team folded after that one season and Corel was forced to retire. He now works as a graphic designer, making posters for Hollywood films, which is as nice a consolation prize as anyone on this list got.
9 Don Woods
Don Woods was another Rookie of the Year player, this time way back in 1974. A running back drafted by the San Diego Chargers, Woods got to play with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts… before he could ever be considered a Hall of Famer.
Yes, Fouts was terrible back in ’74, taking the Chargers to a 3-8 record while throwing 13 interceptions. Because of this, it was up to Woods to lead the San Diego offense as early as his rookie year, something he excelled at. He scored 10 touchdowns and ran and caught over 1,500 total yards.
But after 1974, Woods would fail to ever get more than four touchdowns in a single year and only once ran for at least 500 yards. By 1979, the Chargers drafted Kellen Winslow and Dan Fouts became one of the most dangerous passers in the league. San Diego no longer needed a one-hit wonder running back and he was traded to the 49ers during the 1980 season, where he would end his career.
8 Steve Slaton
Another running back and certainly not the last. They certainly seem to have the shortest lifespan in the NFL, don’t they?
Steve Slaton was taken by the Houston Texans in 2008 with a third round pick. He was made starter right away and had a great season. He ran for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns in an 8-8 season, which was considered pretty good by the team’s standards back then.
Head coach Gary Kubiack wasn’t a fan of Slaton though, replacing him the following season as goal-line back with the mediocre Chris Brown. He also asked Slaton to bulk up. Slaton gained 17 pounds in the offseason, which cost him a lot of his speed and didn’t quite make him a bowling ball.
Slaton fell off immediately, netting less than 500 yards in his second season. After that, he vanished with a trace, picking up 177 yards over the next two years on his way to picking up unemployment checks.
7 Kendrell Bell
Kendrell Bell came into the league in 2001 with the Pittsburgh Steelers and added a lot to the new Steel Curtain. He burst onto the scene at the linebacker position, collecting nine sacks and a forced fumble. It was enough to earn him Defensive Rookie of the Year and talk that he was the next Mean Joe Greene.
That didn’t happen obviously, as his production gradually fell over the next two seasons before his skills eroded completely by his fourth year.
He dealt with injuries a lot in his next few years, but the final nail in his career was a knee injury that made him miss most of the 2004 season. While he was able to come back that year, he never again got more than 1.5 sacks in a season. He was traded to the Chiefs, but by then his career was all but over.
6 Rashaan Salaam
Drafted by the Bears in 1995, Rashaan Salaam ran for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. But after that season, he collapsed quicker than just about anyone else on this list as well.
As he admits, the more success he had, the more complacent he got. He dealt with injury problems in his second and third year, but what really did him in was his self-proclaimed laziness and excessive marijuana use. It’s hard to imagine these days a team would dump a player because he smoked a little grass, but that’s how it was back then (again, sarcasm) .
After the 1995 season, he only achieved about 600 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the next two seasons. He was cut after that year and couldn’t find a place in the league. He made several comeback attempts, but he never stuck anywhere.
If there’s any consultation, it’s that Salaam still holds the record for youngest player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Not quite as prestigious as the Heisman trophy, is it?
5 Brian Cushing
Perhaps it would be unfair to say that former USC linebacker “fell apart” after his rookie season. He might be lower on this list – maybe not on it at all – if it wasn’t discovered that after his rookie season he was taking performance enhancing drugs.
It was suspected throughout his college career that he might have been on something, but it was never proven until after his rookie year in the NFL. And what a great rookie year it was too, netting 86 solo tackles, four sacks, four interceptions, and even a safety. He was so good he even got Rookie of the Year honors.
But after his 2009 rookie campaign, it was discovered he had abnormally high levels of human chorionic gonadotropin in his system and he was suspended the first four games of the following season. Since then, he had a decent year in 2011, but has never came close to duplicating his 2009 statistics.
4 Ickey Woods
Elbert “Ickey” Woods shuffled his way to one hell of a rookie season. Well, by 1988 standards anyway. He ran for over 1,000 yards and scored a whopping 15 touchdowns, all from the full back position. He became a fan favorite as well for his Ickey Shuffle, a terrible yet charming end zone dance celebration which is still remembered by Bengals fans today.
In his second season, he tore his ACL and his career was effectively over. By the time he came back the next season, his role was already filled by Harold Green.
Woods would stick around with the team for two more seasons, but he was injury prone and clearly wasn’t the same player he was in 1988. He was only 26 years old when he had to retire from the NFL and is now most famous for getting cold cuts in a GEICO commercial.
3 Robert Griffin III
Oh, come on. Like you didn’t think RGIII would wind up on this list somewhere?
The story of Robert Griffin III’s rise and fall in our nation’s capital is more complicated than a simple injury, although that certainly played a factor. After winning Rookie of the Year honors after the 2012 season, it all began to fall apart instantly.
There were rumors that he didn’t get along with head coach Mike Shanahan, and that Shanahan felt like the team was being controlled by Griffin, while the management didn’t have his back. This turned the head coach/quarterback relationship into a living hell. When RGIII got injured in his second season, Shanahan put him out there too soon, which made Griffin’s play suffer and caused the injury not to properly heal.
Shanahan eventually pulled Griffin for Kirk Cousins, whom Shanahan drafted the same year as picking up Griffin as insurance.
Griffin struggled the rest of his career in Washington, getting out played by Cousins and even Colt McCoy in 2014. He was replaced for good by Cousins last season and has since signed with the Browns in the offseason, which means his career is definitely over now.
2 Greg Cook
Greg Cook is frequently compared to Joe Montana, or at least, he could have been.
Cook was named the Bengals starting quarterback in 1969 after being taken fifth overall in the draft. As a rookie, and with the backing of Bill Walsh, he threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. It doesn’t sound like much today, but. in the late 60s and early 70s. that was impressive for a rookie. This was the start of the revolutionary Bill Walsh West Coast offensive too.
Unfortunately for Cook, the star rookie literally started to fall apart after just his first season. His shoulder deteriorated, so much so that he required surgery for his rotator cuff. Using the crude, harmful surgery of the day, surgeons cut through muscle to get to the cuff, destroying his arm in the process.
His arm was damaged beyond repair, made worse by Cook’s continuing to play in his rookie season and the surgery. He made a comeback attempt in 1973, but playing with his arm was like watching a paper doll made of soggy newspaper try to throw an 800 pound boulder.
1 Vince Young
Vince Young had a fantastic career at Texas, and when he was drafted third overall in 2006 by the Titans, he threw for over 2,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. It wasn’t a spectacular year, but it was good enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year award.
After 2006 though, Young collapsed rapidly. In 2007, he threw 17 interceptions to only nine touchdowns. He was eventually replaced by an aging Kerry Collins before he was cut entirely. He tried to comeback with a few other teams, but those didn't work out.
A big part of that was his perceived laziness. Teammates anonymously called his lack of work ethic “legendary” and questioned how badly he wanted to play in the NFL. He blew all of his money on silly investments, jewelry, cars, and cheesecakes. Yes, cheesecakes, spending upwards of $5,000 a week on them during the 2011 season.
He was eventually cut by the Titans in 2010 after a somewhat decent season, landing with Philadelphia the next year. It would be the last time he played in his career though, flailing and stumbling through a 1-2 record and throwing nine more interceptions.
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