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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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