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John Amis/Associated Press
It doesn’t always happen instantly for NFL rookies.
In fact, first-year players are seemingly shedding the bust label rather than suffering a sophomore slump at an increased percentage as of late.
This season served up a couple good examples at wideout. The Los Angeles Chargers made Mike Williams the seventh overall pick in 2017, and he caught just 11 passes in 10 games as a rookie. Fast forward to his sophomore year, and Williams hauled in 43 receptions for 664 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season.
Or look at two picks later: Cincinnati Bengals receiver John Ross couldn’t stay on the field in his first year, getting just one touch all season. In 2018, he scored seven touchdowns as one of the league’s deadliest red-zone weapons.
Point is, the book is never fully written on rookies who land with a thud upon arrival. Injuries, misuse by coaches and other factors can change in the second year, not to mention the basic individual development arc of each player.
We’ll examine the following players who were rookie busts but should have an instant turnaround in their second year.
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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
The Cincinnati Bengals made Billy Price the 21st pick of the 2018 draft with the expectation his arrival would compensate for the loss of starting center Russell Bodine. He was also expected to pair well with new line coach Frank Pollack.
Instead, Price was part of one of the league’s worst units when he was actually on the field. He suffered a foot injury in Week 2 and missed time, finishing his rookie year with just 10 appearances and, to help illustrate his struggles, a 49.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
To make matters worse, Price air-mailed the snap on which Andy Dalton tore a ligament in his thumb and was ultimately placed on injured reserve. The Bengals quarterback tried to recover the errant snap and suffered played his last snap of the 2018 season in the process.
The good news for Price? Change is descending upon Cincinnati, and a new set of eyes on a talented cast of offensive weapons could mean smarter schemes and faster plays. He missed 2018 OTAs and minicamp due to a torn pectoral suffered at the NFL combine, so consistently being on the field this summer will give him a chance to improve.
Dalton should also be back in time for the start of the 2019 season, so a full year with his starting quarterback, as well as probable talent additions to the line itself, increase Price’s chances of success.
And if all else fails, the Bengals could choose to shift him over to right guard considering his versatile experience coming out of Ohio State. Either way, he’s in a position to have a big rebound.
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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
Unfortunately for Vita Vea, a brutal opener to his pro career makes it tough to highlight a budding finish to his rookie season.
While Vea improved down the stretch, he struggled for most of the year. He suffered a calf injury in training camp that cost him three games, so he didn’t see the field until Week 4.
From there, Vea recorded just three sacks and 28 total tackles over 13 games despite having the benefit of playing alongside a talent like Gerald McCoy. While Vea wasn’t solely responsible for the Bucs’ lackluster effort, his efforts weren’t enough to stop the team from allowing 259.4 passing yards per game (ranked 26th), 123.9 rushing yards (24th) and 29.0 points (31st). The defense tallied just 38 sacks, tied for 19th.
Taking Vea 12th overall, the Buccaneers likely expected more after his return from injury. It especially stings in hindsight considering they passed on talents like Da’Ron Payne, Marcus Davenport and Derwin James, all of whom were taken within the next five picks.
But the slow start and struggling to make an impact on one of the league’s worst units isn’t a death knell for Vea. He’s got Bruce Arians as a head coach now, and the talent surrounding him as a centerpiece in the middle should only improve.
Provided Vea has a fully healthy offseason, he’s got the natural talent to string together a strong 16 games.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
Running backs have a habit of appearing on lists like this annually.
While running back seems to be one of the easier positions for rookies to come in and excel right away, a lack of usage or injuries tend to get in the way of these safe expectations.
For Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice, it was a case of the latter.
Guice’s rookie campaign lasted all of one preseason game, where he rattled off 19 yards on six totes before going down with what was originally diagnosed as a sprain. It was later diagnosed as an ACL tear that required additional operations due to infection.
While Guice was dealing with the injury, 33-year-old Adrian Peterson rumbled to 1,042 yards and seven touchdowns behind an ever-changing offensive line due to another rash of injuries in Washington.
A hard reset on Guice’s career in 2019 is nothing but a good thing. He’ll land front and center in a rush-first attack trying to compensate for an offense that will either start an iffy veteran quarterback (Colt McCoy, Josh Johnson) or perhaps even a rookie in the wake of Alex Smith’s devastating injury. Guice will do so behind what is hopefully a healthy, if not upgraded, offensive line while flanked by pass-catching extraordinaire Chris Thompson.
Guice returns to an even better situation next year with health the only thing standing in his way.
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Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Similar to Joe Mixon the year before him, Rashaad Penny landed in a great-looking situation and saw odd usage from his coaches throw him into the rookie-bust category.
Penny, the 27th pick by the Seattle Seahawks, finished the season third on the team in carries with 85. Both Mike Davis and Chris Carson checked in north of the 100-carry mark, with the latter registering 247. As for Penny, he turned the limited chances into 419 yards and two scores on a superb 4.9 per-carry average.
Despite a strong average and presumably fresh legs, the Seahawks only ran their first-round rookie four times in a 24-22 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card Round. Penny averaged 7.3 yards on those chances, while Carson went 13 times for 20 yards (1.5 average), and the team averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on the ground total.
For what it’s worth, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll seems to think Penny will have a nice rebound next season, according to Andy Patton of Seahawks Wire.
“He’s been growing throughout the process,” Carroll said. “It was a jump for him, like it is for the guys. It’s a jump to be in the limelight, particularly when you’re a number one pick and everyone puts the pressure and expectations on you. There’s a lot going on. You’ve just got to go through it. He’s a young kid.”
It is hard to argue against Penny rebounding next year. Davis is a free agent, which could leave a 112-carry gap in the offense. And if the coaches like what they’re seeing, a healthy Penny might be able to steal the starting job over the summer before the season even starts.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
It says quite a bit about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that their first two picks in the class landed on a list like this.
The Buccaneers made Ronald Jones the No. 38 pick in the second round and proceeded to give him just 23 carries over his nine appearances.
This one wasn’t all on weird coaching decisions, though. Jones had a chance to seize the lead job with Doug Martin gone and the only serious competition being Peyton Barber. That Barber, by the way, finished the season with a paltry 3.7 per-carry average over 16 games and 234 attempts.
But back to Jones. He ran for 22 yards on 28 carries in the preseason. The 23 attempts he saw in the regular season went for 44 yards, or written another way, a 1.9 per-carry average.
To be fair, Jones battled injuries throughout the season, and then-head coach Dirk Koetter even noted the blocking wasn’t exactly helping during the preseason, according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.
“Ronald Jones had three straight runs in the first half where we had a mental error by the blockers up front,” Koetter said. “Then the fourth one is the one where we were backed up on our 1-yard line, and I’m sure if I was Ronald Jones, I’d be thinking the same thing: get this ball out of the end zone after I had just been hit for a 5-yard loss.”
If the Arians hire was good news for Vea, imagine what it will do for Jones. Not only could a coaching change, good health and possible upgrades in the offensive trenches help him, but Barber is also a free agent (restricted, at least) and Jacquizz Rodgers is headed to the open market.
On paper, Jones gets to hit the reset button in a much better situation and give it another go.
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Gary McCullough/Associated Press
Of the receivers drafted in the top 75 this year, DJ Chark Jr. classifies as the biggest bust.
Chark, taken 61st overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round, appeared in 11 games and caught just 14 passes. To make it worse, that came on 32 targets, and he failed to reach the end zone at all. He struggled with drops and muffed a punt, and he fielded just seven kickoff returns, although one of those went for 47 yards.
The hype set the bar too high for Chark. He ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the combine and ranked among the best at his position in the vertical (40 inches) and broad jump (129). With Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns gone, there was a chance Chark could step in and immediately make big plays on the basis of his elite athleticism alone. To top it off, Marqise Lee went to injured reserve in August.
Alas, a combination of injuries and poor performances—not to mention inadequate quarterback play—kept Chark from consistently seeing the field despite the top three slots on the depth chart needing new faces to step up.
During the upcoming offseason, Donte Moncrief will become a free agent, and the Jaguars will have both the seventh pick in the draft and free agency to address other team deficiencies (quarterback included), all of which should have Chark in a better position next season.
Similar to John Ross, if the coaching staff can put his elite physical skills to use in the proper circumstances, he’s capable of putting up a rebound season and making his stumble out of the gates an afterthought.
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Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Billed as a big-play tight end and going into an offense in dire need of help after losing a skill-position star like Jarvis Landry, Mike Gesicki fell flat in Year 1 with the Miami Dolphins.
If told Gesicki got a full 16 games in, most would guess he put up solid numbers under the watchful eye of an offensive guru like head coach Adam Gase.
Fast forward to present day: Gase is no longer at the helm after being fired at the end of the season, and the 42nd pick of the 2018 draft caught just 22 passes for 202 yards. Gesicki finished seventh on the team in targets and got a maximum of five looks in a game—twice.
Unfortunate, considering despite a raw-looking skill set, the Penn State product drummed up a huge set of expectations thanks to a jaw-dropping combine performance. Checking in at 6’6″ and 247 pounds, Gesicki posted a 4.54 40-yard dash and 22 reps on the bench press, to name a few of the impressive numbers.
But it doesn’t all fall on Gesicki’s head. The Dolphins are consistently one of the worst organizations in the NFL. And under center, Ryan Tannehill could only muster 11 starts while giving the rest to journeyman Brock Osweiler.
The good news? The torrid state of affairs around Gesicki should get cleaned up, especially if the Dolphins hop on the offensive-minded coach bandwagon. Regardless, the new coach will presumably lean on high-upside younger pieces to carry a rebuilding roster as a means of giving him the best chance of keeping the job.
Gesicki is key in this regard, so a simple emphasis on getting him involved in 2019 should lead to a massive rebound campaign.
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Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
Josh Rosen isn’t a lost cause just yet.
In fact, those who actually paid attention to the Arizona Cardinals know the 10th overall pick was hardly a problem as a rookie.
But the numbers lie. For those counting, Rosen appeared in 14 games, completing just 55.2 percent of his passes on the way to 2,278 yards and 11 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, not to mention 10 total fumbles.
Fine. But Rosen had to play behind one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines, which allowed 52 overall sacks. He also had to deal with the Cardinals first giving the gig to Sam Bradford, sacrificing his reps with starters before getting thrown to the wolves.
And not in a ho-hum sort of way. The Cardinals, for whatever reason, threw Rosen into the fire in Week 3 against the Khalil Mack-led Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter with less than five minutes left. Predictably, it ended poorly and the Cardinals lost, which isn’t much of a surprise for an organization that just fired head coach Steve Wilks and had previously fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy for the stunning misuse of former All-Pro David Johnson.
In other words, Rosen will get a much better shake in 2019. It starts with the hiring of an offensive mind like Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and will go from there. Larry Fitzgerald may or may not be back, which is fine, but Rosen’s rapport with second-rounder Christian Kirk, Johnson and an improved roster under the watchful eye of strong coaching will equate to perhaps the biggest sophomore rebound of any.