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The NFL draft serves as a benchmark of expectations for players entering the league.
Those who go in the first round are widely expected to be starters from Day 1, while Day 3 picks are considered good value if they earn a rotational role. Getting picked earlier means a bigger paycheck, but it also means a bigger spotlight.
Player development doesn’t work the same way. As we see every year, there are players who go in the first two rounds who either never quite pan out or take a while to do so. As their careers go on, the odds that they ever shed the dreaded “bust” label get slimmer.
Every year, there are players who beat that rap. Whether it’s a change of scenery, a change in scheme or just plain old player development, there are those players who finally show the potential that made them a high draft pick in the first place.
Here’s a look around the league at some players who might just fit the criteria in 2020.
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The Bengals just can’t quit John Ross, and for good reason.
They used the No. 9 pick on the speedy receiver out of Washington in the 2017 draft based on his tantalizing potential, which is still there. The problem is, he’s responded by posting just 716 yards in three years.
He’s been a candidate for this list in each of the last two seasons, but the reason Ross has yet to reach his potential is beyond his control: He can’t stay healthy. Ross lost all but three games of his rookie season to a knee injury and a shoulder injury. In 2018, he struggled to be a contributor between the 20s but caught eight of 11 targets in the red zone to score five touchdowns, giving him as many red-zone touchdowns as Julio Jones, Tyreek Hill and Larry Fitzgerald.
Last season, he was showing his potential once again, compiling 11 catches for 270 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games of the season. He then followed that up with two duds and spent time on the sideline due to another shoulder injury. He missed a total of eight games and returned for the final four of the season, but he struggled to make an impact again.
2020 feels like a make-or-break year for the man who ran a record-breaking 4.22 40-yard dash. The Bengals added Clemson’s Tee Higgins in the NFL draft, and his red-zone abilities combined with a massive catch radius give him a lot of upside.
But Ross is the more experienced option with better overall athleticism. If he can finally manage to avoid the injury bug, he could finally live up to his potential and prove he belongs in the Bengals receiving corps for the foreseeable future.
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When you’re a first-round draft pick, it’s not ideal to lose your job to a third-round pick by the following season. But that’s exactly what happened to Hayden Hurst with the emergence of Mark Andrews last year in Baltimore.
Actually, Hurst was the third tight end behind Nick Boyle. He was only on the field for 41.4 percent of Baltimore’s offensive snaps.
Hurst did well with the 39 targets he saw, hauling in 30 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns. Now, he’s headed to Atlanta to play in a tight end-friendly offense as the presumptive No. 1 option.
Austin Hooper left Atlanta for Cleveland after a season in which he was targeted 97 times. The second most-targeted tight end was Luke Stocker with 14. It’s not a perfect comparison, but if you project Hurst’s 2019 catch rate and yards per reception based on Hooper’s targets, you’d end up with a stat line of 74 catches, 865 yards and five touchdowns.
That’s right in line with Hooper’s numbers from last season. While Hurst had to deal with a run-heavy offense and crowded tight end room in Baltimore, he’ll have the opportunity to showcase the potential that made him a first-round pick to begin with in Atlanta.
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There’s no way around it: Taco Charlton has flat-out earned the title of “bust” to this point. That’s the only way to describe a first-round pick who is on his third team since being drafted in 2017.
Charlton’s first two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys yielded just four sacks in 27 games played. He was released by the team just weeks into the 2019 season and found a new home with the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins released him in April after he put up five sacks in 10 games last season.
The good news for Charlton is he couldn’t have asked for a better landing spot for 2020. The Kansas City Chiefs scooped him up on a one-year, $825,000 deal. Not only will he be surrounded by veterans who know what it takes to win a Super Bowl, but there’s also a pathway for him to play a meaningful role as a schematic fit.
In 2019, the Chiefs picked up former second-rounder Emmanuel Ogbah and helped him revive his career. He never lived up to his potential as the 2016 32nd overall pick in Cleveland, but in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, he thrived by matching his career-high 5.5 sacks and adding 14 pressures in almost half the snaps that he had seen the year before in Cleveland.
He earned a two-year, $15 million deal with Miami in the offseason, leaving his role open for a player like Charlton. At 6’6″, 270 pounds, Charlton is a similarly built heavy-handed pass-rusher who can thrive in Spagnuolo’s system.
If Charlton is ever going to cash in on his potential and rejuvenate his career, it will be with the Chiefs.
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The Cleveland Browns made David Njoku the third tight end taken in the 2017 draft, but the results have been disappointing considering he was the 29th overall pick. He has a little more than 1,000 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in his three years with the team.
It would be easy to write off his fit with the Browns considering they just signed Austin Hooper to a four-year, $42 million deal, but the arrival of Kevin Stefanski as the new head coach could spell good news for both Hooper and Njoku.
While Stefanski served as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, they ran more two-tight end sets than nearly any other team. They were in either 12 (one running back and two tight ends) or 22 (two running backs and two tight ends) 47 percent of the time. Tight ends Kyle Rudolph (48) and Irv Smith Jr. (47) saw nearly identical targets last season, even though Smith Jr. was a rookie.
Tight end is a position that usually takes longer to develop than others. Even George Kittle and Rob Gronkowski struggled to put up big numbers in their rookie seasons. Darren Waller didn’t top 100 yards receiving once in his first three seasons before breaking out with a 1,000-yard 2019 campaign.
Njoku appeared to start figuring things out in 2018. He had 56 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns in a turbulent season that saw Hue Jackson get fired halfway through. Unfortunately, Njoku’s 2019 season was marred by a concussion and broken wrist. He had just five catches in four games, leading to renewed questions about his potential.
Njoku’s athleticism combined with a longer learning curve leaves hope that he can still develop into a weapon on offense. The Browns didn’t do much to upgrade their roster with a third receiver, bringing back Rashard Higgins and drafting tight end Harrison Bryant in the fourth round and wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones in the sixth. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Njoku get more targets than any of those three and thrive as the team’s de facto third receiver with Hooper playing the more traditional inline tight end position.
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The Patriots offense is in for a major overhaul in 2020. That’s just a fact when you lose your quarterback of 20 years. The end of the Tom Brady era means uncertain times in New England, but there are certainly those who could benefit from it.
One such player could be N’Keal Harry. The Patriots added the receiver in the first round of the 2019 draft, but he failed to live up to that position in his rookie season. He was targeted just 24 times in 220 snaps in seven games. Even when he was on the field, it didn’t appear he had earned Brady’s trust, meaning his opportunities were limited.
He flashed some of the upside that made him a first-round pick, though. There was the controversial non-touchdown against the Chiefs in which he showed what he can do after the catch, and both of his actual touchdowns against the Bengals and Cowboys were demonstrations of good hands around the goal line.
Going into a talent-rich draft at the receiver position, the Patriots could easily have taken another pass-catcher if they didn’t believe in Harry’s skills. But they didn’t, making free agent Damiere Byrd their most high-profile addition at the position.
The Pats receiving corps was all over the place last season. Jakobi Meyers showed potential, Mohamed Sanu didn’t make the impact that was expected, and Julian Edelman was left trying to carry the offense more often than not.
Jarrett Stidham will presumably be the starting quarterback. The Pats showed their confidence in him when they elected not to draft a quarterback this year, much like they didn’t draft a receiver. That shows the organization is expecting big leaps from both Stidham and Harry in 2020.
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Rashan Gary has always had the pressure of living up to the hype. Coming out of high school, he was the No. 1 recruit in the nation but failed to live up to expectations as a game-changing pass-rusher for the Michigan Wolverines. He only put up a half-sack as a freshman and followed that up with seasons of 5.5 and 3.5 sacks in 22 games over his sophomore and junior seasons.
His lack of production in Ann Arbor was cause for concern when the Packers made him the 12th overall pick in the 2019 draft, and his rookie campaign left him still looking to prove himself. Sitting behind Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, he managed just two sacks and five pressures on the season.
That inability to get on the field is alarming for a player drafted in the top 15, so 2020 should be the year he makes a leap forward.
There are signs Gary can tap into his massive potential. His speed score, agility score and all other athletic metrics are in the 97th percentile or higher on Player Profiler. With that kind of physicality and little actual production, he was always going to be a project in the first year.
Gary’s best play happened at the end of the regular season. From Weeks 13-16, he had eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and two pressures while playing fewer than 19 snaps in each game. That’s a fairly disruptive player in a small role. Gary is still 22 years old and not a finished product yet, so calling him a bust is premature.
However, 2020 has to be the season where he starts showing promise, or the clock will be ticking in Green Bay.
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The Jaguars have hit on a lot of their recent picks on the defensive side of the ball. Yannick Ngakoue, Ronnie Harrison and Myles Jack make up a nucleus of young playmakers who could have a bright future (in the unlikely event Ngakoue stays long-term).
However, Taven Bryan hasn’t shown the team much since being drafted No. 29 overall in 2018, adding just three sacks and 16 pressures in two seasons as a rotational player. Those aren’t exciting numbers, but there is still reason to believe the best is yet to come for the Florida product.
First, there was a step up in improvement for Bryan in 2019. He started eight games, posted the eighth-highest run grade among interior defenders in November, per Pro Football Focus, and finished the season with a respectable 75.6 overall grade. That’s all while taking a much bigger role than he had in his rookie season. He went from playing 29 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018 to 46 percent in 2019.
The defensive line bid adieu to Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus this offseason. That leaves Bryan and Abry Jones as the most experienced interior defenders on the roster.
The Jaguars could have taken Javon Kinlaw with the No. 9 pick. Instead, they opted to wait on defensive tackle and took DaVon Hamilton in the third round. Hamilton is a much bigger threat to Jones as a nose tackle than Bryan, who is a true three-tech defensive tackle. Rodney Gunter should be his primary competition for reps.