Being a rookie in the NFL is a very hard job. You have to learn a new system, play against the best players on the planet, and prove you are worthy of playing time and future contracts. Some players can’t live up to the hype and fold under the pressure, while others shock the world by storming out of the gate to immediate success.
However, not everyone who shines in their rookie year goes on to have long and productive careers. In fact, some rookie sensations fade into obscurity just as quickly as they rose to stardom, finding themselves glued to the bench or out of the league completely in matter of just a few years. This article is going to take a look at 15 players who were bright stars after their rookie seasons, only to have their career fall flat.
15. Kevin Jones
Kevin Jones was a consensus All-American running back at Virginia Tech, which led him to be drafted in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. His rookie year was one to remember as he put up nearly 1,200 rushing yards in 15 games played, plus another 180 receiving, scoring six touchdowns. Just when the Lions thought they had their running back of the future, his career started a downward turn almost instantly. A string of injuries limited his effectiveness. He never broke even 700 yards ever again in his career and was out of the league by 2008, after a brief and unsuccessful stint with the Chicago Bears.
14. Michael Clayton
Another member of the 2004 NFL Draft, wide receiver Michael Clayton was selected 15th overall after a solid collegiate career at LSU. He had a very promising rookie season with Tampa Bay, as he led all rookies (and his own team) with 80 catches and 1,193 yards receiving. In addition to that, he also racked up seven touchdowns. Unfortunately, he had a disappointing sophomore season (only 372 yards and zero touchdowns) and then injuries and poor play eventually led him to be released from the Bucs in 2010 and then find himself out of the league in 2011.
13. Kendrell Bell
Kendrell Bell was selected in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was immediately a good fit for the team at linebacker. Bell was a great blitzer and helped the Steelers to a 13-3 record in his first season. He finished with nine sacks and 70 tackles, and won the defensive Rookie of the Year award. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to match even close to that success in any of his next few seasons due to injuries and uninspiring play. He signed with the Chiefs after being released by the Steelers, and played for another three years before retiring.
12. Vince Young
Vince Young had one of the best college careers for a quarterback in history, and as a result, many had high hopes for his NFL career. He was drafted by the Titans with the third overall pick and was their starting quarterback. He had a good rookie season for the Tennessee Titans, as he was named a Pro Bowl reserve and won the offensive Rookie of the Year after throwing for 2,199 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushing for 552 yards and seven more TDs. However, his skill and commitment to the game soon dwindled following his second season. He found himself struggling for the rest of his career, playing his final NFL game in 2011. He bounced around various practice squads and reserve teams until 2014, and then tried to get a job in the CFL — and also failed.
11. Don Woods
Don Woods was drafted in the sixth round of the 1974 NFL Draft by the Gren Bay Packers after a stellar career as a dual-threat QB in college. However, he was released by Green Bay in training camp and was then picked up by the Chargers, who thought he could be converted into a pure running back. The pickup was a good one, as Woods set a then-NFL rookie record when he rushed for 1,162 yards in only 12 games, and added seven touchdowns. He won the Rookie of the Year and the team thought they had their RB of the future. However, he never rushed for more then 514 yards or three touchdowns in any of his next six seasons, as injuries slowed him down considerably.
10. Brian Cushing
After a solid college career at USC, Brian Cushing was selected with the 15th pick of the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans. He was supposed to be their linebacker of the future and after his rookie year, it seemed he would be. He had four sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 86 tackles (with 47 more assisted tackles). However, before the 2010 season started he was found to have been using PEDs and was suspended. Despite sticking around and playing with the team for almost a decade, he was never able to have another season quite as good as his rookie year, with many believing it was the PEDs that helped him achieve those outstanding numbers.
9. Steve Slaton
We go from one Houston Texan to another. Steve Slaton was a superstar at West Virginia and put up over 1,000 yards and 15 TDs in each of his three seasons in the NCAA. He was drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft and put up amazing numbers in his rookie year. He rushed for nearly 1,300 yards, and scored nine touchdowns, adding another 377 yards and a single TD while receiving. However, he fell off the proverbial cliff and never managed to get even half those numbers in any other NFL season, and he was out of the NFL in 2011.
8. Mark Anderson
Although he was only a fifth round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Mark Anderson thrived as a pass rusher in his rookie season with the Chicago Bears. He had 12 total sacks as a rookie, which was a rookie team record. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, which is pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even an everyday starter for the team. However, he really didn’t do much the next few seasons, never recording more than five sacks, and was released from the Bears in 2010. He had a brief renaissance in 2011 with the Patriots, but eventually called it quits in 2013.
7. Cadillac Williams
Williams was a standout player at Auburn in college, and many experts believed he would have a major impact in his rookie year in the NFL. They were right. After being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the fifth overall pick in 2005, he had a phenomenal first professional season. He ran for over 1,100 yards and six touchdowns en route to a Rookie of the Year win. However, injuries and poor offensive line play held him back for the rest of his NFL career, as he never hit the 1,000 yard mark again.
6. Ickey Woods
In the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals made Ickey Woods the newest addition to their team. He became a breakout star as a rookie, as he rushed for over 1,000 yards and got 15 touchdowns, which were both franchise rookie records. He even took his team to the Super Bowl (which they unfortunately lost). Sadly, injuries caused him to miss the better part of the next few seasons, and when he returned, he was no longer a starter. Despite the popularity of the “Ickey Shuffle” celebration dance, his career soon fizzled out.
5. Greg Cook
Greg Cook won the Rookie of the Year in 1969 as the quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, with 15 touchdowns and over 1,800 passing yards. While those numbers might not seem impressive in the modern day, pass heavy NFL, they were quite impressive for a rookie back when every team relied on the run game to move the ball. Unfortunately, he was never able to follow up that impressive start to his career as he suffered a major shoulder injury that led to the end of his career after just one season. He attempted a comeback in 1973, but it fell short — he appeared in a single game, going 1-for-3 for just 11-yards.
4. Robert Edwards
Despite being somewhat injury prone in college, Robert Edwards was selected by the New England Patriots in the first round of the 1998 in the NFL Draft. It looked to be a good decision early, as Roberts brushed off previous knee and hand injuries, running for over 1,100 yards his rookie year, adding nine rushing touchdowns and three more receiving. However, disaster struck as he blew out his knee in a flag football game during the Pro Bowl week, and nearly had to get it amputated. He wouldn’t play ball for another four years. When he came back in 2002 as a Miami Dolphin, he was never able to play up to the level he did in his rookie season. He did manage to have a few productive seasons in the CFL though, in 2005 and 2006, so at there’s a somewhat happy ending for Edwards.
3. Olandis Gary
When Terrell Davis got injured in 1999, Olandis Gary got his chance to shine for the Denver Broncos. He took advantage of that chance, and rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He was still just 25-years-old, and the future was bright for the young running back. Unfortunately, a major knee injury early in his second season caused him to miss a ton of games. When he did finally return, his production dropped dramatically and he was off the team a few seasons later. Many attribute his success to the strong offensive line play of the Broncos in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
2. Robert Griffin III
Robert Griffin III is still in the NFL today, but only barely. There is no doubt that he is a shell of his former self though. He was drafted second overall in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins. Initially, it seemed like he would be the star that everyone projected, as he threw for over 3,000 yards to go along with 20 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. He also ran for 800+ yards and seven more TDs. However, his super mobile playing style caught up to him quickly. Injuries halted his career in Washington, and a short stint in Cleveland wasn’t very good either. Now he has a chance at redemption with the Baltimore Ravens, but as a third stringer. We doubt he even sees the field much this season, if at all.
1. Rashaan Salaam
After a great college career, in which he won the 1994 Heisman Trophy, running back Rashaan Salaam was drafted in the first round of the 1995 Draft and the Chicago Bears had high hopes for him. In his rookie year, he exceeded the already-hefty expectations as he rushed for 10 TDs and over 1,000 yards. However, he only spent a total of three seasons with the Bears as injuries and fumbles led him to be sent packing to the Dolphins. But when he failed a physical, the trade was cancelled. He spent 1999 with the Browns and Packers, and was never able to reclaim his past glory. He went to play briefly in the XFL and tried out for the CFL, but ended up suspended as a member of the Toronto Argonauts — the final days of his football career. Tragically, Salaam died by suicide in 2016 when he was just 42-years-old.