Half of American marriages end in divorce, so football teams can’t be expected to do much better than 50-50 with picking the right players in the NFL draft. Scroll through any first round of your choosing—seriously, any of them—and there is (at least) one whiff for every hit, and sometimes two or three. That is the Debbie Downer reality, but the offseason is for optimism. In both traditional and social media, the hype around players is usually optimistic, but it also creates a skewed perception of whether players are likely to pan out. While we obsess over draft busts, the word bust is an unfair label that speaks more to a team’s failure to mesh their scouting, coaching, and long-term planning (plus our misguided expectations) than it does the player. With the first round soon upon us, let’s do a little expectation management. After months of looking through rose-colored glasses, let’s examine some thorns. Here are the riskiest players likely to go in this year’s first round.
Physically, D.K. Metcalf is an outlier like we’ve rarely seen. His straight-line speed (4.33 40-yard dash) at his weight (228 pounds) puts him in a class with Calvin Johnson and … that’s it. On the other hand, his agility scores are some of the worst ever measured for a receiver. His physical skill set is almost unprecedented, but in terms of how he plays football (which is the important part), we’ve seen plenty of versions of Metcalf before. They’ve just all been a lot smaller.
Metcalf is not Calvin Johnson. He’s most similar to a different receiver from the 2007 NFL draft—he’s essentially a bigger Ted Ginn Jr. Metcalf, whose college career ended with a neck injury, mostly ran upfield at Ole Miss, and he rarely ran routes that broke inward to the middle of the field or involved sharp cuts. He lined up almost exclusively on the left side of the field. He wasn’t the most productive receiver on his own team—fellow Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown was. Metcalf told Uproxx this week that his limited route-running was the topic teams most frequently asked him about in predraft interviews.
This evidence lies in the eye of the beholder. Some see all of the above as evidence Metcalf has plenty of room to develop and that he can’t be faulted because his coaches never asked him to use his full skill set. But believing that he will develop into a player who can create separation over the middle of the field may be wishful thinking. The agility scores suggest Metcalf will struggle on routes that don’t stretch downfield, making him less valuable. It’s the NFL equivalent of playing five feet off of Ben Simmons because he isn’t shooting a 3.
If Metcalf doesn’t add other routes, he could still become a fine receiver. (Ted Ginn is still in the league a decade later!) But Metcalf’s upside will be determined by his versatility, not his athleticism, and that’s the biggest question mark around his game.
Best Case: Faster Dez Bryant
Worst Case: Big Ted Ginn
Lock can launch the ball. He has the biggest arm in the draft, and it’s not close. He had the third-best deep passer rating of any quarterback in this year’s class (126.3 on 64 attempts). He is athletic, elusive, and can throw on the run and from multiple arm angles, à la Matt Stafford. But that on its own isn’t enough to warrant a first-round pick. His inconsistent throwing mechanics contribute to sporadic accuracy, which compounds his sometimes questionable decision-making. The latter can be partially ascribed to having three offensive coordinators install three systems in his four years as a starter, but the accuracy will be tougher to correct. If he has similar coaching turnover in the NFL as he had in college, he may become a career backup.
Best Case: Better Jay Cutler
Worst Case: Ryan Tannehill without the contract extension
Gary comes with enormous pedigree. He was the no. 1 recruit in the class of 2016, and his athleticism for his size is phenomenal. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly projects him in the top 20. Yet it’s risky to assume Gary’s athleticism will transfer to NFL production; he struggled to produce in college football. In 22 games across the last two seasons, Gary had just 9.5 sacks. As Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus wrote about Gary, “When we filter out plays with no blitzes and no stunts, Gary ranks just 64th among edge defenders in the draft class with at least 100 opportunities and only 30th among those with at least 250 rushes.”
Gary was often outplayed at Michigan by fellow defensive lineman Chase Winovich, who was far less heralded, but to those who watched Michigan games, far more visible. The team that drafts Gary could expect him to make waves but may find he disappears a bit too often for a first-rounder.
Best Case: Multiple years alongside Aaron Donald as first-team All-Pro
Worst Case: Robert Nkemdiche
Burns is appropriately named. The Florida State pass rusher is quick off the snap, fast enough to get around tackles, and agile enough to bend in and get to the quarterback. But his ability to speed rush isn’t the problem. It’s his ability to go through them.
By the (massive) standards of NFL defensive lineman, Burns is small. He was listed at 235 pounds at FSU in 2018. The year before that, he was listed at 227 pounds. As The Ringer’s Danny Kelly noted in his NFL Draft Guide, there is little precedent for players at that weight having an impact as a pass rusher, and there is a pragmatic reason: When an offensive tackle is concerned that a defensive end can speed around them or barrel through them in pass protection, the tackle has to set his stance and use his initial steps to hedge against both possibilities. Set yourself too firmly to avoid the bull rush and the defensive end goes around you. Drift laterally too quickly, and you can end up on your ass. But when a player doesn’t pose the threat of barreling through them, a tackle can focus on stopping the speed rush and shepherd the defensive end harmlessly downfield, knowing the quarterback can step up in the pocket. Just like D.K. Metcalf’s burner speed isn’t as dangerous when a cornerback isn’t worried about him making quick moves underneath, a blocker isn’t as concerned about a speed rush if the defensive end is too frail to knock him on his butt.
The question for Burns is how he carries additional weight. He showed up to the combine at 249 pounds. He and his nutritionist had a weight gain plan, but it failed, so they doubled his caloric intake to add the 14 pounds. If Burns added that weight for the combine but slims down for the season (intentionally or not) he may not have an effective bull rush. Burns says the added weight hasn’t affected his speed (he ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine, third among all edge defenders). If his speed translates to the NFL even with the weight, he could become an excellent pass rusher. If it does slow him down, he may not be as effective in the pros as he was in college.
Best Case: Aldon Smith
Worst Case: Barkevious Mingo
Jones isn’t risky in the same way the other players on this list are. He is considered a low-ceiling, high-floor prospect. According to his backers, he’s a chicken quesadilla—the safe choice. Jones will likely never become a top-10 QB, but he has a great chance of being an NFL starter. He’s athletic, boasts an NFL frame at 6-foot-5, and has good footwork, anticipation, and pocket presence. But he was wildly inconsistent in college, his arm strength may not clear the NFL threshold, his accuracy doesn’t make up for the lack of zip on his passes, and his yards per attempt figures suggest he’d be a bottom-end quarterback at best. Everyone agrees he has a low ceiling, but whether Jones has a high floor is a source of debate.
Regardless, drafting a low-ceiling player as a franchise quarterback is a big risk for an NFL team. Unlike other positions, a bad quarterback might be better than a mediocre one. When a team has a quarterback who is too good to replace but not good enough to lead a team on a playoff run they are in quarterback purgatory. Think Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, Ryan Tannehill in Miami, or Alex Smith in Kansas City. Those players likely represent Jones’s ceiling, and quarterback purgatory can leave a franchise adrift for even longer than an outright bust like Paxton Lynch. The team that drafts Jones may do so because they don’t feel he is a risk, but when it comes to quarterbacks, not taking a risk is risky.
Best Case: Matt Ryan (before he became really good)
Worst Case: Blake Bortles