In the NFL, first-round picks are almost always given a longer development leash than those selected in later rounds. But even for the most highly drafted prospects, there’s always a limit to how much patience teams will have—and a few recent early-rounders are heading into what could be make-or-break seasons with the teams that drafted them. For these 10 players, time is running out for each to post a breakout performance and avoid earning that dreaded “bust” label.
WR Josh Doctson, Redskins
Doctson has flashed breakout potential in spurts during his three-year career, but it’s now or never for the 22nd pick of the 2016 draft. Not only did the Redskins decide not to pick up his fifth-year option for 2020, but Washington selected a pair of rookie receivers in the draft, grabbing Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin in the third round and NC State’s Kelvin Harmon in the sixth.
While it’s evident the Redskins don’t expect Doctson to live up to his lofty draft billing, there’s still hope that a breakout is coming. His first season was derailed by an Achilles strain that cost him nearly the entire year, robbing him of crucial developmental snaps and experience. Coming off that injury, he posted 35 catches for 502 yards and a promising six touchdowns in his second season. But he failed to build much on that performance in 2018 while catching passes from four different quarterbacks, notching just 44 receptions for 532 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games.
At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, Doctson brings scintillating talent as a red zone threat and jump-ball specialist, but has been plagued by inconsistency and injuries. He has to stay healthy and build chemistry with either Case Keenum or rookie Dwayne Haskins this year, but on Washington’s wide-open receiver depth chart, he still has the opportunity to get major snaps and targets in 2019. He just has to make the most of them.
DT Vernon Butler, Panthers
Official “starts” aren’t necessarily a great measure of a player’s value to a team, but it’s pretty glaring that Butler has yet to log one in his three seasons with the Panthers. The 30th overall pick in 2016 has notched just two sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and three tackles for a loss in 38 games for Carolina as a rotational backup on the interior (he was even a healthy scratch twice last year). It was little surprise when the team declined Butler’s fifth-year option for 2020, making this season pivotal for him.
Butler’s prospects could be on the uptick in 2019, though, as the team moves to implement more three-man fronts in what’s expected to be a hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme. Butler was a two-gapping nose tackle at Louisiana Tech and may fit better as an odd-front defensive end, when he can use his length and athleticism to disrupt the pocket and make plays. The shift in scheme could pay dividends for the disappointing former first-rounder, but unless he makes a big leap in 2019, Butler’s time Carolina will soon come to an end.
WR DeVante Parker and DE Charles Harris, Dolphins
Parker has what may be his last chance to live up to his draft billing as a playmaking go-to receiver on the outside. The former 14th overall pick from the 2015 draft took a pay cut to stay in Miami this year, but has already generated some excitement with his performance in the team’s OTA sessions. Of course, it’s an annual tradition to hype Parker up at this time of year, and throughout his four-year career, Parker has flashed that first-round talent from time to time, like last season’s six-catch, 134-yard performance in the team’s Week 8 loss to the Texans. But Parker has also battled injuries, the coaching staff, and inconsistency—and desperately needs a breakout campaign in 2019. He’ll be fighting for snaps and targets with the likes of Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, and undrafted rookie Preston Williams.
On the other side of the ball, the team is looking for a breakout performance from another former top draft pick. Harris has just two seasons under his belt, but a conspicuous lack of production thus far makes 2019 a potential make-or-break year for the 24-year-old pass rusher. The team’s 22nd overall pick in 2017 has notched just three sacks in 27 games while playing a rotational role behind Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn, and Andre Branch. Now, with that trio gone and the team undergoing a mini rebuild under new head coach Brian Flores, Harris has a chance to be thrust into a starting role. Flores has already gone out of his way to praise the third-year pro. “I think he’s really doing a good job for us in the classroom, on the field,” Flores said. “He’s smart. He’s hard-working. He’s got a lot of ability. We’re pleased with where he’s at.”
That regime change brings a scheme change, too, and the Patriotsesque hybrid system could be a boon for Harris, offering the chance to transition from a primarily hand-in-the-dirt 4-3 end to a stand-up outside linebacker on more snaps. In any case, Harris needs to find a way to unlock his first-round traits—namely his excellent first-step burst and promising spin move—and turn them into sacks.
DE Taco Charlton, Cowboys
Charlton’s career résumé looks pretty similar to Harris’s: The former Michigan star, who was chosen six slots after Harris in the 2017 draft, has netted just 4.0 sacks in 27 career games and played in a mostly rotational role for Dallas.
Charlton did look poised for a breakout early last year, and flashed potential during the team’s first two games, grabbing two tackles for a loss, a sack, a pass break-up, and two quarterback hits. But he faded quickly, perhaps in part due to a mysterious shoulder injury, and rumors of attitude problems cropped up late in the year when he was a healthy scratch in weeks 14 and 15.
Charlton underwent two separate surgeries this offseason (one on his shoulder, the other on his ankle) and watched the team hand Demarcus Lawrence a big new deal and trade for Robert Quinn. Combined with recent comments by Cowboys VP of player personnel Will McClay, Charlton’s spot on the team seems tenuous.
”I’m expecting Taco to strap on his pads, put on his helmet, and go out there and compete every day to prove that he belongs on this roster,” McClay said, before adding an ominous follow-up. “We’re not going to hold the train for anybody. … Injuries happen, and all that other stuff. I expect him to go and battle and compete.”
Charlton has length, athleticism, and power. Now he’s got to harness all that and turn it into production.
OT D.J. Humphries, Cardinals
Humphries has always had an intriguing combination of length and movement skills to offer Arizona’s offensive line, but injuries have derailed the former Florida standout’s career thus far. The 25-year-old has appeared in just 27 of a possible 64 games since being taken with the 24th pick of the 2015 draft, and his last two seasons have been cut short due to injuries to his right knee. Now back to full health and playing on a $9.6 million fifth-year option, the athletic offensive lineman has his last chance to prove he’s worthy of the team’s hefty investment. And he’s been tasked with the crucial job of protecting rookie quarterback Kyler Murray’s blindside. He’s hoping an offseason regimen of Pilates will help him stay on the field for a full 16 games for the first time in his career.
DL Solomon Thomas, 49ers
Thomas didn’t make much of an impact as a rookie after being selected third overall in the 2017 draft, notching just three sacks in 14 games, then struggled again in his second season as he dealt with his sister’s tragic death. Thomas, who has since become an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention, is determined to live up to his lofty draft slot. A few scheme tweaks in 2019 could prove instrumental for the former Stanford star, who believes new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has a vision for how to unlock his talents.
Thomas is expected to line up at defensive end in the team’s base looks, then bounce inside to rush from the interior on nickel downs—and in both spots, he should have the green light to fire upfield with previously unseen aggressiveness. “I can use my quickness and my explosion [in those roles],” Thomas recently said. “That’s what I need. I don’t need to be reading and sitting back. I need to be going and be able to press guards, get on the edge and crush tight ends. That’s how I play, and that’s the kind of scheme that can bring out my strengths.”
Thomas has the potential to help transform the 49ers defense. A breakout performance, particularly when paired with Nick Bosa (the second overall pick in April), could give San Francisco one of the most fearsome defensive fronts in football.
WR John Ross, Bengals
Ross’s rookie campaign was the stuff of nightmares. The ninth overall pick in 2017 managed zero catches on two targets in three games and fumbled away his only touch before being benched and, eventually, placed on the injured reserve with a knee injury. (The team even considered moving him to defensive back). Ross was only slightly better in year two, reeling in 21 receptions on 58 targets (for an atrocious 36 percent catch rate) for 210 yards. The bright spot was that he seemed to have a nose for the end zone, and turned seven of those 21 catches into touchdowns. Heading into year three, though, the inconsistent playmaker—who was briefly the subject of trade rumors this offseason—must prove he can be an all-around contributor. The good news this offseason is that he seems to really like the Rams-style offense that new head coach Zac Taylor has brought to Cincinnati.
He’s also got a good example to follow in Tyler Boyd, who broke out with 76 catches for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns as a third-year pro in 2018, far outpacing his 22-catch, 225-yard, two-touchdown performance the year prior. By squinting hard enough, one could see the speedy Ross playing the Brandin Cooks role in the Bengals offense, as a deep threat who stretches defenses thin over the top. That’s the idea, anyway, and if Ross can turn in a breakout performance in 2019, it could change the complexion of the Bengals passing game.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Buccaneers
Here’s the good news for Hargreaves: The Buccaneers picked up his fifth-year option for 2020. Here’s the less-good news: That option’s guaranteed for injury only. That means the 2019 season is still a make-or-break campaign for the fourth-year pro. Hargreaves, who was the 11th overall pick of the 2016 draft, has had an up-and-down first three years in the league: After posting a rocky performance as a rookie, he looked to be turning a corner late in 2017 and during training camp of 2018, when a schematic change in his role―he shifted to playing outside on base downs and in the slot on nickel downs―seemed to help. But his season ended abruptly when he tore his labrum in Week 1.
Now, another scheme change could give Hargreaves an opportunity for that long-awaited breakout year: After playing primarily off-coverage under former coordinator Mike Smith, the team is switching to a press-coverage-heavy system under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles—the style in which Hargreaves excelled while at Florida. “It’s everything that I do,” he said recently. “It’s kind of like taking me back to college. … I’m not an off corner. I’m press corner. I need to get up in your face.”
But while the scheme shift could pay dividends, Hargreaves has a long way to go to not just live up to his draft slot, but to stick with the team past 2019. He needs to stay healthy, first and foremost. Then, he’ll have to beat out a slew of young cornerbacks like M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis, Sean Bunting, and Jamel Dean—all of whom are vying for snaps with the team’s new regime under Bruce Arians.
WR Laquon Treadwell, Vikings
In what was perhaps the least surprising move of the offseason, the Vikings declined to pick up Treadwell’s fifth-year option for 2020, giving the disappointing former 23rd overall pick just one last shot to latch on with the team that drafted him. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound pass catcher has failed to establish himself as a dependable member of the team’s passing game, and has registered just 56 catches for 517 yards and one touchdown in three seasons in Minnesota. The drops-plagued receiver heads into 2019 working with the second-team offense as he battles for the WR3 job behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Without a major jump in performance, though, Treadwell could find himself on the roster bubble and on the verge of washing out of the league.