clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Seven NFL Players Who Need to Break Out in 2020

First-round picks come with lofty expectations, but some former big-name draft picks are still looking for a breakthrough performance. Can Mitchell Trubisky, John Ross, Hayden Hurst, and others finally find success in the league?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

First-round picks come with lofty expectations, and fair or not, those big-ticket headliners are quickly ordained as franchise cornerstones. But highly drafted prospects don’t always pan out―the odds a first-rounder turns into an above-average player is more or less a coin flip―and a few former day-one picks head into 2020 in need of breakthrough performances. For these seven players, this season might be their last, best chance to find NFL success.

QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bears

After trading for Nick Foles and declining Trubisky’s fifth-year option, the Bears have sent a clear message to the former second overall pick: It’s time to sink or swim. Trubisky heads into 2020 in an all-out fight for the starting job; the team is calling it an open competition, but early Vegas odds (and the $21 million in guaranteed money on his contract) make Foles the heavy favorite.

It’s no mystery as to why. The jump that many had hoped Trubisky would make last season just never came: In his third year, he saw his completion percentage (63.2), touchdown pass total (17), and passer rating (83.0) all drop from his 2018 marks, and his 6.1 yards per attempt wasn’t just well below the 7.4 yards per attempt average he’d notched the year prior, but also ranked worst among all qualifying passers. Trubisky still possesses the athletic gifts that helped make him Chicago’s choice over Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes in 2017, but his lack of development could force him into a backup job in year four. Trubisky is slow to read the defense from the pocket, isn’t aggressive enough attempting tight-window or downfield throws, and isn’t consistently accurate. He hasn’t used his legs enough to keep defenses guessing, either (he notched a career-low 193 yards on the ground in 2019).

If the 25-year-old wants to not only win the starting job for the Bears this year but start living up to his lofty draft billing, he’ll have to show major improvement in his ability to decipher coverages―and then start cutting it loose as both a passer and runner. Trubisky does hold a few small advantages over Foles, particularly in an offseason limited by COVID-19: He has more experience with the team’s playbook and has more reps throwing to Chicago’s pass-catching group. We’ll find out whether that’s enough to push him over the top.

WR Corey Davis, Titans

Davis’s career trajectory looked promising after his 65-catch, 891-yard, and four-touchdown sophomore campaign in 2018, but the athletic, big-bodied pass catcher regressed last season en route to just 43 receptions for 601 yards and two scores in 15 games. The fifth pick of the 2017 draft slid into a complementary role behind rookie teammate A.J. Brown and failed to capitalize on Ryan Tannehill’s renaissance. Tennessee subsequently declined to pick up Davis’s fifth-year option, making 2020 a potentially pivotal contract year.

Davis, who posted truly mind-boggling stats as a four-year starter at Western Michigan (332 catches for an FBS record 5,285 yards and 52 touchdowns), has been a quality role player for the Titans, but he just hasn’t come close to meeting the expectations that come with being a top-five selection. Tannehill did recently tell the media that he’d like to get Davis more opportunities in 2020―“I definitely think my chemistry will grow with Corey this year,” he said―but with Brown as the team’s clear go-to guy in the air attack, targets could be hard to come by in Tennessee’s run-heavy offense. With Derrick Henry and Brown as the two projected focal points in the team’s offensive scheme, Davis will need to make a major leap to earn the looks he’ll need for a breakout year.

WR John Ross, Bengals

Ross looked to be on the verge of a long-awaited breakthrough early last year before injuries once again derailed his season. The diminutive speedster opened the year with a pair of big games, posting seven catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 before grabbing four passes for 112 yards the following game. But after injuring his sternoclavicular joint in the team’s Week 4 loss to the Steelers, he was placed on the injured reserve. By the time he was activated in Week 14, Ross had been relegated to a reserve role and finished the season with 28 catches for 506 yards and three touchdowns.

Ross has struggled to stay healthy since the Bengals made him the ninth pick of the 2017 draft. The former Washington Husky missed 13 games as a rookie, another three games in 2018, and eight games last year, tallying just 24 appearances in his three-season career. Even when he’s been on the field, he’s been prone to mistakes, and it was no surprise when Cincy declined to pick up his fifth-year option for 2021, making this season perhaps his last with the Bengals.

His role in the offense stands on shaky ground heading into 2020. The Bengals retained A.J. Green on the franchise tag to pair with steady slot receiver Tyler Boyd, and drafted Clemson’s Tee Higgins early in the second round, making Ross’s path to a major role uncertain. If Higgins hits the ground running in year one―or if Ross struggles in the early going―the fourth-year pro may be relegated to reserve or rotational duties in what’s likely to be his final season in Cincinnati.

TE Hayden Hurst, Falcons

Hurst, the 25th pick of the 2018 draft, flopped with the Ravens, following up on an unremarkable rookie season (13 catches, 163 yards, one touchdown) by playing third fiddle to breakout tight end Mark Andrews and veteran Nick Boyle in 2019. Flush with talent at the position, Baltimore decided to cut its losses on the former first-rounder―who the team infamously drafted seven picks before taking their future MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson―and sent him to the Falcons for a second-round pick, which they later used to take running back J.K. Dobbins. All things considered, that’s a fine outcome for Baltimore, who at least extracted some value from what’s always been a head-scratching pick.

But while Hurst’s tenure with the Ravens could be characterized as a bust, the 26-year-old pass catcher finds himself with a new lease on life in Atlanta, where he falls into what could be a near-ideal situation. With Austin Hooper landing in Cleveland on a big-money deal, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is in need of a dynamic pass-catching tight end. Hurst could certainly be that guy―the team clearly believes he is, based on what they gave up to acquire him―but the former Raven must prove he’s up to the task before he inherits a big chunk of Hooper’s 97 targets from last season. Hurst, perhaps more than anyone on this list, has a good chance to jump-start his stalled career in 2020.

DE Charles Harris, Falcons

Hurst is not the only former first-round flameout that the Falcons added over the offseason. Atlanta traded a 2021 seventh-round pick to the Dolphins in early May to take a flier on Harris, who spent three disappointing seasons in Miami after being selected 22nd overall back in 2017. Harris has notched just 3.5 sacks playing in a rotational role in 41 career games, and while there was some hope he’d finally break out in 2019 as the Dolphins changed up their scheme and went with a hybrid 3-4 based defense, the production just never came. He was a healthy scratch in two games down the stretch as Miami’s coaching staff looked elsewhere for their pass-rush needs.

Now Harris will get what could be his last real shot in Atlanta. The Falcons offer as strong an opportunity as he could hope for with a roster that lacks depth in its pass-rush rotation even after signing Dante Fowler in free agency. Head coach Dan Quinn said recently that he expects the former Dolphin to be a part of the team’s edge rushing rotation, and that they’re hoping to “get the best version of him,” adding that they’ll work to determine what weight Harris should play at to maximize his explosiveness off the edge. After disappointing in Miami, a change of scenery could be what Harris needs to finally make a jump.

LB Haason Reddick, Cardinals

Reddick is an interesting case study for why one’s landing spot can be so important in the NFL. The Cardinals never appeared to have a real plan for the former Temple playmaker, who was moved around the defensive formation in his first three years in the league after playing primarily as a pass rusher in college.

When Arizona took Reddick 13th in the 2017 draft, its initial plan was to play Reddick at inside linebacker, but then–defensive coordinator James Bettcher moved him to outside linebacker to help replace the injured Markus Golden midway through the year. Over the next two seasons, Reddick alternated between roles as an inside linebacker, an off-ball outside linebacker, a situational edge rusher, and then back again to the inside as the team cycled through coaching staffs. It’s not a surprise that he never really managed to carve out a role.

Now, with the Cardinals’ recent decision to decline Reddick’s fifth-year option, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound hybrid player will get one more chance to break out with the team that drafted him―and he’s slated for a return to rushing the passer as an outside ’backer in 2020. I think that’s good news for Reddick (who’s also been the recent subject of trade rumors), whose skill set makes him best suited for an upfield, attacking role. With top-tier athleticism and excellent burst, Reddick has a chance to finally establish himself as a productive player in the Cardinals defense.

QB Josh Rosen, Dolphins

Like Reddick, Rosen’s career has been defined, at least in part, by incredibly bad luck. After being selected by the Cardinals with the 10th overall pick of the 2018 draft, the former UCLA signal-caller was dropped into a nearly impossible situation at the helm of Arizona’s talent-deficient offense. After struggling to find his footing as a rookie (that’s an understatement, of course, as he completed just 55.2 percent of his passes while throwing 11 touchdowns and 14 picks in 14 appearances), he was dealt to the Dolphins after the team’s new coaching staff drafted Kyler Murray the next year.

Rosen wasn’t blessed with a significantly better supporting cast in Miami last year, and again struggled. He threw one touchdown and five interceptions in six games (three starts) before being replaced by veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. With the Dolphins’ decision to take Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth pick in the draft, though, Rosen’s path to a starting job is blocked once again.

It wouldn’t exactly be a hot take to call Rosen a bust already. He’s failed to hold on to starting jobs with two separate teams, has a 12-to-19 career touchdown-to-interception ratio, and looks slated to head into 2020 as the third-string quarterback for the Dolphins. But there’s still an outside chance that the team will deal Rosen to a quarterback-needy team―a handful have reportedly called, by the way―and give the 23-year-old passer another chance to show what he can do. If he does end up somewhere new, here’s to hoping the former top-10 pick will luck out with a better situation than he had in his first two stops in the NFL.