News & Analysis

Re-examining the biggest draft busts in the PFF College era

We started grading college football players at PFF in 2014 (2015 draft). Since then, we’ve had our fair share of misses, but so has the NFL. As the old saying goes, “nobody is perfect,” but these 10 selections that were all among the top 10 picks in their respective drafts were far “less perfect” than others. 

Note: In order to not write off young guys too early, we’ve skewed towards players who have been in the league longer.

2018 Round 1, Pick 10: QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

The only player from the top-10 picks in the past two drafts who is fairly safe to call a bust at this point, Rosen has already been traded for a second-round pick and then benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s safe to say he didn’t live up to expectations for the Arizona Cardinals

Coming out of UCLA, Rosen was more projection than production. The hype train started way back in 2015, during Rosen’s first game as a true freshman, when he went 28-of-35 for 351 yards and three scores with no picks against Virginia. That 92.1 passing grade would end up being his second-best game of his college career, and the 82.6 overall grade he earned as a freshman was the highest single-season of his college career. 

The narrative surrounding Rosen was that the talent at UCLA — which was pretty awful — was holding back his development, and it’s an argument still being used in his NFL career. Even PFF bought it hook, line and sinker, as he checked in at sixth overall on our draft board that year. The red flags were vast, though, and many overlooked them.

2017 Round 1, Pick 2: QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina

Yet another QB that we here at PFF were guilty of overrating as well. We normally push QBs up our draft board because of their value, so having Trubisky check in at 13th overall back in 2017 should tell you we were still very hesitant on him. We were down on that QB class as a whole, though, with Trubisky as our QB1 and Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes even lower on our board. 

Trubisky was a classic case of small sample sizes. He earned an 86.4 passing grade in 2016, but it was curious that couldn’t even beat out Marquise Williams the two years prior. He also had two utterly disastrous games against arguably the two best defenses he faced that year. He went 24-of-40 for 156 yards and a 58.7 passing grade against Georgia. He also went 13-of-33 for 58 yards with no touchdowns and two picks with a 29.2 passing grade against Virginia Tech that year. Coming up that small against better defenses was prescient in retrospect. 

2017 Round 1, Pick 3: DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford

With Thomas, we overlooked deficiencies as a pass-rusher because he was so athletic and so dominant in the run game back in 2016. He earned a 92.2 run defense grade as a junior but only a 76.2 pass-rushing grade. Maybe more concerning, Thomas only had four games out of 13 that season with pass-rushing grades that were even above 70.0. He didn’t have moves to win on the edge, as almost all of his pressures that season came from an interior alignment. He earned a 61.2 pass-rushing grade on 58 snaps lined up outside the tackles. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be too surprising that he hasn’t done anything rushing the passer off the edge in the NFL.

2017 Round 1, Pick 9: WR John Ross, Washington

Speed is a hell of a drug. Everyone wants an elite deep threat in their offense, but even we cautioned that Ross wasn’t even that much of a deep threat at Washington. Only 13 of his 81 catches back in 2016 came targeted 20-plus yards downfield (21st ranked in college football) and his yards per catch average that year was only 14.1. His best trait was arguably his short-area quicks and work in the red zone. Injuries have obviously played a big role in his ineffectiveness at the NFL level, but I think the Bengals also found out he was far from a polished product as a downfield route runner. He’s had eight deep receptions in three seasons.

2016 Round 1, Pick 9: OLB Leonard Floyd, Georgia

Floyd had numerous red flags coming out of Georgia before he went top-10 to the Bears in 2016. One of the biggest was simply his age. Floyd was already 23 when he was drafted and would turn 24 early on in his rookie season. That’s two and a half years older than Chase Young is coming out in this year’s draft. The fact that he was still considered a raw, undersized prospect who couldn’t get his weight any higher than 244 pounds at the Combine should have been a searing bright red flag. 

The other massive red flag was sample size. Floyd finally earned an elite grade as a pass-rusher his final season at Georgia (91.2), but it came on only 183 pass-rushing snaps. He dropped into coverage (155 snaps) almost as often. He’s been wholly unable to get to opposing QBs in the NFL with a career-high pass-rushing grade of only 64.8.

2016 Round 1, Pick 10: CB Eli Apple, Ohio State

Ohio State has been a cornerback factory over the past half-decade, but Apple is one of the school's few flops in the NFL. Unlike others on this list, though, Apple didn’t have many on-field red-flags to worry about. The biggest from a grading perspective was his tackling. Apple earned tackling grades of 61.3 and 53.7 in 2014 and 2015, respectively. We’ve seen that show up at times in the NFL, as he missed 19 tackles on 100 attempts in 2018. 

I think the biggest thing here was simply overvaluing his skillset. He was good at Ohio State, but not near what we’ve seen from their other recent top picks from a grading and statistical standpoint. Apple earned and 82.0 coverage grade his final season at Ohio State and allowed 14 first downs in his coverage. Compare that to the other Ohio State corners who went (or will go) in the first round and he’s bottom of the barrel:

Year 1st-Rounder 1st Downs Coverage Grade
2019 Jeffrey Okudah 13 85.9
2017 Denzel Ward 10 92.2
2016 Marshon Lattimore 10 89.9
2016 Gareon Conley 9 89.2
2015 Eli Apple 14 82

Add an overvaluing of his skillset to multiple reports of immaturity that came out of the Giants locker room and you get why he was traded before his rookie contract even expired.

2015 Round 1, Pick 2: QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

Of any guy on this list, Mariota probably has the fewest holes to poke in his college profile even in retrospect. He was the guy who anonymous scouts at the time jokingly said that the fact he had no red flags was itself a red flag. His 93.0 overall grade in 2014 is still one of the highest-graded seasons at the position we’ve seen in our six years of grading. His 15 turnover-worthy plays weren’t great, but eight of them were fumbles (a problem we’ve seen carry over to the NFL, too). 

The fumbles haven’t been why he was benched for Ryan Tannehill and signed a backup deal in Las Vegas. Truthfully, I can’t tell you why he never really improved after year two in the NFL. It’s very much a head-scratcher, and I’m not sure you can even explain it with him coming from a “college-y” Oregon offense.

2015 Round 1, Pick 3: DE Dante Fowler, Florida

We really didn’t know what to do with the numbers at the end of the season in our very first year of grading college prospects. With nothing to compare the grades to, we didn’t put many definitive draft takes out there besides one mock draft the day of the NFL Draft. Fowler was one of the highest-graded edges in the country, so he ended up a top-five pick for us. In retrospect, his 81.9 pass-rushing grade his final season at Florida has paled in comparison to subsequent edge defenders we’ve seen. We learned, as everyone else has, that 2015 was just a really weak edge class. 

Fowler was put behind the 8-ball by tearing his ACL in rookie minicamps and missing all of 2015. He has slowly but surely improved his pass-rushing grade every year since, though, and is still only 25 years old. This past season he racked up a career-high 67 pressures and a 73.4 pass-rushing grade. For Jacksonville, that was never quite worth the number-three overall pick. 

2015 Round 1, Pick 7: WR Kevin White, West Virginia

Yet another player whose development was grossly stunted by injuries, but at the same time he had a long way to develop from West Virginia. White was an exceptional athlete who got by on just that much of the time in college.Of his 1,447 yards in 2014, 795 (54.9%) came on screens, posts and go routes. That is a high percentage on routes that are often predicated on pure athleticism at the college level and not necessarily route-running ability. 

His numbers were also aided by the fact that West Virginia slung the ball around the yard that season. White was on the field for 558 pass snaps — 11th most of any FBS wide receiver. So while his raw totals were impressive, White only ranked 19th in yards per route (2.59) and 28th in receiving grade. It still doesn’t explain how he bottomed out entirely and only has 285 career receiving yards, but he was still very raw for a top-10 pick.

2015 Round 1, Pick 9: OT Ereck Flowers, Miami (FL)

Flowers was a guy who graded out extremely well his final season at Miami with a 90.0 pass-blocking grade, but the tape showed a guy getting by on pure physical talent. He faced one quality edge defender all season long in Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and got put on skates a few times in that game. The first two lines of the “Weaknesses” section in his NFL.com scouting report by Lance Zierlein reads:

Pass protection needs plenty of work. Footwork gets sloppy and undisciplined, causing base to narrow.

That’s not unlike a lot of top college tackle prospects, though. It’s difficult to be a finished product at such a skilled position coming out. The problem was that three years into his career you saw the exact same issues. Interestingly enough, in Zierlein’s “Bottom Line” section he wrote:

Flowers will have some of the same strengths and flaws 2014 first-round pick Greg Robinson had coming in.

While two players is a very small sample size, it’s worth wondering when someone that talented is still that raw, how much of it is by their own choice?

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