Jameson Williams Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ranking Former Top NFL Draft Picks Who Are Most Likely to Resurrect Careers in 2024

Gary Davenport

There are three words that strike fear into the hearts of all in the National Football League. They make players wince. Make general managers break out in a cold sweat.

"First-round bust."

No player wants to go from the high of being selected on Day 1 of the draft to the low of hearing their name and the "B" word in the same sentence on the radio. No general manager wants to be the person who wastes a Round 1 pick on a guy who doesn't pan out—it's not conducive to job security.

But it happens. Each and every year.

An argument can be made that it's too early to call most of the players on this list "busts"—none have played more than three professional seasons. And it's hardly unheard of for a player to struggle early in his career and then go on to become a star. But there's also no denying that every player here has been a disappointment to date relative to their draft spot.

Some will find their way through their early struggles and turn things around. Some, sadly, will not.

From the least likely to accomplish the feat in 2024 to the most, here are 10 youngsters desperately trying to shake off the bust.

10. Zach Wilson, QB, Denver Broncos

Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Back in 2021, there was zero question that the Jacksonville Jaguars were going to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick. But there was much less certainty what the New York Jets would do at No. 2. Gang Green settled on BYU signal-caller Zach Wilson with that second overall pick—and it didn't take long for the team to start regretting it.

Wilson made 13 starts as a rookie, completing just over 55 percent of his passes and throwing just nine touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. Things didn't improve much in the years that followed—after three seasons in New York, Wilson was 12-21 as a starter, completed well under 60 percent of his passes, threw more interceptions than touchdown passes and had a miserable passer rating of 73.2.

With Aaron Rodgers set to lead the Jets in 2024, the team sent Wilson packing in the offseason, dealing him and a Day 3 pick to Denver for a slightly better Day 3 pick. Wilson told reporters that getting shipped out of the Big Apple was bittersweet, but he's embracing his new opportunity with the Broncos.

"Obviously, there's bittersweet moments in everything," Wilson said. "I was grateful for my experiences there and the guys. I miss the guys out there and everything, too. But at the same time, a fresh start is good. I'm excited to attack a new challenge."

There is no shortage of uncertainty under center in the Mile Hight City after the Broncos dumped Russell Wilson in the offseason. But Denver head coach Sean Payton used the 12th pick in the 2024 draft to select Bo Nix, who appears to fit the mold of what Payton covets in a quarterback more than Wilson.

If Nix struggles acclimating to the NFL, Wilson could see some starts for the Broncos in 2024. And his struggles in New York weren't entirely his fault. But three years in, we have a pretty good idea who Wilson is as a quarterback.

Who he's not is a capable NFL starter.

9. Evan Neal, OT, New York Giants

Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the New York Giants made offensive tackle Evan Neal the seventh overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the hope was that the former Alabama standout would be a foundational piece for New York's front for years to come.

To date, that hasn't come close to happening. As a rookie, Neal missed four games and allowed seven sacks in just 738 snaps per Pro Football Focus. In 2023, Neal missed well over half the season.

Entering his third season, there are no shortage of doubters where Neal is concerned. The addition of Jermaine Eluemunor in free agency has raised questions about whether Neal will even start at right tackle or could kick inside to guard.

However, if there's one person who has no doubts about Neal's viability as a starter at tackle, it's the massive 6'7", 350-pounder himself.

"I've put a lot of dominant reps on tape," Neal told reporters. "A lot of times they go unnoticed. A lot of times the reps that I struggle get highlighted. But if you really sit back and watch the tape, I do a lot of good things. I do a lot of dominant things on the football field. In my opinion, as soon as I stepped out of the womb, I stepped out as an offensive tackle."

On paper at least, Neal would appear to have all the tools to be a successful NFL tackle, whether it's size, length or plus agility for a player his size. But for whatever reason, he just hasn't been able to put it together. Neal can't stay on the field, and when he is out there, he has struggled more often than not—especially in pass protection.

Frankly, moving Neal inside to guard and inserting Eluemunor at right tackle may well be the smartest play for the G-Men in 2024.

8. Kaiir Elam, CB, Buffalo Bills

Billie Weiss/Getty Images

For a big chunk of the 2023 season, it appeared that Buffalo Bills cornerback Kaiir Elam was barreling toward downtown Bustville. The 23rd overall pick in 2022 was inactive for the first four games of the 2023 season in what at the time was believed to be a healthy scratch. When injuries forced Elam back into the lineup, he struggled mightily.

However, as the season wore on it became known that Elam had actually been battling a ligament tear in his foot. He told reporters that it was hard to hear the criticisms from outsiders who didn't know the whole story, but he was glad when the truth finally came out.

"It was frustrating at first because it was like nobody really knew," Elam said. "They just thought maybe I lost it or something like that. I'm happy that the truth came out eventually, that I was banged up or whatever, but it's something that only matters if I go out there and just play how I'm capable of."

However, even if you call Elam's three-game 2023 regular season a wash, the reality is that the former Florida standout hasn't played much like a first-round draft pick. In both of his professional seasons, Elam has allowed a completion percentage against north of 70. His passer rating against was over 95 both seasons.

Those are not numbers that frighten opposing quarterbacks.

In Elam's defense, the 23-year-old has only made eight career starts, so it's premature to write him off entirely. But for Elam to even start in 2024 he'll have to unseat Christian Benford. It's not easy to turn around a career playing as a team's fourth cornerback.

And a Bills team whose Super Bowl window isn't getting any wider can't afford to have liabilities in a secondary that will already be breaking in two new starters at safety this year.

7. Justin Fields, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

John Fisher/Getty Images

There was a time not that long ago when the Chicago Bears appeared committed to Justin Fields as their starting quarterback. The team traded the first overall pick in 2023 to the Carolina Panthers rather than draft Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud after Fields rushed for over 1,100 yards with eight scores in 2022.

However, Fields never enjoyed the success through the air that he did on the ground. Only once did he eclipse 2,500 passing yards in a season, and that was just barely. He averaged 10 interceptions a season, was sacked a whopping 135 times in three years and won just 10 of 38 starts.

Chicago didn't pass on drafting a quarterback first overall in 2024, and the arrival of Caleb Williams was the end of the line for Fields in the Windy City. At first glance, Pittsburgh might appear an ideal place for Fields to resurrect his career—the Steelers have long been one of the league's most stable franchises. But Pittsburgh also added former Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson in the offseason, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has already stated that Wilson will enter camp atop the depth chart at quarterback.

Still, Fields told reporters he isn't just going to roll over and surrender the starting job.

"I'm definitely competing," Fields said. "I think Russ knows that we're competing against each other every day. Him being out there for me, that helps me getting better, especially each other. I definitely don't have the mindset of me just sitting all year. I'm coming in every day giving it all I got and pushing him to be his best, and he's pushing me to be my best each and every day."

An argument can be made that Fields' dual-threat ability actually offers the Pittsburgh offense a higher ceiling than Wilson, who averaged less than seven yards per attempt last year for the first time in his career. But Wilson also threw over three times as many touchdowns as interceptions in Denver a year ago and is 43 games over .500 as a starter.

Barring an injury, winning the quarterback competition in Pittsburgh is going to be an uphill climb for Fields.

And you can't revive your career holding a clipboard.

6. Bryce Young, QB, Carolina Panthers

John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You had to know that Bryce Young was making an appearance here.

The Carolina Panthers traded up last year to make the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner first overall. And while the quarterback drafted just after him (C.J. Stroud) went on to have considerable success, Young's rookie season was something of a mess. Young won just two of 16 starts, failed to complete 60 percent of his passes and managed just 11 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. Young's QBR of 33.4 ranked 30th in the NFL.

However, per ESPN's David Newton, despite those struggles in 2023, new Panthers wide receiver Diontae Johnson likes what he's seen from Young since joining the team.

"He's a great quarterback," Johnson said. "Accurate. Smart. He knows how to get his guys in position. Whenever we're out there, you can always count on him to get us in the right spot and make sure everybody knows what they're doing.''

The Panthers made a concerted effort to help Young succeed in 2024. The team hired an offensive-minded head coach in Dave Canales who just coaxed a career season from Baker Mayfield in Tampa Bay. Johnson was brought in via a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Panthers traded up to select South Carolina wide receiver Xavier Legette and revamped the run game with the selection of Jonathon Brooks on Day 2 of this year's draft. Carolina also spent big on the interior of the offensive line in free agency.

All the ingredients would appear to be there for marked improvement from Young in 2024. But those ingredients bring with them expectations. Young's rookie struggles were at least somewhat understandable—there just wasn't much around him.

But Young also flat-out didn't play well much of the season. If that continues with an improved supporting cast…well, folks aren't going to be so understanding.

5. Jahan Dotson, WR, Washington Commanders

Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

After catching seven touchdown passes as a rookie, Washington Commanders wide receiver Jahan Dotson was something of a trendy breakout pick in 2023. The 16th overall pick in the 2022 draft was going to take the next step and become a key part of the Washington offense.

There was a step taken all right—backward. Dotson's receiving yardage actually dropped relative to his rookie year. His yards per reception dropped by over four full yards. For the second time in as many years, Dotson's catch percentage was under 60.

Now, there were factors at play that went beyond Dotson himself, not the least of which was shaky play under center. Now, there's a whole new staff in the nation's capital and a new quarterback in rookie Jayden Daniels—and Dotson told reporters he feels like he's starting his career all over again.

"I've only been a short two years, but I do feel it is completely different," Dotson said. "This is funny to say, but I was talking to some of the guys in the locker room, and I said it almost feels like I got traded. It feels like I came into a better opportunity. I feel like the confidence is at an all-time high, not only for the team but myself included."

With Curtis Samuel now catching passes from Josh Allen in Buffalo, Dotson should see a bump in target share in 2024. And if Daniels' Heisman-winning campaign at LSU last year was any indication, he's a marked improvement over the likes of Sam "No I'm Not Thurston" Howell and Jacoby "You Don't Want Me Starting Multiple Games" Brissett.

But Daniels next NFL pass in a game that counts will be his first, and Dotson has to be a more efficient receiver, whether it's hiking his catch percentage or limiting drops.

Whether those things will come to pass is a toss-up. And that lands Dotson right in the middle of this list.

4. Zaven Collins, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Arizona Cardinals edge-rusher Zaven Collins is something of an exception on this list. Because while he may not have lived up to his status as the 16th overall pick in the 2021 draft. It hasn't exactly been his fault.

After playing something of a "hybrid" role at Tulsa, the Cardinals originally slotted Collins as a part-time off-ball linebacker. Collins played just 220 snaps as a rookie, but in his second season he became a three-down linebacker, tallying 100 total stops and adding two sacks and an interception.

Not great, but not terrible either.

Due to a dearth of talent on the edge, the Cardinals kicked Collins outside in 2023. His numbers were…less than impressive—just 3.5 sacks over 637 snaps.

However, as has already been stated, it can take even the best edge-rusher prospects some time to acclimate to the pros. And while 2023 was Collins' third season, it was his first as a full-time edge-rusher.

The Redbirds elected to pass on Collins' fifth-year option, but defensive coordinator Nick Rallis told ESPN 620 in Phoenix that he doesn't expect that to hinder his development in 2024.

"He knows that we see him in the future going forward," Rallis said. "He's a huge piece of what we do defensively and as a team. A leader in the locker room. He knows he's a huge part of this team now and going forward. I don't see (the fifth-year option decision) impacting him at all. That's the resilient mindset of him. He's going to show up and work every single day no matter what. He knows he wants to take his game to the next level and that's my expectation for him and we're going to get it there."

The talent is there with Collins. So is the motivation of a contract year.

Fifty total tackles and 8-10 sacks isn't an unreasonable expectation for 2024.

3. Quentin Johnston, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

Ryan Kang/Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Chargers drafted TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston 21st overall a year ago, it appeared something of a luxury pick. The Chargers already had a pair of established veteran wideouts in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and arguably the NFL's best pass-catching back in Austin Ekeler.

Still, after topping 1,000 receiving yards in 2022 and averaging 19 yards a catch in college, it was more than a little disappointing when Johnston was mostly a non-factor as a rookie—just 38 catches on 67 targets for 431 yards and two touchdowns.

The 6'4", 215-pounder has little recourse but to step it up in a big way in 2024. Because luxury time is over. Allen, Ekeler and Williams are all gone. Johnston could ostensibly open his second season as the No. 1 wide receiver for the Bolts.

For his part, Chargers general manager Joe Hortiz told reporters that he fully expects Johnston to take a big step forward in his second season.

"That's what a lot of rookie seasons look like," Hortiz said. "But he flashed some really impressive traits, and the good thing is when you're looking at your roster, you're looking at it all the time, you're watching the film all the time. Every time you put on the tape, you see the talent and I expect him to make the jump. I know we have the right coaches to help him make the jump. I feel good about the guys that are here."

In Justin Herbert, Johnston certainly has a high-end quarterback who can get him the rock. The Chargers have Joshua Palmer and used a Day 2 pick on Georgia's Ladd McConkey, but the targets should be there for Johnston in 2024 as well.

If you believe in Johnston's talent, then the ingredients are there for a sophomore surge.

2. Jameson Williams, WR, Detroit Lions

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Back in 2021, Jameson Williams was one of the most dominant wide receivers in college football—he reeled in 79 passes for 1,572 yards and 15 scores at Alabama. But in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, Williams suffered a torn ACL.

It's been a bumpy road for him ever since.

That injury limited Williams to just six games as a rookie—he caught just one pass that year, although it was a 41-yard touchdown. Williams' second season started rocky as well—he drew a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's gambling policy. Williams served just four games, but his 2023 production was modest as well—24 catches for 354 yards and two scores.

Entering his third season, Williams is healthy and able to participate fully in offseason activities. Per ESPN's Eric Woodyard, he expects that to make all the difference in the world in 2024.

"It does a lot because this is my third year, but it's really my first year going out there and getting real reps with the ones (starters) and moving around with the ones and getting reps with JG (quarterback Jared Goff) and things like that," Williams said. "Just moving around, getting the right splits and everything, just feeling comfortable. So, this is my first year doing all that and it just feels good going into it."

There's no question that Amon-Ra St. Brown is the No. 1 receiver in Detroit. And the emergence of tight end Sam LaPorta in 2023 could relegate Williams to third on the Lions in target share.

But an already dangerous Detroit offense could be that much more explosive with Williams taking the top off defenses. And with St. Brown and LaPorta drawing coverage away from him, Williams should have more than a few opportunities to do just that.

1. Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Some may be surprised to see Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts even included on this list. After being drafted fourth overall in 2021 (the highest any tight end has even been selected), Pitts logged 1,026 receiving yards as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl. It was the second-most yards a first-year tight end has ever accumulated.

The problem is that Pitts has had fewer receiving yards than that the past two seasons combined. He missed seven games in 2022 and then posted a so-so 53/667/3 stat line a year ago.

However, now there's a new regime in Atlanta. A new quarterback in veteran Kirk Cousins. And with Pitts a year removed from his knee injury, head coach Raheem Morris thinks the Falcons should be getting the 2021 iteration of Pitts back on the field.

"He's really excited about being healthy, and so are we," Morris told reporters. "Getting a healthy Kyle Pitts back gives you a really dynamic player that we believe in a lot. … If we can get this guy going, we all know what he could be."

Pitts' struggles the past two seasons have had a lot less to do with the player himself than the circumstances around him, whether it was that knee injury, subpar play from the quarterback position or the sometimes-baffling usage under former head coach Arthur Smith.

Morris appears to understand that Pitts is a vital part of Atlanta's pass-catching corps—a group that added Darnell Mooney in the offseason. Over 25 games in Minnesota the past two seasons, T.J. Hockenson caught 155 passes—many of those from Cousins. And Pitts is chomping at the bit to show that his first season is more indicative of him as a player than the last two.

By year's end, Pitts should be at or near the top of the leaderboard among tight ends in both receptions and yards.


Read 0 Comments

Download the app for comments Get the B/R app to join the conversation

Install the App
Bleacher Report