The saying “Better late than never” applies to many aspects of life — and it’s no different for NFL players.
Take the case of Steve Young, who went from all-time bust in Tampa Bay to a legend in San Francisco. Or Kurt Warner, who went from afterthought around the NFL to a franchise-changing rock star for the Rams.
There are several active NFLers who haven’t met expectations up to this point of their career, but there are reasons to believe they’ll finally break through here in 2023. Without further ado, let’s dive into 10 NFL players who can erase the “bust” label in 2023.
The shock of the 2020 NFL Draft came when the Green Bay Packers traded up to snag Utah State quarterback Jordan Love at No. 26. They already had Aaron Rodgers at QB and could’ve used help at receiver — Tee Higgins or Michael Pittman Jr, anyone?!
Anywho, Rodgers responded by winning back-to-back MVP awards in 2020 and 2021 — helping the Pack to an NFC Championship Game in the former year. But after a disappointing 2021 season, A-Rod and the Packers accepted the inevitable and settled on a divorce.
Rodgers was traded to the New York Jets, officially opening the door for Love to take over as THE GUY in Titletown.
So here’s Love’s chance, three years later, to finally silence the doubters. Rodgers did just that when he replaced Brett Favre as Green Bay’s starter in 2008. Can Love do the same 15 years later? It’s all on him.
Love has the weaponry around him: Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and a steady offensive line.
The Pack don’t have to make the playoffs this year for Love to win over the hearts of Packers Nation. He just has to show some promise and show Green Bay that brighter days are indeed ahead. And if he does that, Love will have shedded every bit of the “bust” label that has, fair or unfair, followed him his entire career up to this point.
The San Francisco 49ers sold the farm to the Miami Dolphins so they could move into the No. 3 spot of the 2021 draft. Many thought they’d go with Alabama’s Mac Jones there, but Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch bet on the upside and went with North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.
Lance was mostly a backup to Jimmy Garoppolo in his rookie year, though he did make two starts with the latter injured. The 49ers started Lance to open their 2022 season, but he unfortunately suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2.
11 weeks later, Garoppolo suffered a season-ending foot injury. Third-stringer and Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy stepped in, won all five regular season starts and guided San Fran to the NFC Championship Game.
Purdy tore his UCL in that game and required surgery. As insurance, the 49ers signed 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold. It’s not quite a three-way horse-race for the 49ers’ starting QB job, but pretty darn close.
Purdy should be the front-runner, but he has to prove he’s healthy AND show that 2022 was not a case of beginner’s luck. If he can’t do both, then the door will open for Lance to step in and take the starting reins.
And if he does get the chance to start, maybe this is the year Lance finally breaks through? Maybe it’s not fair to label him a bust right now, but the fact is, the 49ers won with Purdy AND Garoppolo.
Lance has to stay healthy and hope for his opportunity. With Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey serving as San Fran’s go-to weapons, Lance would be in great position to dominate early and often.
One last chance for Purdy to shed the bust label as a 49er. Otherwise, he’ll have to try and shed it elsewhere in 2024.
emember when Simmons was supposed to be one of the biggest sure-things of the 2020 NFL Draft? Those were the days.
Simmons turned heads at Clemson with freakish athleticism and versatility — having played linebacker, cornerback, defensive end and safety. The Arizona Cardinals drafted Simmons eighth overall, believing he’d emerge as a one-man wrecking-crew on their defense.
So far, no cigar. Through his first three years, Simmons had four interceptions, pass defenses and just 7.5 sacks. Pro Football Focus hasn’t graded Simmons higher than 67.9 in any of his three years.
Oh, it’s worse: Per Pro Football Reference, Simmons has allowed a passer rating of 90.9 or higher when targeted. That includes a horrific 104.3 passer rating allowed when targeted in the 2022 season.
Well, here’s the good news for Simmons: The Redbirds mercilessly fired Kliff Kingsbury and replaced him with a more defensive-minded head coach in Jonathan Gannon, the former DC of the Philadelphia Eagles.
New defensive coordinator Nick Rallis came over from Philly to join Gannon. Rallis was the Eagles’ linebackers coach and did wonders working with Haason Reddick and company — helping that Philly front seven rack up a whopping 70 sacks in the 2022 campaign.
A new coaching staff should be a breath of fresh air for Simmons. Now let’s see if he can actually pull a Haason Reddick and break out in year four after three unimpressive first seasons….
The New York Jets drafted Moore 34th overall in 2021, hoping he would immediately serve as a play-making weapon for rookie QB Zach Wilson.
Moore showed promise as a rookie by tallying 43 receptions for 538 yards and five touchdowns despite missing six games. The Ole Miss product, however, became a victim of the sophomore slump and finished with just 37 catches for 446 yards and one touchdown despite playing in 16 games.
A disgruntled Moore requested a trade and was sent to the Cleveland Browns — along with the No. 74 selection in the 2023 draft — for the No. 42 pick. After having to catch passes from Joe Flacco, Zach Wilson and Mike White, Moore now gets to join an offense led by Deshaun Watson, Amari Cooper and Nick Chubb.
Watson had a miserable first impression in Cleveland. You gotta think the rust is out of the way and that he’ll be better in 2023. And with Cooper drawing most of the attention from opposing defenses, Moore should be able to generate more winnable matchups.
Moore’s skill set was never in question. It was a matter of finding the right system for him, and the Jets weren’t the place for him. A more sharp offensive-minded head coach like Kevin Stefanski should help maximize Moore’s talents in an offense that could be a top-five unit in 2023.
Becton had a solid rookie year for the New York Jets, who drafted him 11th overall in 2020. He made his fair share of mistakes, but Becton garnered a solid Pro Football Focus grade of 74.4 on the year.
Becton suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 of the 2021 season, preventing him from building off a stellar rookie campaign. Then shortly before the 2022 season, Becton fractured his right kneecap and was immediately ruled out for the year.
But here’s the simple deal: Becton was a rock-solid starter in his lone fully healthy NFL season. The 6-foot-7 monster has the strength and toughness to be an all-world offensive tackle. He just has to get back to 100 percent.
Right now, he’s a bust. But one year-long clean bill of health can help Becton go from zero to hero real quickly here in Gotham.
For the Virginia Tech product, a potential breakout year comes down to one thing: Health.
Farley’s draft stock fell in 2021 because of a back injury. He went from being a potential top-10 pick to falling to the Tennessee Titans at 22nd overall.
Farley played just three games as a rookie before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. In 2022, he was limited to nine games and only saw 60 total defensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference.
So here we go. Farley enters a make-or-break year. His recovery from a back procedure is going well, but is he actually going to stay healthy for the first time in his young professional career?
That’s the only question now. Nobody ever doubted his skill set at Virginia Tech. He’s got the ideal frame at 6-foot-2, 197 pounds to be a true lockdown corner. Now we see if he can stay away from the injury bug once and for all.
The Oakland Raiders shocked everyone when they reached for Clelin Ferrell with the No. 4 pick in 2019. Nobody except the Raiders, apparently, viewed Ferrell that high.
Making the pick more strange in hindsight? Jon Gruden and the Raiders never seemed to really trust the Clemson defensive lineman in the first place. After playing in 66 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in his rookie year, Ferrell saw that number drop to 64 percent in 2020 and to 24 percent the following year.
He didn’t start ANY games in 2021 and only started four altogether in 2022. The Raiders moved on from Ferrell after a disappointing four-year run that saw him post just 10 total sacks over that period.
Ferrell signed with the 49ers on a one-year deal in 2023 free agency. So now he joins the NFL’s best defense of 2022, led by Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner and potential breakout star Drake Jackson.
Ferrell is in good hands with all that talent around him, and in a top-tier coaching system led by Shanahan and new DC Steve Wilks. With Bosa supplying all that attention, is this the year Ferrell puts it altogether and emerges as a game-wrecker?
Don’t fully bet against it. This is the ideal landing spot and system for Ferrell to fully discover his potential at the NFL level.
The Detroit Lions thought they were being savvy when they traded away Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2020 offseason — and by replacing him with Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah.
The Lions drafted Okudah third overall in 2020, passing on other notable future stars like Andrew Thomas, Tristan Wirfs, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson et al. It’s no wonder the Okudah pick would be the last that Bob Quinn would make as GM of the Lions.
Injuries unfortunately limited Okudah to 10 total games over his first two years. He was mostly healthy in 2022 and appeared in 15 games and showed some improvement, but the new Lions’ brass had seen enough.
Okudah was traded to the Atlanta Falcons this offseason for a 2023 fifth-round draft choice — finally giving the Ohio State product the fresh start he needed.
In Okudah’s defense, he was on a lousy and tanking Lions team during his tenure there — so asking him to cover the opposition’s top cornerback was always going to be difficult. Fortunately for Okudah, rising star AJ Terrell holds down that task in Atlanta.
So Okudah will get more favorable matchups with the opposition’s No. 2 or 3 receiver — not to mention the arrival of Jessie Bates to patrol the safety position.
All Okudah has to do is find a way to stay healthy for an entire year. If he can do that, he just might finally reach his sky-high potential in Atlanta. Okudah and Terrell have the skill sets to form arguably football’s best cornerback duo in 2023 and beyond.
Despite missing five games as a rookie in 2021, Bateman finished with a respectable stat line of 46 receptions for 515 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck again and limited him to six games in 2022.
Bateman has been impactful when on the field, but the problem is that he hasn’t seen a lot of action. Like other guys on this list, it comes down to him being healthy.
The Ravens brought in Todd Monken to replace Greg Roman as offensive coordinator. They drafted Zay Flowers and signed Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor, strongly suggesting that the club will transition to a more balanced offense.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Bateman could easily emerge as Lamar Jackson’s top wideout if he can just stay healthy. Mark Andrews and OBJ will of course command most of the attention to begin with in the passing game anyway.
If Baltimore really trusted Bateman, they wouldn’t have used a first-rounder on Flowers. It’s now up to Bateman to show he belongs in this offense long-term. A clean bill of health will go a long way in helping him shed the bust label once and for all.
Toney didn’t do a whole lot of anything in the regular season, but he did catch a touchdown from Patrick Mahomes in the fourth quarter of KC’s Super Bowl win. That obviously counted for something.
Toney has shown flashes of brilliance with the ball in his hands. But is he going to stay healthy and actually find his way into this Kansas City offense? Or is he just going to be another gadget-piece for Andy Reid?
You can’t deny Toney’s lightning-quick ability and ankle-breaking moves when he gets the chance to make plays. He still has the “bust” label attached to his name, but don’t be shocked if Toney finally breaks out as a 1K-yard receiver and Pro Bowler in 2023.
Which other NFL players can break the bust label in 2023?
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