When is it OK to label an NFL draft pick as a bust in today’s NFL? That question may seem tough to answer at first glance.
NFL busts are hard to identify, as there are a multitude of different things that can and will go wrong for players when competing at such a high level.
However, it isn’t fair to coddle a player simply because of his draft position, either. Sooner or later, teams are forced to make tough decisions with these athletes and admit that they erred in their pre-draft processes.
In order to know when it’s OK to throw the bust label around, though, we have to know what exactly a bust is—and isn’t. Then we can start talking about when it’s appropriate to drop that bomb.
Setting Some Parameters
A bust must be a pick that a team invests something significant into, meaning that it will usually come within the first two rounds of the draft. It’s hard to label a third-round prospect as a bust, as those players were passed over twice by NFL teams.
For our purposes, we’ll start off by setting the first criteria as a first- or second-round pick.
Next, we’ll need to set a value to the expected production of one of these picks and put a timetable on it—eventually—in order to come to our conclusion.
Skill position players who are drafted in the opening two rounds and fail to see significant playing time within three seasons are up for consideration for the label. That’s especially true because these players are often pushed by coaching staffs to see the field because of their high selection.
This does not always include quarterbacks, though. Some quarterbacks are drafted into situations where they are designed to be mentored behind a veteran starter (i.e. Aaron Rodgers). As a result of that reality, we’ll extend that number out to five years for QBs.
Alternately, some signal-callers are thrust into the starting position from the get-go and must be evaluated in the same way as everyone else.
So, our second parameter is that first- and second-round picks must live up to pre-draft expectations by becoming a key contributor within three years of their selection.
That pretty much ties it altogether, right?
Factoring in Injuries
Now that we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with, let’s take a look at another factor that plays into the process.
Injuries are an unfortunate result of the punishing game of football. While some players come with injury red flags, it’s impossible to draft knowing you’re getting a player who will avoid being sidelined.
Teams can, however, draft smartly in the beginning rounds by doing their homework on prospects and drafting positional players who are less likely to take punishing hits—unlike running backs.
Still, if a team invests a top-round pick on a player, it expects that player to be a contributor. If injuries slow down that player's development and he doesn’t see the field for three seasons, is he a bust?
Some players can bounce back from early-career injuries to eventually make an impact for either the team that drafted them or a club willing to give them a second chance.
We’ll get more to timetables later, but perpetual injury problems can definitely contribute to a player being labeled as a bust.
Applying the Label
We’ve taken a look at some essential thoughts into the labeling of busts. Now, let’s try to bring everything together.
A player who is drafted in the first or second round and is expected to be a key contributor but never contributes meaningfully during his rookie contract is surely a bust. That organization got nothing back for its large investment.
This goes for players who are injury-riddled during that time frame, too.
You may disagree because a player has no control over injuries, but he also can't help how he acclimates to the professional game or his new team either.
If we start making too many exceptions, we would be hard-pressed to find any suitable players fitting of receiving the label.
Quarterbacks, though, have their own criteria, as mentioned earlier.
Early-round picks who fail to demonstrate improvement or provide quality starts for their teams after two seasons are definitely fair game for the bust label. While some QBs may get somewhat better over time, teams can get a good sense of whether they can lead their franchise after seeing tape of two full seasons of play.
A team's scheme, atmosphere and depth play a big part in a player becoming a bust.
But this isn't about the factors as much as it is the end result. For whatever reason, a player's inability to live up to his selection according to these parameters is grounds for earning the bust tag.
Overall, the lengthy pre-draft process (which has turned into a year-round affair) and lowered rookie salary scale have helped lower the frequency and the burden of picking a bust in the opening rounds.
Players still need to realize, though, that teams are not going to wait around forever for them to suddenly “get it.” Sooner or later, everyone’s patience runs out, and their high selection no longer holds as much weight as it did a couple of seasons ago, especially if a different management group was making the decisions.