Whenever a player wins Rookie of the Year honors in the NFL, we tend to assume it’s a stepping stone toward becoming the next great star in the league. However, things don’t always work out like that. While most Rookie of the Year winners end up having a fine career, some tend to fall off a cliff and disappear within a few short years. It may be a little harsh to label these guys as such after they did put together a strong first season in the league, let’s look back at some NFL Rookie of the Year winners who turned into busts after setting such high standards for themselves.
Leonard Russell, Patriots (1991)
Russell was a powerful and bruising running back who’s probably been long forgotten by now, largely because he didn’t stick around the NFL long enough to make a lasting impression. Coming out of Arizona State, the Patriots drafted him 14th overall in the 1991 NFL Draft. He paid immediate dividends for New England, rushing for 959 yards as a rookie despite having no carry go longer than 24 yards, which ended up being the longest rush of his career.
In fairness, Russell’s best season came two years later when he rushed for over 1,000 yards. However, he managed a meager 390 rushing yards during his second season. The Patriots also released him after his 1,000-yard season when they traded for Marion Butts, sensing that Russell didn’t have staying power. After getting booted out of New England, he would play three more seasons for three different teams. But Russell couldn’t find a permanent home and ended up playing just six seasons in the NFL despite being Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1991.
Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers (2005)
By today’s standards, Williams should have been a bonafide Hall of Famer as a running who was selected fifth overall in the 2005 Draft. To his credit, Williams flashed plenty of potential as a rookie, rushing for just under 1,200 yards in 14 games while scoring six touchdowns. He earned 47 of 50 votes in the Rookie of the Year voting, blowing away the competition from his fellow rookies, including college teammate Ronnie Brown, who was drafted second overall.
But that was the only time Williams rushed for over 1,000 yards. He played through nagging injuries the following year, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry and scoring one touchdown. Williams then had back-to-back injury-plagued seasons and never quite got back on track after that. He managed to hang on for a few more seasons, lasting seven seasons in the NFL, but was primarily a backup toward the end and never lived up to being the fifth overall pick or Rookie of the Year.
Vince Young, Titans (2006)
Young set high expectations for himself by leading Texas to a national championship in his final college game and then taking home Rookie of the Year honors to begin his NFL career. Keep in mind, he had not just the arm talent to play quarterback but also the kind of strength and athleticism that few quarterbacks at the time possessed. Even though the Titans only went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, Young fared better than the other rookie quarterbacks that year and had set the stage for big things.
In his second season, Young ended up leading the Titans to the playoffs despite throwing just nine touchdown passes compared to 17 interceptions. The following year, an injury sidelined Young and ultimately relegated him to backup duties with the Titans going 13-3 with Kerry Collins starting. Young would eventually get his starting job back and make the Pro Bowl for a second time. But more injuries and issues with head coach Jeff Fisher ultimately led to the end of his time in Tennessee. After that, Young struggled to maintain a roster spot with teams much less rise to the level of play he showcased as a rookie.
Robert Griffin III, Redskins (2012)
Admittedly, it’s a little unfair to label Griffin a bust. We’ll never know for sure if his career would have been different had it not been for that gruesome knee injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, not to mention the injuries that followed in subsequent years. Nevertheless, RG3 won the Heisman during his senior season at Baylor, went second overall in the draft, and took the NFL by storm on his way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and being named to the Pro Bowl. Injury or not, all of that created massive expectations for Griffin that he was just not able to meet, which is why he must be considered a bust, regardless of how unfair that sounds.
To his credit, Griffin made it back in time for Week 1 of his sophomore season after his rookie year ended with a torn ACL. But he clearly wasn’t the same player he was before. An ankle injury during his third pro season set him back even more and made it obvious that Griffin would never be the same player he was as a rookie. However, he does deserve all of the credit in the world for persevering through all of the injuries and failures, keeping himself in the league as a viable backup quarterback.
Eddie Lacy, Packers (2013)
How could you go wrong with a running back who was an integral part of two Alabama national championship teams while in college? The Packers managed to get Lacy 61st overall in the 2013 NFL Draft and he quite literally hit the ground running. Lacy was not only Offensive Rookie of the Year but also a Pro Bowler and Second-Team All-Pro after rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. At that point, Green Bay must have been thinking that they’d found their feature back for the long term.
Alas, things didn’t pan out as expected for Lacy. He was just as good during his sophomore campaign, going over 1,100 yards for the second straight year. Lacy battled injuries over the next two seasons before leaving Green Bay and signing with the Seahawks. In Seattle, Lacy had trouble keeping his weight under control. After just a few seasons in the league, Lacy struggled to maintain a reasonable playing weight and couldn’t move the way he did earlier in his career, even for a bigger back. During his only season in Seattle, Lacy averaged 2.6 yards per carry on just 69 rushing attempts. No NFL team had much interest in him after that and the former Rookie of the Year ended up flaming out after just five seasons in the NFL.