Ross Cockrell was focused on his NFL combine performance but kept noticing DB25, the 6-footer with the pink, blue and neon cleats, natural hip fluidity and a killer 40-yard dash time of 4.37 seconds. He called his dad that night and made a prediction about that standout defensive back: Justin Gilbert would be the top cornerback taken in the 2014 draft.
Eight years later, Cockrell, the 11th corner taken that year, is still in the league as a reliable defender with 47 NFL starts and a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Gilbert, selected eighth overall as the first cornerback taken, played 424 NFL snaps after fizzling out in 2017 with multiple suspensions for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Trying to explain that disparity triggers well-worn but significant questions for every NFL prospect pushed through the draft machine: Does he love the game? Will the right team to develop him? Will his work ethic carry him through the tough rookie transition? These are questions teams can’t always answer, despite countless hours trying. Sometimes they truly won’t know until the player enters their building as a professional.
That’s why almost every scout has a player they earmarked as a potential star who never quite matched expectations. These aren’t necessarily draft busts — some are even still in the league as productive players. They just didn’t meet the standard, and something in a team’s scouting report didn’t translate.
So we asked NFL scouts, execs and coaches to name a player who entered the draft over the past 15 or so years who they really believed could be great but fell short. The answers were sometimes surprising — not all were first-rounders, but most were players that another team drafted. Consider these personal misses, the ones that got away.
Teams feel an attachment to all players in the draft, due to the time invested in evaluating them. And even though uncertainty fuels draft intrigue — teams typically feel fortunate if they bat .500 in any given draft — some misses hurt more than others. You have to hope a player’s strengths outweigh a few red flags, and conviction leads to confusion when their careers don’t mirror what they gleaned in the draft process. Here are 15 of those head-scratchers.
Josh Rosen, QB (No. 10 in 2018)
What he was supposed to be: A deadly pocket passer
What he became: A journeyman quarterback
Arm talent is enticing, and Rosen’s throwing performances out of UCLA propelled him to top-10 status. In 2018, the Arizona Cardinals traded up to select him No. 10 overall, which, at the time, was considered a drop down the board for him.
“If you just watched him play catch, he’s very talented,” an NFC exec said. “There’s a lot of ability there. And he showed it in spurts in college. So I think whoever was looking to draft him wanted to believe that his strengths would carry him.”
But pre-draft questions about Rosen’s maturity have followed him throughout a journeyman start to his NFL career. With Rosen starting 13 games, the 2018 Cardinals had the league’s worst offense. A year later, Arizona traded him to the Miami Dolphins, an unprecedented move. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Rosen is the league’s only quarterback drafted in the top 10 to get traded from the team for which he played in his first season before his second season began.
To be sure, Arizona didn’t exactly maximize his skill set. He was caught up in the Steve Wilks-Kliff Kingsbury transition that led the Cardinals to Kyler Murray in the 2019 draft, and the talent around him wasn’t great. “Where you go matters, and he was not put in a position to succeed,” an NFC exec said. “A stronger support system and maybe he makes it.”
Rosen has worn four jerseys since that Arizona trade, spending last year with the Atlanta Falcons and vacillating between the second- and third-quarterback spot.
As the NFC exec pointed out, his maturity issues can be traced to his UCLA days. And one veteran NFL scout recalls attending a Bruins practice where Rosen was not paying attention, assuming a class clown role from the sideline, and then-coach Jim Mora was obviously not happy while trying to prepare the team for a game. Rarely do you see a head coach feel compelled to make an example of out a quarterback, the scout recalled.
“As a quarterback you have to be on point more than anybody else, and I’m not sure that he ever bridged that gap,” the scout said.
Rosen’s 2021 experience in Atlanta was largely positive, though, and the Falcons saw growth in his maturity. Rosen is an unrestricted free agent and could return to Atlanta.
What he was supposed to be: Perennial Pro Bowler
What he became: Solid TE2 with upside
One veteran AFC scout remembers studying Howard closely, from watching his Alabama games live to evaluating his every move at the Senior Bowl.
“I thought he was a can’t-miss talent,” the scout said. “Had the kind of size and athleticism tailored for the position.”
Several execs and scouts echoed that same sentiment. Howard hasn’t been a bust, to be sure. His 119 catches for 1,737 yards and 15 touchdowns over five seasons in Tampa Bay are respectable. An ACL tear in October 2020 set him back, too. And he just signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Buffalo Bills. But the former No. 19 overall pick looked poised to join the pantheon of great tight ends, which simply hasn’t happened.
What he was supposed to be: A dominant force off the edge
What he became: A solid NFL pass-rusher
Fowler’s breakout season came in 2019 with the Los Angeles Rams, posting 11.5 sacks and earning a three-year, $48 million deal with the Falcons. But he never graduated to the elite tier, which was the expectation as the third overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One veteran AFC scout saw the makings of a star as Fowler came out of the University of Florida, because he could win in a variety of ways — bending the corner, a speed-to-power rush or a counter move inside.
“The one thing I didn’t account for is that the really good pass-rushers have good hip mobility or are really quick or extremely powerful,” the scout said. “And even though Dante was sudden and crafty, he didn’t test overly well and wasn’t that type of elite athlete as some of the best rushers.”
That scouting report played out. Fowler was well-positioned in a supporting role to Aaron Donald in Los Angeles, but he struggled for two seasons in Atlanta, which released him in February. Fowler signed with the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, with a chance to revive his career alongside Micah Parsons and work again with Dan Quinn, his former coach in Atlanta.
What he was supposed to be: A shutdown corner with length and quickness
What he became: The classic NFL bust
Gilbert’s script out of Oklahoma State portended fame more than flameout. Drafted alongside quarterback Johnny Manziel as a future Cleveland cornerstone, Gilbert had no major red flags in college, and there’s no public knowledge of any arrests. Talent was never an issue. His change-of-direction skills and range were top-10 worthy. While conducting interviews about Gilbert’s fall a few years back, several college coaches or teammates were trying to make sense of it all.
Veteran NFL cornerback Kevin Peterson, who started alongside Gilbert at OSU, said Gilbert “really loved” football, always encouraging teammates to sprint as fast as him or increase weight limits in the gym. He responded to coaches’ challenges and was pleasant around the facility. Longtime college coach Jason Jones, who recruited Gilbert to Oklahoma State, got that love-the-game question from every executive and scout who studied Gilbert in the pre-draft process. He answered yes, he does love football. That’s what he believed, at least, leaving those close to him processing a clear disconnect between college and pros.
“I thought he would be one of those guys to play for a long time,” said Jones, now Indiana’s safeties coach.
The draft buzz was growing, as teams were enamored with his physical traits. But the scouting reports weren’t all flattering. One NFC evaluator said his team had concerns about drinking. A separate NFC exec said Gilbert sometimes lacked attention to detail in his work and practiced “selective toughness,” particularly against the run.
“Especially as a high pick, you have to really want to embrace the competition to make it work,” said a veteran NFL defensive coach who heavily scouted Gilbert. “That component wasn’t there.”
Former Oklahoma State defensive backs coach Van Malone told teams during the pre-draft process that Gilbert needed direction and a strong support system. When Gilbert told Malone about his turbulent rookie year in Cleveland, Malone admitted he might have treated him like a kid sometimes. The NFL won’t do that, he reminded him — it’ll just fine you instead. And Cleveland wasn’t exactly a beacon of consistency at that point, as the franchise was realizing the Manziel mistake in real time.
“I regret that as a coach, that I didn’t give him more,” Malone said. “When you make it to that level … your life is about to be changed. … There’s no place to hide in the NFL.”
And so Gilbert’s last NFL snaps came in 2016 with Pittsburgh, and naturally, they were beautiful — he locked down Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the red zone with his length and footwork. Then he was gone. Several attempts to reach Gilbert over the years have been unsuccessful.
What he was supposed to be: Versatile, game-wrecking lineman
What he became: Rotational lineman
Teams loved Thomas’ motor and versatility in 2017. The San Francisco 49ers thought they found a defensive anchor, and others in the top 10 coveted him. With edge rusher Myles Garrett the clear-cut top pick to Cleveland and the Chicago Bears trading up for quarterback Mitch Trubisky at No. 2, Thomas and San Francisco seemed like a natural fit.
“He was so productive, could play on the edge or win inside, so polished, a great guy,” an AFC executive said. “But when you break it down, the question was, how will he win consistently? He’s not a 290-300-pound tackle, and he’s an undersized 3-technique and a small DE.”
The 280-pound Thomas finished his four-year stint in San Francisco with 95 tackles and six sacks. The 49ers basically admitted the mistake by declining his fifth-year option. After he played last season with the Las Vegas Raiders, Thomas signed a one-year, $1.4 million deal with the New York Jets last month. Entering a sixth NFL season as a key member of a defensive line is no small feat. But teams expect much more from a top-three pick.
What he was supposed to be: Starting left tackle
What he became: A backup with untapped potential
When the Philadelphia Eagles landed Dillard with the 22nd pick in 2019, some other teams were jealous.
“I thought he was a steal where they got him,” an AFC exec said.
The 6-foot-5, 315-pounder out of Washington State looked poised to protect the edge every Sunday. Dillard was considered by many to be the best tackle in that draft, and with the Houston Texans eyeing tackle help at No. 23 overall, the Eagles looked smart by trading into the 22nd spot to take Dillard. (The Texans selected tackle Tytus Howard.)
But Dillard has served mostly as a backup, missed all of 2020 with a biceps injury and has been the subject of trade rumors.
“I thought he would be a starting left tackle,” an NFC scout said. “Really good quickness and feet.”
Maybe there’s still time for that. If the Eagles decline his fifth-year option, Dillard will be an intriguing free agent in 2023. Teams are often partial to players they graded highly during the draft process.
What he was supposed to be: New England’s next shutdown corner
What he became: Traded after one season
The Patriots‘ second-round pick in 2018 looked poised to become Bill Belichick’s next productive press-man corner. Dawson, the seventh corner selected that year, was New England’s highest cover man taken since Ras-I Dowling went 33rd overall in 2011.
But Dawson never played a down for New England, starting the year on injured reserve with a hamstring issue and failing to crack the lineup upon return. New England traded him to Denver, where he made four starts in 26 games but tore his ACL in late 2020. He spent part of 2021 on Denver’s practice squad and is now a free agent, believed to be training for his next opportunity in the NFL. Bad injury luck aside, Dawson’s career never got going.
“That’s a big one — I thought he would be better,” an AFC scout said. “It might be a Bill B. thing. If you don’t handle hard coaching there early on, it can be hard to recover from that.”
What he was supposed to be: A do-it-all safety to stabilize Green Bay’s defensive backfield
What he became: A free agent after two seasons
The Green Bay Packers usually hit on defensive draft picks high in the draft, and Jones was rated as one of the best safeties in the 2017 class, with impressive measurables. At 6-foot-1 and 220-pounds, he ran a 4.41 in the 40 and recorded an 11-foot broad jump. NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rated Jones his No. 39 overall player that year.
But Jones started 12 games over his first two seasons, requested a trade and was ultimately released. He has played for four teams since, with no stability in sight.
“Thought he’d be a do-it-all, versatile safety,” an AFC executive said. “Didn’t work out for him.”
What he was supposed to be: Solution to Jets’ long-term quarterback problem
What he became: A borderline NFL starter
Darnold is a curious case because he is very well-liked, works hard and has standout traits. People around the league root for him. But that’s increasingly harder to do after 52 interceptions in four seasons. Bad decision-making got him traded from the New York Jets to the Carolina Panthers, who are now looking for his replacement.
Coming out of USC, Darnold appeared poised to solidify the Jets’ quarterback position once and for all. The team shipped the No. 6 pick and three second-rounders to Indianapolis for the right to take Darnold at No. 3. Some around the league believed wholeheartedly in that move and are still hopeful. One NFC exec went as far as to say Darnold let him down a little, largely because he “loved the guy” coming out of college.
Damien Woody and Dan Orlovsky agree Sam Darnold is the best option for the Panthers given the quarterbacks available.
“I just thought he was smart, knew what to do with the offense and the ball, athletic, can throw the football,” the executive said. “I thought he had everything it took to make a great quarterback. I thought whoever drafted him was getting a great franchise quarterback. Maybe there’s still a chance for that. I’m hopeful for him that it works out in Carolina.”
A little more than a year ago, Carolina gave up second-, fourth- and sixth-round picks to New York for the rights to Darnold. So he’s not far removed from holding leaguewide value.
“Even though it didn’t work out last year, that’s still not a bad move for Carolina,” added a separate NFC exec. “His story isn’t totally written.”
What he was supposed to be: James Harrison’s replacement in Pittsburgh
What he became: A midlevel starter who was out of the league after four seasons
Jones came to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a first-round pick with loads of talent. He set the University of Georgia’s single-season record for sacks with 14.5 in his final collegiate year. Four years later, Jones had produced six sacks and was benched in his final campaign in Pittsburgh. Arizona signed him to a one-year deal in 2017, but he got hurt and never played another NFL snap.
“That was one where you had to trust your eyes, because he didn’t test well at all during the pre-draft process, but we gave him the benefit of the doubt because he led the SEC in sacks,” an NFC exec said. “Production is only part of the equation.”
Chris Cook, CB (No. 34 in 2010)
What he was supposed to be: A long corner to give Calvin Johnson problems in the NFC North
What he became: A part-time starter with off-field issues
One NFL coordinator saw first-round ability from Cook, whom the Minnesota Vikings drafted early in Round 2 in 2010.
“Really talented guy, speed, 6-foot-2, rangy,” the coordinator said. “I had big hopes for him. I just think he got sidetracked off the field, and it affected his career.”
In 2011, Cook was charged with one count of domestic assault by strangulation and one count of third-degree assault — both felonies — after an alleged fight with his then-girlfriend. He was later acquitted. Cook played out his rookie contract, but Minnesota didn’t re-sign him. He then played with San Francisco for a year but was out of the league by 2015.
What he was supposed to be: An explosive, do-it-all offensive playmaker
What he became: A good role player
The Rams surprised many when they used a top-10 pick on Austin, but the truth is they weren’t alone in their fascination with Austin. Several teams were enamored with the offensive possibilities around the 5-foot-8 receiver.
“Really, I just expected an explosive playmaker with the ability to get open in the slot as well as gadget plays from the backfield,” an AFC exec said. “I also thought he’d be a dynamic returner. Looking back, he really didn’t have a true ‘stamp it’ position.”
Austin did have flashes of return prowess with a punt-return touchdown in each of his first three seasons. But he has found the end zone a total of 29 times in nine seasons, and he has never crossed the 550-yard mark in a season as a receiver or rusher.
Austin, 31, most recently played with the Jaguars in 2021. He continues to train and could get some free-agent interest after the draft or closer to the season.
What he was supposed to be: A big-play receiver
What he became: An untradable roster cut
Teams hit on wide receivers all the time in recent drafts, but the mid-2010s was a rough stretch. In 2015, No. 7 pick Kevin White disappointed despite “having it all” as far as skill sets go, several scouts said. And the four other first-round receivers in that draft — DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman and Phillip Dorsett — have had productive stretches but combined for zero Pro Bowls.
But a high pick the following year still haunts one AFC scout: Doctson. He flashed big-time ability out of TCU but caught a total of eight touchdowns in the NFL.
“That’s a personal miss for me,” the scout said. “I thought he’d be a good No. 2. What was missing was speed and yards-after-catch ability.”
Doctson — who ran a 4.50-second 40 at the combine — had 1,100 total receiving yards through his first three years, 260 of which came after the catch. Many of the game’s top receivers are well above 30% in that area.
Washington released Doctson before the 2019 season, unable to find a trade partner. Three other teams released him in future years, and he’s now out of the league.
What he was supposed to be: An NFL sack leader
What he became: An NFL sack leader … before fizzling out
It’s hard to call Beasley a complete bust considering what he produced during the 2016 season: a league-high 15.5 sacks and an All-Pro berth. But he is now a 29-year-old edge rusher who was just a free agent for a second consecutive offseason. The Falcons didn’t attempt to re-sign Beasley after five seasons, and after signing a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans, Beasley played a total of 125 defensive snaps before the team released him after the 2021 season.
Former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff recently touched on the topic of Beasley in a wide-ranging interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, hinting that a lack of passion was an issue.
“The thing about Vic is he needed someone to be able to reach him and motivate him consistently, to stay on him, and that’s hard at the next level, where you have to be self-motivated,” said a veteran NFL defensive coach who scouted Beasley closely.
What he’s doing now is uncertain. Multiple teams are not sure whether he’s training for a future NFL job.
What he was supposed to be: A Pro Bowl lineman
What he became: A solid pro
Teams were high on Erving’s traits and versatility entering the 2015 draft, with the Browns taking him 19th overall. This was considered a sensible pick after the team took Gilbert and Manziel in the first round the previous year.
The good news is Erving has played all five positions along an NFL offensive line over seven seasons, helping him stay in the league. The bad news is, well, Erving played all five positions along an NFL offensive line. The Browns even tried him at center, which can be an adjustment at the next level — especially for a 6-foot-5, 315-pounder.
“He never really got to settle down in one spot,” an AFC executive said. “Cleveland probably wasn’t the best spot for him. Too much transition there. There were some toughness questions, but he could have overcome those.”
The Browns traded Erving to the Kansas City Chiefs after two seasons. He played three seasons in Kansas City, one with the Cowboys and one with the Panthers, who in 2021 signed him to a two-year, $10 million deal to be a bridge starter at left tackle. Starting 56 games over seven years is hardly slouch work, but many scouts saw a brighter future for him.