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When discussing draft busts and NFL disappointments, much of the blame is usually placed on the player. However, plenty of factors go into a player underwhelming. Poor coaching, poor scheme fits and positional logjams can and will prevent a young player from reaching expectations—or even having high expectations to begin with.
Sometimes, for a player to truly break out, they require a change of scenery.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre will always serve as a prime example of this phenomenon. The 1991 second-round pick was stuck behind Pro Bowl starter Chris Miller and famously clashed with Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville.
“Me and Jerry, we didn’t see eye to eye on things,” Favre said, per I.J. Rosenberg of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The Falcons traded Favre to the Green Bay Packers after only one season, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While there might not be a future Hall of Famer buried on a depth chart and waiting to emerge, some players could still be one trade away from stardom. We’ll examine six such players here, examine why a change would benefit them and identify a prime landing spot for each.
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
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Clelin Ferrell, the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft, has largely been a bust for the Las Vegas Raiders. The old front office gambled on the former Clemson standout, and the Raiders have gotten little in return.
Ferrell had 4.5 sacks as a rookie but has logged only 3.5 since. He had 1.5 sacks last season to go with a mere 10 quarterback pressures.
There’s a new regime in Vegas, though, and new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham should offer Ferrell some hope. The problem is that the Raiders also acquired pass-rusher Chandler Jones in free agency.
The primary pass-rushing tandem of Jones and Maxx Crosby will leave few opportunities for Ferrell on the edge. According to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ferrell has been getting reps at defensive tackle this offseason.
While the Raiders may have to change Ferrell’s position to get him on the field, the New England Patriots could use him on the edge.
New England doesn’t have a clear-cut complement to linebacker Matt Judon, who accounted for 12.5 of the team’s 36 sacks in 2021. Ferrell would be a bit of a project, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long been keen on picking up other teams’ castoffs—Randy Moss, LeGarrette Blount and Danny Shelton are just a few examples.
With a potential shot at a significant role—and in a defense that ranked fourth overall and second in points allowed last season—Ferrell could finally have a chance to flourish. All it might take is for new head coach Josh McDaniels to place a call to his old team.
Best Fit: New England Patriots
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Ferrell isn’t the only 2019 first-round bust who could use a change of scenery. The Patriots took former Arizona State wideout N’Keal Harry with the 32nd overall pick. So far, New England has gotten 598 receiving yards and four touchdowns in three seasons.
The time for Harry to reverse course in New England is likely over. The Patriots added Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor last offseason and acquired DeVante Parker and rookie second-round pick Tyquan Thornton this offseason. Harry will likely have a hard time even getting an opportunity to prove himself in 2022.
“I don’t think there’s a place for Harry moving forward,” Chris Mason of MassLive recently wrote.
If the Patriots don’t have a use for Harry, they should try trading him before releasing him. Trading him out of the conference and to the Green Bay Packers could be a win for both teams.
The Packers dealt No. 1 receiver Davante Adams to the Raiders this offseason and are looking at a patchwork receiving corps of Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins and second-round rookie Christian Watson.
Green Bay’s top tight end, Robert Tonyan, is also coming off a torn ACL.
In Green Bay, the 6’4″, 225-pound Harry could help fill the possession role normally given to a tight end—he’s roughly an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Tonyan. The 24-year-old is a big, physical pass-catcher who could line up as a move tight end or in the slot and provide a mismatch against most linebackers and safeties.
With Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith on the roster, New England really can’t offer such an opportunity for Harry. The Packers could, and by pairing him with reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, could finally give Harry the chance to finally break through as a respectable NFL role player.
Best Fit: Green Bay Packers
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2020 second-round pick Denzel Mims flashed some signs of promise with the New York Jets as a rookie. Through nine appearances, he caught 23 passes for 357 yards. Fifteen of his 23 receptions went for first downs.
After New York underwent several offseason changes in 2021, though, Mims went from a promising player to one of the team’s biggest disappointments. The 24-year-old finished his sophomore campaign with just eight receptions and 133 yards while providing a passer rating of 55.5 when targeted (down from 70.0 as a rookie).
Several factors were likely at play. The Jets had a new coach in Robert Saleh, a new offensive coordinator in Mike LaFleur, a new quarterback in Zach Wilson—who disappointed plenty as a rookie—and a new second-round rookie receiver in Elijah Moore.
With New York adding wideout Garrett Wilson in the first round of this year’s draft, Mims may be on his way out.
During minicamp, ESPN’s Rich Cimini reported that Mims appears to be behind 2019 undrafted free agent Jeff Smith in a battle to be the team’s fifth receiver.
A trade to the Carolina Panthers, though, could give Mims the opportunity he needs to finally break out. Robby Anderson and DJ Moore were the only Carolina players to top 500 receiving yards in 2021, and former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is still the projected Week 1 starter.
Darnold was high on Mims during their one season together.
“You see the talent, for sure. It’s just about him continuing to study the game plan and make sure he knows things that way,” Darnold said in October 2020, per Chris Ryan of NJ.com.
In Carolina, Mims and Darnold could build on their connection they never got to fully establish in New York.
Best Fit: Carolina Panthers
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Cleveland Browns running back D’Ernest Johnson is an outlier on this list because he hasn’t been a disappointment. In fact, Johnson, who was playing in the Alliance of American Football in 2019, hasn’t really had NFL expectations.
However, leaving Johnson off this list would be unfair because of what he showed in Cleveland last season. In three games as the primary ball-carrier, Johnson racked up 368 rushing yards, 90 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Prorated over a 15-game stretch, Johnson would have 1,840 rushing yards. Simply put, he could be a breakout star given the opportunity.
It’s not going to happen in Cleveland this season, though, as the 2018 undrafted free agent out of South Florida is behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the depth chart. It would take injuries to both standout backs for Johnson to break out with the Browns in 2022.
Johnson signed a one-year contract with Cleveland this offseason, seemingly content to wait on his breakout opportunity.
However, a trade to the Atlanta Falcons could give Johnson a chance to shine now. Cordarrelle Patterson is a fine complementary runner-receiver, but he’s not an every-down ball-carrier. Atlanta’s other backs include Damien Williams—who opted out of the 2020 season and carried just 40 times with the Chicago Bears in 2021—and rookie fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier.
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith has experience working with a bell-cow back after coaching Derrick Henry as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. He doesn’t currently have that on Atlanta’s roster but could potentially find it in Johnson.
Johnson could instantly become the top back on Atlanta’s depth chart and a huge piece of the offensive puzzle. Longtime starting quarterback Matt Ryan is gone, and the Falcons will roll with either Marcus Mariota or third-round pick Desmond Ridder in 2022.
With the Falcons, Johnson could help ease the transition at quarterback while establishing himself as a legitimate NFL starter.
Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons
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Like Harry and Mims, Philadelphia Eagles wideout Jalen Reagor has had a tough transition to the NFL. The 2020 first-round pick has made 24 starts in two seasons but has caught only 64 passes for 695 yards and three touchdowns. He has yet to catch more than 58 percent of his targets in a season as a pro.
However, Philadelphia isn’t quite ready to pull the plug on the former TCU standout.
“He still has that ability to run routes and be fast and strong and physical, and again, we’re just continuing to improve on those things every single day,” offensive coordinator Shane Steichen told reporters.
The problem is that in Philadelphia, opportunities may now be hard to come by. The Eagles drafted DeVonta Smith in the first round last year and traded for A.J. Brown this offseason. They also have tight end Dallas Goedert as a top target and utilize a very run-heavy offense—no team attempted fewer passes last season.
Reagor may have better odds of making an impact with the Washington Commanders. Washington drafted Jahan Dotson in the first round this year, but they have little proven depth behind Terry McLaurin—who continues to sit out while angling for a new contract.
In Washington, Reagor would also be reunited with quarterback Carson Wentz, who was traded from Philly to the Indianapolis Colts last offseason and to the Commanders this spring.
While Reagor and Wentz didn’t exactly light things up in Philadelphia, there would at least be some familiarity there. And in Washington—and especially if McLaurin continues to hold out—the TCU product would have a prime chance to earn playing time in 2022.
The only question is whether the Eagles would be willing to deal to a division rival. To get something for a receiver they may not use much, they should be.
Best Fit: Washington Commanders
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Three years ago, the Los Angeles Chargers used a first-round pick on former Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
The results from Tillery came slowly, as he logged just 47 combined tackles over his first two seasons. However, the 25-year-old was much better last year, notching 51 tackles to go with 4.5 sacks.
However, if Tillery is going to truly break out, he may have to get out of L.A. The extension-eligible defender skipped voluntary organized team activities and could have trouble earning a significant role in 2022.
“He’s going to fit into that competition of guys that are
going to have to earn a role,” Staley said, per Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk. “During this
springtime and during training camp, all of those guys are going to
really have to duke it out to establish themselves.”
The Chargers revamped their defensive line this offseason, adding Morgan Fox, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson and rookie fifth-round pick Otito Ogbonnia. A diminished role could very well be in Tillery’s future.
This likely wouldn’t be the case with the Browns, however. Cleveland has a fine edge-rushing duo in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney but lacks proven depth on the interior.
In Cleveland, Tillery would jump to the front of the depth chart and benefit from the attention Garrett and Clowney will generate on the edges. L.A. should have its own formidable pass-rushing duo in Joey Bosa and new acquisition Khalil Mack, but again it may be inclined to push Tillery down the depth chart.
Last season, the Browns ranked fifth in total defense, and they should again have a top-tier unit. In Cleveland, Tillery could finally become a star.
Best Fit: Cleveland Browns
Advanced statistics via Pro Football Reference.
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