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What every lesson we learned from the 2015 NFL Draft means for 2020

2015 was a bad year for first-round picks. Teams that fail to learn from it may just repeat it.

Artwork of NFL players Todd Gurley, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston, superimposed on a black and white background with aqua blue lines
Todd Gurley, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston were all top-10 picks in the 2015 NFL Draft.

From a franchise’s standpoint, the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft was one of the worst of all time. Five years later, only seven of the Day 1 picks are settled in for their sixth season with the club that drafted them. That includes just one player from the top 10 — Washington offensive lineman Brandon Scherff.

Yes, the first round of the 2015 draft did something long thought impossible in the NFL. It made Washington look like a stable and well-run organization.

Five years ago, each of these selections was an opportunity. Now they’re a lesson. The first 32 picks of that draft presented themes which can apply to 2020.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, QB

Winston’s cannon arm led Florida State to a national championship and earned him a Heisman Trophy. He used that unquenchable desire to create big plays to become the NFL’s most turnover-prone player; he had 88 interceptions, 50 fumbles, and zero playoff appearances with the Bucs. He’s currently a free agent.

Lesson learned: Heisman winners are no safe bet ... and extremely hard to quit.

Winston was given five years to stake his claim as Tampa’s franchise quarterback and went 28-42. The Buccaneers were finally willing to let the sun set on the Winston era, in part, because a superior option cropped up in free agency. Bruce Arians is betting Tom Brady is the key to unlocking his team’s potential.

Players it applies to in 2020: Joe Burrow

2. Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, QB

Mariota got stuck at “goodness” and never made it to “greatness.” The Titans finished 9-7 in four of the former Oregon star’s five seasons on the roster — a run that culminated in Mariota losing his starting job in favor of Dolphins retread Ryan Tannehill.

Lesson learned: See above.

Like Winston, Mariota has a Heisman Trophy at home, yet will likely head into a backup role after joining the Raiders.

Players it applies to in 2020: Joe Burrow

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dante Fowler, Edge

Fowler was more potential than production at Florida, but the Jaguars liked his power and athleticism enough to make him the centerpiece of their draft class. He missed his rookie year due to an ACL tear, then made one start in 2.5 years for Jacksonville before being traded.

Lesson learned: Potential needs opportunity.

Fowler’s injury wrecked his learning curve, and a slow start kept him trapped in the middle of the Jaguars’ depth chart. The first season in which he played more than 53 percent of his team’s defensive snaps came in 2019. He rewarded that faith with a career-high 11.5 sacks ... for the Rams.

Players it applies to in 2020: K’Lavon Chaisson, Yetur Gross-Matos, A.J. Epenesa

4. Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, WR

Cooper was drafted to be a No. 1 wideout in the league. Two Pro Bowl invitations in his first two seasons backed up that claim — though it took a trade out of Oakland to restore his luster after a disappointing 2017.

Lesson learned: Alabama’s Day 1 wideouts live up to the hype.

Julio Jones? Stud. Cooper? Stud. Calvin Ridley? Well, it’s still early to tell, but he’s got 17 touchdowns in 29 career games so far. All were Crimson Tide standouts.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III

5. Washington: Brandon Scherff, OL

Scherff played both tackle and guard in college and was the ideal Iowa blocker: big, aggressive, and tough as hell. Fifth overall may have seemed a bit high, but he rewarded Washington with three Pro Bowl honors and was retained this spring via the franchise tag.

Lesson learned: Good blocking is important, wherever it is.

Only one guard has been selected in the top five picks since 1976. Scherff played enough on the edge to narrowly avoid a place on that list, but he’s been used almost exclusively at right guard in Washington. He’s kicked ass doing it, too. With NFL QBs now more mobile than ever before and the value of blocking expanding just beyond a blindside protector, it could soon be time for a full-time guard to return to the top five.

Players it applies to in 2020: Cesar Ruiz, Lloyd Cushenberry III, Netane Muti

6. New York Jets: Leonard Williams, DL

Williams was a projected top-three pick who fell to the Jets at No. 6. He began to reach that potential in a Pro Bowl 2016 campaign, but failed to match that production in the years that followed. He was traded to the Giants last fall.

Lesson learned: Never get your hopes up, Jets fans.

Between 2012 and 2016, New York had 11 first- or second-round picks. Williams, with his lone Pro Bowl invitation, may have been the best of a group that includes Sheldon Richardson (not bad!) but also Christian Hackenberg, Darron Lee, and Dee Milliner (bad!).

The past three seasons have trended in the opposite direction thanks to the brilliance of Jamal Adams and potential of Sam Darnold and Quinnen Williams. Still, as Leonard Williams proved, early success as a Jet is no guarantee of future returns.

Players it applies to in 2020: According to our mock draft database, CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Jedrick Wills

7. Chicago Bears: Kevin White, WR

White was electricity at West Virginia; a 6’3 burner with a nose for the end zone. But he was raw and often injured; he played just 14 games in four years for the Bears and spent 2019 out of the NFL.

Lesson learned: Sometimes the universe just says no.

White’s NFL career played out like a ragged curse. He missed the entirely of his rookie season due to a broken tibia. He broke a bone in the same leg after just four games the following year. He started the team’s season opener in 2017 and promptly fractured his shoulder. By November 2018, he’d become a shell of his former self enough to make him a healthy scratch.

White had the chops to be great. The football gods had different plans.

Players it applies to in 2020: There’s no way of knowing ... but the safe money’s on whomever the Browns pick.

8. Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley, Edge

Beasley was a first-team All-Pro in his second season, but hasn’t lived up to that standard in the three decent, but underwhelming, years since. He signed with the Titans this spring.

Lesson learned: Sack numbers don’t tell the whole story.

There was a warning sign that predicted his 15.5-sack season wasn’t sustainable. Despite ranking first in the NFL in sacks in 2016, he was just 45th with 16 QB hits. That suggested his numbers would trend downward — and they did.

Players it applies to in 2020: Zach Baun, Alex Highsmith

9. New York Giants: Ereck Flowers, OT

Flowers was drafted to keep Eli Manning upright. He did not succeed. Flowers was released in 2018, but showed enough with Washington in 2019 l to earn a three-year, $30 million contract with the Dolphins.

Lesson learned: Pay attention to red flags, especially if you’re reaching to fill a position of need.

There were plenty of reasons not to make Flowers a top-10 pick. He was unpolished and undisciplined, eager to draw holding penalties at the first sign of getting beat. He was big and athletic, but the Giants needed someone who could make an immediate impact. Flowers was not that guy, and it’s safe to say this overeager over-reach is still haunting the Giants.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jordan Love, A.J. Epenesa

10. St. Louis Rams: Todd Gurley, RB

Gurley was a gamble — an all-world running back coming off an ACL tear that threatened to hinder his pro career. While he earned rookie of the year honors and would be a two-time All-Pro in 2017-18, those injury concerns sapped his 2019. That, and an untenable contract, led to his release this offseason.

Lesson learned: High-usage running backs with injury histories are just as risky as they sound.

Gurley was a high-risk, high-reward selection who paid off both sides of that adage in five seasons as a Ram. St. Louis/LA would likely make that bargain again — though they’d probably like to rescind his record-setting contract extension.

Players it applies to in 2020: D’Andre Swift, Zack Moss, Darrynton Evans

11. Minnesota Vikings: Trae Waynes, CB

The rangy corner displayed lockdown tendencies at Michigan State to be the first defensive back selected in 2015. He eventually became a steady, if unspectacular, starter in Minnesota.

Lesson learned: Aggression is a double-edged sword.

Waynes built a reputation at MSU as a high-level press corner, thriving by taking risks, jumping routes, and using his recovery speed to clean up messes. That strategy hasn’t paid off for him as well against the NFL’s more athletic receivers. He’s allowed more than twice as many touchdowns (nine) as interceptions (four) in his last three seasons.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jeff Gladney, Amik Robertson

12. Cleveland Browns: Danny Shelton, DT

Shelton was one of the final picks of the Ray Farmer era in Cleveland. Despite having little impact as a Brown, he’s still arguably the team’s best Day 1 pick from 2011-15. After three years and only 11 tackles for loss in 46 games, he was traded to the Patriots.

Lesson learned: You’re probably going to regret trading your draft bust to the Patriots.

Shelton didn’t prosper right away in New England, but his second season with the Pats saw him emerge as an above-average interior lineman. He set personal bests in tackles, sacks, and QB hits as an invaluable piece of the NFL’s top defense.

Players it applies to in 2020: Since there aren’t any notable Rutgers prospects this year, we’ll have to wait and see.

13. New Orleans Saints: Andrus Peat, OL

Peat was drafted as a high-ceiling offensive tackle, but struggles forced him to guard for the bulk of his career. It’s worked out well in spurts. He was one of New Orleans’ most valuable blockers from 2016 to 2018, though he backslid in 2019 (despite earning a Pro Bowl invitation).

Lesson learned: A position change doesn’t mean admitting defeat, so find someone versatile.

Like Scherff before him, Peat’s best work came as a guard. That might not have been what the Saints drafted him for, but a good team (and also Washington) finds a way to maximize talent.

Players it applies to in 2020: Any OT prospect who struggles as a rookie.

14. Miami Dolphins: DeVante Parker, WR

Parker was a reliable presence at Louisville, but his senior season — 43 catches, 855 yards in SIX games — made him a top-15 pick. He didn’t meet expectations until 2019, however, because ...

Lesson learned: Adam Gase cannot be trusted.

Parker’s value plummeted in his three seasons playing under Gase. Freed from his underachieving head coach and catching passes from a freewheeling Ryan Fitzpatrick, Parker sprang for career highs of 72 catches, 1,202 yards, and nine touchdowns last season.

Players it applies to in 2020: Whichever skill players the Jets draft. Sorry, Jets.

15. San Diego Chargers: Melvin Gordon, RB

Gordon earned two Pro Bowl honors in his five seasons as a Charger. However, his tenure there may be defined by the 2019 contract holdout that proved an undrafted free agent, Austin Ekeler, could do his job better than Gordon could.

Lesson learned: Healthy first-round running backs are risky, too.

Gordon was a workhorse at Wisconsin, playing 41 games (and taking 611 carries) over his final three years. Even though he was good for the Chargers, he never quite reached the level of greatness ascribed to a top-15 pick.

Players it applies to in 2020: D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor

16. Houston Texans: Kevin Johnson, CB

Johnson made 10 starts for Houston as a rookie, but injuries limited him to just 19 games the following three seasons. While he played every week of the 2019 season for the Bills’ dominant defense, he played just 32 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.

Lesson learned: Even safe picks blow up sometimes.

Johnson looked every bit a star cornerback at Wake Forest. He put together a stronger college resume than almost anyone else in his draft class. Even if players like Waynes and Marcus Peters had boom-or-bust tendencies, Johnson appeared to have the lower ceiling but higher floor. Instead, he struggled as a rookie and then injuries robbed him of having a major impact in Houston.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jeff Okudah, Chase Young, Tristan Wirfs, Derrick Brown

17. San Francisco 49ers: Arik Armstead, DL

Armstead played a supporting role early in his career before moving into a full-time position on the defensive line for an ascending Niners team. After posting nine sacks in his first four seasons, he broke through with 10 last fall to help bring San Francisco an NFC title.

Lesson learned: Supporting cast matters.

Armstead came along slowly, but he blossomed when teammates like Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, and Dee Ford were there to soften up offensive lines and push quarterbacks into his path.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jeff Okudah, Chase Young, any Day 1 pick expected to prop up a bottom-third unit.

18. Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters, CB

Peters came into the league as a high-upside coverage corner who could turn mistakes into turnovers (and allow opposing QBs to turn his mistakes into touchdowns), though his off-field record tarnished his draft stock. He’s enjoyed an up-and-down pro career that reached new heights after three pick-sixes in 2019 for the Ravens.

Lesson learned: Don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to a few bad plays.

Peters tends to gamble at corner, leading to big swings in coverage. His 25 touchdowns allowed since joining the league are second-most in the NFL in that span. That helped lead to two different low-cost trades for a two-time All-Pro with more interceptions than scoring plays given up.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jeff Gladney, Amik Robertson

19. Cleveland Browns: Cameron Erving, OL

Erving lasted just two seasons in Cleveland before being traded to the Chiefs, where he’s been a useful, if unessential, swing tackle ever since.

Lesson learned: The Browns can’t win.

Cleveland had two first-round picks and beefed up both sides of the trenches. Each pick garnered mostly positive reviews (Shelton more than Erving), but neither player lasted more than three seasons with the Browns.

The poor, poor Browns.

Players it applies to in 2020: Whomever gets the call to wear these swank-ass uniforms.

20. Philadelphia Eagles: Nelson Agholor, WR

Agholor was supposed to be the perfect playmaker for Chip Kelly. Instead, his career got off to a rough start before briefly stabilizing and then, in 2019, returning to disappointment. He’ll try to live up to his first-round status as a Raider in 2020.

Lesson learned: Some flaws don’t get fixed.

Agholor is an electric athlete and an occasional savior from the slot, but his college tape showed a player whose lapses in concentration led to frustrating drops. As an Eagles fan will tell you, that’s a problem that didn’t go away in the NFL — he had 21 drops the past four seasons.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jordan Love, Jalen Reagor

21. Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT

Ogbuehi was a big, quick lineman who played both guard and tackle at Texas A&M, but a torn ACL meant he brought injury concerns with him to the NFL. He never quite rounded into shape. He has appeared in only 16 games (zero starts) over the past two seasons with the Bengals and Jaguars.

Lesson learned: Maybe trust the All-Pro who says he can still play in his mid-30s?

Ogbuehi’s arrival made Andrew Whitworth expendable — and when the Bengals weren’t willing to pay his market value, he moved on to the Rams. He was an All-Pro immediately after leaving Cincinnati, then the blindside protector for a Super Bowl team at age 37.

Players it applies to in 2020: The players drafted to replace Tom Brady, Greg Olsen, Philip Rivers, or Jason Witten.

22. Pittsburgh Steelers: Bud Dupree, Edge

Dupree started his career in more of a supporting role for Pittsburgh, but 2019 marked his ascension to the spotlight. His 11.5 sacks were a career high and made him a potent cantilever to T.J. Watt’s edge rush.

Lesson learned: Trust productive guys from overlooked Power 5 teams.

Dupree turned himself from a three-star recruit to All-SEC pass rusher at Kentucky, en route to 23 sacks in his final three seasons. He was still only the fourth pass rusher selected in 2015. Five years later, he looks like the best first-round edge rusher of his class.

Players it applies to in 2020: Ke’Shawn Vaughn, A.J. Dillon, Jake Luton, Justin Strnad, Markus Bailey

23. Denver Broncos: Shane Ray, Edge

Ray was supposed to be the explosive counterpunch to Von Miller’s tackle-shredding pass rush. But he had 14 sacks in four seasons for Denver. He spent the 2019 season out of the league.

Lesson learned: Tread lightly with numbers that look too good to be true.

Ray turned himself into a first-round pick with a breakthrough 14.5-sack junior season — 10 more than he’d had in his career to that point. It also turned out to be more than he’d have in his entire NFL tenure.

Players it applies to in 2020: Joe Burrow, Alex Highsmith, Brandon Aiyuk

24. Arizona Cardinals: D.J. Humphries, OT

Humphries has been a mostly fine blocker ... when he’s on the field. He was inactive his entire rookie season and has only played 43 total games, though he showed enough in 2019 to earn a three-year, $43.75 million deal.

Lesson learned: Injury reports matter.

Humphries only spent two seasons as a starter at Florida and missed at least two games due to injury in both of them. While his five-star potential was too much for the Cardinals to ignore, second-round tackles like Donovan Smith or Rob Havenstein would have been more productive blockers in Arizona.

Players it applies to in 2020: Tua Tagovailoa, Julian Okwara, Laviska Shenault Jr.

25. Carolina Panthers: Shaq Thompson, LB

Thompson is a do-it-all inside linebacker who’s been able to stand up against the pass and the run as an NFL gap-plugger. Last season was his best year: 109 tackles, three sacks, and 11 tackles for loss despite the inherent crappiness of the 2019 Panthers.

Lesson learned: Don’t overthink things.

The Panthers took a proven, athletic young talent to fill up an unsexy position. Thompson’s versatility is a godsend for his defensive coordinators. He’s poised to carry Luke Kuechly’s torch into 2020 and beyond.

Players it applies to in 2020: Jeff Okudah, Antoine Winfield Jr., Zack Baun

26. Baltimore Ravens: Breshad Perriman, WR

Perriman was a mess for the Ravens. Injuries robbed him of his rookie campaign, and he posted just a 42.7 percent catch rate in the two years after. His value has rebounded in recent years, though he’s still never caught more than 36 passes in a season.

Lesson learned: NFL development isn’t a straight line.

Perriman looked like a bust after flaming out in Baltimore, but the past two years have provided flashes of brilliance. Redemption has come in fleeting moments with the Browns and Buccaneers (seven games with at least 70 receiving yards). The Jets are betting he can fulfill his first-round destiny after signing him to a one-year, $6.5 million deal this offseason.

Players it applies to in 2020: Everyone.

27. Dallas Cowboys: Byron Jones, CB

Jones went from UConn standout to one of the league’s top cover corners in his five years with Dallas. A salary cap crunch allowed him to hit the open market. The Dolphins obliged by handing him a then-record $82.5 million contract to head up their rebuild.

Lesson learned: Bet on the guy who set a world record at the combine.

Investing in combine stars doesn’t always pay off, but when a guy goes out and produces such an outlier performance — like Jones did with a 12’3 broad jump — he’s probably worth a bump up the draft board.

Players it applies to in 2020: Mekhi Becton, Carlos Davis, Netane Muti

28. Detroit Lions: Laken Tomlinson, G

Tomlinson was one of the more surprising selections of the first round; the useful interior lineman was expected to be a Day 2 pick. Although he struggled in Detroit, he’s since developed into a steady starter for the 49ers.

Lesson learned: Be patient, even with a polished prospect.

The Lions didn’t have a left guard on the roster when they drafted Tomlinson, which led him to be thrown into the fire as a rookie. Detroit ended up trading away a still-developing starter on a low-cost rookie contract to San Francisco for ... a fifth-round pick. That trade looks like one the Lions would like to have back.

Players it applies to in 2020: Every fifth-year senior out there.

29. Indianapolis Colts: Phillip Dorsett, WR

Dorsett was a burner at Miami, averaging 23.3 yards per catch his final two seasons. He also had only 49 catches those two years — setting the stage for a career that’s seen him be vital in spurts and anonymous elsewhere between the Colts and Patriots.

Lesson learned: Deep-ball speed can be a tough transition to the NFL.

Dorsett has had the chance to play with two top-tier quarterbacks in his career (Andrew Luck, Tom Brady) and didn’t evolve into anything more than a reliable third option. While valuable, he’s never had more than 33 catches in a season.

Players it applies to in 2020: CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Quez Watkins

30. Green Bay Packers: Damarious Randall, DB

After three decent seasons in Green Bay, Randall was traded for DeShone Kizer, which is one of the most disrespectful sentences one can write about a football player. Randall moved to safety and was a versatile player for the Browns.

Lesson learned: Don’t trade for DeShone Kizer (or anyone who throws twice as many interceptions as touchdowns).

Kizer undoubtedly had his growth stunted by a rookie season starting for an awful Browns team, and shipping a player Green Bay wasn’t interested in re-signing wasn’t a bad idea in theory. But the Packers still sent a 25-year-old starter to Cleveland for a quarterback who went 0-15 and posted an 11:22 TD:INT ratio in his debut season.

Players it applies to in 2020: Whomever gets traded for Jameis Winston in 2022.

31. New Orleans Saints: Stephone Anthony, LB

Anthony played through his second stint with the Saints in 2019 after being traded to the Dolphins two years earlier. Unlike Tomlinson, he failed to rebound; he started all 16 games for New Orleans as a rookie but has just four starts in the four seasons since.

Lesson learned: An all-rookie team appearance is no indicator of success.

Anthony was an all-rookie selection, but he’s been primarily a special teams player since 2016. While teams have been eager to kick the tires on him, the fact the Jets, Falcons, and Dolphins all either released him or let him walk away is an indicator of just how little that potential means now.

Players it applies to in 2020: Each of the upcoming season’s rookie stars.

32. New England Patriots: Malcom Brown, DT

Brown spent four seasons in the center of the Patriots’ defensive line, then last year with the Saints. In both places, he’s done his job well enough to be mostly unnoticeable while his teammates largely benefitted from the disruptions he caused.

Lesson learned: Don’t let a potential top-20 pick fall to Bill Belichick.

Brown was expected to land in the top half of the draft, but his slide to No. 32 convinced Belichick to tamp down his basest urges to trade the pick. The Texas star filled an immediate need for New England and played a key role on two Super Bowl champion teams.

Players it applies to in 2020: Zack Baun, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Andrew Thomas, Tristan Wirfs, Mekhi Becton, etc.