The possibility of a prospect not reaching his potential in the NFL is often related to the situations that are walked into rather than the talent of the actual player. They can be set back by coaching, turnover, and injuries, among other reasons. So, who are the 'buyer beware' prospects that carry the most risk in using a first-round selection on them? Here are five that teams must research thoroughly before making a high-level commitment:
George Pickens, WR, Georgia
Prior to sustaining a torn ACL in March of 2021, Pickens was a top-20 overall prospect in my personal rankings. He is still hovering in that range despite appearing in only four games this season. The Alabama native could have easily sat out the season in its entirety while healing but he elected to return and help his teammates win a national championship. Pickens had five receptions for 107 yards in those four games. More likely to be taken late in Round 1 or even into Day 2, the wide receiver may carry less risk relative to selection, but the state of his knee and limited production upon return could give teams pause.
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
Stingley has played a combined 10 games over the past two seasons as he has been dealing with injuries. The Louisiana native emerged from Lisfranc surgery totally healthy in recent weeks. He looked uninhibited by the injury at his pro day. When healthy, the cornerback has a case as being the best overall prospect in the class. Teams are going to be weary about his recent injury history, but they also have more insight into his medical future than any individual in the media.
Travon Walker, EDGE, Georgia
There is zero doubt in Walker's passion for the game and his production while in Athens. As a floor, he is going to be a successful run defender. If the pass rusher is taken in the top five, then there are going to be expectations on a level similar to Myles Garrett, Chase Young and Joey and Nick Bosa. Those are unfair expectations early in his career. He is not as polished in rushing the passer as those players. Until he develops more pass rushing moves and counters, he is going to get some sacks just by winning with size, speed and/or power. His inclusion on this list is less about the player and more about the expectations likely to be placed on him.
Christian Watson, WR, North Dakota State
Few all-time combine performances have been as impressive as Watson's. At 6-foot-4, 208 pounds, the Tampa native ran a 4.36 seconds 40-yard dash while jumping 38.5 inches vertically and 136 inches broadly. In an offense that passed the ball on just 27.7% of plays, Watson has a lot to learn from a route tree standpoint. He must improve in his route running. Watson is a natural athlete who lacks stiffness so there is reason to believe he can elevate his game. In an ideal scenario, he would walk into a role as a No. 2 wide receiver with the allowance to eventually become the top boundary option.
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty
Willis is going to be a project wherever he is ultimately taken. He still has a lot to learn as a passer, namely being more efficient over the middle and not holding onto the ball too long. By the same token, he has elite mobility and a bazooka attached to his arm. Most quarterbacks in this class need time to ease into the NFL game. However, it sounds like Willis is going to be the first quarterback taken and the fear is that he will walk into a situation where he is asked to start Week 1. If Carolina picks a quarterback, that prospect will have a good group of skill talent but the offensive line is a major concern. Quarterbacks are not going to learn anything but shattered confidence with little time to operate in the pocket.