When we look back on draft classes, and when we look forward to the current class, we always like to talk about three-year projections.
The idea is that, by the end of a third year in the league, players will have been exposed to enough coaching and playing time to develop; conversely, if they haven't developed by then, it's unlikely they will. Year 3 can be a critical time for early draft picks in need of solidifying their roster spots before their first contract comes to a close.
It would be a bit too on-the-nose to say that the three players with the most to prove from the 2018 class are quarterbacks Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold; that's too easy. Lamar Jackson is confirmed good and Josh Rosen is confirmed bad, but the other three are still settling into their identities and skill levels as developing passers, and that development matters more to their teams' futures than that of any other player on the roster.
I tried to take it all in a vacuum and target players who truly have a huge amount on their plate in Year 3 and have yet to show the ability to handle such a load, either due to a lack of opportunity or inconsistent play. Three stood out immediately on my first glance over the first round, and those are the three I'm sticking with.
Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
I know I just said I wasn't going to do just the quarterbacks, but Allen has more to prove in Year 3 than any other player in the NFL.
Across his first two seasons, Allen started almost 30 games. He got better from Year 1 into Year 2 but remains an inconsistent passer who struggles mightily with deep accuracy. He has enjoyed tremendous growth from the offense around him over the last two offseasons: His offensive line is well-retooled, his wide receiver room is one of the most exciting in the NFL and his play-caller is well tuned-in to Allen’s abilities and limitations.
Plainly, Allen must prove he's a franchise quarterback in the NFL. With this supporting cast, front office and coaching staff, the BIlls' turnaround has been among the best in the league; and Allen's ascension to consistent, positive play is the only remaining hurdle to overcome. Allen's peaks have been exciting, and he's made more positive plays than many analysts expected from looking at his Wyoming film. But even if the Bills are a playoff team, Allen isn't yet a playoff quarterback. He must quickly generate a rapport with Stefon Diggs in a truncated offseason, tasked for the first time in his career with managing a star receiver, while improving his deep ball if he's going to become the player Buffalo needs.
Quarterback development is about as inexact as sciences get, but players generally are what they are by Year 3 of their career, especially when they've been given the support staff and starting opportunity Allen has had. If Allen isn't it this season, I'm not sure he ever will be.
Mike Hughes, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Mike Hughes has struggled to deliver for his draft capital across the first two seasons of his career, though injuries have played a large part in that. His rookie year was abbreviated by a knee injury, and he missed the 2019 playoffs with a broken vertebrate in his neck. Hughes never reclaiming the starting outside cornerback job he held in 2018 before his injury and struggled as a situational CB4 in both slot and outside responsibilities in 2019.
But now comes 2020, and CB1 Xavier Rhodes is with the Colts while CB2 Trae Waynes and CB3 Mackensie Alexander now play for the Bengals. In terms of snap counts from last season, Hughes is the only significant returning corner on the Vikings roster. The depth chart is bolstered by rookies — 2020 first-round selection Jeff Gladney, third-round pick Cameron Dantzler and fifth-round selection Harrison Hand — but none have the expectations hanging on them that Hughes does.
Hughes must show the ability to cover either the slot or the outside at a consistent starter level. Ideally, he can follow WR1s, but that's almost too lofty of a projection for what we've seen from him in his first two seasons as a pro. Hughes will continue to hold a spot on the roster as a result of his return ability, but if he wants to prove that he was worth a Round 1 investment, there has never been a greater need or opportunity for such high-caliber cornerback play. This is Hughes' year to win and maintain a starting job.
Hayden Hurst, TE, Atlanta Falcons
Only three first-round picks from the 2018 class have been traded so far: Rosen, who went from Arizona to Miami when the Cardinals had an opportunity to draft Kyler Murray; Minkah Fitzpatrick, who wanted out of Miami; and Hayden Hurst, who bopped over from Baltimore to Atlanta this offseason.
Hurst was behind the eight ball from the beginning. The Ravens took him at No. 25, quickly making him a forgettable selection after snagging Jackson seven picks later, and Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews only two rounds later. Andrews was a better receiving threat with a higher level athleticism and immediately made more noise as an intermediate, deep receiver for the Ravens' play-action passing game. Hurst dealt with a foot injury in the lead up to Week 1, and as such, he never had the starting job to begin with.
Hurst ended up the least valuable outlet of a three-headed monster at tight end in 2019. He had similar receiving output as Nick Boyle, a 2015 fifth-round pick out of Delaware, while bringing less value as a blocker; Hurst was a better blocker than Andrews but without nearly the receiving output. Hurst was good depth, but good depth is neither what teams expecting or hoping for from a top-32 pick.
That's what the Falcons are now banking on, as they sent a top-60 pick for Hurst's modest NFL output. Hurst has some good natural talent as a receiver and represents an equivalent athlete to what Atlanta had in Austin Hooper, who went for a big payday in Cleveland during free agency. Hurst was a largely criticized pick at the time and now has a new opportunity without much competition for targets or snaps. If he was worth a first-round pick, this is the place he'll realize it.