Draft Disaster: The 30 Biggest Draft Busts in NFL History
The NFL Draft can be an exciting time for franchises, unless the pick is a total flop. A bad draft pick can set a franchise back years if not decades. The hype surrounding college players entering the draft is immense, and sometimes the pressure and expectations are just too much. Other times, injuries can derail a promising career. For every Peyton Manning, there are five Ryan Leafs. That’s just the nature of the beast.
Here are the 30 biggest draft busts in NFL history.
In 1989, Andre Ware was the best college football player in America. He won the Heisman trophy, was a consensus All-American, and made the University of Houston relevant on a national scale. Then came the NFL. Detroit selected the prolific passer with the seventh pick in the 1990 draft, but, as most everyone knows, Detroit is the place where careers go to die.
Ware was ineffective and hardly used. Ware, from the outside, never appeared to get a fair shot at becoming an established quarterback with Detroit. His short NFL career consisted of only 14 games played, five touchdown passes, and eight interceptions.
The Lawrence Phillips story is complex, tragic, and full of heartbreak and wrong turns. At the University of Nebraska, Phillips was one of America’s premier running backs, but he spent more time in the spotlight for his off-field troubles than the highlights he made on the field. Despite his checkered past and history of very alarming incidents, the St. Louis Rams opted to take Phillips sixth overall in 1996, trading away Jerome Bettis in the process (big mistake).
Controversy and trouble, unfortunately, did not stay in Lincoln, Nebraska. In the pros, Phillips would juke past one defender only to be wrapped up in the waiting arms of an arrest or significant controversy. He played in 35 games, tallying just 458 total yards and 15 total touchdowns. In 2016, Phillips was found dead in his jail cell while awaiting a trial for the murder of his cellmate.
Detroit, you’ve really outdone yourself. Your obsession with receivers is unhealthy and destructive. In 2005, you decided to draft USC receiver Mike Williams with the 10th pick, despite Williams being out of football for an entire season. Yes, Williams was a standout at USC and had all the physical traits that make up an ideal receiver.
But something was missing and Williams was a total dud in the pros. Williams lasted five seasons in the NFL and caught a paltry five touchdowns. Midway through his career, Williams took a two-year break from football after he ballooned to 271 pounds, but he did make an impressive comeback to the league. So at least there’s that.
T-H-E Ohio State University produces a plethora of NFL players and, accordingly, a fair share of NFL busts. That’s just how probability works. For every Ezekiel Elliot or Malcolm Jenkins, there is a Vernon Gholston. The sixth pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Gholston was hyped up to be the best pass rusher in the draft and a player capable of transforming a defense overnight.
He wasn’t. Gholston signed a major deal before becoming a major bust. With the Jets, Gholston started just five games, failed to record a sack, and recorded a dismal 16 solo tackles. Defenders regularly put up those numbers in a single game.
The Washington Redskins are another franchise that simply cannot get it done in the draft, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. Back in 1994, Washington selected quarterback Heath Shuler with the third pick. As a junior at Tennessee, Heath Shuler finished second in the Heisman race and was projected to be a solid NFL quarterback.
The problem was, Shuler had a propensity towards throwing interceptions and had some bad luck with injuries. That perfect storm meant Shuler was exactly the type of quarterback Washington didn’t need. Shuler finished his career with 15 touchdowns and 33 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 54.3. To this day, Washington is still searching for their franchise QB.
This pick wasn’t as spicy as the name implied. Aaron Curry was the most heralded Wake Forest football product in decades. As a senior, Curry racked up tackles and awards, including the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in college. He was projected by many scouts to be a top pick in the draft and was even rumored to go as high as No. 1. Seattle ended up taking Curry with the fourth pick of the 2009 draft, making Curry the highest drafted linebacker since LaVar Arrington.
Before he even stepped on the field, Curry signed a six-year, $60 million contract with $34 million guaranteed. That was not money well spent. Curry was a run of the mill defender that played in only 48 games, recording just five and a half sacks and 190 solo tackles.
The second pick in the 2009 NFL Draft was Jason Smith of Baylor University. A massive tackle, Smith was pegged to be the man responsible for keeping whatever sub-par quarterback St. Louis had at the time upright. The Rams inked Smith to a massive six-year deal worth up to $61 million with $33 million guaranteed.
Smith’s NFL career got off to a rocky start after suffering a major concussion during his rookie year, forcing him to miss significant time. The next season, Smith lost his starting job to rookie Rodger Saffold, and that’s when the wheels fell off the wagon. Smith never regained his footing and was out of the league after just 26 starts and 45 games played.
Art Schlichter, a former Ohio State standout, essentially gambled his career and life away. People were aware of Schlichter’s gambling habits at Ohio State, but his winning ways and good arm lured the Colts into drafting him fourth overall in 1982. That pick would be a total waste, much like what Schlichter did with his career earnings and signing bonuses.
Schlichter was more concerned with gambling than his career. The gunslinger played in only 13 games, threw three touchdowns, and had 11 interceptions. That stat line was as atrocious as what became of his life: ending up in prison for gambling and conning people out of millions. In 1983, the NFL suspended Schlichter for the entire season due to gambling, the first suspension of its kind in 20 years.
Drafting a kicker is not a smart move. Ever. Under no circumstances. However, back in 1979, the New Orleans Saints may have had one too many drinks on Bourbon Street prior to the NFL Draft. In a shocking move, the Saints opted to take the only three-time All-American punter in NCAA history with the 11th overall pick.
Russell Erxleben had a cannon for a leg and was known to boot field goals of mythical proportion. He was also the punter, making him, in theory, that much more valuable. Well, to sum up Erxleben’s underwhelming career, the kicker never made a Pro Bowl, nailed only four field goals on eight attempts, and was an average punter at his best.
The lowly Bengals just can’t seem to get it right when it comes to the draft. A three-year standout at Penn State University, Ki-Jana Carter was one of America’s most exciting playmakers and was a lock to be a top pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. The Bengals snatched up the explosive Carter with the first pick in the draft, but from that point on, a series of unfortunate injuries would limit and ultimately end Carter’s career.
On the third carry of his first preseason game as a rookie, Carter tore a ligament in his knee and missed the entire 1995 season. That injury was an omen, and the health problems kept piling up. Carter finished his career with 21 touchdowns and just over 1,100 yards rushing.
Part man, part machine, Todd Marinovich was bred to play quarterback, groomed to be a star, and burdened with unreasonable expectations. Marinovich grew up with a father focused on fitness and football, and from the moment Todd emerged from the womb, football was all the little boy consumed. Much to his credit, Todd was able to delay the inevitable burnout, at least initially.
Marinovich was an erratic star at USC but did enough to warrant the interest of several NFL teams including the Raiders, who drafted him with the 24th pick in the 1991 draft. The NFL was not kind to Todd, and the troubled quarterback played in just eight games, throwing eight touchdowns and nine picks. Life after football would be no easier for him, as legal issues, stints in jail, and financial hardship followed him like a defensive end in hot pursuit.
What do we have here? Another Cincinnati draft bust. David Klingler was absolutely prolific at the University of Houston, setting and breaking numerous school and national records. But as everyone knows, college success does not always translate to success in the NFL. Cincinnati drafted Klingler with the sixth pick in the 1992 draft, hoping he could replicate his college success.
Initially, Klingler was the team’s starter, but after the coaching staff realized he liked to throw the ball to the other team more than his own, he was benched. After six fruitless seasons, Klingler’s career was over. He threw 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. After football, the quarterback found a higher calling and became a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies.
Rick “Mired in Mediocrity” Mirer was the second pick in the 1993 draft, and that’s about where the highlights cease to exist. Mirer started as a rookie and actually looked halfway decent. He put up some big numbers and set several rookie records (which were later shattered by Peyton Manning).
Yet for each touchdown, Mirer would throw 1.5 picks. That is not a sustainable ratio. Mirer, to his credit, stuck around the league a lot longer than many of his contemporaries. He finished his career with 50 touchdowns and 76 interceptions in addition to a win-loss record that will make even the casual fan squirm.
Just two years at Michigan State and one massive catch over Notre Dame was all it took for Charles Rogers to skyrocket on draft boards and into the lap of the Detroit Lions. The inept Lions took Rogers with the second pick in the 2003 draft. Rogers got off to a hot start before an early-season broken collarbone prematurely ended his rookie season.
In year two, Rogers suffered the exact same injury in the season opener. After that, Rogers fell into a drug-induced depression that earned him a four-game suspension. Rogers, back from suspension, finished his third season in the league and never stepped foot on an NFL field again, playing in just 15 games while catching four touchdowns.
Robert Griffin III
RGIII has to shoulder a lot of blame for ending up on this list. Griffin was the total package coming out of Baylor University. He was an elite runner and an accurate thrower with an electric arm, but his decision making was questionable at best. Well, in classic Redskins fashion, the franchise decided to ignore the writing on the wall and selected the QB with the second pick in the 2012 draft.
From the outset, Griffin appeared to be the franchise-saving quarterback, but then injuries began to pile up, starting with a devastating knee injury in the 2013 playoffs. Now, Griffin isn’t, by any measure, the worst QB here, but since his prolific rookie season, his production has declined while his time spent on the sideline has drastically increased. Running quarterbacks must use their legs, but what Griffin didn’t (ever) use was his head, and that may have cost him his career.
Johnny Football or Johnny Manziel, however you’d like to call him, one thing he wasn’t was Johnny on the spot. Manziel was prolific at Texas A&M, becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to win the Heisman. His sophomore campaign was almost as impressive and he finished the season fifth in Heisman voting.
Heading into the draft, there were two major concerns regarding Manziel: his size and his character, with the latter quality (or lack thereof) ultimately ruining the Manziel project. The Browns gambled on the quarterback and selected him 22nd overall in the 2014 draft. Two years later, Manziel was bouncing around the CFL after his NFL career ended with a paltry seven touchdowns and seven picks in 15 games.
Who? Exactly. The New York Jets selected Robertson, a Kentucky product, with the fourth pick of the 2003 NFL Draft. Dewayne Robertson’s career wasn’t derailed by injuries or off-season issues. In fact, Robertson started 15 or more games in five out of the six seasons he played in the NFL. The real problem was Robertson’s lack of production and big plays.
New York traded up to select him, expecting the defensive tackle to be a disruptive force. Well, he didn’t quite fit the bill, and in six seasons, Robertson only amassed 16 sacks and 24 tackles for losses. Robertson may have lived in New York, but he definitely didn’t live in the opponent’s backfield, something he was expected to do.
Another Penn State running back who failed to produce at the NFL level, Curtis Enis ran the ball at a high level at Penn State for three years. He was considered a safe pick with a dependable skill set, and the Bears saw the bruising back as the answer to their offensive problems. They selected him fifth overall in 1998, but the back never really got running.
Enis suffered from a litany of injuries that kept the back off the field. When he was playing, he was largely ineffective. In his three seasons in the league, Enis only managed to tally 1,497 yards and four rushing touchdowns. After the 2000 season, Enis was out of the league for good.
There wasn’t a more feared linebacker in college football than Trev Alberts. As a senior in 1993, Alberts anchored a Cornhuskers team that would play in the National Championship game, losing to Florida State. In the losing effort, Alberts managed to bring down Heisman-winning quarterback Charlie Ward three times, just two sacks less than Ward had been sacked during the entire 1993 season.
He won the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy and was projected to be a star at the next level. Indianapolis chose Alberts with the fifth pick in the 1994 draft, but the skill-set and tackling ability did not transfer to the pros. Alberts made only seven starts in his career, had just 49 solo tackles, and racked up only four sacks. The culprit for Alberts’ demise? Injuries.
Bruce Pickens, a Nebraska Cornhusker, had the perfect last name for a cornerback; the problem was he didn’t live up to it. Atlanta selected “Slim” Pickens with the third pick in the 1991 draft, and the corner did everything but intercept the ball. The man that was paid to get picks hardly did. This picture, showing Pickens getting burned like a candle, encapsulates exactly why he made this list.
In the 48 games he played, Pickens had only two interceptions and 88 tackles. Those numbers won’t cut it, and as a result, Pickens was cut. His final season in the NFL was in 1995 as a member of the Oakland Raiders.
As a senior at Florida State, Jamal Reynolds was a sack master, a quarterback blaster, an offensive lineman’s disaster. The defensive end had the perfect blend of size and speed to get to the quarterback with ease. Green Bay didn’t think twice about taking Reynolds with the 10th pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, but the pervasive injury bug got a hold of Reynolds early into his rookie season, and the defensive end was never able to fully recover.
In his three seasons in Green Bay, Reynolds played in 18 games, recording three sacks and 14 tackles. Not to beat a dead horse, but when your career sack and tackle numbers are lower than some people get in a single game, you know something didn’t pan out right.
Rashaun Woods wasn’t a so-called lottery pick, a franchise-changing talent, but he was a first rounder that was exceptionally talented at Oklahoma State. In college, Woods was a two-time First-team All-American yet somehow slipped down to the 49ers at the 31st pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
The Niners had high hopes of Woods and envisioned him being the next great 49ers receiver after Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. However, injuries all but sunk the ship that was Woods’ career before it ever left the harbor. Woods played in the NFL for a single season, catching a mere seven passes and one touchdown. Today, Woods is a high school coach.
What is the golden rule of the NFL Draft? Don’t take kickers before the fifth round. They are head cases and they are a dime a dozen, so there is never a need to take them so high in the draft. Well, Tampa Bay shocked the NFL when they selected prolific Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo with the 59th pick in the 2016 draft. What was exceptionally dumbfounding about this move is Tampa had a severe lack of talent on all sides of the ball.
They were (and still are) one of the worst franchises in the league, and they had many positions that needed to be addressed before they selected a kicker. Well, when everyone goes right, Tampa apparently likes to go left. Aguayo’s first season was god awful. He had the worst field goal percentage amongst kickers with more than five attempts. In the offseason before his second season, Tampa hosted a kicking competition. Aguayo, needless to say, lost and was out of the league after one year.
Oh what could have been had Justin Blackmon been able to avoid the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol while in the NFL. Blackmon was the best college receiver for two consecutive years while at Oklahoma State, and Jacksonville selected the best receiver in the 2012 draft class with the fifth pick.
As a rookie, Blackmon shined, leading all rookies in receptions and yards. However, in the offseason, Blackmon was suspended for violating the league’s drug policy. Arrests and suspensions continued to snowball, and after his fourth game in his second season, the NFL suspended Blackmon indefinitely. He has not played a single down since.
“The Purple Drank” was more like the “Big Stank.” JaMarcus Russell had all the intangibles to be a star in the league: height, a cannon arm, and the appropriate pedigree coming from LSU where he led the Tigers to a Sugar Bowl victory of Notre Dame. What Russell didn’t have — a sound work ethic, motivation, desire, and an ability to avoid codeine — would ultimately derail the quarterback’s career far faster than his natural abilities could save it.
In the NFL, Russell only lasted three seasons, tossing 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. As a rookie, Russell signed a gargantuan six-year contract worth up to $68 million with $31.5 million guaranteed. Obviously, Russell failed mightly to live up to his contract and its expectations.
The gaping hole that was wide enough to drive a Mack Truck through it was on the left side of the line, but Trent was going right. Right into the waiting arms of a defender. Richardson, a monster at the University of Alabama, was drafted third overall in 2012. The problem was, NFL Trent had much worse vision than college Trent and had a knack for running in the opposite direction of the hole his offensive lineman worked so hard to open up.
Richardson managed four seasons in the NFL, with his most productive one coming as a rookie where he rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns. That was his pinnacle and it was all downhill from there. Richardson’s productivity plummeted as the glaring errors in his game became more apparent. By 2017, Richardson was playing in the CFL.
The first problem with Tony Mandarich is his sorry excuse for a hairstyle. The man must have suffered a massive concussion before going to the barber and asking for this “haircut.” Tony Mandarich entered the NFL as the second overall pick in the 1989 draft, chosen ahead of future Hall of Famers such as Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders, and Derrick Thomas.
In fact, Mandarich was the only top-five pick of his draft to not be inducted into the Hall. Ego problems and a nasty drug habit inevitably led to Mandarich’s demise from the league. In 2008, the former Michigan State offensive tackle admitted to taking steroids while in college in faking a drug test prior to the 1988 Rose Bowl.
Could Brian Bosworth look any more like a steroidal meathead ready to run through a brick wall on a drug-infused rampage? The answer to that rhetorical question would be a resounding “no.” Brian Bosworth raised a ton of red flags while at the University of Oklahoma, including steroid use and being an outspoken critic against the NCAA, but nothing he did could dissuade the Seattle Seahawks from taking the Bos with the first pick in the 1988 Supplemental Draft.
Despite Bosworth warning Seattle that he had no interest in playing there, Seattle managed to secure the outspoken linebacker with a 10-year, $11 million contract, the largest in team history and the largest rookie deal in NFL history. That contract would be the apex of his short career, and two years after entering the league, Bos was out of a job, having played in only 24 games and getting run over by Bo Jackson.
Five touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Those aren’t desirable numbers if you’re an NFL quarterback, especially if you were the third overall pick. Akili Smith had one stellar year at the University of Oregon where he electrified the nation as a senior.
The dual-threat quarterback was a rare breed that the NFL hadn’t really seen before, so when the Bengals had the opportunity to draft the relatively unproven quarterback, they did, taking him third in the 1999 draft. Smith never established himself as a true NFL quarterback and his coaches questioned his work ethic. In total, Smith lasted four seasons in the NFL, throwing for just five touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Oh the difference one pick can make. The first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft was Peyton Manning. Everyone with a pulse knows how that career panned out. The second pick was Ryan Leaf, and for those of us with said pulse, you should also know how that career panned out. But for those of you who forgot or chose not to remember, we’ll summarize Leaf’s career with brevity.
It was bad. Very, very bad. Leaf had a fragile ego, a tenuous relationship with the media, and was so inaccurate that he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from five yards out. Leaf’s miserable NFL concluded with just 14 touchdown passes compared to 36 interceptions.