Take The Money And Run: The 5 Biggest NFL Draft Busts of All-Time


It’s now officially April, girls and boys, and you know what that means…

Apr 26, 2012; New York, NY, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft is just a few weeks away!  As if you didn’t have enough NFL content to digest about 40-yard dash times and which player fits the need for which team in whatever round, we’ve decided to throw one more at you.  This is a list of what you’re hoping not to see from your favorite team.

That’s right, it’s the annual addition of The Worst Draft Picks of All-Time.  These pieces will always be written if for no other reason than the fact that as human beings, we are absolutely fascinated by the seemingly sudden downfall of people who were held in such high regard before their professional demise.

While this isn’t unique to sports, there’s not a whole lot of other professions where we quantify a prospective employee’s value and immediately judge their success based on that valuation.  NFL busts are so extreme not only because of the bombastic nature of some of these players, but also because of just how spectacular the failure is when measured against how much money these young men were paid.

Now that the new CBA has effectively outlawed NFL owners from throwing unconscionable amounts of money at 22 and 23 year-olds, we’ll surely be more reserved and selective when it comes to labeling players as “busts” since most of the top-tier selections will be paid similar salaries in their first few years in the NFL, thus hindering our ability to judge them for monetary reasons.  I’m sure we’ll figure out another way to judge them, for as long as there are players that continue to date fake girlfriends and show a propensity for gambling, there will be writers to react to such things.  I think that’s one of the central tenets of journalism, but I’ll have to check Wikipedia first.

Consider these five entries to be a throwback to an era when players could be guaranteed $30 million before they even threw a pass in an NFL game.  God bless America.  Here we go.

Honorable Mention: David Carr

Jul 28, 2012; Albany, NY, USA; New York Giants quarterback David Carr (8) throws a pass during training camp at University Field at SUNY Albany. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

David Carr will likely be remembered best for being sacked 76 times in his rookie season with the Houston Texans after being taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 out of Fresno State.  It’s hard to really get a good grip on how good or bad he was, because the expansion Texans were literally building from the ground up in their first year in existence, meaning their offensive line was terrible and they really had no skill position players of note.

In fact, six of their offensive starters were drafted in 2002 along with Carr, so if you’re looking for the exact opposite of an ideal situation for a rookie quarterback to come into, it’s hard to beat this.  Carr still managed to pass for over 13,000 yards in his five seasons in Texas, so it wasn’t as if the guy was completely inept as a professional NFL quarterback.

Unfortunately for Carr, the first five seasons of a player’s career turn out to be pretty formative years as far as development is concerned, and he definitely shoulders some of the blame on those sacks, as well as a ton of fumbles, setting an NFL record in that arena in his rookie season as well.

Carr’s post-Texans years would really solidify his status as a bust, as he went on to serve as a backup with the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers with little success.  He is currently backing up Eli Manning in New York, and he rarely sees playing time with the injury-proof, two-time Super Bowl champion at the helm.  I guess Tom Coughlin just wanted to be able to go to parties and brag about how he has not one, but TWO number one picks on the roster at quarterback.

Typically you’d expect more out of a top overall pick, but because of all the extenuating circumstances in Carr’s case, we’ll give him a break and make him honorable mention.

5. Brian Bosworth

Ah yes, who can forget The Boz?

Oct 27, 2012; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners former linebacker Brian Bosworth prior to the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Bosworth was already a well-known personality before he reached the NFL.  The Oklahoma linebacker is still the only two-time Butkus Award winner, he was a two-time All-American, and his outspoken personality and flamboyant appearance made him a star of college football in the late 80’s.

Bosworth ruffled a few feathers when he wore this shirt to the 1987 Orange Bowl after being suspended for a positive steroid test, leading to head coach Barry Switzer kicking him off the team.  As a result he entered the NFL supplemental draft in 1987, going in the first round to the Seattle Seahawks and signing the largest rookie contract ever up to that point.

Bosworth’s NFL career started off well enough, as he played in 12 games his rookie season and contributed to a second place AFC West finish and a playoff berth for Seattle.  In his sophomore season, however, Bosworth suffered a shoulder injury that ensured he wouldn’t finish out his 1o-year contract with the Seahawks,  and he ended up retiring after two games in 1989.

For what it’s worth, The Boz went on to star in a few B-action movies and TV shows, but I’m guessing the Seahawks would have liked to see a little more return on their investment than the two years of service they got out of one of the best college linebackers ever.

4. Akili Smith

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If you’ve forgotten about Akili Smith, it’s hard to blame you, because his career was one of the most forgettable in recent NFL history.  And that’s not a word you typically want to associate with the No. 3 overall pick.

After transferring to the University of Oregon his junior year after two years of playing junior college ball in San Diego, Smith wowed scouts his senior season, throwing for over 3,500 yards with 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.  His strong arm and his ability to improvise and scramble with his legs were enticing to NFL teams, a lot like current NFL quarterbacks Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick, but without the polish and poise, or the time to learn the nuances of the game of football at the professional level.

After being selected third by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1999 NFL Draft, Smith held out because of contract disputes and missed significant time in training camp, which isn’t good if you’ve only had two full seasons of NCAA experience under your belt and still need all the time to develop that you can get.  Smith started four games that year, going 1-3 while throwing for 805 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions.

Things never got any better for Smith, as he went 2-11 in his next 13 starts, and in his final two seasons with the Bengals he only appeared in three games.  After they released him in 2002, he tried out for the Green Bay Packers and was promptly released, going on to play in Europe and briefly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before ending up in Canada playing in the CFL.

Smith recently reflected on his stint in the NFL and admitted he wasn’t totally committed to being a successful NFL quarterback.  He’s moved on from the “bust” label, and he’s gone back to finish his degree at the University of Oregon, so kudos to Akili Smith for that.

3. Tony Mandarich

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Tony Mandarich — or “The Incredible Bulk”, as he was dubbed after this Sports Illustrated profile in which he was labeled “the best offensive line prospect ever” — was a dominant force for Michigan State in the late 1980’s.  At 6’6″ and over 300 pounds, he punished anyone who tried to take him on, and he let them know about it too.

His mix of size and ability made him the most sought after lineman in the 1989 NFL Draft, and probably one of the most hyped prospects ever.  After UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman was taken first overall by the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers scooped up Mandarich, and it was all downhill from there.

Mandarich had openly stated that he did not want to play in Green Bay, calling it a “village” and scorning the storied franchise for its small market status.  He proceeded to hold out for all of training camp his rookie season, and for that the Packers rewarded him with a four-year, $4.4 million dollar contract.  He played mostly on special teams that year, and he proved to be ineffective in pass protection as Michigan State’s offense was much more of a run-based attack.

However, it was the off-the-field issues that really derailed his career.

Mandarich was constantly denying steroid allegations, a accusation that was sure to gain traction because of his mammoth physique.  Since opening up about his troubles in the last few years, he admitted that in addition to taking every possible performance enhancing drug available to him, he also had a full blown addiction to painkillers.

By the time Mike Holmgren took charge of the team, Mandarich had done little to instill any confidence in the coaching staff that he was capable of being a contributor to a winning team, and he was cut with one year remaining on his contract.

To add to his “bust” status, the 1989 draft was incredibly deep.  The three picks after Mandarich — Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders — are all in the NFL Hall of Fame.  Hell, Mark Schlereth was drafted in the 10th round, and he went on to win three Super Bowls and was elected to two Pro Bowls.  So if you’re a young football fan wondering why Tony Mandarich is on almost every “Biggest Busts” list, that’s why.

Thankfully this story has a happy ending.  After bottoming out in the years after being cut by Green Bay, Mandarich sobered up in 1995 and enjoyed a comeback with the Indianapolis Colts, playing with the team from 1996-98.  Today he runs a media marketing company in Arizona and also works as a motivational speaker, and he’s got over 75,000 Twitter followers, so yeah.

2. Ryan Leaf

Oct 25, 1998; San Diego, CA, USA; FILE PHOTO; San Diego Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf (16) in action against the Seattle Seahawks at Jack Murphy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Brouillet-US PRESSWIRE

Poor, poor Ryan Leaf.  As the years go on, it’s increasingly clear that this man just did not have the emotional maturity to succeed as a professional athlete.

Following his junior season at Washington State in which he was a first team All-American and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, Leaf was regarded as a can’t-miss prospect, and as silly as it seems now, it was a genuine debate as to whether or not it should be Leaf or Peyton Manning that should be taken with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.

The Indianapolis Colts took Manning and enjoyed one of the most successful runs ever in the NFL behind his Hall of Fame-caliber play.  The San Diego Chargers took Leaf, and the behavioral issues began to surface shortly thereafter.  At the inaugural team dinner, a tradition where the rookies are usually expected to foot the bill for the veterans, Leaf threw a huge fit and refused to pay.  Not exactly endearing to guys you’re expected to bond with and lead.

Leaf’s rookie campaign was underwhelming and troubling for a player of his ilk.  He threw for two touchdowns and 15 interceptions with a completion percentage of 45.3% in 10 games.  He went 1-for-15 for four yards in his third game, a record low for any San Diego quarterback, and after the game famously lashed out at a reporter in the locker room before Junior Seau had to step in and restrain him.

It wasn’t just the poor play that tipped off Leaf’s demise, it was the way he handled it all.  After suffering a shoulder injury in training camp that put him on the injured reserve list for his entire sophomore season, he got into a heated argument with San Diego GM Bobby Beathard and a strength and conditioning coach, leading to a suspension, a fine, and an apology from Leaf a few weeks later.

The article linked in the previous paragraph has an interesting bit of information at the end: Leaf was already talking about how he wanted to leave San Diego at that point!  All this coming from a guy who hadn’t shown any sort of development and wasn’t going to get a chance to until the next season, and he already was on record saying he didn’t want to play for the team that drafted him.  At that point, I’d say the writing was pretty much on the wall for Ryan Leaf and his career as a professional football player.

He’d play the 2000 season with San Diego, winning one game in 11 appearances while throwing for 11 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, and was cut immediately after the season.  He was picked up quickly by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he refused to accept a backup role and was cut before the start of the 2001 season.  Leaf was then signed by the Dallas Cowboys a few weeks later, but he failed a physical and was brought back only after Quincy Carter was injured.  He played four games, losing all of them.

And that was pretty much it for Ryan Leaf.  He signed briefly with the Seattle Seahawks in 2002, but retired before he even got to training camp.  He went on to coach quarterbacks at West Texas A&M University after finishing school at Washington State, but that led to his resignation after he solicited a player’s help in attaining pain medication.

Sadly, that was a sign of things to come for the former No. 2 overall pick.  After publishing a memoir in 2011 and seeming content with life after football, Leaf was arrested in 2012 after breaking into two houses to steal prescription painkillers.  He’s since been transferred to state prison after failing to adhere to requirements of a court mandated treatment program.

Hopefully Leaf can make some positive changes and turn things around, because as bad as he was in the NFL, nobody thought he’d fall this far.

1. JaMarcus Russell

Courtesy: Off The Record Sports

And now, for the Coup de Grace, the one, the only, JaMarcus Russell.

The poster child for the modern bust, Russell almost single-handedly caused front offices to re-think their talent evaluation strategies after being scared straight by his experience with the Oakland Raiders.  Russell’s story is the ultimate example of a workout wonder not being able to translate those skills to a game scenario, and it’s safe to say that his belly flop in Oakland was a blow that the franchise still hasn’t recovered from.

Russell led the Louisiana State University Tigers to a 10-2 record his junior year in Baton Rouge, culminating in a Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame in which he threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns and ran for one more.  Russell rode that wave up through his draft workouts, where he impressed scouts with his huge arm and relative mobility.  The universal praise by draft analysts was almost hyperbolic, and Russell was generally thought of as a franchise-saving, long ball throwing megastar in the making.

All of this was like throwing a steak at a starving dog as far as Al Davis was concerned, and while there was speculation that he might have taken Calvin Johnson, in the end Russell met all the requirements that Davis cherished in a quarterback prospect, and he selected the LSU quarterback first overall to lead the Raiders back to glory.

Like a lot of the other busts on this list, Russell held out because of contract disputes through training camp and up through Week 1 of the 2007 regular season, putting him at a significant disadvantage in learning the playbook and gelling with his teammates in a controlled environment.  He eventually signed a $61 million contract that guaranteed $32 million, which made him the highest paid rookie in NFL history up to that point.

Russell appeared in four games his rookie season, completing 54.5% of his passes and throwing for two touchdowns and four interceptions with four fumbles.  It was hardly a big enough sample size to get any indication for future success, and head coach Lane Kiffin named Russell the starter for the 2008 season following the 2007 season finale, started by Russell against the San Diego Chargers.

Russell played fairly well against the Denver Broncos in the 2008 season opener, throwing for two touchdowns and 180 yards with a 111 quarterback rating.  Things seemed to be headed in the right direction from a talent perspective, but the results weren’t coming in the win column, and the firing of head coach Lane Kiffin in October didn’t do him any favors.

Still, there were plenty of games where his completion percentage hovered around 35% or below, and while Raiders fans passed it off at the time as the result of a lack of depth in the receiving corps, Russell certainly deserved much of the blame for misreading coverages and trying to force throws.  The 2008 season contained three different three-game losing streaks, and the Raiders finished off the year with consecutive wins over the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both coming behind strong performances from Russell.

2009 proved to be the make-0r-break season for Russell, and after a lackluster 2-7 start in which he threw for nine interceptions against only two touchdowns, head coach Tom Cable benched him and started Bruce Gradkowski over the next three games.  Russell would only see action in the following weeks when Gradkowski and backup quarterback Charlie Fry were injured, and at that point the writing was pretty much on the wall in regards to Russell’s future in Oakland.  He was officially cut in May of 2010, and has not played for an NFL team since.

JaMarcus Russell earned the No. 1 spot on this list not only for his personal shortcomings as a failure, but also for the impact his failure had on the Raiders as a whole.  Six years after he was drafted, they’re still looking for a long-term solution at quarterback in Oakland, and if anyone needed further proof that the position is the most vital to a team’s success in all of sports, just look at the Raiders and JaMarcus Russell.

Russell is currently training with Jeff Garcia and Mark Sanchez for an upcoming pro day workout, and he’s still hoping to become the first No. 1 pick to come back from the depths of codeine-laced obscurity to play for an NFL franchise.  But if this interview is any indication, I’m a little skeptical.

Case in point:

“Now looking back on it, I could have done certain things differently.”


“I’m not sure.”

God bless you, JaMarcus Russell.  That self-reflection is what draft busts are made of.