Fans get excited every year for the NFL draft. It has become one of the biggest events in sports, a source of hope for teams and an opportunity to see future stares welcomed into the NFL. But the NFL draft is also a guessing game and the results, if a team misses on a top prospect, can crush an organizations for years.
There have been plenty of incredible draft picks in the league’s history, but the biggest draft busts have shaped the course of the NFL even more. Here are the 20 biggest NFL draft busts of all time.
Akili Smith, quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals entered the 1999 NFL Draft needing a spark to uplift one of the NFL’s worst rosters. Akili Smith starred at the University of Oregon, throwing for 3,763 yards and a 32-8 TD-INT ratio in his final season. The Bengals were convinced he was the guy to build around. The organization was so convinced that it turned down Mike Ditka’s offer of the New Orleans Saints’ 1999 draft picks along with first-round picks in 2000 and 2001.
Cincinnati passed on Hall of Famers Edgerrin James and Champ Bailey, along with NFL stars Chris McAllister, Torry Holt and Daunte Culpepper. Instead of trading down with a stockade of picks that could have built a dynasty, the Bengals thought Smith could save them. Following an ugly rookie season, Smith was benched after things got even worse in 2000. The Bengals still haven’t recovered from this two decades later.
Brian Bosworth, linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
It’s rare for a supplemental draft pick to be considered a bust, but that’s what happens when a team gives up its first-round pick. No one mocked the Seahawks at the time for using a top pick on one of the best college football players ever. Bosworth vowed not to play for the Seahawks until they gave him the largest rookie contract in NFL history at the time.
Expectations were through the roof when “The Boz” arrived in Seattle. He brought on the hype, challenging Bo Jackson with the kind of confidence that would make Deion Sanders blush. When Bosworth and Jackson went head-to-head, Jackson learned who Bo really was and got dragged into the end zone. It was the most notable play of Bosworth’s career as a shoulder injury forced him to retire in 1989.
Robert Griffin III, quarterback, Washington Football Team
After winning the Heisman Trophy in 2011, Robert Griffin III went into the 2012 NFL Draft bound for stardom. The Redskins were sold that he would turn the franchise around. So, they gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks to land him. The cost seemed absurd at the time, but RGIII justified it early on by winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Unfortunately, Washington’s decision-making came back to ruin it all. The Redskins went against Dr. James Andrews’ advice, allowing RGIII to play on a terrible field with a knee sprain in the NFC Wild Card Game. They lost the game and RGIII tore his ACL and LCL, never coming close to replicating his incredible start. RGIII had the potential to become an elite quarterback, but the dysfunction in Washington turned him into a draft bust.
Needless to say, the upcoming Robert Griffin III book on his time with the Washington Football Team will shed light on some of the reasons RGIII is one of the biggest NFL draft busts of all time.
Tony Mandarich, offensive tackle, Green Bay Packers
The 1989 NFL Draft will go down as one of the best in history. Of the top-five selections, four became some of the greatest players in league history and instant Hall of Famers upon their retirement. Meanwhile, the Packers somehow found a way to completely whiff and picked one of the biggest draft busts ever.
Green Bay could have taken Barry Sanders, a move that would have ultimately created a backfield with Sanders and Brett Favre. The Packers also could have upgraded their defense with legendary pass rusher Derrick Thomas or added Deion Sanders to their secondary. Instead, they selected offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. Between alleged steroid use and a terrible work ethic, he quickly washed out.
Tim Couch, quarterback, Cleveland Browns
The are plenty of draft busts to choose from in Cleveland’s unfortunate history of missing on nearly every top pick they make. The Browns needed a franchise quarterback in 1999 and with the No. 1 pick, they grabbed All-American quarterback Tim Couch.
Everyone hoped Couch would bring excitement to the fans as football returned to Cleveland. Instead, the fan base was left wondering if they’d have been better off without football. Couch went 2-12 as a starter and lost 17-of-21 games to begin his NFL career. Even in his best years, when he posted a 15-15 record from 2001-’02, he threw 39 interceptions. Injuries and poor play ended Couch’s career after just five seasons and the Browns haven’t fared much better.
JaMarcus Russell, quarterback, Oakland Raiders
NFL teams love arm strength more than any other trait a quarterback offers. When the Raiders watched Jamarcus Russell deliver one of the best Pro Day performances ever, Al Davis was convinced he would be a Hall of Famer. Despite warnings about Russell’s lack of focus, Davis grabbed the rocket-armed quarterback with the No. 1 pick in 2007.
Coaches realized Davis’ draft-day blunder almost instantly. Despite the infamous blank DVD story and Russell’s lack of interest in practicing, the Raiders gave him a $68 million contract after he held out into the regular season. Russell racked up turnovers, losses and a ton of weight in his brief three-year career. Meanwhile, the Raiders missed out on Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis and Darrelle Revis.
Ryan Leaf, quarterback, San Diego Chargers
There is nothing draft analysts love more than debating about top prospects. Leading up to the 1989 NFL Draft, the world was split on whether Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning should be the No. 1 overall pick. When the Colts took Manning, the Chargers were elated to land Leaf’s massive arm and they believed in his unlimited potential.
Concerns over Leaf’s maturity came to fruition immediately. He skipped the end of the NFL’s rookie symposium and it was just the start of his issues. Leaf’s disastrous rookie season featured a verbal tirade toward a reporter along with a 2-15 TD-INT ratio. After missing the 1999 season with a shoulder injury, Leaf showed little sign of growth in 2000. By that point, the Chargers realized the gap between Manning and Leaf was far wider than the Grand Canyon.
Dion Jordan, edge rusher, Miami Dolphins
Few things excite scouts more than an edge rusher with jaw-dropping athleticism. While Dion Jordan only recorded five sacks in his final season at Oregon, feelings on him changed at the NFL Combine. The 6-foot-6 edge rusher exploded with a 4.6 40-yard dash and tested incredibly well, showing off rare burst and athleticism.
The Dolphins fell in love with Jordan’s workout and made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. He recorded just two sacks as a rookie then missed five games in 2014 after twice violating the league’s drug policy. The NFL then suspended him for the entire 2015 season after another failed test. Jordan wouldn’t play another snap for the Dolphins and the former No. 3 overall pick finished with three sacks during his tenure in Miami.
Lawrence Phillips, running back, St. Louis Rams
NFL teams are known for taking risks on top talent despite concerns over off-field issues. Phillips came out of Nebraska with a long rap sheet, including an arrest for assaulting a former girlfriend. The Rams looked past all of that, believing Phillips could turn a corner in the NFL and deliver on his star potential.
Arguably the most talented player in the 1996 draft class, Phillips could never put his behavioral issues behind him. The Rams grew so tired of his behavior that they cut him during the ’97 season. Phillips would bounce around professional football before more assault charges put him in prison. An unfortunate tale of incredible talent that the NFL world lost out on because of Phillips off-field behavior, and a cautionary example of how ignoring red flags can backfire.
Johnny Manziel, quarterback, Cleveland Browns
The Browns would love to forget the 2014 NFL Draft. After snagging draft bust Justin Gilbert with the No. 8 overall pick – passing on the likes of Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham – the Browns thought they struck gold with Johnny Manziel.
The organization saw a player that fans would love and a talent that could help the entire team take a step forward. Unfortunately, the young quarterback always seemed more interested in being a celebrity than a pro athlete. He appeared in just 15 games across two seasons, throwing seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Off-field arrests and a lack of maturity quickly ended Manziel’s football career. It might be a decade before the Browns get past this draft.
Russell Erxleben, punter, New Orleans Saints
It’s never wise to spend a top pick on a specialist. Even using a top-100 selection is likely a reach for a player that barely impacts the game. In 1979, the Saints went against that line of thinking and grabbed a punter with the No. 11 overall pick. Many were baffled by the pick at the time, but New Orleans believed he could both kick and punt.
Erxleben threw a pick-six that cost the Saints a win in his first game and that about summarized his career. He made just 50% of his field-goal attempts and averaged only 40.6 yards per punt. The Saints could have drafted Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, but somehow wasted their pick with an epic draft bust.
David Carr, quarterback, Houston Texans
After throwing for nearly 5,000 yards with a 46-9 TD-INT ratio in his final season at Fresno State, Carr was a natural choice to be the No. 1 overall pick. Unfortunately for him, he happened to enter the NFL Draft at a time when an expansion team held the No. 1 pick.
The Texans put their star quarterback in position to fail. Playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in league history, Carr took an NFL record 76 sacks as a rookie. While he managed to stay on the field, Carr played like a quarterback that knew his life was in danger. He was sacked 248 times in his first five seasons. Carr is an all-time draft bust, but the Texans are responsible for his failure.
Charles Rogers, wide receiver, Detroit Lions
Looking back on the 2003 NFL Draft, it’s difficult to see how a team could have missed with a top-10 pick. Yet, because the Lions can’t seem to get much right in their history, this team found a way to whiff completely. Of course, it was hard to blame Detroit for taking Charles Rogers at the time.
Coming off consecutive seasons with more than 1,3000 receiving yards and 13-plus touchdowns, Rogers looked like a future All-Pro receiver. Rogers suffered two broken clavicles in his first two seasons and the team allowed him to return home to regroup and rehab. It proved to be his downfall, marking the start of substance-abuse issues that pushed him out of the NFL. Meanwhile, Andre Johnson slipped to the No. 3 pick and became a household name in Houston.
Jeff George, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
The domino effect of the NFL Draft is fascinating. The Colts landed one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history in the 1998 NFL Draft, leaving the Chargers to take on Ryan Leaf. History likely would have played out very differently if not for the 1990 NFL Draft.
The Colts traded up to snag George with the No. 1 overall pick, believing he would be the hero the team needed entering a new decade. After giving him $15 million, the richest rookie deal in NFL history at the time, George’s NFL career cratered. He threw 46 interceptions and lost 35 games across 49 starts. He bounced around the NFL until 2001, watching Manning do what he never could in Indianapolis.
Ki-Jana Carter, running back, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals snagged Carter with the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft expecting immediate greatness. It was hard to blame them at the time, given he came out of Penn State as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy following a remarkable season.
Sadly for Cincinnati, things went off the rails quickly. Carter tore a ligament in his knee in his first preseason game and his explosiveness was never the same after that. It didn’t help that his body continued to fail him. He suffered a torn rotator cuff in 1997, followed by a broken wrist in 1998 and a dislocated kneecap in 1999. The Bengals cut bait with him after that and could only imagine what things might have been like with Tony Boselli, Steve McNair, or Warren Sapp.
Matt Leinart, quarterback, Arizona Cardinals
The 2005 Rose Bowl between USC and Texas wasn’t just one of the greatest football games ever. It also featured a clash between two incredible quarterbacks. Everyone had a preference between Leinart and Vince Young. When the California kid fell into the Cardinals’ lap with the No. 10 pick, they grabbed him in an instant.
After being the man on USC’s campus and achieving historic success, Leinart didn’t handle the money and pressure well in the NFL. After struggling as a rookie, posting a 4-7 record, Leinart struggled just to get back on the field. Kurt Warner kept the starting job and never felt an ounce of pressure. Success in college is important, but Leinart proved it doesn’t guarantee any kind of promise in the NFL.
Vernon Gholston, edge rusher, New York Jets
There is an undeniable risk in projecting a player’s future based entirely on athletic traits. Coming off a 14-sack season at Ohio State in 2007, Gholston lit up the NFL Combine with his strength and speed. The Jets saw enough, grabbing him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
All of the raw ability translated into a wasted roster spot and a burned draft pick. Gholston could barely touch the field as a rookie and failed to record a sack in 45 games with the Jets. The organization had enough, cutting bait with the pass rusher who generated just one quarterback hit. While betting on athleticism can pay off, the risks can get general managers fired.
Vince Young, quarterback, Tennessee Titans
The course of football history always changes on draft night. Young dreamed of staying in Texas and many believed the Houston Texans would select him with the No. 1 overall pick. In fact, Houston holding the No. 1 pick is a big reason Young left the Longhorns early.
Instead, the Texans grabbed Mario Williams and Young was paired up with Jeff Fisher on the Tennessee Titans. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year, finishing with an 8-5 record as a rookie then going 9-6 in 2007. However, clashes with Fisher, poor accuracy and maturity issues derailed his reputation. Somehow, Jay Cutler had the best career out of all the quarterbacks in this class.
Bo Jackson, running back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Much like the Texans are responsible for Carr’s spot on this list, Tampa Bay is liable for Jackson being a draft bust. Jackson warned the Buccaneers not to take him, making it clear they would waste the top pick on the running back. After Tampa Bay cost Jackson his collegiate eligibility in his final baseball season, Jackson kept to his word.
The Buccaneers took the star running back with the No. 1 pick in the 1986 NFL Draft and he never gave them the time of day. Tampa Bay forfeited his rights in 1987, wasting a No. 1 pick just as Jackson predicted. He would be drafted in 1987 in the seventh round by the Los Angeles Raiders and the team’s willingness to let him be a two-sport star convinced him to sign. Jackson will go down as the biggest 1986 draft bust, but the Buccaneers are entirely to blame for it.
Steve Spurrier, quarterback, San Francsico 49ers
It’s only fitting that one of the biggest busts in NFL Draft history comes from the first common draft. Following the NFL-AFL merger in 1966, the first common NFL Draft was held in 1967. It marked the start of a tradition that has skyrocketed in popularity and it also offered an early glimpse at the uncertainty of prospects.
After winning the Heisman Trophy in 19996, Spurrier was coveted by most NFL teams. The 49ers traded up to the No. 3 overall pick to snag him, but kept him on the bench for several years. He was used as a punter early in his career, before finally starting at quarterback in 1972. Spurrier quickly flamed out and his playing career ended in 1976. The 49ers missed out on Hall of Famers like Bob Griese and Floyd Little, but at least they have a part in the coach’s legendary life.