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20 biggest NFL draft busts of all time: Zach Wilson among biggest NFL Draft busts ever

20 biggest NFL draft busts of all time

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 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.

Related: 2024 NFL Draft tracker

Who is the biggest bust of all time? Let’s dive into our 20 biggest NFL Draft busts ever!

Zach Wilson, quarterback, Denver Broncos

Biggest NFL Draft busts of all time
Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson has officially become one of the biggest NFL Draft busts of all time. Before he was drafted with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, some within the Jets’ organization believed Wilson was better than Trevor Lawrence. It just highlights how badly New York got this wrong.

  • Zach Wilson career stats: 12-21 record, 71.9 QB rating, 57% completion rate, 23-25 TD-INT, 6.3 yards per attempt, 189.3 passing yards per game, 113 sacks taken, 2.3% passing touchdown rate

It’s worth revisiting Wilson’s college career at BYU. Not only did he play behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, providing him with a clean pocket to make throws with all day to make reads, he also faced one of the easiest schedules in the nation during his breakout 2022 campaign. From 2018-’19, Wilson had just a 23-12 TD-INT ratio, completing under 65 percent of his passes. In that breakout 2020 season – 196.4 QB rating, 33-3 TD-INT, 73.5% completion rate – Wilson played the likes of Navy, Troy, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State, Western Kentucky, North Alabama and San Diego State.

In 2024, New York officially waved the white flag on Wilson by trading him to the Denver Broncos with the Jets receiving the 203rd overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and Denver getting the 256th overall pick. At the end of his Jets career, Wilson was widely regarded as one of the worst quarterbacks in modern NFL history. Perhaps a change of scenery and working with Sean Payton will change things, but the reality is that Wilson is one of the biggest draft busts of all time. Granted, a majority of the top quarterbacks from first round of the 2021 NFL Draft became busts, with all but Trevor Lawrence traded during the 2024 offseason.

Akili Smith, quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals

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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

Brian Bosworth NFL Draft bust
4 Sep 1988: Linebacker Brian Bosworth of the Seattle Seahawks joins in a tackle during a game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. The Seahawks won the game, 21-14.

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.

Isaiah Wilson, offensive tackle, Tennessee Titans

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans
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The Tennessee Titans picked offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson with the 29th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft with the hope he could step in and start immediately at right tackle. Instead, the 6-foot-7 Georgia Bulldog became one of the biggest NFL Draft busts in the last 10 years. Months after being drafted, he was arrested on suspicion of DUI. He spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list on two separate occasions, was suspended in Week 13 for a violation of team rules and repeatedly got himself into trouble.

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Tennessee traded him to the Miami Dolphins in March 2021 – less than a year after drafting him. Wilson showed up late for a team physical with Miami and skipped two workouts, resulting in his release. After not being on an NFL roster in 2022, Wilson’s career is already over.

Tony Mandarich, offensive tackle, Green Bay Packers

Tony Mandarich NFL draft busts
24 Sep 1989: Offensive lineman Tony Mandarich of the Green Bay Packers in action during a game against the Los Angeles Rams at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. The Rams won the game, 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

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

Cleveland Browns Tim Couch fumbles
CLEVELAND, UNITED STATES: Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Tim Couch (L) loses the ball as he is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers’ defender Joey Porter during the fourth quarter on 11 November, 2001 at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, OH. Pittsburgh defeated Cleveland 15-12 in overtime. AFP PHOTO/DAVID MAXWELL (Photo credit should read DAVID MAXWELL/AFP via Getty Images)

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

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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

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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.

Lawrence Phillips, running back, St. Louis Rams

Rams running back Lawrence Phillips tackled against Raiders
28 SOtto Greule /Allsport

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

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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.

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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

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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

Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary

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

Detroit Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers drops a pass
Detroit Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers (80) drops a pass during the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on October 2, 2005. Tampa Bay defeated Detroit 17-13. (Photo by Allen Kee/Getty Images)

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

Colts quarterback Jeff George fumbles
2 Dec 1990: Quarterback Jeff George of the Indianapolis Colts attempts to avoid the tackle of Phoenix Cardinals defensive lineman Freddie Joe Nunn during a game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Cardinals won the game, 20-17. Mandatory Credi

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.

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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

Bengals running back Ki-Jana Carter
8 Sep 1996: Running back Ki-Jana Carter of the Cincinnati Bengals in action on the field as he looks back to the sideline to receive signals from coaches during the Bengals 27-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, Californ

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

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

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

New York Jets Vernon Gholston misses a tackle
PHILADELPHIA – AUGUST 28: Lorenzo Booker #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles rushes as Vernon Gholston #56 of the New York Jets tries to make a tackle during a preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 28, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

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.

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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

Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young tackled
QB Vince Young (10) of the Tennessee Titans during a game against the New York Giants at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee on November 26, 2006. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/NFLPhotoLibrary)

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

Bo Jackson never played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
25 Nov 1990: Running back Bo Jackson of the Los Angeles Raiders runs down the field during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. The Chiefs won the game 27-24.

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

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Spurrier throws a pass
SAN FRANCISCO – DECEMBER 2: Quarterback Steve Spurrier #11 of the San Francisco 49ers makes a pass during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Candelstick Park on December 2,1973 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 38-28. (Photo by: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

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.

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