Biggest NFL Draft Busts: Ranking the 10 Worst Picks Ever Made in NFL History

    Not every top draft pick pans out the way teams hope. Here are 10 of the biggest busts in the history of the NFL Draft.

    Every player selected in the NFL Draft is excited to begin his career as a professional football player. Unfortunately, not every player pans out. The following 10 players all deserve to be highlighted but for all the wrong reasons. Here are 10 of the biggest draft busts in NFL history.

    Who Is the Worst NFL Draft Bust of All Time?

    1) Jamarcus Russell, QB, Oakland Raiders (2007 – No. 1 overall pick)

    Scouting college prospects has evolved considerably over the past 15+ years. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking this title away from LSU’s Jamarcus Russell.

    Ahead of the 2007 NFL Draft, the hype surrounding Russell was historic. Most years, there’s a favorite to go No. 1 overall, but there are still whispers about a couple of other players that might get the top spot.

    Not in 2007.

    Russell was an absolute lock to go first overall because he was one of the best quarterback prospects of all time. He was the next evolution of the quarterback position — a guy poised to revolutionize QB play at the NFL level.

    Unsurprisingly, the Raiders took him No. 1 overall. As we’ve come to learn, there’s much more to being a successful NFL player than athletic ability.

    Russell’s first hiccup occurred before he even officially entered the league. Technically, getting drafted is not when a prospect becomes an NFL player. That doesn’t happen until he signs his rookie contract.

    Not only did Russell take his sweet time to sign on the dotted line, but the dispute lasted so long that he missed training camp. It doesn’t matter how innately talented a player is, missing training camp as a rookie is not good.

    When a quarterback goes first overall, he’s expected to be the immediate starter. Since 2000, there have been 17 QBs selected first overall. Every single one of them started Week 1…except Russell.

    In his rookie season, Russell started just a single game. He threw twice as many interceptions (4) as touchdowns (2).

    Things improved a bit in his sophomore year, throwing 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions. However, Russell completed just 53.8% of his passes — a far cry from what teams expect from a No. 1 overall pick.

    In 2009, the bottom truly fell out as Russell’s completion percentage plummeted to 48.8%, and he threw just three touchdowns against 11 interceptions.

    At this point, Russell is most well-known for his vendetta against watching game film. Reportedly, Raiders coaches were so sure he never watched film that they gave him blank tapes to watch and then asked him about them. Russell told them what he saw on film, which, had he actually watched, would’ve been nothing.

    To add insult to insult, immediately after the Raiders took Russell, the Lions took Calvin Johnson, who I have ranked as the second-greatest wide receiver of all time. With the third pick, the Browns took Joe Thomas, who, like Megatron, is also in the Hall of Fame.

    There will undoubtedly be more No. 1 overall picks to completely flop in the NFL, but it’s doubtful anyone has a worse career than Russell.

    Remaining Top 10 Biggest NFL Draft Busts of All Time

    2) Ryan Leaf, QB, Los Angeles Chargers (1998 – No. 2 Overall)

    The most fascinating part of the top draft busts of all time is the threshold for busting when a player goes first overall is pretty low.

    For example, 2018’s Baker Mayfield hasn’t come close to meeting the expectations of being the top pick in the NFL Draft. But he’s still in the league and undoubtedly one of the 32 best quarterbacks walking the planet.

    He’s not a franchise-changing QB, but he’s a starter that a team can compete with. With that said, Mayfield clearly hasn’t lived up to the standard of being the first selection.

    In 1998, there was at least a reasonable debate over whether Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning should go No. 1 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft. Similar to the more modern Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III debate, it wasn’t a real one — everyone knew who was going first. But it was at least a point of discussion.

    Sometimes, when it comes to multiple highly touted QBs, it comes down to getting it right vs. getting it very right. That wasn’t the case in 1998. It’s fair to say there has never and will never be a bigger gap between the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks than the gap between Manning and Leaf.

    Given the state of both franchises, these two were always going to be the top two picks. The Chargers did not have a choice — they were left to take whichever quarterback the Colts didn’t. They were destined to fail.

    Leaf’s rookie year is arguably the worst in NFL history for a quarterback. And I’m not quite sure anyone will be able to surpass his level of futility. Leaf completed 45.3% of his passes, averaging a mere 128.6 yards per game.

    In 10 starts, Leaf managed to throw just two touchdowns. However, he did manage to throw the ball to the other team an absurd 15 times. One out of every 16.3 passes he threw went to someone not playing for the Chargers.

    Leaf missed the entire 1999 season before returning in 2000 to similar ineffectiveness. The Chargers threw in the towel in 2001.

    Leaf latched on with the Cowboys for one year. They took a shot. It didn’t work, and they let him go after the season. Leaf never played football again.

    The most amazing part of Russell and Leaf’s careers is that each only lasted for three seasons. To go from top-two selections to out of the NFL in three short seasons is something we may never see again.

    3) Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns (2012 – No. 3 Overall)

    I know I just said Russell is untouchable for the top spot, but Trent Richardson presents a very compelling case. It’s impressive enough to be a colossal draft bust. Richardson is the only player who managed to be a first-round bust twice.

    It was bad enough the Browns spent the third overall pick on a running back. Looking purely at the list of picks, one might think they were in a tough spot after Luck and Griffin went 1-2. However, not only did the Browns select one of the worst running backs to ever play in the NFL, they traded up to get him.

    As a rookie, the former Alabama RB ran for a mere 950 rushing yards on 267 attempts. Nothing about his debut season suggested he was anything more than a replacement-level talent, at best (we now know he was far, far worse). Somehow, despite being woefully inefficient, Richardson was voted 73rd on the NFL Top 100 list.

    Two games into his sophomore season, the Browns had seen enough. After just 105 yards on 31 carries, Cleveland stole the Colts’ 2014 first-round pick. In a true “pay it forward” but in the worst way possible scenario, the Browns wound up using that pick in a package to trade up for Johnny Manziel, solidifying both teams wasting a first-round pick on Richardson.

    With the Colts, T-Rich played 29 games. He finished with 977 rushing yards on 316 attempts. His career ended with 2,032 rushing yards on 614 attempts at an average of 3.3 yards per attempt. Given he had two NFL Draft first-round picks spent on him in three years, it’s difficult to imagine two busts worse than him. But alas.

    4) Akili Smith, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (1999 – No. 3 Overall)

    Before we get to Akili Smith, I want to give an honorable mention to this year’s No. 1 overall pick, Tim Couch. He narrowly missed this list solely because he was at least below average over five NFL seasons. The same cannot be said about Smith.

    Smith was a true prodigy — an athlete unlike we had really ever seen at the time at the quarterback position. He was supposed to do for the NFL what Michael Vick would do just two years later. Sadly, it just never clicked for Smith at the NFL level.

    MORE: NFL All-Time QB Records

    Smith played just four NFL seasons. He started 17 games, winning only three, with five touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In his career, he completed 46.6% of his passes.

    What makes Smith’s career look even worse is the success of the remainder of the top 10 in the 1999 class. Two of those players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, while another five made the Pro Bowl at least once in their careers.

    Essentially, it was difficult to miss in Round 1 of the 1999 NFL Draft, but the Bengals found one of the two busts.

    5) Vernon Gholston, DE, New York Jets (2008 – No. 6 Overall)

    If you would believe, Vernon Gholston is the lowest-drafted player on this list. There’s certainly an argument to be made that going in the top five should be the threshold for being one of the top draft busts of all time. But Gholston was special.

    For fans of the New York Jets, 2008 was quite the year. There was so much hype surrounding this team. Brett Favre unretired to join the franchise, and Gholston was going to be the anchor of New York’s DL for the next decade.

    Unfortunately, things didn’t work out so well for this colossal NFL Draft bust.

    Gholston played three years for the Jets, amassing 42 tackles and just a single QB hit. He did not record a sack in his 45 games played and was out of the league after the 2010 season at just 24 years old.

    6) Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (2012 – No. 5 Overall)

    Nine years after Charles Rogers, the Jaguars selected a wide receiver similarly touted with a near-identical career path.

    Justin Blackmon was the next big thing. As the heir to Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State, Blackmon was dubbed exactly that. He was a lock to achieve stardom at the NFL level … until he wasn’t.

    Blackmon actually had a strong rookie season, catching 64 passes for 865 yards and five touchdowns. By all accounts, he was going to live up to the hype.

    MORE: 13 Greatest Tight Ends of All Time

    Blackmon is a different bust than all the other players on this list. For the other nine guys, the NFL misevaluated their talent. None of them were good enough to play professional football. Blackmon, meanwhile, had all the talent in the world. In another universe, he could’ve been a perennial Pro Bowler. Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out.

    Before his rookie year even started, Blackmon was arrested for a DUI. After a clean rookie year, Blackmon’s off-the-field issues resurfaced in 2013. First, he earned himself a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Then, he got hurt. Finally, a few weeks after returning, during the team’s bye week, he again violated the substance abuse policy.

    Ahead of the 2014 season, Blackmon had more run-ins with the law. In 2015, he was denied reinstatement by the NFL, effectively ending his career.

    7) Charles Rogers, WR, Detroit Lions (2003 – No. 2 Overall)

    I remember Rogers quite fondly. In fact, 2003 was the first year I played fantasy football. It was a time when sleepers actually existed. To be fair, the No. 2 overall selection wasn’t exactly sleeping on anyone. Well, except, apparently, the Lions.

    There have been dozens of first-round wide receivers who disappointed, yet seldom few that failed as spectacularly as Rogers.

    He played just three professional seasons, totaling a mere 15 games. In those games, Rogers caught an unfathomably low 36 of 84 targets for 440 yards and four touchdowns.

    To make matters worse, with the very next pick, the Houston Texans selected Andre Johnson, one of the best receivers of the 2000s.

    In August 2024, Johnson will officially be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rogers, however, finds his name in the history books for a very different reason.

    8) Tony Mandarich, OT, Green Bay Packers (1989 – No. 2 Overall)

    There are two positions where a team should never be criticized for taking a shot: quarterback and offensive line.

    But that doesn’t mean a guy like Tony Mandarich is immune to bust lists, given how his career panned out.

    MORE: Revisiting the Worst Trades of All Time

    The hype surrounding Mandarich was real. I can only imagine what social media would’ve been like if it existed back then. The guy was nicknamed “The Incredible Bulk,” which is one of the greatest nicknames of all time. Sadly, Mandarich failed to live up to it.

    Once considered by Sports Illustrated the greatest offensive line prospect ever, Mandarich was bounced out of the league after just three seasons. He did try and mount a comeback five years later at age 30, but it went just as poorly as the first run. He lasted another three years before retiring for good.

    9) Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Cincinnati Bengals (1995 – No. 1 Overall)

    Firmly as a member of the modern NFL fan and analyst, I experience physical pain at the notion of a running back going anywhere near the top of the first round, let alone first overall. But the 1990s were a different era where RBs had way more value.

    Even in an era where rookies were treated with more kid gloves than they are now, there’s no excuse for Ki-Jana Carter only being able to command 91 carries in Year 1.

    Out of all the names on this list, Carter actually had the longest career. Although he was never anything resembling a starting-caliber running back, he did hang around the league for a total of seven seasons across nine years.

    Carter’s entire career essentially amounted to one very good season. He totaled 319 carries for 1,144 yards and 20 touchdowns in seven seasons, cementing himself as one of the biggest draft busts of all time.

    10) Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets (2021 – No. 2 Overall)

    When I wrote this list last year, Zach Wilson was on it. Some might have considered it premature, but it’s safe to say no one will question it now.

    In just three short years, Wilson has cemented himself as one of the 10 worst picks in the history of the NFL Draft.

    Through two seasons, Wilson started 22 games. In an era where every decent quarterback is well over 60%, he posted a 55.2% completion percentage. This performance led to him losing his job in favor of 39-year-old Aaron Rodgers.

    As fate would have it, Rodgers tore his Achilles four plays into the 2023 season, thrusting Wilson back into the starting role. In what will likely go down as his last chance to prove himself, Wilson couldn’t have been worse.

    KEEP READING: The Worst First-Round Draft Pick for All 32 NFL Teams

    He did manage to complete 60.1% of his passes, but Wilson threw eight touchdowns against seven interceptions across 12 games. If we count the offseason, Wilson was technically benched three different times in 2023. It would be a major surprise if he ever started another NFL game.

    Miss football? The 2024 NFL Draft is almost here, boss. Pro Football Network has you covered with everything from team draft needs to the Top 100 prospects available. Plus, fire up PFN’s all-new Mock Draft Simulator to put yourself in the general manager’s seat and make all the calls — lone wolf or with your friends!

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