Being a great player in the college football game is drastically different than doing so in the NFL. Everything from the level of competition, to the in-game strategy, to the pace of the game is altered. Therefore, it's never easy to project how any given college player will perform in the NFL. Over the years, quality players in the NCAA have run the gamut from awful, to Hall Of Fame-worthy in the pro ranks. It's always ultimately a shot in the dark, but it's one that must be taken, in order to acquire the next great young player.
Unfortunately, many teams have missed on their assessments of these prospects. College football very much has its own separate culture from the NFL, and some of the best players to ever lace up a pair of cleats in the NCAA, have failed miserably at the next level. In many cases, the team that drafted them wasn't prepared for such a failure from a perceived great player, and it changed the direction of their franchise for the worse. Despite their misfortune, these great college players underachieved in the NFL in entertaining fashion. They were some of the most disappointing players of their time.
Ranked below are 15 great college players who ended up being NFL busts.
15 LAWRENCE PHILLIPS
In 1994, Phillips had one of the best seasons for a college running back ever at Nebraska, and was automatically on the radar of every NFL team when he entered the 1996 draft. It was the Rams that ended up taking him and giving him a shot. He didn't live up to his performance in the NCAA ranks, and Phillips flamed out of the league quickly, and never recovered. He dealt with some well-documented personal issues, and his NFL career never materialized into what many thought it could have been. He spent just three total seasons in the league, and then drifted away. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 40 while he was incarcerated.
14 BRADY QUINN
People tend to forget just how good of a quarterback Quinn was while at Notre Dame in the '04 and '05 seasons. He was seen as the total package, and an NFL-ready arm talent that could be an elite player. Perhaps some of his failures in the NFL had to do with being drafted by the Browns, who have shown that they are a dumpster of a franchise since re-entering the league in 1999. Quinn was just one in a long line of quarterback missteps in Cleveland that are still continuing to this day. He had some great season for the Fighting Irish, but Quinn is as big of an NFL quarterback bust as they come, and his talent never showed itself at the pro level. For the Browns, they're still searching for the answer at quarterback a decade after Quinn retired.
13 MATT LEINART
Leinart was one of the hallmark players on Pete Carroll's USC teams of the 2000s. He also was another in a long line of Trojan quarterbacks falling short in the NFL. Leinart simply couldn't play the position at the NFL level, even though he was selected 10th overall by the Cardinals in 2006. It was a massive investment, and it paid off miserably for Arizona, who never got anywhere close to the level of production they expected. After just one season, Leinart was sitting at second string on the depth chart; an awful return on the 10th overall pick in any draft. He was great at USC, but in the NFL, Leinart was nothing more than liability in every way, shape and form. Unfortunately, other USC quarterbacks such as Matt Barkley and Mark Sanchez have suffered a similar fate in the pro ranks.
12 ERIC CROUCH
In 2001, Crouch was the recipient of the Heisman Trophy while at Nebraska, and was considered one of the most dynamic players in the college game. This didn't translate to the NFL, where he never even got on the field after he was drafted by the Rams late in the 2002 draft. He left the league after just one season, and bounced around with some affiliate leagues such as the now-defunct NFL Europe. Crouch was a scramble-first quarterback, which doesn't have a high success rate in the pro ranks. All things considered, it was a fairly predictable bust to call at the time, but he was such a dynamic player in college that it was a bit of surprise that he couldn't even land a backup job. One of the more bizarre draft busts in recent memory, especially for a Heisman winner.
11 HEATH SHULER
The third overall pick in 1994 out of Tennessee, Shuler was considered to be the future franchise quarterback of the Redskins. That didn't work out quite so well, with Shuler spending just four years in the NFL, only playing on-and-off in Washington. What did work out was Shuler's 1993 season with the Volunteers, where he had a great touchdown to interception ratio, and convinced most of the league that he would be a great quarterback in the pro ranks. That wasn't the case, and the Redskins suffered some down years because of the miss. All in all, Shuler is one of the biggest quarterback busts of the '90s, and one of the worst picks in Redskins history. He'll be remembered for his play with the Vols, but not in the pros.
10 REGGIE BUSH
While Bush hasn't had a terrible NFL career (in fact, he's still in the league), he still wasn't worth the second overall pick, which the Saints spent on him in 2006, coming out of USC. It's sometimes forgotten how much of a cultural force Bush was when he played for the Trojans. He was probably the most popular player in college football, and was on a legendary college team with a high-profile head coach in Pete Carroll. His NFL career has been paltry in comparison, as he's essentially been a change-of-pace running back for about a decade. It's a far cry from his days at USC, but at least he's been able to stay in the league, even if his production is objectively a disappointment compared to what many thought it would be.
9 KI-JANA CARTER
Carter was the first overall pick in 1995, and one of the best running backs in Penn State history. For a school that has laid claim to many elite college rushers over the decades, this isn't faint praise. But Carter never materialized in the NFL, spending seven years in the league with three different teams. His production was barely even mediocre due to injuries, and he was never the featured running back that everyone thought he would be immediately. After a great 1994 season with the Nittany Lions, most just assumed Carter would transfer over to the NFL with ease. It was anything but an easy transition, and though he stayed in the league for a bit, Carter was a confirmed bust.
8 CHRIS WEINKE
He was one of the best college quarterbacks of his time at Florida State, and Weinke was expected to have a great NFL career despite his age (28) at the time of the 2001 draft. Weinke was the Panthers' starting quarterback as a rookie, and was simply abysmal. He threw nearly a dozen more interceptions than he did touchdown passes. The next year, Weinke was firmly planted on the bench, and remained the Panthers backup for several more seasons. It was a complete 180-degree turn from his performance for the Seminoles, where he won the Heisman Trophy after the 2000 season. It was by far the biggest achievement of his career, as he never had a chance for any accolades once he got to the NFL. Truly, Weinke is one of the biggest QB letdowns of his era, and a certified mistake for the Panthers.
7 COURTNEY BROWN
Brown was a prolific pass rusher at Penn State, and his ceiling was seen as infinite at the NFL level. Alas, he was drafted by the Browns, and of course never reached his potential. He spent just five years in the league, after it was assumed he'd be one of the best defensive ends in the history of the league. It never came to fruition, and the Browns were left without a hallmark defensive player for several years after. Brown totaled less than 20 sacks for his entire career, and being drafted first overall, he's one of the biggest defensive busts in the draft ever. He seemed to be a surefire bet coming from Penn State, but his success in the NFL ranks just wasn't in the cards. A major disappointment of a draft pick, but that's par for the course when it comes to the "new" Browns.
6 ARCHIE GRIFFIN
During his time at Ohio State, Griffin was one of the best running backs of the 1970s. If there was such a thing as a "can't miss" prospect of the time, he would have fit the bill as someone who remains the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner in history. He seemed like he had no chance to fail in the NFL, but that wasn't the case. He spent his NFL years with the Bengals, but when he wasn't injured and off the field, he was flat-out unproductive. Griffin retired after seven seasons, and never became the player that his potential indicated while with the Buckeyes. A first-round pick, he was expected to succeed in the pros almost immediately. Instead, his best years turned out to be with Ohio State, and the Bengals had to bear the brunt of a poor draft choice.
5 RICKY WILLIAMS
Williams was assumed to be the first overall pick in the 1999 draft due to his impressive resume at Texas, and instead he ended up landing at fifth overall to the Saints. While he had one or two really good NFL seasons, suspensions and underwhelming play lessened his career overall, and by and large is considered to have not lived up to his potential. During his last two years with the Longhorns, he was one of the most prolific running backs in NCAA history, and produced eye-popping numbers that remain some of the most impressive at the college level. Consistency in the NFL was harder to find, and Williams slowly deteriorated into mediocrity and a question mark as to how long he could stay on the field. It's hard to call him a complete bust, but his career was such a mess, one that was uniquely problematic.
4 BRIAN BOSWORTH
When he was at Oklahoma, "The Boz" was a cultural icon, and the sort of anti-hero that was wildly entertaining in professional sports. There was controversy surrounding him, and the fans and media ate it up, making him one of the popular athletes in the country. He was a great linebacker in college for the Sooners, but it never translated into the NFL game. Bosworth suffered some injuries, and still had a reputation from his days in the NCAA, which didn't help his standing in a professional environment like the NFL. All things considered, Bosworth was product of his time, and was never really cut out for long-term success in the NFL. Still, he's an interesting case study as a person, and was a great college player that many thought would have had more success than he did.
3 RYAN LEAF
In 1997, Leaf helped Washington State have an extremely successful season that would land him as the second overall pick in the 1998 draft, selected by the Chargers. What followed was one of the all-time worst quarterback busts in the history of the sport. Leaf showed little potential on the NFL field, and was a volatile presence in the San Diego locker room, alienating teammates, and making just about everyone question how long he was going to last in the league. The answer was three unproductive seasons with the Chargers and Cowboys. Leaf fizzled out of the league in quick fashion, and his downfall was documented every step of the way. Up until JaMarcus Russell, it was considered the biggest quarterback bust of the generation. Leaf was simply a disaster, and a complete 180 from what his performance indicated at Washington State.
2 PETER WARRICK
Warrick was drafted fourth overall out of Florida State in 2000, and was considered to be the best wide receiver in the draft. He was one of the most decorated college players of his time, and in 1998 he averaged 20 yards per catch. He was considered a can't miss prospect, and a perennial All-Pro talent in the NFL, Instead, the Bengals took him in the first round, and Warrick never came close to having a 1,000 yard season in his six-year NFL career. He caught less than 20 touchdown passes, which was a paltry number for a player considered to have the potential to be one of the best receivers of his generation. Any way you cut it, Warrick was a disappointment. There have been a lot of great players to come out of Florida State, but he wasn't one of them, at least in the NFL ranks.
1 TIM TEBOW
At least during the era that he played in, Tebow was the ultimate "college football star", who was never cut out for the NFL. His deficiencies at quarterback were covered up by playing against lesser talent. He was a star at Florida though, a regular celebrity, and as intriguing a personality as there's ever been in football. He truly was a great, exciting player to watch for the Gators, and his numbers still hold up today. He just wasn't worthy of being a first round pick by the Broncos, or being a starting quarterback in the league at all. He's a prime example of a player that was destined to succeed in college game, and in college only. The increased pace and athleticism of the NFL game didn't suit his skill set and the improvising he did in the pocket. In all, Tebow was a cultural force and great college player, but not representative of what an NFL starter should play like.