One thing the people are quick to forget once a player ends up becoming a big time bust in the NFL is that when they played in college they were really freakin’ good! Among the all time busts were some all time great college football players who played for some of the all time great college football programs. If a player is good enough to become a first round draft pick in the NFL, or if they are a potential number one pick, that means that they have dominated the game while in college. In order to be picked that high, to become that big of a bust, players have had to be All-Americans, they have needed to set NCAA records, to win big bowl games, to win Heisman Trophies, and to have achieved glory for their schools over their time on campus. If you cannot do that, you will never be drafted high enough, or thought of as great enough, to even earn the right to be drafted and become a bust. Before they were disappointing professional football players, these guys were great college football players first. Read on to learn more about the college careers of 20 all-time NFL busts.
20 Charles Rogers: Michigan State Spartans
As the second overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, Charles Rogers was expected to be a big time wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. Instead he lasted just three years in the league, picking up less than 500 yards receiving and a mere four touchdowns as he played in only 15 total games. It was a major difference from his record breaking career at Michigan State. In two seasons for the Spartans, Rogers had over 2800 receiving yards. He also caught 27 career touchdowns which is still the school record. He was first team All-Big 10 both years and he was a unanimous All-American in 2002 while also winning the Fred Biletnikoff Trophy as well as the Paul Warfield Trophy as the nation’s best wide receiver.
19 Bruce Pickens: Nebraska Cornhuskers
In the past thirty years only two Nebraska Cornhuskers were drafted higher than Bruce Pickens who was taken with the number three overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Both of those defensive studs went on to have great careers in the NFL, with six time Pro-Bowler and two time Super Bowl champion Neil Smith going number two in 1988 to the Kansas City Chiefs, and five time Pro-Bowler Ndamukong Suh going to the Detroit Lions in 2010. Pickens however did not follow in his fellow Huskers footsteps and was out of the league after four seasons. At Nebraska however Pickens was a great defensive back, playing three years, being named the Big-8 Newcomer of the Year in 1988, and earning All-Big 8 honors in 1989 and 1990.
18 Ki-Jana Carter: Penn State Nittany Lions
One in a long line of great Penn State running backs, Ki-Jana Carter was in a slightly shorter line of Penn State running backs that were busts in the NFL. Over three seasons with the Nittany Lions, Carter racked up over 2800 yards rushing, including over 1500 as a junior. That same year, Penn State went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl with the help of Carter’s 156 yards and three touchdown, co-MVP performance in the game. With Carter earning consensus All-American honors and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting, he decided to depart school early. He was the number one overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, selected by the Cincinnati Bengals. Over seven years in the league, Carter gained less than 1200 rushing yards as he was beset by injuries which derailed most of his career.
17 Todd Marinovich: USC Trojans
The kid that was seemingly programmed from birth to become a star quarterback in the NFL, Todd Marinovich looked like a sure thing from high school through college but once he hit the pros, a substance abuse problem took control of him and despite a few flashes of brilliance he was quickly out of the league. The son of Oakland Raiders strength and conditioning coach Marv Marinovich, Todd was raised to be an athlete, specifically to be a quarterback. His father implemented a stringent plan that included athletic training and a strict diet that basically started in the womb. Todd grew up with constant conditioning and exercise, high level football tutoring, and a diet that prohibited Bic Macs, Oreos, or any other sugar snacks. He had a dominating high school career and ended up at the University of Southern California. After an injury to the starter, Marinovich became the first freshman to start the season opener for USC in four decades. He had a rough start but soon showed his skills, throwing for over 2500 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was named the College Freshman of the Year by the Sporting News and was the only freshman named to the All-Pac 10 team as he led the Trojans to a 9-2-1 record and a victory in the Rose Bowl. The newfound freedom as a college student ultimately lead to the development of his problems and in his second year as the USC starter he performed almost as well as the previous year with over 2400 yards passing but a few red flags began showing up. He declared for the draft and was selected by the team his father worked for the Oakland Raiders with the 24th overall pick but was soon overwhelmed by his problems and out of the league.
16 Tony Mandarich: Michigan State Spartans
One of the biggest busts ever was of course the second overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, Tony Mandarich. The Green Bay Packers (and the rest of the league, as well as Sports Illustrated) were sure that the gigantic and athletic Mandarich, and his outstanding “measurables” were sure to be a fixture in the NFL for years, but he was cut by the Packers after three, only to return for three more with the Colts after a stint in rehab. Mandarich played his college football at Michigan State. He helped the Spartans win the Rose Bowl after the 1987 season. While playing for Michigan State, Mandarich was an Outland Trophy finalist, he was named Big Ten Lineman of the Year in 1988, and earned consensus All-American honors as a senior as well.
15 Trent Richardson: Alabama Crimson Tide
One in a long line of great Alabama running backs, Trent Richardson was a ballyhooed freshman the year that Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy for the Crimson Tide. Despite being the backup to the best back in college football, Richardson still put up over 780 yards and eight touchdowns. He also played a key role in helping the Crimson Tide win the national championship with two touchdowns and 109 rushing yards against the Texas Longhorns, only slightly outdone by the game’s MVP Ingram who also had two touchdowns while gaining ten more yards. Richardson sat behind Ingram during his second year as well, rushing for 700 yards. When he finally ascended to the starting job once Ingram moved on to the NFL, Richardson exploded for over 1600 yards rushing plus over 300 receiving while notching another national championship when the Tide topped the LSU Tigers. His great performance led to him being taken with the third overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in the 2012 NFL Draft. He only rushed for 1000 plus yards over his two seasons in Cleveland before they gave up on him. Richardson achieved a very rare feat by becoming a bust twice in one career when the Indianapolis Colts wasted their 2014 first round pick by trading it to the Browns for him only to have him rush for less than 1000 yards over two seasons while averaging 3.1 yards per carry.
14 Aaron Curry: Wake Forest Demon Deacons
With only two scholarship offers coming out of high school, Aaron Curry chose to play his college football at Wake Forest University, which although it is not a big football school, is in the ACC where he could make all the teams that had ignored him regret their decisions. Curry started all four years for the Demon Deacons, earning Freshman All-American honors in 2005. After a solid sophomore year, Curry was named second team All-ACC as a junior. As a senior he was named first team All-American and won the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the country. After four years of dominating, the Seattle Seahawks thought they had a sure thing and selected Curry with the fourth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Unfortunately he did not pan out, and lasted only two years with the Seahawks and was out of the league after four seasons.
13 Lawrence Phillips: Nebraska Cornhuskers
One of the best college football running backs of all time could have been Lawrence Phillips if he knew how to stay out of trouble. Phillips was one of the best players on the great early 1990s University of Nebraska teams. As a freshman he worked his way into the lineup putting up over 500 yards off the bench before establishing himself as a future star in the Orange Bowl when he stomped over Florida State’s great defense for 183 yards. As a sophomore Phillips put up over 1700 yards rushing along with 16 touchdowns as the Cornhuskers went undefeated and won the national championship. Trouble started brewing shortly thereafter as Phillips was involved in a number of off the field incidents in the offseason that carried into the following year. Despite looking like a leading Heisman candidate and putting up over 500 yards in his first five games, Phillips was suspended for his criminal behavior, ending his Nebraska career. He was selected with the sixth overall pick by the Los Angeles Rams and although he played he could not stay out of trouble and the Rams gave up on him after two seasons.
12 Vernon Gholston: Ohio State Buckeyes
During his last two seasons with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Vernon Gholston was a key piece of their Big Ten championship defense. As junior in 2006 Gholston was named second team All-Big Ten as he racked up an interception, 18 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks as the Buckeyes went undefeated on their way to the national championship game where they lost to future Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. Gholston improved during his senior season setting an Ohio State record with 13.5 sacks over the year. He was named an All-American, first team All-Big Ten, and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. His notable career at the Ohio State led to him being selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. He was unable to reproduce his college production however and lasted just three years with the Jets while somehow not managing a single sack.
11 Justin Blackmon: Oklahoma State Cowboys
For two straight seasons in college, Justin Blackmon was the very best wide receiver in the nation. His amazing two year run with Oklahoma State led to him being grabbed with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He showed a few flashes of his college brilliance in the pros but unfortunately, due to substance abuse issues, Blackmon only lasted two seasons in the NFL. At Oklahoma State, Blackmon followed in the footsteps of, and then surpassed, all time great Dez Bryant. Blackmon was a two time Belitnikoff winner in 2012 and 2011, he was a two time consensus All-American, and a two time first team All-Big 12. He was also the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2010 when he had over 1700 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns for the Cowboys. When all was said and done, Blackmon finished with over 3500 career receiving yards and 40 touchdowns in his time at Oklahoma State.
10 JaMarcus Russell: LSU Tigers
In the NFL, the biggest busts at quarterback always seem to be the guys who LOOK like they should be great prototypical quarterbacks. The guys whose measurables; tall, strong, rocket arm, fit the traditional image of a quarterback. It’s almost as if some front offices check first with central casting to see if their QB prospects look the part and if they do, then any other red flags or questions that might have been raised about a player are dismissed. One of the biggest busts of all time may have been a result of that sort of mindset. JaMarcus Russell was an ideal example of what a QB should look like, at 6’ 6”, 260 pounds, he was a rare combination of size and arm strength as the scouts like to say. His college career at LSU lent credence to the idea that he would be great as well. He played for three seasons, starting for two. He was first team All-SEC as a junior while winning the Manning Award. He went 21-4 as a starter for the Tigers and was named MVP of the 2007 Sugar Bowl. With over 6600 yards passing and a better than 61% completion percentage he was hard to pass up. The Raiders of course, did not pass him up, selecting him with the first overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. As everyone now knows, they should have passed as Russell was out of the league in three years.
9 Brian Bosworth: Oklahoma Sooners
One of the most 1980s personalities to ever play college football was legendary Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Brian Bosworth. “The Boz” rocked a variety of totally rad hairstyles during his time with the Sooners while also courting controversy with the NCAA. Because of injury issues, Bosworth only lasted two seasons in the NFL, having been drafted by the Seattle Seahawks with a first round pick in the 1987 Supplemental Draft. His NFL lowlight was when he got trucked into the end zone for a touchdown while trying to tackle Bo Jackson on Monday Night Football. In college however Bosworth was one of the best linebackers ever. He won the Dick Butkus award twice, was named consensus All-American twice, and was All-Big eight three times. He is a member of the college football Hall of Fame despite being kicked off the Sooners by Barry Switzer in his final season.
8 Courtney Brown: Penn State Nittany Lions
Another number one overall pick that did not do as well as people had hoped was Courtney Brown who was the first selection in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He did last six seasons in the NFL but injuries were a problem throughout his career, with him missing numerous games every year except his rookie season. At Penn State University, Brown was a member of the great Nittany Lions defense with LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short. He earned first team All-Big 10 honors in 1998 and 1999. His senior year was his most impressive however as he was named a consensus All-American, Big Ten Lineman of the Year, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy, the Chick Bednarik Award and the Lombardi Award.
7 Aundray Bruce: Auburn Tigers
A star at the University of Auburn, Aundray Bruce was selected with the first overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Despite an 11 year career, Bruce started in just 42 games and only had 32 total sacks. He was a three year starter at Auburn however, helping the Tigers to a 10-2 record in 1986 and claiming the MVP of the Citrus Bowl, and an SEC Championship in 1987. He was named All-SEC in 1986 and 1987 and was also an All-American in 1987. The game in which he really made his name and that probably helped him become the number one pick, was a dominating performance against Georgia Tech as a junior when he had three interceptions including a pick six, forced a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown, recovered another fumble himself, and picked up three sacks.
6 Blair Thomas: Penn State Nittany Lions
Another in the long line of great Penn State running backs who is also in the shorter line of Penn State running backs who were busts is Blair Thomas. Thomas played four years with the Nittany Lions, rushing for over 500 yards as a backup on the 1986 national championship team, and gaining over 1300 yards as a junior and a senior, becoming the first Penn State back to exceed 1300 yards in two seasons. Thomas finished his career second on Penn State’s all time rushing list with 3301 yards. He also scored 21 career touchdowns with the Lions. He was named second team All-American in 1989. In the 1990 NFL Draft the New York Jets took Thomas with the second overall pick. He lasted seven seasons in the league, four with the Jets but he never gained more than 750 yards in a season and did not crack 100 yards in his final three seasons.
5 Ryan Leaf: Washington State Cougars
In many cases where a big name college kid goes bust in the pros it is because they were over-rated a bit by virtue of being a star at a big time school. In the case of Ryan Leaf, he went to Washington State University which has been a perennially miserable school when it comes to college football. One thing it was known for, specifically when Leaf was about to go pro, was being the alma mater of one of the best QBs in the league at the time, Drew Bledsoe. Since there already was a great QB from the school, it was easy to imagine the next one being great too. Now Leaf of course lived up to his billing while playing for the Cougars. He was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school, but was swayed by Cougars coach Mike Price, who had coached Bledsoe as well, when he told him they could make it to the Rose Bowl. Over three years at Washington State, Leaf played in 32 games, starting 24 of them. He did in fact lead the Cougars to the 1998 Rose Bowl, their first in over 60 years, where they lost to national champion Michigan. He finished third in the Heisman race that year, but he was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and a first team All-American. It was thought that both he and Peyton Manning would both be stars in the NFL. Manning of course went with the first overall pick to the Colts and Leaf went with the second to the Chargers. After the draft their career paths diverged, with Manning on the road to the Hall of Fame, and Leaf eventually headed out of the league to drug rehab and prison.
4 Peter Warrick: Florida State Seminoles
During the apex of the late 1990s stretch of dominance by Bobby Bowden’s Florida State, wide receiver Peter Warrick was one of the big names who helped keep the Seminoles in the national championship picture every year. Warrick played four years and part of a redshirt year, gaining over 3500 yards receiving as one of Chris Weinke’s favorite targets. He also took two punt returns back for touchdowns, rushed for four more, and even threw two touchdowns himself. Warrick was a three time first team All-ACC selection and a two time consensus All-American. Florida State finished third in the nation three straight years including 1998 when they lost in the national championship game, before they won the national championship after going undefeated in Warrick’s senior year. Warrick was then drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. He spent five seasons with the Bengals and one in Seattle before he was out of the league, finishing his career with just under 3000 yards receiving and 18 touchdowns.
3 Rick Mirer: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
When you play four years for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and are the starting quarterback for three of those seasons, people will tend to have high expectations. Unfortunately for the Seattle Seahawks, who drafted Mirer with the second overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft, Mirer did not become the next Joe Montana. He did last eight years in the NFL, including four seasons with the Seahawks where he did throw for over 9000 yards but also threw 56 interceptions. Mirer took over the starting job for the Irish as a sophomore and over three years compiled a record of 29-7-1 while setting numerous school records including most touchdowns in a season with 18 and accounted for the most points running and passing with 350 in his career. Mirer helped the Irish finish ranked in the top ten twice and in the top 15 once while winning the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl in his final two seasons.
2 Steve Emtman: Washington Huskies
One of the greatest college football linebackers ever and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame is Steve Emtmen who became a bust in the NFL mostly due to injury issues rather than performance problems. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts with the number one overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft but only played 18 games in his three seasons with the Colts. He played three more years with Miami and Washington before injuries forced him out of the league. As a star at the University of Washington, Emtman established himself while a sophomore, leading the Huskies to a 10-2 record and a victory in the Rose Bowl. In 1991, Emtman was one of the best players in the country, helping Washington to an undefeated national championship season. His outstanding performance as a junior earned him consensus All-American honors, he won the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award, he was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, and despite being a defensive player he still finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
1 Andre Ware: Houston Cougars
One of the first players to explode with video game type numbers with the help of the Run & Shoot offense was the University of Houston’s Andre Ware. He played for the Cougars in the late 1980s just as the fast paced, high octane offense was being implemented by forward thinking coaches. Ware was a highly touted prospect who was hoping to end up at the University of Texas but they would not commit to having him play quarterback so he instead ended up at the University of Houston. The Cougars threw him behind center where he ended up setting 26 NCAA records. During his sophomore year he threw for over 2500 yards with 25 touchdowns but it was his junior year where he really punched in the cheat-code, throwing for over 4600 yards and 46 touchdowns on his way to the Heisman Trophy. He was drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions where he joined fellow Heisman winner Barry Sanders but he did not see much playing time appearing in only 14 games over four years before he was out of the league for good.