There's not a position on a football field more unpredictable than running back when it comes to the NFL level. The majority opinion at the current moment is that taking one in the 1st round of the draft is a risky proposition, and that quality ones can be had later on. There's certainly some validity to this. We've seen numerous running backs who have excelled at the college level, capturing our fandom with amazing plays, leaving us thinking they'd be a hit in the pro ranks. Instead, they leave us disappointed, with their careers marred by injuries, poor play, substance abuse, or a combination of the three.
Even though every NFL franchise is aware of the risk with this position, sometimes the level of upside is just too tempting. The opportunity to land a game-breaking skill position player on offense always seems like a great idea, until it proves that it wasn't. Certainly, not all highly-touted running back prospects have been busts, but there have been plenty of notable ones along the way. Let's take a look at some of the great collegiate runners who failed in the NFL, despite overwhelming optimism about their game.
Ranked below are the top 15 college running backs who were undeniable BUSTS in the NFL.
15 Reggie Bush
While it's difficult to call Bush a complete failure in the NFL, one would think that a 2nd overall selection would yield more consistently productive results, all things considered. He was considered a blue chip prospect coming out of USC, and was expected to produce at a big-time level in the NFL. Bush was a decent dual threat as a runner and receiver, but a lack of continuity on any one team and the jack-0f-all-trades nature of his play somewhat hurt his legacy. He's still drifting around the league, but his career has been on the downswing for years now.
He'll be best remembered for his days with the Trojans, where he was a part of one of the most renowned college teams of all-time. His 2005 season at USC was better than anything he ever did in the pro ranks, and will stand the test of time.
14 Cedric Benson
When anyone talks about the best college running backs of all-time from a statistical perspective, Benson has to be mentioned. He was a standout for all four years at Texas, and looked to be ready for prime time when he was taken with the 4th-overall pick in the 2005 draft by Chicago. Like some other notable Longhorn names however, his skills just didn't cut the mustard in the NFL.
Benson was the definition of a ho-hum runner. He produced middling or worse in just about every statistical category, and never developed into a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He fared a bit better with the Bengals than he did with the Bears, but it was only a minor step up, considering he was expected to be one of the best skill players in the league immediately. Benson just never ended up putting it all together, but had one of the best college careers ever.
13 David Wilson
Wilson was a breakout star at Virginia Tech in the 2011 college season, which prompted the Giants to spend their 32nd overall pick on him. It seemed like a reasonable move replace former bell-cow runner Brandon Jacobs. Indeed, Wilson was expected to step into the first spot on the depth chart and make a significant difference.
That didn't end up transpiring, and Wilson was doomed for mediocrity from the very beginning. He played a mere two seasons in the NFL, and never was the starter that the Giants had anticipated him to be. Seemingly, as soon as he entered the league, he was gone, leaving plenty of people in New York nauseous at the thought of spending a 1st round pick on him, late in the 1st round as it was. Wilson was a decided NFL bust, no two ways about it.
12 Montee Ball
During his last two seasons at Wisconsin, Ball was nothing less than a force of nature. He was one of the top runners in the nation, and put up monster statistics along the way. Most thought that he would be a great fit automatically in the NFL, and he was considered to be a top playmaker on just about any roster in the league. The Broncos sure didn't see a collapse coming when they took him in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft.
Unfortunately for them, it happened, and it happened quickly. Ball was utterly ineffective during his two years in Denver, never consistently starting, or doing anything noteworthy whatsoever. Recent reports have surfaced, with Ball admitting that he was a heavy drinker during his time with the Broncos, which could have contributed to his poor level of play. Whatever the reason, Ball bottomed out, and has little hope for a return.
11 Beanie Wells
Considered by the Cardinals to be the new anchor to their backfield that it needed at the time, Wells was taken in the 1st round, expected to make an impact immediately. Instead, he sputtered out for a few years before actually winning the starting job in 2011. While he had a decent season that year, he couldn't sustain his recent success, and was out of the league within the next two years.
The Cardinals would shuffle through several other running backs such as Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson for the next several years, before landing David Johnson, who has transformed the backfield into a force of nature. Wells was supposed to be that catalyst, but Arizona would have to wait for several more seasons before they found one that worked.
10 Sammie Smith
Taken 9th overall by the Dolphins in 1988, Smith was supposed to be the workhorse running back that could take some of the pressure off of Dan Marino. Marino had long established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league at the time, and Smith was coming off of a great career at Florida State. It seemed to be the perfect match to turn the Dolphins' offense into a juggernaut.
Instead, it turned out to be a nightmare. Smith was ineffective in his four seasons in Miami, and fizzled out of the league quickly. To make matters worse, he got involved in several legal incidents post-retirement that landed him in prison for several years. As a 9th-overall pick, the Dolphins definitely dropped the ball with this selection.
9 Kevin Jones
He's oft-forgotten now, but in his heyday Jones was one of the biggest running backs in college football for Virginia Tech. Bursting onto the national spotlight in 2003 with the Hokies, he was a highly-touted prospect. He was drafted by the Lions in the 1st round, figuring to be their featured running back for the foreseeable future. The stage was set for him to become something special.
Instead, Jones was a distinct disappointment in Detroit after his rookie season. Coming off of a productive first year, many thought he would continue to grow into one of the best backs in the league. He became a middling, average running back despite the initial optimism, and after one lone season with the Bears, he was done after just five years in the NFL.
8 William Green
Green is one of the most forgotten of Browns draft busts over the years, but he was a "can't miss" prospect coming out of Boston College for the 2002 draft. Cleveland swung for the fences in the 1st round, and ended up missing as per usual. In his four years in the NFL, Green never notched one quality season, and it was clear that his production wouldn't be as good as advertised.
It was a massive disappointment for Cleveland, who would soon become accustomed to being let down in just about every season since their comeback to the league in 1999. Green ended up just being one spoke in that wheel, which is why he's largely forgotten today. Still, for such a good college runner to fall flat in the NFL is still noteworthy, even if it happened on the Browns' watch.
7 Cadillac Williams
In terms of Auburn running backs, there were few, if any better than Williams was during the Y2K Era. He was dominant in both the 2003 and 2004 seasons, and it was no surprise when he was taken with the 5th overall selection by the Buccaneers. The projections for him were high, but he never could quite figure out the pro game.
An impressive rookie season gave way to many years of disappointment for Williams. While he did maintain a position in the league for 7 seasons, which is no small feat, it's hard to call his career anything less than underwhelming after he was taken with a top 5 pick. He progressively got worse until he called it quits in 2011, as a shell of his former self serving as a depth running backs on the Rams' roster.
6 Ronnie Brown
While the Wildcat formation was all the rage back in 2008, it's now seen as the farce that it always was. Brown was an integral part of it while on the Dolphins, and was seen as the catalyst for a kind of football revolution that never did end up happening. It's pretty much the only claim to fame in his entire career, and as a former 2nd-overall pick that's not high praise whatsoever.
Ultimately, Brown's career ended up a failure because he was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. He didn't fit in the NFL as a pure running back, or as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, so the Dolphins tried to shoehorn him into a gimmick role, in an offense that was never destined for long-term success. He went on to a few short stints with other teams, but nothing noteworthy at all. Brown is indicative of one of the league's most niche periods, but also largely one of the most forgettable.
5 Ki-Jana Carter
On a purely statistical basis, Carter may be the biggest running back bust ever. The former Penn State rusher was slated to be the future of NFL running backs in 1995, when he was taken with the 1st-overall pick by the Bengals in 1995. It was lofty expectations from the get-go, but back then there wasn't a stigma around drafting running backs in the 1st round that exists today.
Mainly due to injuries, Carter was an immediate failure in the league, and though he stayed for 7 years, it was a painfully mediocre (at best) career. For the expense of a 1st-overall pick, this is easily one of the biggest draft busts of all-time, and one of the picks that made many people wary of taking a running back so highly. Carter was one of the best runners in Nittany Lion history, but an utter disappointment in the pros.
4 Blair Thomas
Another Penn State runner who was taken with an absurdly high pick. Thomas was taken by the Jets at 2nd-overall in 1990. Several attempts were made to make him a viable starter, but he never had an elite NFL season, and after five years, was out of the league entirely. The Jets would toil in mediocrity for several years at the position until they landed Curtis Martin, and finally had an elite runner.
Thomas simply had one of the worst careers for a top three pick in the history of the league. It was abundantly clear that he wasn't able to play at a high level in the pros, and that was recognized early on. For Penn State, he was one of the best running backs in the history of their program, but he couldn't translate that talent to the Jets.
3 Trent Richardson
After the monster 2011 season that sent him skyrocketing to the top of draft boards everywhere, Richardson seemed destined for NFL stardom. He was simply dominant on the ground during the end of his tenure at Alabama, and when the Browns took him with the 3rd overall pick, nobody thought much of it. Unfortunately, we saw just how effective the Crimson Tide offensive line was at making mediocre players seem like juggernauts.
Richardson fizzled out of Cleveland quickly, and even faster during his time with the Colts. He's now out of the league, and considered one of the biggest draft busts of this era. It also made an increasingly number of people wary about taking a running back in the 1st round, due to the league being so pass-heavy, and not suited to Richardson's skill set. He's the definition of a running back bust in the modern day.
2 Lawrence Phillips
Phillips was considered one of the surest picks out there in the 1996 draft, and unlikely to fail at the pro level. His career at Nebraska was impressive to say the least, and nobody questioned the thought of him as a top 10 pick. The Rams ended up taking the bait. They probably didn't think he would become one of the most tragic figures in the history of the league.
It's no secret that Phillips struggled with just about anything that could get him into trouble. This didn't help his performance on the field, as he quickly bottomed out of the NFL after just a couple of seasons. But the real trouble came after his retirement, as he was arrested countless times over the proceeding years. After being accused of first-degree murder in 2016, he allegedly took his own life while in custody, awaiting his trial. It was the bitter end to a tragic life. Many fans continue to wonder "what may have been?" had Phillips stayed on the up-and-up in his personal life.
1 Ron Dayne
One of, if not the most prolific running backs in the history of college football, Dayne was an absolute stud at Wisconsin. There wasn't a more "can't miss"-level prospect than Dayne was during his era, and everybody agreed that he would be a hit in the NFL, especially after winning the 1999 Heisman Trophy. The Giants apparently thought so too, when they took him at 11th overall in the 1999 draft.
Contrasting Dayne's college stats with his NFL ones is a humorous endeavor that serves as a reality check when evaluating college prospects. It shows that even the most surefire hits can crash and burn. Dayne was never a consistent starter for any of the three teams he played for, and his numbers are wholly mediocre compared to what should have been for a Heisman-winning, prolific running back from a major program. Unfortunately, it just wasn't in the cards, and Dayne's failure as a top-15-selected running back is every general manager's worst nightmare.