Pro sports scouts would have you believe that evaluating talent is an exact science. It’s not, as fans see every year when that can’t-miss college prospect suddenly can miss. High draft picks aren’t any more prone to flameouts than any other professional athlete. It’s just a little more entertaining when they do. But even noted--or notorious--professional athletes have a sell-by date. We remember them and their high-profile professional failures, but where do they go once the spotlight has faded and their flubs are forgotten?
As you read this piece, you’ll note that a guy nicknamed Johnny Football didn’t make the list. There are several reasons for that, but mostly it’s because the spotlight is still on him. He still makes headlines, and some NFL team will be desperate for a quarterback or a personality to put butts in seats, and soon Johnny Football will be employed again. The same is not true for 99 percent of this list.
The tough part, to be honest, was narrowing the list down. Manziel didn’t make the cut. Neither did Ty Detmer. Rick Mirer, Charles Rodgers, Aaron Curry? Man, they could easily go on there, too. What it came down to, finally, was this: Who had the biggest expected upside? Who was supposed to be a game-changer, but either couldn’t stay in the league--for whatever reason--or who ended up satisfied to be role-players or contributors rather than the superstars they were expected to be? And what happened to them post-football? It’s not just the draft busts, but the interesting twist of finding out what they’re up to these days.
So without further ado, here are 15 forgotten first-round NFL picks, and where they are now.
16 Akili Smith
The Cincinnati Bengals selected Akili Smith with the third pick in the 1999 NFL draft after Smith impressed with 30 touchdown passes in 11 starts during his college career at Oregon. While Smith’s body of work was thin, scouts thought he had a tremendous upside. They were wrong.
A rookie contract dispute that saw Smith sit out the entire 1999 preseason did the QB no favors. In four years with the Bengals, Smith inflicted the most damage to his own team, throwing five touchdown passes while slinging 13 interceptions. The Bengals finally released Smith, and soon he was out of the NFL after attempts to catch on with the Packers and Buccaneers. A try at NFL Europe and the CFL were similarly unsuccessful. Today Smith coaches high school football in California.
15 Leodis McKelvin
After only being considered a two-star recruit at cornerback, Leodis McKelvin was a revelation as a kick returner and defender for the Troy Trojans during the mid-2000s, helping lead them to back-to-back Sun Belt titles and embarrassing a pretty good 2007 Oklahoma State team on national TV, 44-23. McKelvin’s draft stock was already strong, and he earned All-American honors after his senior season. NFL scouts took notice, and McKelvin ended up being a first-round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills at No. 11.
But despite showing flashes of brilliance both as a return man and defender, McKelvin struggled to see the field, often finding himself far back on the depth chart and never justified his five-year, $19.4 million contract. He was enough of a contributor that the Bills re-signed him (for far less money) and eventually released him. He was picked up by the Jets for a year, but was released in February 2017. He’s currently a free agent.
14 Trent Richardson
He should have been the next Adrian Peterson. At least that’s what everyone who saw the Pensacola, Florida, native help lead the University of Alabama to two national championships and All-American status thought. Richardson followed a stellar college career with the Crimson Tide by being selected at No. 3 in the first round of the draft by the Cleveland Browns for $20.4 million guaranteed.
In Cleveland, Richardson started well, including rushing for 9 touchdowns to tie Jim Brown’s franchise record for a rookie running back. But injuries and attitude problems limited him in his second season, and he found himself traded to the Colts. But Indianapolis suspended him during the 2014-15 playoffs and waived him following the season. Signing with the Raiders didn’t last long. Neither did an offseason stint with the Ravens. On Feb. 16, 2017, Richardson was arrested at a hotel in Hoover, Alabama, and charged with domestic abuse.
12 Cade McNown
It’s not fair to say that Cade McNown is the worst QB ever drafted in the NFL (as you’ll see farther up the list), but McNown lasted only two years in the league after a decent--but over-hyped--college career at UCLA. Still, he was impressive enough (All-American, Johnny Unitas Award winner) for the Bears to draft him No. 12 overall despite concerns about his arm strength.
They should’ve been worried about his heart. McNown’s two years in Chicago felt like a decade to Bears fans who expect their players to be mentally and physically tough. McNown famously quit during a game, refusing to play in the second half against the Rams. He was traded to the Dolphins following the 2001 season, and then traded to San Francisco. His pro legacy is 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Today, McNown is a vice-president for a capital management firm.
11 Brian Bosworth
Most NFL fans’ biggest memory of the Boz was watching the Seattle Seahawks defender get bowled over by a Bo Jackson touchdown run during a Monday Night Football game against the Raiders. The Raiders’ running game exposed Bosworth’s drug problem, as Jackson and Marcus Allen drug the inside linebacker all over the field before putting the Seahawks out of their misery, 34-17.
That was pretty embarrassing for a two-time All-American football player at the University of Oklahoma, whose expressed desire was to play for the very Raiders team that just kicked his butt. Bosworth retired after two years in the NFL due to injuries, despite having signed a 10-year, $11 million rookie contract with the Seahawks. He’s been a not-very-good actor in films, television, and commercials, and now is a real estate agent working for a posh brokerage out of Malibu, California.
10 Andre Ware
Andre Ware was a better professional quarterback than color analyst for ABC and ESPN, but--unlike the NFL--the Disney-owned networks keep Ware employed. He was drafted No. 7 overall by Detroit after a stellar college career in Houston, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1989 as the trigger for the Cougars’ run-and-gun offense. But Ware was one of a number of Heisman winners who peaked in college and washed out in the pros.
Ware was rarely able to crack the starting lineup during his four years with the Lions, and when he did, it wasn’t usually pretty. He finished his professional football career with five touchdowns vs. eight INTs, and can be considered a benchmark for quarterback futility. He bounced around and never really caught on with another team--despite attempts in the CFL and NFL Europe--before becoming an analyst. Much like during his NFL days, Ware still isn’t very good.
9 Curtis Enis
Pity fans of da Bears in 2000. They suffered through Cade McNown AND Curtis Enis. Enis, a running back out of Penn State, was drafted No. 5 in the 1998 draft. Like many other draft busts, Enis was a preseason holdout due to contract disputes. Once he and the Bears finally got on the same page, he struggled to stay healthy. In three years in Chicago, he appeared in 36 games, totaling 1,497 yards rushing, with only four TDs.
Enis signed a 1-year deal with Cleveland after being cut by the Bears, but a degenerative condition in his left knee made continuing a professional football career impossible. At 24, he was out of the league. Since his retirement, Ennis has had stints as an operations manager for ABInBev and as a high school football coach in his native Ohio.
8 Heath Shuler
Heath Shuler looked more comfortable as a congressman from North Carolina than he ever did as an NFL quarterback. As the No. 3 pick in the 1994 draft, Shuler was supposed to help turn around a Washington franchise that had foundered after its Super Bowl glory days in the 1980s under QBs Doug Williams and Mark Rypien. That didn’t happen.
Instead, Shuler became embroiled in a quarterback controversy with the lightly regarded Gus Frerotte, with Frerotte finally winning the starting job from the former SEC Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy runner-up. Shuler finished his NFL career with 15 TDs and 33 interceptions. After retirement, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. After choosing not to run for re-election in 2012, Shuler joined an influential Washington energy lobby.
7 Ki-Jana Carter
Another bust from Penn State, Ki-Jana Carter was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft. In college, Carter had proved to be a durable, talented tailback, so when the Bengals drafted him to a $19.2 million deal, they were expecting a franchise-type player. Instead, Carter piled up injury after injury, rarely seeing the field. In his seven-year career, Carter played in 59 games, but only started 14. Over his entire career, he scored 20 TDs, while amassing (because there’s not a term for a-littling) 1,144 yards.
He’s more successful as an entrepreneur in his post-football life. He founded a sanitation technology company that specializes in disinfecting staph-prone facilities. You can also find him online as a sports blogger.
6 Tim Couch
Pity Tim Couch. As the No. 1 selection for the expansion Cleveland Browns, he was almost certainly doomed from the start. But after taking over from Ty Detmer (who really ought to have his own place on this list), Couch showed flashes of his high school and college brilliance, including leading the Browns to the playoffs in 2002 after throwing for more than 2,800 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Couch was hampered by injuries due to an inexperienced, oft-injured and generally lousy offensive line. After five years in Cleveland, he attempted several comebacks but never really caught on anywhere, largely due to his injuries sustained while in Cleveland. These days, Couch is an analyst for FoxSports South, and is married to former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Heather Kozar. So, hey, maybe don’t pity him that much.
5 Vince Young
Vince Young should have been a modern-day demigod. He won a national title at Texas, and the victory over USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl for the BCS championship is the stuff that legends are made of. Then came the inaccurately reported score of ‘6’ on the Wonderlic test at the NFL Combine, and things seemed to begin to unravel. While he was drafted third overall by Tennessee, Young struggled under coach Jeff Fisher, often clashing with his coach over the young player’s maturity, on and off the field. After a reportedly physical altercation with Fisher, Titans ownership released Young.
Despite his financial and maturity problems, Young was given multiple chances to stay in the league, but opportunities with the Eagles, Bills, Packers, and Browns never panned out. These days the former Longhorn is back on more familiar ground, working at the University of Texas as a development officer and fundraiser.
4 Matt Leinart
Injuries plagued the former USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, but here’s the thing: Leinart--who has a son by a fellow former Trojan athlete, Brynn Cameron, and famously dated Paris Hilton for a time--was much better at scoring off the field than on it. Leinart only started 17 games in four seasons with the Cardinals, with seven wins and 10 losses He threw 14 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions while behind center at Arizona. After Kurt Warner retired, Leinart was the heir apparent as the Cardinals’ starter in 2010, but he lost the job in training camp and was released. Ouch. Leinart bounced to the Texans and later to the Raiders, as well as having a cup of coffee with the Bills. But he started only one more game. He hasn’t played in the league since 2012 season, and officially announced his retirement in 2014.
Since then, Leinart has found steady work as an analyst for Fox Sports’ college football coverage.
3 Tony Mandarich
Of the first five players selected in the 1989 NFL draft, Tony Mandarich is the only one not in the Hall of Fame. Nor is he likely to be. Drafted second overall (behind Troy Aikman) to the Green Bay Packers, Mandarich had size, strength and speed, and some scouts believed he could be the best offensive line prospect ever. But what Mandarich also had was an addiction to painkillers and steroids. What he didn’t have was work ethic. His laziness and attitude problems led to Green Bay cutting him in 1992. After going through rehab, Mandarich did return to the league, where he played decently, if unspectacularly, for the Indianapolis Colts.
These days, Mandarich has moved Arizona from his native Canada, where he runs his own media company specializing in photography, video production, web design, SEO, and Internet marketing.
2 JaMarcus Russell
It’s easy to make fun of JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick for the Oakland Raiders in 2007. First of all, Raiders coach Lane Kiffin was in over his head as an NFL coach, and it was evident to anyone not named Al Davis (to Davis’s credit, he’d eventually come around). So Russell went from being a can’t-miss prospect with a cannon for an arm and an imposing stature at 6’5” and 265 pounds to a punchline in the space of two years. Russell started 25 games for the Raiders from 2007-2009, going 7-18, with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.
He’s worked out for other teams, but a weight gain, a high-profile arrest for possession of codeine syrup, and maturity issues seem to have killed any hopes Russell has of making it back to the NFL. He’s gotten himself back into shape and tried everything, but it’s been seven years since Russell took a snap in the league. It’s safe to say that JaMarcus’s time has passed. But it’s sad to imagine him out there, somewhere, just waiting for the opportunity. But at least he hasn’t spent time in prison, like our No. 1 pick.
1 Ryan Leaf
The San Diego Chargers selected Leaf at No. 2 overall (Indianapolis took Peyton Manning at No. 1) in the 1998 draft, and it looked like the NFL would have a quarterback rivalry for the ages. But Leaf couldn’t hang onto the starting job in San Diego. He had problems with drugs, with maturity, with his teammates, and had a high-profile meltdown in front of the press when a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter was trying to question him. After three seasons, Leaf was out of professional football.
His life after the NFL has been spotty, to say the least. Leaf’s drug problem was bad enough that it drove him to crime, and he fled indictment on burglary and drug charges in Texas by fleeing to rehab in Canada. After his return to the states, he was arrested twice for burglary within the span of four days and served time in prison after pleading guilty to felony burglary and drug possession. He’s out of prison and off drugs these days--hopefully for good--and working as a program ambassador for a recovery program these days.
That’s the list. If I missed someone, hit me on Twitter: @bobbymathews.