The NFL Draft is a time for hope. Underachieving teams get a chance to turn their franchise around by selecting the league’s next superstar. Perennial contenders search for role players and hidden gems to continue their momentum. It doesn’t always work out the way the front office hopes.
Players may refuse to play for a team by threatening to hold out or try another sport. A discovery of some flawed trait, attitude problem or injury might persuade teams to trade the rights to a player they previously fell in love with.
The NFL’s longest rookie holdout since the new CBA necessitates a look at other draftees who failed to suit up for the team that drafted them. Joey Bosa, the 2016 third overall pick, has yet to sign with the Chargers. His rookie salary is set, but the sides remain far apart. San Diego wants to break up Bosa’s $17 million signing bonus and include offset language in the contract. Joey Bosa and his agent will accept one condition or the other.
The Chargers have one year to sign their first round pick. If Bosa sits out the entire season, he becomes eligible to re-enter the draft the following year. Will both sides allow this to happen? Could the Chargers trade him to avoid ending up empty-handed?
The precedent certainly exists. For whatever reason, these fifteen players shed their original team for greener pastures:
15 Jay Berwanger
Jay Berwanger, a prolific running back for the University of Chicago, was a man of firsts. Like the opening three players on the list, he never set foot on an NFL field. He’s included due to his intriguing brush with the National Football league. Nicknamed “The Genius of the Gridiron” and “The Flying Dutchman,” Berwanger was the first and only recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935. The Club renamed the award after their athletic director, John W. Heisman. Jay was also the first and only Heisman winner to be tackled by a U.S. President. Michigan defender Gerald Ford tackled Berwanger during a 1934 game. Ford is quoted as saying he still has the scar to prove it.
The Philadelphia Eagles drafted Jay with the first pick in the NFL’s first ever draft. Coach George Halas of the Bears soon acquired the signing rights. Halas balked when Jay Berwanger requested $25,000 over two years. The deal never came to fruition. Jay went into plastics instead. He also served as a naval officer during World War II.
14 Cal Rossi
The Redskins showed life last season, but they are often one of the underachieving teams with a high draft pick rather than a stable playoff presence. Even in the 1940s, the front office occasionally whiffed terribly. Their most embarrassing debacle involves wasting two top ten picks on the same player, Cal Rossi. He helmed UCLA’s ground attack, leading them to an undefeated 1946 season. The Redskins quickly assessed his skill and drafted Rossi with the 9th overall pick. One problem – Rossi wasn’t eligible. Washington bided their time, ultimately selecting Rossi third in the 1947 NFL Draft. He forwent a career with the Redskins in favor of teaching high school. Cal Rossi passed away in January of 2013.
13 Ernie Davis
Regardless of personal opinion on the “Redskins” mascot, the franchise is inarguably steeped in racist history. Team owner, George Preston Marshall, proudly resisted the move toward desegregation. Marshall was the last owner to sign an African American and he only did so under threat from John F. Kennedy’s interior secretary, Stewart Udall. If Washington did not integrate in 1962, they would not be allowed to use their new D.C. Stadium. Marshall finally relented. The team took Ernie Davis, a Syracuse running phenom and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner, with the first overall pick. Davis refused to play for the organization. Marshall traded him to the Browns for another African American halfback, Bobby Mitchell. Together with Jim Brown, Ernie Davis had the potential to form the most lethal backfield in football history. Sadly, he fell ill. Davis began experiencing nosebleeds, sluggishness and swollen glands. Doctors diagnosed him with an incurable case of leukemia. He succumbed to the disease in 1963.
12 Bobby Garrett
The remaining players have seen game action, though they still vary widely in skill and influence on the NFL. Bobby Garrett unfortunately resides on the minuscule impact side of the spectrum. Garrett was a standout quarterback, defensive back and placekicker for Stanford in the early 1950s. He became the school’s first number one pick in the 1954 draft. The Browns looked at him as the possible successor to Otto Graham. Garrett proved to be anything but. He suffered from a stutter that made play calling difficult and still owed two years of service to the U.S. Air Force. The Browns traded him to the Packers before the season even started. He played nine games for Green Bay, going 15-30 for 143 yards and one interception. Garrett is lucky to have flamed out of the NFL before Twitter critics existed. He makes a case for the biggest draft bust of all time.
11 Dimitrius Underwood
The career of Dimitrius Underwood is one of the saddest, most bizarre stories in recent NFL history. The Minnesota Vikings selected the defensive end at the tail end of the first round in the 1999 NFL Draft. His measurables were off the charts. The Vikings valued his athletic capabilities over glaring red flags. Some believe he faked an ankle injury to miss his entire final season at Michigan State. However, Minnesota was confident after hitting a homerun with the risky 1998 selection of Randy Moss. The sequel proved disastrous. Underwood signed a five-year deal on July 31st. He disappeared from training camp on August 2nd and eventually turned up at a Philadelphia hotel with $8 in his pocket. He claimed to be conflicted between football and the ministry. The Vikings granted him a release. The Dolphins quickly picked him up on waivers. That September, Underwood attempted to slit his own throat and reportedly yelled, “I’m not worthy of God.” He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent two months in protective care. The Dolphins cut Underwood after he escaped from a psychiatric care facility. Jerry Jones, who proves time and time again he will sign anyone with a pulse, offered Dimitrius a contract. Dimitrtius managed 21 tackles and four sacks over 19 games. In January 2001, Underwood attempted suicide again by running into traffic. The Cowboys released him, finally ending his football career.
10 Kelly Stouffer
The St. Louis Cardinals selected Kelly Stouffer with the sixth pick in the 1987 NFL Draft. A product of Colorado State, Stouffer threw for 7,142 yards and 36 touchdowns during his college career. He entered a stalemate with owner Bill Bidwill. Stouffer hoped for a four-year, $3.2 million deal while the Cardinals were only willing to offer $2.8 over five years. Instead of settling for less, Stouffer chose to sit out the entire season. St. Louis eventually traded his rights to Seattle two days before the ’88 draft. Bill Bidwill moved his team to Phoenix and Stouffer attempted to prove his old team wrong. He threw for 7 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in five injury-plagued seasons with the Seahawks, a far cry from his college days.
9 Tom Cousineau
The Bills traded OJ Simpson to the 49ers in March of 1978 for five draft picks over the next three drafts, including what turned out to be the number one selection in 1979. With that pick, Buffalo selected Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau. A two-time All-American, Cousineau enjoyed a storied career with the Buckeyes. He won three Big Ten titles and is still the school’s second-leading tackler with 572. He never played for the Bills. When negotiations went south, Tom fled north. He took more money to play with the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL, which is not something we'd ever see today. Cousineau wished to return to the NFL after three years. The Houston Oilers gave him a three-year $1.5 million deal. Buffalo still owned the rights and matched Houston’s offer sheet. The front office then shipped the linebacker to the Browns for future draft picks. Cousineau didn’t live up to expectations. He had 6.5 sacks and 10 interceptions in six years. His career is bookended by legendary Buffalo Bills. After coming to Buffalo on the heels of the Simpson trade, Cousineau’s departure equipped the Bills with the pick that became Jim Kelly.
8 Bruce Clark
The CFL benefited more than once from NFL holdouts in the 1980s. The Green Bay Packers selected Bruce Clark, a Penn State defensive end, with the fourth pick in the 1980 NFL draft. Due to contract disputes and an aversion to playing nose tackle, Clark took his talents to Toronto. He played two seasons in the CFL before returning. The Packers traded his rights to the New Orleans Saints. He put up solid numbers, earning a Pro Bowl selection with 10.5 sacks in the 1984 season. Clark spent one year in Kansas City after his seven with New Orleans. He finished his football career in the World League of American Football with Barcelona Dragons.
7 Cornelius Bennett
Cornelius Bennett, the 2nd overall pick in the 1987 draft, was considered the best linebacker in his class. The Colts efforts to sign him to a rookie contract fell through. On Halloween, the Colts, Bills and Rams agreed on one of the most massive trades in NFL history. It involved four players and six total draft picks. Cornelius Bennett wound up in Buffalo, and Eric Dickerson, in a hold out of his own, came to Indianapolis. Bennett shined with the Bills. He played on all four Super Bowl teams, was named to five Pro Bowls, and compiled 52.5 of his 71.5 career sacks. His inclusion admittedly stretches the parameters of the list. He played his final two seasons with the Colts, retiring after the 2000 season. Still, the return occurred a whopping 12 years after refusing to step on the field for Indianapolis. Peyton Manning was 11-years-old when the Colts drafted Bennett. He was their starting quarterback by the time Bennett finally donned the uniform.
6 Frank Tripucka
Frank Tripucka excelled during his career with Notre Dame and came off the board ninth in the 1949 NFL Draft. The Eagles traded him to the Detroit Lions before the season started. Tripucka struggled on three different teams for five years in the NFL. He spent the bulk of the 1950s playing in the Canadian Football League. Eight years after his final NFL snap, the American Football League began its inaugural season. Tripucka found a home on the Denver Broncos in the new pass-happy league. He threw the AFL’s first touchdown and passed for over 3,000 yards in his first season. Tripucka retired after the 1963 season. The Broncos retired his No. 18 and inducted him into the Ring of Fame. When Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos, Frank Tripucka proudly gave him permission to bring the number out of retirement.
5 Rich Gannon
Joe Flacco is not the only NFL quarterback to play college football at Delaware, but he certainly had a different path than another Blue Hens’ product. No one would ever draft Flacco with the intention of converting him to running back or safety. That is what the Patriots saw in Rich Gannon after selecting him in the fourth round of the 1987 Draft. When Gannon heard about New England’s plan, he told them he would not report to mini-camp. The Patriots responded by trading him to the Minnesota Vikings. Gannon fought for opportunities and playing time during tenures with the Vikings, Redskins and Chiefs, but finally proved his original team wrong when he joined the Oakland Raiders. Even as an aging veteran, Gannon won the 2002 MVP award. Of course, the Patriots may feel they had the last laugh. They knocked him out of the playoffs the prior year in the infamous Tuck Rule Game.
4 Philip Rivers
The first 11 picks of the 2004 Draft produced three Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks: Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Thanks to the Draft day trade between the Giants and Chargers, Rivers and Manning are destined to receive comparisons throughout the careers. San Diego chose Manning with the first overall pick. He refused to play from the very start. The Chargers had no choice but to send him to New York for a bundle of future picks and Philip Rivers. At first glance, The Giants won the trade. Manning delivered with two Super Bowls. Big Ben also has two rings. Rivers is the only one to fail in that regard. However, if you look at their stats since Philip became a starter in 2006, he compares favorably. Manning has 39,382 yards, 264 touchdowns and 173 interceptions. Rivers has 41,299 yards, 280 touchdowns and 135 interceptions. Not to mention, the Chargers ended up landing Nate Kaeding (K) and Shawne Merriman (OLB) with their extra draft picks. Super Bowls are everything, but the lack of championships in San Diego stems from the franchise’s expertise in futility more so than having Rivers instead of Manning. Both have proven to be tremendous players.
3 Eli Manning
The sports world gave Eli Manning plenty of flak for his facial expression after Peyton’s Broncos clinched a Super Bowl victory. Maybe he was jealous. Now tied for rings, Eli lost the only advantage he held over his older brother. Perhaps he just knows better than anyone that a game is never over until it’s over – he has 27 career 4th quarter comebacks, tied for 9th most in NFL history. Either way, longtime fans know he has been perfecting his pout for years. It was on full display during the 2004 Draft. The Chargers selected him and he dragged his feet on stage like a six-year-old being denied the cookie jar. As discussed in Rivers’ section, his unyielding resistance to the Chargers organization paid off. He became the starting quarterback for the Giants, leaving a slew of what-ifs in his wake. For example, Peyton Manning might have weighed signing with the Broncos differently if Eli played in the same division. The theoretical scenarios are endless. The reality is simple. Manning continues to thrive in New York.
2 Bo Jackson
Bo knows. He knew he never wanted to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and he told them so. Owner Hugh Culverhouse and the team had ruined relations with Jackson when they flew him in for a physical on a private jet. The trip caused Bo to lose his eligibility in the middle of Auburn’s baseball season. He felt the Bucs purposely tampered with his eligibility in order to avoid losing him to baseball. Tampa Bay, after all, had the number one pick in the 1986 NFL Draft. The team selected Bo against his wishes. Jackson never came close to signing. He played baseball for the Kansas City Royals instead. The Raiders took a chance and drafted Bo Jackson in the seventh round of the next year’s draft. Al Davis convinced him to play football (in-between baseball) for Los Angeles. Bo did not disappoint. A physical force of nature, he is still the only athlete to be named to both an All-Star Game and a Pro Bowl. He had a career average of 5.4 yards per carry. In three of four seasons, Jackson posted a run over 88 yards. The astronomical performances were fleeting. In a January game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bo Jackson dislocated and fractured his hip on a 34-yard carry. He never played football again.
1 John Elway
The 1983 NFL draft was absolutely loaded with quarterback talent. If the Baltimore Colts had heeded Elway’s warnings and picked another signal caller – Marino or Kelly – they could have sparked new life into the franchise. Instead, Bob Irsay and Coach Frank Kush selected John Elway with the first overall pick. Elway held a news conference and declared his intention of playing baseball for the New York Yankees. The Colts couldn’t afford to call his bluff. They sent the future Hall of Famer to Denver in exchange for Chris Hinton (OL), Mark Hermann (QB), and a future pick, which the team used to draft Ron Solt (OL). Hermann managed 16 touchdown passes in his journeyman career. Elway threw 300. He led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances, winning two consecutive championships to end his storybook career. John eventually rejoined Denver as the Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager. He constructed the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 team with Peyton Manning behind center. It must have looked awfully familiar to Colts fans. Another one of their number one picks rode off into the sunset wearing Denver colors.