Literally hundreds of college football players enter the National Football League via the draft every year, and many go on to have Hall-of-Fame careers and become some of the greatest to ever play in the league. Peyton Manning impressed scouts, analysts and fans throughout his collegiate career at the University of Tennessee, and he later became arguably the greatest regular-season quarterback in the history of the NFL. Barry Sanders won the Heisman Trophy while playing for Oklahoma State, and he then exceeded expectations during his tenure with the Detroit Lions. Roger Staubach, Tim Brown, Charles Woodson and Marcus Allen are other examples of men who excelled in college and then became Superstars while featuring for teams on NFL Sundays and playing for pay.
For each of those cases, however, there are also a plethora of individuals who became famous and even household names for their achievements in college but who then struggled or were even downright terrible in the NFL. College QBs often fail to make the transition to the NFL because NCAA offenses are moreso meant to produce points than prepare those signal-callers for the pros, and, thus, it shouldn’t surprise you that this particular list is dominated by those who played that position. History has taught us that a QB winning a Heisman and establishing himself as the best college player of any given season does not always indicate he will do well in the NFL. In fact, some of the biggest draft busts in NFL history happen to be Heisman winners.
15 Vince Young
The highlight of Vince Young scrambling into the end zone in the final minute of the 2006 Rose Bowl to win the national championship for the Texas Longhorns will be replayed every January during bowl season. Young, widely viewed as one of the best offensive players in college football history, showed promise with the Tennessee Titans and even won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
His career seemingly fell off a cliff after that year, however, as he reportedly feuded with head coach Jeff Fisher and found himself on the bench in 2008. Even a solid 2009 season couldn’t save what was already a doomed run with the Titans, and Young failed to establish himself as a proven product with the Philadelphia Eagles before he became a forgotten piece of NFL history.
14 Robert Griffin III
Odds are you probably know the story about Robert Griffin III. RG3 won the Heisman Trophy while serving as the quarterback of the Baylor Bears during the 2011 season, and he then earned Rookie of the Year honors during his debut campaign with the Washington Redskins. Multiple injuries to his right knee that he suffered late in the 2012 season put into motion a sequence of events that eventually landed him on the bench, and rumors that he was a diva and a “locker-room cancer” weren’t silenced when he was put on the scout team in 2015.
Griffin then suffered a significant shoulder injury during the first game of the 2016 season while playing for the Cleveland Browns. He is currently unsigned and likely viewed by at least some in the NFL as damaged goods.
13 Trent Richardson
Running back Trent Richardson set Alabama records and also played on multiple national championship sides during his time with the Crimson Tide. Richardson then looked like a future star during his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns, as he ended the 2012 season with 950 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
That ended up being the peak of what became a terrible pro career, though. The Browns traded him two games into the 2013 campaign, a move that angered many within the Cleveland fan base but one that ended up being nothing short of brilliant. The Indianapolis Colts got little, if anything, out of Richardson, and numerous comeback attempts from the former college standout stalled before they really began. He was last with a franchise in the summer of 2016.
12 Charles Rogers
On paper, Charles Rogers had the goods to become an elite NFL wide receiver and a franchise player for any team that drafted him. Some even compared him to Randy Moss before he debuted with the Detroit Lions in 2003. Rogers never teased becoming the talent Moss was even when at his worst, as the second overall pick of the 2003 NFL Draft struggled with durability and also with off-the-field issues.
It also didn’t help his cause he wasn’t very good when tasked with playing against NFL defensive backs. Rogers caught 22 passes in five games before his rookie season ended prematurely due to injury, and the Lions ultimately waived him before the start of the 2006 campaign. He never found a home with any other team.
11 Courtney Brown
Perhaps defensive lineman Courtney Brown would have had a better NFL career had he been selected by a different franchise. Brown was a star playing up front for the Penn State Nittany Lions, so much so that it made all kinds of sense when the Browns grabbed him with the first pick of the 2000 NFL Draft.
Unfortunately, Brown struggled to make the transition from wearing blue and white in college to wearing orange and brown in the NFL, even though he did accumulate nine total sacks in his first two seasons. Injuries stalled his career throughout his time with the club, and he was largely an afterthought during the 2004 campaign that proved to be his last with the Browns. One positive for Brown is that he isn’t the biggest draft bust in Cleveland history. Always look on the bright side of life.
10 Troy Smith
Even when Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2006 as the quarterback for the Ohio State University, there were questions about if his skills would be good enough to allow him to become a star in the NFL. Those questions proved to carry a ton of merit.
Smith’s athleticism couldn’t make up for his lack of size, and he appeared in only 14 games for the Baltimore Ravens before the franchise that drafted him decided to move on from the experiment. While he showed glimpses of promise during a stint with the San Francisco 49ers, the Niners cut him after he appeared in only six games. Smith never again caught on with any other franchise even though he later tried to resurrect his NFL career as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
9 Eric Crouch
Some quarterbacks who win the Heisman Trophy never get true opportunities to become starting signal-callers in the NFL. Eric Crouch won that award in 2001, and he also set records while at the University of Nebraska. For whatever reasons, including the fact some scouts viewed the six-foot athlete as being too small to play the position in the NFL, the St. Louis Rams elected to attempt to move him to wide receiver.
That proved to not work out for either the team or the player, as Crouch never played a single down of regular-season football for the club. Crouch is now viewed as a draft bust, but one cannot help but wonder what might have been had the Rams or some other franchise given him a chance to prove himself at his natural position.
8 Ki-Jana Carter
History tells us that NFL teams may want to think twice before drafting Penn State running backs. Ki-Jana Carter is one of several backs who found great success and made national headlines while carrying the football for the Nittany Lions but who ended up being a bust in the NFL.
The Cincinnati Bengals selected Carter with the first pick of the 1995 NFL Draft, but his career spiraled downhill when he tore a ligament in his knee on only his third snap of his first pro preseason. That injury proved to be too much to overcome, as Carter never became a Superstar for the Bengals even though he did rush for 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons following the injury setback. Injuries are part of the business, which is why we have to mention Carter here.
7 Tony Mandarich
It’s rare to see any offensive lineman among a list of amazing college football players who failed spectacularly in the NFL. That says plenty about tackle Tony Mandarich, who was known as “The Incredible Bulk” heading into the 1989 NFL Draft because he was such a dominant force up front for Michigan State.
Mandarich ended up being labeled “The Incredible Bust,” as issues with work ethic and also admitted problems with drug and alcohol use ensured he would never reach the high expectations so many had for him when the Green Bay Packers drafted him. While he eventually enjoyed a second stint in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, he never showed himself worthy of such a high draft pick even after he conquered the personal problems that sunk his Green Bay tenure.
6 Ryan Leaf
So much has been made about Ryan Leaf failing as a pro that his successes at Washington State have become somewhat lost to history. Leaf was a Heisman Trophy finalist, and it was believed he was, at the very worst, the second best quarterback in the 1998 NFL Draft alongside Peyton Manning.
While Manning went on to become a legend of the game and a two-time Super Bowl champion, Leaf proved to be emotionally and psychologically unprepared for life in the pros. He struggled with numerous issues on and off the field, and he even spent time behind bars. Leaf eventually found peace away from football, and he now lectures younger athletes, and other individuals, about all that he did wrong during his younger days before things went horribly south.
5 Ron Dayne
Football fans of a certain age may remember when running back Ron Dayne won the Heisman Trophy while playing for the University of Wisconsin and when he showed glimpses of promise during his first season with the New York Giants, during which he rushed for 770 yards and five touchdowns. Dayne found the end zone on the ground seven times the subsequent season, but any hopes that he could be the next great Big Blue back quickly faded away, in part, because of his reported issues with his weight.
While there were times during his career when it appeared as if he was going to eventually develop into a serviceable back, it was never meant to be for one reason or another. Dayne is now remembered as a Giants draft bust.
4 Jared Lorenzen
Because of his issues with weight and the humorous nicknames linked to him such as “The Hefty Lefty,” among others, some may not even realize just how good Jared Lorenzen was while under center for the Kentucky Wildcats. In fact, Lorenzen set offensive records while at the school, and he even managed to eclipse some marks set by Tim Couch. Multiple factors, most notably his size, prevented him from becoming much of anything in the NFL, as he never even flirted with becoming a starter in the pros.
He did, however, manage to earn a Super Bowl ring as a backup to Eli Manning, and nobody can ever take that from him. Lorenzen last played pro football in indoor leagues, but his legacy will always be that he was the “Pillsbury Throwboy” among Big Blue fans who adore him to this day.
3 Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow did it all in college. He was a two-time national champion, he won the Heisman Trophy and he set numerous records while at the University of Florida. The early days of his NFL career seemed promising enough, as he gained a reputation for leading the Denver Broncos back from behind during games, and he even guided the club to a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unfortunately for Tebow, opposing defensive coordinators and other clubs eventually learned his mechanical flaws weren’t correctable, and he bounced around a trio of teams after his time in Denver before he found himself out of the NFL. He's currently trying to make it in the minor leagues through the farm system of the New York Mets. Best of luck, Tim.
2 Johnny Manziel
The legend of “Johnny Football” will likely exist longer than the NFL career belonging to the man attached to that nickname. Johnny Manziel became a celebrity for his achievements at Texas A&M, which included notching a victory over Alabama and winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. The Cleveland Browns were hoping to get the version of Manziel who heroically carried A&M back to an incredible comeback win versus Duke in his final collegiate performance, but the franchise instead acquired a young man allegedly troubled with addiction issues and other personal demons.
Manziel lasted only two seasons in the NFL before the Browns released him, and he hasn’t played in the league since the 2015 campaign. As of the summer of 2017, it's believed his career is over.
1 JaMarcus Russell
JaMarcus Russell will likely always go down as the biggest single draft bust in NFL history, which makes it easy to forget he won numerous accolades and awards while at LSU. Most notably, Russell earned the Manning Award for 2006, and he was the MVP of the 2007 Sugar Bowl. When you think of Russell, though, you probably envision the first-overall draft pick of the Oakland Raiders who struggled to keep control of his weight and who threw more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (18) when he was actually on the field for the club that selected him.
Russell never found a long-term home in the NFL after the Raiders cut him following the 2009 regular season, and his name now usually tops lists of talented college players who flopped in the NFL.
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