Of all the sports, football might be the most difficult when it comes to making the transition from the amateur level to the pro level. Being a star in college is no guarantee that you'll be a star in the NFL, and in the past we've seen former All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners unable to cut it on the big stage.
And of all the positions, none is more unpredictable than the quarterback. Even former first overall draft picks, such as Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell, have fallen by the wayside over the years.
The reason? The NFL is simply a different animal from college football. Suddenly you go from being a big fish in a relatively small pond to a small fish in the biggest pond there is (or in the case of Johnny Manziel, you drink like a fish). When you're in college, on any given game day you might face off against a few future NFL players, those who are bigger and faster than the rest, but when you're in the pros, everyone, of course, has NFL talent—that is, everyone is big and fast.
With that in mind, let's take a look at 15 recent players who simply couldn't cut it in the bigs, and let's see what they're up to today.
15 Jake Locker
After a stellar junior season at the University of Washington, some predicted that Jake Locker would go first overall in the 2011 draft, with one GM going so far as to compare him to NFL legend Steve Young. However, a disappointing senior year significantly lowered his stock, but he was still taken 8th overall by the Titans, with the hope that he could replace Vince Young, whose unsuccessful tenure in Tennessee had ended a year earlier.
With a QB rating of 99.4 and 4 TDs to 0 INTs in 5 games in his rookie season, there was reason to believe that he might turn out to be a solid NFL player. But things went downhill in 2012 after Locker was named the starting quarterback over Matt Hasselbeck. After sitting out more than a month due to an injury, he finished the season with underwhelming numbers, just barely surpassing 2,000 passing yards. And 2013 would be more of the same for him, as he suffered a number of injuries and struggled to find his passing touch, throwing for just over 1,200 yards.
All told, Locker's career was marked by injuries and less than stellar performances, and he eventually retired in 2015, just a few years after entering the league, explaining how he "no longer ha[d] the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living."
14 Christian Ponder
Christian Ponder's still in the NFL, so technically there's still a chance that he can change his fortune around and go from being a draft bust to a late bloomer, but so far he's given little indication that such a transformation is within his capabilities.
Drafted 12th overall in what might turn out to be one of the worst years for QB busts (Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, and Jake Locker all went in the first round, and all have turned out disappointing numbers in the NFL), aside from one standout game, wherein he broke the Minnesota Vikings franchise record for passing yards in a single game by a quarterback, Ponder failed to leave much of a mark in his first year in the NFL, passing for just over 1,800 yards in 10 starts with a QB rating of 70.1. He would show slight improvements in his second season with the Vikings, nearly reaching the 3,000-yard mark, but so far his output has been a far cry from his days with the Seminoles.
After sitting out all of 2015, Ponder will look to get his career back on track this season with the 49ers, who signed him to a one-year contract worth $800,000, but it's unlikely that he'll ever live up to the expectations that were put on him when he entered the draft.
13 J.P. Losman
J.P. Losman's last name is fitting, given that his brief tenure in the NFL was marked by defeats. Drafted 22nd overall by Buffalo, the first 1st round QB pick by the Bills since 1983 with Jim Kelly, the Tulane alum was expected to help turn the team around after a disappointing 6-10 season in 2003. That, however, would not be the case. Even though the Bills did improve to 9-7 in 2004, Losman had little to do with, attempting just 5 passes that year, having suffered a serious leg injury shortly after arriving to training camp.
Eventually he did end up becoming the Bills' starting QB, passing for a career high 3,051 yards and 19 TDs in 2006 on the way to a 7-9 record, but he would soon lose the starting role to Trent Edwards, and he was relegated to the role of backup QB for the rest of his disappointing career, which ended in 2011 after a few failed attempts to crack an NFL roster after spending a year with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the UFL.
12 Jimmy Clausen
Jimmy Clausen is listed as a free agent, so he's technically still in the league, but at this point he's as much an NFL quarterback as I'm a NASA astronaut. Unlike most of the guys on this list, he wasn't drafted in the first round, so expectations likely weren't as high for him, but his career still has to be considered a disappointment, even by second-round standards.
Like his NFL career, Clausen's college career got off to a rough start, winning just one out of his first six game with Notre Dame. But by his junior year he had evolved into an elite passer, throwing for 3,722 yards with a 161.2 passer rating, earning him mid-season All-American distinction from The Sporting News and consideration for the Heisman Trophy. But such an evolution would not take place in his pro career, as, after a miserable rookie campaign with the Panthers wherein he passed for just over 1,500 yards with 3 TDs and 9 INTs, he was demoted to the role of benchwarmer, and his fate with Carolina was sealed for good once they drafted Cam Newton in 2011.
11 Troy Smith
Even though he was a Heisman Trophy winner and led his Ohio State Buckeyes to the BCS National Championship in 2007, expectations for the undersized Troy Smith were never quite high. But, still, his virtually non-existent NFL career has to be considered a failure, given that he was once called the best Big-Ten player of the decade.
Drafted by the Ravens near the 5th round, Smith never really had a chance at the starting role, especially not once Joe Flacco came to town, attempting just 13 passes in 2008 and 2009 combined.
After a decent half-season with the 49ers, Smith's hopes of becoming an NFL starter came to an end, at which point he tried his hand in the UFL and eventually the CFL, failing to make much of an impression in either league and eventually being released by the Montreal Alouettes.
Smith, who completed his bachelor's degree while at Ohio, is now taking graduate courses and working at the university as an assistant to the Athletic Director. This comes after being pulled over for a DUI this past April, to which he plead not guilty.
10 Kyle Boller
According to the NFLPA, the average career span for an NFL player is just over 3 years. When you look at it from that perspective, Kyle Boller's nearly decade-long career seems like something of a success. But success is probably the last thing you'd call it.
Drafted 19th overall by the Ravens after finishing near the top in nearly every QB category in UC Berkeley history, his playing time in the NFL was often cut short due to injuries and inconsistent performance, playing in all 16 games of a season only once. And it was an underwhelming season, to say the least, passing for just over 2,500 yards and leading his Ravens to a 9-7 record, failing to make the playoffs despite having been considered Super Bowl contenders by some at the beginning of the year.
But it's not all bad news for Boller. Shortly before retiring he married former Miss California and Miss USA runner-up Carrie Prejean. So, you know, could be worse.
9 Akili Smith
Having played his last regular season game in the NFL in 2002, it might seem like Akili Smith’s pro football career ended ages ago, but believe it or not he didn’t take his last snap until 2007… in the CFL. And before that he played for the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe, where he started just four games.
After a couple impressive seasons at the University of Oregon, averaging nearly 3 touchdown passes per game as a senior, Akili was drafted 3rd overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1999. Here are some other stats from his career: a 46.6 pass completion percentage, 5 touchdown passes compared to 13 interceptions, just 2,212 career passing yards, and a QB rating just north of 50. With numbers more depressing than the ones you might find on a teenage slacker’s high school report card (a fitting metaphor given that Smith was suspended for a brief period at U of O because of his poor grades), it’s no wonder that he is considered by many to be one of the biggest QB draft busts in recent NFL history.
Ever since retiring from professional football, Smith has worked as a quarterbacks coach for Grossmont College as well as for St. Augustine High School. He is currently a deacon at a Missionary Baptist church and plans on completing a college degree.
8 Tim Couch
If it weren't for the Cleveland Browns, who've been struggling so much to find a QB for nearly three decades that they might soon resort to using their mascot, Tim Couch's short NFL career probably would have been even shorter.
Despite passing for more than 11,000 yards in his career and leading the Browns to a playoff berth for the first time in ages, his career was a spectacular failure by first overall draft pick's standards, compiling a 75.1 QB rating with more interceptions than touchdown passes.
To be fair, the former University of Kentucky Heisman winner is the leader, or near the top of the leaderboard, in several QB categories in Browns history, but that should probably tell you less about his abilities and more about Cleveland's lack of QB talent over the years.
After a drug scandal and several failed comeback attempts, Couch finally hung up his cleats for good and became an analyst for Fox Sports, covering SEC games. So I guess you could say he went from being a professional quarterback to a professional armchair quarterback (or perhaps, a couch quarterback? Sorry, had to do it).
7 David Carr
By some standards David Carr's career might actually seem like somewhat of success (heck, at this point Johnny Manziel would probably kill to have the kind of career that Carr had), but considering the fact that he was taken first overall in the 2002 draft after coming off a senior year at Fresno State that saw him pass for nearly 5,000 yards and earn consideration for the Heisman, successful is probably the last thing you'd call him. Bust is more like it.
Sure he passed for over 14,000 career yards (including a career high 3,531 in 2004), and sure he started nearly every game for the Texans from 2002 to 2006, but he also finished with more interceptions than touchdown passes and led the Texans to a combined record of 26-45 during the seasons in which he started every game.
As bad as he was, he still managed to play in the NFL for 12 seasons, and it really wasn't until after he had retired that people began to assess the success (or rather lack thereof) of his pro career, with many labeling him one of the worst first overall draft picks of all time.
Shortly after retiring in 2012, Carr returned home to Bakersfield, California, and took a job as the offensive coordinator for the football team at Bakersfield Christian High School, where his younger brother Darren had just been named head coach. You can also hear his expert opinion on everything football, as he is often featured as a guest analyst on NFL.com and the NFL Network.
6 Vince Young
Of all the QBs on this list, Vince Young might have had the most successful NFL career. After all, he did pass for nearly 9,000 yards, break the NFL record for rushing yards in a season by a rookie QB, and lead the Tennessee Titans to six straight wins in 2006, all on the way to winning the Rookie of the Year award, accomplishments which surely don't suggest failure.
Although his passing yards increased in his sophomore season, his rushing yards declined and his TD to INT ratio was an abysmal 9-17, and after suffering yet another injury in 2008 he finally lost the starting role to veteran Kerry Collins, who led the Titans to a surprising 13-3 record, leaving Young with an uphill battle if he wanted to win back the starting role, which he eventually did (or rather, Collins lost it by starting the 2009 season 0-6), going 8-2 to finish the season and earning a spot in the Pro Bowl.
Again, you might be asking yourself, with such impressive accomplishments, how can he be considered a failure? Despite going 30-17 in his five seasons with the Titans, Young only threw for more than 2,000 yards twice, and his career was heavily hindered by injuries and run-ins with the coaching staff, and after a brief stint in Philadelphia his career came to an early and disappointing end.
Since retiring, Young has fallen on hard times, filing for bankruptcy in 2014 despite earning over $60 million in salary and endorsement deals throughout his career.
5 Matt Leinart
Like Vince Young, Matt Leinart was a highly touted prospect heading into the 2006 draft. Not only had he won the Heisman, but he'd proven that he could perform in big games, leading his USC Trojans to a blowout victory at the Orange Bowl in 2004 and a down-to-the-wire loss at the Rose Bowl in 2005 (against Young, no less).
Like so many QBs before him, however, Leinart's success at the college level did not parlay into success at the pro level. Despite being given several chances to succeed in Arizona, he either squandered them away through poor performance or was sidelined by injuries, passing for just 1,346 yards from 2007 to 2009, leading to his eventual release in 2010.
Serving as a pioneer for Johnny Manziel in more ways than one, Leinart's failures at the pro level might be attributed to his hard partying lifestyle, as he was regularly photographed drinking and socializing when he probably should have been working on his passing game.
Like fellow college-star-turned-pro-dud Brady Quinn, after his career as a player fizzled out he turned to being an analyst as a way to make a living. I guess it's like what they say about when you can't do, teach, except in this instance it's when you can't play, talk about other people playing.
4 Brady Quinn
Speaking of Brady Quinn, he has played for almost as many NFL teams (7) as the number of career touchdown passes he threw (12), yet he's failed to find a starting spot with anyone. His entry into the NFL was made all the more disappointing by the fact that he was drafted by his home state Cleveland Browns, who signed him to a five-year $20.2 million contract. Making only one appearance in his rookie season, Quinn completed just three passes, which, when you look at his contract, means that he was paid roughly $1.35 million per completion, quite possibly the most expensive three passes in the history of the NFL.
After unsuccessful stints with several teams (including being a New York Jet for just five days), Quinn finally threw in the towel on his football career, and he's now working as a college and NFL analyst for Fox Sports.
3 Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow, the baseball player? At least that's what the former 1st round draft pick out of Florida is hoping for now that his pro football career has proven to be a failure, recently holding an open workout for Major League Baseball teams to attend.
Contrary to the predictions of many experts, Tebow actually had a pretty successful—albeit unconventional—start in the NFL. He might not have lit up the stats page, but he did help lead the Denver Broncos to the playoffs in 2011, thanks to several late-game comebacks which may or may not have been the direct result of divine intervention due to Tebow's strong faith (we're skeptical, but he did once pass for 316 yards with an average of 31.6 yards per completion in a game, evocative of the famous John 3:16 bible passage, so who knows).
After his baseball tryout on August 30 in front of 40 MLB scouts, Tebow wasn't offered a contract by any of the big league organizations, but he was invited to play for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League, an independent baseball team. So while he still has a long road ahead of him if he wants to successfully make the transition from football to baseball, if anyone's capable of performing a miracle, it's Tebow.
2 Johnny Manziel
If Johnny Manziel doesn't get his act together soon, he'll have to change his nickname from "Johnny Football" to "Johnny Unemployed." Although he's technically not a failure yet, since he's still a free agent and looking to find a spot on an NFL team, it's probably safe to say at this point that the Manziel experiment has proven to be a bust.
Drafted 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns out of Texas A&M, many questioned if the undersized Manziel, who had shown signs of character issues in college, would be able to cut it at the pro level. So far, the answer has been a resounding no.
In two seasons in the NFL, the former Aggie has played in just 10 games and started in just 6, passing for 1,675 yards with a QB rating of 74.4, not exactly what the Browns were hoping for when they took a chance on the controversial young QB. But even more troubling than what he's done (or rather, not done) on the field is what he's done off of it, finding himself in the news on more than one occasion for his hard partying lifestyle and questionable ethics, with the most recent example being his arrest following a roadside fight with his girlfriend.
Apparently he's looking to go back to school, as he is pursuing a degree at Texas A&M. Smart move, Johnny Unemployed.
1 Jamarcus Russell
Not only is Jamarcus Russell the biggest QB draft bust in recent memory, but he might just be one of the biggest draft busts of all time. Taken first overall by the Raiders in 2007, it was just a matter of years before the former LSU star was released due to poor performance and even worse physical conditioning.
After an incredible college career, finishing with a combined record of 21-4, and a stellar showing at the NFL Combine, Russell established himself as the clear favorite going into the draft, so it's understandable that the Raiders would take him over the other QB favorite in that class, Brady Quinn (not that they would have faired much better with the latter).
No one could have expected how bad he would be, especially not the Raiders, who showed their confidence in Jamarcus by giving him a huge six-year, $68 million contract. In just 3 seasons with Oakland, he passed for 4,083 yards with 18 TDs and 23 INTs for a career QB rating of 65.2, not exactly the output the Raiders were looking for to turn their franchise around.
Now seven years removed from the league, Russell is still looking to make it in the NFL, reportedly writing to all 32 teams looking for a job, even offering to play an entire season for free. Unsurprisingly, no one has offered him a roster spot, because if he couldn't do anything with a $68 million contract, why should he be expected to do anything for free.