We think we know. We talk like we know. We don't know.
Football pundits across the country every Spring will tell you who is a sure-fire talent in the NFL and who is not. Sometimes they're right, more often they're not. For a variety of reasons some guys with all the physical tools to be successful don't pan out. Some have even given us multiple seasons of greatness, seemingly on top of the football world, only to fall off the face of the Earth.
Below is our list of 15 players we thought were destined for greatness. It's a sad story when potential success is cut short by injury, so we've taken care to omit those guys. Yes, some of the names below have struggled with getting hurt, but chiefly it's a series of bad decisions on and off the field that will always have us wondering with these guys. All-Pro? Hall of Fame? How good could these guys have been?
15 Rae Carruth
Like others on this list, Rae Carruth's career was derailed by crime. If we were to reorder based on the heinousness of those crimes, the former Carolina Panthers wide receiver would be number one. He was selected as the 27th overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft out of Colorado and as a rookie did not disappoint. His first season in the NFL he tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions among rookies.
His sophomore campaign was cut short in week one of the 1998 season due to a broken foot. Carruth returned to the field with high expectations in 1999, when his career came to a quick end.
November 16th, 1999 Carruth was involved in the shooting death of his girlfriend Cherica Adams who was carrying their child at the time. Citing a morality clause, the Panthers released the promising receiver on December 16th. He was later convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child. He was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison. Carruth has a projected release date of October 22nd, 2018.
14 Justin Blackmon
Unlike Carruth, maybe Justin Blackmon still has a shot at a career in professional football.
Justin Blackmon was the number five overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and for good reason. He was a two-time unanimous All-American and the 2010 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year at Oklahoma State. One season into his NFL career, it appeared that Blackmon was destined for greatness. While with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he led all NFL rookies in catches, yards, and first downs. Then the wheels started to come off.
On April 20th, 2013 Blackmon was slapped with a four game suspension for violating the NFL's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. He served his suspension, rejoined the Jaguars, and looked like the best receiver in football. His first game back he caught five passes for 136 yards. The next week he pulled in 14 catches for 190 yards. Then the wheels officially came off.
November 1st, Blackmon again violated the NFL's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. The league announced he could apply for reinstatement before the 2014 season. He managed to get arrested for marijuana possession before that. In May of 2015, the league denied reinstatement. Four months later the Toronto Argonauts showed interest. Three months later he was arrested for DUI.
So, we'll see.
13 Art Schlichter
Art Schlichter got in deep with some bad people. And it likely cost him a career in professional football.
In three years at Ohio State, Schlichter finished in the top three of Heisman Trophy balloting. He was the last quarterback to play under legendary Buckeyes head coach Woody Hayes and left the school as the all-time leader in offense. He was the number four pick in the 1982 Draft. He threw a total of three touchdowns in the NFL.
Schlichter was selected by the Baltimore Colts and was deemed the quarterback of the future. Owing to a gambling problem, he had blown his signing bonus by the midway point of the season. By the end of the 1982 NFL strike, Schlichter was $700k in the hole.
Dangerous bookies, the FBI, and a gambling addiction that wouldn't quit followed, and Schlichter was out of the NFL by 1985. He's been in trouble with the law since, and is currently serving a federal sentence resulting from a multi-million dollar ticket fraud scheme.
12 Adam "Pacman" Jones
The tale of Adam Jones is maddening, because he's just so damn talented.
"Pacman" was selected by the Tennessee Titans with the sixth pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. He enjoyed a career at West Virginia where he was named First Team All-Big East and the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year in 2004. Jones had multiple run-ins with the law at WVU, but would stay out of trouble as a professional.
As a rookie Jones was one of just two cornerbacks to start more than 10 games, and he racked up over 1,300 on special teams. The February after his rookie season he was arrested outside his home for felony and misdemeanor counts of obstruction of justice.
This has been a familiar theme throughout Pacman's career. Flashes of greatness on the football field juxtaposed against incident after incident involving law enforcement. Jones hit rock bottom following an altercation at a Las Vegas strip club in 2007 in which a patron was shot. Jones as suspended for the entirety of the 2007 NFL season.
He has since revitalized a career thought lost at one point. In 2015 he was named to a Pro Bowl as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. Still, many wonder the heights to which Pacman could have soared were it not for his many off the field issues.
11 Braylon Edwards
2007, Braylon Edwards' third season in the NFL, made us all think that this guy was going to be a dominant receiver in the league for years to come.
That season the Michigan product collected 16 scores as the number one option in the passing attack with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was named to the Pro Bowl that year and broke franchise records with 1,289 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. That would be the best version of Braylon Edwards that we would ever see.
The next season he lead the league in dropped passes with 23. Decreased productivity in 2008 and again in 2009 led to a trade with the New York Jets. In 2010, Edwards racked up 904 receiving yards, his most since the 2007 season, but was not retained by New York. Three more forgettable seasons, with the 49ers, Seahawks, and again with the Jets followed. He did not total more than 15 catches in any of those seasons.
10 Vince Young
The hype was there. Vince Young was on top of the world after winning the national championship as quarterback of the Texas Longhorns. He was the number three pick of the Tennessee Titans in the 2006 NFL Draft, but stardom never materialized.
Things began promising enough. Young started 13 games as rookie, was named to the Pro Bowl, and was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. The next season despite a sub par performance from Young, the Titans limped into the playoffs. Then we began to dismiss the thought that he could be the future of the franchise.
Four largely forgettable seasons followed. Young would play three of those in Tennessee, then was under center for six games with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. After six seasons in the NFL, largely marred by personal and financial issues and inconsistent play, the first player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season was out of professional football.
9 Tony Mandarich
Today's younger fans won't know his name, but perhaps no player in NFL history entered the league with more hype than Tony Mandarich.
Mandarich was the number two overall pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1989 after a career at Michigan State that ended with Sports Illustrated calling the 6-foot-6, 330 pound tackle "the best offensive line prospect" ever.
Accusations of poor work ethic, steroid use, and an addiction to drugs and alcohol plagued Mandarich through his shortened career. He was cut by the Packers in 1992, and spent four years out of football before catching on with the Indianapolis Colts for three serviceable if unremarkable years. Mandarich goes down as one of the biggest disappointments in football and a lineman who could have been a true force in the NFL.
8 Albert Haynesworth
For his ten seasons in the NFL, no player was more frequently accused of not playing hard than Albert Haynesworth.
The 6-foot-6, 350 pound defensive tackle should have been one of the most dominate defensive players of his era. He just didn't feel like it. The former Tennessee Volunteer got his first shot with the Titans. Two of those years he was named to the Pro Bowl, and he turned those successes into a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins.
What followed was two seasons of refusal to participate in workouts, and publicly questioning the defensive schemes of the Redskins coaching staff. Many have called the Haynesworth deal the worst free agency move in NFL history. His second season in Washington he appeared in just eight games, totaling 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He played 13 more games in his disappointing career, six with the New England Patriots, and seven with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
7 Aaron Hernandez
Time will decide what kind of legacy Aaron Hernandez leaves. Unquestionably, he is a killer, destined to live out the rest of his days in a Massachusetts maximum security facility for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd. The only thing up for debate is how long people will remember his contributions on the football field.
He was a talented athlete for his brief time in the league. There's no debating that. In fact his three seasons with the New England Patriots were so productive that he earned five-year contract extension that included a $12.5 million signing bonus, the highest ever given to a tight end.
Hernandez is largely wiped from the collective memory of football fans today. 175 catches, 1,956 receiving yards, 18 touchdowns, and a life sentence. Hernandez's story is over.
6 Brian Bosworth
One could argue that this guy turned himself into a superstar of sorts even if that title wasn't earned on an NFL field.
Most football fans know the story of "The Boz." He's the rare player that was so good, and so coveted, that he felt he could dictate where he played as professional. In fact, prior to the 1987 Draft, the Oklahoma Sooners linebacker sent letters to multiple teams that if they drafted him, he wouldn't show.
Brian Bosworth would join the Seattle Seahawks, courtesy of the 1987 Supplemental Draft, and enter the league with higher expectations than any linebacker in league history. He played in just two NFL seasons compiling 160 tackles, four sacks, and three fumble recoveries. The two-time consensus All-American is often considered one of the biggest draft "busts" of all time.
5 Ryan Leaf
Speaking of busts....
Listen, there's no way a list of wasted NFL potential can be compiled without including the name Ryan Leaf. Arguably, he could be at the top of any such list. What people often forget, though, is that the hottest sports debate of 1998 was regarding who should be chosen first overall in the NFL Draft. Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning?
It all seems so simple now. Manning is on the short list of greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. In 1998 however, many draft pundits thought Leaf to have the stronger arm and greater upside. Ultimately, the Washington State product would be selected second by the San Diego Chargers, while Manning was the first overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts.
It didn't take long for Leaf to fizzle. A hot temper, fueled by his inability to perform on a high level made for a short stay in San Diego. Leaf played in a grand total of 21 games for the Chargers, starting 18. He threw 13 touchdowns versus 33 interceptions before he was released by the team that drafted him.
Tampa Bay was going to give him a shot, but he refused a fourth string job. He was the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys for four games in 2001, losing them all, before his NFL career came to an end.
Since the end of his playing days, Leaf has run afoul of the law for a variety of drug related offenses. He has been incarcerated multiple times, most recently in 2014.
4 Ricky Williams
To hear Ricky Williams tell it, he has no problem with his NFL legacy.
Still, fans often wonder how good the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner out of Texas could have been. The New Orleans Saints bet big on him. New Orleans traded eight picks in the 1998 NFL Draft to move up and select Williams. He spent three seasons with the Saints, increasing his productivity each year, rushing for 1,245 yards in 2001. Still, New Orleans elected to trade him to the Miami Dolphins for four draft picks in 2002.
Ricky's career would peak his first season in Miami. He was name First Team All-Pro after leading the league with 1,853 rushing yards. That's the best Ricky we would ever see. Multiple suspensions for marijuana use would keep him off the field. He'd spend parts of six seasons in Miami before joining the Baltimore Ravens for a year and calling it a career. Williams never quite achieved superstar status, and today is still Miami's franchise leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a season.
3 Jamarcus Russell
Few quarterbacks have entered the league with greater size, speed, and a more impressive skill set than JaMarcus Russell. And few have failed in such spectacular fashion.
6-foot-6, 265 pounds with a rocket arm, the LSU product looked like he was the future of the quarterback position. The NFL had never seen a QB with his physical attributes. He was predictably impressive at the 2007 NFL Combine and was the number one overall pick of the Oakland Raiders at April's draft.
His first season in Oakland, Russell appeared in four games. The next year he'd start 15, and Raider fans saw flashes of greatness from Russell. Despite struggling to hold on to the football (Russell fumbled 12 times in 2008), he would end the season on a high note. The Raiders won their last two contests and Russell threw six touchdowns against two interceptions.
In 2009 however, things fell apart. Russell struggled with his weight and would finish the season with the lowest quarterback rating, lowest completion percentage, fewest passing touchdowns, and fewest passing yards among eligible quarterbacks in the league. Russell was out of the league after the '09 season. Multiple comeback attempts would fall short, and his legacy is now one of wasted talent.
2 Lawrence Phillips
Lawrence Phillips' story is a sad one. A wasted talent, and a wasted life. The number six pick in the NFL Draft out of Nebraska in 1996, some teams passed on him citing "character issues." Nevertheless, the newest Los Angeles Rams running back started his professional career in impressive fashion.
His rookie year, Phillips tallied 632 yards on the ground. His second season started even better, Phillips surpassed that total through 10 games. Then he was abruptly cut by the Rams who cited his inability to stay out of trouble off the football field. Then Los Angeles head coach Dick Vermeil said Phillips may have been the best running back he had ever coached.
Phillips would only play another 10 games in his NFL career, two with the Miami Dolphins, eight with the San Francisco 49ers. He would also spend time in NFL Europe, and in the CFL and AFL. He was finished with professional football by 2003.
His story would have a tragic end. Phillips was convicted of multiple felonies spanning four years stemming from incidents involving domestic violence against a former girlfriend, and driving his car into a group of people following a dispute during a pickup football game. While in prison he is suspected to have murdered his cellmate. On January 15th, 2016 he was found dead in his cell in what a coroner later determined was a suicide.
1 Michael Vick
Michael Vick's inclusion on this list may be curious to some. Undoubtedly he has had multiple superstar moments throughout his 13 season NFL career. When you talk about the potential left on the table though, no one did less with more than Michael Vick.
In 2007 Vick was on top of the football universe. Daily debates between football fans centered around whether Vick's style as a running quarterback was sustainable in the NFL. He certainly looked destined for greatness. The Atlanta Falcons QB finished the 2006 season as the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season. Then it all came crashing down.
Vick's involvement in a dog fighting operation would lead to federal imprisonment and the loss of two NFL seasons. He'd return to the league and play a couple of impressive seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, even making a Pro Bowl in 2010, but was unable to recapture the electricity of the player he was in Atlanta. After Philly, Vick spent a season with the Jets, and another with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has announced that 2016 will be his last season capping out a career that while impressive, will fall short of the Hall of Fame induction so many of us thought was a certainty.