Some would argue the NFL season starts with the draft. During mid-April or early-May, fan optimism is rampant as teams pick a handful of declared collegiate players who may (or may not) be the difference makers in the upcoming season or seasons to come. No round of the draft receives more scrutiny than the first round. Players selected with the first overall pick, in the top five, ten and so forth, are considered the cream of the crop and look to be compensated accordingly. As a result, team management, experts and fans constantly evaluate every aspect of a first rounder’s game in the short and mid-term to determine whether he was worth the pick.
Time is the ultimate determinant if a first round pick was worth his spot, however. Sometimes first round players waste little time in establishing their merit and contribute right away or soon thereafter. Other players waste considerable amounts of time for both the team and fans alike with little to show for their first round selection. Notwithstanding, every NFL franchise has that first round pick who proved to be a reach, a franchise setback or that one player—in some cases two—who severely underperformed. Let’s check out the worst first round pick for each NFL franchise. And yes, it’s a quarterbacks’ league!
The St. Louis Cardinals had their quarterback in the 1987 NFL Draft—so they thought. The Cardinals spent the sixth overall pick in the draft on Colorado State’s Kelly Stouffer. Stouffer was coming off a college season that saw him throw seven TDs and 14 INTs, a regression from the previous two years. Nevertheless, Stouffer immediately held out over his contract believing the Cardinals were low-balling him given what quarterback Chris Miller—the 13th overall pick in the draft—was receiving from the Atlanta Falcons. Stouffer missed his entire rookie year and was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for fifth and first round picks in the ’88 and ’89 drafts, respectively. Stouffer played sparingly for the Hawks, recording 2,333 passing yards, seven TDs and 14 INTs for his career.
Linebacker Aundray Bruce was a collegiate force, garnering South Eastern Conference, All-American and bowl accolades enroute to the 1988 NFL Draft. NFL team scouts and management had no choice to take notice when pundits christened Bruce the next Lawrence Taylor. The Atlanta Falcons used their first overall pick on the former Auburn standout. However, the Falcons experienced buyer’s remorse when Bruce had difficulty learning their defensive schemes. Bruce started all 16 games in his rookie year but regressed both physically and mentally as the season advanced. His second season was no different and he was demoted to a back-up role for his remaining two seasons with the team. Remarkably, Bruce remained in the NFL for seven more years with the Oakland Raiders as a back-up linebacker.
Figuring they’d already won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer and let the likes of Elvis Grbac, Tony Banks, Jeff Blake man the quarterback position with moderate success, the Baltimore Ravens went all-in on the 2003 NFL Draft. The Ravens traded their 2003 second round pick and their 2004 first round pick for the New England Patriots’ 2003 first round pick (19th overall). In turn, the Ravens selected quarterback Kyle Boller. The Boller experiment lasted five injury- and bench-filled seasons with running back Jamal Lewis shouldering the offensive load. Boller had a record of 20 wins and 22 losses as a starter to go with 45 TDs, 44 INTs and a 71.9 quarterback rating. Boller spent five years with the team, until the Ravens got it right at QB and drafted quarterback Joe Flacco in the 2008 NFL Draft.
The Buffalo Bills looked to improve their perennial poor defense by selecting heralded Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau with the first overall pick in the 1979 NFL Draft. However, Cousineau had dreams of the Great White North and was signed for double the money by the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, ultimately leaving the Bills with a wasted pick. Cousineau spent two seasons with Montreal until forgoing his final two contract seasons and slinking back to Buffalo. Still scorned, the Bills traded Cousineau to the Cleveland Browns for a first round pick (14th overall) in the 1983 NFL Draft. Cousineau started four out of six seasons for the Browns. As for the Bills’ first round pick in the 1983 draft, it was quarterback Jim Kelly—who bolted for the USFL instead of signing with the Bills! Kelly’s story turned out better than Cousineau’s, however.
Poor performance, attitude and injuries are one thing but murder takes the bust label to another level. Hoping to provide then burgeoning quarterback Kerry Collins with a receiving weapon, the Carolina Panthers selected Colorado wide receiver Rae Carruth with their first round pick (27th overall) in the 1997 NFL Draft. Carruth delivered a decent rookie season (545 yards and four TDs); however, a foot injury derailed his second year. In his third year, Carruth fled the team and the state after it was suspected he conspired to kill a woman who was pregnant with his child. The woman died from her injuries but the child survived. Carruth was later caught and tried for conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder on an unborn child. Suffice to say, the Panthers released Carruth.
The Chicago Bears were starved at the quarterback position heading into the 1999 NFL Draft. After names such as Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith and Daunte Culpepper went off the board, the overzealous Bears traded up and used their newfound first round pick (12th overall) on UCLA’s Cade McNown. On paper McNown looked like a world beater, averaging 3,000-plus yards and 25 TDs for his last two years in college. However, McNown’s PAC-10 exploits did not carry over to his Bear endeavors. McNown was horrid while being brought along slowly and then thrust into starting duty, posting 3,116 passing yards, 16 TDs, 19 INTs and 14 fumbles. McNown bounced between starter and backup until finally being traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2001. He didn’t play another regular season down in the NFL thereafter.
One can only speculate what could have been, had the Cincinnati Bengals taken the New Orleans Saints’ insane trade offer of nine picks to move up to the third overall spot for running back Ricky Williams in the 1999 NFL Draft. Instead the Bengals rewarded their own steadfastness by selecting Oregon quarterback Akili Smith to be their franchise quarterback. Smith was dreadful his first season as he did not grasp the Bengal playbook due to missing most of training camp after a lengthy holdout. Smith’s second season was no different and he was benched after 10 games as starter and went on to start two more games the next two seasons, posting three wins and 14 losses as a starter, 2,212 passing yards, five TDs and 13 INTs in 22 overall games. In hindsight, the Bengals should have picked Ricky Williams for themselves.
The Cleveland Browns get the two-fer treatment for their 2011 first round picks. Hit on one and you’re at 50 percent, right? Not quite—it is the Browns, after all. Running back Trent Richardson (3rd overall) was not entirely terrible (1,317 total yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs) but drew the coaching staff’s ire during the latter part of the season for sluggish play. He was traded the following year for scraps, and hasn't played in the NFL since the Colts cut him after the 2014 season. Anyone for a re-do given Doug Martin (first round), Lamar Miller (fourth round) or Alfred Morris (sixth round) were available?
Quarterback Brandon Weeden, who turned 29 years-old during the 2012 season, was drafted with the 22nd pick. Russell Wilson (third round) and Kirk Cousins (fourth round) and even Nick Foles (third round) would have looked and fared better than Weeden did during his two-year stint (5,116 passing yards, 23 TDs and 26 INTs).
In case of settling, the Dallas Cowboys missed out on a certain wide receiver out of Mississippi Valley State who went on to be considered the greatest of all time. With the 17th overall pick in the 1985 NFL Draft, the Cowboys were in prime position to draft Jerry Rice. The 49ers, however, had other ideas as they worked out a trade with the New England Patriots and moved up to the 16th spot nabbing Rice. The consolation for the Cowboys was defensive end Kevin Brooks. Brooks didn’t make the team as a starter until his third year in the league. When Brooks finally started showing flashes of potential he was traded to the Denver Broncos who in turn released him a few months thereafter.
The Denver Broncos were confident they picked their defensive tackle of the future in Ted Gregory during the 1988 NFL Draft. In fact, they were so confident of their first round pick (26th overall) that all they had to do was skim his draft biography sheet and conclude the 6’11” Syracuse product was their guy! The only problem was that Gregory was really 5’9” tall as discovered after the draft by then head coach Dan Reeves, who was a true 6’11” tall. Making matters worse was that the team’s new Shetland Pony was sporting a bum knee and reinjured it during Broncos training camp. The Broncos traded Gregory, who lasted three NFL games, to the New Orleans Saints before season start. More importantly, the Broncos started interviewing prospective draftees before the draft. Good idea!
There are so many to choose from! Yet, the one that sticks out is quarterback Andre Ware. Ware, a former Heisman Trophy Winner out of the University of Houston, lit up the Southwestern Conference with 4,499 passing yards and 46 TDs in 1989. The Detroit Lions thought those numbers would carry over to the NFC North and selected the Cougar with their seventh overall pick in the 1990 draft. The Lions, in their infinite wisdom, already had two serviceable quarterbacks in Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer who played hot-potato with the starting position. As a result, Ware rarely played unless games were out of hand or the Lions were out of the playoff hunt. Ware started six games during his four seasons with the team until being released in 1993.
When a team uses an overall number two pick in the draft, especially with the likes of Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders, Steve Atwater, Andre Rison and Derrick Thomas amid the first round, that player better be special. Tackle Tony Mandarich was a special player at Michigan State but he was a man amongst boys given his regimen of steroids, painkillers, alcohol and uppers. That regimen got the better of him in the pros as he was unable to live up to match performance with hype post-draft in 1989. Mandarin was relegated to special teams for his first year. He floundered as a starter for the next two seasons until being cut by the Packers in 1992. He would return to NFL with the Indianapolis Colts after a stint in drug rehab. However, he wouldn't be able to shake the bust label.
David Carr is at a disadvantage with his selection as the Houston Texas worst first round draft pick. First, he’s the very first pick of an expansion franchise that’s only been in existence since 2002. Second, his offensive line was a wreck as evidenced by the average of 50 sacks per year he endured during his five seasons with the team. To note, Carr holds the NFL record for most times sacked in a season with 76 takedowns in his first year. Suffice to say, Carr was oft-injured due to his porous offensive line during his second season as a starter. Even though Houston’s offensive line started shaping up in 2006, he was booted out of town even while leading the league in completion percentage (68.3%). Unfortunately, someone had to be the fall-guy and that’s usually the quarterback.
"Don’t pick me!" Stanford quarterback John Elway told the flailing Baltimore Colt organization just that prior to the 1983 daft. Nonetheless, Baltimore—winless the previous season—selected Elway with the first overall pick. True to his word, Elway refused to sign and set up a stalemate between him and the Colts. As a result, the Colts sought and found a trade suitor in the Denver Broncos. The Broncos sent tackle Chris Hinton—their fourth overall pick in the 1983 draft—a backup quarterback and a 1984 first round pick in exchange for Elway. The Broncos reaped the benefits with five Super Bowl appearances, two of those ending in championships, and gained a Vice President and general manager of football operations who facilitated an additional championship in 2015. As for the Colts, Hinton’s seven pro bowls and lone All Pro selection don’t quite equate.
The 2011 NFL Draft may prove to be one of the best drafts in recent memory. Cam Newton, Julio Jones, J.J. Watt and Richard Sherman are just a handful of the talented players the draft produced. That’s what made the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first round pick (10th overall) so puzzling. The Jags traded up six spots and pulled the trigger on Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, hoping he would be the second coming of Mark Brunell—only right handed. Gabbert proved to be nothing of the sort, winning only four games and losing 10 as a starter. Moreover, he was pummelled for 40 sacks while fumbling 14 times. Although the Jaguars didn’t have the talent to help him, Gabbert didn’t progress much further and was traded to the 49ers a few years later.
The 1983 NFL Draft was the stuff of quarterback legend: Elway, Marino, Kelly, O'Brien, Eason and ... Blackledge? The Kansas City Chiefs went buck-wild with their seventh overall pick and selected Todd Blackledge—ahead of Dan Marino and Jim Kelly—figuring he could at least provide Tony Eason-type production. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, Blackledge went off the ledge when assuming starting duties in his second year. The Penn State product completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 1,707 passing yards, six TDs and 11 INTs. Blackledge sputtered through the next three years with Kansas City until finding his way as a backup for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Given that Blackledge was drafted before Kelly and Marino, Kansas City was—and still is—left with “What if?”
Ryan Leaf is the poster boy for NFL draft busts. What amplifies matters is who was drafted before him—Peyton Manning. Pundits were torn as both were considered the best—and equal—players of the 1998 draft. To guarantee one of the two signal callers, the San Diego Chargers traded up to get to the overall number two spot. Manning was selected first by the Indianapolis Colts and the Chargers selected Leaf. Leaf was abysmal in his first season (1,289 passing yards, 2 TDs and 15 INTs) due to his lack of preparedness, clashes with coaches and poor attitude. He missed the 1999 season due to injury but picked up his 2000 season (1,883 passing yards, 11 TDs and 18 INTs) where he left off in 1998. Leaf was released after the 2000 season and ran into several off-field problems, failing to catch on with a handful of other teams. As for that Manning guy…
The warning flags for running back Lawrence Phillips were whipping in the wind at Nebraska. However, separate charges of assault, burglary, vandalism didn’t stop the then St. Louis Rams from using their first round pick (6th overall) on the oft-troubled back in the 1996 NFL Draft. In addition, the Rams traded Jerome Bettis to the Pittsburgh Steelers to make room for their new draftee. Phillips posted adequate numbers in his first year and looked poised for a breakout in his second season. However, he was released after 10 games for showing up drunk to a pregame warmup. Phillips bounced from the NFL, NFL Europe and to the CFL until he was sent to prison for several counts of assaults in 2008. In 2016, Phillips was found dead in his cell of an apparent suicide.
For two consecutive NFL Drafts, the Miami Dolphins spent a first round pick (both 16th overall, ironically) on defensive ends. Although their 1987 pick—John Bosa—was considered lackluster, it was the Phins' second pick in 1988 that raised the most eyebrows—Ohio State’s Eric Kumerow. Kumerow was a colossal bust, never starting a game for Miami during his three seasons with the team. His contribution? Five sacks and a lone interception. Miami’s history would be different had they flipped the script and helped the defense and quarterback Dan Marino with a better running game. Kumerow was selected over running backs Lorenzo White, Craig Heyward and, more astonishingly, Thurman Thomas. Had Miami selected any one of the latter they may have reached another Super Bowl.
It’s easy to replace a wide-receiver who averaged 82 receptions, 1306 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns a season—right? That’s what the Minnesota Vikings were thinking after trading a disgruntled Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders for a first round pick (7th overall) and a seventh round pick in the 2005 NFL draft in addition to linebacker Napoleon Harris. In turn, the Vikings used their newly acquired first round pick on South Carolina standout receiver, Troy Williamson. Williamson failed to catch on—literally—with the Vikings offense recording 79 receptions, 1067 receiving yards and three touchdowns … over three seasons! He was jettisoned out of Minnesota by way of trade to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth round pick and lasted only two seasons before calling it quits.
Even one of the greatest franchises of all time is not devoid of first round ineptitude. One could reference their miss on Dan Marino in 1983, or their bypass of Jerry Rice in 1985. Still, their first overall selection of defensive end Ken Sims in 1982 is the one that hurts the most. Sims’ nickname of “Game Day” denoting his lack of practice intensity should have foreshadowed the problems to come. Sims didn’t become a regular starter until his third year in the league. He only played a full season once in his eight seasons with the Patriots and recorded 17 sacks in in 74 games. Sims had several off-the-field problems with failed drug tests and cocaine possession, the latter being what led to his eventual release in 1990.
You hear it in jest every year during Fantasy Football drafts: “I’m going kicker in the First Round, yo.” The New Orleans Saints did just that—only in real life—during the 1979 NFL Draft when they selected kicking specialist Russel Erxleben out of Texas. With a name sounding like your grandma’s gout medicine, Erxleben bolstered his pre-draft stock with a handful of field goals of 60-plus yards during his Longhorn tenure. Hook, line and sinker, the Saints were convinced Erxleben would be a formidable addition to their revamped offense. However, Erxleben didn’t win the starting job as kicker and was demoted to punting duties. In short, the Saints got a return of four field goals (on eight attempts) in five seasons out of their first round investment.
The New York Giants forfeited their 1993 first round pick to draft Duke quarterback Dave Brown in the 1992 NFL Supplemental Draft. The Giants felt thought they had the heir apparent to veteran quarterback Phil Simms. Brown gained experience quickly when Phil Simms as well as backups Jeff Hostetler and Kent Graham went down with injuries in his first season. Brown served as backup until Simms’ retirement in 1993 and became the fulltime starter. The results were not pretty even though the Giants narrowly missed a playoff berth.
The following two seasons saw Brown go a combined 11 wins and 21 losses while throwing 23 TDs and 30 INTs. Each year the Giants were at or near the bottom in Total Team offense. Brown was benched in 1997 in favor of the similarly unimpressive Danny Kanell and subsequently let go by the Giants.
Chicks dig the long ball and scouts love the bench press. Defensive end Vernon Gholston put on a clinic at the 2008 draft combine pressing 225 pounds for 37 reps, running the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and leaping 35.5 inches vertically. His reward? The New York Jets selected the Ohio State standout sixth overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. The Jets’ reward? A player who played mostly special teams, started five games, registered 16 tackles and recorded zero sacks.
It was quite the deviation from his NFL combine profile: “He is still a raw talent that gets by on his athletic ability, but in a few years, with patient coaching and more experience, he has the potential to change the game, much like Abraham, Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis) and Jason Taylor (Miami) have done playing in that role.” The Jets released Gholston in 2011.
The Raiders had not spent a first round draft pick on a quarterback since Todd Marinovich (24th overall) during the 1991 NFL Draft. If you don’t know how that turned out, then just perform an Internet search. Still, the Raiders used the overall number one pick on LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell in the 2007 NFL Draft. Russell immediately held out and missed training camp, which never bodes well. Suffice to say, it had a detrimental impact on Russel’s development as he never fully grasped the playbook. In his second season, Russell limped along finishing with a record of five wins and 10 losses. He came into his third season in 2009 battling four other quarterbacks for his starting position due to his weight gain, regression (3 TDs, 11 INTs) and lack of work ethic. The Raiders finally released Russell after the 2010 season.
University of Chicago running back Jay Berwanger has the distinction of being the first Heisman Trophy winner in 1935, then known as the Downtown Athletic Club trophy. More importantly, he was the very first draft pick in NFL history as selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1936. However, Berwanger went Jerry Maguire on the Eagles and demanded $1,000 per game as salary. Unable to meet his demands, Philadelphia traded Berwanger’s rights to the Chicago Bears for tackle Art Buss. Similarly, Berwanger and the Bears were unable to come to an agreement and Berwanger took various jobs throughout the Chicago area, never playing a down of professional football. As for the Eagle’s acquisition, Art Buss played a total of two seasons before retiring in 1937.
The normally calm, cool and collected Steelers were in panic mode after watching three of their desired potential selections go off the board in consecutive order during the 1991 NFL Draft. The by-product of that panic was Florida linebacker Huey Richardson who Pittsburgh selected with the 15th overall pick. Richardson’s collegiate exploits did not mesh with the Steeler’s defensive scheme at the time. As a result, Richardson only started five games during the 1991 season and played mostly on special teams. Richardson avoided being cut outright by Pittsburgh and was traded to the Washington Redskins for a seventh round pick in the 1992 draft. Richardson only lasted a handful of games before being traded to the New York Jets and ending his career after the 1992 season.
Yes, there is the draft debacle of quarterback Jim Druckenmiller (26th overall) in the 1997 draft. But when a franchise has two first round picks—like the previously mentioned Cleveland Browns—they have to get one right, don’t they? The San Francisco 49ers, with the first and 10th overall picks in the 1953 NFL Draft, selected tight end Harry Babcock and linebacker Tom Stolhandske, respectively.
Understandably, the game was much different in the 1950s. However, Babcock recorded a total of 16 catches for 181 yards over three years with quarterback Y.A. Tittle averaging 2,200 passing yards per season. As for Stolhandske, he had one interception and a fumble recovery as his only recorded stats during his only year as starter—and as a pro—in 1955.
The Seattle Seahawks whiffed on their first round pick (16th overall) of quarterback Dan McGwire in the 1991 NFL Draft. Looking to make amends, the Hawks selected touted Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer second overall in the 1993 draft. Tabbed ‘the second coming of Joe Montana,’ Mirer performed better than McGwire because Seattle chose to stick with the former for so long. There were flashes of Mirer’s potential in his first year as starter but things got progressively worse over the next three years as he posted 20 wins and 31 losses while throwing 41 TDs and 56 INTs. He was eventually traded to the Chicago Bears for a fourth round pick in 1997. Who was Seattle’s replacement at quarterback for the 1997 season? It was Warren Moon, who was then 41 years-old.
Bo knows grudges! Two-sport phenomenon and Tecmo Super Bowl legend Bo Jackson was being recruited heavily the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986. The Bucs management flew Bo to Tampa Bay for a tryout, stating that such a trip would not violate NCAA rules and potential jeopardize Jackson’s Auburn baseball season. However, the trip did cause Bo to miss half the baseball season. To make matters worse, Jackson learned the Bucs never contacted the NCAA. Simply put, Jackson told the Bucs not to pick him in the 1986 NFL Draft.
Undeterred, the Bucs selected Bo first overall. Jackson, true to his word, sat the NFL season out and chose to play for the Kansas City Royals instead. Jackson reentered the 1987 NFL Draft and was selected by the Los Angeles Raiders in the seventh round (183rd overall).
It could be argued that Adam Jones was the Tennessee Titans’ worst first round pick given his off-field problems. However, quarterback Vince Young edges out “Pacman” Jones based on position and performance. Young burst into the NFL on the heels of one of the greatest National Championship performances ever, leading Texas over the USC Trojans. The giddy Titans selected Vince Young third overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, certain that he was their franchise quarterback. Curiously, Young won Rookie of the Year honors with 2,199 yards passing, 12 TDs, 13 INTs and a 66.7 quarterback rating. He took a step back during his second year and embarked on a quarterback carrousel with Kerry Collins and Rusty Smith due to injury and coaching clashes until finally being released in 2011.
Cal Rossi was an outstanding athlete for the University of California, Los Angeles. He played both running back and defensive back for the Bruins from 1944 to 1947. Moreover, Rossi was an above baseball player as well. Rossi continually filled the sports page box scores with his exploits. Rossi impressed so much so that Washington Redskins owner George Marshall decided to use the Redskins 9th overall pick on the talented Bruin, even without a draft scouting report. There was one problem—Rossi was ineligible due to his then junior status and the pick was wasted. In the 1947 NFL Draft, the Redskins used their 4th overall pick on Rossi, again. However, Rossi enlisted in the United States Navy, thus wasting another first round pick—on the same player!