It's a sad occurrence that happens in just about any team sport out there. Injuries, attitude, or a combination of those two factors and others could cause an otherwise great player, or a Hall of Famer in the making, to fade into obscurity and/or wrap up their career much sooner than they should. The NBA has examples such as Brandon Roy, the MLB had Mark Prior earlier this century and Dizzy Dean, among other "sore arm" sufferers, way back in the pre-war era. This is also something that happens in combat sports (one need look no further than Ronda Rousey), and sports entertainment (Paige being a very recent example, if rumors are to be believed).
Moving over to the NFL, the league's long history has seen so many instances where such potential or erstwhile superstars rapidly flame out due to one reason or another. In most of the cases in this list, injuries were to blame, though you'll see a few examples where the flame-outs were mostly, if not exclusively, on account of the player in question. With that said, let's look at 15 NFL players who would have been great, or were already great, before quickly and unexpectedly "disappearing into oblivion."
15 Shawne Merriman
In his first three NFL seasons from 2005 to 2007, linebacker Shawne Merriman had a combined 39.5 NFL sacks. Certainly that would have put him on the path to Canton, as he was named a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in each of those three seasons for the then-San Diego Chargers. Oh, and there’s also the matter of that sack dance. It seemed like there was nowhere to go but up for this youngster.
Most fans know how this sad story turned out, as a myriad of injuries, including multiple ligament tears in his knees, limited Merriman to just 33 games — that’s little more than the equivalent of two seasons — between 2008 and 2012. He was slower, more tentative, and much less impactful than he was in those memorable first three seasons, and he was retired by 2013, not even 30-years-old and only able to add 6 more sacks in his last five, injury-riddled seasons.
14 Cedric Benson
It took a while for Cedric Benson’s NFL career to really get going, but when it did, he was good for three straight 1,000-yard seasons, and a combined 19 rushing touchdowns from 2009 to 2011. It was still less than what was expected from the 4th pick in the 2005 draft, and it didn’t get him to the Pro Bowl either, but at least he was giving the Bengals much more than the disappointing production the Chicago Bears got from him after picking him so high.
Despite performing well in Cincinnati after his troubled beginnings in the Windy City, the Bengals chose not to re-sign Benson for the 2012 season. Playing for comparative pennies on the dollar, Benson, then 30, suited up for Green Bay in 2012, but his season (and his NFL career, too) was over after five games due to a foot injury. He’s since found himself in trouble with the law multiple times, including a DUI arrest in 2017 where he notoriously failed to recite the alphabet past the letter G and count past the number 3.
13 Sterling Sharpe
For the most part, it’s the younger Sharpe brother, Shannon, whom football fans talk about, considering his status as a Hall of Famer and visibility as an NFL sportscaster and analyst. But way back in the day, it was Sterling Sharpe whom people were expecting to be a shoo-in for Canton. For seven NFL seasons, the talented wide receiver more than lived up to expectations as the 7th-overall draft pick in 1988, making five Pro Bowls and being named to three All-Pro teams. His 1994 season was especially productive, as he scored a career-high 18 TDs to go with 1,119 receiving yards.
That was the last time Sharpe ever played in the NFL, and he was barely shy of 30 when his career abruptly ended due to a neck injury he suffered late in the 1994 season. Granted, wide receivers tend to slow down once they reach their early 30s, but Sharpe was far too young to retire from the NFL after what had been a brilliant career thus far. Nowadays, Sharpe spends his time playing golf, nearly qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open.
12 Greg Hardy
Like some of the other players in this list, Greg Hardy was not highly regarded in the NFL draft, as he was only a 6th-round pick in 2010, going to the Carolina Panthers. Then again, a number of factors had caused him to drop from potential 1st-rounder to Day 2 pick, and he was out to prove his doubters wrong. In 2012 and 2013, the former Ole Miss defensive end was a bona fide star, combining for 26 sacks and 120 tackles. Then came a highly publicized domestic violence arrest in 2014 which saw him deactivated for all but one game that year, and suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season.
At that time, he was with the Dallas Cowboys, and it didn’t take him long to clash with teammates and head coach Jason Garrett, as he proved to be a toxic locker room presence and then some. He’s now out of the NFL and trying his luck in mixed martial arts, where he has a 2-0 record so far against no-names from the amateur ranks.
11 Kyle Turley
Despite going “only” 6’5” and about 300 to 310 pounds, Kyle Turley made up for his lack of bulk with unusual athleticism for a man his size, and was picked 7th-overall in the 1998 NFL draft. Playing for the New Orleans Saints, Turley played multiple positions on the line, and was an All-Rookie selection, a two-time All-Pro, and simply put, one of the most talented and versatile O-line players of the early 2000s. His long hair, rock ’n’ roll attitude, and often controversial conduct on the field also made him quite a popular player among fans in the Big Easy.
Things would go downhill, however, when Turley was traded to the St. Louis Rams for the 2003 season, and signed to a big extension. But that was also where injuries, particularly concussions and a bad back, began to take their toll on his game. He was out for all of the 2004 and 2005 seasons and played just 14 games combined in 2006 and 2007 before retiring. He was only 40 when doctors diagnosed him with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2015.
10 Byron Leftwich
With his great size (6'5"-250) and cannon arm, Byron Leftwich practically fell into the Jacksonville Jaguars' laps in the 2003 NFL draft; instead of picking 8th, a technicality resulted in the Jags picking 7th and getting the Marshall quarterback as a potential superstar behind center. Blaine Gabbert was a flop over a similar timeframe, and the jury might still be out on Blake Bortles, and compared to those two disappointing 1st-rounders, Leftwich was definitely making the Jags coaching staff happy with his progress in his first three seasons. Then ankle issues reared their ugly head in the 2006 season, and he never was the same player again.
To cut the long story short, Leftwich returned to the NFL in 2007 as a journeyman, as he bounced from team to team while always riding the bench behind someone else, even a certified draft flop like Joey Harrington in Atlanta. Like so many players in this list, he's a classic example of "what could have been," a player whose career started so solidly before injuries began taking their toll.
9 Barry Foster
Although he was sometimes known in the early ‘90s as “the other Barry” in the NFL (as the Detroit Lions had the far more established Barry Sanders), Barry Foster made quite an impact for the Pittsburgh Steelers, even if it was just for one season. And what a 1992 season it was for the former 5th-round pick, as he rushed for an AFC-leading 1,690 yards, as well as 11 touchdowns. Foster proved that those numbers weren’t a fluke in 1993, as he rushed for more than 700 yards and 8 TDs by the ninth game of the season, but soon found himself sidelined with injuries.
After yet another abbreviated season in 1994, the injuries were too much for the young running back to handle, as he failed to make the Carolina Panthers in 1995 due to a failed physical. He retired from football at the tender age of 26, perhaps thinking it was better to quit while he was still barely ahead...
8 Steve Slaton
After a star-studded three-year run with the West Virginia University Mountaineers, Steve Slaton was picked by the Houston Texans in the 3rd round of the 2008 NFL draft, and wasted little time making an impact for the team, as he rushed for close to 1,300 yards and scored on 9 rushing TDs in his rookie season. So far, so good, until he decided to work on getting bigger for his sophomore campaign. That compromised his speed and his productivity, and by the end of the 2009 season, he had “flash in the pan” written all over him.
Slaton would play two more seasons off the bench for the Texans, but to put things in perspective, he combined for 113 rushing yards in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, as he got very little playing time behind Houston’s new breakout star at RB, Arian Foster. That’s less than a tenth of his rookie rushing yardage!
7 Albert Haynesworth
Seven years, $100 million. That’s how long Albert Haynesworth was signed for, and how much the Washington Redskins paid to get his services after a dominating two-year stretch where he made the Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro with the Tennessee Titans. To say the Redskins overpaid for a star defensive tackle with character issues is an understatement, and he’s still the “gold standard” when it comes to bad free agent signings, due to the myriad attitude, weight, conditioning, and work ethic issues he showed while playing in the nation’s capital.
By the time the Redskins finally got rid of the player who had become derisively known as “Fat Albert,” he was only worth a fifth-round draft pick, which is what the New England Patriots gave up to acquire him in 2011. He was waived four months later, and didn’t last much longer with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which is where he saw his final NFL action during the second half of the 2011 season.
6 Don Majkowski
A few years before Brett Favre emerged as the Green Bay Packers’ franchise QB, there was the Majik Man, Don Majkowski. A mere 10th-round pick in the 1987 draft, he looked like the latest in a parade of mediocre Packers quarterbacks who’d come nowhere near the legendary Bart Starr’s accomplishments. But in 1989, he shocked everyone by passing for 27 touchdowns and leading the NFL in passing yards with a total of 4,318. The usually-pathetic Packers finished 10-6 that season, and the Majik Man seemed to be on his way to a great NFL career.
Unfortunately, that changed just one year later, when Majkowski suffered a torn rotator cuff, and while he was back in the starting lineup in 1992, Favre would supplant him early on and make the Atlanta Falcons (who originally drafted him the year before) pay for giving up on him so quickly. Majkowski played four more seasons after the Packers cut him, spending most of his time on the bench and never regaining the form that made him the NFL's most surprising success story of 1989.
5 David Boston
The 8th-overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft, David Boston had a quiet rookie year for the Arizona Cardinals before breaking out in his second year, then posting some unbelievably gaudy numbers in 2001, as he caught 98 passes, 8 of them for touchdowns, on 1,598 yards. That was good enough to get him to the Pro Bowl, and while his numbers were way down in 2002, the San Diego Chargers saw no problem signing the talented wide receiver to a seven-year, $47 million contract.
Despite putting up numbers that were merely satisfactory in 2003, Boston proved to be a thorn in the side of San Diego’s coaching staff, as the Chargers sent him to Miami in 2004 for a sixth-rounder. Ouch. Speaking of ouch, it was injuries that were responsible for ultimately ending Boston’s career after the 2005 season, but attitude, as well as a steroid suspension and a DUI arrest, also played a part in his quick and painful fall from grace.
4 Ickey Woods
As a second-round pick in the 1988 NFL draft, Ickey Woods may have been pegged for some success, but no one expected him to break Cincinnati Bengals rookie rushing records. No one expected him either to be a pop culture phenomenon, as he was thanks to his “Ickey Shuffle” post-touchdown dance. All in all, the Ickey Shuffle was performed 15 times in the 1988 season, as the colorful young running back was named first-team All-Pro as a rookie. As it turned out, there would only be 12 more Ickey Shuffles to come in the three seasons that followed.
Due to a variety of injuries, including an ACL tear in the 1989 season, Woods’ star in the NFL had faded quickly, and he was only 26-years-old when he retired following the 1991 season. Older fans will still remember that goofy end zone dance of his, but who knows if Woods would have Ickey Shuffled his way to the Hall of Fame, had it not been for his injuries?
3 Scott Norwood
Wide right. Those two words unfortunately define Scott Norwood in the NFL, as his potential game-winning field goal at Super Bowl XXV fell off target, allowing the New York Giants to escape with a narrow win, and leading to three more Super Bowl losses for the Buffalo Bills. Yes, it’s the “wide right” moment at the Super Bowl that people think about when the name Scott Norwood is mentioned, and that’s why it’s easy to forget he was a solid placekicker up to that point, and even good enough in 1988 to be named All-Pro and play in the Pro Bowl.
Granted, Norwood wouldn’t cut the mustard if he was a placekicker in today’s NFL, as his field goal range was mostly on the short side. But once again, his career was more than decent before “wide right,” though we can’t blame him for retiring in shame after the Bills cut him in the aftermath of their (first) Super Bowl loss.
2 Greg Cook
For the oldest example in this list, we’re going to have to go all the way back to 1969, when Cincinnati Bearcats QB Greg Cook was selected 5th-overall by the hometown Bengals as a potential franchise superstar. Undoubtedly, he lived up to the hype, as he passed for 15 TDs and 11 INTs, and compiled an amazing-for-the-era 88.3 QB rating as a rookie. He was a hands-down choice as the AFL's last-ever Rookie of the Year, but little did fans know he was playing through a serious shoulder injury for most of the season.
Sadly, that was pretty much it for Cook, as he attempted just three passes after the AFL-NFL merger. Combined with other injuries, his torn rotator cuff forced him out of football after multiple surgeries, and a brief comeback in 1973 yielded those three pass attempts before he retired a second, and final time. Who knows how good he could have been, had medical technology been as advanced in the ‘70s as it is today?
1 Robert Griffin III
You knew you had to see him somewhere in this list, and here he is, comfortably in the number one spot, almost like the Ryan Leaf to Andrew Luck's Peyton Manning. (Relatively speaking, of course.) You probably know how the story goes by now – Robert Griffin III, fresh off a Heisman Trophy, fresh off being picked 2nd-overall in the 2012 draft, had a rookie season for the ages, fell victim to the sophomore jinx, then saw his career derailed by injuries. And while he missed the entire 2017 NFL regular season, it wasn't because he was hurt – it was because nobody wanted to touch him with a 10-foot pole after the Browns cut him.
Yes, we can agree that RG3 probably would have had a better NFL career had he not suffered from injury problems early on. But it's not like he's had a positive locker room attitude and a good work ethic either, two things that could have helped him sustain his rookie success and bounce back strong after getting hurt.