Failing a drug test really can tarnish a player’s reputation, and it could really stump a career. A lot of times players are able to return without issue, but it doesn’t always work that way. Failing a drug test can really hurt a player’s image. Some of the guys on this list have experienced that. This list includes some of the best athletes to ever play in the NFL, and the league’s two best defenders of all time. Some of these guys blatantly broke the rules, while others it wasn’t so clear. Sure, some of these guys may have used supplements to get ahead and improve their game. But that’s not always the case.
With the ever-changing landscape of NFL policies and supplements, some guys may have actually broke the rules without being aware of it at the time. There’s a fine line between what is good and what is bad. One example comes from GNC, who recently had its commercial pulled from the Super Bowl lineup because it sells supplements that are not acceptable for use in the NFL.
The guys who follow on this list aren’t bad guys (for the most part), and it will surprise you to see some of the names who show up. But these guys are the best players among hundreds of guys who have been suspended in NFL history. A few guys are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and all of these guys were stars in the NFL at one point. From worst to best, we rank the top 15 players who have been caught "using."
15 AQIB TALIB
Aqib Talib has been suspended three different times but only once for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and was suspended for four games while playing for the Buccaneers in 2012. Talib released a statement saying that his suspension was a result of testing positive for Adderall. Subsequently, Tampa Bay traded Talib to the New England Patriots.
Talib’s career has trended upward since he left Tampa Bay. In 2013, he made his first Pro Bowl with the Patriots and has made the Pro Bowl each year since while playing in Denver. Last year, he was also a first-team All-Pro selection. He did turn 30 last season, but there’s no reason to think Talib won’t keep getting better. So far, he’s played nine seasons and has recorded 33 interceptions with nine pick-6s.
14 TODD SAUERBRUN
Kickers, especially punters, normally don’t show up on the best-of lists. But let’s give a punter some credit for once, he had a lengthy career and went to the Pro Bowl multiple times. But kickers normally don’t fail league drug tests. But Todd Sauerbrun had done just that back when he was still in the league. In 2006, when Sauerbrun was playing in Denver he was suspended for four games. Sauerbrun was suspended after testing positive for a banned dietary supplement. Sauerbrun was a good punter. He was so good out of college that he was drafted in the second round of the 1995 draft.
Sauerbrun played in the NFL through the 2007 season and was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. He was consistent and a star at the punting position, which is why he made this list compared to some of the other guys who were left off.
13 TAMBA HALI
Tamba Hali, who was suspended for one game back in 2012 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, became a big name while heading into the 2006 draft because of his story about escaping from war-torn Liberia when he was just 10 years old. Though he was considered to be somewhat small for a NFL linebacker at the time, he was drafted 20th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Hali really broke out during the 2010 season as he led the AFC with 14.5 sacks. From 2011 through 2015, Hali was selected to the Pro Bowl five-straight seasons. He only started two games last season, but still has a good career to look back on even if he doesn’t get much playing time going forward.
12 LE’VEON BELL
Le’Veon Bell has missed time during the last two seasons because of suspensions. Bell’s first league violation came in 2015 when he was arrested with then-teammate LeGarrett Blount on DUI and marijuana possession charges. In 2016 he was suspended again, he said on Twitter that it was because he missed a drug test.
Bell, however, seems to have the skill to go down as one of the NFL’s best running backs in history. Bell might be one of the most talented guys in playing in the NFL nowadays, but he just can’t stay active long enough to truly be named one of the league’s best. Bell played and started the entire 2014 season. During that season he was a Pro Bowl selection and was a first-team All-Pro selection. He also made the Pro Bowl last season despite only playing 12 games. Bell is a really good rusher and he’s a good receiver too. In the 2014 and 2016, he had about 80 receptions each year. But he was suspended for four games each of the last two seasons and in 2015 he was injured and only saw six games of action.
11 KEVIN WILLIAMS
Kevin Williams was a six-time Pro Bowl selection who was drafted ninth overall in 2003 by the Minnesota Vikings and he played all the way through 2015. His first and only suspension came in 2011, when he was suspended for two games. That suspension came after a court battle that started back in 2008 when he received a four-game suspension for using a diuretic that could have been used as a masking agent for steroid use, which could have been in a weight-loss supplement that Williams had been taking.
But other than that suspension, Williams had a very good career. He was named to the 2000s All-Decade Team and was a first-team All-Pro selection five times. He finished his career with 63 sacks, nine forced fumbles and five interceptions.
10 JAMAL LEWIS
Jamal Lewis was suspended for two games in 2004 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. But Lewis had a full career as a great running back in the NFL. He managed more than 1,000 rushing yards seven times in his 10-year career (2000-2009) and he even had a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2003. In 2003, he led the league with 2,066 rushing yards and averaged 129.1 yards per game. But that 2003 season was the only one where Lewis made the Pro Bowl. It was more than deserved as he averaged 129 rushing yards per game that season. Lewis finished his career with an average of 81 yards per game.
Part of the problem with Lewis was that he wasn’t much of a receiver out of the backfield. By the end of his career he averaged just 1.7 receptions and only 14 receiving yards per game. He totaled 58 rushing touchdowns in 10 seasons but just four receiving touchdowns.
9 RICKY WILLIAMS
Ricky Williams was really talented but he got busted for smoking weed and that kept him from having a full career. His stats could have been amazing if it weren’t for the NFL’s hard stance against marijuana. In 2004, after testing positive for marijuana, Williams chose to retire rather than face a four-game suspension. Williams returned and apologized in 2005. Then, in 2006 he failed another drug test and was suspended for an entire season so he took his talents to the CFL.
But Williams did rush form more than 10,000 yards for his career. He even had more than 1,000 rushing yards in 2009, but his two seasons after that were pretty terrible. But he finished as one of the 29 guys in NFL history who have rushed for more than 10,000 yards, so, he’s got a pretty good career to look back on.
8 ROBERT MATHIS
Robert Mathis was suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season for violating the league’s drug policy. He issued a statement a day later claiming that the violation was due to unapproved fertility drugs to conceive a child. Mathis ended up missing the entire 2014 season, but it wasn’t due to the violation of league rules. While working out on his own, the linebacker tore his Achilles tendon and was sidelined for the rest of the year.
Mathis has had a lengthy and good career. He’s been in the league since 2003 and has played every season for the Colts. He’s made the Pro Bowl five times and led the league in sacks with 19.5 in 2013. In all, he’s recorded 123 sacks, 54 forced fumbles and even has three touchdowns.
7 HALOTI NGATA
This guy has been in the NFL since 2006 and hasn’t made the Pro Bowl in a few years, but he’s still producing for the Detroit Lions. In 2014 as Haloti Ngata was in his final year with the Ravens, he was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Ngata, who played in Baltimore from 2006 through 2014, was a five-time Pro Bowl selection (2009-2013) and a two-time first-team All-Pro selection (2010 and 2011). Ngata was the 12th overall pick by the Ravens in the 2006 draft, and he has not disappointed.
Ngata isn’t a Hall of Famer like some of the guys that show up at the top of this list, and he’s not on pace to reach that elite status. But he’s had a very good career and if he can recover from his most recent injury, there’s a chance he’s got a couple more good years left.
6 VON MILLER
In July 2013, it was reported that Von Miller was going to be suspended for six games. Miller then came out and said that he did nothing wrong and appealed the suspension. Miller lost the appeal as he reportedly attempted to cheat ta drug test. That has been Miller’s only suspension while in the NFL, and that’s a good thing because he’s one of the best defenders to watch on gameday.
Miller is just so talented. He was part of the Broncos championship winning team, and was a big part of the win and was named the Super Bowl MVP. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year back in 2011 and has been named to the Pro Bowl five times. The only time he wasn’t a Pro Bowl selection was in 2013.
5 ANTONIO GATES
Antonio Gates was suspended for the first four games in 2015 for violating the NFL’s rules on performance enhancing drugs. It was Gates only violation, but it’s a dark mark on an otherwise very successful career. Gates had a rough year in his rookie season back in 2003. The year after, he had nearly 1,000 reception yards and 13 touchdowns. He went on to make the Pro Bowl, which he did for eight seasons in a row. During that time, Gates was one of the leading receivers who were redefining the way that tight ends played the game. Gates went from collegiate basketball player to a star in the NFL. Gates has proved not only to be one of the best tight ends in the game, but also one of the best athletes.
4 JULIUS PEPPERS
Julius Peppers is one of the best NFL players of all time but he did violate the league’s drug policy in 2002 when he played for the Carolina Panthers. He was suspended for four games that year. Peppers is still showing up as a Pro Bowler during the 2015 season at age 35.
Peppers is a nine-time Pro Bowler and has crazy numbers on the stat sheet. He’s been the NFC Defensive Player of the year and he burst into the league in 2002 as the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Peppers was named to the 2000s All-Decade Team and he has the fifth most sacks in NFL history. The coolest stat in his long resume is his most blocked kicks in NFL history – 13. He’s also got the longest pick-6 by a defensive lineman – 97 yards.
3 MICHAEL IRVIN
Michael Irvin, also known as The Playmaker because of his big play ability, always showed up in very meaningful ways during big games. That’s part of the reason he is so high on this list. That and the fact that he was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. Irvin was a huge factor in each of his three Super Bowl wins and was named to the 1990s All-Decade Team.
It was unfortunate that Ivrin’s career was ended because of a spinal cord injury in Philadelphia, but he still goes down as one of the best wide receivers to ever play in the NFL. Irvin had seven seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards and finished his career with 11,904 receiving yards with 65 touchdowns.
2 BRUCE SMITH
Bruce Smith is one of the defensive players to set foot on a NFL playing field. Although he did receive a four-game suspension and it hurt his reputation a bit, his gameplay puts him near the top of these rankings. Smith, who nearly topped this list, is the all-time quarterback sacks leader with 200 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, his first year of eligibility.
Smith was named to the All-Decade Team in the 1980s and the 1990s. He was a four-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Plus, he was selected to 11 Pro Bowls and was a nine-time first-team All-Pro selection. Smith finished his career with 1,225 tackles, 43 forced fumbles, two interceptions and even one touchdown.
1 LAWRENCE TAYLOR
Lawrence Taylor is one of the greatest players in NFL history and has often been named the greatest defensive player of all time. Taylor tested positive for cocaine and was suspended for four games. Taylor had a great career, but information published in his biography was concerning. He admitted that he smoked crack cocaine and was high during games and even borrowed urine from his teammates.
Regardless of what he did off the field, his play on the field easily puts him at the top of this list. Taylor, a two-time Super Bowl champ, was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times and was a 10-time first-team All-Pro selection. He was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and was the league MVP in 1986. Taylor, who led the league in sacks in 1986, also is part of the 1980s All-Decade Team and the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.