The draft can be the biggest gamble in the NFL. Make the right choice and you end up with a franchise player who leads you to the Super Bowl and boosts your fortunes massively. Make the wrong choice and you’re left with an overpriced guy who puts up worse numbers than a high schooler. So many teams have gone both ways, making choices that blow up in their face while others can nab the right guys. It should be remembered that numbers don’t always matter; after all, Tom Brady went to the sixth round in 2000 before being grabbed by the Patriots and becoming a superstar. Sadly, he’s the rare exception as too many top guys fail to live up to their potential.
There have been slews of cases over the years but each draft class has one glaring guy who stands out for the wrong reason. Every draft has a guy who had such promise, who was nabbed at a top number only to totally fail to live up to expectations in the NFL. The last two decades have brought some big ones and here are the top choices. The biggest disappointment of each NFL draft since 1996 and how teams run a big risk when they try to nab a star.
The 2016 draft won't be included, as it's far too early to judge this year's rookies.
20 1996 - Lawrence Phillips
Phillips has created a legacy of sorts: It’s thanks to him that the NFL today does psychological testing of prospects. At Nebraska, Phillips emerged to help out a poor bench, running for 1,772 yards as a sophomore and looked a great prospect. However, Phillips was also known for run-ins with the law of vandalism and receiving money from a sponsor as well as erupting controversy for being allowed to play despite an arrest for assaulting his girlfriend.
Despite all that, Phillips had promise. The Rams drafted him at no.6 and traded Jerome Bettis to Pittsburgh. That’s right, the Rams gave away a future Super Bowl-winning Hall of Famer for Phillips. Despite good numbers, Phillips was marred by run-ins with the law, arrested several times, spending 23 days in jail in the offseason and showing up late for practice. The Rams finally cut him and his run with the 49ers wasn't long either.
Eventually, Phillips was arrested for aggravated assault, sent to jail and committed suicide in early 2016. A tragic tale on so many levels of a guy whose life came apart by his football time.
19 1997 - Bryant Westbrook
The 1997 draft class wasn’t among the best and you can argue there are plenty of disappointments among them. Westbrook being among the higher numbers has him stand out a bit from the pack. At Texas, the beefy cornerback earned a reputation for incredibly hard hits that smashed opposing players down and some taunting to top it off. The Lions drafted him high and at first, he seemed very promising, notching 54 tackles and named among the best rookies around.
However, hamstring injuries cut into his playing abilities and limited his time on the field. He looked to be rising in 2000 only to tear his Achilles tendon that put on the injured list. He was never the same, released by the Lions and signed by Dallas. However, his very first game was so poorly played that they cut him immediately. He moved to the Packers but another Achilles injury put him back on the shelf and he finally hung it up in 2004. Maybe without the injuries, he would have been a good player but Westbrook still stands as the biggest of a rather disappointing draft class.
18 1998 - Ryan Leaf
The most obvious choice on this list. Leaf has often been cited as possibly the greatest draft bust of all time, a man who was great at Washington State and a finalist for the Heisman. Many believed he should have been the number one pick instead of Peyton Manning. He was chosen by San Diego, boasting how he would get them to the Super Bowl in no time. Instead, he became one of the most amazing examples of self-destruction in NFL history.
Not only was his play utterly terrible (48.4 passer rating and 4-14 in 18 starts) but Leaf’s attitude was horrific, slamming teammates and coaches, ranting on the media and the fans and acting like the team lived and died on his work, despite how bad he was. He was suspended and then caught on video playing flag football and a brief flash of greatness in 2000 was ruined by his attitude. He was finally released, had a couple of terrible games in Dallas and cut once more. Leaf completed his descent by being arrested in 2012 and spent two years in jail. Sadly, a fitting end to the most spectacular bust in the history of the draft.
17 1999 - Akili Smith
Some might argue Tim Couch deserves this slot, drafted number one and going on to a mediocre career. However, Smith was a guy who had folks saying he should have been number one over Couch and Donovan McNabb. His college career was just okay until his senior year at Oregon where he threw 32 touchdowns. That boosted him majorly as the Saints and the Bengals were in a major fight for who could get a higher draft slot. In what would prove to be a warning sign, Smith missed several parts of training camp, holding out for a bigger contract.
While he had good athleticism, Smith never seemed to gel, not caring about the playbook and bringing a lackluster attitude to practice. In 17 games, he threw just five TDs and 13 interceptions and rode the bench for most of his time. The Packers actually thought he could be a backup to Brett Farve, an experiment that ended in disaster. Smith finished his NFL career with the Bucs and showcased the worst pick of an otherwise major QB class.
16 2000 - Courtney Brown
Brown playing for Cleveland. What could be more fitting? Sadly, the Browns realized that a fun name didn’t mean Courtney was the right player for them. At Penn State, Brown’s great numbers had him named Big Ten Lineman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in 1999, setting an NCAA record of 33 sacks in one season. That, plus his last name, made him a top choice for Cleveland and at first, he was good as his rookie year saw him make 69 tackles. However, he played only three games the next season due to injury and would play just 26 games over three seasons with bad numbers.
He ended up with Denver, making just 24 tackles in 14 games and retiring due to his injuries. Just because a guy’s name seems to fit doesn’t mean drafting him is the logical choice.
15 2001 - Gerard Warren
Warren was a standout at his Florida high school, who lost only four games during his play and won three straight State championships. As a Florida Gator, he posted 159 tackles and 10 sacks, was an All-American and considered a key choice in Cleveland's rebuild.
The Browns figured he was a good choice and snatched him third overall in the first round. While his numbers were okay, they weren’t as huge as hoped, only 56 tackles and two sacks. Each season saw those numbers dip more and more as despite a good presence,
Warren just couldn’t become the breakout offensive player Cleveland hoped for. He was traded to the Broncos and later the Raiders and the Patriots to finish out a so-so career. While not as huge a bust as others on this list, a guy who went so high in the draft should have done a lot more. Yet another waste of a pick for Cleveland.
14 2002 - David Carr
He is historic in being the very first draft pick ever for the Houston Texans. It’s just too bad that he also ranks as among their very worst. His work at Fresno State turned the small school into a powerhouse taking out BCS teams and landing Carr on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He threw for over 4,000 yards his senior year and was a finalist for the Heisman. For his rookie year, he posted a miserable 62.8 quarterback rating and holds the record for being sacked the most times in NFL history, 76.
The Texans sunk badly despite Carr’s attempts and when they decided to drop him, found out no team would trade for him. His stints with the Raiders, Giants and 49ers were more forgettable and thus, Houston has to handle the stigma of wasting their first ever draft pick on such a spectacular bust.
13 2003 - Charles Rogers
At Michigan State, Rogers was drawing serious comparisons to Randy Moss, an All-American who racked up 207 yards in one game and holds the NCAA record for 13 consecutive games with a touchdown. The Lions thought they hit the jackpot when they picked him second, the player to ignite their offense. Instead, Rogers played only six games in two seasons due to a broken collarbone. Matt Millen has admitted giving him too much time to recover was a bad move as Rogers fell into drug use that would further hamper him and lead to suspensions.
He was cut in 2005, tryouts for other teams going badly and soon endured several arrests for drug possession and jail time. The only way Rogers was like Moss was they were both football players as his collapse marks one of the biggest busts drafts have ever known.
12 2004 - Robert Gallery
At the University of Iowa, the bulky Gallery was a terrific left tackle who seemed to improve with every game. He was voted All-American with his huge build aiding him in nailing opponents with hard tackles and sacks. For the draft, Gallery was picked second by the Raiders and hailed as “the best offensive lineman prospect in years” with a 9.0 draft rating. In 15 games, he gave up three sacks and in 2006, gave up three in one game. He gave up a total of 10 and a half over the season, the Raiders moving him from right to left tackle and back to no avail.
Soon cut, he played one season with the Seahawks and the Patriots but retired before playing a game with them. With only 104 games to his credit, Gallery joins the list of “greatest prospects” who ended up missing big time.
11 2005 - Mike Williams
The 2004 draft was notable as Maurice Clarett was challenging the age issue in court and so Williams decided to take advantage. Just two years out of high school, he hired and agent and declared himself for the draft, pushed by his good play at USC. However, the courts ruled against Clarett so Williams had to sit out a year before the Lions could nab him.
Coming in with high expectations, Williams ended up slumping with just one touchdown in his rookie year. He played just eight games the next year and dropped more balls than he caught. Cut, Williams would bounce to the Raiders, Titans and Seahawks before ending up being cut by the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. Thus, Williams’ choice to jump to the big leagues early ended up crushing him bad.
10 2006 - Matt Leinart
Many a team has made the mistake of assuming a Heisman Trophy automatically means a stellar NFL career is ahead. Few have proven that wrong as much as Leinart. After a stellar high school career, Leinart was recruited by USC and led the Trojans to the National Championship in 2004, winning the Heisman and Manning Awards. Every team wanted to grab him but Arizona ended up the “lucky” ones at no.10. The plan was obviously for Leinart to be backup to Kurt Warner and eventually succeed him. However, Leinart annoyed management by holding out for a bigger contract and when he did take over as QB in 2007, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
As it turned out, Warner was far better at his age than the rookie Leinart, who suffered injuries and sat out most of his tenure with the Cardinals. Finally released in 2010, Leinart signed with the Texans, sitting out a year and then got injured when he did play. His time with the Raiders and the Bills led to cuts before he even played and that Heisman trophy ended up being just a fancy paperweight for Leinart’s NFL time.
9 2007 - JaMarcus Russell
One of the biggest busts ever, even for the Raiders. After a fantastic high school career, Russell led LSU to the SEC title and terrific numbers. The Raiders grabbed him at no.1 but a warning sign was Russell holding out on signing until he got a contract worth $61 million. Oakland let him stay on the bench for most of his rookie year in hopes he would learn the ropes. It didn’t work out as Russell’s rare good games were offset by many bad ones with key interceptions to crush Oakland’s hopes.
Not helping were Russell’s attitude and issues with his weight as he made a habit of showing up at training camp massively out of shape and blowing off some practices. A drug arrest was the last straw as Oakland released him in 2010 with various teams realizing the man was in no shape physically or mentally to play.
When you look at all the great guys Oakland could have grabbed that year (Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson among them), the Russell pick is an even bigger bust.
8 2008 - Vernon Gholston
Gholston was a standout for the dominant Ohio State team that won three Big Ten championships and tied school records for sacks with a total of 87 tackles. He was a major pick at no.6 for the Jets but failed to live up to expectations. In three seasons, he failed to pick up a single sack, the first player in the top 10 to fail to do so since 1982. Rex Ryan decided to sit him out on many games, Gholston spending more time on the bench than on the field and the Jets defense thrived with him riding the pine.
He was released in 2011, then signed by the Bears but was cut before the season. The same thing happened with the Rams and in 2015, Gholston announced he had a tryout with the Redskins but it didn’t lead to anything.
7 2009 - Jason Smith
While rough in high school, Smith took off when he was recruited by Baylor. An All-American, he was a strong lineman. The Rams thus figured he’d be a good pick at no.2 and shelled out $33 million in a contract. His numbers were poor, far below many tackles and he suffered a serious concussion in his rookie year to put him on the shelf. His return was even worse, sinking lower with more time on the bench than in games.
Realizing how bad he now was, the Rams traded him to the Jets in 2012. In 2013, Smith became notable for being released from the Jets, signed by the Saints, released by them and re-signing with the Jets before being released, all in the span of a couple of months.
6 2010 - Rolando McClain
This powerfully built linebacker seemed to be just what any defense would need. His high school career in Alabama was marked with fantastic numbers of sacks and forced fumbles. Recruited to Alabama, he was part of the powerhouse National Championship team of 2009, winning the Butkus and Lambert Awards with 274 tackles. The Raiders naturally believed he was perfect to push their defense, drafting him at no.8 with a $50 million contract. In his first season, McClain recorded exactly one sack and was fined for a hit on Danny Amendola.
Off-field issues affected him as well with fights with coaches and teammates and ranting on social media about being done with the team. He was soon traded, ending up with Dallas and actually seemed ready to rise, but then was suspended for violating the NFL drug policy. It’s unlikely he’ll come back, ranking him as one of the best defensive college players to fail in the NFL.
5 2011 - Jake Locker
A star in high school, Locker was soon pushing Washington to great heights, an All-American in his freshman year and while injury cut his sophomore one short, he still threw for over 2,000 yards in his next two seasons to help his school to a good record. Going at no.8 to the Titans, Locker seemed like a good fit for the Titans, posting a winning record as a starter.
However, injuries soon began to hit him, missing three weeks in 2013 to a shoulder hit and then injuring his right foot to end his season early. He looked great in his debut in 2014 but then injuries came calling as he was put on the shelf just as the Titans suffered an epic meltdown to finish the season at 2-14. After the year, Locker announced he was retiring, no longer feeling the fire for football and making his pick a massive waste for Tennessee, that just drove them to new lows.
4 2012 - Justin Blackmon
The Jaguars had high hopes for someone to give them a much-needed boost and figured Blackmon was it. At Oklahoma State, he led the Big 12 in receiving with over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2011 and was the MVP of the Fiesta Bowl as well as two time winner of the Biletnikoff Award. Jacksonville drafted him at no.5 and he impressed with his speed in tryouts. However, his rookie season was not as impressive as hoped, only recording 865 receiving yards total. Worse was how Blackmon soon ran into major issues with drugs, suspended several times in 2013 for drug possession and getting arrested as well.
Blackmon is still under contract to the Jaguars but also suspended and the only thing Jacksonville received for his services was a lot of headaches.
3 2013 - Dion Jordan
A four-star prospect in high school, Jordan was also a fantastic track and field star, seeming to have the speed and skill needed to excel. Despite needing surgery, his time in Oregon was top notch, averaging 46 tackles in a season and proving himself to be a promising player. Drafted by Miami at third overall (who traded with the Raiders to get this higher spot), Jordan looked good in his first season with 26 tackles and seemed poised to take off more.
However, in 2014, he was suspended for violating the league’s drug policy, coming back, only to be suspended again and then for the entirety of 2015. He is back playing with Miami but hasn’t seen any real playing time and thus all Miami got for trading up for him is a lot of headache and legal issues.
2 2014 - Johnny Manziel
Who else from this group? It was a surprise to many that the Heisman Trophy winner went all the way to 22 before being picked. This was a man with a stellar high school career and then led Texas A&M to fantastic wins over Alabama. He also set the single season record for offensive production in the SEC, even better than Cam Newton. There was word over his attitude and arrogance which may have played a part in him getting drafted so low by the Browns. It turned out Cleveland would regret it as Manziel was fined for a lewd hand gesture in training camp. He sat out most of the season, only playing in a few games and his numbers were mediocre.
His 2015 season saw him trading places with Josh McCown for the starting QB slot, winning a few games. However, a video surfaced of Manziel partying hard when he was supposed to be at a practice and the Browns cut him. There were reports of teams being interested but no one is willing to take a chance on a guy with such a bad party attitude, ready to self-destruct. Thus “Johnny Football” is the latest notable entry in the list of promising stars who wrecked their own careers.
1 2015 - Marcus Mariota
It may be a bit unfair as he’s only in his second year but it still stands out. A standout in both football and track and field in Hawaii, Mariota surprised many by joining Oregon. His work at the school was sensational and he impressed by wanting to stick around rather than enter the 2014 draft. It paid off with him winning the Davey O’Brien Award and then the Heisman, leading the Ducks to the BCS title game. With all that, the Titans figured they lucked out, nabbing him second overall and his jersey was selling out in Tennessee in no time.
At first, they seemed lucky as Mariota had a near perfect opening game. However, his record would slump, only winning two more games that year. True, you can blame that on the terrible Titans coaching staff but Mariota still seemed a bit flustered and MCL sprains cut his season short. Again, he has the potential to come back but given his pedigree, his rookie year (and his sophomore year to date) hasn't been what the Titans wanted from Mariota.