When a team selects a player with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, a certain burden of expectation accompanies the massive salary and publicity that players receive. These athletes exit their college careers among the elite athletes in all of college football and teams are willing to make massive trades and mortgage their futures based on the projected future success of #1 picks. The first round has seen hundreds of players come and go to varying degrees of success, but the first overall pick is something that teams must not miss on in order for executives to ensure their respective futures with the franchise.
Many teams have made mistakes with the first overall pick during the course of the NFL’s illustrious history. Teams with the first overall pick have either been wise enough to make a trade with the worst team in the previous season, but it is far more common for the teams with the pick to have been the league’s worst in the year before. Many #1 picks enter the NFL with the expectation of helping their teams succeed in the following season, but all of the players on this list have been found wanting by the teams that selected them.
Being a #1 overall pick does not necessarily ensure that a player will succeed in the NFL. All eras of the NFL have seen first overall picks fail to develop into veteran NFL players. Injuries, off field issues, and poor evaluation of an athlete’s talent level have all contributed to the demise of athletes on this list. It is too soon to say whether the picks from the last few years can be considered to be busts, but the athletes on this list have certainly earned that label.
10 Ricky Bell – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ricky Bell was the first overall pick in the 1977 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had spent a record $1.2 million to secure Bell’s services for five seasons. The Bucs passed on Tony Dorsett to select Bell, but he did manage to lead them to their first ever playoff win with a 142-yard performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1979. Bell rushed for over 1,000 yards only once in a season during his NFL career and finished his career with a 3.7 yard-per-carry average. Bell died of heart failure in 1984, just two years after his last year in the league.
9 Walt Patulski – Buffalo Bills
As the first overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft, Walt Patulski was an imposing figure, standing 6’6’’, 250 pounds, and capable of running a 4.9 40-yard dash. He played four total seasons with the Buffalo Bills and a fifth with the Arizona Cardinals before his career was ended following a severe knee injury. Patulski is the last Notre Dame player to have been selected with the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
8 Tim Couch – Cleveland Browns
Tim Couch was another in a long line of unsuccessful quarterbacks that occupied the backfield for the Cleveland Browns over the last two decades. The Browns selected Couch with the first overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft as they made their return to the NFL. Couch was the highly touted SEC Offensive Player of the Year for the Kentucky Wildcats and he took over the quarterbacking duties from Ty Detmer in Week 2. Couch started the next 14 games, with hardly any success, leading the team to a 2-13 record in his rookie campaign. Injuries marred Couch’s five-year NFL career, which he spent behind the Browns Swiss cheese offensive line. He did manage to lead the Browns to a playoff appearance, but a broken leg kept him from playing in the Wild Card game. He finished his career with 11,131 passing yards, 64 touchdowns, and 67 interceptions.
7 David Carr – Houston Texans
During his five seasons as the quarterback of the Houston Texans, no quarterback was sacked more than David Carr. As the first pick of the expansion Houston Texans in the 2002 NFL Draft, Carr was given the burden of the starting job as a rookie quarterback and never seemed to have time to get his feet set. He still managed to battle, starting all but five games during his five seasons with the Texans. Carr went on to win a Super Bowl as the backup to Eli Manning when the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI. Overall, he had a decent NFL career, but was never able to live up to the expectation of being the first overall pick. Carr finished his career with 14,452 yards, 65 touchdowns, and 71 interceptions. His little brother Derek is now the quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
6 Courtney Brown – Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns were an absolute mess after making their return to the NFL in 1999 and selected Courtney Brown to fix their defensive line with the first overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Brown enjoyed a good rookie season in Cleveland racking up 61 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Brown’s injury problems began in his second NFL season with ankle and knee injuries. These injury problems continued for the rest of Brown’s career, causing him to miss countless games. In 2004, he was cut by the Browns, but was signed by the Broncos in the following season. He finished his career with 19 sacks and 155 total tackles.
5 Steve Emtman – Indianapolis Colts
Steve Emtman was one of the biggest draft busts of the 1990s. After being selected with the first pick of the 1992 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts, Emtman blew out his knee just nine games in to his rookie campaign, which began a series of injuries that plagued the remainder of his career. He finished all three of his seasons with the Colts on the injured reserve list, with injuries to both knees and a ruptured disc in his neck that caused nerve damage. Emtman managed to play parts of three more seasons with Miami and Washington before retiring due to his extensive injures. Emtman finished his career with only 8 sacks and 121 tackles.
4 Aundray Bruce – Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons sought to trade the first overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, but were unable to receive any suitable offers so they selected Aundray Bruce. Bruce was an All-SEC linebacker with the Auburn Tigers when he was picked and played all 16 games of his rookie campaign with the Falcons, where he earned 6 sacks, 2 interceptions, forced two fumbles, and 70 tackles. Bruce was never able to match the performance of his rookie campaign in any of his other 10 NFL seasons, even being utilized in a tight end role by the Falcons in 1991. He went on to play stints with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, but never developed into the superstar that he was expected to become.
3 Tom Cousineau – Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills acquired the #1 pick in the 1979 NFL Draft by trading OJ Simpson to the San Francisco 49ers. Tom Cousineau was selected by the Bills, but chose to sign with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, who offered twice as much money as the Bills. Cousineau went on to be the 1979 Grey Cup MVP, but desired a return to American football. In 1982, Cousineau’s rights were traded to the Cleveland Browns and the Bills received the draft pick that went on to be Jim Kelly. Cousineau went on to lead the Browns in tackles for three seasons, but was considered a bust for his massive $2 million contract.
2 Ki-Jana Carter – Cincinnati Bengals
Ki-Jana Carter was one of the greatest running backs ever to play at Penn State, but failed to translate that success to the NFL after being the 1st overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1995 NFL Draft. The Bengals traded for the first overall pick to get Carter, who never managed to rush for more than 500 yards in any NFL season. During his seven-year NFL career with Cincinnati, Washington, and New Orleans, Carter managed to break the 100-yard mark in a game only one time. Carter’s career was derailed by injuries, beginning with a shoulder injury in the 1997 season, followed by a broken wrist in 1998 and a severely damaged knee in 1990. Overall, Ki-Jana finished his career with 1,144 rushing yards, 20 touchdowns, and a pedestrian 3.59 yards per carry.
1 JaMarcus Russell – Oakland Raiders
The name JaMarcus is now synonymous with “bust.” JaMarcus Russell was handpicked by Al Davis as the savior of the Oakland Raiders after witnessing Russell throw a football through the uprights from his knees on the 50 yard line. Despite his size, speed, and cannon for an arm, Russell’s talents never translated to the NFL. He started only one game during his rookie season, and when given the reigns to the team in his second season, was only able to lead the team to a 5-10 record as a starter. This trend continued in his third NFL season when he was 2-7 as a starter, throwing 11 interceptions and only three touchdowns. Eventually the Raiders sought part of the massive salary paid to Russell to be returned after he was arrested for possession of codeine cough syrup. He has since attempted to make a comeback to the NFL, but has been unsuccessful.