In today’s National Football League, the running back position and the talents that play it appears to becoming more and more of a dying breed. While many players showcase their talents on the college level, teams seem to stray away from them once the NFL draft comes along.
However, that certainly wasn’t always the case. At one point, running back was arguably the most prolific position on the field.
All franchises in the NFL would use high draft selections on running backs, with hopes that their exceptional talent – whether it be with speed, power, vision, explosiveness or all of the above – would translate from the amateur ranks to the pros.
Unfortunately for a good portion of the teams that did spend their draft picks on high quality running backs, for one reason or another, the players weren’t able to live up to their potential.
When you play at the collegiate level, it could be seen as easy to succeed in; after all, around 70 per cent of the talents that play in college fail to make it to the professional ranks. Yet it is not only playing struggles that have hindered a number of running backs growth; injury issues, problems off the field and other reasons have halted athletes’ successes as well.
Sure, the running back position is hardly the only position where players are great in college but fail in the NFL; but for whatever reason, there have been many instances where a running back has shined for his school, just to not do as well as a pro. With that being said, here are the top 15 running back busts of all time.
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15 Darren McFadden
Although it’s not really fair to call an active player one of the biggest running backs of all-time, due to his college career, Darren McFadden’s professional career certainly warrants that title.
During his three-year collegiate career with Arkansas, McFadden was largely considered one of if not the top player in the entire nation. As a Razorback, McFadden had 41 touchdowns while surpassing 4,500 rushing yards, en route to being a two-time All American, two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and two-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year. The Oakland Raiders selected him with fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.
Unfortunately McFadden struggled to live up to the lofty expectations. A combination of struggling with the team’s offensive schemes and injury issues (2014 was the only season in which McFadden played all 16 games) led to an overall underwhelming seven seasons in Oakland.
McFadden is currently a part of a committee of running backs for the Dallas Cowboys – a far cry from the superstar he was supposed to become.
14 Lawrence Phillips
Lawrence Phillips falls under one of the saddest categories that a professional athlete could be a part of; if only he was able to stay out of trouble, Phillips truly could have been something special.
While playing for Nebraska, Phillips garnered Heisman Trophy talk in 1994 (1,818 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns). Although he also won two National Championships, Phillips was never able to stay out of trouble, as he committed both petty crimes and serious offenses in college.
However, for better or for worse, it’s not what goes on off the field, it is what you do on it. That’s why Phillips was selected sixth overall in 1996 by the St. Louis Rams. Yet half way through his second season, his immaturity and continued legal trouble prompted the Rams to release him.
In stints with the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers, his troubles followed Phillips, so he had brief stays with both organizations. After continuing his playing days in the AFL and CFL, Phillips never grew out of his criminal history. While serving time for counts like domestic violence and assault with a deadly weapon, Phillips murdered his cellmate this past April, which will have him behind bars for the rest of his life.
13 Alonzo Highsmith
During his time at Miami, Alonzo Highsmith looked the part of the NFL’s next great young rusher. However, similar to Ki-Jana Carter, Highsmith’s injuries held his potential greatness back.
Embodying everything that “The U” stood for back in the 1980s, Highsmith developed a reputation as a pounding running back that didn’t have a problem showboating. No one could complain though, because Highsmith always backed up his braggadocios behavior. After graduating, Highsmith was selected with the third overall pick by the Houston Oilers.
Although he played in six seasons with the Oilers, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, various knee injuries put him on the shelf for good after the 1992 season.
Highsmith succeeded as a professional boxer later in life, but one must wonder what he could have turned into if he was healthy as a pro football player.
12 D.J. Dozier
For D.J. Dozier, his NFL career was tampered with something that the rest of this people on the list didn’t have – an exuberance of athleticism.
Another top-notch running back product from Penn State, Dozier was noted as the player who scored the game-winning touchdown in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. After a successful college career that was topped off with an unforgettable moment, Dozier declared for the 1987 Draft, where he was selected 14th overall by the Minnesota Vikings.
While he was serviceable as a running back and kick returner, Dozier never lived up to the potential of his high selection. After playing with the Vikings and Detroit Lions up until 1991, Dozier turned in his football helmet for a baseball helmet.
After signing with the New York Mets as an amateur free agent in 1990, he spent parts of two full seasons in the minor leagues before being called up to the big leagues in 1992. However, Dozier failed to live up to baseball’s expectations as well, as he didn’t appear in another major league game after the season concluded.
11 Chris Perry
Chris Perry looked to be a strong addition to any backfield after a strong college career. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out as they look like they will.
Perry played all four of his college years for Michigan, where he revealed his true potential during his senior year in 2003. During that campaign, Perry scored 18 touchdowns while rushing for 1,674 yards, en route to becoming an All-American, Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and the Doak Walker Award recipient.
In the 2004 NFL draft, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Perry with the 26th overall pick.
Used mostly as a complementary running back, Perry had a tough time establishing himself on the field, mainly due to lower body injuries. Although he had the chance to become the everyday starter in the 2008 season, Perry failed to become a viable option out of the backfield. He was released from the Bengals after 2008 and was never picked up by another team.
10 Cadillac Williams
Although entering the NFL with a boat load of promise and potential, Cadillac Williams is better known due to his nickname rather than the play exhibited on the field.
However, that wasn’t always the case. While playing for Auburn, Williams came into his own in both the 2003 and 2004 seasons, where he rushed for 1,307 and 1,165 yards, respectively, while also scoring 29 touchdowns over the first two years as well. Due to his efforts and strong combine numbers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose Williams with their first round pick (fifth overall) in the 2005 draft.
If his first season was any indication, Williams looked to have a long, successful playing career in the NFL. Williams recorded 1,178 yards while winning AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Unfortunately, after the terrific debut year, Williams was never able to replicate the production. Whether it was because poor offensive line play or nagging injuries, Williams failed to reach 800 yards on the ground while scoring just one touchdown. Then, in just the fourth game of the 2007 season, Williams suffered a torn patella tendon, which hindered his potential over the rest of his career.
9 Ronnie Brown
It’s rare to see two dominant running backs playing for the same college team at the same time. What’s even more rare is when both players failed to live up to expectations. That’s exactly what happened for the aforementioned Cadillac Williams and his teammate, Ronnie Brown.
At Auburn, while Williams was providing the lightening quick speed, it was Brown who was his thunderous counterpart, as he was a very physical runner while for the Tigers. Not only was Brown the Citrus Bowl MVP, but he also finished seventh on Auburn’s rushing list (2,707) and fifth in rushing touchdowns (28). Brown was chosen second overall by the Miami Dolphins in 2005.
After a subpar first season, Brown broke out in 2006, as he gained over 1,000 yards on the ground while scoring five touchdowns. Unfortunately, Brown was never able to replicate that production. Brown was used primarily as a short yardage and goal line back due to his power. Over the last five years of his career, Brown never eclipsed 220 rushing yards.
Brown is currently a free agent and it appears that his playing days are now behind him.
8 Blair Thomas
Blair Thomas will always be known as the back drafted before Emmitt Smith.
By the time he left Penn State, Thomas was the second leading rusher in the school’s program with 3,301 yards, while also being second with 21 rushing touchdowns. The New York Jets took Thomas with their second overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft. Emmitt Smith went to the Cowboys 15 picks later.
Unfortunately for the Jets, Thomas is considered one of their biggest draft busts. Due to inconsistent play and injuries, Thomas only compiled five touchdowns in four seasons in New York. He continued to be inefficient with the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers before retiring in 1995.
7 William Green
For someone like William Green, overcoming the odds after a troubled childhood is much better than anything he could have accomplished on an NFL field. However, this list is about biggest busts, so Green must be included.
Playing for Boston College from 1998-2001, Green paid his dues before becoming the team’s starter in 2000. During that span, Green scored 32 touchdowns while rushing for close to 2,800 yards, as he became an All-American, Big East Offensive Player of the Year and two-time first team Big East. Because of his great numbers, the Cleveland Browns made him the 16th overall pick in 2002.
After a solid rookie season that saw Green rush almost 900 yards and six touchdowns, his future years were mired with controversy. After being suspended for four games due to an arrest of drunk driving and possession of marijuana, a domestic dispute that resulted in a stabbing sidelined him throughout the 2003 season.
Green was never able to get back on track, as he struggled in both 2004 and 2005 due to different problems. Although he tried to make a comeback in 2008, no team signed him.
6 Ki-Jana Carter
Throughout his time in college, Ki-Jana Carter had all the makings of a budding NFL star; however, the unfortunate mirage of injuries he suffered at the professional level stopped him from becoming great.
Playing under Joe Paterno at Penn State, Carter became one of the most explosive and athletic players in the nation. During his time as a Nittany Lion, Carter was a key member of the squad that went 12-0 in the 1994 season. Still regarded as one of the program’s greatest rushers, Carter gained 2,829 yards on the ground while scoring 34 rushing touchdowns over three years. On top of that, Carter was named an All-American in 1994, while earning MVP honors in the Rose Bowl in 1995.
In what seemed like an easy choice at the time, Carter was chosen with the first overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
During the preseason of his rookie year, Carter had a devastating ACL injury that put him on the shelf for the entire season. From 1997-1999, Carter tore his rotator cuff, broke his wrist and dislocated his right kneecap. Over his seven year career with the Bengals, Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints, Carter played in just 59 out of a possible 112 games.
5 Tommy Vardell
It’s rare that someone who dominates the college game at one position is asked to switch positions in the NFL – yet that’s exactly what happened to Tommy Vardell.
In four years while playing for Stanford University, Vardell was received the nickname “Touchdown Tommy” from the coaching staff due to his knack of finding the end zone. When he collegiate career was completed, Vardell was seen as one of the most illustrious Cardinal players ever. Vardell is currently second in school history in touchdowns, while ranking third in rushing yards.
His statistics gave the Cleveland Browns enough of a reason to select him with the ninth overall pick in the 1992 NFL draft.
Although Vardell compiled a strong amount of yards over his first couple of seasons (1,013), injuries and an inability to score touchdowns made him become a full-time fullback. Although the position is now a rarity, Vardell excelled at fullback with the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, including being the lead blocker for Barry Sanders famous 1997 season.
4 Curtis Enis
Maybe running backs from Penn State just don’t work out in the NFL.
Curtis Enis was one of the most dominant players of his time , which included back-to-back campaigns that saw Enis rush for a total of 2,573 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. After his senior season, Enis became a consensus All-American, which led to him being selected by the Chicago Bears with the fifth selection in the 1998 NFL Draft.
There were two things working against Enis once he joined the Bears. One was that he had a contract dispute with management, which meant he missed much of his first training camp. The other was that Enis had preexisting knee injuries that would haunt him throughout his career.
Due to ineffectiveness and chronic knee problems, Enis was used primarily as a fullback due to the lack of burst out of the backfield. After three seasons with the Bears, Enis joined the Browns, but retired shortly thereafter because of the problems with his knees.
3 Cedric Benson
Although he was highly successful in baseball and was even drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cedric Benson chose football as his career path.
Playing for four years at Texas, Benson turned into one of the best running backs in college football history. Upon leaving the Longhorns, Benson ranked sixth on the all-time rushing list in Division 1 history. While many saw similarities between he and Ricky Williams due to off the field concerns and college choice, Benson was also very similar in the way he played the game, as he was generally considered as having both strong physical skills and speed.
With the fourth overall pick, the Chicago Bears drafted Benson in 2005; and right away, he was met with controversy.
After skipping all of training camp due to contract issues, Benson was poorly received by his teammates, as they would rather have veteran Thomas Jones start over him. Even after Jones was shipped to the New York Jets, Benson was never able to take full grasp of the starting position, mostly due to injuries and character concerns.
Once departed from Chicago, Benson spent four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and one more with the Green Bay Packers before retirement. Although he had three straight seasons (2009-2011) with over 1,000 yards rushing, Benson was never able to become the player that he was in college.
2 Trent Richardson
Trent Richardson is in a similar boat as Darren McFadden; while he is technically an active player, Richardson is a free agent after failing to stick with the Oakland Raiders – and it doesn’t look like he’s going to be signed anytime soon.
While playing for Nick Saban at Alabama, many pegged Richardson as the best running back since Adrian Peterson. Richardson exploded in the 2011 season, his first as a starter. He rushed for 100 yards on nine different occasions while scoring 21 touchdowns.
That’s why it was a no brainer when the Cleveland Browns selected Richardson with the third overall pick in 2012. Although his rookie season saw Richardson rush for 950 yards and nine touchdowns, that was the most production the Browns would see from him. After playing just two games for the club in 2013, Richardson was shipped to the Indianapolis Colts, who surrendered a first round pick for him. Unfortunately, the experiment failed miserably, as Richardson lacked the vision and skill to win the starting job from journeymen in back to back years.
In 2015, Richardson didn’t make it out of the preseason with the Raiders – which prompted former safety Ryan Clark to call him “the worst running back of all time.”
1 Ron Dayne
It could be argued that Ron Dayne still stands as the greatest running back in college football history. However, his collegiate success just never translated to the NFL level.
At Wisconsin, Dayne was considered a do-it-all every down back as a true four year starter. During that span, Dayne never rushed for less than 1,457 yards, and his best came in his 1999 Heisman Trophy campaign, that saw him rush for 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns. Dayne is the all-time leading FBS rushing leader with 6,397 total rushing yards. Dayne became a part of the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
After declaring for the NFL draft in 2000, the New York Giants happily selected him with their 11th overall pick, with the hopes that he and Tiki Barber would team up for a true dynamic duo.
Although Dayne brought success to the Giants as the team reached the Super Bowl in his first season, problems with head coach Jim Fassel due to commitment and weight problems relegated him to goal line situations, and more times than not, the bench.
After leaving the Giants in 2004, Dayne played three more seasons with both the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texans. Unfortunately, Dayne never looked like the player that annihilated the college competition.
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