The NFL Draft is a time for optimism. Fans hope their team will draft the quarterback that will change their franchise’s future or the pass rusher that’s going to blow up their rival’s quarterbacks. The NFL spends months touting the prospects, hyping up a new generation of Superstars that will be thrilling fans every Sunday.
Except…that’s not always the case. Some years, multiple superstars flood the board and future Hall of Famers and All-Pros seem to be available at every pick. Other years, however, things don’t pan out the way anyone planned, and most of the top talent seems to fizzle.
It’s not anyone’s fault, per se—sometimes, highly-touted prospects just don’t pan out. For every Peyton Manning, there’s a Ryan Leaf. For every Calvin Johnson, there’s a JaMarcus Russell. While NFL scouts and front offices are good at roughly determining which prospects will be better than others, it’s an inexact science and sometimes a significant chunk of top-flight no-miss talents just miss.
The NFL touts its successes and the greatest classes to ever enter the league, but they’d like you to forget about some of the more unfortunate batches of players to enter the league. However, it’s good now and again to remember that these guys are prospects and sometimes, prospects don’t turn out.
2016 will be the NFL’s 50th ever common draft, so it’s a good time to look back at the worst drafts that they’ve ever had to deal with. Here are 15 worst draft classes since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.15
The first overall pick, Tim Couch, was bad and the newly-formed Cleveland Browns are still looking to correct that pick. The third overall pick, Akili Smith, was worse; one of the biggest busts of all time and the Cincinnati Bengals passed up on a treasure-trove of picks from the New Orleans Saints to draft him. Cade McNown was yet another poor quarterback in a run of them for the Chicago Bears. Add in total flops like defensive tackle Reggie McGrew, and you have serious problems. Donovan McNabb and Champ Bailey keep this from falling too far down the list, but they can only do so much.
First-overall pick Walt Patulski of Notre Dame suffered a career-ending knee injury just five years into his career and never really delivered the sack numbers Buffalo hoped for out of a top pick. On top of that,the first-round of this draft is littered with busts, from Lionel Antoine’s nagging knee injuries to the 36 career rushing yards of Bill Thomas, who never recovered from a shoulder injury suffered in college. Medical science was in a much different place in the ‘70s and injuries decimated this draft class.
A draft that starts with a Hall of Famer in Lee Roy Selmon can’t be all bad, right? This is another draft that fell victim to injuries, as second-overall pick Steve Niehaus’ promising Seahawks career ended with knee problems. Perhaps most notable, however, is that only two of the top 38 players drafted ever made an All-Pro team and only seven of the first-round selections ever made the Pro Bowl; it was a draft without very many highlights.
If you drafted someone in 2007, you actually had an above-average chance of coming away with a solid player. Some have even called it the best draft class of the past 25 years. The problem is, the misses missed hard. First-overall pick JaMarcus Russell may be the worst bust in NFL history and the other first-round quarterback, Brady Quinn, is another in a long-line of Cleveland Browns draft failures. Justin Harrell, Jarvis Moss and Craig Davis also flopped terribly, and the top 10 also had disappointing picks in Gaines Adams, Jamaal Anderson and Amobi Okoye. We remember it fondly because of Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson, but this draft is weaker than you remember it being.
The very first post-merger draft started with a bang with Terry Bradshaw coming off the board. After that, though, things went downhill quickly, bottoming out with running back Larry Stegent at number eight. Stegent appeared in just seven career games, totalling one reception for 12 yards. The second round is where things really dried up, however, as only three of those 28 players ever made a Pro Bowl and over a third never were a starter for a full season. There was no depth to be had whatsoever.
1990 is like a bad rock festival. You have your headliners with Emmitt Smith, Shannon Sharpe, Cortez Kennedy and Junior Seau, but to get to them, you have to wade through a bunch of players you’d wish you’d never seen. The top ten saw New York Jets punchline Blair Thomas and failed Detroit Lions quarterback Andre Ware taken, and the likes of Keith McCants and Chris Singleton probably don’t ring too many bells outside of Tampa or New England. Even first-overall pick Jeff George was uninspiring in a long journeyman career in the league, and things would only get worse in the draft in the ensuing years.
With the first pick in franchise history, the Houston Texans selected quarterback David Carr, and proceeded to perform an experiment of how to ruin a young quarterback by depriving him of anything resembling a functioning offensive line. They wouldn’t have done much better had they tagged Joey Harrington instead, who was yet another poor Detroit Lions quarterback in a long string. Outside of Julius Peppers, Ed Reed and Dwight Freeney, there’s not much here to write home about, outside of a few cautionary tales like Wendell Bryant’s battle with substance abuse.
Plenty of players from 2003 are still active, so I may have to eat some crow here one day, but when your top ten features Charles Rogers, Dewayne Robertson, Jonathan Sullivan and Byron Leftwich, you have problems. Rogers was the worst, one of Matt Millen’s endless wide receiver projects in Detroit that failed to pan out. Another notable miss was Jerome McDougal, though that’s hardly his fault—not only did he suffer through a large number of injuries, but he was actually shot prior to the 2005 season and missed the entire year.
If you were the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 1974 draft was fantastic—Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster all went to Pittsburgh, won multiple Super Bowls, and then took a trip to Canton as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If you were anyone else, however, you were pretty much out of luck. Pittsburgh picked up four of the 13 position players in the entire 17-round draft to be named an All-Pro; the rest of the league were stuck with names like Bo Matthews, John Hicks or Waymond Brant. Not exactly immortal names, those.
Fourth-overall pick Art Schlichter was supposed to be the heir to a line of Baltimore Colts quarterbacks that includes Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall and Bert Jones; instead, his compulsive gambling got him suspended and he never really had a meaningful role in the NFL. The draft went downhill from there, with all-time busts like Lindsay Scott and Perry Tuttle going in the first round. Neither of the first two picks—Kenneth Sims or Johnie Cooks—were all that memorable, toiling in mediocrity on terrible New England and Indianapolis teams for most of their careers. A strike which took away part of this class’ rookie season may be to blame for the poor development of many players in this group.
Excluding drafts with players still active, there have been three draft classes to produce no Hall of Famers. One was in 1943, when talented young men were joining the army, not playing football. Another is coming up in a few slots on this list, and the third was 1984. The draft’s best chance of a Hall of Famer one day is Boomer Esiason, a good-but-not-great quarterback for over a decade. Early first-round busts like Kenny Jackson, Mossy Cade, Leonard Coleman, Ron Faurot and Clyde Duncan really bottom this class out.
The mid-80s, as you’ll see, were a terrible time for drafting. First overall pick Bo Jackson sounds like a great deal—but he never actually played for the team that picked him, Tampa Bay, instead deciding to sit out the entire season before joining the Los Angeles Raiders the next year. Seventh-overall pick Brian Jozwiak suffered a career-ending hip injury early and never contributed. No one from the first round ever made an All-Pro team, and only fourth-round pick Charles Haley kept this class from going Hall of Famerless.
Things didn’t get better the next year. Picks three through seven might be the worst run of draft picks in NFL history—Alonzo Highsmith, Brent Fullwood, Mike Junkin, Kelly Stouffer and Reggie Rogers. The five players combined for four seasons as a starter and one Pro Bowl—Fullwood made in 1989 despite rushing for less than 1,000 yards. This is another year when a strike hampered players’ development. Poor labor issues and the presence of the USFL drawing talent away really hurt the mid-80s draft classes.
This is the third season, after 1943 and 1984, with no Hall of Famers, with Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith being the best hope and a longshot at that. Eight of the top 14 picks in this draft played four years or less and only Troy Vincent was really worth the high pick. First overall pick Steve Emtman is a historic bust, and he’s joined by David Klingler and Derek Brown in terms of head-scratching early picks. There’s not even any deep cuts to redeem this class; you quickly have to go down to talking about the greatness of Brad Johnson and that’s when you know it’s time to give up.
The best player in the 1991 draft didn’t produce for his team—Brett Favre was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons and had to find his way to Green Bay before he had a chance to produce anything. That means no one got anything out of this quarterback draft class, with Dan McGwire and Todd Marinovich both bombing out entirely. Bruce Pickens, the third-overall pick, started only nine games in his career. Charles McRae, Leonard Russell, Huey Richardson, Bobby Wilson, Vinnie Clark, Stan Thomas, Randal Hill, Jarrod Bunch—all first round picks and all easily forgettable. In 12 rounds of drafting, the NFL managed to find just 14 future All-Pros and only five players who could be considered anywhere near the top of their position for any length of time. The sheer number of busts makes this the least-talented draft class in NFL history.