At some point, every NFL franchise needs to take a risk, whether they’re looking to kick off a rebuild or send their team from ‘good’ to ‘great’. If you constantly play it safe, you’re going to end up going 7-9 or 8-8 every season. For fans of struggling teams, the idea of an 8 win season is very attractive. But fans of mediocre teams will tell you that it gets old very quickly. Having a decent season doesn’t put you in the record books. Decision makers that have the guts to take the necessary risks should be applauded. However, by their nature, sometimes it doesn’t pan out. In certain cases, they can be disastrous.
Most of the worst examples are teams missing on quarterbacks. It’s by far the most valuable position in the game, which means it will be the most destructive when you miss. Teams that aren’t among the two worst in the NFL will seldom be in a position to have one fall into their lap. Which means most quarterback needy teams will have to pay a pretty penny to go get one.
Of course, the full cost isn’t just the price to get them in the first place or the large paychecks they get. Teams that invest into a particular quarterback have to commit their franchise to them for several years. If it looks like you missed, few teams are willing to just move on. This often results in extra years wasted.
Not every player on this list is a failed quarterback, but they do make up a disproportional amount of the disastrous draft selections.
20 Buffalo Bills - J.P. Losman
The 2004 NFL Draft was loaded with quarterback talent. Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger were taken in the first half of the draft. Even third round selection Matt Schaub had a period of time where he was an effective quarterback.
The Bills attempted to take advantage of the gifted class when they selected J.P. Losman with the 22nd pick. Unfortunately, he wasn't the answer. He played in Buffalo for five years, but only managed to play a full 16 games once.
19 Miami Dolphins - Ted Ginn Jr.
Ted Ginn Jr. was a very impressive prospect at Ohio State. Many expected a team to take a shot on the burner at the end of the first round. Instead, the Miami Dolphins reached for him at ninth overall; ahead of Marshawn Lynch, Darrelle Revis, Lawrence Timmons, and other blue chip players.
Ginn played three years in Miami and over that period he had 312 receiving yards. Most of his ability came on kick returns. But you draft a kick returner in the late rounds or sign them as a UDFA. You don't take them with the ninth overall pick. Ginn was a massive bust.
18 New York Jets - Mark Sanchez
When the Jets drafted Sanchez in 2009, they already had a good roster, but quarterback was a key position that they lacked at. The Jets, like most good teams, weren't picking in the top five. Which means they had to pay a significant price to move up. They did what it took to go get who they believed would be their next offensive leader. In reality, Sanchez was never that terrible of a player and certainly not as bad as other players on this list. Though, it’s possible that the talent on the Jets masked many of his weaknesses. Even still, the Sanchez-led Jets were able to make in into the playoffs and win games.
17 Tennessee Titans - Jake Locker
Jake Locker was expected to come in and be a franchise guy. After dealing with significant injuries, he is unfortunately no longer in the NFL. It's easy to say now that the pick was a mistake, but sometimes you have to roll the dice to try to get a franchise guy. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Locker is a blue chip player. The Locker selection was a good risk to take, but even good risks fail on occasion.
16 Philadelphia Eagles - Freddie Mitchell
When the Eagles added Terrell Owens to the mix, it was enough to send the team over the edge for a Super Bowl run. Unfortunately, they didn't manage to take full advantage of it. In addition, Owens didn't last long in Philly, so they were never able to attempt it again with that starting lineup.
What that run showed the Eagles was that the team severely lacked a true number one wide out. The attempted many times to get one and failed almost every time (Owens being the exception). Had they drafted one that lasted, the team may actually been able to capitalize during the McNabb era.
One of the more notorious failed receivers was Freddie Mitchell. Selected five spots ahead of Reggie Wayne at 25th overall, Mitchell lasted only four years in the NFL. Over that period, he recorded a mere 1,200 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
15 Cleveland Browns - Tim Couch
To some degree, Tim Couch is an underrated quarterback. He isn’t as bad as many people believe or the numbers might suggest. In reality, Tim Couch is a victim of having no surrounding talent. It results in an interesting question regarding roster construction for the NFL’s worst teams. If you’re in a position to draft a quarterback, do you take him now or try to build the roster up a bit and get one later on? If you take him now, you might be throwing him into a situation with zero chance of success. However, if you don’t you might be passing up a prime chance to get a franchise quarterback (not something that just happens).
14 Miami Dolphins - Ronnie Brown
The 2005 class saw three running backs taken in the top five; none of them panned out. The worst was Ronnie Brown, selected number two overall by the Miami Dolphins. In his sophomore he rushed for 1,008 yards. That is the only time in his career that he broke the 1,000 yard mark. Furthermore, he only tallied more than five rushing touchdowns twice.
13 Cleveland Browns - Brady Quinn
12 Oakland Raiders - Robert Gallery
11 Cleveland Browns - Kellen Winslow II
The Cleveland Browns had their hearts set on taking defensive back Sean Taylor with the sixth overall pick. When he went off the board fifth, they needed another plan.
10 Jacksonville Jaguars - Blaine Gabbert
Blaine Gabbert was a very polarizing quarterback prospect in the 2011 draft. He had many of the physical tools required to be a star, but was still very rough around the edges. The Jaguars took a massive risk to try to pull up their struggling franchise.
Many are familiar with the result. Blaine Gabbert is quite literally a joke among the NFL media and fans. He was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in recent memory and it was the icing on the cake for that terribly disappointing Jaguars era. Many believe the new regime has made all the right moves since taking over in 2012. But the team was in such bad shape previously that they haven't managed to break out of the league's basement yet. 2016 will finally be the deciding year for them.
9 Detroit Lions - Charles Rogers
8 Detroit Lions - Mike Williams
Honestly, this whole list could reasonably be made up of Matt Millen errors and Cleveland Browns quarterbacks. I don't mean that so much as a joke, I'm 100% serious.
7 Cleveland Browns - Brandon Weeden
Brandon Weeden was the crown jewel bust of this class. A quarterback who would be turning 29 midway through the season is not a guy that most teams would select at the end of the first round. Weeden was a terrible quarterback. He only managed to last a season and a half with the Browns, throwing 26 interceptions.
6 Minnesota Vikings - Christian Ponder
You can make a decent argument that both Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert were good players to take a risk on. It's just that they didn't pan out. It's much harder to make that argument for Christian Ponder. By all means, he was a very large reach. The Vikings took an unfavourable risk and it didn't come as surprise to many when they got burned by it.
5 Cincinnati Bengals - Akili Smith
4 New Orleans Saints - Ricky Williams
It takes a special running back prospect today to warrant a top five selection. Ezekiel Elliott being taken by the Cowboys fourth overall was a surprise to some, despite being about as good of a prospect as you can be. What Mike Ditka did in 1999 would be absolutely insane today (although to be fair, it was crazy then too). The New Orleans Saints traded their entire 1999 draft class as well as a first and third in 2000 to move up seven spots to the fifth overall pick. They then took running back Ricky Williams.
To be fair, Williams wasn't a bad running back at all. In fact, in 2002 he had one of his best years... with the Dolphins.
3 Washington Redskins - Robert Griffin III
The 2012 class was special. It featured two of the best quarterback prospects in recent memory. Typically, the second overall pick wouldn’t have been available, as few teams would be willing to part with a prospect that impressive. But the Rams owned the second overall pick and were already committed to 2010 first overall pick Sam Bradford.
Most people already know how it went from there. Washington gave up three first round picks and a second to move up from the sixth pick. Griffin led the Redskins to the playoffs after one of the most impressive rookie years the NFL has ever seen. However, the was as good as it got. Whether it was due to injuries, regression, or defenses catching on to his play style (likely a combination of all three), RG3 was never the same player. Washington gave up three very high draft picks and for a player who only started a couple years for them.
2 San Diego Chargers - Ryan Leaf
The 1998 NFL draft featured two stand out quarterbacks - Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. The Colts were pretty much locked into Manning at number one, which left Leaf up for grabs. The San Diego Chargers were looking to secure the next face of their franchise and made the move to go get him. The gave up their first and second round picks in the 1998 draft, as well as an additional first in 1999 to move up a single spot and get in position to draft Leaf. His rookie season was absolutely miserable. He completion percentage wasn’t even close to 50%, he failed to throw for more than 1,300 yards, and perhaps worst of all, he threw two touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Leaf was also not a leader. He brought the team down with both his play and his personality. No one really expected him to turn around and be a great guy, but his personality was nothing short of toxic. The player the Chargers counted on, and invested heavily in, turned out to be a terrible, selfish football player. He was out of the league in 4 years.
1 Oakland Raiders - JaMarcus Russell
JaMarcus Russell was one of the most physically impressive quarterback prospects the NFL has ever seen. In particular, his strong arm was a highly coveted trait.
The Raiders made him the first overall selection in the 2007 draft (as most teams certainly would have). But he never came close to panning out. He was terrible when he played and only managed to stay in the league for three years. It crippled the Raiders, as they invested such a high pick into Russell and wasted several years hoping he would pan out. To make matters worse, the 2007 draft was absolutely littered with talent. The top ten featured Joe Thomas, Calvin Johnson, and Adrian Peterson, with blue chip players lined throughout the class.
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