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.
Though, the team was apparently committed to him being their quarterback. They only other quarterback they drafted over the next several years was Trent Edwards in the third round.
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.
The Miami Dolphins finished with an impressive 11 wins in 2008. They had talent, but quickly regressed to seven wins in '09 and '10. This is what happens when you blow your high draft picks. When they essentially threw those picks away, they threw away their chances to have a special team and become a proper challenger to the division's Goliath, the New England Patriots.
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.
When it comes down to it, Sanchez was never really the guy to take the team to the next level. This is a prime example of a team being hurt by feeling the need to overcommit to a quarterback they heavily invested in. Had they found a better QB, they may have been better able to take advantage of the talented teams they had over that period.
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.
The pick ended up setting the Titans back several years. The next two non-quarterbacks to come off the board after Locker were Tyron Smith and J.J. Watt. The top half of this class was absolutely loaded with talent. With the exception of the Detroit Lions and possibly San Francisco, every team who picked a non-quarterback in the top 15 made out very well.
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.
Philly had many blown draft picks in the early 2000s. The team could have been so much more if they hit on just one or two of them. None of them were more important than the Feddie Mitchell selection however.
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).
Hindsight is 20-20 of course and looking back it’s easy to say that the Browns made a mistake and should’ve built up their roster before bringing in their next potential franchise passer. We fully understand the idea of not wanting to pass up on a talented quarterback. But however understandable, a mistake is still a mistake.
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.
The Dolphins could have made much better use of the second pick. In particular, Aaron Rodgers would have unquestionably been the best selection (though over half the league passed up on him, so it's hard to fault the Dolphins too much for that). In addition, they passed on Adam Jones and Antrel Rolle. It would've been hard to do much worse than Brown.
13 Cleveland Browns - Brady Quinn
The Cleveland Browns selected the standout Notre Dame quarterback with the 22nd overall pick in the 2007 draft. He was thought by many to finally be the quarterback to bring the Browns out of their quarterback slump. Instead, he didn't take over as the starter until his third year. Even then, he only managed to play in just over half of the games. His numbers weren't special, throwing just over 1,300 yards, eight touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He wasn't back for a fourth year unsurprisingly.
12 Oakland Raiders - Robert Gallery
With the second pick in the 2004 NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders select.... a mediocre guard. Gallery wasn't quite as bad as most people believe. He was at least capable of starting as an interior lineman. But he never, ever came remotely close to living up to his draft position. It makes everything worse when you look at who was drafted around him. Here were the next three players off the board - Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, and Sean Taylor. The top five selections of the 2004 draft class are all standout, blue chip players. That is, with one exception.
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.
Ben Roethlisberger was still on the board; the quarterback from Miami (OH), who considered Cleveland to be his hometown. He had impressed everyone with his pre-draft workouts, including Cleveland coaches, as well as some of their players. Maybe they were worried about drafting a small school guy and didn't want to miss on another quarterback. Whatever the reason, they decided to pass on him and select tight end Kellen Winslow II. Looking back, you can make an argument that this was their biggest mistake since they reentered the league.
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.
In fairness to Gabbert, he did look decent when taking over for Colin Kaepernick last season.
9 Detroit Lions - Charles Rogers
The Matt Millen era is not something that Lions fans remember fondly. It was a period in which the franchise was a joke and it was in large part due to their incredibly poor drafting. Selecting Charles Rodgers second overall was one of the many terrible mistakes made. He only played in the NFL for three years and failed to amass more than 500 receiving yards over his career. Johnson was selected over many talented players, none more notable than Andre Johnson - who went one pick later.
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.
In this case, Matt Millen and the Lions selected Mike Williams 10th overall. This was two years after they made the mistake of taking Charles Rogers with the second overall pick. Like Charles Rogers, Williams failed to tally just 500 receiving yards while with the team. The other player they had strongly considered taking was DeMarcus Ware. He ended up going one pick later to the Cowboys and will end up being a Hall of Famer.
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.
But the whole draft was absolutely terrible. They had two first round picks, including one in the top five. This was a prime chance to rebuild the team. Instead they blew their picks on Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson. These were two players who were supposed to be the cornerstones of their offense, yet neither was back for a third year. At least the Browns got another first round pick in return for T-Rich.
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.
They selected Ponder over standout players such as Robert Quinn, Cameron Jordon, Nate Solder, Ryan Kerrigan, and several others. The 12th overall pick was a prime opportunity to upgrade many aspects of the team; especially the trenches. They passed it up to take a shot in the dark at a potential quarterback that ultimately didn't work out.
5 Cincinnati Bengals - Akili Smith
Akili Smith was both the third overall pick in 1999 and the third quarterback taken in the draft. He was clearly the worst of the three. In fact, he only managed to stay in the NFL for four years. Over that period, he played in 22 games and started 17. In his career, he threw five touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and just over 2,000 yards. He was a horribly disappointing player. The next four picks? Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Torry Holt and Champ Bailey. Wow.
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.
Williams only played with the Saints for three years. He wasn't a standout player over that period but he wasn't a bust. Even still, three decent years isn't something most teams would invest a fifth overall pick in, much less an entire draft class and an additional picks the following year.
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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