Lamar Jackson took home the 2016 Heisman Trophy earlier this month after a standout season at quarterback for the Louisville Cardinals. Jackson is one in a long line of star quarterbacks to capture college football’s most prestigious individual award. Players like Tim Couch, Jason White, Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, and Johnny Manziel have all won the Heisman during their respective college careers.
However, another commonality those players share is a lack of success at the NFL level. The stars that shined bright on the college stage flamed out under the weight of NFL expectations.
To say a player “failed” in the NFL is fairly harsh, and it’s important to note that this list is not a judgment of a player’s character or criticism of his struggles. It’s simply a look at how some of the most successful college players in recent memory fared in the NFL.
Some criteria for placement on this list include the player’s statistical accomplishments, role in his team’s success, and how his NFL career compared to pre-draft expectation. I considered players like Blaine Gabbert, Sam Bradford, and Robert Griffin III, but felt it would be unfair to evaluate players who were still on active NFL rosters. While their career trajectories have fluctuated, they haven’t flatlined. This list accounts for college stars who are already out of the NFL, their careers ending in a fading glimmer of unfulfilled potential.
20 Joey Harrington
More than a decade before Marcus Mariota’s arrival in Oregon, Joey Harrington was putting up stellar numbers for the Ducks. In fact, Harrington was one of the premier quarterbacks in the entire Pac-10. In 2001, he earned first-team All-American honors, was named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. He finished his college career with a 25-3 record and a 59-23 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Detroit Lions saw Harrington as an NFL-ready player and selected him with the third overall pick in the 2002 draft. His rookie season wasn’t terrible, as he threw 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, but it clearly didn’t meet the expectations that coaches had for him based on his college totals. In 2004, Harrington had his best statistical season, throwing for 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
19 Courtney Brown
The Cleveland Browns haven’t exactly been draft gurus since re-entering the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. One of the team’s many struggles has been its inability to field a consistent defensive front.
If the team’s first overall pick in 2000, Courtney Brown, lived up to his ability shown at Penn State, perhaps the Browns would’ve enjoyed greater success in the early 2000s.
Brown earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in both his junior and senior seasons. He was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 and racked up an NCAA-record 33 career sacks and 70 tackles for a loss.
Brown got off to a promising start in his NFL career, accruing 69 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a rookie. During his second season in 2001, Brown matched his rookie sack total in just five games. However, a mid-season knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, he struggled to stay healthy for the remainder of his career.
Brown only averaged two sacks over his final five seasons from 2001-2005 and missed more games (51) than he played (45).
18 Eric Crouch
Eight years before the Rams took Sam Bradford with the top pick in the 2010 draft, the team placed its hopes on another Heisman Trophy winner: Eric Crouch. The Rams drafted the Nebraska quarterback in the third round in 2002. Crouch rushed for over 1,100 yards and 18 touchdowns during his Heisman-winning 2001 season at Nebraska and added another 1,510 yards and seven touchdowns through the air.
The Rams hoped Crouch would switch to wide receiver, as the team believed his six-foot, 210-pound frame was too small to handle quarterback duties. Sadly, he never got a chance to play in the NFL, as a freak injury suffered during a team practice caused him to have blood drained from his leg. He left the Rams shortly thereafter.
17 Jason White
White was another Heisman winner who didn’t play a single snap for an NFL team. Why does he rank as an NFL failure? Well, his failure came before he ever set foot on the field. It came when he went undrafted in the 2005 draft, just two years after his Heisman-winning season at Oklahoma, where he threw for 3,846 yards and 40 touchdowns. White even beat future Pro-Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald for the coveted trophy. White finished third in Heisman voting the following season as well.
16 Andre Wadsworth
Jameis Winston is doing his alma mater proud with his success so far as the quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for another Florida State standout: Andre Wadsworth.
Wadsworth entered the 1998 NFL draft as one of the most decorated defensive prospects in Florida State history. Wadsworth earned second-team All-ACC honors in his first three years as a Seminole. By his senior season, he was first-team All-ACC, a first-team All-American, and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
The Cardinals jumped at the chance to select him third overall and promptly did so. Wadsworth had a respectable rookie campaign, recording five sacks and 42 solo tackles in 16 games. However, knee injuries plagued Wadsworth for large chunks of the next two seasons. He played just 20 games from 1999-2000, managing just three sacks and 29 tackles.
15 David Klingler
If you examine Klingler’s production at the University of Houston, you would be surprised to learn that he never started more than 24 games at the NFL level. Klingler spent four seasons at quarterback for the Cougars, throwing for an astounding 9,430 yards and 91 touchdowns. His 54 touchdown passes in 1990 set a NCAA record, one that stood for 16 years.
Klingler finished third in Heisman voting that season and earned considerable draft buzz. The Bengals selected Klingler with the sixth overall pick in the 1992 draft. However, Klingler couldn’t replicate his collegiate success on the NFL gridiron. He was demoted to backup duties after losing 20 of his 24 starts for Cincinnati from 1992-1995.
14 Peter Warrick
Much like his fellow Florida State alum, Andre Wadsworth, Peter Warrick entered his draft year as a highly touted, NFL–ready prospect. As a wide receiver, Warrick earned three first-team All-ACC honors and was named a two-time consensus All-American. His 32 touchdown receptions still stand as the most in FSU history, so it’s no surprise that the Bengals snatched him up with the fourth overall pick in the 2000 draft.
Warrick had a decent start to his NFL career. In three seasons in Cincinnati, he caught 18 touchdown passes and had over 170 receptions. His standout 2003 season saw him accrue over 800 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions.
However, those totals came nowhere near the otherworldly numbers Warrick put up at Florida State. After an injury-plagued 2004 season, Warrick signed in Seattle, where he recorded just 11 catches and no touchdowns.
13 Curtis Enis
The Bears drafted Enis with the fifth overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft, hoping he could become the next Walter Payton. Of course, Hall of Fame talents like Payton only come around once in a generation, and Enis wasn’t that player.
In his final two seasons at Penn State, Enis rushed for 32 touchdowns and over 2,500 yards. However, the former Nittany Lion suffered a ligament tear in his left knee that sidelined him just nine games into his rookie campaign. He returned in 1999 but rushed for only 974 yards.
12 Rex Grossman
Eric Crouch may have won the 2001 Heisman Trophy, but Florida Gators quarterback Rex Grossman finished as the runner-up. The Indiana native led the Gators to the SEC championship in 2000, as well as Bowl victories in the 2001 Sugar Bowl, 2002 Orange Bowl, and 2003 Outback Bowl. He won the SEC Player of the Year Award in 2001 after a standout 3,896-yard, 34-touchdown season. He threw for 77 total touchdowns during his three-season college career.
The Bears selected Grossman with the 22nd overall pick in the 2003 draft, but the young quarterback suffered a plethora of injuries that kept him off the field for significant portions of his first three seasons in Chicago.
Grossman’s big break came during the 2006 season when he led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI. They ultimately lost to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts.
11 Charles Rogers
Detroit’s 2007 first round pick? Calvin Johnson. Detroit’s 2003 first round pick? Charles Rogers.
The only similarity between these two may be that they went second overall in their respective drafts. Same draft positions, but very different career paths with the Lions.
Rogers’ record-setting college career at Michigan State University had scouts drooling over his NFL potential. The 6’3” Spartan star was a two-time All-Big Ten receiver and won the 2002 Fred Biletnikoff Award as the best wide receiver in college football. Rogers caught 27 touchdown passes in just 24 games.
Rogers got off to a great start in his 2003 rookie season, racking up 243 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions. However, as was the case with so many on this list, injuries derailed Rogers’ career. Multiple clavicle injuries kept Rogers out of action for much of the 2004 season, and by 2005, off-field issues began to pile up.
10 Troy Smith
The 2006 Heisman Trophy winner spent four seasons in the NFL, racking up 1,734 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and five interceptions in eight starts at quarterback.
Those numbers are somewhat startling given Smith’s prolific college career at Ohio State University. He led the Buckeyes to the BCS National Championship game in January 2007, where Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators defeated them. However, Smith took home the 2006 Davey O’Brien Trophy as the top collegiate quarterback, as well as the Associated Press Player of the Year Award.
Unfortunately, teams were reluctant to take Smith among the top picks in the 2007 draft. His small stature (5’11”) was a concern, and teams were unsure about his durability. That hesitance dropped him to the fifth round, where the Ravens scooped him up with the 174th overall pick.
9 Vernon Gholston
Gholston was another Ohio State star who entered the draft with sky-high expectations. The 260-pound defensive end recorded 87 tackles and 21.5 sacks for the Buckeyes, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2007 and was named the conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year. The Jets needed an intimidating, ferocious pass rusher, so they selected Gholston with the sixth overall pick in the 2008 draft.
Gholston signed a five-year deal with the team and was moved to outside linebacker. However, he recorded just 13 tackles as a rookie. He switched back to defensive end after the 2009 season, but never found much success.
8 Matt Leinart
Leinart entered the 2006 draft after a fruitful career at USC. In three seasons as the Trojans’ starting quarterback, he threw for 10,693 yards and 99 touchdowns. He posted a 37-2 record, won two national championships, and took home the 2004 Heisman Trophy.
He ended up going 10th overall to the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. Leinart posted underwhelming totals in his freshman season, throwing for 2,547 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions in 12 games played. However, Leinart’s shaky play during his second season led to his benching in favor of veteran Kurt Warner.
In 2010, Arizona head coach Whisenhunt opted to go with rookies Max Hall and John Skelton as backups instead. Leinart was released two days after the final preseason game.
7 David Carr
David Carr had a tall task to live up to as the first selection in Houston Texans’ history. The top pick in the 2002 NFL Draft enjoyed immense success on the gridiron. It just wasn’t on the NFL gridiron. His senior season at Fresno State (4,800 passing yards, 46 TDs, 9 INTs) earned him serious consideration for the 2001 Heisman Trophy.
However, Carr couldn’t evolve into the elite NFL starter he seemed destined to be. In fairness, Carr’s offensive line had more holes than Swiss cheese and did little to protect him in the pocket. Carr was sacked 249 times in his five years in Houston.
Carr still managed 60 TD passes in that span, but management released him in 2006.
6 JaMarcus Russell
JaMarcus Russell, widely regarded as one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history, was selected first overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2007. The Raiders don’t deserve all the blame here, though. Russell was a stud quarterback for LSU, earning first-team All-SEC and Sugar Bowl MVP honors during the 2006 season. In three seasons in Baton Rouge, Russell threw for over 6,600 yards and completed nearly 62 percent of his passes.
To say Russell didn’t equal this success on the NFL stage would be an understatement. He went 7-18 in 25 games as a starter in Oakland. The team released him in May of 2010 after just three seasons. During that span, he posted an 18–23 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 65.2 passer rating, and 15 lost fumbles.
5 Brady Quinn
The Browns have made many poor organizational decisions since their re-entry into the league in 1999. One reason for the team’s ineptitude is that they can’t seem to find a consistent quarterback. In 2016, Cody Kessler became the 26th starting quarterback to take a snap for the team since 1999.
The Browns hoped that Notre Dame quarterback, Brady Quinn, could solve their long-standing quarterback woes. Quinn arrived in the NFL with a sterling resume. He set 36 records during his time at Notre Dame and finished third in the 2007 Heisman vote. He threw a ridiculous 39 touchdown passes during his senior season.
However, his NFL career was marred by injuries and inconsistent play. By Week 3 of the 2009 season, Quinn lost his starting job and entered a week-by-week quarterback battle with Derek Anderson.
4 Tim Couch
The Browns are getting some tough treatment on this list, but it can’t be ignored that many of their draft picks just haven’t panned out like they had hoped. Tim Couch, the team’s first overall pick in 1999, enjoyed the most success of all of the Browns’ picks on this list. Sadly, that isn’t saying much.
Couch excelled in two record-setting seasons with the Kentucky Wildcats. He threw for over 8,700 passing yards and 73 touchdowns in just his sophomore and junior seasons alone. He declared for the NFL draft in 1998 after a junior season in which he earned first-team All-SEC and SEC Player of the Year honors.
As previously mentioned, Couch did have some degree of success in Cleveland. He threw 15 touchdown passes in his rookie campaign, and most notably, led the Browns to a 9-7 record and a playoff appearance in the 2002 season. That magical run ended in a Wild Card loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
3 Tim Tebow
Before he was a minor league prospect for the New York Mets, Tim Tebow made his name in college football as the dynamic quarterback for the Florida Gators. He remains revered for his decorated four-year college career, where he guided the Gators to two national championships and three BCS bowl games.
Tebow’s muscular build was reminiscent of that of a tight end. Yet, it didn’t stop Tebow from posting terrific numbers. Tebow was a mobile quarterback, threw for 9,285 yards, and rushed for another 2,947. He had 145 total touchdowns and won the 2007 Heisman Trophy.
Scouts were skeptical about Tebow heading into the 2010 draft. They worried that his unorthodox playing style would be a detriment at the NFL level. The Broncos drafted Tebow with the 25th pick, and he started off well. He led Denver to a 7-4 record as a starter, capped off by a dramatic playoff win over the Steelers.
2 Trent Richardson
When you go from the tutelage of Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide coaching staff to the ever-changing carousel of uncertainty that is the Cleveland Browns organization, a drop off in production may be expected.
However, Trent Richardson’s fall from grace was perhaps the most devastating of all college stars. The two-time first-team All-SEC running back won two BCS National Championships during his three-year run in Tuscaloosa and finished third in the 2012 Heisman vote behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
The 2011 season was an especially stellar year for Richardson, as the All-American rushed for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns in just 13 games. He was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year at season’s end.
Richardson’s draft stock soared prior to the 2012 NFL draft, and the Browns took him third overall that spring. He rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, solid numbers for a first-year player. Yet, a September 2013 trade to Indianapolis changed everything. He struggled to produce on the field and started just 20 games over the next two seasons. He scored seven total touchdowns in that span (six rushing, one receiving) before being waived in March 2015.
1 Johnny Manziel
It’s rare that a redshirt freshman wins the Heisman Trophy. Yet, that is exactly what happened with Texas A&M quarterback, Johnny Manziel. “Johnny Football” threw for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns, and rushed for another 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns during his freshman season. He led the Aggies to a resounding victory over Oklahoma at the 2013 Cotton Bowl.
Manziel declared for the 2014 draft after his sophomore year, and the Cleveland Browns selected him with the 22nd pick.
However, his tenure in Cleveland was tumultuous, to say the least. He struggled with personal issues off the field and inconsistent play on it. He showed up late to team practices and went out partying on off-days, even after his 2015 offseason rehab stint.
The agility and explosiveness Manziel exhibited in college never manifested at the NFL level. The Browns released Manziel in March of 2016. Manziel’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, terminated his relationship with the troubled quarterback soon after.
Fortunately, these developments served as a wake-up call for Manziel, as he returned to Texas A&M this past September to take classes. One can only hope Manziel is able to turn his fortunes around and lead a life of fulfillment, whether that comes on or off the gridiron.
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