The National Football League has forever been an interesting league. The sport is the most popular in the United States and the sport has created hundreds of stars that have gone on to bigger things in their post-NFL career. The thing about the NFL and its stars is that you don’t need to be an All-American to make it big. Over the years, we have seen countless players drafted in the later rounds that have become huge stars in the NFL including Tom Brady, Marques Colston, Terrell Davis, and Shannon Sharpe.
In baseball and basketball, college success can usually be indicative of how good you will be in the pros. That isn’t the case with the NFL. College football stars are not guaranteed to do as well as other college athletes when they get drafted. For every late round success story like Brady or Sharpe, there are those first round picks that just don’t live up to the hype. Regardless of their college resume, there have been players that just couldn’t get it done in the NFL. Whether it’s because of injury or simply not being prepared for the faster game, these first and second round players that struggle are simply known as busts.
In recent years, we have seen players like Sam Bradford struggle to even stay on the field and this upcoming season will be more of the same as he has already been ruled out for the year after tearing his MCL in preseason. Other players like Tim Tebow didn’t get a fair enough chance to succeed, but that is an article for another time. Let’s take a look at the 20 biggest busts in NFL history.
20 Robert Gallery, Oakland Raiders
In a draft class that saw Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, and Sean Taylor get drafted after him, Robert Gallery ended up being one of the worst picks of the 2004 NFL Draft after being selected second overall. The former Iowa offensive lineman started every game he played except for one during his time with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. That goes to show that playing time doesn’t mean you are doing a great job. He did enough to stay employed by the Raiders, but after being drafted as a tackle, was forced to move to guard because of his inability to protect the quarterback. He was a serviceable player, but never elite, which is what you expect from the 2nd overall pick of the draft.
19 David Carr, Houston Texans
The 2002 NFL Draft wasn’t a great one for quarterbacks as Patrick Ramsey and Joey Harrington were also drafted this year, but Carr is the biggest bust of the draft. The expansion Texans had the first overall pick in the draft that season and decided to use their pick on the former Fresno St. star. With a terrible offensive line in front of him, Carr rarely had time to set himself to make a pass and met the turf a record 76 times as a rookie. In five years with the Texans, he was sacked 249 times, and finished his career in 2012 as a backup with the New York Giants. Hopefully his brother, Derek Carr, drafted by the Raiders, will be more of a success than his brother.
18 Akili Smith, Cincinnati Bengals
With the third overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Akili Smith out of Oregon. At this draft, the first three picks were used on quarterbacks with Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb being the previous two selections. Smith had a stellar college career, which warranted an early selection, but his performance never panned out in the pros. In four seasons, he made 17 starts and won just three games. He would go on to join the practice squad of the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but never played a game in the NFL after 2002.
17 Mike Williams, Detroit Lions
The NFL has not been nice to players named Mike Williams. We have seen numerous busts with the same name including the tackle that was selected 4th overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2002. In the case of the wide receiver that was selected by the Lions with the 10th pick of the 2005 draft, the road to stardom was derailed early on. Williams had great success at USC, but was forced to sit out a year after hiring an agent in hopes to entering the 2004 NFL Draft. When the Lions selected him the next year, he had gone a full year without playing competitive football and would go on to play just 22 games with the Lions and 56 games, scoring just 5 touchdowsns, in his entire NFL career.
16 Heath Shuler, Washington Redskins
Much like every team in the NFL, the Redskins have attempted to use the NFL Draft as their way of finding a franchise quarterback. Before the 1994 NFL Draft, there wasn’t more of a sure thing than the former Tennessee star, Heath Shuler. He got a chance to start as a rookie, making eight starts, but winning just one. He would go on to only make 19 appearances in three seasons with the Redskins including 13 starts. In his fourth season, he joined the New Orleans Saints and made nine starts, going 4-5 with a terrible 2:14 touchdown to interception ratio.
15 Rashaan Salaam, Chicago Bears
The first of two Chicago Bears selections to make the cut is running back Rashaan Salaam. The former Colorado running back had a remarkable collegiate career and the Bears thought it warranted the 21st pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he had his problems, but still rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 11 starts. The following season, he made just six starts with 496 yards and over the next two seasons, he would combine to make three starts with 114 yards, including just one game in 1999 with the Cleveland Browns. A disappointing end, to a promising start.
14 Courtney Brown, Cleveland Browns
In the same year that the New England Patriots selected Tom Brady in the sixth round, the Cleveland Browns used the first overall pick to take the defensive end from Penn St. The Browns thought that Brown could be the next great defensive end, but the only thing he ended up doing well was sadly getting hurt. He started all 16 games a rookie, but made just 4.5 sacks. Over the course of the next four years with the Browns, he would make just 31 starts and recorded only 12.5 sacks.
13 Cade McNown, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears used the 12th pick of the 1999 NFL Draft on this quarterback from UCLA, Cade McNown. He was the final first round pick of the 1990s in what was a terrible decade of early selections for the Bears. As a rookie, he went 2-4 with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The following season, he would make nine starts and went just 1-8. That was the last season that McNown would play in the NFL and overall, he gave the Bears 3,111 yards and 16 touchdowns.
12 Aaron Curry, Seattle Seahawks
The top pick in the 2009 NFL Draft was quarterback Matthew Stafford. In what was supposed to be a deep draft class, he turned into the lone good selection of the top 7. Aaron Curry was selected with the fourth overall pick of the draft by the Seattle Seahawks. The linebacker from Wake Forrest was thought to be the next big thing at the position, but Curry turned out to be far from that. He would make 30 starts with the Seahawks in parts of three seasons before joining the Oakland Raiders and ending his career after just two games in 2012.
11 Aundray Bruce, Atlanta Falcons
The only Atlanta Falcons first round bust to make this list is the linebacker from Auburn, Aundray Bruce. After college, he was being compared to Lawrence Taylor and the Falcons, feeling he could change the course of their franchise, used the top overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft to select him. He spent the first four seasons of his career with the Falcons and recorded just 16 sacks before joining the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders eventually tried to turn Bruce into a tight end, something that didn’t work out either.
10 Ki-Jana Carter, Cincinnati Bengals
The 1995 NFL Draft kicked off with the selection of Ki-Jana Carter from Penn St. The Cincinnati Bengals had a real winner in their backfield, but a preseason knee injury in his rookie season derailed his NFL career. He returned the following season, but ran for just 264 yards and eight touchdowns in four starts. During the next three seasons with the Bengals, he would make just 10 more starts and rush for 483 yards on 136 carries. He would also play with the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints, but his career ended with just 1,144 rushing yards.
9 Matt Leinart, Arizona Cardinals
Coming out USC, there was a lot of talk about Matt Leinart and his NFL potential. For every analyst that predicted that he would be a great quarterback, there were three others that thought that he would be a major bust. That is exactly what happened. The Cardinals drafted the left-hander with their first pick of the 2006 NFL Draft (10th overall). In four seasons with the Cardinals, Leinart would make just 17 starts and finished 7-10. Before calling it quits in 2012, he also spent time with the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders.
8 Charles Rogers, Detroit Lions
Another Detroit Lions player makes the cut with wide receiver Charles Rogers. For three straight seasons, the Lions used a first-round pick to select a wide receiver and under Matt Millen as general manager, it usually didn’t matter what round the pick came, it would be a bad one. In the case of Rogers, the former Michigan St. player would make just 15 appearances in a Detroit jersey over the course of three seasons. He finished his brief NFL career with 36 catches for 440 yards and just four touchdowns.
7 Tim Couch, Cleveland Browns
We quickly touched on Couch’s selection earlier in this list, but it wouldn’t be complete without mention of him and his terrible career. Couch was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the first overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft and aside from 2002 when he went 8-6 as the starter, he could never lead the Browns as “THE” guy. Over the course of his five year career, Couch would make 59 starts – all with the Browns – and finished with a 22-37 record. By comparison to other quarterbacks on this list, his performance wasn’t the worst, but when you are the No. 1 pick, more is expected from you.
6 Todd Marinovich, Los Angeles Raiders
Despite being one of the most loved franchises in the history of the NFL, the Raiders have made plenty of terrible decisions. These can include free agency signings with insane amounts of money or horrible draft picks. One of their worst was the 24th pick of the 1991 NFL Draft when they selected Todd Marinovich from USC. He would play with the team for just two seasons and would appear in only eight games, all of which were starts. He won just three games and threw only eight touchdowns. His career wasn’t cut short because of poor play as it was ended prematurely because of drug problems.
5 Vernon Gholston, New York Jets
Vernon Gholston was supposed to be the man to anchor the New York Jets defensive unit. The Jets used the sixth pick in the 2008 NFL Draft to anoint Gholston as the man and all he did was play 45 games and record just 16 tackles with zero sacks. As a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Gholston had played his way to an early selection in the first round, but the Jets must wish they used their pick on someone else taken later in the draft including Jerod Mayo, Ryan Clady, and Chris Johnson.
4 JaMarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders
Another Oakland Raider draft pick makes the cut in this list with the 2007 first overall pick, JaMarcus Russell. The former LSU Tiger quarterback played exceptionally well in college and got a massive payday when he was selected by the Raiders. In 25 career starts, Russell finished with a 7-18 record and had just 18 touchdowns to go with 23 interceptions. He didn’t have the best team around him when he was drafted, but he also didn’t do the team any favors by reaching more than 300 pounds.
3 Tony Mandarich, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers used the second pick of the 1989 NFL Draft on the offensive tackle, Tony Mandarich. The thing about Mandarich and his failures was that nobody ever expected it to happen. He was supposed to become the greatest offensive lineman of all time, but instead, the Packers were left with a player that would wear the green and gold for just three seasons. By using their pick on Mandarich, the Packers missed out on Hall of Fame players like Derrick Thomas, Deion Sanders, and Barry Sanders.
2 Lawrence Phillips, St. Louis Rams
The sixth pick of the 1996 NFL Draft from the St. Louis Rams was running back Lawrence Phillips. The Rams thought that the former Nebraska star was going to help lead them to victory for years. Instead, off-field issues led the team to trade him to the Miami Dolphins after making just 25 appearances with the team. Phillips finished his career in 1999 after appearing in eight games with the San Francisco 49ers. In order to draft Phillips, the Rams traded Jerome Bettis, a potential Hall of Famer, to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the rest was history.
1 Ryan Leaf, San Diego Chargers
With the No. 2 pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers selected Ryan Leaf from Washington State. With the No. 1 pick, the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning. It was the biggest argument in sports. Who would be the better pro and who would falter? After four total seasons in the NFL with three teams, Leaf finished his professional career with 3,666 passing yards and 14 touchdowns with 36 interceptions. Oh yeah, and that Peyton guy has 64,964 yards with 491 touchdowns and 219 interceptions.