Top 20 NFL Players Who Should Have Been Better Than They Were

Russell Wilson is currently locked in a contentious contract dispute with his team, the Seattle Seahawks. As a third round pick earning a third rounder’s salary, Wilson has been the most criminally underpaid player since entering the league. However, two Super Bowl appearances, including a Super Bowl XLVIII victory, in three seasons has earned him quite a bit of leverage in negotiations. Whether Seattle decides to pay Wilson a top-tier salary remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Russell Wilson has exceeded all expectations.

Players like Wilson are scattered throughout the league: guys who nobody saw coming. Guys like Tom Brady, who had to wait for six other quarterbacks to hear their names called on draft day before he could go win his four Super Bowls. Guys like Arian Foster, who is still waiting for that draft day call four Pro Bowls and a rushing title later. These are the guys who came into the league and put it all together. They hit their peak in the pros and capitalized on every ounce of their potential.

But for every Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Arian Foster, there are dozens of players whose full potential goes unrealized. These are the guys who will frustrate you to no end. Sometimes it’s a high draft pick crushed under the weight of colossal expectations, sometimes it’s a talented but troubled player plagued by off-field issues, and too often it’s a player whose promising career is cut short by injury. These are the guys who have it all in college only to have it all fall apart in the pros. These are the guys who have had great success in the league but they should have had even greater. Whatever the case, NFL history is littered with players whose careers are defined by what could have been.

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20 Adam "Pacman" Jones

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The legal issues of Adam “Pacman” Jones were well documented leading up to the 2005 NFL Draft. The Tennessee Titans decided to roll the dice anyway, selecting the electrifying cornerback with the sixth overall pick. Sure enough, before even taking the field for the Titans, Jones was arrested on assault and vandalism charges after a nightclub altercation. The legal woes continued, culminating with Jones’ involvement in a 2007 Las Vegas shooting. For his involvement, Jones was suspended for the entire 2007 season. Since leaving Tennessee, Jones has played for the Dallas Cowboys, took a detour to the CFL, and has now settled with the Cincinnati Bengals. After an All-Pro 2014 season as a return specialist, it looks as though Jones may be able to salvage the twilight of his once promising career.

19 Lawrence Phillips

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Another sixth overall pick and another guy who couldn’t stay out of trouble. A two-time National Champion with the Nebraska Cornhuskers powerhouse football program, Phillips likely would have been selected even higher if not for sky high character concerns. Following the St. Louis Rams selection of Phillips, player-turned-analyst Joe Theismann conceded “this is not a league of angels” while attempting to defend the pick. Theismann predicted “this is a young man who will put [his legal issues] behind him and be a better football player.” He was wrong. After a brief and underwhelming NFL career, Phillips is now serving more than 30 years in prison for charges including domestic violence and felony assault with a deadly weapon.

18 Justin Blackmon

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Yet another player plagued by off-field issues. Blackmon’s transgressions haven’t landed him in prison, but they have landed him on the sideline for nearly his entire NFL career. The Jacksonville Jaguars selected the prolific Oklahoma State wide receiver with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, Blackmon has been haunted by drug and alcohol abuse since entering the league. When he has been on the field, he’s been terrific. He led all rookies in receiving in 2012 and posted monster numbers in his sophomore season before being handed an indefinite suspension for multiple substance abuse violations. On May 10th, 2015, Blackmon was denied reinstatement and his NFL future appears in doubt.

17 Randy Moss

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Randy Moss is a great player. A future Hall of Fame player. He was also the victim of his own lackadaisical attitude. He’s certainly not the first diva receiver, but he did popularize his own brand of “play when I want to” football. Following his first down year in Minnesota, Moss was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 2005 where he proceeded to lose interest in football and fade into obscurity. When traded to the New England Patriots two seasons later, a rejuvenated Moss broke Jerry Rice’s single season touchdown record upon arrival. Once ousted from New England, Moss regressed to his disinterested, locker room obstructive ways during a brief reunion with Minnesota, as well as stints with Tennessee and San Francisco. Moss is an all time great receiver. But he could have been the greatest.

16 Andre Ware

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Despite winning the Heisman Trophy, rewriting the NCAA record books, and being selected with the seventh overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, Andre Ware found himself on riding the bench for most of his NFL career. He played in just 14 games during that time and, after smashing nearly every collegiate passing statistic at Houston, compiled an uninspiring 5 - 8 touchdown to interception ratio in the pros. After bouncing around training camps with the Los Angeles Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars, Ware ventured north to the Canadian Football League. However, he was unable to secure a starting job. Ware’s greatest professional football success came in 1997, when he backed up Doug Flutie on the way to a Grey Cup Championship.

15 Reggie Bush

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Reggie Bush is a good NFL player, but he shouldn’t be. He should be great. Bush was seen as the consensus number one pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, but the Houston Texans shocked the football world by taking defensive end Mario Williams at that position. The New Orleans Saints pounced on Bush with their number two selection. During ESPN’s draft broadcast, Mel Kiper Jr. compared Bush to Gale Sayers or a “more explosive” Marshall Faulk. Instead, Bush has carved out a nice career as a poor man’s Marshall Faulk. And after winning the Heisman Trophy, the National Championship, and numerous other accolades while at USC, more was expected. Bush hasn’t been plagued with major injuries or troubled by legal issues or surrounded by a lackluster supporting cast. He’s just good. Not great.

14 Aundray Bruce

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The Atlanta Falcons selected Aundray Bruce with the number one overall selection in the 1988 NFL Draft hoping to find a savior for their struggling defensive unit. The 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound linebacker was coming off an All-SEC, All-American season for the Auburn Tigers and seemed poised to answer the call. Unfortunately for Bruce and the Falcons, the mental aspect of the game never clicked at the professional level. Struggling to grasp the complicated schemes of an NFL playbook, Bruce started just 41 games over an 11-year career and never blossomed into the superstar the Falcons hoped he would be. After trying him out at tight end for a stretch, Atlanta gave up on Bruce at the end of his fourth year in the league.

13 Ricky Williams

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Ricky Williams had the pedigree and the production coming out of college. New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka mortgaged his entire draft to select the Texas running back with the fifth pick in 1999. However, Williams posted mediocre numbers during his time in New Orleans and was ultimately traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002. And then…he erupted. In his first year with the Dolphins, Williams rushed for more than 1,800 yards on his way to First-Team All-Pro honors. He carried that production into the next year. And then, two days before training camp of the 2004 season…he retired. Having failed multiple tests for marijuana, Williams retreated to California to study holistic Indian medicine. The Dolphins went 4 - 12. Williams returned to football in 2005 and enjoyed modest success, but his atypical personality never lent itself to NFL greatness.

12 Vernon Gholston

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There are few players who have dominated the NFL combine like Vernon Gholston did in 2008. There are fewer players who have had less on-field production. With all the measurables of a dominant defensive playmaker, the New York Jets selected Gholston with the sixth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, converting the collegiate defensive end to a stand-up outside linebacker in New York’s 3-4 defensive scheme. The transition did not go smoothly. Gholston rarely saw the field his rookie year, but optimism arrived the following season in the form of defensive guru Rex Ryan as head coach. However, the hope that Ryan might harness Gholston’s untapped potential quickly vanished and the Jets released him after just three seasons. Gholston has since attended training camps with Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, but hasn’t played a snap since 2010. He never recorded a sack in his NFL career.

11 Charles Rogers

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Few receivers have entered the league with as much acclaim as Michigan State’s Charles Rogers. Having been selected number two overall by the Detroit Lions, behind only Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer, expectations for Rogers were enormous. But a broken clavicle ended his rookie season after only five games. In the first game of the following season, Rogers suffered yet another broken clavicle. Granted leave from team activities for the remainder of the season, Rogers dealt with the emotional distress of the setback by smoking marijuana daily. He was subsequently suspended the first four games of the 2005 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Out of shape and two years removed from meaningful snaps, Rogers recorded just 14 receptions and a single touchdown during his third season. He was released that offseason and never played another down in the NFL.

10 Robert Gallery

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The Oakland Raiders made Robert Gallery the second overall pick of a star-studded 2004 NFL draft class. Amongst names like Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, and Philip Rivers, Gallery was touted as a once-in-a-generation type talent. A true “can’t miss” prospect. And while Gallery’s career is far from a misfire, it’s not the bullseye most expected. He performed serviceably at right tackle for the Raiders in his first two seasons before struggling mightily in the transition to left tackle in his third year. He was eventually moved to guard where he performed with far greater success during the latter part of his career. Nevertheless, top three selections are meant for franchise left tackles, not solid offensive guards and Gallery never delivered.

9 Albert Haynesworth

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The fifteenth overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, Haynesworth enjoyed a fine career that became utterly dominant by 2007. Yet several violent outbursts over the years tainted his reputation around the league. Most notably in 2006, when he appeared to remove Cowboys center Andre Gurode’s helmet before stomping on his head. Haynesworth was ejected from that game and suspended five weeks. Despite these concerns, the Washington Redskins signed free agent defensive tackle to a $100 million contract in 2009. However, Haynesworth would later admit that he lost his passion for the game after receiving the enormous payday. He arrived to training camp out of shape and unhappy about playing the nose tackle role in Washington’s 3-4 scheme. Haynesworth amassed a paltry 6.5 sacks in two seasons with the Redskins before being traded to New England. The Patriots released him later that season.

8 Larry Johnson

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The Kansas City Chiefs selected Larry Johnson late in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft, despite protests from head coach Dick Vermeil. Using Johnson as little more than a change-of- pace back during his first two years, the Penn State product was forced into action after an injury sidelined starter Priest Holmes seven weeks into the 2005 season. Upon taking over, Johnson could not be stopped. Having not started until week eight, he still rushed for a ridiculous 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns. He followed that up with a 1,789 yard, 17-touchdown campaign the following year. After holding out for a new contract in 2007, Johnson suffered a mid-season injury that ended his year. From there, his career was beset by violations of team rules, suspensions, and decreased productivity. He went on to play for Cincinnati, Washington, and Miami but found little success. Johnson’s two 1,700-yard campaigns were his only seasons with more than 900 yards rushing.

7 Maurice Clarett

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In 2002, Maurice Clarett was on top of the world. He set a freshman rushing record at Ohio State on their way to an undefeated National Championship season. During the ensuing offseason, Clarett’s world came crashing down as he found himself surrounded by scandal. Allegations of improper benefits, academic fraud, and filing a false police report led to his dismissal from the university before the start of his sophomore year. He moved to Los Angeles and sued to become eligible for the upcoming NFL Draft. Clarett lost the case and developed a bad drug and alcohol habit while in LA. Finally eligible for the 2005 NFL Draft, Clarett was unexpectedly selected in the third round by Denver despite being two years removed from football. Unfortunately, memories were all that was left of that 2002 season. Clarett never found his NFL form and was released before the season.

6 Tim Couch

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Some players who don’t pan out in the NFL are victims of circumstance. Some are victims of their own ability. Selected by the expansion-Cleveland Browns with the first overall pick in 1999, Tim Couch was likely a victim of both. With Browns owner Art Modell moving his organization to Baltimore in 1996, all that was left of the team in Ohio was it’s name. After a three year hiatus, football in Cleveland was starting from scratch. Saddled with a shoddy and inexperienced offensive line, Couch spent much of his time on the Browns running for his life or nursing injury. He managed to steer Cleveland to a playoff appearance in 2002, but was otherwise harassed by fans and engaged in a perpetual competition for the starting job with Kelly Holcomb. Couch was released in 2004 and never caught on with another team.

5 Tony Mandarich

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Possibly the most lauded offensive line prospect in history, Tony Mandarich was selected number two overall by the Green Bay Packers in the 1989 NFL Draft. The next three selections were Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. While those players went on to have Hall of Fame careers, Sports Illustrated tauted Mandarich as “The NFL’s Incredible Bust” just four years later. A protracted rookie holdout, attitude problems  and substance abuse got Mandarich off to a bad start in Green Bay. Things only got worse. It was speculated that steroid use was a key factor in his failure at the NFL level, something Mandarich himself would later confirm. Released by the Packers in 1992, Mandarich eventually sought help for his substance abuse problems in 1995 and earned a spot with the Indianapolis Colts the following year. He managed several seasons of solid play before retiring due to injury.

4 Terrell Davis

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Terrell Davis enjoyed the kind of success few NFL players could ever hope to achieve, let alone a sixth round pick. But it’s that he accomplished so much in such a short career that’s truly incredible. Davis had four amazing seasons, each one better than the last. In his rookie year he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and notched 7 touchdowns. In year two, he ran for 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns in his third year. And 2,008 yards with 21 touchdowns in his fourth. Sadly, significant nagging injuries derailed his career shortly after. Despite the brevity of Davis’ NFL tenure, it stands out as one of the most successful in NFL history. He is one of only six players to have more than 1,000 yards rushing in a postseason career. Davis amassed that total in three postseasons. The players with the next fewest postseasons (Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith) did it in eight.

3 Ryan Leaf

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The 1998 NFL Draft was defined by its quarterbacks. Desperate for a QB, the San Diego Chargers traded up to the second pick to guarantee they’d land either Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf. When Indianapolis selected Manning first, San Diego snatched Leaf, a Heisman finalist and Pac-10 Player of the Year, number at two. It didn’t seem like a bad consolation at the time. Yet now the name Ryan Leaf is synonymous with “bust.” Both Manning and Leaf were expected to make great franchise quarterbacks. But while Manning had the attitude to match the ability, Leaf did not. Possible character concerns surrounding Leaf exploded during his first year. Struggling on the field and abrasive in the locker room, Leaf was benched midway through his rookie season while teammates and fans alike grew tired of his antics. He missed his second year due to injury and, despite a Sports Illustrated cover story hailing Leaf as “Back from the Brink” leading into his third season, Leaf’s career never got off the runway. Never able to overcome his own personality, Leaf wore out his welcome with San Diego and the league by 2001.

2 Sterling Sharpe

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The Green Bay Packers seventh overall selection in 1988, Sterling Sharpe was a star from the very beginning. After a successful rookie campaign, his sophomore season was even better. He posted 90 receptions for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns, breaking several team records held by the legendary Don Hutson. And when Brett Favre took over the quarterback spot in 1992, they quickly became one of the most dynamic passing duos in the league. But in 1994 Sharpe’s career was cut short following a severe neck injury, ending one of the most successful tenures by a young receiving tight end in NFL history. Upon Sterling’s younger brother Shannon being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the younger Sharpe claimed “I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame, and I’m the second best player in my own family.”

1 Greg Cook

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In 1969, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Walsh had just drafted a hometown quarterback named Greg Cook. Having coached the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young, Walsh would go on to say that Cook “could very well have been remembered as the greatest quarterback of all time.” In his rookie season, Cook led Bengals to a 3 - 0 start before tearing his rotator cuff. With limited medical knowledge of this type of injury at the time, team doctors held Cook out of game action for just three weeks. Playing through the injury, Cook still managed to lead the league in passing and win Rookie of the Year. However, by the time he finally had surgery on the shoulder in the offseason, the injuries had worsened beyond repair. Cook would attempt to salvage his career, but unsuccessfully. He was released at 27 years old, never to play another down. His former teammate Bob Trump would say years later, “I don’t know what he would’ve done if he’d played ten or twelve years. I think my fingers would probably be filled with Super Bowl rings.”

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