Only in sports is a 30-years-old considered over the hill. In real life, you are not even middle-aged, but in most sports you are considered to be on the back-nine of your career. Football is even more drastic as 90 percent of NFL players don’t even play until they reach the age of 30. Hell, most players don’t even reach the age of 25 as the average NFL career lasts just 3.4 years.
There are multiple reasons as to why an NFL player is done by the age of 25. The most obvious is talent, or rather lack thereof. Players spent all of pee-wee football, all of high school football and all of college football being hot stuff; but when matched up against the one-percenters of the football world, it was clear they couldn’t hack it.
Another reason why players don’t last that long is due to injuries. Football is a collision sport and those collisions often lead to early retirements. Add in the recent CTE findings and players are retiring earlier and earlier than ever before. Besides a lack of talent and injury, off-the-field problems can cause a career to get cut short. A player’s best ability is their availability and that can be compromised due to legal issues, drug problems or a combination of both.
We will revisit some of these players who, essentially, peaked in high school and didn’t have lasting NFL careers for whatever reason. Here are 15 NFL high school phenoms who were finished by 25.
15 Trent Richardson
Pensacola, Florida can lay claim to producing the most prolific rusher in NFL history (Emmitt Smith) and maybe the biggest running back bust in NFL history, Trent Richardson. The two even went to the same high school but as Smith headed east to Florida, T-Rich headed north to Alabama. In his three years with the Tide, Richardson won two national championships, set Alabama’s single-season rushing mark and was a unanimous All-American. Stardom in the NFL seemed a given, but Richardson, by his own admission, became lazy once he went pro. He was chosen third overall by the Browns in 2012 but lasted just 17 games in Cleveland before being traded to Indianapolis.
Things weren’t much better there and he was cut after the 2014 season. He then had short stints with Oakland and Baltimore, but never played in a regular season game with either team. As it stands, his last NFL game was in 2014, and his career rushing average is 3.3. However, we may not have seen the last of T-Rich as he did play in the CFL in the 2017 season, although he played in just four games.
14 Johnathan Gray
Forget being done by 25, Gray’s career was done by 21, which is sad considering he might be the greatest Texas high school running back ever. Gray grew up in the Dallas area where he broke the state’s single-season and career marks for touchdowns. Texas has produced Adrian Peterson, Earl Campbell, LaDainian Tomlinson, Thurman Thomas and Eric Dickerson, just to name a few, but Gray scored more touchdowns than all of them. He then went to the University of Texas where two torn Achilles tendons essentially ended his career. Gray rushed for fewer touchdowns in three years at Texas (14) than he recorded in any single season in high school.
He went undrafted in 2016, and despite interest from some NFL teams, he has never signed a professional contract. It’s appearing that Gray’s final carry in a competitive football game will have come in his junior year of college in 2014.
13 Dorial Green-Beckham
DGB was supposed to be the best Beckham in the NFL after a historic high school career. When he was done playing ball in Springfield, Missouri, Beckham was the nation’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Not his high school or his state’s leading receiver…DGB had more receiving yards than any high schooler EVER! He stayed in-state and enrolled at Missouri where he led the SEC in receiving touchdowns as a sophomore, but was then dismissed after his second arrest. He then transferred to Oklahoma but never played a game due to the transfer rules. He took his chances in the 2015 draft and was selected in the second round by the Titans. However, DGB lasted just one season in Tennessee before being traded to the Eagles in 2016.
Just as with Missouri, Oklahoma and the Titans, DGB’s stay in Philly was short as he was cut after the season. At 24 years old, he is currently a street free agent and has had zero known workouts since being cut by the Eagles.
12 Greg Robinson
A fair question to ask is, “Can you be finished if you never truly got started?” That’s what people are asking about offensive tackle Greg Robinson, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Robinson was a standout prep player who played in the US Army All-American Bowl in high school and was then First Team All-SEC at Auburn. Robinson appears to be the classic example of a player who got paid and simply stopped trying. He was frequently overweight in his three seasons with the Rams and was even a healthy scratch at times.
He was traded for a lowly sixth round draft pick in 2017 to Detroit but he showed much of the same subpar play in Motown as he did with the Rams. He was oft-injured in Detroit and was plain ineffective when he actually played. In November 2017, the Lions waived the second-overall pick of the 2014 draft.
11 Bryce Brown
Brown is one of the few players ever to be named a two-time USA Today All-American while in high school. He was dominant in Wichita, Kansas, which was the same city that had produced Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers. Brown was such a hot prospect that his trainer created a website in which he sold recruitment updates about Brown for $9.99 a month. Brown enrolled at Tennessee but after a solid freshman year, he suddenly disappeared. He would emerge but soon after, Brown announced he would be transferring to Kansas State. After sitting out the 2010 season due to the transfer, Brown would carry the ball all of three times in the 2011 season with KSU.
With 104 college rushing attempts under his belt, Brown declared for the 2012 NFL Draft where he was taken in the seventh round. He was average, at best, in the NFL and played for three teams over four seasons. His last carry came in the 2015 season with the Seahawks. Bryce’s brother, Arthur Brown, also flamed out in the NFL and he was cut from Seattle during the 2017 offseason.
10 Justin Blackmon
Blackmon wasn’t just a phenom in football as he was a four-sport star at Ardmore Plainview High School in Oklahoma. In football, he received All-American honors with 16 touchdowns on offense and 4 touchdowns on defense. In track, he was the state champion in the long jump and placed second in the high jump. Blackmon also played baseball as well as basketball where he was Conference MVP as a junior. He smashed OK State records in Stillwater as he became just the second player ever to win the Biletnikoff Award twice. That led to him being the fifth overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2012 draft. But personal problems plagued Blackmon in the NFL and he’s been arrested or suspended at least five times since the 2012 season.
His last NFL action came as a 23-year-old in the 2013 season, but he did complete the terms of a state-sponsored rehab program in August 2017. However, he has not yet been reinstated by the NFL, and it appears his career is over.
9 Sergio Kindle
Kindle was a legend in Texas when he was barely old enough to drive. In 2005, he became the only player in the history of high school football in Texas to be named All-State on both offense and defense. He was the second-ranked defensive player in the Class of 2006 and stayed local as he went to UT. With the Longhorns, Kindle was an All-American and recorded 2.5 sacks in his final game vs. Alabama in the 2010 BCS Title Game. Kindle was a second-round pick by the Ravens, but before he played in his first game he fell down a flight of stairs and fractured his skull. He did not see the field while recovering from his injury as a rookie and played only three games over the next two seasons. Kindle’s last action came as a 25-year-old in the 2012 season, and his entire NFL career consists of one tackle.
8 Ray Drew
There were two five-star defensive ends in the Class of 2011. One was Jadeveon Clowney and the other was Ray Drew. While Clowney went to a South Carolina team that accentuated his skills, Drew went to a Georgia team that masked his abilities. Georgia played a 3-4 defense and Drew was a poor fit in that scheme as he shuffled between linebacker and defensive end. In four seasons in Athens, Drew recorded 7.5 sacks, with 6.0 of those coming in his junior year. Twenty-three defensive ends were selected in the 2015 NFL Draft, but Drew wasn’t one of them and had to go the undrafted route. He bounced around on four different offseason/practice squads without ever appearing in an NFL game. While Clowney became a Pro Bowler at the age of 23, Drew had to head to Canada to continue his pro career. Currently, he plays for the Montreal Alouettes.
7 Vernon Gholston
Looks like Tarzan. Plays like Jane. That's Jets fans talking about Gholston.
Gholston certainly had the look of someone destined to be a star and he lived up to those expectations while in high school. At Cass Tech in Detroit, Gholston was a standout on both sides of the ball earning All-State recognition for his work on the offensive and defensive lines. He stuck to defense at Ohio State where he made two All-Big Ten teams and left fifth on the school’s all-time sacks list. He was then the sixth overall pick by the Jets in 2008 and was projected to be a Terrell Suggs-like LB/DE hybrid. But Gholston’s skills that were on display in high school and college were non-existent in the pros. He played three years with the Jets, but did not record a single sack. He was cut by the Jets in 2011, but has not played a game since then, meaning his NFL career ended at the age of 24. He is now a vice president for a horticultural therapy company in New Jersey.
6 Tim Tebow
Tebow may not think he’s finished (as a football player) but the rest of the NFL does. The Philippines-born, Jacksonville-raised Tebow essentially had his choice of high schools to play for as he was home-schooled. He ended up at Nease High School, which ran the spread option, AKA the only offense Tebow can be successful in. Tebow was named Florida’s Mr. Football and was named to the state’s All-Century Team. Success would follow Tebow at the University of Florida as he won two national championships, the Heisman and set numerous NCAA and SEC records.
For some reason Josh McDaniels thought he was worthy of a first-round pick, but Tebow proved the skeptics right with his lack of an NFL arm. Despite winning a playoff game in his second season, Tebow was dumped immediately afterward in a trade to the Jets. In his lone season with the Jets, Tebow had 32 rush attempts compared to 8 pass attempts, and he took his last NFL snap at the age of 25. He’s spent some time with the Patriots and Eagles since then, but his future appears to be confined to broadcasting and minor league baseball.
5 Kyle Prater
Prater was a unanimous top-five overall prospect in the Class of 2010. He was a wide receiver in the Chicago area and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch while also contributing 150 tackles on defense. Prater moved from the Midwest to the West Coast as he decided to go to USC, but he left the school after just two seasons and one reception. He then transferred back home and Northwestern where he was a backup for two seasons. He finally got the chance to be a starter as a fifth-year senior in 2014 and responded with 51 receptions.
But the promise that Prater showed as a high school player had all but disappeared and he failed to get drafted in 2015. He managed to sign with the Saints and played a couple of preseason games with them, but didn’t even survive the first cut. With his football career now over, Prater has started a production company which showcases the world’s best athletes, brands and products.
4 Matt Elam
Elam was a multi-dimensional weapon at Dwyer High School in Florida as he played linebacker, defensive back, running back and wide receiver. As a senior, he ran for over 1,800 yards and 29 touchdowns, while also contributing six sacks and two interceptions as a safety. He was named the 2009 Mr. Football in Florida and took his talents upstate to the University of Florida. At UF, Elam became a starter in his sophomore season and became an All-American by his junior season.
He was then a first-round pick by the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2013 but he never found the same success in the pros as an amateur. He recorded just one interception in his three years with the Ravens, which is one fewer than the number of arrests he had. He last played as a 25-year-old in the 2016 season and went unsigned during 2017. If he is signed by a team, he will have to serve a six-game suspension due to one of the arrests violating NFL policy.
3 Dee Milliner
Before he was a New York Jets bust, Milliner was one of the most accomplished players in Alabama high school history. He started varsity as a freshman and earned a Deion Sanders-like reputation as opposing quarterbacks avoided throwing in his direction. He still managed to become a USA Today All-American and was the top-ranked cornerback in the Class of 2010. He stayed in-state and went to Alabama, where he won two BCS Championships and was a unanimous first-team All American. However, he also had five surgeries at 'Bama, and that should have been a sign of things to come. He was drafted by the Jets in 2013, and “shockingly” he couldn’t stay healthy. He was hurt every season and it was clear that all of the injuries had taken a toll on his play. Milliner’s last game came at the age of 24 in 2015, and when it was all over, he had more surgeries than he had interceptions (3).
2 Melvin Alaeze
In 2005, Alaeze was the top high school player in Maryland and the top defensive end in the country. He planned on enrolling at the University of Maryland, but did not qualify academically and spent a year in a boarding school. When 2006 came around, Alaeze was arrested, which violated the terms of his financial aid with Maryland, and he was released from his scholarship. He then went to Illinois, where he played all of one game before being suspended which, again, caused his scholarship to be revoked. Then on Christmas Eve in 2006, Alaeze shot a man during an armed robbery attempt and was charged with first-degree attempted murder. The charge was downgraded to first-degree assault, but Alaeze was still sentenced to eight years in prison. The number one defensive end in his class never even made it to the NFL and played all of one game in college football.
1 JaMarcus Russell
It’s arguable that Russell was done the moment he signed a $68 million contract with the Raiders. But before that, he was one of the greatest players in Alabama high school history as he was a four-year starter at quarterback. By the end of his high school career, Russell had thrown for the most yards in Alabama high school history, and that history includes players like Bart Starr, Ken Stabler and Philip Rivers. He won a BCS Championship ring as a redshirt freshman at LSU, but had elevated himself into the top QB in the country by his final season in college. That led him to being the first-overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft by Oakland.
By now you’re familiar what happened after that, as Russell’s desire to be lazy outweighed his desire to be great. He flamed out of the NFL at the age of 24 and never received a second opportunity. He’s staged multiple comeback attempts but no NFL team has even brought him in for their offseason squad.