The 20 Biggest Draft Busts in NFL History
Scouting and drafting talent is challenging. Despite all the measurables and statistics available to NFL franchises, drafting the next generation of franchise players for an organization is not an exact science. Sometimes the “intangibles” mean more than the measurables. Sometimes, success doesn’t translate from college to the professional game. Sometimes, players are quickly Injured and never reach their potential. Still, it seems like drafting a future star in the league is sometimes luck, and maybe a mix of art and science.
As long as there is a draft in the NFL, there will be busts. As long as there are busts, there will be franchises firing and searching for new General Managers to run the drafts in the future. In honor of the start of the NFL season (Thank goodness football is back!!!), we will take a look at some of the biggest busts in league history. Was anyone missed? Who do you think should be on here? From 20 to 1, here we go. Let’s do this!
Though this may be a disputed pick to show up in the top 20, it's hard to dispute that he never delivered the value to the Saints who drafted him. Head Coach Mike Ditka famously gave up his entire draft to trade up to get the Texas Longhorn legend. While it's true that he had a few strong seasons in his career and led the league in rushing for Miami one season, he was only in New Orleans for a short three-year period.
Despite that, he managed to make three Pro Bowls and was a two-time All Pro. He remains one of the most beloved players in Saints history, and his impact on the team is still being felt today. He's an example of why it's important for teams to never give up in the draft and always be willing to take chances on talented, young players.
Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson
The #1 overall pick of the Bengals in 1994 out of The Ohio State University, Big Daddy never established himself as the defensive line force everyone expected. Some even thought he was the best defensive line prospect in the last decade and since Reggie White. Still, he never came close to those accolades. Even though he played for a long time, he belongs on this list as a former #1 overall bust!
Big Daddy was known for his size and strength but lacked agility. He could bull rush but had little ability to make counter moves or use finesse. His pass-rush skills were decent but not great. He was also often out of position due to a lack of understanding of the defensive schemes. Despite his failures, Big Daddy remains a fan favorite due to his great size and strength. He may not have had the career he wanted or deserved, but he still has earned recognition for being one of the best defensive lineman prospects ever.
When people think of NFL draft busts, perhaps Mike Mamula doesn't come up initially. Still, he should be on this list. Taken seventh overall, this off-the-radar pick increased his draft stock by impressing scouts with his measurables at the NFL combine. So, the Eagles snatched him up and never saw the return on their high draft pick investment. He never established himself as an elite defensive player and lasted only five seasons. The Eagles traded up to get him and could have had an elite defender like Warren Sapp, who went #12 that year. Dubbed “The Workout Warrior”, Mamula deserves to be on this list. Even though he had success in college, his NFL career never showed much promise.
Mamula’s career is an example of why it’s important to look beyond the combined results and dig deeper into a player’s character. Scouting for football players isn't as simple as looking at their physical performance; some intangibles can’t be measured. Those intangibles—such as heart, determination, character, and work ethic—are just as important when assessing a player’s potential success at the NFL level. When it comes to evaluating players, scouts need to make sure they take into account the total package.
Darrius Heyward Bey
Another questionable pick by owner Al Davis and the Raiders, this speedster was surprisingly taken seventh overall by the Raiders out of Maryland in 2009. Never establishing himself as a #1 receiver on the Raiders, he has been with several teams since, mainly serving as a special teamer. Currently a free agent, this receiver was taken ahead of the likes of solid pros Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin.
The 2009 NFL Draft was a controversial one for the Raiders, as many experts questioned their selection of this receiver. Although there were some flashes of potential from the player chosen seventh overall in 2009, his career never realized its full potential, and he bounced around the league. Now a free agent, it is unclear if this receiver will ever receive another opportunity to make an impact on the NFL.
This first-round draft pick (21st overall) of the Bears never saw the same success he had in Boulder, where he was a 2,000-yard college rusher and Heisman Trophy Winner. Though he rushed for 1,000 yards as a rookie, becoming the youngest player to ever reach that number, injuries and drugs appeared to derail his career.
Sadly, he died of suicide in 2016. He was only 29.
This UCLA signal caller was taken 12th overall in 1999 by the Chicago Bears. The lefty never established himself as a franchise QB in the NFL, and the Bears quickly parted ways with their disappointing draft pick.
Supposed to be part of a great 1999 QB class that Included others like Tim Couch (see above), and Donavon McNabb, Cade McCown belongs on this list as well.
The four-year starter at Notre Dame was taken second overall by the Seattle Seahawks in 1993. Though he “enjoyed” a long 12-year NFL career, this former golden domer never lived up to the promise that he had when he left school. Sporting a 24-44 record as a starter, he certainly belongs on this list.
Additionally, the four-time Pro Bowler’s career is one of the most disappointing in Notre Dame football history. He will forever remain an enigma and has yet to be inducted into the College Football Hall Of Fame. In any event, his legacy as a Fighting Irish great remains intact.
The first overall pick in 2002 and the first-ever pick for the new Houston Texans franchise, this talented signal caller out of Fresno state never really made a mark as a starting QB. To be fair, he was sacked a league record number of times his rookie year and didn’t have much of a supporting cast.
Still, he had a terrible record in his years with the Texans, but later became a capable backup to Eli Manning and others over his career. Not what you would expect from a #1 overall pick, though!
Detroit took this big receiver at #10 in 2005. He was the third receiver taken in the first round by the Lions in three years. This big, physical receiver never became a star in the league and retired in 2011. His size, speed, and physicality made him a dangerous weapon that was hard to defend against. He had some impressive games for the Lions but never reached the potential he was drafted for.
Unfortunately, his career ended without any major achievements. Despite this, Mike Williams remains an important part of Detroit's history and is remembered fondly by fans of Motor City. His legacy will live on in the memories of football fans everywhere. Thanks, Mike! Go Lions!
Can anyone see a theme here? If you are a skill position player and get drafted by Matt Millen and the Detroit Lions, you will not be successful. The second of three such players on our list, Rogers seemed to be a can’t-miss prospect as he was taken second overall out of Michigan State in 2002.
Still, he missed and never reached what thought could be his potential due to injuries and other issues off the field.
The Heisman trophy-winning and Oklahoma Sooner QB was the first overall pick in 2010 by the then-St. Louis Rams. He started off hot by completing an NFL record number of passes as a rookie.
Then, he suddenly became injury-prone. Suffering through injuries most of his career, the journeyman did not become the breakout start that many expected.
The Jets took this OLB sixth overall in 2008 after a great season at The Ohio State University. Vernon Gholston was supposed to be a top-notch rusher and was expected to get after the quarterback, but this Jet never recorded a sack in the NFL. Despite being a top-six selection, Gholston was quickly labeled a bust and released by the team after just three seasons.
Gholston's failure to perform will always be remembered as one of the Jets' biggest disappointments in recent memory. While it's easy to point fingers at the front office for selecting him, the reality is that Gholston never lived up to the hype he was given coming out of college. He couldn't generate any pressure off the edge or consistently win his matchups, which you need in a 3–4 scheme.
Joey Harrington Jr.
Perhaps we're being too hard on the Detroit Lions and former GM Matt Millen here, but as the third Millen draftee on this list, it's clear to see why Millen did not have a successful, if not long, run in Detroit. Harrington was projected to be a franchise QB when he was taken third overall out of Oregon in 2002.
Still, success was hard to find and he only lasted several years in the league, and only four with Detroit. Some blamed coaching and the organization for his lack of success. Still, as a third pick, he belongs on this list.
Highly regarded out of Oregon, the Bengals drafted him third overall in the 1999 draft. Only fellow signal callers Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb were drafted before him that year. In four years with the Bengals, he started only 17 games and was said to not have worked hard enough on learning the playbook to be successful. He also had stints in NFL Europe and the CFL in his underwhelming career.
The Bengals released him in 2003. Since then, he has been making a living as a radio and TV analyst. His story is a reminder of how difficult it is to make it as an NFL quarterback.
This Heisman Trophy-Winning QB was taken first overall by the longtime-losing QB-searching Cleveland Browns in 1999. Though he did manage to help lead the Browns to the playoffs, he only lasted five years for the team that took him #1 overall.
Even though he does belong on this list, he did marry a Playboy Playmate (Heather Kozar), so at least he has that going for him.
Surprisingly out of the league already, this Alabama Heisman Trophy Winner was taken third overall by Cleveland in 2012. Showing some initial promise, this quickly fizzled out and he was traded away to Indianapolis within a couple of years. He didn't stick there either and was let go and never caught on with anyone else.
Because many considered him the best running back prospect in a decade, and he never took off in the NFL, he deserves to be high on this list.
This unbelievably dominant college left tackle out of Michigan State was taken #2 overall by the Green Bay Packers in the 1989 draft. Also playing for the Colts throughout his seven-year career, “The Incredible Bulk” never lived up to the promise of his hype (and Sports Illustrated Cover). To add insult to injury, he was the only player picked in the top five that year that isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Troy Aikman was taken first, then Mandarich, then Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. Do you think the Packers would have rather taken one of those guys? No doubt!
Selected #1 overall in the 1995 draft out of Penn State, this talented college running back never reached his potential in the NFL. He struggled with injury problems in his short career and never became the perennial 1,000 yard back that many thought he would be.
To make matters worse, the Bengals selected Carter ahead of several Hall of Famers to be, including Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. Still, HOF RBs Curtis Martin and Terrell Davis were taken in this draft! Ouch!
A physical presence and strong-armed QB out of LSU, the aging and increasingly incompetent Al Davis of the Raiders took Russell #1 overall in the 2007 draft. He quickly developed a reputation for being lazy and was out of the league very quickly.
Compiling only a 7-18 record as a starter, the Raiders gave up on him in 2010. Few would argue that he belongs near the top of this list!
As upset as Chargers fans were about the bust that Ryan Leaf was, is it possible that Colts fans were as happy that their franchise selected Peyton Manning #1 in the 1998 NFL draft, instead of Leaf? At the time, it was considered a toss up about who was the better prospect, Manning or Leaf. The Colts chose wisely at #1 and elected to draft the future Hall of Famer, Manning, who started over a decade run at the helm for his team.
Leaf, however, struggled in San Diego, and ultimately had substance abuse problems. He belongs high on this list since he didn’t reach what many considered his high potential.
We thought we should also recognize some other well-known busts as “Honorable Mentions" here. These are folks that didn’t quite make the list, but very well could have. Johnny Manziel, Jeff George, Andre Ware, David Klinger, Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn, Blair Thomas, Robert Griffin III, Kyle Boller, Roy Williams WR, Vince Young, Maurice Clarett, Courtney Brown, Andre Wadsworth...
Who else do you think should be on this list?