The picks are in, the NFL Draft is complete and we have virtually no greater insight into how NFL teams will fare, because the draft is the ultimate crapshoot. Systems are complex. The variables are too many to account for. Every Peyton Manning has an equally touted Ryan Leaf. Since the mistakes are infinitely more interesting than the successes, here are the top ten NFL Draft busts since 1996.
So, first, a few parameters. Guys who blew out their knee – Enis, Wadsworth etc. – were left off the list, as were guys who weren’t top ten picks. The basic criteria were (a) level of disappointment compared to projections and (b) how much it cost the team to obtain the player.
The list follows, in order.
Ryan Leaf [No. 2, Chargers, 1998] Analysts seriously argued Leaf would be better than Peyton Manning. The Chargers traded two first-round picks, a second-rounder and Eric Metcalf to move up one spot to No. 2 and draft Leaf. They gave him a then-record $11.25 million signing bonus. The Washington State star promised “a 15-year-career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego.” He produced 14 touchdowns to 36 interceptions, a string of fights with anyone who came within a five-foot radius and was out of the NFL by 25 with a 50.0 career passer rating.
Akili Smith [No. 3, Bengals, 1999] Smith leapt up draft boards after throwing 32 touchdowns as a senior at Oregon. His NFL performance was abysmal. He started 17 games and threw only five touchdown passes over four seasons. To draft him the Bengals turned down a nine-pick offer from the Saints – who were trying to draft Ricky Williams – including three first-rounders and a second. They thought it was “the right time to draft a quarterback.”
JaMarcus Russell [No. 1, Raiders, 2007] He looked like the uber-prospect out of LSU, 6’6” 265lbs with a cannon for an arm. However, he held out until September of his rookie season and never recovered. He played three disappointing seasons before the Raiders released him in 2009. He gained 40 lbs, cultivated an affinity for the drank and bought this incredible coat. Somehow, despite making more than $30 million during his brief career, he went into foreclosure on a $2.4 million house.
Lawrence Phillips [No. 6, Rams, 1996] How great was Lawrence Phillips at Nebraska? He was so great he was arrested for brutalizing his girlfriend and Tom Osborne let him back on the field that season. The Rams traded 24-year-old Jerome Bettis to draft him. He ran for 3.3 yards per carry over two seasons, being released midway through the second for insubordination. After missing the 1998 season, he returned with the 49ers. His missed block ended Steve Young’s career. At age 24, he was out of the NFL.
Vernon Gholston [No. 6, Jets, 2008] Gholston was a monster at Ohio State, setting the school’s sack record his final season. He looked spectacular in spandex, running a 4.5 40-yard-dash and tying the then bench-press record of 37 reps. Once joining the NFL he disappeared. The Jets tried him at both linebacker and defensive end without success. Rex Ryan thought he was a phony. He needed only one sack, forced fumble or fumble recovery over three seasons to trigger a $9 million escalator clause in his contract. He couldn’t do it.
Charles Rogers [No. 2, Lions, 2003] He defined “freakish athleticism,” breaking almost every receiving record at Michigan State. As the Lions found out, he liked to party, which didn’t help his football career. He broke his collarbone five games into his rookie year, broke it again in the first game his second year. His third year he was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, played terribly and couldn’t “get low” enough for Rod Marinelli’s taste. Rogers has been out of the league since the Lions released him after 2005. Counting merely his signing bonus, Rogers made $253,000 per reception. He was chosen one pick ahead of Andre Johnson.
Mike Williams [No. 10, Lions, 2005] A consensus All-American at USC, he initially declared for the 2004 draft, but was caught out by the Maurice Clarett ruling and forced to miss a season. He was a dynamo on Kiper’s big board and the Viper became Jimmy Clausen-level irate as he fell to the Lions at 10. He had two terrible seasons with the Lions, was traded for a fourth-round pick in 2007. He received chances from Lane Kiffin in Oakland and Norm Chow at Tennessee, showing up at 271 pounds. He had a bit of a resurgence under Carroll last year, after sitting out two seasons.
Mike Williams [No. 4, Bills, 2002] A lineman out of Texas, he was projected to become a franchise-foundation left-tackle. Buffalo tried him at both tackle positions and finally at guard, before giving up on him. He was taken three picks before Outland trophy-winner and eventual Pro Bowler Bryant McKinnie. He lost his job to undrafted free agent Jason Peters, now a four-time Pro Bowler. He was basically out of the NFL after four seasons.
Tim Couch [No. 1, Browns, 1999] Couch ran up huge numbers in Kentucky’s air-raid offense, was a Heisman finalist and named SEC Player of the Year. He was never an apocalypse in Cleveland, but simply a consistently below average starter. He lost his job and was released after the 2003 season and never again made an NFL roster. He was busted for PEDs during a 2007 comeback attempt. Couch’s career wasn’t spectacular, though most would accept failure if it meant making millions and marrying a playmate.
Reggie Bush [No. 2, Saints, 2006] Reggie Bush was the most explosive player in college football. Everyone thought the Texans were crazy for taking Mario Williams ahead of him. Not so much. Bush never became more than a marginal contributor on offense. He had one decent year as a punt returner. The Saints just drafted Mark Ingram to replace him. He did win a Super Bowl, but his only noteworthy individual accomplishments have been pointing at Brian Urlacher, losing his Heisman trophy and infiltrating the Kardashian family.
[Photo via Getty]