Who are the biggest busts in NFL Draft history?
Coming into the 2021 NFL Draft, prospects project plenty of promise to franchises and fans around the league. But sometimes those top picks don't pan out.
There are two sides to every NFL Draft. Well that isn’t necessarily true, but draft classes of the past and future will have be defined by the Hall of Famers and the busts that come out of each year’s selections shows.
The Tom Brady’s and Aaron Rodgers’ will always be among the countless success stories from picks taken later in the draft than their legacy might suggest. The dark side of the draft comes with those promising talents plummet into obscurity.
Ryan Leaf: the biggest bust in NFL Draft history?
Coming in to the 1998 there were two names that were all the talk in that year’s NFL Draft: Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Leaf was fresh off a 34 TD season at Washington St. and earned a Heisman nomination. Many favored Leaf over Peyton because of his stronger arm and and larger upside.
The Colts made it known that Peyton Manning was their choice with the top spot. To ensure a shot at Leaf, the San Diego Chargers made a trade with the Arizona Cardinals which gave them the second pick in the draft.
The Former Cougar QB will always be tied to Peyton Manning because they were the top choices in 1998. Perhaps more painful for San Diego fans was how much they gave up to jump just one spot in the draft. They gave up their third overall pick and a third round pick in the ’98 draft, a future first rounder, and Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf.
Leaf went on to play 25 games over three seasons in the NFL, passing for 14 TD’s and throwing 36 interceptions.
JaMarcus Russel was the top pick in 2007
JaMarcus Russell was a Sugar Bowl winner coming into the 2007 Draft. The LSU Tiger was hailed as one of the best quarterbacks the program had ever seen. He threw 28 touchdowns in 13 games and dazzled the nation with his incredible arm strength.
The offseason hype of Russell fitting the bill for the first pick in the draft was too much temptation for then Raiders owner Al Davis to pass up. Head Coach Lane Kiffin voiced his disillusion with owners plans, and other NFL owners advised against the pick.
JaMarcus played three seasons playing in just 31 games. He ended his career with 18 touchdowns and 23 picks.
Begals drafted Akili Smith despite the red flags
Akili Smith was one of five quarterbacks in the mix to be taken in the first round of the 1999 Draft. In his last season at the University of Oregon, Smith averaged over 300 yards a game and dished 32 touchdowns.
Three quarterbacks were taken in with the opening three slots in that draft. Tim Couch went to the Cleveland Browns in the top spot, and Donovan McNabb was drafted by the Eagles right after. Akili fell to the Bengals at number three, going before Cade McNown and Daunte Culpepper.
Doubts were raised about Smith’s experience and NFL readiness in the months leading up to the ’99 selection show. The former Oregon Duck had just one successful year in the NCAA after spending two years in Junior College. His Wonderlic test scores also raised reg flags, after scoring a 16 out of 50 in the aptitude test.
The former Bengal played just 22 games in four years in Cincinnati. He threw for just 5 TDs and was picked off 13 times before a short career in the Canadian Football League.
Busts aren't limited to just Quarterbacks
While quarterbacks make the most polarizing busts, we will give them a break for a moment. Tony Mandarich was not just one of the top prospects coming into the 1989 NFL Draft, his sheer size made him into an icon. The offensive tackle made the cover of Sports Illustrated who labeled him “The Incredible Bulk.”
His build and out-of-this-world athleticism caught the eye of Nick Saban, who was a defensive coach at Michigan State at the time. He was named a First-Team All American, and was an Outland Award finalist.
Mandarich was taken second overall by the Green Bay Packers after an incomparable buzz for the offensive lineman preceded the ’89 selection show.
A freakish body did’t make up for his lack of ability and desire. His career lasted just 86 games, earning the former phenom a new nickname “The Incredible Bust.” The Packers pick that year is particularly painful when you take into account each of the other top five selections were future Hall of Famers.
Darnold could be the latest to join the draft bust list
Sam Darnold is in running to be the newest addition to this group, but he is also the only one who still has time to take his name off the list. The Former Jets QB was sent packing in an offseason trade with the Panthers after three disappointing years in the Meadowlands.
The USC alum had a fantastic redshirt freshman year, but followed up with a dip in production which many blamed on a changing of the wide receiving core. Darnold still managed to win the Pac-12 Championship and got the Trojans to the 2017 Cotton Bowl.
After being selected number three overall, He was the youngest week one starter since 1970. Darnold’s numbers in his three years with the Jets weren’t horrendous, but his 45 TDs and 39 picks were deemed less than enough to keep him under center in the Big Apple.
Four other quarterbacks were taken in the first round of that draft class and three of them, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen have all already been to the playoffs. This year Darnold will get a fresh start in Carolina, and a new chance to take his name off this list.
Luckily for owners, the 2011 Collective Bargain Agreement limits the financial risk with these big promise, big money talents. The rookie contracts have been regulated with maximum and a minimum the new NFL generations are set to make. This however comes as little comfort die hard heartbroken fans who suffer for years after their favorite team drafts a bust.
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