NFL Draft: Ranking the biggest bust for each team with Ryan Leaf leading the way – CBS Sports
The NFL Draft has provided plenty of misses over the years, especially in the common-draft era — which was instituted in 1967. While many observers remember the Pro Football Hall of Famers that emerged from the top of the draft, there have been plenty of busts along the way — players that have kept their franchise in the doldrums of the NFL (just ask the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1990s and Detroit Lions of the 2000s).
Finding out the great players and busts that emerge from the draft are what makes the event the ultimate reality TV show. Who would have thought Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell would flame out of the league like they did when they were drafted? Same with Tony Mandarich, arguably the most-hyped offensive lineman prospect ever.
We’re not adding salt to the wounds, but every team has drafted a bust in their franchise’s history. Here are the 32 biggest busts — one for each team — in league history. We ranked them from No. 32 to No. 1, with each team having a representative on the list.
Jackson was far from a bust as a player, but the Buccaneers wasted this pick. Jackson warned the Buccaneers if they drafted him he wasn’t going to play for them and play baseball. Tampa Bay didn’t listen and selected Jackson anyway. Because the Buccaneers sent a jet to pick Jackson up for a physical and visit, Jackson was ruled ineligible by the SEC — which led to the warning he wouldn’t play for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers relinquished Jackson’s rights and the Raiders selected him in the seventh round the following year. Waste of a pick.
Injuries to Jay Novacek forced the Cowboys to seek a tight end in the 1997 draft, trading up with the Eagles to select LaFleur. The second tight end taken in the draft — after Tony Gonzalez — was a massive disappointment, catching just 85 passes for 729 yards and 12 touchdowns in four seasons. LaFleur did lead NFC tight ends with seven touchdowns in 1999, but he only recorded 322 yards. Injuries to his knee, fibula, and back caught up to LaFleur — who was released prior to the 2001 season. He never played in the NFL again.
The Patriots had some poor picks in the late 1990s, but none match the minimal impact Sims made with the team when he was selected decades earlier. Sims never became the next great defensive end, recording just 17 sacks in eight seasons (never having more than 5.5 sacks in a season). Sims’ tenure ended with the Patriots in 1990 when he showed up to camp out of shape, 16 days after he was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine. Johnnie Cooks and Chip Banks were picked right after Sims, as they made an impact as linebackers in the league. That just never happened for Sims.
Bruce wasn’t the pass rusher that changed the NFL. He wasn’t the next Lawrence Taylor either. Bruce never made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team, starting just 33 of 62 games with the Falcons before Atlanta moved on. Bruce recorded 16 sacks, eight forced fumbles, and three interceptions in four seasons with the Falcons, as he was relegated to a tight end in spot duty.
Bruce lasted seven more seasons with the Raiders, finishing with just 32 sacks in his career. Didn’t help six-time Pro Bowl and 1990s All-Decade selection Neil Smith was picked right after him.
It’s tough to be a quarterback for an expansion team. Carr never worked out in Houston, leading the league in being sacked three times in his first four seasons. He completed 60% of his passes for 13,391 yards with 59 touchdowns to 65 interceptions (75.5 rating) in five years with the Texans. Houston moved on from Carr after the 2006 season as he spent the rest of his NFL career as a backup for several teams (retired in 2012). Too many hits and a poor offensive line doomed Carr from the start and the Texans spent many years at the bottom of the AFC South as a result.
The Bears have made a lot of bad first-round picks over the years. Trading up one spot to draft Trubisky over Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes is the winner. Trubisky is the lone top-five quarterback to have his fifth-year option declined since the rookie wage scale was introduced in 2011. In four years with the Bears, Trubisky completed 64% of his passes for 10,609 yards with 64 touchdowns to 37 interceptions (87.2 rating), while rushing for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns. Of the 47 quarterbacks with more than 500 pass attempts over the last four years, Trubisky ranks 41st in passer rating, 26th in completion percentage, 29th in touchdown percentage (4.1), and 37th in yards per attempt (6.73). Not exactly franchise-quarterback material. The Bears chose the wrong quarterback and are still looking for the first 4,000 yard passer and 30 touchdown thrower in franchise history.
Williams never became the franchise tackle the Bills envisioned, failing to protect Drew Bledsoe for several seasons before the Bills decided to move on. Williams started 56 games for the Bills in four seasons before being benched in favor of undrafted free agent Jason Peters. The Bills tried moving Williams to guard — and even had him at defensive tackle at one point — before moving on. The 2002 draft didn’t have many hits in the top 10 — and Williams was one of the many misses.
Hicks was one of the most hyped offensive linemen to enter the draft, finishing second to John Cappelletti for the Heisman Trophy. While Hicks had a strong first season in New York, things never worked with the Giants. Supposed to be a stout run blocker, the Giants never finished higher than 16th in the league in rushing with Hicks anchoring the unit. The Giants gave up on Hicks after he and defensive end Jack Gregory engaged in a barroom fight following a loss in 1977. Hicks was traded to the Steelers the following season, but never suited up in the NFL again.
Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.
This just demonstrates how well the Ravens draft in the first round, but even they have a miss. Elam was selected to replace Ed Reed in the secondary, but struggled in coverage and had just 131 tackles and one interception in four seasons (missed 2015 with a torn bicep). The Ravens didn’t pick up Elam’s fifth-year player option and he was out of the league after an arrest involving marijuana and oxycodone possession. He never played another NFL game.
Blackledge isn’t the worst draft pick the Chiefs had in the first round, but his impact was the biggest. Kansas City took Blackledge over Jim Kelly and Dan Marino in the famous 1983 draft class and paid the price. Blackledge never was able to grasp the starting job in Kansas City and completed just 49.1% of his passes for 4,510 yards with 26 touchdowns and 32 interceptions in five seasons with the team. Kelly and Marino made the Hall of Fame.
The first pick behind Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, Wadsworth wasn’t the franchise-altering defensive lineman the Cardinals thought they were getting. A severe knee injury played a major role in Wadsworth lasting just three years in the league, totaling just 108 tackles and eight sacks in 36 games. A 44-day holdout over a contract his rookie year didn’t help matters either (Wadsworth wanted money closer to what Manning and Leaf received). Didn’t help Charles Woodson was selected with the pick right after him.
21. Philadelphia Eagles: RB Leroy Keyes, No. 3 overall (1969)
There were a few offensive line candidates that could have been selected here, but Keyes was supposed to be the franchise changing running back for Philadelphia. After winning the last two games the prior season and missing out on the No. 1 pick (and O.J. Simpson), the Eagles chose Keyes one spot ahead of Mean Joe Greene. Keyes wasn’t the “do-it-all” running back he was at Purdue, rushing for just 361 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season before the Eagles moved him to defensive back. Keyes actually had six interceptions in the 1971 season, but was drafted to be a franchise-changing running back. Keyes lasted just four years with the Eagles and was out of the NFL after spending the 1973 season with the Chiefs.
20. Washington Football Team: QB Heath Shuler, No. 3 overall (1994)
Washington had a few busts that deserved to be on this list, but Shuler was supposed to be the team’s next franchise quarterback. Instead, he was beaten out by seventh-round pick Gus Frerotte during two terrible seasons. Shuler completed 47.7% of his passes for 2,403 yards with 13 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 19 games with Washington over three seasons. Washington was able to get two draft picks for Shuler, who bottomed out with the Saints after throwing two touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 1997. A foot injury ended Shuler’s career shortly after.
The Jaguars had a lot of first-round busts for a team that has been around for only 26 years. Gabbert’s fall had the biggest impact on the franchise. Jacksonville moved up six spots in the first round to draft a quarterback that completed 53.3% of his passes for 4,347 yards with 22 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. The Jaguars traded Gabbert after three seasons with the team, winning just five of his 27 starts. Jacksonville is still looking for its franchise quarterback.
The Browns had a few contenders here, but Couch was supposed to be the best quarterback in a heralded 1999 class (Cleveland didn’t even consider the best quarterback in the group, Donovan McNabb, with the pick). Inconsistency and injuries doomed Couch, who went just 22-37 as a starter in Cleveland. He threw just 64 touchdowns to 67 interceptions for a 75.1 passer rating. Out of 30 quarterbacks with 1,000 pass attempts from 1999 to 2003, Couch finished 20th in touchdown passes, sixth in interceptions thrown, 25th in passer rating, and 24th in yards per attempt (6.49). Cleveland couldn’t find a starting quarterback until the franchise drafted Baker Mayfield in 2018.
Carruth was an epic disappointment in Carolina, catching just 62 passes for 804 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons. Carruth had just 18 catches for 259 yards after his rookie year, but that wasn’t the end of his tenure with the Panthers. Carruth’s NFL career ended after he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder of his pregnant girlfriend carrying his child. He was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison and was released in 2018.
16. San Francisco 49ers: QB Jim Druckenmiller, No. 26 overall (1997)
The 49ers were searching for the successor to Steve Young, and thought they had it in Druckenmiller. Forced to start in September of his rookie season after Young had a concussion, Druckenmiller completed just 21 of 52 passes for 239 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions. He never threw another NFL pass as the 49ers traded him to the Dolphins after the 1998 season for a conditional draft pick. Druckenmiller was out of the league by 2000. Another player in which the measurable didn’t match the tape.
How bad does your NFL career have to be to earn bust status less than a year after being drafted? Just ask Wilson, who is already out of the league. Wilson appeared in just one game for the Titans, playing only three offensive snaps. He was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list twice, suspended for the team’s Week 13 game following a violation of team rules. Wilson was arrested for DUI in September on 2020, and received a trespass warning while attending a party a month prior. Wilson was dealt to the Dolphins, but showed up late to a physical and a team meeting days later — along with two workouts he said he would attend. He was cut by Miami shortly after.
The Vikings tried to replace Randy Moss with Williamson — who they drafted with the first-round pick they received from the Raiders. Moss became a Hall of Famer in the years to come while Williamson had just 79 catches for 1,067 yards and three touchdowns in three seasons with the Vikings. Moss matched or eclipsed Williamson’s career touchdown total with the Vikings in every season since. After a two-year stint with the Jaguars, Williamson was out of the league after the 2009 season. He had just eight catches for 64 yards in Jacksonville.
13. Detroit Lions: QB Andre Ware, No. 7 overall (1990)
The Lions have a history of draft busts, but Ware is clearly the biggest one. A Heisman Trophy winner from Houston, Ware could never adapt from the “Run and Shoot” offense that produced video game numbers. Ware could never beat out Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer for the starting job, playing just 14 games and completing 51.6% of his passes for 1,112 yards with five touchdowns and eight interceptions in four seasons (six starts). Ware tried to find footing with the Raiders and Jaguars, but was out of the NFL by 1995.
12. Miami Dolphins: DL Dion Jordan, No. 3 overall (2013)
The draft’s best defensive player was anything but — a colossal failure in the league. Jordan started just one game in two seasons with the Dolphins, netting only three sacks. He was suspended three times for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy, resulting in a year-long suspension in 2015 — and his eventual release from the Dolphins. Jordan is currently a free agent after registering just 13.5 sacks in eight seasons. Pro Bowl tackle Lane Johnson was picked right after Jordan.
Gregory is a reason why the NFL Scouting Combine exists, as he never played a game for the Broncos. Denver never met Gregory in person and he was much shorter than his listed height of 6-1 and he had a knee injury on top of things. The Broncos traded Gregory to the Saints prior to Week 1 of his rookie season. Gregory played three games with the Saints before injuring the knee again, and was out of football. Chris Spielman was selected three picks later and Eric Allen followed him.
Tony Mandarich is associated with Packers draft busts, but he isn’t the biggest one in the history of his own franchise. The Packers took a quarterback with the sixth overall pick who never started a game for them! Campbell is the only quarterback selected in the top 30 from 1970 to 2019 to have never started a game, playing just six games and completing 45.6% of his passes for 386 yards with three touchdowns to nine interceptions. The Packers didn’t select a quarterback in the first round until Aaron Rodgers in 2005 after the Campbell experiment.
The Rams, who hailed in St. Louis at the time, ignored the red flag regarding Phillips and the character issues that surrounded him. Phillips was viewed as the best talent in the draft, but teams didn’t want to take the risk. They traded future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis because they thought so highly of Phillips — whose problems continued in the NFL. Excessive drinking and jail time doomed Phillips after two seasons with the team, as he was released in the middle of the 1997 season. Phillips rushed for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns with the Rams, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. He was out of the league by 1999 after short stints with the Dolphins and 49ers.
The Colts had a few contenders for this honor before Peyton Manning transformed the franchise, but Schlichter was all-time bad. A gambling suspension cost him his entire 1983 season — after a rookie year in which he played just three games and threw for just 197 yards and two interceptions (zero touchdowns). He lost the starting job to rookie fourth-round pick Mike Pagel — and he was the No. 4 overall pick. Gambling addiction eventually got him released from the Colts in 1985 (he admitted he gambled during his suspension). Schlichter went just 0-6 as a starter, completing 45% of his passes for 1,006 yards with three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Colts won just 16 games in his four seasons there.
Mirer had four forgetful years in Seattle, completing 53.4% of his passes for 9,094 yards with 41 touchdowns to 56 interceptions (65.2 rating). Although he set NFL rookie records in completions and yards, Mirer wasn’t the answer the Seahawks were looking for and the stats proved it. Out of 195 quarterbacks with 1,500 pass attempts, Mirer ranks 181st in passer rating and 193rd in yards per attempt. He played in the NFL until 2003.
Richardson played just five games with the Steelers before Bill Cowher had seen enough. Cowher didn’t draft Richardson, but the linebacker showed nothing that was worth keeping around. He had no tackles and no sacks in a NFL career that lasted just 16 games over the span of two seasons. Pittsburgh dealt Richardson for a seventh-round pick after his rookie season and that was the end of his tenure.
The Jets had their fair share of draft busts in recent years — none were as large as Gholston. New York was deceived by Gholston’s amazing combine and thought he was going to be a dominant pass rusher for the next decade. Instead, Gholston never recorded a sack nor forced fumble in his NFL career, finishing with just 42 tackles in three seasons. He was out of the league after three seasons. The 2008 draft didn’t have great pass rushers, and New York took the worst of the bunch with the highest pick.
Smith is the winner of bad first-round picks the Bengals made in the 1990s, making a case as one of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history. Smith held out of training camp due to a contract dispute and the Bengals gave him just 15 starts before they had enough. Smith completed just 47% of his passes with five touchdowns to 10 interceptions (55.1 rating) in those starts before being benched for good. The Bengals went just 3-12 in Smith’s 15 starts. He completed 46.6% of his passes for five touchdowns and 13 interceptions (52.8 passer rating) in just 22 games and was released in 2003, never playing in the league again.
3. New Orleans Saints: P Russell Erxleben, No. 11 overall (1979)
The Saints took a punter — yes a punter — in the first round of the NFL Draft. No wonder New Orleans was the laughing stock of the 1970s, causing their fans to eventually put bags over their heads by the start of the next decade. Erxleben competed for the place-kicking job in his rookie season, and lost, attempting just six field goals in his career. Erxleben ended up punting for the Saints for five seasons before being out of the league — sans a stint as a replacement player during the 1987 strike. Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow was selected two picks after Erxleben.
One of the biggest busts in league history, Russell was a colossal failure in Oakland. Not only did Russell hold out in his rookie season, he batted off-field problems and weight issues. Russell completed just 52.1% of his passes for 4,083 yards with 18 touchdowns to 23 interceptions in three seasons with the Raiders before being run out of the league. — making $31.5 million guaranteed from his rookie deal. In Russell’s last season (2009), he finished with the lowest quarterback rating, lowest completion percentage, fewest passing touchdowns, and fewest passing yards among qualifying quarterbacks.
This was probably the easiest selection to make on this list. Poor attitude and an inability to control his temper got the best of Leaf, who completed 45.3% of his passes with two touchdowns to just 15 interceptions in his rookie season. He yelled at a reporter and gave a half-hearted apology, while alienating himself from his teammates throughout the year. His anger issues evolved into the next season as he missed the year with shoulder surgery. Leaf was released by the Chargers after the 2000 season, and finished with a 4-17 record as a starter, completing just 48.4% of his passes with 14 touchdowns to 36 interceptions in 25 games. He was out of the NFL after 2001.