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Ranking the biggest NFL Draft busts of the last 30 years

In the NFL Draft, each franchise is provided 10 minutes to make their draft choice. To prepare for that crucial moment of being “On The Clock” and selecting that potentially franchise-altering pick, every club puts in an incalculable effort of study and scrutiny. Everything is examined thoroughly under a figurative microscope. From a players’ score on the Wonderlic test of cognitive ability to the size of a quarterback’s hands, no stones are left unturned.

Despite the endless undertaking of finding that perfect selection, sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.

The few draft picks that go on to have long and very successful careers are forever enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a well-sculpted, lifelike bust. Ironically, the players who couldn’t live up to their Draft Day hype, are forever labeled as a bust.

A player being labeled as a bust can be subjective, but BestOdds.com has employed a simple methodology designed to create the most credible possible rankings: the players must have been a top 10 pick, their on-field performance must be terrible based on comparative metrics for their position (or the player must have issues keeping them off the field entirely), and their negative impacts on their respective franchises must be widely recognized.

These rankings were produced by researching the last 30 editions of the NFL draft, dating back to 1994. Obviously, there were Draft busts prior to 1994, like the Buffalo Bills drafting linebacker Tom Cousineau with the first-overall pick in 1979 and the Green Bay Packers No. 2-overall selection of “The Incredible Bulk,” offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, in 1989.

Cousineau never suited up for Buffalo, taking a larger contract offer from the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. Mandarich was later tabbed as “The Incredible Bust” after steroid issues dismantled his career. Mandarich was the only man of the top five picks in the 1989 Draft to not end up in the Hall of Fame; the other four were Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders.

Cousineau and Mandarich were draft busts, but luckily for them, they played out their short careers on standard-definition television, and long before the internet took over. Some of the more recent draft busts had their careers go up in smoke in ultra high definition television or in crystal clear 4K for all to see, even when we wanted to shut our eyes to block the horror of their failures.

Let’s examine the 10 biggest NFL Draft busts of the last 30 years.

Zach Wilson NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#10. QB Zach Wilson - 2nd Overall Pick 2021, Jets

Zach Wilson NFL Career Statistics

Zach Wilson had a strong senior season at BYU and the New York Jets bought into Wilson’s rising stock, drafting him with the second-overall pick in 2021. The 2021 NFL Draft class for quarterbacks has become one of the more scrutinized in recent years, and Wilson is arguably the worst QB in that underwhelming group.

The Jets’ signing of Aaron Rodgers in 2023 signaled the end of Wilson’s time in New York after just two years. Rodgers suffered an ankle injury on the Jets’ opening drive of the season, and head coach Robert Saleh had to trot out Wilson as the “starter” for one more abysmal campaign. Considering that Wilson is now a member of the Denver Broncos, it’s fair to say that the Jets were unimpressed.

Troy Williamson NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#9. WR Troy Williamson - 7th Overall 2005, Vikings

Troy Williamson NFL Career Statistics

The Minnesota Vikings traded Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders in March 2005, and the following month in the 2005 NFL Draft, Minnesota selected Troy Williamson, a speedy receiver from South Carolina to fill the Moss-sized hole in their receiving corps.

Williamson’s quick feet couldn’t work in tandem with his stone-like hands. After dropping enough passes to drop himself down the depth chart, Williamson quickly fell out of favor for the Vikings. Minnesota passed on Roddy White, who went to Atlanta with the 27th pick. White would catch 808 passes for 10,863 yards and 63 touchdowns, which would have made a better fit as a Randy Moss replacement.

Lawrence Phillips NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#8. RB Lawrence Phillips - 6th Overall Pick 1996, Rams

Lawrence Phillips NFL Career Statistics

Nebraska Cornhusker Lawrence Phillips was a star running back in college, winning back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. It was Phillips’ off-field matters that continuously made headlines. Phillips was charged with a series of crimes in 1994, and his 1995 season was shortened to just five appearances after yet another arrest.

The St. Louis Rams ignored the red flags and focused on the talent, drafting Phillips sixth overall in 1996. On the same day that St. Louis selected Phillips, the Rams would trade their then-running back (and future Hall of Famer), Jerome Bettis, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After 25 games as a member of the Rams, Phillips would eventually be cut from St. Louis’ roster for drinking during pregame warmups and finding himself in a series of legal troubles.

Justin Blackmon NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#7. WR Justin Blackmon - 5th Overall Pick 2012, Jaguars

Justin Blackmon NFL Career Statistics

Justin Blackmon won the Biletnikoff Award (NCAA’s Best Receiver) twice in his college career, so naturally he was high up on draft boards. After being selected with the fifth pick in the 2012 draft, Blackmon showed promise in his first season, leading the Jaguars in receptions.

Blackmon’s 2013 was limited by groin surgery and violating the league’s substance abuse policy before the season. Blackmon violated the policy several more times, and, while still under suspension, Blackmon was arrested for marijuana possession. The parade of violations led to Blackmon being suspended for the entirety of the 2014 season. The NFL denied Blackmon’s petition for reinstatement in 2015 and the fifth-overall pick’s NFL career was over after only 20 games.

Trent Richardson NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#6. RB Trent Richardson - 3rd Overall Pick 2012, Browns

Trent Richardson NFL Career Statistics

Trent Richardson was the focal point for a championship-winning offense at Alabama and a highly touted draft prospect. Cleveland would take the swing on Richardson with the third pick in the 2012 NFL Draft (two picks before Justin Blackmon).

Richardson struggled to split the gaps in the offensive line and fought for little-to-no yards on almost every carry, plodding for measly gains. In 2013, Cleveland completed a rare September trade, sending Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts after just 17 games in a Browns uniform. Richardson’s career never materialized in Indianapolis either and his NFL career was over after only 46 games. Since the Richardson blunder, Cleveland has not selected a running back in the first round.

Heath Shuler NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#5. QB Heath Shuler - 3rd Overall Pick 1994, Washington

Heath Shuler NFL Career Statistics

After a successful 1993 season at the University of Tennessee, finishing runner-up in Heisman voting and being named SEC Conference Player of the Year, Heath Shuler was a top QB Draft prospect heading into the 1994 NFL Draft.

Shuler put on myriad terrible passing displays in his rookie year, including a five-interception disaster in a Week 7 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. At various points of the 1994 season, Shuler was being replaced by Washington’s seventh-round draft pick, quarterback Gus Frerotte, with Frerotte taking over the QB1 spot in 1995. A third-overall pick losing his job to a seventh-round pick is a telltale sign of a bust.

Akili Smith NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#4. QB Akili Smith - 3rd Overall Pick 1999, Bengals

Akili Smith NFL Career Statistics

The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Akili Smith third-overall in 1999 and his tenure with the club got off to a rocky start. Smith held out of training camp prior to his rookie season over a contract dispute, and in the end, Smith received a seven-year, $56 million contract before ever taking a snap in the NFL.

When Smith finally got on the field, his disastrous performances were largely attributed to his inability to learn the team’s playbook, his lackluster approach to film study, and missing offseason appointments. The next QB off the board was Daunte Culpepper with the eleventh pick, and Culpepper would throw 33 touchdown passes in his first full season in 2000.

Charles Rogers NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#3. WR Charles Rogers - 2nd Overall Pick 2003, Lions

Charles Rogers NFL Career Statistics

Charles Rogers produced 1,000+ receiving yards and 10+ touchdowns in both of his seasons at Michigan State and was viewed as the top receiver in the 2003 NFL Draft. The Detroit Lions made Rogers the highest-drafted receiver with their second-overall pick.

One injury after another kept Rogers off the field. Rogers broke his collarbone in a practice session in 2003, then broke his collarbone again on the opening drive of the 2004 season. Adding to the series of injuries were multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. After just 15 career games, Rogers’ NFL career came to an end.

Ryan Leaf NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#2. QB Ryan Leaf - 2nd Overall Pick 1998, Chargers

Ryan Leaf NFL Career Statistics

The discussion for the first overall pick of the 1998 NFL Draft came down to two names: Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. After Leaf made it known to the Indianapolis Colts that he would prefer to be in San Diego, Leaf fell to the Chargers with the second-overall pick.

Leaf’s rookie season was a disaster, but his potential growth in his sophomore season was cut down by a shoulder injury. After pushing back against his teammates and the media and failing to put in the work, Leaf was released by San Diego after only 18 starts.

JaMarcus Russell NFL Career Statistics chart.

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#1. QB JaMarcus Russell - 1st Overall Pick 2007, Raiders

JaMarcus Russell NFL Career Statistics

JaMarcus Russell’s physical presence was impossible to ignore. Listed at 6’6” and weighing 265 pounds, the big-bodied QB was viewed as “the quarterback of the future.” Despite being the first-overall pick, Russell only started one game in his rookie season, and once Russell stepped onto the field, it was hard to imagine his own future.

Russell’s size began to be noticed for all the wrong reasons, showing up overweight, and his on-field production was reaching new lows. After producing the lowest passer rating in the NFL in 2009, Russell was released by Oakland prior to the 2010 season and never played another snap.

The pool of talent in every NFL Draft is a minefield of superstars and busts, and when a franchise lands on a bust, it sends a shockwave through the organization and their fanbase. The NFL Draft is not an exact science, and “can’t-miss” prospects can miss. As these 10 players have shown, massive hype and high hopes can be fleeting.

This story was produced by BestOdds.com and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

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