NFL Draft: The 25 Biggest Busts of the Last 25 Years (Part I)

Apr 25th 2023

Bryan Knowles

On Thursday, 31 players will hear their names called by Roger Goodell, and walk their way into the history books. Bryce Young will be hailed as the savior of a quarterback-starved franchise; a pro-ready prospect who will immediately turn Carolina or Houston around. Bijan Robinson will be the exceptional running back prospect that causes teams to eschew the analytical wisdom of waiting on the position, a tough runner ready to shoulder the load like an old-school first-string rusher. Will Anderson is the second coming of DeMarcus Ware, ready to blow up offensive lines for a decade to come. Star after star after star on a conveyor belt, all with a bright, shiny future ahead of them.

And, in five or six years, we’ll know which ones will have washed out of the league, and all look quite foolish for propping them up so much.

The NFL draft isn’t entirely a crapshoot, but it turns out that predicting the future is really difficult. It’s a worthwhile exercise, every now and again, to pop the bubble of draft hype and acknowledge that some of these guys are going to be really, really bad. Be it from injury, organizational ineptitude, or just flat out not having translatable NFL skills, there are prospects with thousands of glowing words written about them that whose names will be mud sooner rather than later.

This is also an auspicious year for fans of draft busts – it’s the 25th anniversary of the biggest gap in quality between the top two picks in NFL history. In 1998, the Colts proudly took Peyton Manning with the first pick in the draft; he went on to a Hall of Fame career and an argument for being the best quarterback in the history of the game. Also in 1998, the Chargers proudly took Ryan Leaf with the second pick in the draft. Leaf is, of course synonymous with bust, often called the worst draft pick in the history of any sport, much less the NFL.

But there have been challengers to Leaf’s crown ever since. Victims of injury, developmental players who never got it, players whose battles with substance abuse overwhelmed them. And, of course, some players who just stank out loud. With challengers coming from all angles, it’s worth to see if Leaf has kept his crown over the past century – if he’s still the worst of the worst, the bustiest of the busts. It’s time to count down the 25 worst picks of the last 25 years.

Something like this is always going to be a bit subjective, but it’s worth setting a few ground rules. Draft position matters; it hurts more to swing and whiff with a top ten pick than it does to miss at the bottom of the first round, so a better player may rank below a worse one just because they were taken ten slots earlier. We’re also focusing solely on what happened on the field; there are certainly some picks that teams would love to have back because they were headaches on the sideline, but production rules all here.

We’ll do 11-25 today, and then finish it off later this week with the top 10. It’ll be a nice aperitif before the draft proper; a way to wet your whistle if you’re tired of listening to overblown hype for prospects who haven’t yet played a down. One day, some of this year’s hot crop of new stars will be on this list! Until then, let’s get to the rundown.

Honorable Mentions: Franchise Quarterback Flops

A flop can happen at any position, but it hurts just a little more when it’s a quarterback. Fans don’t expect a left tackle to lead them to the promised land, or a linebacker to bring with him a decade worth of championship teams. But you put your heart and soul into a quarterback. It’s such a passer-driven league that the hope a quarterback prospect brings with them makes it all the more crushing when it doesn’t work out. They also often cost a team two or three years of fruitlessly building around them before teams give up, leaving them right where they were in the first place. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as seeing the quarterback of your favorite team flop, and the hope they brought with them slowly drain away.

Browns fans know the feeling quite well. In 2007, Brady Quinn fell down the draft board, where Cleveland was grateful to grab him at No. 22. In 2014, it was Johnny Manziel tumbling further than expected before Cleveland snagged him at No. 22. Heck, throw in Brandon Weeden (No. 22 in 2012!) while we’re at it, though at least he managed to rack up 20 starts for Cleveland before the Browns gave up on him. Spoilers – none of them ended up solving the Browns’ quarterback problem; they still have just four seasons with a quarterback with positive passing DVOA since reentering the league in 1999.

Then there’s Paxton Lynch, former Denver savior last seen flailing for the Orlando Guardians in the XFL. There’s Cade McNown, who lasted two years in Chicago before his play was too bad for even that quarterback-starved franchise. And don’t forget Dwayne Haskins, cut by Washington after two seasons due to inconsistent play, work ethic concerns and COVID protocol violations.

There are enough top-10 busts to make it difficult to stick anyone drafted in the 20s onto the list. And some of these names, like McNown or Weeden, were merely bad as opposed to truly awful. Putting them on the list over some of the names we’ll get would be quarterback bias. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – again, missing on quarterbacks is a more emotionally taxing experience! – but we’ll keep them here in the honorable mention category and leave the top 25 slots for the truly terrific quarterback busts.

Honorable Mentions: Actively Struggling

It’s risky to label someone a bust before they finish their career. Geno Smith’s revival in Seattle paints his career in a different light; Aaron Rodgers sat for three years before getting his shot to start in Green Bay. As long as you’re on a roster, there’s a chance things could turn around. There are three players who would have been on this list if their careers ended today, but still have at least a chance of finding their footing before the books on them are closed.

Trey Lance remains the NFL’s biggest mystery box. San Francisco used three first-round picks to take him third overall, and all we’ve seen of him since 2019 is one random FCS showcase game in 2020, some minor preseason action, and four NFL starts, one that was ended by monsoon and another ended by ankle injury. The truth of the matter is that no one knows how good Lance is at this point. It’s possible his undeniable tools and potential will see him beat out Brock Purdy this year, take the reins in San Francisco, and not look back. It’s possible he gets traded to Houston or Tennessee and finds a home there, making him a bad pick for San Francisco but not a bust. Or, it could turn out that drafting an FCS quarterback with a paper-thin track record is not a long-term recipe for success and Lance will go down as the biggest bust in 49ers history. Your guess is as good as ours.

Jameson Williams was a late add for this list. The 12th pick in last year’s draft, Williams struggled with the aftermath of a torn ACL and had just one reception for Detroit in his rookie year. That would be bad enough to begin with, but he also now has to sit out a six-week suspension due to violating the gambling policy. He’ll need to hit the ground running in Week 7 to try to catch up to the rest of his class; he was considered the most pro-ready receiver in last year’s class, but just has not been able to see the field.

Then there’s cornerback Jeff Okudah, who the Lions have given up on. After spending the third pick in the 2020 draft on him, they shipped him off to Atlanta this month for a fifth-round pick. Okudah is looking for a fresh start after dealing with injuries to his elbow, shoulder, core and Achilles. If he can stay healthy for five minutes, there are opportunities in the Falcons’ secondary for Okudah to showcase the size, length and speed that made him such an enticing prospect three years ago, but he has to get his career turned around posthaste.

25. David Pollack, LB, Georgia

Draft Year: 2005 Draft Pick: No. 17 Draft Team: Cincinnati Bengals

This is a good starting point, as it allows me to make something clear: not all draft busts are the player’s fault. Sometimes, conditions outside a player's control ends up leaving their team with almost no value.

Pollack, an uber-successful defensive end at Georgia, came to Cincinnati as the SED Defensive Player of the Year, the Chuck Bednarik Award winner for top defensive player in college, and the Ted Hendricks and Lombardi Award winner for top defensive end/linemen. The Bengals, in their infinite wisdom, decided that that was the perfect recipe to convert the world-beating defensive end to linebacker. It took him about half his rookie season to begin to grasp with the nuances of his new position, but things were looking up…until he broke his neck in Week 2 of 2006. Fortunately, Pollack made a full recovery, avoid paralysis and is now a successful college football analyst for ESPN. Being able to walk and talk about football is a fantastic outcome considering what could have been.

24. Jarvis Moss, DE, Florida

Draft Year: 2007 Draft Pick: No. 17 Draft Team: Denver Broncos

Ah, the classical tweener. After a huge performance in 2007 BCS Championship – a pair of sacks and a key fumble recovery on Troy Smith – Moss’ stock quickly rose in the pre-draft process, to the point where Denver felt the need to give up two mid-round picks to vault from 21 to 17 to take Moss for themselves. The problem? Moss really didn’t have the strength to play on the line against NFL-caliber offensive linemen, nor was he fast enough to really take advantage of playing in space as a linebacker. The Broncos moved him around their defense multiple times, with both Bob Slowik and Mike Nolan trying to find the right combination of scheme and tactics to unlock the explosiveness Moss showed in college, but nothing worked – there were even reports, at the time, that Moss was contemplating retirement because of his struggles adapting to the changing defensive schemes he found himself in. Moss stuck it out, even getting an opportunity to replace Elvis Dumervil at linebacker in an effort to respark his career, but it was nothing doing. Moss finished his career with just six sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and zero significant impact.

23. John Ross, WR, Washington

Draft Year: 2017 Draft Pick: No. 9 Draft Team: Cincinnati Bengals

A 4.22 40! Ross set an NFL combine record, blazing through the 40-yard dash in a time never seen before or since. Never you mind that he strained his calves while doing so and couldn’t finish his workout, or that he then tore his labrum in shoulder and had to have surgery before the draft began, Ross was fast! Never mind that he had fewer than 2,000 career receiving yards; he was fast. Someone get the ghost of Al Davis on the phone, stat.

Those injuries and that lack of production ended up being far more prophetic than that track speed. Ross played in less than half of his team’s games in three of the five years he was rostered, suffering from knee, shoulder and foot injuries. When he has made the field, he’s been underwhelming at best – just 62 receptions for 957 yards, and -89 receiving DYAR. Ross is still technically in the league, deep in the Chiefs’ reserve list, so I suppose it’s not impossible he could see a rebound catching passes from Patrick Mahomes. I won’t be holding my breath, however.

22. Damon Arnette, CB, Ohio State

Draft Year: 2020 Draft Pick: No. 19 Draft Team: Las Vegas Raiders

We mentioned that off-field incidents wouldn’t be part of the ranking here, but they are when they prevent you from being on the field. Arnette has had a very busy three years in the league, to say the least. In November 2021, he was accused of being involve in a hit-and-run accident. Three days later, a video surface where he was brandishing firearms and making death threats, which led to his immediate release. He’s attempted to make a comeback, signing with both Miami and Kansas City, but he can’t stay out of trouble long enough to stick anywhere – he was arrested in January 2022 and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and then again in July of 2022 for driving with a suspended license and drug charges.

None of this is worth the headache for a player who was a shocking first-round pick from the Jon Gruden/Mike Mayock regime, a player who allowed a 127.0 passer rating when targeted and never had a PFF coverage grade above 37.5. As a football player, he was terrible, and would have washed out of the league sooner or later. The constant off-field noise is what vaults a player taken with the 19th pick into all-time bust territory.

21. Troy Williamson, WR, South Carolina

Draft Year: 2005 Draft Pick: No. 7 Draft Team: Minnesota Vikings

Williamson was the replacement for Randy Moss; an explosive deep threat with track star speed who would keep the Minnesota offense ticking even after the mercurial Moss was shipped out to Oakland. Sadly, Williamson didn’t pass the eye test – literally. Williamson blamed his poor depth perception on his terrible hand-eye coordination, dropping 11 passes as a rookie and never really improving from there. Williamson never caught 50 percent of his targets, and that can’t all be explained away just by his diet of only deep routes.

Even when he could see the ball flying at him, results weren’t great – Williamson had a habit for shying away from contact and sticking out the old alligator arms. Williamson finished his career with 87 receptions for 1,131 yards and -107 receiving DYAR. So, just a bit short of Moss, then. Who could possibly have seen that coming?

20. Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State

Draft Year: 2009 Draft Pick: No. 11 Draft Team: Buffalo Bills

Raw and undersized, Maybin turned one successful season as a full-time starter into a first-round selection. Can you blame Buffalo for pulling the trigger? 12 sacks and 20 TFLs is an enticing statline. So what if he was 6’4”, 240 pounds – he was productive! Buffalo could find a way to use that – they stuck him out on the edge, and started dreaming of the sheer number of sacks Maybin was going to pile up.

To be fair, zero is a number. Maybin didn’t record a single sack in Buffalo, despite being healthy the entire time. He came into the league as a raw product and never really developed a pass rushing move to make up for his lack of raw strength or inability to shed blocks. He had to rely solely on his speed, and he just did not have enough of it to compete at the NFL level. He briefly bounced back with the Jets, recording a coverage-inflated six sacks at the height of Revis Island, but quickly found himself on the outs there, too, never managing to convert his potential into anything consistent on the field.

19. Curtis Enis, RB, Penn State

Draft Year: 1998 Draft Pick: No. 5 Draft Team: Chicago Bears

Bears fans barely got to see Enis – or, at least, the All-American rusher they thought they were getting with the fifth-round pick. Enis held out for much of training camp, had to be slowly worked into the lineup when he did report, and ended up blowing out his knee in his first career start. That sapped him of his speed and mobility, making him a shadow of what he was at Penn State. Enis averaged just 3.1 yards per carry post-knee injury, and was eventually bumped to being a fullback for James Allen. Continued injuries continued to see him sidelined – he missed 25% of his career games with one injury or another – and the degenerating knee eventually forced him into retirement. Enis finished his career with 456 carries for 1,497 yards and -70 rushing DYAR.

18. Jerome McDougle, DE, Miami (Florida)

Draft Year: 2003 Draft Pick: No. 15 Draft Team: Philadelphia Eagles

Speaking of careers utterly derailed by injuries! The Eagles gave up a second-round pick to shoot up the draft board and take McDougle, a devastating force off the edge for the great Miami teams of the turn of the century. McDougle then went on to have one of the most impressive careers I can remember, so long as you’re impressed by the sheer number and variety of unfortunate events McDougle ended up suffering through:

  • In 2003, McDougle managed to hurt his ankle, hip and knee simultaneously in the preseason finale, missing eight games of his rookie season.

  • In 2004, McDougle was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, returned, and then sprained his knee and missed the rest of the year.

  • In 2005, McDougle was shot in the abdomen after being in the wrong place during a robbery attempt; complications from surgery cost him the season.

  • In 2006, McDougle fractured two ribs in preseason, though he ‘only’ missed three games.

  • In 2007, McDougle tore his triceps in preseason and missed the entire year.

All in all, McDougle managed just three sacks in his career; it’s surprising it’s even that high considering all the time he missed from that laundry list of problems.

17. Dee Milliner, DB, Alabama

Draft Year: 2013 Draft Pick: No. 9 Draft Team: New York Jets

At the peak of Alabama’s prowess, evaluating their defensive studs was a tall ask. Any talented player looked like a world-beater, because they were surrounded by other world beaters and were taking part in Nick Saban’s finely-tuned scheme. Was Milliner going to able to shut down superstars at the next level, or was he fortunate to be able to defend the short side of the field and use the sideline in college? Was he the next Darrelle Revis, or did he need to be used more carefully in the pros?

Rex Ryan and the Jets thought he would be Revis 2.0, with his aggressive defense leaving Milliner isolated against the best receivers in the league without much support. How did that work out? Well, he had been benched three times in his first nine games, so not swimmingly. He did start to pull things together towards the end of his rookie year, but then injuries clobbered him – he appeared in only eight games over the next two years as he struggled with ankle, Achilles and wrist injuries. Cut just before the 2016 season, he finished his career with just three interceptions.

16. Wendell Bryant, DT, Wisconsin

Draft Year: 2002 Draft Pick: No. 12 Draft Team: Arizona Cardinals

2002 was a crazy year for defensive linemen, with six of them going in the first 15 picks of the draft. Four of them were good to great – Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson. Wendell Bryant belongs firmly in ‘the rest’. Bryant, who is all over the Wisconsin record book in terms of sacks and TFLs, ended up playing only 29 games in the NFL as he battled with drugs and alcohol. He received three substance abuse strikes in three years, leading to him being suspended for the entire 2005 season and never returning to the league. Bryant did turn things around and get clean, returning to play in the UFL in 2009 and 2010, but he was past his physical prime at that point and any chance of sparking a career was gone.

15. Justin Harrell, DT, Tennessee

Draft Year: 2007 Draft Pick: No. 16 Draft Team: Green Bay Packers

Harrell’s time in Green Bay couldn’t have started much worse. The pick was booed at the team’s draft party at Lambeau Field, as Harrell wasn’t really considered a first-round caliber pick. He had missed most of his last season at Tennessee with a biceps injury, and fans were hoping that Green Bay would take Brady Quinn to replace Brett Favre – that ‘Aaron Rodgers’ kid, stuck on the bench, was surely going to be a bust. Or a running back, or a wide receiver. An injured defensive tackle? No thank you.

Harrell missed most of the OTA portion of the offseason thanks to that torn bicep. When he was cleared to practice, he was out of shape and overweight, and had work to do just to be able to get onto the field. Things didn’t improve much from there – ankle, back and knee injuries limited Harrell to just 14 regular season games, with no sacks and just two TFLs.

Harrell is our last pick from outside the top 10. Nothing but prime-quality whiffs from here on out.

14. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State

Draft Year: 2012 Draft Pick: No. 5 Draft Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars moved up two slots to grab Blackmon in the top five, dreaming of a future of Blackmon catching passes from Blaine Gabbert for years to come. “Dez Bryant with all of his brain cells,” Warren Moon called him, with tremendous route running potential. An undeniable star, impossible to guard one-on-one in college, and a bonafide playmaker.

He didn’t end up being that, though to be fair, he did end up with positive receiving DYAR for his career. But the Jags were able to trade up with Tampa Bay to grab Blackmon because the Buccaneers had flashing red warning signs – the story, somewhat embellished over the years, is that Tampa sent a scout to Stillwater, having him sit in a bar every night for a week to see if Blackmon came in for a drink. Blackmon had been arrested for DUI in college, after all. And then again just months after being drafted. He was suspended for four games in 2013, was reinstated, and then was immediately suspended for eight more games for another violation of the substance abuse policy. While waiting to hear about reinstatement from that, Blackmon was arrested at a traffic stop for possession of marijuana, which led to the NFL keeping him out for all of 2015. Before the end of that season, he was arrested for another DUI. He never did get back into the league, unsurprisingly.

13. Andre Wadsworth, DE, Florida State

Draft Year: 1998 Draft Pick: No. 3 Draft Team: Arizona Cardinals

Andre Wadsworth with knees might have been a Hall of Fame edge rusher. He was drawing comparisons to Bruce Smith and Reggie White, with well-respected personnel guys like Bill Polian, Ron Wolf and Charley Armey rushing to gush over him. Wadsworth succeeded at both defensive tackle and defensive end at FSU, giving him positional versatility in the NFL. Watching highlights of his time at Florida State, you can still see the explosiveness that had everyone drooling. He destroyed the combine. The Cardinals did backflips, sliding down one pick to draft him third overall – the line of Wadsworth, Eric Swann, Simeon Rice and Mark Smith was going to destroy the NFC East for years to come.

Wadsworth ended up holding out until the day before the season started, and still managed to start 15 games, finishing among the team leaders in every category. No Smith or White as a rookie, surely, but the strength and athleticism were there. And then, they were gone – his knee just started swelling during training camp in 1999, and it never got better. Wadsworth underwent four knee surgeries between November 1999 and January 2001, as he suffered from avascular necrosis – poor blood supply to his bones. His right knee required microfracture surgery which was the eventual end of his career, but the sheer number of surgeries he ended up requiring – 14 on his knees alone! – meant that he was a ticking time bomb. Wadsworth left the league with eight sacks in 36 games, and a whole passel of “What If”s.

12. Jamal Reynolds, DE, Florida State

Draft Year: 2001 Draft Pick: No. 10 Draft Team: Green Bay Packers

Another pick, another FSU defensive monster, another injury-riddled career. Reynolds ends up above Wadsworth on this list because he was the inferior player when he was healthy, overcoming his worse draft position. The Lombardi Award winner was Mike Sherman’s first pick as Packers general manager. He traded away Matt Hasselbeck to move up to grab Reynolds! He was the pass-rushing demon the Packers’ defense of the era sorely lacked.

Reynolds never managed to start a game in the NFL, ending his career with three sacks in 18 appearances. Some of that came from Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila bursting out and making Reynolds’ services less necessary, but more of it came from chronic injuries – he hurt his knee in his first training camp, which gave Gbaja-Biamila the opportunity to Wally Pipp him to begin with. In fact, Green Bay couldn’t even give Reynolds away – they tried to trade him to Indianapolis, but he failed the physical when tests revealed he had a slipped disc in his back. Green Bay was ultimately forced to just release him.

11. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Draft Year: 2018 Draft Pick: No. 10 Draft Team: Arizona Cardinals

If you told me that a Josh from the 2018 draft class was going on to be a massive success, I would have leaned heavily on Rosen – Football Outsiders’ QBase projections had him as the third-best passer in the class. Rosen was a proven prospect with good production at a major college; with pretty mechanics and excellent grace under pressure. Yes, there were whispers that he wasn’t a leader and was hard to coach, but those are just the sorts of rumors you get when you have nothing tangible to throw at a guy. Rosen seemed refreshingly realistic, and I was excited when he referred to the players taken before him as “nine mistakes”. I was all in on Rosen.

It did not take the Cardinals long to go all out on Rosen, recognizing that they had made a huge mistake right off the bat. Admittedly, the terrible state of the Arizona offensive line didn’t help, but Rosen finished dead last with -1,145 passing DYAR as a rookie. That’s the worst total in NFL history; one of just three seasons below the -1,000 mark. He followed that up with -409 DYAR the next year in Miami, which gives him a fairly impressive distinction – he joins Alex Smith as the only passers in NFL history to have multiple seasons with at least 100 pass attempts and passing DVOA under -50%. Unable to handle pressure or hit a receiver in stride, the Cardinals did the nigh-unthinkable by using a first-round pick on a quarterback the very next season. No fewer than seven offensive coaches, including respected ones like Kyle Shanahan and Bruce Arians, brought Rosen in to see for themselves, only to decide that he was unsalvageable.

A nightmare of a pick, only saved from a higher slot by virtue of still being a double-digit draft pick. Only single digits from here on out. The top 10 names on this list all come from the top 10 picks in the draft, and we’ll place them in order next time.