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

Apr 26th 2023

Bryan Knowles

Welcome to part two of our countdown of the 25 biggest busts of the last 25 NFL drafts! If you missed the first part, you can still check it out here, but we’re down to the cream of the crop; the worst of the worst of the past quarter century.

To get this far, you had to be a top 10 pick. While it’s perfectly reasonable to call anyone picked in the top 50 a bust in the right circumstances, if you’re punching with the heaviest of the heavyweights, you need to have the expectations that go along with a single digit by your draft position. It helps if you’re a skill position player – four of the top ten are quarterbacks, with a couple of wide receivers thrown in for spice. And, of course, if you really want to contend for that top spot, you better be fighting coaches, suffering multiple injuries, and generally making everyone around you miserable.

Has anyone in the past quarter century caught Ryan Leaf, the gold standard for high-profile prospect flameouts? Without further ado, let’s find out.

10. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State

Draft Year: 2008 Draft Pick: No. 6 Draft Team: New York Jets

Gholston once had 14.5 sacks in a single season in college, an Ohio State record. He had 22.5 sacks in just two full seasons in Columbus. He was a sack machine, throwing aside smaller offensive linemen like they were playthings. And yet, he recorded zero sacks in three seasons for the New York Jets. In fact, he barely saw the starting lineup – he played in 45 games, but only got the start in five of them. Hard to be a game changer when you can’t get in the game!

It didn’t help that Bob Sutton converted Gholston from a 4-3 end into a 3-4 linebacker, a position swap that never really took. It didn’t help that the team was torn about the decision to take him – reports after the fact said that the scouts warned general manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Eric Mangini that Gholston was not a top-10 player, and that they were being blinded by a tremendous combine performance and an overwhelming amount of talent surrounding him at Ohio State. Tannenbaum went ahead and picked him anyway. Gholston complained, at the time, that he never got a fair shake under Mangini or Rex Ryan. That’s hard to believe considering how little production Gholston had when he did see the field. He had fewer tackles than games played. He is the only top-10 edge rusher in NFL history to fail to record a sack in his career.

9. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

Draft Year: 2014 Draft Pick: No. 8 Draft Team: Cleveland Browns

I know the picks of Johnny Manziel or Brady Quinn may hurt more for Browns fans, but both quarterbacks had their moments, as brief and ephemeral as they may be. Plus, they were drafted in the back half of the first round; neither of them were Cleveland’s first pick in a draft. The Browns are no stranger to whiffed draft picks, but Gilbert is the worst since they returned to life in 1999.

Still, what a first round 2014 was, with Manziel and Justin Gilbert both going in the first round, ey? Gilbert was supposed to be a shutdown corner. He was supposed to be a special teams weapon – six kickoff returns for touchdowns at OSU. He was supposed to be a game-changing weapon. First strike: the Browns opted not to use him on kickoffs as a rookie, instead letting him focus on learning the cornerback position at an NFL level. Second strike: he didn’t do that. Gilbert was immature and put forth roughly zero effort, coasting on the athletic ability which got him through college but was not nearly enough in the pros. His teammates openly questioned his maturity and desire to be a professional athlete, which is very rarely a good sign. Gilbert also struggled with substance abuse, being suspended for the entire 2017 season and never getting back into the league.

You have to be a pretty big flameout to eclipse Johnny Manziel, but Gilbert managed to pull it off. He, and not Manziel or Quinn or Trent Richardson or Corey Coleman, is the biggest Browns bust in modern history. That is some tough competition to beat.

8. Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

Draft Year: 2021 Draft Pick: No. 2 Draft Team: New York Jets

Wilson was the hardest person to place on this list. He’s still active – in fact, when I began writing this list, Wilson was still penciled in as the starter for the Jets as the Aaron Rodgers trade had not yet been finalized. There’s an argument, then, that he should be grouped in the honorable mention section along with Trey Lance; a player on a bust trajectory but still with chapters yet to play. On the other hand, there’s lots of smoke around Lance getting traded and possibly starting somewhere in 2023. Jeff Okudah is penciled in as a starter in Atlanta; Jameson Williams will presumably start shortly after getting off suspension. No one wants Zach Wilson starting for their team in 2023, and that’s pretty telling in and of itself.

I compromise by knocking Wilson down a few slots. If he’s done and never plays a snap again, he’d be in my top five. There’s a chance he’ll linger around as a backup, maybe make a useful bench player – the David Carr route to moderate redemption, becoming just a really bad pick instead of an all-time worst bust. For the Jets to throw in the towel on him after just two seasons, though, is a terrible sign for his future; he’s basically remaining employed at the moment because the $20.1 million in dead money from cutting him would be too much to eat. It’s not entirely historically unprecedented for a quarterback to start out this bad and get better. While the list of quarterbacks who opened their careers with back-to-back seasons with -15.0% passing DVOA or worse is pretty grim, it does include Troy Aikman. But considering Wilson was a one-year wonder in college who was riding high off of a weird COVID season and a stellar pro day, call me somewhat skeptical that the Great Wilson Redemption is coming.

7. Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon

Draft Year: 2013 Draft Pick: No. 3 Draft Team: Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins traded away their second-round pick to go and grab Jordan, who was pegged as the most complete edge player in the draft. Surprisingly good in coverage, Jordan’s mixture of size and athleticism vaulted him up draft boards, even though he didn’t really have the numbers to back it up. You were drafting him because he was 6’7” with a 4.6-40, not for the 14.5 sacks he picked up at Oregon. Still, in retrospect, the Dolphins would have loved to get 14.5 out of Jordan. With Miami, Jordan managed to rack up as many drug suspensions as he did sacks, which seems somewhat less than ideal. Even when he wasn’t suspended, he had trouble getting reps, only once playing more than 30 defensive snaps in a game for Miami. When his third drug suspension came down in 2015, he was banned for an entire year and that ended his time as a Dolphin.

Jordan has a fairly odd post-bust history. Jordan has played 37 games since Miami cut him loose, which is highly unusual for a player who was out of football for two years and hadn’t performed beforehand. He had some success with Seattle…until he was dinged again for the PED policy thanks to using Adderall without an exemption. Jordan continued to bounce around a little bit, picking up some sacks for Oakland and San Francisco, but hasn’t played a snap since 2020.

6. Kevin White, WR, West Virginia

Draft Year: 2015 Draft Pick: No. 7 Draft Team: Chicago Bears

Kevin White played football in 2022, catching a couple passes for 74 yards in New Orleans. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. I would have assumed, after his lengthy injury history in Chicago, that White would just be permanently encased in a plastic bubble at this point. But no, he’s still out there giving it the old college try, and that’s respectable. Doesn’t change the bust label, but respectable.

White managed to play 14 games for Chicago in his first four seasons in the league. He missed part of his rookie offseason in 2015 with a shin injury. That developed into a stress fracture in OTAs, which required a steel rod to be place in his tibia; he didn’t play a snap. In 2016, White managed to play for a month before fracturing his left fibula, once again going on injured reserve and missing the rest of the season. In 2017, he fractured his left shoulder in the season opener, once again going on injured reserve and missing the season. By 2018, he was being named a healthy scratch instead, which is at least the less painful way to miss time. It should be noted that White never really blew people away when he was healthy, either; he has just 28 receptions for 397 yards and -70 receiving DYAR in his career. But hey, he’s still getting work, so good on him.

5. Jason Smith, T, Baylor

Draft Year: 2009 Draft Pick: No. 2 Draft Team: St. Louis Rams

If you’re picking an offensive linemen second overall, you’re expecting to lock down your blindside for a decade, minimum. The Rams had just lost Orlando Pace, and needed a replacement. Smith was athletic, for sure – he had a fantastic combine, vaulting him from a mid-first round pick to the top of the draft board. He fought through adversity in college, coming back from knee injuries to lead a line that helped Robert Griffin and Jay Finley run for over 2,300 yards in 2008. Sounds like just the guy to rescue a moribund St. Louis franchise.

And maybe he would have been. Smith was slotted in at right tackle initially and left to learn via trial by fire. When healthy, there were some positive signs. But “when healthy” is a massive qualifier there. He suffered a knee injury in his very first start that knocked him out of two games, and when he got back, he suffered a concussion that knocked him out the rest of his rookie season. That was just the first of many concussions, knocking him out of significant time in 2010 and 2011. It was a different time, and his coaches and teammates began to question Smith’s toughness for not coming back faster from his brain injuries. You know, the same brain injuries that means he has to wear special glasses today to cope with the side effects and avoid flickering lights. Smith also seemed to lose confidence when he was cleared to play, and was eventually benched and shipped to New York after three seasons. Perhaps nowadays, Smith would have received less criticism for sitting out after head and neck injuries. But even today, his performance on the field wasn’t really enough to justify the massive salary he was picking up pre-rookie cap.

4. Akili Smith, QB, Oregon

Draft Year: 1999 Draft Pick: No. 3 Draft Team: Cincinnati Bengals

With the third pick in the 1999 draft, the Cincinnati Bengals had a choice. New Orleans offered them nine picks, including every single pick in the 1999 draft and two future first-rounders, to try to jump up to No. 3 so they could draft Ricky Williams. The Bengals, however, stood their ground and instead put all their chips on Akili Smith, the third quarterback taken that year. They were trying to recover from the bust that was David Klingler, and Smith seemed to be their guy. Sure, he started just one year at Oregon, but he led the NCAA in passing yards per attempt, threw 32 touchdowns, could run a 4.6 40, and basically set the world on fire. Smith would be the one to lead the Bengals into the 21st century.

There was some controversy about drafting Smith, because he infamously bombed the Wonderlic on his first shot at it, scoring 16 out of 50. The Wonderlic test is a fairly thoroughly discredited metric at least in NFL terms, but it did raise some warning flags at the time – flags that were supported when Smith struggled to pick up the playbook. Smith held out for months, missing crucial training camp time. Smith wasn’t “as diligent as he should have been” regarding memorizing his playbook or watching film, per his coaches. And that lack of prep showed itself on the field. There are only three quarterbacks in NFL history who have multiple seasons with at least 100 pass attempts and a passing DVOA below -45% -- Akili Smith, Alex Smith and Josh Rosen.

The biggest flaw for Smith was his accuracy. In his one season as primary starter, Smith only completed 44.2% of his passes. That gives him a pass completion percentage index of 44, with 100 being average. That’s the worst total in NFL history. A 44% completion percentage would have been poor in the 1970s; it’s appallingly bad for 2000. Smith was benched for Scott Mitchell before his second season was over, and made just two spot starts over the rest of his career.

3. Charles Rodgers, WR, Michigan State

Draft Year: 2003 Draft Pick: No. 2 Draft Team: Detroit Lions

Ah, the Matt Millen-era Lions. One of the least successful reigns for any general manager in league history, Millen was described by other NFL executives as having made “more bad draft decisions than anyone else in two centuries”. Joey Harrington and Mike Williams were both on the shortlist for inclusion, but Charles Rodgers was the worst of a bad lot. It doesn’t help that he was taken one pick before Andre Johnson, but even without that comparison, Rodgers cratered.

You can understand why the Lions would go for him. Rodgers still holds Michigan State records for receiving touchdowns in a career and receiving yards in a game; he was one of the most prolific receivers in college at the time. Pairing him with Joey Harrington to build a passing game makes tons of sense on paper; Rodgers was going to develop into a physically dominating receiver. But things went downhill very quickly. After just five games in 2003, Rodgers collided with Dre Bly in practice, breaking his clavicle and knocking him out for the rest of the season. In 2004, just three plays into the year, he broke his clavicle again, and would miss his entire sophomore season. That is obviously less than ideal.

It’s there the story gets sadder, however. Rodgers was sent home after his second injury, to recuperate away from the team. Millen later admitted that this was probably a mistake, and Detroit should have kept Rodgers in meetings and with the team both for his professional development and his mental health. Instead, away from the team and feeling sorry for himself, Rodgers started using and then abusing marijuana and Vicodin to deal with the pain and disappointment. That got him in trouble with the league, suspending him for four games to start in 2005. That, in turn, started his friction with the Lions, who ended up cutting him for a lack of effort in camp and suing him for his drug use violating part of his contract, attempting to recover $10 million of his $14 million bonuses. Rodgers failed to draw any interest from other teams after running a 4.8 40 in workouts, and never played again.

2. JaMarcus Russell, QB, LSU

Draft Year: 2007 Draft Pick: No. 1 Draft Team: Oakland Raiders

Over the past quarter century, teams have been pretty good at avoiding true disasters with the top pick in the draft. The Browns missed with Tim Couch and Courtney Brown in back-to-back years to restart their franchise, yes. David Carr and Sam Bradford were not the franchise saviors they were billed as being, yes. But all of them at least had a couple moments in the sun, some highlights you could point to. Bradford was derailed by injuries; Carr, Couch and Brown from poorly-managed expansion teams. In the past quarter-century, there has only been one truly disastrous, irredeemable, no-mitigating-factors bust with the top pick, and that’s JaMarcus Russell.

Russell’s measurables were exceptional. At 6’6” with a canon for an arm, the scouts were battling each other to try and find the right superlative. Todd McShay called Russell’s Pro Day the best he had ever been to. Mike Mayock said he had never seen a college quarterback with more ability. Mel Kiper compared him to John Elway. Scouts Inc gave him a 98 in their final pre-draft player ratings; the only quarterback to score higher since was Andrew Luck. A true generational talent.

That’s not to say there were no warning signs, mind you. It was unclear, to some, if Russell was better than Matt Flynn at LSU, with Flynn impressing every time he got a chance to play. Matt Millen called Russell a “stiff” who “couldn’t pay attention for more than five minutes” after observing Russell constantly checking his watch during a pre-draft meeting. Lane Kiffin absolutely did not want to draft him – which was a problem, because Lane Kiffin was the coach of the Oakland Raiders, who had the top pick. Kiffin was overruled by Al Davis, and Russell became a Raider.

Well, eventually. Like many of the other busts on this list, Russell held out. But his hold out lasted all the way into Week 1 of his rookie season – no OTAs, no minicamp, no training camp, no preseason. As such, Russell spent most of the 2007 season on the bench, just trying to get up to speed with the Raiders’ offense. Not helping was his, shall we say, slapdash approach to film study. Raiders coaches were doubting Russell was actually studying the tapes they were giving him. To test him, they gave him blank cassettes, and then listened in shock the next day when Russell claimed to have watched the blitz packages on them. Also not helping? His conditioning, which occasionally saw him balloon up to over 300 pounds. Or, for that matter, his regular use of codeine and purple drank before, during and after his tenure with the Raiders.

Maybe his off-field problems could have been worked around if he was performing on the field, but Russell was a disaster there, too. In his 25 starts, Russell managed to rack up -1,262 passing DYAR. That’s the sixth-worst total in NFL history (since 1981), and three of the guys ahead of him put up those numbers in thousands of pass attempts. Inaccurate and inconsistent, Russell would have been a bust no matter when he was picked. To be that bad as the top pick in the entire draft – and a fairy loaded draft, with Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas and Adrian Peterson going in the next six picks – is unfathomable. If you wanted to place him as the biggest bust in NFL history, I wouldn’t blame you.

But he does come up just short for me.

1. Ryan Leaf, QB, Washington State

Draft Year: 1998 Draft Pick: No. 2 Draft Team: San Diego Chargers

25 years later, Leaf continues to reign supreme. His combination of terrible play, off-field issues and raw draft capital used to pick him still add up to the biggest bust in recent NFL history, with a quarter-century worth of picks failing to live up to the sheer magnitude of his struggles.

It was an honest-to-goodness toss up between Leaf and Peyton Manning at the top of the ’98 draft. For all of Manning’s college production and pedigree, Leaf had the stronger arm of the two, and the potential, if you could harness that? Off the charts. For people in Leaf’s camp, picking Manning was playing it safe; Leaf was the one with the untapped potential. So what if he came to the combine overweight? He was coming out of the same offense that produced Drew Bledsoe, so it was clear that Leaf’s production at Washington State could translate to the NFL. So what if he was “self-confident…to the point of being obnoxious”? That just meant he was a competitor and assertive. Add in his larger frame and superior mobility, and why were you taking Manning? Because his father played in the NFL? C’mon.

The Chargers may have been fine taking either Manning or Leaf, but they knew they had to get one of them. And so, they traded Eric Metcalf, Patrick Sapp, two first-round picks and a second-round pick to slide up one slot and take Leaf. And so San Diego’s problems were solved forever.

Leaf showed up to his first minicamp out of shape, unable to even complete the first jog around the field. Leaf skipped out on a mandatory NFL symposium for draft picks. Leaf yelled and swore at reporters, and had to be physically removed by Junior Seau before he could get in a physical altercation. He cursed out team officials after skipping out on a weight-room session. He was caught golfing when he should have been in the film room. By the end of his rookie season, Seau and Rodney Harrison were calling for the team to bring in a veteran to replace Leaf. Forget about winning the locker room; Leaf set it on fire from the word go.

There would be no redemption in year two, either – Leaf tore his labrum 20 minutes into the first workout in training camp, and missed the entire year. While on injured reserve, he was caught on video playing flag football, a violation of his contract. He also got into a shouting match with a fan and had to be restrained by two coaches, and was suspended without pay for getting into a shouting match with general manager Bobby Beathard. So, you know, no lessons learned there.

It seems barely worth mentioning that he was terrible on the field, too. Leaf finished his career with -1,388 passing DYAR, fourth-worst in NFL history and falling just underneath the trio of Blaine Gabbert, Josh Rosen and Josh McCown. He did it in only 21 stars, going 4-17 with 36 interceptions to just 14 touchdowns. He had some legendarily bad individual performances – four interceptions in the first half against the Giants, 1-for-15 for four yards and five turnovers against the Chiefs, 4-for-15 for 23 yards and a turnover against the Broncos. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about his time on the field.

Leaf may have gone one pick later than Russell, but the fact that the Chargers had to trade up to go get him means that San Diego spent more draft capital on Leaf than Oakland did on Russell. Leaf has the inferior advanced stats, putting up more negative DYAR on fewer attempts than Russell. That’s a hard argument to beat. In Russell’s favor, there is the fact that Leaf did manage to get second looks from Tampa Bay and Dallas, while no one wanted to touch Russell after his stint in Oakland. Russell also had more talent around him than Leaf did, so the fact that they put up similarly terrible numbers does speak worse of Russell.

At the end of the analysis, though, Leaf gets the edge because he was the more highly hyped prospect. Russell had his detractors; he went first overall because there wasn’t really another quarterback prospect worth mentioning in 2007. Leaf was very much 1 and 1A with Peyton Manning, and was getting first pick consideration over another absolute blue-chip quarterback prospect. The heights of expectation, contrasted with the utter failure at the end, gives Leaf the title for me.

Even a quarter century later, there is still just no comparison to Ryan Leaf, the biggest bust of the past 25 years.