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Flop Factor: 10 Biggest Draft Busts in NFL History

Johnny Manziel - Fantasy Football Busts, NFL News

NFL teams are gambling during the annual rookie draft because a player’s performance in college does not automatically dictate their career in the big leagues. Some undrafted sleepers selected in the latter rounds established Hall of Fame careers. On the contrary, some highly-touted athletes did not live up to the hype.

These players dazzled every game day by racking up an astronomical number of yards or touchdowns. Their superhuman feats helped them collect individual awards, national championships, and product endorsements. Unfortunately, they cannot sustain their success after jumping to the NFL as a first-round selection.

Some of them suffered injuries that derailed their good runs. Meanwhile, others spent time in prison due to run-ins with the law. But, most of them failed to adjust to the NFL’s faster pace, making them look like a boy among men. These players won’t have bronze busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Instead, they busted out during their time.

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10. Charles Rodgers, Detroit Lions

Rodgers torched opposing defensive backs during his two seasons at Michigan State. He breached 1,000 receiving yards in both years and caught 27 touchdowns before declaring for the NFL draft. It seemed like a match made in heaven for the Detroit Lions to draft the Saginaw native with the second overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.

Sadly, his NFL stint was a disaster. The 2002 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner and unanimous All-American played only 15 games in three seasons. Rodgers’ rookie season lasted only five games after suffering a collar bone injury after a hit by cornerback Dre Bly in practice. As it turned out, he failed to recover from that injury, both physically and mentally.

The two-time All-Big Ten player missed four games in 2005 due to the NFL's substance abuse policy. The Lions released him, and no other team acquired his services. He finished his pro career with 440 yards and four touchdowns. His life ended tragically in November 2019 at 39 years old due to liver failure triggered by opioid addiction.


9. Ki-Jana Carter, Cincinnati Bengals

Kenneth Leonard Carter became a Consensus All-American in 1994 after finishing the season with 1,539 yards and 23 touchdowns for Penn State. He also won MVP honors in the 1995 Rose Bowl after tallying 156 yards and three touchdowns, including an 83-yard run to the house. Those credentials led the Cincinnati Bengals to draft him first overall in the 1995 NFL Draft.

However, Carter’s injuries derailed his potential dominance in the league. While he played for three teams in seven seasons, he completed only one season without missing a game. As a bad omen for things to come, he tore the ligament on his knee during their preseason game, forcing him to miss what could have been his rookie campaign.

Carter also dislocated his kneecap, broke his left wrist, and tore the rotator cuff on his left shoulder. He played only 59 games, tallying 1,144 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also had 66 receptions for 469 yards and a touchdown. Carter never had more than 500 rushing yards in his stints with the Bengals, the Washington Redskins, and the New Orleans Saints.


8. Brian Bosworth, Seattle Seahawks

Football fans will remember the larger-than-life and outspoken character “The Boz” before looking up his credentials. No one can remove the two Butkus Awards as college football’s best linebacker and the 1985 National Championship with the Oklahoma Sooners. Bosworth was also a two-time All-American and a three-time All-Big Eight.

However, his personality took over, leading to infamous decisions like the “NCAA: National Communists Against Athletes” shirt he wore during the 1987 Orange Bowl. He also wrote to NFL teams that he won’t attend training camp or play for them if they drafted him. Eventually, the Seattle Seahawks chose him in the first round of the 1987 Supplemental Draft.

Bosworth had initial NFL success, leading the Pro Football Writers Association to include him in their 1987 All-Rookie Team. That situation didn’t last long because he retired after three seasons due to a nagging shoulder injury. He only had four quarterback sacks and three fumble recoveries in his professional football career. Bosworth did find some saving grace as an actor and endorser for Dr. Pepper as of 2022.


7. Steve Emtman, Indianapolis Colts

As a defensive lineman for the Washington Huskies, Steve Emtman was a menace for opposing offenses. However, he worked his way up to become one of the best because he wasn’t primarily regarded as a can’t-miss prospect. But he looked pro-ready after two years at Seattle, tallying 134 tackles and 14 sacks. He was also the Washington defense's focal point, allowing only 9.2 points per game in a 12-0 season.

The Spokane native was an unstoppable force in 1991 when he won the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award, Bill Willis Award, and UPI Lineman of the Year honors. He was also that year’s Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and a Unanimous All-American after finishing with 19.5 tackles for losses, 6.5 of which were quarterback sacks.

The Indianapolis Colts made him the top overall selection in the 1992 NFL Draft. From the get-go, he made his presence felt en route to being named to the 1992 PFWA All-Rookie Team. Unfortunately, injuries slowed him down, forcing him to retire after six seasons unceremoniously. Aside from tearing a kneecap tendon on his right knee, he injured his left knee and ruptured a disc.


6. Tony Mandarich, Green Bay Packers

Sports Illustrated propelled him to heroic proportions after featuring him on their cover as “The Incredible Bulk.” The magazine hailed the offensive lineman from Michigan State as the best prospect ever because of his ungodly measurables, like running the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds despite weighing over 300 pounds and a 30-inch vertical leap.

Thinking they had hit the jackpot, the Green Bay Packers took him with the second overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. The Packers hope Mandarich will help quarterback Don Majkowski buy some time before finding targets like Sterling Sharpe, Jeff Query, and Clint Didier. Sadly, attitude problems and sub-par performances saw him exiting the NFL after four seasons.

He got his second chance in 1996 when the Indianapolis Colts signed him after getting clean from drug and alcohol addiction. Mandarich did pretty well in three seasons with the Colts before retiring in 1998 due to a shoulder injury. However, he is on this list before the other top-five picks in his class were Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders.


5. Lawrence Phillips, St. Louis Rams

Lawrence Phillips burst into the college football limelight when he went for 137 yards and a touchdown as a freshman reserve against UCLA. 1994 was the defining moment of this former Nebraska Cornhusker after rushing for 1,826 yards and 26 touchdowns. Those numbers made him an All-Big Eight member, while Nebraska won the national title after going undefeated.

However, he became a top NFL prospect after finishing the 1995 Fiesta Bowl with 25 carries for 165 yards, two rushing touchdowns, and a 16-yard scoring catch. The St. Louis Rams selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. It was a disastrous decision because Phillips continued to make headlines for the wrong reasons.

In 2015, multiple assault convictions gave him a 31-year sentence. Tragically, he took his life on January 2016 at age 40. Phillips did have impressive seasons during his time at NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League. But in the NFL, he only had 1,453 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Rams, the Miami Dolphins, and the San Francisco 49ers.


4. Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

Richardson became the starting running back for the Alabama Crimson Tide after Mark Ingram II left for the NFL. He made the most of his opportunity by collecting at least 100 yards in nine games before ending up with 1,740 yards and 20 touchdowns. Richardson also had 338 receiving yards and three touchdowns at Alabama. Those numbers earned him an All-American nod and SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors.

He also won the 2011 Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back. Before declaring for the 2012 NFL Draft, the Florida native was also a two-time National Champion and a two-time First-Team All-SEC. The Cleveland Browns thought they were getting a franchise cornerstone when they selected him third overall. After all, Richardson drew comparisons to Emmitt Smith and Earl Campbell.

Unfortunately, his time in the NFL ended after four seasons. He did have a strong rookie season with 950 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, but in September 2013, the Browns traded him to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round selection. The change of scenario did not help Richardson blossom. He finished his NFL career with 2,032 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.


3. Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns

Manziel is the lowest-drafted player on the list, going 22nd in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns. He had a high billing, considering his splendid rookie campaign with Texas A&M in 2012. He finished the season with 3,706 passing yards, 1,410 rushing yards, and 47 touchdowns. Those stats made him the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

The same year, “Johnny Football” also won the AP College Football Player of the Year, the Manning Award, the Davey O’Brien Award, and the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Manziel played one more year of college football before declaring for the NFL draft. He was the second quarterback taken after Blake Bortles went to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But Manziel’s NFL career was short-lived because he could not carry the magic from College Station to Cleveland. He lasted only two seasons in the NFL, finishing with 1,675 yards and seven touchdowns. The controversies he got involved with did not do him any good, either. After the NFL, Manziel played in the Canadian Football League, the Alliance of American Football, and the Fan-Controlled Football League.


2. Jamarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders

Jamarcus Russell had the arm strength to sling the football from one end zone to another. He used this physical attribute to finish his 2006 season at LSU with 3,129 yards and 28 touchdowns. He received the Manning Award as the best quarterback the Sugar Bowl committee chose and became a First-Team All-SEC selection.

Analysts and scouts regarded him as a franchise-altering player when he declared for the 2007 NFL Draft. That’s why the Oakland Raiders did not waste time getting him via the first overall selection. The late Raiders owner Al Davis ultimately selected Russell despite dissent from then-head coach Lane Kiffin and former Raiders linebacker Matt Millen.

As it turned out, the naysayers were right. Aside from holding out to get the contract he wants, his poor work ethic is also the talk of the town. While he is a talented quarterback, he never completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each of his three NFL seasons. Worst yet, taken in consecutive picks after Russell were Hall of Famers Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas.


1. Ryan Leaf, San Diego Chargers

As one of the NFL's biggest draft busts, Ryan Leaf's story will stand the test of time. It was 1998, and the Indianapolis Colts had the first overall selection. They were deciding whether Leaf or Peyton Manning would carry the franchise to the next decade. It wasn’t easy to determine because Manning had the mechanics while Leaf had the better upside.

Eventually, the Colts went with Manning, and the rest is history. As for the San Diego Chargers, they had to trade up with the Arizona Cardinals to get the second pick, which became Leaf. It didn’t take long before the decision blew up on the Chargers. Leaf exhibited poor behavior, like skipping a mandatory symposium for draftees and lashing out at a reporter who interviewed him in the locker room.

Leaf’s NFL career was over after four seasons. He sat out the entire 1999 season due to injury and played his final year with the Dallas Cowboys. The former Washington State standout signed a four-year, $31.25 million contract. After winning only four games in 25 starts, his high price tag did not reap good results. In contrast, Manning won two Super Bowls, five MVPs, and was a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.

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