With the 2021 NFL Draft just a month away, general managers will be dreaming of the future when considering the players who might prove to be the cornerstone of their franchise for the next decade. The reality is that typically, only 50% of first round draft picks prove to be a success. A bad pick can set your team back years. The NFL Draft can be a gamble, especially in the first round where the stakes are high and the fallout can cost millions.
Shockingly, some bad picks turn out not just to be reminders of wasted talent, but also in some cases below, the outcome of a bad draft can magnify a player's personal demons and patterns of behaviour. This has, for certain individuals, led to tragic consequences. There aren't many sports where the line between success and failure is so thinly drawn.
The Top 10 (in no particular order)
Here are a few examples of draft picks, with the benefit of hindsight I hasten to add, where teams got it horribly wrong.
JaMarcus Russell (QB, LSU) - No.1 to Oakland Raiders 2007
Russell was unmotivated and turned out to be a huge bust. (Image credits: al.com and mercurynews.com)
At 6'5" and 260 lbs, Russell was a man mountain with a cannon of an arm and huge potential coming out of Louisiana State University. Unfortunately, his work ethic never matched his potential. Having held out for more money on his contract (he ended up with a $61 million deal), he arrived at training camp having missed most of preseason and didn't make his first start until Oakland's last regular season game. Having acquired a reputation for being lazy and work shy (see the blank DVD story below), the last straw for the Raiders came when he turned up for preseason two years later 30 lbs overweight. He was unceremoniously released.
Raiders could have taken: Anyone else. "Megatron" wide receiver Calvin Johnson, linebacker Patrick Willis and running back greats Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
Tony Mandarich (OT, Michigan State) - No.2 to Green Bay Packers 1989
Probably literally the biggest bust, a 6'6" 330lb giant offensive tackle, Mandarich was seen as a "can't miss" prospect. A Chicago Tribune article before that year's draft agreed:
"The only thing wrong with Tony Mandarich is he's too big, too fast, too strong to be true. The Michigan State offensive tackle broke the mold, the scale, the stopwatch."
- Don Pierson, Chicago Tribune (April 21, 1989)
A mix of steroid use, bad attitude and poor form led to Mandarich being driven out of Green Bay after three seasons. While he did return for three years with the Colts, his pre-Draft hype and the missed opportunity for the Packers, at No.2 overall, to select one of three the future legends available immediately after Mandarich, makes this pick right up there with the worst of all time.
Packers could have taken: One of three NFL greats and Hall of Famers who were picked immediately afterwards - running back Barry Sanders, linebacker Derrick Thomas and cornerback "Neon" Deion Sanders.
Akili Smith (QB, Oregon) - No.3 to Cincinnati Bengals 1999.
Smith's stellar career at Oregon wasn't repeated in Cincinnati. (Image credits: oregonlive.com and Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT via sportsnaut.com)
With high expectations following a standout last season for the University of Oregon, it wasn't just Smith's disappointing rookie year that makes him a solid contender for worst pick. It transpired that the Bengals turned down a king's ransom for the top pick from Mike Ditka's New Orleans Saints. On offer - almost all of the Saints' draft picks for 1999 plus their first round picks in 2000 and 2001. This could have set Cincinnati up to build a team for the future. Instead, Smith started just 17 games for the Bengals, winning just three. Washington would bite instead on a slightly lesser deal so New Orleans could secure Ricky Williams.
Bengals could have taken: Daunte Culpepper was a solid NFL quarterback with 11 seasons, mainly with Minnesota, who took him at pick No.11. Hall of Famers, running back Edgerrin James and cornerback Champ Bailey could have provided solid foundations for the Cincinnati at picks 4 and 7.
Tim Couch (QB, Kentucky) - No.1 to Cleveland Browns 1999
As NFL football returned to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns needed a franchise quarterback to be the cornerstone of their new team. They got Tim Couch. At Kentucky, he had missed his senior season. Having thrown for 75 touchdowns and over 8,000 yards over his sophomore and junior campaigns, he was seen as the consensus top pick. Injuries, however, meant he started just 22 games of a five-year career in Cleveland.
Browns could have taken: See Akili Smith. Future Pro Bowler QB Donovan McNabb, who led the Eagles to a Super Bowl game and eight playoff appearances was also available at no.2.
Ryan Leaf (QB, Washington State) - No.2 to San Diego Chargers 1998
The choice for top pick in 1998 was a straight choice between Leaf and Tennessee's Peyton Manning. Both were extremely highly graded picks and the general consensus was that it was a 50/50 pick.
As it turns out, Manning became the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year. Leaf was released by San Diego in 2001 after a 1-15 season in a career where he threw almost three times as many interceptions as touchdowns. After a spell in jail for burglary and drug possession, he worked as an ambassador for a recovery community and sadly was arrested again last year, for domestic battery.
Chargers could have taken: Manning was off the board, but Hall of Famers Charles Woodson (at No.4), the Heisman Trophy winner a nine-time Pro-Bowl cornerback and Randy Moss, one of the greatest wide receivers of all time (No.21) were available.
Lawrence Phillips (RB, Nebraska) - No.6 to St.Louis Rams, 1996
A troubled character whose impressive form at college level didn't translate to the NFL, Phillips' considerable talent was overshadowed by his off-field issues. He was arrested numerous times for assault over his career and was released by the Rams in 1997. Having bounced around a few teams in NFL, NFL Europe and CFL, he was arrested and sentenced to a 31-year jail term. In prison, charged for the first-degree murder of his cellmate, Damion Soward, and awaiting trial, Phillips committed suicide in his cell in January 2016.
Rams could have taken: Double Super Bowl winning linebacker Ray Lewis, Pro Bowl running back Eddie George or Hall of Fame receivers Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens.
Charles Rogers (WR, Michigan State) - No.2 to Detroit Lions, 2003
As a Michigan State local and off the back of two sensational seasons at wide receiver, Charles Rogers looked like a "can't miss" prospect at No.2 overall for Detroit. Sadly, bad injuries in his first two seasons led Rogers to lengthy periods of recuperation and a slide into substance abuse. He played just 15 games in three seasons for the Lions before dropping out of the NFL. Rogers tragically died from liver failure in November 2019, aged 38.
Lions could have taken: At No.3, fellow wide receiver Andre Johnson went on to a Pro Bowl career with the Houston Texans.
Todd Blackledge (QB, Penn State) - No.7 to Kansas City Chiefs, 1983
A great example of the lottery of NFL draft picks. Blackledge entered the draft having led Penn State to national titles and with big expectations for the pro ranks. It's not particularly that he was a particularly bad player, but as a top 10 pick in the best quarterback draft in history, Blackledge only started 22 games for the Chiefs. Four quarterbacks taken that year ended up in the Hall of Fame.
Chiefs could have taken: All-time greats Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were both taken after Blackledge in arguably the greatest draft class.
Ki-Jana Carter (RB, Penn State) - No.1 to Cincinnati Bengals, 1995
A sensational running back in college football at Penn State, Carter was co-MVP in the 1995 Rose Bowl, running for 156 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon. Taken at No.1 overall, Carter's future NFL career was virtually undone in his third preseason game. He tore his ACL, missing the entire season and never really recovered the explosiveness he showed in college. It's unfair perhaps to label him as a "bust" as injuries never gave him a chance to realise his potential, suffering season-ending injuries in each of the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons.
Bengals could have taken: Running backs Curtis Martin and Terrell Davis were third and sixth round picks who would have Hall of Fame careers for the Patriots and Broncos respectively.
Vernon Gholston (DE, Ohio State) - No.6 to New York Jets, 2008
Having registered 14 sacks in his final season for Ohio State, the New York Jets selected Vernon Gholston as the answer to their pass rush problems. Three years, and 45 games later, Gholston failed to register a single sack in his entire Jets career, He was cut after the 2010 season and never played in the NFL again.
Jets could have taken: Cliff Avril, a third round pick for the Seahawks won a Super Bowl with them. All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib and Chris Johnson, who won the NFL rushing title in 2009 were on the board when Gholston was picked.