Ask any fan of a struggling NFL franchise and they’ll tell you that the annual draft is a bigger deal than the Super Bowl. It’s the only time in the league’s calendar where every team can feel optimistic about the future as they pick the players that could make them into a dynasty.
Sadly, most of the 250-plus players who are taken each year in the NFL Draft will never have great success in the sport and will be out of the league in just a few years. That type of result is more expected with the guys taken in later rounds, but when a player is taken in the top 10 of any given draft, he is expected to be a star for years to come.
Here are some of the top NFL Draft picks who ended up being busts.
Drafted: #3 Overall By Cleveland Browns (2012)
When Trent Richardson was taken third overall by the Browns at the 2012 draft, virtually nobody doubted the selection. At Alabama, the star running back had won two national championships and had averaged nearly 130 rushing yards per game in his final season. However, he’d never come close to that kind of production in the NFL, averaging a measly 44.2 rushing yards per game and scoring a total of 17 rushing touchdowns for his career.
Richardson never played in another NFL game after 2014 and has spent the last few years bouncing around different professional football leagues.
Drafted: #2 Overall By Jacksonville Jaguars (2013)
How exactly do you label an offensive lineman a bust? Well, when he’s drafted second overall and plays in only 50 games for his entire career, we’d say that’s good evidence. In 2013, the Jaguars hoped to shore up their offensive line by adding Luke Joeckel, a unanimous All-American at Texas A&M who’d never missed a game in college. They took him second overall in a draft that was loaded with offensive linemen, forgoing future Pro Bowlers Lane Johnson and Terron Armstead in the process.
Joeckel ended up battling injuries in the NFL, starting in just 39 games for the Jaguars in four seasons before spending a single year with the Seattle Seahawks. He was out of the league by 2018.
Drafted: #10 Overall By Arizona Cardinals (2006)
Quarterback Matt Leinart had about as much success in college as any football player can have. He led USC to a national championship, won the Heisman Trophy and was a first-team All-American twice, which led the Arizona Cardinals to draft him in the top 10 in 2006. However, his NFL career would lead to some pitiful statistics and not so much as a single playoff start.
Leinart spent six seasons in the league — four with the Cardinals — and started just 18 total games. He threw 15 career touchdown passes to 21 interceptions and was out of the NFL by 2013, making him a huge bust after the promise he showed in college.
Drafted: #2 Overall By St. Louis Rams (2009)
Another offensive line bust is Jason Smith, who was drafted with the number-two pick by the Rams in 2009. He’d been a star at Baylor, providing protection for an offense that could be as dynamic and high-scoring as any in college football. But his NFL career would last about as long as his NCAA tenure, with trouble starting during his rookie year when he suffered a massive concussion.
Smith would end up starting in only 26 games over the course of four seasons and wouldn’t appear in another game after 2012.
Drafted: #2 Overall By San Diego Chargers (1998)
When a conversation about major draft busts comes up, Ryan Leaf’s name is always thrown into the mix. In 1998, he was grabbed at second overall by the Chargers, following a prolific career at Washington State that saw him finish 1997 as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Unfortunately, Leaf’s skills wouldn’t translate to Sunday football, and he would end up playing in just 25 games before his career ended in 2001. He would throw for 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions in that time.
If he had been selected ahead of top pick Peyton Manning, Leaf’s legacy would probably be infinitely worse. So, he can thank the Indianapolis Colts for passing on him.
Drafted: #3 Overall By Arizona Cardinals (1998)
Just one pick after Ryan Leaf would come to define the term “draft bust,” Andre Wadsworth was selected and had an equally frustrating career. The star defensive end from Florida State was so good in college that he was named ACC Player of the Year for 1997, an extremely rare honor for a defensive player. But his NFL tenure would be marred by knee injuries, which appeared during his second season with the Cardinals.
Wadsworth would play for only three seasons before he was out of the league, starting in a total of 30 games and racking up just 8.0 sacks. It was a shadow of what his professional career should have been.
Drafted: #3 Overall By Cincinnati Bengals (1999)
Cincinnati Bengals fans have lived through a lot of heartache, and the name Akili Smith still gives them nightmares more than 20 years later. In 1999, the quarterback was a hot commodity after a college career at Oregon where he threw for 45 touchdowns to just 15 interceptions in two seasons. The Bengals took him third overall, ahead of offensive studs like Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams and Torry Holt.
What they got was a guy who would start in just 17 games over the course of four seasons before he was out of the NFL. His career stat line would end up being five touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and just 2,212 passing yards.
Drafted: #8 Overall By Chicago Bears (2001)
The 2001 NFL Draft had wide receivers like Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne and Chad Johnson, but the first player to come off the board at that position was David Terrell. The former All-American at Michigan was taken eighth overall by the Chicago Bears and the franchise obviously had high hopes that he could make their offense elite.
Terrell ended up spending just five seasons in the league and starting in less than 30 games before his career would be over in 2005. In that span, he averaged less than three catches per game and caught only nine touchdowns.
Drafted: #2 Overall By Detroit Lions (2003)
When Michigan State star Charles Rogers won the prestigious Fred Biletnikoff Award in 2002, proclaiming him the best wide receiver in college football, he was immediately looked as a can’t-miss NFL prospect. The Detroit Lions took the bait and drafted Rogers second overall at the 2003 draft, passing up on likely future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson in the process.
Rogers would last only three seasons in the NFL before his career came to a disappointing end, after multiple violations of the league’s drug-abuse policy. He played in a total of 15 games and caught just four touchdowns in that time, making him an undeniable draft bust.
Drafted: #2 Overall By Indianapolis Colts (1989)
The 1989 NFL Draft was particularly top-heavy, with four of its top five picks eventually landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The only one of that group that didn’t make it to Canton was the number-two selection, Tony Mandarich. The Packers took the offensive lineman after a career at Michigan State where he was twice named the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year.
Unfortunately, Mandarich would last just six seasons in the NFL, with a shoulder injury eventually forcing him to retire. He has since admitted that steroid use and a poor work ethic led to his failure at the game’s top level. To think that the team could’ve had Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas or Deion Sanders instead is still a sore spot for Packers fans.
Drafted: #2 Overall By New York Jets (1990)
The New York Jets could’ve had Emmitt Smith in the 1990 NFL Draft, but they opted to pass on the now-legendary rusher for Blair Thomas. It’s easy to see why they went for Thomas, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist at Penn State in 1989 at the end of an amazing career at that school. Unfortunately, the running back would last just four seasons with the Jets before bouncing around to three different teams and exiting the league in 1995.
Thomas averaged less than 35 rushing yards per game and scored just seven rushing touchdowns in his entire NFL career.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Oakland Raiders (2007)
One of the biggest busts in recent memory was JaMarcus Russell, who was taken at the top of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Raiders. The quarterback was a beast in college, throwing for more than 50 touchdowns in three seasons at LSU. His professional career would last exactly as long but would result in far fewer highlights.
Russell spent three seasons with the Raiders, throwing just 18 touchdowns in the course of 31 career games. To be fair, the quarterback class of 2007 was pretty weak, but likely future Hall of Famers like Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson had to wait to be picked after Russell.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Indianapolis Colts (1992)
Steve Emtman was one of the most feared defensive ends in Pac-12 conference history, but his NFL career wasn’t so intimidating. The Colts were so amazed by his career at Washington that they opted to draft him first overall in 1992, skipping out on guys like Troy Vincent and Desmond Howard. While that year’s draft class wasn’t exactly loaded, Emtman can only be described as a major bust because he would be out of the league in less than six years.
His career was marred by injuries, forcing him to start in only 19 career games.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Indianapolis Colts (1990)
Yet another number-one pick by the Colts in the 1990s that went down as a bust was quarterback Jeff George. When you look at his overall career statistics — 57.9% completion rate and 154 touchdown passes — they aren’t nearly as woeful as others on this list, but it’s his win-loss record that looks awful. George’s teams were 46-78 when he was starting and he only made the playoffs twice in 12 seasons in the league.
His status as a bust is cemented by the fact that he was paid the biggest rookie contract in history by the Colts and would spend only four seasons with the team, in which they went 14-35 and he had a passer rating of 72.0. All that was enough for ESPN to dub him the franchise’s biggest draft bust in history — and they’ve had a few bad ones.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Atlanta Falcons (1988)
Since 1988, when the Falcons took Aundray Bruce at the top of the draft, no NFL franchise has selected a linebacker with the number-one pick. That may not be because of Bruce’s lackluster career but it very well could be. The former Auburn stud was chosen ahead of outstanding defensive talent like Neil Smith and Terry McDaniel, as well as a few Hall-of-Fame offensive players. What the Falcons got for that gamble was 34 starts over four seasons.
Bruce would end up spending the final seven seasons of his career with the Raiders, where he’d average just one start per year.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Buffalo Bills (1979)
At the 1979 draft, the Bills had the top pick because of a trade they’d made to send legendary running back O.J. Simpson to the 49ers. The guy they ended up using that valuable selection on would never play a single game for the franchise. Tom Cousineau, a College Football Hall of Famer for his career at Ohio State, ended up refusing the deal offered to him by Buffalo and taking one with the Canadian Football League.
He’d spend three seasons in the CFL before opting to join the NFL, where he’d make just 59 career starts in six seasons. Cousineau undoubtedly had talent but, as a number-one draft pick for the Bills, he was a bust.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Cleveland Browns (1999)
When the Cleveland Browns came back to the NFL in 1999, they needed a star quarterback to lead the new version of the historic franchise, and Tim Couch was the man they chose. The 1998 Heisman Trophy finalist at Kentucky was chosen first overall in a draft that featured guys like should-be Hall of Famer Donovan McNabb and actual Hall of Famer Edgerrin James. Couch would end up spending just five seasons in the league — all with the Browns — amassing a record of 22-37 in 59 career starts.
In 2002, he did lead the team to its only playoff appearance of the 21st century, but an injury forced him to miss the postseason completely.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Cleveland Browns (2000)
Another year, another top draft pick for the Browns that would end up being a bust. A season after picking Tim Couch first overall, the team would take defensive end Courtney Brown, and he would end up having even less of an impact on the franchise’s history. The former Penn State star would end up spending six seasons in the NFL — five with Cleveland — and making just 60 career starts before he was out of the league without so much as a Pro Bowl appearance.
The fact that Brown was taken ahead of stars like Brian Urlacher, LaVar Arrington and Jamal Lewis makes his pick look even worse in hindsight.
Drafted: #1 Overall By Cincinnati Bengals (1995)
Another Penn State star who was taken first overall and went bust in the NFL was running back Ki-Jana Carter. After being given a lucrative rookie contract by the Bengals, Carter would end up starting in just 14 games for the team in four seasons. He averaged less than 22 rushing yards per game in that span, which was a far cry from what he was churning out in college.
Carter would spend three more seasons in the league, battling injuries constantly and rushing for just 20 total touchdowns in all seven seasons he played. He was taken ahead of legends like Tony Boselli, Steve McNair and Warren Sapp in that draft.
Drafted: #3 Overall By Washington Redskins (1994)
In 1994, the Washington Redskins were just a few seasons removed from being the best team in the NFL, and the franchise thought quarterback Heath Shuler would help get them back there. They took the Heisman Trophy finalist from Tennessee at number-three overall in the draft in what was admittedly a weak QB crop, but his production left plenty to be desired.
After a contract holdout before his rookie season, Shuler would end up starting in only 13 games for the Redskins in three seasons before being traded to the Saints and never playing in another NFL game after 1997. Shuler would ironically have more impact in Washington as a congressman from North Carolina, where he served from 2007 t0 2013.
Drafted: #7 Overall By Minnesota Vikings (2005)
At the 2005 NFL Draft, the Vikings passed up on guys like Aaron Rodgers and Roddy White to take a chance on wide receiver Troy Williamson. He was known as a lightning-quick former track star, making Vikings brass believe he could be the franchise’s next Cris Carter or Randy Moss. However, Williamson would end up catching fewer than 90 passes in his entire NFL career, including just four touchdowns.
Those numbers came in 49 career games, giving him some of the weakest stats ever recorded by a skill-position player drafted in the top 10. He was completely out of the NFL by 2010.
Drafted: #6 Overall By St. Louis Cardinals (1987)
For their final season in St. Louis before moving to Arizona, the Cardinals took Kelly Stouffer at sixth overall at the 1987 draft, believing he’d be their quarterback of the future. In fact, the Colorado State product would end up refusing to play for the Cardinals, sitting out his entire rookie season over a contract dispute before being traded to the Seahawks. Stouffer would play four seasons there before his career as a starter was over, throwing seven touchdowns to 19 interceptions for his career.
Drafted: #6 Overall By St. Louis Rams (1996)
The Lawrence Phillips saga started with so much promise and ended in nothing but disappointment and heartbreak for everyone involved. In 1996, the rusher was taken sixth overall by the Rams following a stellar career at Nebraska, where he’d helped the school win two national titles. Phillips, who had been known to have legal troubles, would end up starting in only 20 games in a career that would cover three seasons.
He was arrested several times during his brief NFL career and had his work ethic publicly questioned by people in and around the league. In 2015, while Phillips was serving a prison sentence for multiple assault incidents, he was suspected of murdering a fellow inmate. He killed himself in jail the next year, bringing an awful end to what started as a story full of opportunity.
Drafted: #4 Overall By Baltimore Colts (1982)
Another one of the more infamous draft busts in NFL history is Art Schlichter. The former star quarterback at Ohio State was taken by the Colts at fourth overall in 1982. It turned out that Schlichter had a massive gambling addiction that would ultimately derail his football career and life. He was suspended for the entire 1983 season after admitting to the NFL that he was gambling on sports — which is forbidden for players in the league — before making a brief comeback and then being out of the league completely in 1985.
Schlichter played in just 13 games in his entire NFL career, throwing for three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In 2012, he was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for his part in a sports ticket scheme that stole millions of dollars from people.
Representing the QB Class of 1983, the former Miami Hurricane & Buffalo Bill, Jim Kelly! pic.twitter.com/RM0JCjZ5SG
— Todd Blackledge (@Todd_Blackledge) August 1, 2013
Drafted: #7 Overall By Kansas City Chiefs (1983)
The 1983 NFL Draft is now considered legendary because of the exceptional quarterbacks that came out of it. Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino were all taken in the first round of that draft, but Todd Blackledge was drafted ahead of the latter two. With the seventh pick, the Chiefs grabbed the former Penn State star, who won the prestigious Davey O’Brien Award in 1982.
Blackledge would last for seven seasons in the NFL, making just one playoff start and throwing fewer than 30 touchdowns. He’s since become a broadcaster at ESPN and you can see him below, posing with Kelly and representing that 1983 quarterback class, in 2013.