10 worst NFL draft busts in history

Published 7:30 pm Thursday, April 20, 2023

George Gojkovich // Getty Images

10 worst NFL draft busts in history

Every child who wears a helmet and shoulder pads dreams of playing in the NFL. Each year, more than 250 college football players hope to hear their names called during the annual NFL draft. For blue-chip prospects, there are expectations to be great especially if they were top picks. A slew of those players, however, fail to meet those expectations, causing them to be considered draft busts.

To see how well players lived up to their potential and how keen drafters really were, Stacker ranked the 10 worst draft busts in NFL history using data from Pro-Football-Reference.com. Players were ranked by taking their career approximate value—a holistic metric that rates players on a variety of statistics—and subtracting it from the expected career AV for the position they were drafted at.

For instance, a player drafted #1 overall would have an expected career AV of 63.4. If a #1 draft pick only had a career AV of 10, they would be rated at -53.4 for the purposes of this ranking. Only players drafted after the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 were ranked. Players drafted in 2017 or later were also excluded as they have yet to play a meaningful number of seasons.

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Beyond ranking individual players, this data set can be used to compare teams leaguewide. On a team level, the Pittsburgh Steelers have proven to be one of the best drafters in the NFL—the franchise’s draft picks have earned a cumulative career AV of 1524 over what you’d expect since 1970. That’s more than double the next-best team (players drafted by the Miami Dolphins have a cumulative career AV 695 above their draft pick expectation). On the other hand, the Steelers’ rivals, the Cleveland Browns, rank the worst by far in the league with their draft picks earning a career AV of 1300 under expected.

This data can also be used to track college success versus draft position. Players drafted out of the University of Miami have earned a cumulative AV 651 over what’s expected for their draft positions, beating out the likes of the Pitt Panthers (595 over expected) and the California Golden Bears (562 over expected).

The University of Oklahoma alumni do the worst—former Sooners have a cumulative AV 1036 under expected—while the Nebraska Cornhuskers (650 under expected) and the Alabama Crimson Tide (587 under expected) draftees also struggle to match their draft expectations.

Without further ado, here’s the list of the 10 worst draft busts in NFL history.

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Heath Shuler for the Washington Redskins prepares to pass the ball to Tight End Ethan Horton.

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#10. Heath Shuler

– Year drafted: 1994
– Pick: #3 overall
– Draft team: Washington Redskins
– Position: Quarterback
– College: Tennessee
– Career approximate value: 6
– Approximate value subtracted from the #3 pick’s expectation: -46.0

The Heisman Trophy runner-up entered the NFL with high expectations after rushing for 11 touchdowns during the 1992 season—a Tennessee record for a quarterback. A year later, Shuler threw for 25 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, making him a top draft prospect.

Shuler’s NFL career started on the wrong foot in 1994 after holding out of training camp due to contract negotiations with the Redskins. In his rookie year, Shuler threw for 12 interceptions and 10 touchdowns in eight starts, creating doubt for fans in Washington. Shuler would never find his footing in the NFL after another slow start in 1995 that saw the North Carolina native throw for three touchdowns and seven interceptions in five starts.

Shuler would retire from the NFL after the 1997 season with the New Orleans Saints. He would serve as a member of the House of Representatives between 2007 and 2013. Shuler, who is now a real estate professional, was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2020.

Jason Smith of Baylor University during NFL Draft Day.

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#9. Jason Smith

– Year drafted: 2009
– Pick: #2 overall
– Draft team: St. Louis Rams
– Position: Tackle
– College: Baylor
– Career approximate value: 10
– Approximate value subtracted from the #2 pick’s expectation: -46.2

The Baylor product became a top NFL prospect as an offensive tackle after beginning his career in Waco. The 6-foot-4 Dallas native would make the transition to the offensive line where he would be named an All-American in 2008. At the beginning of his NFL career, Smith was hampered by a severe concussion that caused him to only see action in eight games during his rookie season.

Smith would later be traded to the New York Jets after a 2011 campaign that saw him miss another large portion of games due to more concussions. Smith’s career would end in 2013 with the Jets after being released. Smith played in 45 games with 26 starts during his NFL career.

Defensive lineman Steve Niehaus of the Seattle Seahawks on the sideline.

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#8. Steve Niehaus

– Year drafted: 1976
– Pick: #2 overall
– Draft team: Seattle Seahawks
– Position: Defensive tackle
– College: Notre Dame
– Career approximate value: 9
– Approximate value subtracted from the #2 pick’s expectation: -47.2

The first defensive player on this list, Niehaus got off to a strong start in his career by winning the 1976 NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. The 6-foot-4 defensive tackle from Notre Dame recorded 9.5 sacks and one fumble recovery in his first season in the NFL.

Niehaus’ career would then take a turn as the Ohio native suffered multiple knee injuries throughout the rest of his four-year NFL career. In his second season with the Seahawks, Niehaus would only appear in eight games and would not record a sack. In his last two seasons in the NFL, which included a stint with the Minnesota Vikings, Niehaus would only play in 17 games.

Cornerback Bruce Pickens of the Atlanta Falcons sits on the bench during a game.

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#7. Bruce Pickens

– Year drafted: 1991
– Pick: #3 overall
– Draft team: Atlanta Falcons
– Position: Defensive back
– College: Nebraska
– Career approximate value: 4
– Approximate value subtracted from the #3 pick’s expectation: -48.0

The Nebraska product began his NFL career shrouded in controversy after a legal battle with the sports agency that represented him—Total Economic Athletic Management of America. The lawsuit concerned Pickens’ rookie contract negotiations in 1991 with different representation. Two years later, Pickens was charged with one count of rape. The charges were later dropped.

On the field, Pickens also didn’t meet expectations. In his rookie season, the defensive back, who had thrived in college due to his athletic traits, saw action in only seven games. Pickens would only last one more season in Atlanta before brief stints with the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Oakland Raiders. Pickens played in 48 games during his years in the NFL.

Quarterback Akili Smith of the Cincinnati Bengals looks to pass during a game.

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#6. Akili Smith

– Year drafted: 1999
– Pick: #3 overall
– Draft team: Cincinnati Bengals
– Position: Quarterback
– College: Oregon
– Career approximate value: 2
– Approximate value subtracted from the #3 pick’s expectation: -50.0

The Bengals had high hopes for Akili Smith after the team turned down a blockbuster trade of draft picks from the New Orleans Saints that would have netted Cincinnati nine selections of their own.

Smith, who was also drafted in the 1993 MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, played in seven games during his rookie year with four starts. During that rookie season, the dual-threat quarterback rushed for 114 yards and passed for two touchdowns but threw six interceptions.

The Oregon product would play in 22 games during his NFL career with 17 starts. In his four seasons in the NFL, Smith threw for five touchdowns against 13 interceptions. His lack of NFL success was attributed to poor film study and a lack of commitment during the offseasons.

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Steve Emtman of the Indianapolis Colts looks on during a game.

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#5. Steve Emtman

– Year drafted: 1992
– Pick: #1 overall
– Draft team: Indianapolis Colts
– Position: Defensive end
– College: Washington
– Career approximate value: 13
– Approximate value subtracted from the #1 pick’s expectation: -50.4

Considered one of the best defensive ends in college football history, Emtman had an NFL career that was also marred by injuries. During his rookie year, the 1991 Outland Trophy winner blew out his knee nine games into the season. A year later, Emtman tore his ACL on his left knee and the ACL, MCL, and patella tendon on his right knee. In 1994, Emtman suffered a herniated disk in his neck in a game against the Seattle Seahawks—his hometown team.

The Washington native only played one full NFL season in 1995 with the Miami Dolphins. Emtman would retire at 27 years old following the 1997 season with the Washington Redskins.

Charles Rogers drops a pass during a game.

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#4. Charles Rogers

– Year drafted: 2003
– Pick: #2 overall
– Draft team: Detroit Lions
– Position: Wide receiver
– College: Michigan State
– Career approximate value: 4
– Approximate value subtracted from the #2 pick’s expectation: -52.2

Rogers’ short-lived NFL career was due to health and off-the-field issues. The Michigan State product played three seasons in the NFL—all with the Lions. Roger suffered two collarbone injuries in his first two seasons with the team, which led to a painkiller dependency. He was suspended by the Lions in 2005 for substance abuse. He was released by the team a year later.

Rogers recorded 36 receptions, 440 yards, and four touchdowns in his career. In 2019, Rogers died at 38 from liver failure.

Ki-Jana Carter of the Cincinnati Bengals carries the football during a game.

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#3. Ki-Jana Carter

– Year drafted: 1995
– Pick: #1 overall
– Draft team: Cincinnati Bengals
– Position: Running back
– College: Penn State
– Career approximate value: 11
– Approximate value subtracted from the #1 pick’s expectation: -52.4

Carter’s time in the NFL got off to an unfortunate start after the Penn State running back suffered a torn ACL during the Bengals’ first preseason game. The injury ended Carter’s rookie season before it even began. Carter would never return to his old form after the devasting injury.

Carter would later suffer a torn rotator cuff during the 1997 season. A year later, he would miss nearly the entire 1998 campaign after breaking his left wrist against the Tennessee Oilers. Carter amassed 1,144 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns during seven seasons in the NFL.

San Diego Chargers Owner Alex Spanos, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and Ryan Leaf during draft day.

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#2. Ryan Leaf

– Year drafted: 1998
– Pick: #2 overall
– Draft team: San Diego Chargers
– Position: Quarterback
– College: Washington State
– Career approximate value: 1
– Approximate value subtracted from the #2 pick’s expectation: -55.2

Ryan Leaf’s tumultuous career has been well-documented after the Chargers selected the Montana-born quarterback one pick after NFL Hall of Famer Peyton Manning went first overall to the Colts. Leaf’s time in the NFL has been remembered for outbursts at media, drug abuse, and an overall lack of effort.

Leaf had a poor rookie season that saw him throw two touchdowns and 15 interceptions. In 1999, Leaf would miss the entire year due to a shoulder injury. Leaf would display flashes of promise during the 2000 campaign, but the Chargers finished 1-15 that year and released him as a result. Leaf would later have brief stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, and Seattle Seahawks.

Leaf would find himself in legal trouble after his playing days, including arrests for burglary and drug possession. He is now a keynote speaker after spending time as an analyst at ESPN.

JaMarcus Russell of the Oakland Raiders at Reliant Stadium.

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#1. JaMarcus Russell

– Year drafted: 2007
– Pick: #1 overall
– Draft team: Oakland Raiders
– Position: Quarterback
– College: Louisiana State University
– Career approximate value: 6
– Approximate value subtracted from the #1 pick’s expectation: -57.4

Russell was considered a generational talent due to his measurables. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound quarterback impressed scouts with his physical tools at Louisiana State University, but his work ethic off the field became a distraction, eventually leading to his demise in the NFL.

The Alabama native held out of training camp heading into his rookie season due to contract negotiations, which hindered his development. Russell only started in one contest during his rookie year and finished with two passing touchdowns and four interceptions.

The following season, Russell got his first real opportunity as a starter with 15 appearances for the Raiders but turned in a mediocre performance on the field. Russell finished the 2008 season with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. A year later, Russell would lose his starting job after poor performances highlighted by fumbling issues. Following the 2009 season, the Raiders released Russell—his last opportunity in the NFL. Two months after his release, Russell was arrested on a drug charge.

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