The biggest NFL Draft busts of all time

Profile Picture: Jason Ence

March 19th, 2020

The NFL Draft is where teams can rebuild, add depth, and bring in young talent on cheap contracts. A great pick can boost a team’s hopes, but a bad selection can set it back years, especially if a franchise repeatedly swings and misses (looking at you, Cleveland).

Here are the five biggest busts in the modern era of the NFL Draft.

5. Lawrence Phillips, St. Louis Rams (sixth overall pick, 1996)

Phillips came into the NFL Draft with plenty of baggage. He was arrested for beating up his girlfriend during his junior year at Nebraska and was charged with assault and vandalism in another incident. 

The Rams decided he was their next superstar, however. To make room for Phillips, they struck a deal to trade their starting running back to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That man was Jerome Bettis, who rushed for more than 10,000 yards with the Steelers and won a Super Bowl.

Phillips was released by the Rams before the end of his second season. They gave up on him in November of 1997, after he reacted badly to being benched as starter. The franchise was concerned with his growing off-the-field issues.

He played two games in Miami, went overseas to star in NFL Europe, and played one season with the 49ers, but missed a key block on a hit that ended Steve Young’s career. Further incidents in the locker room led to his release, and he never played in the NFL again.

His off-the-field issues eventually led to tragedy. While he was serving a 10-year sentence for assault, he murdered his cellmate and committed suicide while awaiting trial in 2015.

4. Charles Rogers, Detroit Lions (second overall pick, 2003)

You would expect to get more than just two catches per game out of a player taken ahead of Andre Johnson. Unfortunately, the Lions chose the wrong wideout in 2003 and opted for the local Michigan State star. Rogers was a beast during his senior year, when he set the NCAA record for the longest streak of games with a touchdown catch. But while Johnson put together a stellar career, Rogers flamed out.

In just 15 games across three seasons, Rogers made only 36 catches for 440 yards and four touchdowns. Injuries played a key role, as his first season was ended after just five games with a broken collarbone in practice. He broke the same collarbone on the third play of his second season.

The next year he was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy for the third time, which eventually forced him to repay $6.1 million of his $14.2 million signing bonus. He started just three games the rest of the season before he was released. Rogers tragically died in November of 2019, as he waited for a liver transplant to combat a cancer diagnosis.

3. Tony Mandarich, Green Bay Packers (second overall pick, 1989)

Four of the first five players taken in the 1989 NFL Draft are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Mandarich is the only player who isn’t represented in Canton, Ohio from that group. The Packers selected the offensive tackle ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders.

Mandarich’s amazing size and athleticism landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, dubbed “The Incredible Bulk.” It turns out much of that bulk was built on the back of steroids. Because of a lack of work ethic, his attitude, and his drug usage, Mandarich quickly proved to be a massive waste of a pick. Green Bay released him after three years, and he started only 31 games with the franchise.

He stepped away from football for two years, got heavily involved with drugs and alcohol, and then made a comeback with the Indianapolis Colts. Over three years, he started 32 games at guard and played fairly well, but it was not enough to redeem himself, especially when compared to what the Packers passed up to get him.

2. JaMarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders (first overall pick, 2007)

Al Davis loved Russell as much as the quarterback loved “purple drank,” and the Raiders made one of the worst draft mistakes in the past 15 years. Davis forced his front office to select Russell over Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, and Adrian Peterson. Davis ignored all the warning signs about Russell, including his dislike for conditioning or studying the playbook.

Russell held out during training camp ahead of his rookie year and did not start a game until the final contest of the season. He went 7-18 as a Raider, threw 18 touchdowns in 25 starts, tossed 23 interceptions, and fumbled the ball away 25 times.

When he showed up to spring camp in 2010 at nearly 300 pounds, the Raiders finally had enough and cut him, even though they had to pay him $32 million in guaranteed money. A few months later, Russell was arrested for possession of codeine syrup, or “purple drank," which also triggered a positive drug test when he was with the Raiders.

1. Ryan Leaf, San Diego Chargers (second overall pick, 1998)

Leaf is the biggest bust for a myriad of reasons. There were teams that felt he should be taken ahead of Peyton Manning. The Chargers had to trade up to get Leaf. They gave up their third overall pick, along with a second-round pick, their first-round pick the following year, and two players, to move up one spot.

In 21 starts Leaf completed just 48.4% of his passes, with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. He threw for only two touchdowns in his rookie year, with 15 of his passes going to the other team, and his career went downhill from there.

His QB rating of 50 is miles below Manning’s, whose 96.5 rating is the ninth-best in NFL history, and within three years Leaf was done in San Diego. The most memorable moment of Leaf’s career was the interaction he had with a reporter in the locker room, when he yelled, “Just don’t f------ talk to me man, alright? Knock it off!”

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