The NFL draft is fast approaching, and it’s only appropriate that there’s already plenty of controversy with the top picks. Arizona is poised to draft Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray with the first overall pick despite trading up for Josh Rosen in last year’s draft. Meanwhile, players like Ohio State DE Nick Bosa and Alabama DE Quinnen Williams look like generational talents.
There’s plenty of room for booms and busts in this year’s draft, so it it’s only appropriate to cover both extremes. The first of a two-part series, these are the top 10 worst draft picks of all time. Not necessarily the 10 biggest busts, these 10 picks are remembered for either their sheer incompetence, skipping over an all-time great, or for quite simply being terrible investments.
Click here for the Top 10 BEST Draft Picks in NFL history.
#10: Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns, 2014
Imagine if Tim Tebow was a crazy, flamboyant party animal instead of the reserved and faithful man that he was. That’s what the Browns got from their 22nd overall pick in 2014 with Johnny Manziel. Cleveland’s new quarterback started 8 games in 2 seasons, played in 15, threw for only 1675 career yards, just 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions.
Manziel washed out of the league through a series of off-field issues including alcohol problems and an assault allegation, as well as a default attitude toward football of “not giving a s**t.”
The troubled quarterback tried to get clean and return to football in the CFL, but another undisclosed issue saw him essentially banned from the league before a last chance in the doomed AAF in the spring. Not the career path the Browns were expecting from a first round pick, especially one as promising as “Johnny Football.”
#9: Ricky Williams, New Orleans Saints, 1999
Ricky Williams isn’t on this list because he was particularly bad. He averaged over 1,000 yards in his three seasons with the Saints and helped lead them to their first ever playoff win. He finished his career with over 10,000 yards and 66 touchdowns to go along with a 4.1 yards/carry average.
Williams is on this list because of what it cost New Orleans to select him. Head coach Mike Ditka (yes, THAT Mike Ditka) traded away every single pick of the Saints’ 1999 draft, as well as their first and third round picks in the 2000 draft, to the Washington Redskins in exchange for the #5 overall pick. Outside of an all-time GOAT, no player is worth that haul, and 1999 didn’t see that caliber of player, not even from Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, who was selected two picks later.
#8: Tim Couch, Cleveland Browns, 1999
The 1999 draft was one of the biggest in NFL history. The Cleveland Browns, after having their franchise shipped off to Baltimore, got their team back. The new Browns were set to make their return and were given the first overall pick to help jumpstart themselves into more NFL success.
With that pick, Cleveland selected QB Tim Couch, the can’t-miss prospect out of Kentucky. Even in the ’90s, the quarterback position was everything to a team’s success on the field, and Couch seemed to be one of the best available.
Couch struggled behind a sub-par offensive line and endured the normal expansion team woes, leading to a relatively poor career. He eclipsed 3,000 yards just once, never threw for 20 touchdowns in a season, played a full 16 game season just once, and finished his career with more interceptions than touchdowns. However, Couch was able to lead Cleveland to the playoffs in 2002, the only appearance of the new-era Browns.
Just to add a bit more onto the mistake of selecting Couch: the next pick in 1999 draft was Donovan McNabb, the 4th pick was RB Edgerrin James, the 7th pick was Hall of Fame CB Champ Bailey, and the 11th pick was Daunte Culpepper.
#7: Russell Erxleben, New Orleans Saints, 1979
Russell Erxleben was Roberto Aguayo before Roberto Aguayo. Drafted with the 11th overall pick in the 1979 draft, Erxleben was a star kicker and punter in college. He was a 3-time All American, shares the record for longest field goal in NCAA history, and was one of the better kicking prospects of all time.
New Orleans drafted Erxleben with the plan of replacing their kicker AND punter, both solid veterans, and the plan immediately backfired. In his first game, Erxleben botched a snap in overtime and scrambled to make a pass, only to throw a pick-six and lose the game. In his second game, he pulled his hamstring and sat out the season. In the 1980 season opener, he missed a game-tying field goal that started a 14-game losing streak.
New Orleans drafted the legendary Morten Anderson two years later, and Erxleben was relegated to punting duties for the rest of his career, which ended with the 1983 season and a brief stint with the Lions in 1987.
Moral of the story: don’t draft a kicker with the #11 pick, no matter how good you think he is.
#6: Todd Blackledge, Kansas City Chiefs, 1983
Todd Blackledge was one of several quarterbacks taken in the legendary 1983 NFL draft. Kansas City selected him with the #7 overall pick, and history looks back at this as one of the franchise’s biggest mistakes. Not only was Blackledge a bust, never throwing for more than 2000 yards, 10 touchdowns, or a 50% completion percentage in a full season.
His overall record as a starter in Kansas City was 13-11 and never started more than 11 games in a season for the team. After 5 years with the Chiefs, Blackledge left for Pittsburgh for 2 more seasons before retiring. On its own, that just makes Blackledge a bust. What earns him a spot on this list is who was selected after him.
Nobody major, just Jim Kelly and Dan Marino…
#5: Sean Farrell and Booker Reese, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1982
This scenario requires a bit of an explanation since most people have never heard of it.
1981 saw great success for the Buccaneers, who’d made the playoffs with one of the best seasons in franchise history, and the 1982 draft was a chance to push them into Super Bowl contention. Ken Herock, Tampa Bay’s director of personnel, had narrowed their first-round pick down to OG Sean Farrell out of Penn State and DE Booker Reese from Bethune-Cookman.
On draft day, Herock called into his representative at the draft and told him to write down two names, Farrell and Reese, and he’d call back when it was time to pick with who they’d end up taking. It’s at this point that you have to remember all communication for the draft back then was done through what were essentially walkie-talkies, and the audio was fairly poor. With that in mind, the rest of the story will make sense.
Herock called his man and said “We’re not going with Farrell. We’re going with Reese.” The representative only heard Farrell’s name and assumed that was the pick. Tampa Bay’s draft room, Herock included, only found out once the commissioner read out the pick on TV. Farrell was even more surprised, having just received a call saying the Buccaneers wouldn’t be picking him. Seemingly, a miracle happened when Reese fell into the second round, and Tampa Bay was going to get their man one way or another. They traded their first-round pick in 1983’s draft to Chicago to select Reese, and everything seemed to have turned out okay.
Farrell played 10 years in the NFL, 5 of them with the Buccaneers, and was an all-around solid player. Reese, however, didn’t play well and washed out of the league. Now, what was the price of this mistake? The Buccaneers picked 18th in the 1983 draft and were in need of a QB. Had they had their pick, they would have selected Dan Marino, who fell to pick #27. And to top everything off, the Buccaneers representative that misheard the call… was the equipment manager, who was being rewarded by the team for his excellent work. Possibly the greatest draft day story of all time.
#4: Brian Bosworth, Seattle Seahawks, 1987 Supplemental Draft
“The Boz” might be the single most interesting pre-draft player ever. A star linebacker at Oklahoma, Bosworth attempted to control his NFL future by publicly making a scene. Seeing that the teams at the top of the 1987 draft were teams he definitely didn’t want to play for, Bosworth entered the supplemental draft instead. He then sent letters out to all but a select few teams stating that if they drafted him, he would not play. The only teams Bosworth did not send these letters to were the Rams, Raiders, Jets, Giants, and Eagles.
Without going into the complicated rules and nuances of the NFL’s supplemental draft system, the simple version is that the Seahawks had the first pick in the 1987 supplemental draft, and selected Bosworth with a first round pick despite receiving his letter. Eventually, they were able to work out a contract and Bosworth agreed to play. That contract was the biggest in team history at the time.
Bosworth then sued the NFL so that he would be allowed to wear his college number 44. The Seahawks also petitioned for the NFL to change its rules that kept linebackers from wearing numbers in the 40s, but both were unsuccessful.
Bosworth’s trash talk made him one of the most polarizing players in the league, causing many to celebrate after Bo Jackson ran him over for a touchdown in his rookie season. After Bosworth publicly stated that he would “contain” him, Jackson ran all over the Seahawks for 221 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Injuries cut the fun short, however, and Bosworth was out of football after just two seasons. His legacy will always be clouded by his antics, but there was no denying that the Boz, love him or hate him, made the NFL that much more entertaining.
#3: Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns, 2012
The third and final Brown on this list, Trent Richardson was everything you looked for from a running back. He helped lead Alabama to 2 national championships, won the Doak Walker award for best running back in 2011, had explosive power, and balance that drew comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He was considered to be a patient rusher with the instincts to make cuts to find the hole. There were some that put his collegiate success to the incredible offensive line Nick Saban had built, leading to a Heisman for Mark Ingram the year before, but the consensus was that Richardson was a guaranteed top-5 pick and future star.
Cleveland selected Richardson with the #3 overall pick after Andrew Luck and RG3 were selected at #1 and #2, and the doubters were soon proven right. He ran for only 950 yards with just a 3.6 YPC average in his rookie campaign, and the start of his sophomore season was even worse. 105 yards and a 3.0 YPC average over the first two weeks were enough to see Richardson shipped off to Indianapolis just 17 games into his career.
He never reached the “heights” of his rookie campaign with the Colts and was out of the NFL after his third season. Richardson did have a relatively successful career in the AAF, leading the league with 11 touchdowns (no other player rushed for more than 6), but still averaged a depressing 2.93 YPC, dead last among qualified running backs.
Who could the Browns have taken instead of this monumental bust? Luke Kuechly, Dontari Poe, Fletcher Cox, Melvin Ingram, Dont’a Hightower, and Harrison Smith are just some of the Pro Bowl caliber players that went in the first round.
#2: Tony Mandarich, Green Bay Packers, 1989
Tony Mandarich was touted as “the best offensive line prospect ever” when coming out of Michigan State. 2-time Big Ten Lineman of the Year, Outland Finalist, First-Team All American, 330 lbs, 4.65 40-yard dash, 10’3″ long jump, 30″ vertical, and an astounding 39 reps on the bench press made him a hot commodity. He was agile, he was strong, and he was quick. Tony Mandarich was everything you’d want in an offensive lineman.
Unfortunately, Mandarich’s attitude didn’t match. After being selected by Green Bay with the #2 overall pick, he was relegated to mostly special teams duties in his rookie year, which only happened after a contract holdout lasted until the week before the start of the regular season. He always tried to do things his way, which created tension between himself, the coaching staff, and his teammates. Mandarich was even quoted as saying “I am not like other players, I am Tony Mandarich, and they have to understand that. If they don’t like it, that’s just the way I am and they are going to learn to like it.” This was all compounded with allegations of steroid use which had followed Mandarich since college. In 2008, he admitted to taking steroids at Michigan State and faking a drug test prior to the 1988 Rose Bowl but has always stated that he never took steroids while in the NFL.
After 3 sub-par seasons, the Packers cut Mandarich, which sent him into a spiral. He got addicted to drugs and alcohol for two years before entering rehab but was able to get sober and even make a return to football in 1996. He played 3 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before retiring for good after the 1998 season.
Mandarich’s bust was only compounded by who he shared the 1989 draft with. The four other top-5 picks all ended up as Hall of Famers. Troy Aikman at #1, then Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Deion Sanders at picks 3-5. No other draft has ever sent 4 of the top 5 picks to the Hall of Fame, making Mandarich a bust surrounded by the greatest draft class of all time.
Kyle Brady, New York Jets, 1995: Warren Sapp had, by some miracle, remained on the board at #9 and the Jets needed a defensive lineman… They went with an average tight end out of Penn State instead.
Vernon Gholston, New York Jets, 2008: Gholston was selected 6th overall by the Jets as a pass-rushing machine and proceeded to never record a sack. Ever.
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers, 2005: The Niners had a choice between Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers to be the face of the franchise. One turned into one of the best quarterbacks in the league, while the other got benched for Colin Kaepernick. Safe to say San Francisco made the wrong choice.
#1: JaMarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders, 2007
Considered the biggest bust in modern NFL history, JaMarcus Russell seemed to be a surefire thing at the time. A star at LSU, “the most physically talented quarterback since John Elway” according to Football Outsiders, Russell overall was a canon of an arm that just needed a little coaching to light up the league. The Raiders took him with the #1 overall pick and had their future locked down for a decade.
Russell proceeded to hold out for the entire off-season, all of training camp, and even into week 1 of the regular season before signing the richest rookie contract in NFL history. He mostly acted as a backup in his rookie season before being named as the starting quarterback for the 2008 campaign.
2008 was Russel’s only full season as a starter, where he completed just under 54% of his passes for 2423 yards, 13 TDs, and 8 INTs en route to a 5-10 record. The start of 2009 was even worse, and he was eventually benched. Meanwhile, Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas (the next two selections after Russell) had Hall of Fame caliber careers and Adrian Peterson went #7 overall.
Russell was done just 3 years into a 6-year, $68 Million rookie deal, and his contract was so bad that it actually forced the NFL to restructure how it gave rookie contracts in the next CBA.
A bust that changes the financial makeup of the sport? Truly a feat worthy of the title: Worst Draft Pick of All Time.
Featured Photo Credit: Jacksonville Jaguars
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