Biggest Busts in NFL Draft History
The worst picks in recent NFL Draft history, from Tony Mandarich to JaMarcus Russell.
By: Nathan Rush | 4/22/12, 7:30 PM EDT
The biggest busts in recent NFL Draft history — from Tony Mandarich to JaMarcus Russell, and the infamous Mike Mamula, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Charles Rogers swings-and-misses in between.
1989 – 2. Green Bay Packers
Tony Mandarich, LT, Michigan State
Sports Illustrated cursed the roided-up man-child by featuring a shirtless Mandarich on the magazine’s draft issue cover and declaring “The Incredible Bulk” as “the best offensive line prospect ever.”
The larger-than-life 6’6”, 315-pound Mandarich idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger, rocked out with Axl Rose and told David Letterman that he wanted to fight Mike Tyson. And after inking a four-year, $4.4 million rookie deal, Mandarich did become the first $1 million-per-year O-lineman.
But the Mandarich tall tale quickly came crashing down. He has since admitted to a career built on anabolic steroids — Dianabol, Winstrol and Anavar — and demolished by painkillers — Vicodin, Valium, Percocet and Percodan.
It doesn’t help that Mandarich was surrounded by future Hall of Famers — UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman (1. Dallas Cowboys), Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders (3. Detroit Lions), Alabama edge rusher Derrick Thomas (4. Kansas City Chiefs) and Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders (5. Atlanta Falcons) — in the 1989 NFL Draft. The Packers belly-flopped with a “can’t miss” left tackle.
1994 – 5. Indianapolis Colts
Trev Alberts, LB, Nebraska
“Who the hell is Mel Kiper?” Colts GM Bill Tobin infamously asked, after being called out by ESPN’s helmet-hair-gelled draft expert as a result of his selection of Alberts.
Kiper thought Indianapolis should have drafted Fresno State quarterback Trent Dilfer rather than Alberts, going so far as to say moves like this were why the Colts were “the laughingstock of the league year-in and year-out.”
“I think it’s a typical Colts move. I mean, here’s a team that needs a franchise quarterback. There are two (Tennessee’s Heath Shuler and Dilfer) out there. They have a chance at two; they don’t take them,” said Kiper, on the draft day telecast in 1994.
“They take an outside linebacker. And not even a true outside linebacker, somebody that has to learn coverage in Trev Alberts. … To pass up a Trent Dilfer, when all you have is Jim Harbaugh. Give me a break. That’s why the Colts are picking second every year in the draft and not battling for the Super Bowl like other clubs in the National Football League.”
Alberts was indeed a bust during his short three-year career in Indy. Meanwhile, Dilfer went on to lead the Baltimore Ravens to a win in Super Bowl XXXV — although some have given him the oxymoronic label as “worst quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl.” In fairness, the Colts did draft San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk, a Hall of Famer, with the No. 2 overall pick in 1994.
1995 – 7. Philadelphia Eagles
Mike Mamula, DE, Boston College
The original workout warrior weighed in at 6’4”, 250 pounds, ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash, skied 38.5 inches in the vertical leap, ripped off 26 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and reportedly aced the Wonderlic test with a score of 49 out of a possible 50 at the annual Scouting Combine. As a result, the screaming Eagle soared up draft boards, while future stars like Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp fell farther than expected once Commissioner Paul Tagliabue began mispronouncing names on draft day.
Mamula was mediocre for five seasons, but never lived up to the massive expectations that his massive biceps and calves caused at the Combine. To this day, self-loathing Philly fans claim Sapp was the guy they wanted over Mamula, while the beefed-up BC ‘tweener has become the poster boy for the potential dangers of relying too much on numbers at the Combine, a.k.a. the underwear Olympics.
1996 – 6. St. Louis Rams
Lawrence Phillips, RB, Nebraska
The Rams front office — led by Georgia Frontiere, the only female owner in the NFL —fell in love with Phillips, who was reportedly the No. 1 player on the team’s draft board despite a high-profile domestic assault case for which he was still serving probation.
To make matters worse, Phillips’ predecessor in St. Louis, Jerome Bettis, was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers to make room for the Cornhusker star. “The Bus” went on to win Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit; Phillips went on to play four seasons in the NFL, before bouncing around the Arena Football League, Canadian Football League and ultimately landing in the Los Angeles prison system — receiving a 31-year sentence for several felonies, notably multiple assault charges against his girlfriend and for running down three teens with his car following a sandlot football game gone wrong.
1998 – 2. San Diego Chargers
Ryan Leaf, QB, Washington State
People forget how heated the “Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf” debate was back in 1998. Many so-called experts thought Leaf had a superior arm to Manning and an intangible swagger Archie’s boy did not have. The Chargers traded up from No. 3 overall to acquire the Cardinals’ No. 2 overall pick in order to ensure a shot at either Manning or Leaf. That year, ESPN: The Magazine concluded that Leaf “possesses an ‘I don’t give a crap’ attitude that has proven essential to Super Bowl quarterbacks from Stabler to McMahon to Favre. Come 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Manning, will be strutting up to a podium in Canton.”
Manning’s bust will certainly be on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, five years after his retirement. Leaf is just a bust — having posted a 4–17 record with 3,666 yards, 14 TDs and 36 INTs over 25 games with the Chargers and Cowboys. Leaf was a team cancer on and off the field, alienating San Diego veterans such as Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison, and getting caught on tape threatening local reporters.
The story has only gotten worse since Leaf left the NFL. He is currently accused of breaking into homes and stealing prescription painkillers; he faces four felony counts in Montana, including burglary and criminal possession of a dangerous drug. In 2010, Leaf faced similar accusations as a golf coach at West Texas A&M; he was given 10 years probation as part of a plea bargain, a deal which is now in jeopardy pending the outcome of his new case in Montana.
1999 – 3. Cincinnati Bengals
Akili Smith, QB, Oregon
After only 11 college starts at Oregon, the athletic Smith — who was also a minor league baseball prospect — was selected behind Kentucky’s Tim Couch (No. 1 Cleveland Browns) and Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb (No. 2 Philadelphia Eagles), as the third quarterback taken in a class that was set to rival the 1983 crew that included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. The Class of 1999 had five quarterbacks taken in the first dozen picks — Couch, McNabb, Smith, UCF’s Daunte Culpepper (11. Minnesota Vikings) and UCLA’s Cade McNown (12. Chicago Bears).
The Bungles missed the mark yet again, as Smith reportedly struggled to learn the playbook and partied his way out of the league — posting a 3–14 record with 2,212 yards, five TDs and 13 INTs over 22 games in Cincinnati.
2000 – 1. Cleveland Browns
Courtney Brown, DE, Penn State
The original Jim Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996. The expansion Courtney Browns were dropped in Cleveland by Paul Tagliabue in 1999. Mistakes by the lake have followed ever since.
With back-to-back No. 1 overall picks to start the franchise over from scratch, the Browns selected Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch in 1999 and Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown in 2000. Injuries kept Brown off the field and a sputtering motor kept him from making plays when he was on the field. Brown’s surname grade and Combine measurables were off-the-charts, but it was obvious to every brown-paper-bag wearing fan in the Dawg Pound that Brown was a classic case of “look like Tarzan, play like Jane.”
2003 – 2. Detroit Lions
Charles Rogers, WR, Michigan State
The local product was the first of four first-round receivers selected over a five-year span by Matt Millen — who picked Rogers at No. 2 overall (one spot ahead of Miami receiver Andre Johnson) in 2003, Texas’ Roy Williams at No. 7 in 2004, USC’s Mike Williams at No. 10 in 2005 and Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson at No. 2 in 2007.
Rogers suffered back-to-back broken collarbones to miss the majority of his first two seasons. Then, a failed drug test and coaching regime change in Detroit effectively ended the lanky wideout’s career after only 15 games, 36 catches for 440 yards and four TDs. Rogers was also forced to return much of his salary, since a failed drug test violated the terms of his rookie contract.
Recent run-ins with the law have included a DUI arrest, possession charge, driving with an open container, conspiring to commit a crime and making malicious phone calls.
2007 – 1. Oakland Raiders
JaMarcus Russell, QB, LSU
After the longest holdout since Bo Jackson chose baseball over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986, Russell broke the bank with a six-year, $61 million contract with $29 million guaranteed. It was all down hill after that. The theory that money makes a person more of whatever they already were was never more true that with Russell — who lived up to his reputation as lazy and out of shape, but failed to live up to his undeniably enormous potential.
Al Davis’ dreams of revitalizing the Raiders’ vertical passing attack were based on a mountain of a man (6’6”, 260) who could throw a football over 60 yards from his knees. The problem was, Russell couldn’t throw the ball from the pocket while on his feet. He also couldn’t stay awake in meetings or keep his weight in check. After going 25–4 as a starter at LSU, Russell struggled to a 7–18 record in the NFL with 4,083 yards, 18 TDs and 23 INTs in three seasons.
Sleep-walking through his highly paid NFL career, Russell was implicated in a codeine syrup drug bust in his native Mobile, Ala., but was not indicted by a grand jury for possession of the main ingredient in “purple drank” — a club concoction Russell unintentionally took from the Southern rap scene and introduced into mainstream sports talk. Russell has also faced six-figure tax debt and the foreclosure of his six-bedroom, $3 million Oakland mansion.
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