Top 20 NFL Draft Failures Of The Last 30 Years

This article appeared in The Sportster on September 29, 2016.

The Philadelphia Eagles have started their season with three straight wins. And they’ve done so with a rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, no less. While he hasn’t been asked to do a whole lot yet (Wentz is just 20th in the league in pass attempts), the #2 overall pick in the 2016 draft hasn’t thrown a single interception through his first three career starts.

The Eagles gave up a lot when they traded up to grab Wentz and so far the move looks like a good one. However, not all high draft picks work out. NFL general managers can do all their homework and select what seems like the right athlete, only to see their franchise’s savior completely flop as a pro.

When you consider that teams drafting near the top of the first round are generally bad already, they especially cannot afford to miss on too many picks. Doing so can set a franchise back years. Coaches and GMs get fired. Fans start wearing paper bags on their heads. It’s not pretty.

The term “bust” often gets thrown around pretty loosely in sports. There is no gray area with the players on this list, though. These guys didn’t have a couple of decent years and then fade away; with the exception of #16 (who had issues unrelated to football), they were all awful from Day 1 and have forever been cemented as some of the worst draft picks the NFL has seen in a generation.

Note: Draft slot matters. Todd Marinovich and Johnny Manziel are well known for their troubles on and off the field, but both were drafted in the 20s. The following players were all taken much earlier in their respective drafts and, therefore, are considered bigger busts.

In 2004, Minnesota quarterback, Daunte Culpepper (4,717 yards, 39 touchdowns, 11 interceptions), threw the ball as well as anyone in the league. After the season, however, the Vikings traded star wide receiver, Randy Moss, to Oakland. The team subsequently used one of the picks they got in return to draft Troy Williamson at #7 overall. While it was always going to be difficult to replace Moss’s production, Minnesota got virtually nothing from Williamson. He only lasted three years with the team, totaling just 1,067 receiving yards and three touchdowns. After being traded to Jacksonville for a sixth round pick, Williamson lasted just two more seasons and was out of the league before the age of 27. To make matters worse, the Vikes used their natural pick at #18 that year to draft defensive end, Erasmus James; he made just 12 career starts.

During his final year at Penn State, Curtis Enis ran for 1,363 yards and had 19 rushing touchdowns in just 12 games. He was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and seemed like a solid pick for the Bears at #5 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft. However, he wound up with only 1,497 yards and four touchdowns in his career. After three years in the league, Enis was replaced on the roster by 2001 second-round pick, Anthony Thomas, out of Michigan. During his rookie season, “A-Train” averaged a full yard per carry more than Enis had in his career (4.3 to 3.3) and rushed for seven touchdowns, nearly doubling the three times his predecessor had found the end zone during his time in Chicago.

Taken two picks ahead of Enis in 1998 (#3 overall), Andre Wadsworth was supposed to bolster the Cardinals’ defensive line, playing opposite Simeon Rice. The previous season, Wadsworth was the ACC Player of the Year at Florida State, but did not come close to resembling the same player during his tenure as a pro. Like Enis, he played only three NFL seasons. After picking up four sacks in his first five games, he only had four more over the rest of his career. Though Wadsworth had the college accolades to make him appear worthy of a high draft choice, Arizona passed on some strong alternatives. Two other defensive ends were taken among that year’s first eight overall picks: Grant Wistrom (STL), who had won the Vince Lombardi Award (given to the nation’s best lineman), and Greg Ellis (DAL). Those two combined for 137 sacks over their pro careers.

Vernon Gholston was a dominating defensive player at Ohio State. As a junior, he compiled 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. During his senior year, he tied for second in the country with 14 sacks and helped the Buckeyes lead all of college football in points allowed. Unfortunately, those were the last 14 sacks he ever had. After getting drafted with the sixth overall pick in 2008, Gholston got into 45 career games (five starts) and had no sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. When he took off his NFL jersey for the last time, he had accumulated just 16 solo tackles. In the 2016 NFL Draft, the Jets once again used their first round pick on an Ohio State defensive player. In three games this season, linebacker, Darron Lee, already has more sacks (0.5) than Gholston posted in three years.

The Jaguars took Justin Blackmon with the fifth pick of the 2012 draft. In his 10th career game, the rookie wide receiver exploded for seven catches, 236 yards and a touchdown against the Houston Texans. Blackmon opened the following season with 326 yards in the first two weeks. It appeared that Jacksonville, who ranked dead-last in the NFL in passing yards the prior year, finally had a big-time playmaker. Unfortunately, Blackmon was suspended for drugs during the following season and, due to multiple infractions, hasn’t been on the field since then. All told, he had 1,280 yards and six touchdowns through his first 20 contests. It was a fantastic start to a promising career, but if he’s played his final game, that’s not a good stat line for a top-five draft choice.

Coming off a 5-11 season in which they were 23rd out of 28 teams in points scored, the Houston Oilers opted to improve their offense in the 1987 draft. They had two first-round picks and used one of them to take wide receiver, Haywood Jeffires. Though he went on to have a productive career (6,334 yards, 50 touchdowns), their initial pick didn’t. At #3 overall, the Oilers took Miami running back, Alonzo Highsmith. After a rookie season in which he only had 29 rushing attempts, Highsmith saw a lot more action on the field in 1988. He accumulated 1,329 yards from scrimmage during the next two seasons and then played sparingly across three years with Dallas and Tampa Bay. Highsmith ended his career with 1,623 total yards and 10 touchdowns over six seasons.

The top of the 1990 draft had a pair of players who are often associated with the word, “bust.” However, Colts quarterback, Jeff George, and Jets’ running back, Blair Thomas, had nothing on Lions QB, Andre Ware. The seventh overall draft pick put up video game passing numbers during his final season at the University of Houston: 4,699 yards and 46 touchdowns in just 11 games. Conversely, Detroit’s quarterbacks had combined to throw 11 touchdowns and 24 interceptions during the 1989 season. They needed a quarterback…desperately. As it turned out, Ware was not the man for the job. He played four seasons in the NFL, made a total of just four starts and threw five TDs against eight picks. Ware also had seven fumbles and was sacked 27 times, while completing just 83 passes in his career.

In a rarity for defensive players, lineman, Steve Emtman, received the second-most first-place Heisman Trophy votes during his final year at Washington. He then catapulted to the top of the 1992 NFL Draft, joining the 1-15 Indianapolis Colts. In his very first game as a pro, Emtman sacked Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar and his team quickly matched their win total from the previous season. In his seventh game, he was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after he had a sack and returned a Dan Marino interception 90 yards for a touchdown during a 31-20 victory against the previously unbeaten Dolphins. After that, his highlights were few and far between. Emtman played for three teams during a six-year career in which he had only eight sacks and 121 solo tackles.

Curtis Enis (#19 above) wasn’t the first Penn State running back to flop in the NFL. In 1995, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Ki-Jana Carter with the #1 overall pick. During his first two seasons, he had a knack for finding the end zone, accumulating a very respectable 16 touchdowns (15 rushing). But in parts of four seasons with the Bengals, Carter averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and totaled a mere 747 yards on the ground. After brief stints in Washington and New Orleans, he retired at 31 with 1,613 yards from scrimmage and 21 TDs. In 59 career games, Carter reached the century mark in rushing yards just once; he had 104 yards on the ground in a 1997 loss to the Denver Broncos.

According to, on average, offensive tackles earn more than players at any other position in football, except for quarterbacks. As the NFL has evolved into more of a passing league, it has become imperative for teams to protect their QBs. So when the St. Louis Rams took Baylor’s Jason Smith to anchor their line in 2009, it seemed like a wise decision. However, when you have the #2 pick in the draft, you can’t afford to miss and that’s exactly what happened in this case. Smith started only 26 games for St. Louis before playing one final year as a backup for the Jets. Meanwhile, four years after he played his final game, 10 other tackles from the ‘09 draft class are still active in the league.

Two starts, 15 games played, three teams, two sacks. Those are the career numbers of Reggie Rogers, the seventh pick of the 1987 draft. The only reason he isn’t higher on this list is because everyone remaining was taken with a higher pick. Though his production on the field was minimal, Rogers had more serious issues outside of football. In 1988, while driving with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit (he had a DUI in college, as well), he crashed into another car; sadly, three people died. As a result of the accident, he also broke his neck and spent time in jail for vehicular homicide. Rogers never got the help he needed; when he was 49, he died with a high level of cocaine and alcohol in his body.

In the 1994 draft, the Indianapolis Colts had two of the first five picks. They hit a home run at #2 when they selected future Hall of Fame running back, Marshall Faulk, out of San Diego State. Unfortunately for them, Indy completely whiffed on the fifth overall pick. Trev Alberts won the Dick Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker during his final season at Nebraska. But he played only three NFL seasons, all with the Colts. Alberts started just seven career games, amassing 49 solo tackles, four sacks and an interception. Ten of the first 13 picks in the ’94 draft were defensive players; Alberts was the only one to play fewer than 100 games in the league before hanging up his cleats for good.

Kelly Stouffer was selected sixth overall by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 NFL Draft. He missed his entire rookie season because he couldn’t come to terms with the team, so they traded him to Seattle. In four years as a pro, Stouffer started 16 games at quarterback and didn’t fare well at all in many of them. For his career, his record was 5-11 with a 51.5% completion percentage, seven touchdowns, 19 interceptions and 20 fumbles. During his final season, he started only seven games and still managed to put the ball on the ground 12 times (tied for second-most in the league). In 1993, Stouffer was out of football and the Seahawks drafted Rick Mirer #2 overall to replace him. That didn’t work out so well, either, but Mirer did account for 52 more touchdowns (passing and running) than Stouffer had during his career.

Mercifully, this is the fourth and final member of this list from the 1987 draft. The five athletes who were taken from #3 to #7 that year played an average of just 33.6 games in their careers. This pick was especially painful for the Browns, as they actually traded up to grab Junkin with the fifth pick. Though he had graduated Duke as the school’s all-time leader in tackles, he was never able to secure a prominent role in the NFL. Junkin started only seven games in Cleveland over two years and then finished his three-year career in Kansas City as a reserve. Five picks after Junkin came off the board, the Browns’ divisional rival, Pittsburgh, snagged future Hall of Fame defensive back, Rod Woodson.

Heath Shuler was a standout quarterback for the University of Tennessee and even finished second to Florida State’s Charlie Ward in the 1993 Heisman Trophy race. He was subsequently taken with the third pick of the ‘94 draft by the Washington Redskins, but never came close to posting the numbers that were expected of him. As a pro, Shuler went 8-14 in parts of four seasons for the ‘Skins and Saints with a sub-50% completion percentage (49.2%). He threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns (33 to 15) and had a career passer rating of just 54.3. Shuler particularly struggled during his final year in the league with New Orleans; that year, he threw two TDs, had 14 picks and fumbled eight times in nine starts.

You’d think having a player named “Pickens” in your secondary would be a good thing, but it wasn’t for the Atlanta Falcons. Bruce Pickens played for four teams during a four-year career. That’s not exactly the pattern of a successful NFL career, particularly for a player taken with the third overall pick. There were four defensive backs drafted among the first nine selections in 1991 and while the other three each had at least 20 career interceptions, Pickens only had two. His career numbers: nine starts, four teams, two picks, one sack. On the rare instances when he did make a big play, they at least came against some pretty big names. One of his two interceptions was on a Steve Young pass and his only fumble recovery came via a John Elway scramble.

In what turned out to be an incredibly deep first round (Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch and Darrelle Revis were among the top 14 picks), the Raiders opted to take LSU quarterback, JaMarcus Russell with the #1 pick. Three years later, Russell was out of the league after posting a 7-18 record with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. He was sacked 70 times and had 25 fumbles in 31 career games (25 starts). One of Russell’s biggest problems was that he wasn’t very good on his best days…but on his worst days, he was horrific. He threw for 100 or fewer yards in seven out of 25 starts (28.0%). In those seven games, he was 55-117 (47.0%) for 440 yards, zero TDs and seven picks.

From 2001-2007, the Lions went a horrific 31-81 under general manager, Matt Millen. They clearly needed to improve most, if not all, of their team. But Millen repeatedly tried to plug the same hole, wide receiver, rather than fix the rest of the roster. For three straight years, he used a top-10 pick to draft a WR; among them, only Roy Williams had a successful NFL career. In 2003, the Lions grabbed Charles Rogers with the #2 pick (one slot in front of Andre Johnson, who has over 14,000 yards and 69 receiving touchdowns). Rogers posted impressive numbers during his two seasons at Michigan State (2,931 yards from scrimmage and 28 TDs), but his career numbers in the NFL look like a three-week stretch from Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown: 36 receptions, 440 yards, four scores.

Akili Smith passed for 3,763 yards, 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his final year at Oregon. How bad could he be in the pros? As it turns out, pretty bad. Cincinnati took him with the third pick of the 1999 NFL Draft, right after quarterbacks, Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb, were selected by Cleveland and Philadelphia, respectively. Smith threw only five TDs in his career; two came against a 2-14 Browns’ team and another came against a 3-13 Browns’ team. Over 22 career games (3-14 record in 17 starts), he was sacked 59 times, had 19 fumbles and threw 13 picks. The next four players taken after Smith in the ’99 draft were, at a minimum, borderline Hall of Famers: Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Torry Holt and Champ Bailey.

For fans too young to remember the 1998 draft, it’s hard to imagine that there was even a debate over which quarterback would be selected with the #1 pick: Tennessee’s Peyton Manning or Washington State’s Ryan Leaf. But there was. Prior to the draft, the media was relatively split between the two players, but their pro careers couldn’t have been more divergent. Manning, of course, went on to capture virtually every meaningful passing record. Leaf, on the other hand, was 4-17 as a starter, had a 14-to-36 touchdown-to-interception ratio, fumbled 24 times and had a 50.0 QB rating in parts of three NFL seasons with the Chargers and Cowboys. On top of all that, the Chargers actually traded a future first-round pick, a future second-round pick and two players to Arizona to move up one spot in the draft to take him. Even without the inevitable comparisons to Manning, Leaf’s career was so poor, there is no doubt he is the biggest bust the sport has seen in at least 30 years.

(photo by BrokenSphere)

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