10 Best NFL Players That Never Were
The NFL draft is around the corner, and every prospect from the top overall selection to Mr. Irrelevant has hopes and dreams of soon becoming an NFL superstar. A few will; most won't.
Those who don't make it big or make it at all in the NFL usually fail to do so because they lack the talent to become the next Joe Montana or Reggie White. But a few had every bit the chops to some day be bound for Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, yet don't; either injuries, discipline problems, drugs or other tangential issues derail their careers.
I've selected the 10 saddest such cases with one major caveat.
Tragedy, drugs, arrests or injuries have ended many tremendous careers. Bo Jackson, Sean Taylor and Jerome Brown are three great examples. Each of those men may have been remembered as among the greatest ever to play their position had they been able to carry out a full career.
But at least they had some stardom. All three were Pro-Bowlers at one point, so it's inaccurate to say they belong on a list of "players that never were."
Keep that in mind while you read, these 10 men never reached even the precipice of greatness, like Jackson, Taylor, Brown and others did.
No. 10: Rae Carruth, WR
Teams: Carolina Panthers
Stats: 62 catches, 804 yards, 4 TD
Maybe Carruth wouldn't have become the next Jerry Rice or Lance Alworth, but he was on his way to a fine career in Carolina. As a rookie, he posted 100 yards receiving in two of his first six games. And after a broken foot cost him almost all of his sophomore season, the Panthers expected him to be a major factor in their 1999 season.
But in November of that year, he was arrested, tried and convicted in the death of his pregnant girlfriend, and that was the end of his career.
That horrific tragedy aside, Carolina expected a lot more from receiver they spent a first-round pick on, one who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at the combine.
No. 9: Ki-Jana Carter, RB
Career: 1995-1999, 2001, 2003-04
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints
Stats: 319 carries, 1,144 yards, 20 TD
Oh, Penn State running backs.
For every Franco Harris or Larry Johnson, there's a Blair Thomas and Curtis Enis. But the bust that everyone remembers is Ki-Jana Carter, the top player selected in the 1995 NFL draft.
It is, however, really doing Carter a disservice by labeling him a "bust," at least in the same way that a JaMarcus Russell or Tim Couch was. Carter suffered a devastating torn ACL in the preseason of his rookie campaign, and it cost him the strength, speed and durability that made him the top choice in the first place. Worse yet, after clawing his way back onto the field for the 1996, 1997 and 1998 seasons, he dislocated his knee cap in the 1999 season.
Give him credit for surviving as long as he did; after all the injuries and frustrations, for him to keep coming back—and playing three more years—was admirable.
No. 8: Todd Marinovich, QB
Teams: Los Angeles Raiders
Stats: 50.7 completion percentage, 1,345 yards, 8 TD, 9 INT
Everyone knows the cautionary tale of Marinovich. Breeding a child from birth to become a quarterback (or doctor or lawyer or President of the United States, for that matter) can wind up having disastrous outcomes.
But make no mistake about it, Todd Marinovich had tremendous athletic talent, and specifically, quarterback talent. He had arguably the finest mechanics of any passer ever to come through the NFL. And he did have moments of true brilliance, such as a three-touchdown effort in the 1991 season finale against Kansas City and his a game-winning performance over the Giants in 1992.
Ultimately, however, the years of pent-up pressure and burden of expectations finally caught up to him, as he developed a drug habit in college. It didn't stop the Raiders from drafting him late in the first round, but within two years, it did force Al Davis to unload the troubled lefty.
By age 23, his NFL career was over. Had he been able to avoid the trappings of drugs and found another way to escape his demons (and be more passionate about the game), who knows how many records he could have broken.
No. 7: Courtney Brown, DE
Teams: Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos
Stats: 19 sacks, 61 games
The failed draft choices of the new Browns—Tim Couch, William Green, Brady Quinn, Gerard Warren—have become near-epic. But only one, Courtney Brown, left fans wondering "What if?"
Brown, the first pick in the 2000 draft, showed flashes of dominance early on. As a rookie, he nabbed three sacks against arch-rival Pittsburgh, and he didn't miss a game during that 2000 campaign.
But a knee injury cost him the first half of his second NFL season and although he returned in November—recording three sacks and a touchdown in his first game back—he was soon shelved again with an ankle injury.
The next three seasons were also marred by nagging injuries, and he missed 22 games before Cleveland had no choice but to let him go. After a year with Denver, he retired by the age of 27.
No. 6: Charles Rogers, WR
Teams: Detroit Lions
Stats: 36 catches, 440 yards, 4 TD
As bad as the Browns' run of squandered high draft choices was, the Lions run during roughly the same time was worse. Matt Millen failed on three straight high first-round choices, all at the same position, wide receiver.
Charles Rogers, a local product with tremendous height and a fine track record at Michigan State, was the first in that line and the one that most begs the question "What if?"
His career got off to a fine start in 2003, catching two touchdowns in his first game, a win over Arizona, but five weeks later, he broke his collarbone and missed the rest of the season. A year later, he broke the collarbone again and missed virtually the entire 2004 campaign.
And if there was any glimmer of hope for a comeback, it was ruined the next season when he failed a drug test (positive for marijuana) and was hit with a four-game suspension.
No. 5: Greg Cook, QB
Career: 1969, 1973
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals
Stats: 53.5 completion percentage, 1,865 yards, 15 TD, 11 INT
There are some people who earnestly believe that Greg Cook had the potential to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Couple his fine athleticism and tremendous accuracy with the fact that he had Bill Walsh tutoring him and it's not such a far-fetched concept.
Besides, as a rookie with a team one year removed from its expansion season, Cook led the AFL in completion percentage and won the AFL Rookie of the Year award.
But a rotator cuff injury (which he played through) suffered that season started to get worse, and he needed multiple surgeries, none of which corrected the problem.
Although he was able to briefly return to the NFL (for one game), he never had the opportunity to deliver an encore to his fantastic rookie season.
No. 4: Steve Emtman, DT
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins
Stats: 8 sacks, 50 games
If you're going to take a defensive tackle first overall, you better hit on it. The Colts didn't, but it was more about bad luck than a bad decision.
Emtman (and specifically his knees) were just cursed. He tore his ACL and MCL as a rookie, then tore his patella tendon the next year. Somehow, he managed to recover and was on the field in 1994, but then, he suffered the worst injury of them all: a ruptured disk in his neck.
Yet despite playing in just 18 games during his first three seasons, Emtman definitely proved to be worthy of that top overall selection. In addition to returning an interception (of Dan Marino) 90 yards for a touchdown as a rookie, he recorded a good number of sacks for an interior lineman in a shortened time-span and greatly improved a terrible Colts run defense when he was in the lineup.
No. 3: Art Schlichter, QB
Career: 1982, 1984-85
Teams: Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts
Stats: 45.0 completion percentage, 1,006 yards, 3 TD, 11 INT
Here's a reasonably unique entry for this list: Gambling doesn't usually ruin a player's career.
But it did for Schlicter, a four-year starter at Ohio State and the Colts' fourth-overall selection in the 1982 draft.
Even while he was in Columbus, Schlicter's penchant for gambling was in place. Either the Colts didn't know or didn't care and opted to take him instead of BYU's Jim McMahon.
After a disappointing rookie season (in which he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars betting on sports), he was suspended for an entire season following an FBI investigation.
Although he played parts of the next two seasons, it's hard for a team—even the hapless Colts of the mid-1980s—to entrust an offense to a player with a gambling addition.
It's too bad that this vice ruined his career. He had ideal size (6'3"), ran with excellent speed (4.65 in the 40-yard dash) and had the quintessential "big arm" that every team coveted in the early 1980s.
No. 2: Lawrence Phillips, RB
Career: 1996-97, 1999
Teams: St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers
Stats: 424 carries, 1,453 yards, 14 TD
When Lawrence Phillips was at Nebraska, no one could have possibly imagined that the only piece of NFL history he would be a part of was missing the block that ultimately ended 49ers quarterback Steve Young's career.
Despite well-publicized run-ins with the law while in Lincoln, the Rams were so confident that they had found the next all-time great runner that they dealt away former Rookie of the Year Jerome Bettis to Pittsburgh for next to nothing.
And why not? Phillips was touted as one of the best running back prospects in years. He ran so hard, so fast and with such great instinct that he was tailor-made for the NFL. And as a rookie, he seemed to be on the path to stardom, rushing for 632 yards.
But he quarrelled with management and was arrested twice, prompting the Rams to release him after less than 19 months with the club.
Sure, he caught on with the Dolphins and 49ers (where his missed block on Aeneas Williams gave future Hall of Famer Steve Young the concussion that forced him into retirement), but all the bad will he had built up over time dug him far too deep a hole.
No. 1: Ernie Davis, RB
Teams: Cleveland Browns
There's no sadder individual fate in NFL history than the one that befell Ernie Davis.
The first African-American Heisman Trophy winner and the first African-American player to be selected first in the NFL draft, Davis seemed bound for superstardom. After all, the man whose footsteps he followed in at Syracuse, Jim Brown, became the greatest running back of his era.
In a trade with Washington, the Browns acquired the rights to Davis and—along with Brown—were all set to have easily the most anticipated backfield in NFL history. But in July, while preparing for the annual College All-Stars game against the Packers, doctors discovered that Davis had leukemia.
Before it had even began, his career was over, and within 10 months, so too was his life.