What Really Defines an NFL Draft Bust?
While some of the more generic labels (“high motor”) are still being written about the NFL’s rookie prospects, many writers will wait at least one more week before bringing out the “B” word.
It is a word that has many meanings, some even contradictory of one another.
If someone is “busting his ass," then that means he is putting in great effort. Yet it is often a lack of effort that produces an NFL bust.
But not all NFL busts are bad, as you can take a trip to Canton to see the sculpted busts of players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Isn’t it odd we honor the greatest players ever with a word we also use as a label for the biggest disappointments?
Historically, the biggest busts in the NFL have been players drafted high in the first round who just never displayed the talent they were perceived to have. This would be players like Tony Mandarich, JaMarcus Russell, Charles Rogers, Steve Emtman, Joey Harrington, Andre Ware, David Klingler and Lawrence Phillips.
Instead of being measured by wins, yards and touchdowns, Ryan Leaf’s career can best be measured in criminal charges, fines and years in prison.
Leaf has become the poster child for the all-time bust in NFL history, but that just means he is the extreme case rather than the norm. Players are usually not that bad, yet they can still be considered a bust.
So how does one accurately define an NFL draft bust?
Drawing the Lines of a Bust
You cannot just call every player who does not pan out an NFL bust. The undrafted player who works his tail off just to get an opportunity is such a long shot for success that his lack of a career is hardly unexpected.
For as great as the NFL draft is in terms of a team-building tool, the fact is, the vast majority of the players taken are not going to be stars.
Here is a look at the average approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference) for players drafted No. 1 through No. 254 since 1970.
Notice the sharp decline. By the time you reach the second round, the career value is dropping to around 30. Once you get to the third round, players are averaging less than 20. Getting past pick 100 rarely yields anything more than a 15.
This is why the bust label has often been saved for players drafted in the first round, because those players come with actual expectations. You rarely hear about that “fifth-round bust” failing to cut it.
When there is such a large disparity between expectation and production, you end up with a bust. Since the high expectations come at the top of the draft, you only focus on those players as the busts.
Now, one could easily use the second round to determine a bust, as the second round still holds premium picks. You just have to realize the standard is a little lower than that of the first round.
For example, Limas Sweed was definitely a second-round bust. Taken 53rd overall in 2008 by Pittsburgh, some draft experts had Sweed as the first receiver off the board in the first round. ESPN’s Todd McShay even thought Sweed would be the most productive and talented receiver in this class.
In the end, Sweed caught seven of his 15 career targets for 69 yards while dropping some of the most inexplicable passes you will ever see.
So while Sweed was a bust, that does not mean he was a bigger failure than Charles Rogers, Detroit's pick at No. 2 overall in 2003. Rogers played in 15 games, catching 36 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns.
You expect long-term greatness from the No. 2 pick. You expect starter production from the 53rd pick. Both players were busts, but to different degrees because of different levels of expectations.
But the common thread is that expectations were high, and they were never even close to being met.
The financial commitment to players high in the draft has also been a big factor in each player's bust status. However, the changes in the new CBA to rookie wages have decreased the significance of rookie contracts.
That once-out-of-whack system that saw a player like Russell get $32 million guaranteed because he was the No. 1 pick has much to do with many feeling Russell is the biggest bust ever.
At least we won’t see that happen again, but we will continue to see busts.
Shedding the Bust Label
Perhaps further complicating the bust labeling is the fact that a draft can be analyzed in two distinct ways:
- By judging the pick of a player solely on how that player performs in his NFL career relative to where he was picked.
- By judging the pick of a player based only on what he provides to the team who drafted him.
Since we are looking at individuals instead of teams here, the first option is the important one.
But make no mistake about it; a player can be a bust for the team who drafted him before going on to shed that label with another team.
Take Jeff George as an example. He was the No. 1 overall pick by the Colts in the 1990 draft and was certainly a bust for a young Jim Irsay in Indianapolis.
George was just dreadful with the Colts, going 14-35 (.286) as a starter and having more interceptions (46) than touchdowns (41).
But when they traded him to Atlanta in 1994, he produced above-average numbers and even started a playoff game. He had a big-stat year for the Raiders in 1997 before doing it again with another playoff season in 1999 for the Vikings.
In the end, George made a long career for himself in the NFL, starting 124 regular-season games. As far as the No. 1 pick goes, George arguably had an above-average career. As far as quarterbacks picked No. 1, George is a little below average.
So while George was a bust with the Colts, his career finished as average and disappointing given all the physical talent he had. But he was not an NFL bust.
A bust can also work in reverse, at least as far as labels go.
Albert Haynesworth was a first-round pick (No. 15) by Tennessee in 2002. He really did not make a name for himself until he stomped on the face of Dallas’ Andre Gurode in 2006. But when it was a contract year and money was on the line, Haynesworth played like a dominant defensive tackle.
His All-Pro seasons in 2007-08 led to him signing a contract worth $100 million with Washington in 2009. The results were disastrous, as Haynesworth exhibited little-to-no effort on the field, playing just 20 games for the Redskins without any real impact.
It is probably the worst free-agent contract in NFL history, so you can say Haynesworth was a total bust with the Redskins. But that does not mean his full career value makes him an NFL bust.
Busting Up the 2005 Draft into Tiers
Let’s look at an entire round to see more differences. The 2005 draft is old enough for us to have a good feel of where these players stand. It is notoriously known to be filled with disappointments, making it even more of a head-scratcher that Aaron Rodgers had to wait until the 24th pick to leave that green room.
These players will be judged as “HIT” (successes), “AVG” (mediocre careers), “DIS” (disappointing/below average) and “BUSTS” (total failures). The “player value” is based on each player's full career, while “drafted team” focuses only on what each player did for the team who picked them.
With only 13 hits (five coming at the end of the round), you quickly start to wonder if this is a case of the smart playoff teams knowing what they are doing. If players like Heath Miller and Logan Mankins went to the Vikings and Rams instead, would we still be calling them hits? We’ll never know. You can also see the other group of hits who are clustered together from Nos. 8-15.
This was a strange class, and it starts right at the top with Alex Smith.
Clearly a huge bust before Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco, Smith has salvaged his career into something respectable the last two years. He actually left the 49ers with a winning record (38-36-1, 1-1 in the playoffs), which is a miracle given his 19-31 start.
Though for the first pick in the round, which happened to include a future Hall of Fame player in Rodgers, you still can’t help but label Smith as a disappointment. A good run in Kansas City should move him up to average.
Many of the players taken before the first stud off the board, like DeMarcus Ware at No. 11, leave much to be desired:
- Ronnie Brown put in some solid years for Miami, though injuries in 2007 and 2009 robbed him of his prime.
- Braylon Edwards was excellent in 2007 (1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns), though he never reached that level again.
- Cedric Benson was really a bust in Chicago (just 45.5 yards per game), but he gave the Bengals three 1,000-yard seasons. He is the only player to elevate himself with another team.
- Adam “Pacman” Jones has had a troubled career, but do not forget how good he was on the field in 2006 for the Titans. But his off-field issues have ruined what could have been a promising career.
Injuries certainly played a part with this group, either limiting success or stopping it before it ever had a chance to be reached:
- Cadillac Williams rushed for 1,178 yards as a rookie, helped Tampa Bay make the playoffs and was named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. But he couldn’t stay healthy afterward.
- Carolina’s Thomas Davis has torn his ACL three times in three years, yet he came back to start 12 games in 2012.
- Cincinnati’s David Pollack showed some promise as a rookie, but he suffered a broken sixth cervical vertebrae in just his 16th game. That’s a broken neck. He would never play again.
- Erasmus James was never the same after tearing his ACL in 2006.
- Shawne Merriman and Jammal Brown made multiple Pro Bowls, but both were slowed by injuries. San Diego’s Luis Castillo also could not stay healthy.
- Marlin Jackson lives in Colts’ lore for his game-ending interception off Tom Brady in the 2006 AFC Championship, but he only played 27 more NFL games after multiple injuries.
Though it might not be a popular viewpoint, staying healthy is part of a successful career, and players offer no real value when they are unable to play.
But of the seven outright busts, five were not due to injuries. The wide receivers especially struggled, while the best of the bunch, Roddy White, was taken last at No. 27 by Atlanta.
Troy Williamson was supposed to replace the departed Randy Moss, but that was a joke. He couldn’t catch the ball. He becomes the first true bust of this class. The six players taken ahead of him all showed that they could play at a premium level in this league for at least one season.
Williamson had more games with zero receiving yards (11) than games with at least 40 receiving yards (8). If you draft a receiver with the No. 7 pick, you expect more than 23.1 yards per game.
USC’s Mike Williams was the third straight receiver taken in the top 10 by Detroit’s Matt Millen, and if not for a respectable year with Seattle in 2010, he might have been the worst of the bunch with his legendary laziness.
Then you have Matt Jones, a college quarterback with a freakish combine performance, trying to make the conversion to wide receiver in Jacksonville. That never panned out. He also had his share of off-field issues.
Mark Clayton went with the next pick to Baltimore, though he never improved after his second season. He averaged 41.0 yards per game with the team in five seasons before moving on to St. Louis.
Fabian Washington was another case of the Raiders falling in love with speed and the 40-yard dash time, while Travis Johnson was another bad choice by the Houston Texans.
Finally, some Washington fans may want to throw Jason Campbell into the bust category, though he actually did exceed his draft-slot expectations. His performance in Oakland was admirable given that franchise’s recent results, and his stats are close enough to league average.
Want a better example of a bust? Try Heath Shuler, who Washington drafted third overall in 1994. He only started 22 games and threw 15 touchdowns against 33 interceptions.
Even if he does it by being passive, at least Campbell boasts the 10th-lowest interception rate in NFL history (2.38 percent).
Showing extended competence takes you out of bust territory.
Conclusion: Bust Until Proven Otherwise?
One could argue any highly touted player drafted into the league is an NFL bust until proven otherwise. Going professional and being a high draft pick brings high expectations. The draft status alone does not prove anything. If expectations are not met in a reasonable amount of time, the backlash will be there.
Right now, there are not many players getting a “bust vibe” before the draft, though you can always spot the warning signs.
Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had just one year of major college football, meaning he’s very raw. The one-year college wonder is always a huge red flag, especially with inconsistent hands and catching ability.
Though if a player is thought to be a bust before the draft, is it really a surprise when he becomes one? The expectations were correct, though that still means a team picked him high despite them.
For the most part, this is the time of year when people expect a ton of great players to enter the league and provide upgrades to the teams fortunate enough to pick them.
But that’s really not what happens.
While draft experts will continue to make mock drafts, cite reaches, steals and busts with moderate success (at best), here’s what we do know about the realistic expectations of this NFL draft and the 254 players to be selected:
- Close to two dozen players selected will fail to ever make an active NFL roster.
- At least 25 percent will never start a regular-season game.
- At best, only a handful of the players will go on to have a Hall of Fame career.
- Only 10 to 15 percent of the players will make a Pro Bowl in their career.
- Nearly half the draft class will be out of the league by the 2018 season.
- About 80 percent of the players will not be in the league come the 2023 draft.
Finally, nearly half of the players picked in Round 1 will disappoint, while a sizable chunk of them will be straight-up busts.
That is just the cold reality of what the NFL draft produces on a yearly basis. It is hard to find a player who will have a long, productive career; instead, you get a lot of players who are competent but will merely be stopgap starters or solid depth. A 53-man roster has to be built some way, and the draft is a cost-efficient way to do it.
Whether it’s the result of a bad fit, poor work ethic or injury, some of the top prospects will never show their potential.
But one thing should be clear: Once a player sheds the bust label, it does not get reattached. Even if he is only good for one year, at least the player showed that he can play in this league. At that point, you just change the label to something else: disappointment or one-year wonder.
But at least it’s no longer the naughty “B” word.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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