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The 50 Greatest NFL Players Who Never Were

Bryn SwartzSenior Writer IIIAugust 16, 2011

The 50 Greatest NFL Players Who Never Were

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    My definition of a great player who never was in the National Football League is going to include a whole bunch of players.

    It's going to include the draft busts. The guys who had all the talent in the world but also had major attitude problems. The players who never had the proper coaching (perhaps the same as a draft bust). And it's going to include the players who suffered injuries that derailed or ended their career.

    Basically this list includes any player who significantly underachieved in his NFL career, and yes, you can be a fantastic NFL player and still be on this list—as long as it's easy to say that you could have and should have been so much more.  

    This is basically any player whose career wasn't what it could have been.

Barry Foster, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

2 of 51

    One of the all-time great fluke seasons in NFL history came in 1992 when Pittsburgh Steelers running back Barry Foster rushed for 1,690 yards on 390 carries. He topped 100 yards in a game an incredible 12 times that season.

    Foster sprained his ankle midway through the 1993 season, sprained his knee in 1994 and failed a physical before the 1995 season, causing him to retire from the National Football League. 

Robert Edwards, RB, New England Patriots & Miami Dolphins

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    Robert Edwards was a first-round pick by the Patriots in 1998 and topped 1,000 yards in his first NFL season.

    Then he blew out his knee in a rookie NFL flag football game at Hawaii and almost had his leg amputated. In fact, doctors told him that he might never walk again.

    He heroically returned to the NFL four years later with the Miami Dolphins and rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries but did not play again in the NFL. 

Bob Sanders, S, Indianapolis Colts & San Diego Chargers

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    Bob Sanders is a very good football player who could literally never stay healthy.

    He earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors with the Colts in 2007, but he literally has played in more than six games in a season just twice in his NFL career.

    I will never understand the hype on Sanders. The 30-year-old safety has as many forced fumbles in his career (two) as Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson has in his postseason career. 

    Sanders is on the Chargers and will attempt to rejuvenate his NFL career, but I don't see it happening.

Dennis Byrd, DE, New York Jets

5 of 51

    Dennis Byrd was just 25 years old and in his fourth NFL season when his world was turned completely upside down in one play against the Buffalo Bills.

    A collision with a teammate left him paralyzed and essentially ended his NFL career.

    Byrd had led his team in sacks in each of the previous two seasons and had collected 28 in his career, including 13 in his second season.

    He had future Pro Bowler written all over him. 

Greg Cook, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Greg Cook was the NFL's hotshot rookie in 1969 but started having shoulder problems halfway through the season.

    He ended up missing all of the 1970 and 1971 seasons, returned for one game in 1972 and retired at the age of 27. 

    In his rookie season, he led the NFL in passer rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage.

    It may be a stretch to say that he could have been an all-time great, but any quarterback who can put up those numbers in his rookie season, well, he could be an all-time great. 

Kurt Warner, QB, St. Louis Rams & New York Giants & Arizona Cardinals

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    I know. It's ridiculous to put a two-time MVP and a possible future Hall of Famer on this list.

    But Kurt Warner could have been so much more. First of all, he didn't begin his NFL career until the age of 27. Then he lost his starting job a ridiculous FOUR times (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006).

    He succeeded only when he had ridiculous talent (compare his numbers with the "Greatest Show on Turf" to his number with the Giants).

    Oh, and even when he did play well, or at least decent enough to keep his starting job, he got injured (2000, 2002, 2005).

    Imagine if Warner had a normal career that started at age 22 and ended around age 34 or 35. He could have accomplished so much more. SO much more.  

Billy Sims, RB, Detroit Lions

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    Sims, a Heisman Trophy winner, dominated the league in his first few seasons, earning three Pro Bowl selections and leading the league in touchdowns as a rookie.

    He injured his knee midway through the 1984 season and never played again.

    Even though he was 29 at the time of his injury, he didn't begin his career until he was 25, and it's likely that he could have played four or five more seasons. 

Al Toon, WR, New York Jets

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    Toon earned three Pro Bowl selections over his first four seasons in the NFL but was seriously plagued by concussions and had to retire by the age of 29, in 1992.

    He would have likely topped 1,000 career catches and 10,000 yards had he not been frequently injured. 

Gale Sayers, RB, Chicago Bears

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    It doesn't matter that many consider the Chicago Bears running back to be one of the greatest running backs in league history. 

    I can only imagine what he would have accomplished if he had stayed healthy. He played in just 64 games in his career.

    And he still did some stuff that fans will be talking about forever. The six-touchdown game as a rookie. Twenty-two total touchdowns as a rookie. 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Four Pro Bowls.

    He successfully returned from a terrible knee injury in 1970 but could not stay healthy and was forced to retire in 1971. 

Pacman Jones, CB, Tennessee Titans & Dallas Cowboys & Cincinnati Bengals

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    Pacman Jones is another highly-talented NFL player who just hasn't been able to stay out of trouble during his career.

    He has been arrested numerous times, the most famous being the Las Vegas shooting case that caused his suspension for the entire 2007 football season.

    He's still in the league, with the Cincinnati Bengals (who else?), but the once-great talent is merely an average player now.

Terrell Davis, RB, Denver Broncos

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    The greatest postseason performer in NFL history, Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis had a couple of the greatest seasons by a running back in league history.

    He rushed for 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1997 and followed it up with 2008 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1998.

    Oh, and he led the Broncos to Super Bowl victories in both seasons as well.

    A torn ACL and recurring knee problems forced him into early retirement by 2000 and has unfortunately prevented one of the game's all-time dominating running backs from joining the Hall of Fame.  

Ickey Woods, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Everybody remembers the "Ickey Shuffle" that was introduced to the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1980s.

    In his first season, Ickey rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

    But he never topped 268 yards in a season again. He tore his ACL in 1989 and missed a year-and-a-half.

    He tore up his knee again in 1991, and his career was over. 

Sterling Sharpe, WR, Green Bay Packers

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    Sterling Sharpe was a single neck injury away from being the next Jerry Rice. As it is, he still ranks up there with Don Hutson and Jerry Rice among the most dominant wide receivers in league history.

    He led the league in receptions three times. Yards once. Touchdowns twice.

    I believe that he would rank second to Jerry Rice in every major receiving category if he hadn't hurt his neck in 1994.

    When his brother Shannon was inducted into the Hall of Fame a few weeks ago, he summed it up perfectly by saying that he may be a Hall of Famer, but he's just the second-best player in his own family.

    He's correct.  

Bo Jackson, RB, Los Angeles Raiders

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    There are NFL experts who swear that Bo Jackson would have been the greatest running back the league has ever seen, that he would have broken every single record in history, that he would have rushed for 2,500 yards and scored 25 touchdowns in his prime.

    It's very easy for me to think that Jackson, who might have been the most physically-talented back in history, would have challenged Jim Brown or Barry Sanders for the title of "greatest running back in league history."

    Yet, he chose to play two sports professionally, which definitely took a toll on his body. And he had a serious hip injury in a 1991 playoff game that ultimately ended his football (but not baseball) career in 1991 at age 29. 

Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota & Oakland & New England & Minnesota & Tennessee

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    Randy Moss is one of the greatest wide receivers in NFL history, and if he really is retired, he should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

    I also wonder how great he would have been if he had truly tried his hardest every season. 

    Like those years in Oakland and this past year with what seemed like half the teams in the league.

    Remember his 1998 and 2003 and 2007 seasons? Imagine if he turned in that kind of production every year.

    When it comes to natural talent, Randy Moss might be the best in history. 

LeCharles Bentley, C, New Orleans Saints & Cleveland Browns

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    One of the most unfortunate free-agent signings in NFL history is the one by the Cleveland Browns in 2006, when they signed two-time Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley to a contract.

    Bentley tore up his knee on the FIRST day of training camp, missed the entire season, endured a number of surgeries as well as a staph infection over the next couple of years and was forced to retire from the game of football.

    Bentley was just 26 when the injury occurred. 

Tony Boselli, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Tony Boselli might be the greatest player in the history of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    The franchise's first overall draft pick in 1995 (the No. 2 overall pick), Boselli earned five Pro Bowl selections by the age of 28. 

    But he suffered a shoulder injury in 2001 that literally ended his playing career.

    Had he stayed healthy, he would have gone down as one of the greatest offensive linemen in league history. 

Vince Young, QB, Tennessee Titans & Philadelphia Eagles

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    How many quarterbacks have had the following six-year stretch: Pro Bowler, starter, backup, Pro Bowler, backup, backup?

    That's Vince Young's career for you, and even when he was a Pro Bowl quarterback, he wasn't one of the best QBs in the game.

    He's had mental issues and is currently a backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, which, to be honest, is probably the perfect place for him to be, given the comparison to Michael Vick and the fact that he gets to work with quarterback genius Andy Reid.

    Still...a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback who is a backup at the age of 28?

Daunte Culpepper, QB, Minnesota & Miami & Oakland & Detroit

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    Culpepper has had one of the strangest careers in league history.

    How do you throw for 33 touchdowns and just 16 interceptions in 2000...then throw 23 interceptions and fumble 23 times in 2002...then throw for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2004...and then, never throw more than six touchdowns in a season?

    That's the career of Daunte Culpepper, who, when surrounded by great talent, was a great quarterback, and when surrounded by no talent, was nothing.

    He apparently is on the verge of signing with the San Francisco 49ers, but I doubt that he will be able to do anything with his career at the age of 34.

    Instead of three Pro Bowls, Culpepper should have made seven or eight. 

Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tennessee & Washington & New England

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    Haynesworth was voted the most dominant defensive player in the National Football League by his peers during the 2009 season. If only he played like that all of the time.

    Haynesworth ranks up there with the most physically-gifted players in the game, maybe ever, but his career has been derailed by his inability to care at all about how hard he tries on the football field.

    He wore out his welcome with the Washington Redskins and after a trade to the New England Patriots, has been rumored to be a preseason cut. If he can't succeed with Bill Belichick in New England, I don't know what team in the league is going to want him. 

Art Schlichter, QB, Indianapolis Colts & Buffalo Bills

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    Schlichter was a dominant college football quarterback and was the fourth overall pick by the Colts in 1982.

    He had worse gambling problems than any athlete not named Pete Rose, however, and was soon suspended by the league for multiple instances of gambling.

    Over the years, he has racked up more than 20 felonies, according to his own count.

Rae Carruth, WR, Carolina Panthers

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    Carruth was a first-round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers in 1997.

    He had a solid rookie season, and despite a broken foot in 1998, was well on his way to becoming a solid NFL wide receiver.

    But in the middle of the 1999 season, he was found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Tank Johnson, DT, Chicago Bears & Dallas Cowboys & Cincinnati Bengals

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    Tank Johnson has become one of the poster boys for NFL players who can't stay out of trouble.

    He was suspended for eight games in 2007 after an arrest stemming from gun charges, and his legal troubles have continued over the years.

    He's still in the NFL, but his career could have been so much more if he had managed to stay out of legal trouble.

Donte Stallworth, WR, Six Teams

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    Any time a first-round draft pick has played for six teams in his career, you know there is a problem.

    Stallworth has spent time on the NFL's substance abuse policy program and missed the entire 2009 season for his involvement in manslaughter charges.

    He has flashed his talent as a deep threat at times but has never turned into the superstar wide receiver that he should have been.

Shawne Merriman, LB, San Diego Chargers & Buffalo Bills

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    Merriman was drafted in the first round in 2005 and burst onto the scene as a rookie.

    He was one of the league's msot dominant linebackers before he tested positive for steroids in the 2006 season.

    He has never been the same player. He missed almost all of the 2008 and 2010 seasons and part of the 2009 seasons, with injuries.

    The 27-year-old is attempting to revive his career in Buffalo.

Maurice Clarett, RB, Nobody

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    I feel sorry for idiots like Maurice Clarett.

    He was a star running back at Ohio State. Then he tried to challenge the NFL's rule that prevented players from entering the draft until they had been out of high school for three seasons.

    He lost but was shockingly drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round of the 2005 draft.

    He reported to training camp weighing 248 pounds and was cut before the season even began.

    No team expressed any interest in him, and his NFL career never got started.

JaMarcus Russell, QB, Oakland Raiders

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    The first overall draft pick in 2007, Russell became arguably the biggest draft bust in league history.

    In three seasons, he won 7-of-25 starts and threw 18 touchdowns. His 50.0 passer rating in 2009 was the lowest by a quarterback since 1998. 

    He reported to mini-camp in April of 2010 weighing close to 300 pounds and was released by the Raiders a few days later.

    He has not received interest from any NFL team since. 

David Carr, QB, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, NY Giants & SF 49ers

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    Carr was the first pick in the history of the Houston Texans, and he was put into a lose-lose situation from the beginning.

    His pathetic offensive line resulted in 76 sacks in 2002 and a league-leading total in three of his first four seasons.

    He received poor coaching and won just 23-of-79 starts.

    He's actually still in the NFL, but he hasn't been anything other than a backup since 2006. 

Lawrence Phillips, RB, St. Louis Rams

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    Phillips was supposed to be the starting running back for the Rams for seven to 10 seasons. He lasted just a year-and-a-half.

    In his three-year NFL career, he rushed for 1,453 yards and 14 touchdowns on 3.4 yards per carry. 

    Thankfully, the Rams were able to replace him pretty quickly by acquiring Marshall Faulk via a trade before 1999. 

Matt Leinart, QB, Arizona Cardinals & Houston Texans

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    Matt Leinart was a Heisman Trophy winner in college and could have been the No. 1 pick had he entered the draft after his junior year. Instead, he waited another year and dropped to the 10th pick.

    In his career, he has been a major disappointment, largely to his obsession with partying. He also had a poor offensive line.

    He has thrown just 14 touchdowns in his entire career. 

Charles Rogers, WR, Detroit Lions

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    The No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft, Charles Rogers was frequently compared to Randy Moss.

    But he broke his collarbone in consecutive seasons and was suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy in 2005. He was released by the Lions before the 2006 season.

    Since then, he has worked out with three other teams, none of which signed him, and he has been arrested three times. 

Leroy Keyes, RB, Philadelphia Eagles & Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Eagles would have gotten OJ Simpson in the 1969 NFL draft if they had finished with the worst record in the league in 1968. Instead, they won a couple of games at the end and got stuck with Leroy Keyes.

    Keyes rushed for 369 yards on 125 career carries (fewer than three yards per carry). He was out of the league by 1973. 

Tony Mandarich, OT, Green Bay Packers & Indianapolis Colts

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    Mandarich was named the biggest offensive line prospect in league history before he was drafted with the second overall pick in the 1989 draft.

    But steroids, steroids and steroids ruined his NFL career. He was out of the NFL for five years until he returned in 1996 with the Colts. He had three decent seasons before a shoulder injury ended his career.

    Mandarich could have been Brett Favre's best lineman. Instead, he is one of the single biggest busts in league history. 

Ricky Williams, RB, New Orleans Saints & Miami Dolphins & Baltimore Ravens

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    Williams was so highly touted that New Orleans Saints' head coach Mike Ditka traded his entire draft for him. In three seasons in New Orleans, Williams was a productive but not dominant back.

    He led the NFL in rushing in his first season in Miami but become notorious for smoking marijuana, which led to his four-game suspension late in 2003, his retirement in 2004, his suspension for all of 2006 and his return to the Dolphins as a two-headed back in 2008. 

    He is actually still in the league, with the Ravens, but the one-time Pro Bowler should have had a Hall of Fame career. 

Courtney Brown, DE, Cleveland Browns & Denver Broncos

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    Courtney Brown was picked as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft, but injuries and a lack of productivity derailed his career.

    He finally retired from the league after tearing his ACL in 2006. He had 19 sacks in seven seasons. 

Archie Manning, QB, New Orleans & Houton & Minnesota

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    Manning was picked as the No. 2 selection in the 1971 draft, making him the only one of the three Manning quarterbacks to not be selected first overall.

    He had a 13-year career in which he won 35 games and lost 101—the lowest winning percentage of any starting quarterback in NFL history. He threw just 125 touchdowns against 173 interceptions. 

    But many say that Manning's entire career was hurt by a lack of coaching and surrounding talent, and he could have been a Hall of Famer if properly coached. 

Jason White, QB, Tennessee Titans

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    Jason White was a Heisman Trophy winner in 2003, a third-place finisher in 2004 and undrafted in 2005.

    He was on the practice squad for the Tennessee Titans in 2005 but never played a down in the NFL.

    And unlike all of these other players who had drug or steroid problems, White just wasn't good enough.

Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Cincinnati & Washington & Green Bay & New Orleans

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    The first overall pick in the 1995 draft, Carter tore a ligament in his knee on the third carry of his first preseason game. The injury literally ended his career.

    Yeah, he played until 2004, but he collected just 1,144 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. 

Ernie Davis, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    Ernie Davis was the first African-American player to win the Heisman Trophy.

    He was selected with the first overall pick by the Washington Redskins, who immediately traded him to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell and a first-round draft choice, in 1962.

    But he was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 1962 and never played a game in the NFL. He died at the age of 23 in 1963.

    The Browns' dreams of having him paired with Jim Brown in the backfield never happened.

Eric Crouch, QB, St. Louis & Green Bay & Kansas City

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    The 2001 Heisman Trophy winner, Eric Crouch, literally never played a single down in the National Football League.

    The killer moment was a hard hit in the 2002 preseason that resulted in him having 150 cc's of blood drained from his leg.

    He was converted to safety in the CFL, AAFL and UFL.

    Incredibly, his career is still going on. 

Steve Emtman, DT, Indianapolis & Miami & Washington

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    Emtman was the first overall pick in the 1992 draft and had a solid rookie season, including a game-winning 90-yard interception touchdown in the final minute of a game against Miami.

    But he ended each of his first three seasons on IR.

    He became the first NFL player to return from a torn patellar tendon in his knee, but a ruptured disk in 1994 led to his retirement a few seasons later at age 27. 

Joey Harrington, QB, Detroit & Miami & Atlanta & New Orleans

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    Harrington was the third overall pick in the 2002 draft and became a typical Lions' bust during the decade.

    He threw 79 touchdowns, 85 interceptions and posted a 65.4 passer rating in his career.

    He bounced around from team to team after leaving Detroit, but he never experienced any sort of success. 

Archie Griffin, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The only two-time Heisman Trophy winner in history, Griffin was a late first-round pick by the Bengals in 1976.

    He had a mediocre seven-year career but never turned into a star or even a solid starter.

    He retired with seven career rushing touchdowns. 

Jay Berwanger, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Berwanger won the Heisman Trophy in 1935 and was the first-ever player selected in the first ever NFL draft.

    But the Eagles' quarterback chose to retire after a contract dispute.

    He became a sportswriter and later a manufacturer of used car parts. 

Ryan Leaf, QB, San Diego Chargers & Dallas Cowboys

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    It's incredible to think that the Colts actually considered selecting Ryan Leaf with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft. Instead they got a guy named Peyton Manning.

    Leaf turned into the single worst draft bust in NFL history. In three seasons, he threw 14 touchdowns against 36 interceptions and was out of the league by 2001.

    Teammate Rodney Harrison called being a part of the 1998 Chargers a "nightmare you can't imagine," and it was said that Leaf's off-the-field problems were just as bad, or worse, than his on-the-field problems. 

Curt Enis, RB, Chicago Bears

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    The fifth pick in the 1998 draft, Enis retired in 2000 at the age of 24 due to a degenerative condition in his left knee.

    He collected just 1,497 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his career. 

Danny Wuerffel, QB, New Orleans & Green Bay & Chicago & Washington

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    Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 but turned in a very unsuccessful NFL career, despite sticking around until 2002. 

    He tossed just 12 touchdowns and threw for a total of 2,123 yards in his seven seasons with four different teams. 

Blair Thomas, RB, NY Jets & New England & Dallas & Atlanta & Carolina

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    Blair Thomas was the second overall pick in the 1990 draft by the New York Jets, but his career lasted just six seasons due to nagging injuries. 

    He collected a total of 2,236 rushing yards and seven touchdowns while playing for five teams.

    His career was cut short due to a number of nagging injuries. 

Todd Blackledge, QB, Kansas City Chiefs & Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Blackledge was one of six quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 1983 draft. Yet, he was easily the most unproductive.

    He managed to play until 1989 with the Chiefs and Steelers, but he was never even an average starting quarterback. 

Mike Mamula, DE, Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Philadelphia Eagles traded their first-round pick (No. 12 overall) and two second-round selections to move up to the seventh overall spot (they also got a third-round pick), where they nabbed defensive line/linebacker Mike Mamula.

    With the Eagles' picks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers grabbed Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.

    Mamula, the first "workout warrior" in combine history, played for six seasons and recorded 31.5 sacks before he was out of football in 2000, at the age of 27.

    He missed the entire 1997 season with an injury and feels that his NFL career would have been much more productive if the Eagles had chosen to use him at linebacker instead of defensive end.

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