Ranking the 9 Worst Draft Picks in NFL History

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2021

Ranking the 9 Worst Draft Picks in NFL History

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Heading into the 2021 NFL draft, which starts Thursday in Cleveland, it's important to remember that this year's prospects have proved nothing. While fans will be thrilled when their teams pick the likes of Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, LSU's Ja'Marr Chase and Florida's Kyle Pitts, draft-day wins don't always amount to on-field success at the next level.

    We only have to go back one year for an example of how quickly a lauded selection can become a disaster. The Tennessee Titans used the 29th pick on Georgia offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson, a boom-or-bust prospect who quickly busted.

    "Isaiah Wilson is Mekhi Becton-light," Bleacher Report's Alex Ballentine wrote after the draft. "... He's a projection pick but one who could pay big dividends."

    Wilson played three offensive snaps as a rookie, was traded to the Miami Dolphins this offseason and subsequently released.

    While Wilson appears to be a major bust already, the 22-year-old is young enough to turn his career around—and there's virtually no way Tennessee could have known he would bust so quickly. While the selection looks bad in retrospect, it's far from the worst in NFL history.

    Here, we'll examine nine selections that are far, far worse. Yes, these players were also largely busts, but other factors are in play, including their production, the drafting team's decision-making process and the players taken after these picks.

    Let's dig in.   

9. QB Heath Shuler

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    Charles Agel/Associated Press

    Taken by the Washington Football Team third overall in 1994

    The Washington Football Team needed a quarterback in 1994, and it ended up taking two. It selected Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler third overall, while Tulsa's Gus Frerotte came off the board in the seventh round at No. 197.

    Frerotte took over as the starter early in his sophomore season.

    Shuler only ended up starting 13 games for Washington, going 4-9, and was out of the NFL after four years. Nine of his career starts came with the New Orleans Saints, and he finished with just 3,691 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and 33 interceptions.

    To be fair, the 1994 quarterback class wasn't particularly impressive. Trent Dilfer was the only other quarterback selected before the fourth round, which is why Shuler doesn't rank higher on this list. Still, Washington deserves criticism for forcing a quarterback pick at No. 3 when more promising talent was available.

    Pro Bowl linebacker Willie McGinest was selected one spot after Shuler, and Hall of Famers Isaac Bruce, Kevin Mawae and Larry Allen were all drafted in the second round.      

8. WR Justin Blackmon

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    Chris Covatta/Associated Press

    Taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars fifth overall in 2012

    The Jaguars were likely envisioning an instant-impact player when they took wideout Justin Blackmon fifth overall in 2012. He had two 1,500-plus-yard seasons at Oklahoma State and ran a respectable 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

    However, his lack of truly elite speed, his limited route tree and his questionable work ethic were all red flags. And he quickly raised more with a DUI arrest before he even signed his rookie contract.

    Blackmon only lasted two seasons before he was indefinitely suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He recorded 865 receiving yards as a rookie but only appeared in 20 games as a pro.

    The biggest reason this selection makes the list, though, is the fact that Jacksonville passed on more polished prospects, including future Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly, Stephon Gilmore, Fletcher Cox and Chandler Jones, in order to bet on Blackmon's potential.     

7 QB Akili Smith

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    TONY DEJAK/Associated Press

    Taken by the Cincinnati Bengals third overall in 1999

    One could make an argument that Tim Couch deserves a place on this list since Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb was selected one spot later. However, the Cleveland Browns couldn't have predicted that injuries would derail Couch's career.

    The Cincinnati Bengals had plenty of reasons to be wary of quarterback Akili Smith, who only had one prolific season at Oregon and was far from a polished prospect. The Bengals needed a quarterback, though, and with Couch and McNabb off the board, they snagged Smith.

    The worst part of this selection, though, is that Cincinnati made a pick at No. 3 at all. The Bengals turned down a major trade haul from the Saints, who eventually found a trade partner in Washington.

    Yes, we're talking about the Ricky Williams trade in which Mike Ditka surrendered his entire 1999 draft class and the first- and third-round picks in 2000. According to then-Washington general manager Charley Casserly, Ditka discussed a deal with Cincinnati, which declined.

    Smith went on to start a mere 17 games for the Bengals, finishing his career with 2,212 passing yards, five touchdowns to 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 52.8.    

6. LB Brian Bosworth

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    C. Paul Burnett/Associated Press

    Taken by the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the 1987 supplemental draft

    Brian "The Boz" Bosworth lands on many busts lists largely because of the self-generated hype he created coming into the league. He sent letters to several NFL teams stating that he would not show up for training camp if drafted by them, created the whole Boz alternate persona and signed a then-rookie record 10-year, $11 million deal before ever playing a down.

    While Bosworth was an accomplished collegiate player—he was both a Heisman Trophy finalist and a two-time Butkus Award winner—his college suspension for steroid use, along with his early demands, should have been a red flag.

    Seattle used a 1988 first-round pick to nab Bosworth in the supplemental draft anyway. It didn't get a generational defensive superstar in return. What it got was a 24 games, four career sacks and a sideline seat to the first round.

    This is where the decision to draft Bosworth really looks bad. The 1988 draft was loaded with talented prospects, including future Hall of Famers Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Randall McDaniel, Thurman Thomas and Dermontti Dawson.      

5. QB Andre Ware

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    Lennox McLendon/Associated Press

    Taken seventh overall by the Detroit Lions in 1990

    While the Seahawks didn't know who they'd be passing on in 1988, the Lions knew the type of talent on the board in the 1990 draft. They passed on the likes of Richmond Webb, Renaldo Turnbull and future Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith to select quarterback Andre Ware.

    In Detroit's defense, Ware had a ridiculous 1989 season at Houston, throwing for 4,699 yards with 46 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. However, gaudy college statistics do not an NFL starter make. If that were the case, players like Colt Brennan and Graham Harrell would have had lengthy pro careers as starters.

    Ware's production proved to be the product of Houston's run-and-shoot offense, and it didn't translate to the NFL, even though then-head coach Wayne Fontes tried to install a similar system in Detroit.

    Though he spent four seasons with the Lions, Ware only appeared in 14 games with six starts. He passed for 1,112 yards with five touchdowns and eight interceptions. Linebacker Chris Singleton, selected one spot after Ware, played in 90 NFL games and registered 65 starts and 341 tackles.        

4. OT Tony Mandarich

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    ALAN GRETH/Associated Press

    Taken second overall by the Green Bay Packers in 1989

    If you've read any busts lists over the years, you're probably familiar with the Green Bay Packers' 1989 selection of Tony Mandarich.

    Mandarich falls near the middle of this list, though, because the Packers weren't the only ones who believed he was a can't-miss prospect. He had a standout career at Michigan State and blew scouts away at the scouting combine. He ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash and produced 39 reps of the 225-pound bench press.

    However, Mandarich carried red flags too.

    He had a brash personality, once challenging Mike Tyson to a fight. And Bob McGinn of The Athletic wrote that "certainly, there were telltale physical signs that led to widespread suspicion of steroid use during Mandarich's five years in East Lansing." The offensive lineman later said he used both steroids and human growth hormone at the college level before stopping in the pros over fears of getting caught.

    He flamed out after only three seasons in Green Bay.

    Though Mandarich eventually resumed his playing career with the Indianapolis Colts, that didn't benefit the Packers, who passed on multiple future Hall of Famers to select him.    

    The three players taken after Mandarich were Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.

3. QB Ryan Leaf

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    Kent Horner/Associated Press

    Taken second overall by the San Diego Chargers in 1998

    Quarterback Ryan Leaf is another regular entry on bust lists, largely because his career went in the opposite direction of fellow top-two draft pick Peyton Manning. While Manning won two Super Bowls, set numerous passing records and landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Leaf lasted just two seasons and 18 starts with the Chargers.

    What makes the selection of Leaf worse is the fact that the Chargers passed on future Hall of Famers like Charles Woodson, Randy Moss and Alan Faneca.

    Leaf finished his brief playing career with a passer rating of just 50.0 over three seasons (spent 2001 with the Dallas Cowboys).

    While he is widely considered one of the biggest busts of all time, he isn't the worst selection a team has made. Many analysts were torn on whether the Washington State product or Manning was the better prospect. The Chargers needed a quarterback, and with Manning off the board, Leaf was the remaining option.

    Of course, the Chargers weren't prepared to have a rookie under center. They had little offensive talent and no proven veteran to mentor Leaf. Without the proper support system in place, they would have been better off going in a different direction than quarterback.      

2.QB Johnny Manziel

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Taken 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2014

    While Johnny Manziel was selected 20 spots lower than Leaf (and 16 years later), it's fair to consider him an even worse selection.

    While Leaf appeared to be a high-end prospect, Manziel carried numerous red flags. He played an undisciplined style of football, was arrested in college following a bar fight (pleading guilty to a misdemeanour charge of failing to identity himself to police) and didn't have an archetypal NFL frame.

    "Has an unorthodox body type with marginal height, rounded shoulders, an underdeveloped body and very big feet that almost look clumsy," NFL Media's Nolan Nawrocki wrote.

    The Browns ultimately took a chance on Manziel after the 6'0", 207-pound quarterback reportedly texted then-quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains during the draft and said: "I wish you guys would come get me. Hurry up and draft me because I want to be there. I want to wreck this league together."

    This pick is a great example of the poor drafting done by the franchise for much of its expansion existence. The Browns traded up to take him, also losing their third-round pick in the process. Manziel was out of the league after two seasons and eight starts, while Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr were both taken after him and went on to become Pro Bowl quarterbacks.     

1. QB JaMarcus Russell

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    Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

    Taken first overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2007

    Though the Las Vegas Raiders were still in Oakland at the time, the franchise made arguably the biggest gamble in its recent history in 2007. Though many safer prospects were on the board, the Raiders took a chance on gifted but unpolished LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell at first overall.

    Russell had a strong college season in 2006, passing for 3,129 yards with 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also had all the physical tools a team could want in a quarterback prospect. However, questions did exist about his work ethic.

    "The only thing that's going to keep [Russell] from being great is him," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said at the time (h/t Sports Illustrated). "What it comes down to is you've got to figure out whether or not this kid wants to be the best quarterback in football."

    It turned out that Russell did not put in enough work to even be average. According to Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Raiders learned as much with a ruse involving a blank DVD.

    "Coaches suspected Russell was not studying the game-plan DVDs they gave him each week, so they sent him home with a blank DVD," Ostler wrote. "The next day, they asked Russell what he thought of the game plan. He said it looked good to him."

    Russell lasted only three years and 25 starts with the Raiders, while many players selected after him went on to have fruitful careers. Calvin Johnson (taken second overall) is already in the Hall of Fame. Joe Thomas and Adrian Peterson are virtual locks to land in Canton.