Ranking the 11 Worst NFL Draft Picks in the Last 30 Years

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVApril 18, 2022

Ranking the 11 Worst NFL Draft Picks in the Last 30 Years

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    The 2022 NFL draft is quickly approaching, and excitement is building for the three-day event. Fans and pundits are in bliss as this year's rookie class finds out where they'll begin their careers. But every team has a slew of bad picks they'd love to have back.

    Sometimes a pick doesn't work out because of poor scheme or culture fit and a player does well elsewhere. Other times it's about reaching for an individual over another and seeing the other player blossom while their own pick flounders. Rarely are any two situations the exact same, and it's easy to second-guess with hindsight.

    We've looked at the last 30 years of draft picks and found the 11 worst selections. These 11 players were taken in the first round of their class and had a blend of poor production and were taken before an immensely more successful player. 

    Even the best franchises have had some embarrassing draft whiffs, and these picks are all-timers that will never be forgotten. 

11. Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The 1995 NFL draft produced some of the most memorable playmakers of the decade. Hall of Famers Warren Sapp, Ty Law, and Derrick Brooks were first-rounders, and rushers Curtis Martin and Terrell Davis joined them as third- and sixth-round picks, respectively. It's one thing to take a decent player over such talented stars, but taking a complete bust over them is unforgettable.

    The Cincinnati Bengals opted for Penn State rusher Ki-Jana Carter with the first overall pick. He had logged a terrific career with the Nittany Lions, finishing second in the Heisman race in 1994. No one would have believed that Carter would have more yards at Penn State in his final season (1,539) and touchdowns (23) than in his NFL career.

    However, injuries and poor play plagued the back with the Bengals before he had short stops in Washington and New Orleans. He finished his four-year Bengals career with 747 yards on 227 carries and 16 touchdowns. The 222-pounder just never found the consistency he needed after tearing his ACL before his first NFL game.  

    Carter became a short-yardage and goal-line specialist, while Martin and Davis were immediate NFL stars. Missing his rookie season was a devastating blow to the franchise and Carter's future.

10. Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears

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    Sometimes injuries completely alter the fate of an individual. For Kevin White, a highly touted, extremely athletic 6'3", 216-pounder, the best moment of his NFL career was the night he was drafted. The seventh overall pick in 2015 has yet to score a touchdown through seven years.

    White's injury misfortune began immediately after landing in Chicago. He suffered a fractured tibia during OTAs just six weeks after being drafted, missing his entire rookie season. The next year, he had a fibula fracture and severe ankle sprain, causing him to miss all but four games. He played just 14 games through four seasons with Chicago.

    His career never really started, and it's a shame after seeing his incredible senior season at West Virginia. He tallied 109 catches, 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns that year but has just 26 career catches for 323 yards in the NFL. It's hard to find a less productive first-round receiver in NFL history.

    White was taken before receivers Stefon Diggs, DeVante Parker and Tyler Lockett. Other notable first-rounders in 2015 selected after White include Todd Gurley, Andrus Peat, Arik Armstead, Marcus Peters, Shaq Thompson and Byron Jones.

9. Isaiah Wilson, OT, Tennessee Titans

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    The last decade has brought some success for the Tennessee Titans, but their early-round picks have largely been bad decisions. The franchise should stay away from players with character concerns considering its track record. No player embodied that more than Isaiah Wilson.

    He's already out of the league after playing only four snaps in 2020. Miami traded a seventh-round pick for him but subsequently released him after officially acquiring him three days before. The saving grace for Wilson not being rated higher is that he was drafted 29th overall.

    Notable picks after Wilson included receivers Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool and Michael Pittman Jr.; safeties Jeremy Chinn and Antoine Winfield Jr.; and cornerback Trevon Diggs. The Titans could've also taken Ezra Cleveland, who landed in Minnesota in the second round. Cleveland has been a solid starter in his two seasons. 

8. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    An NFL quarterback requires the utmost commitment and professionalism to succeed. Sustained excellence is not an accident, nor does it come easy to anyone regardless of their play style. Certain habits and skills can be improved, but the makeup cannot be.

    Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel never showed the maturity or commitment needed to succeed in the pros while at Texas A&M. His two-year stint in college was filled with on-field highlights and excitement, but his brash personality showed through time after time. We later found out addiction was a driving force for his repeated problems.

    Cleveland still made the gamble in Round 1 as Jimmy Haslam was desperate to build a winner in Cleveland. Manziel lasted just two seasons with the team, providing a few bright moments in an otherwise disastrous career.

    Derek Carr was selected shortly after Manziel and has been a steady starter for the Raiders since. Between Manziel and another massive 2014 bust in Justin Gilbert, the Browns passed on future stars such as Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence and Davante Adams.

7. Heath Shuler, QB, Washington Commanders

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    History has repeated itself for the Washington franchise at the quarterback position. Just like how Robert Griffin III lost his job to fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins, Heath Shuler was the original first-rounder who was replaced by a Day 3 selection (Gus Frerotte). Shuler, like Griffin, was a Heisman Trophy candidate with solid stats and physical traits. But unlike Griffin, who won the Heisman, Shuler never found any NFL success.

    Shuler started just 13 games over three seasons with Washington, completing 47.7 percent of his passes for 126.5 yards per game with 19 interceptions to only 13 touchdowns. Frerotte took his job, and Shuler was traded to the New Orleans Saints. He retired after one season because of a foot injury.

    The third overall pick was taken before Willie McGinest, Bryant Young, Sam Adams, Aaron Glenn, Isaac Bruce, Larry Allen and Kevin Mawae. It's especially brutal to miss on four Hall of Famers in a class when your selection was a complete bust.

    Trent Dilfer and Frerotte were the two most successful quarterbacks of the nine taken in 1994.

6. Vernon Gholston, Edge, New York Jets

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    On paper, former Ohio State edge-rusher Vernon Gholston was a terrific prospect. He had notched 22.5 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss over two seasons with the Buckeyes, including a school-record 14 as a senior. He then dominated his pro day with a 42-inch vertical jump and a 4.58 40-yard dash.  

    The mixture of elite athleticism and production was there, making him a prime target for the Jets with the sixth pick of the 2008 draft. But Gholston was a historical bust instead, never even logging a single sack in three years in the NFL. He finished at 24 years old with five starts, 42 tackles and three tackles for loss.

    Even if Gholston relied on his athleticism to win in college, he walked into a great situation to learn and improve with head coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton waiting in New York. The transition from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker was disastrous, though, and Gholston played more on special teams than defense. Even Rex Ryan replacing Mangini in 2009 wasn't enough to spur Gholston to success.

    Short stints and tryouts with Chicago, the Rams and Washington in subsequent years led to nothing. It's a shocking outcome considering the caliber of defensive minds Gholston played for and his own impressive pedigree.

5. Akili Smith, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    An athletic, big-armed quarterback out of Oregon, Akili Smith rode his hot hand after a breakout 1998 season. He finished his Oregon career with a 56.6 completion rate, 5,148 yards, 45 touchdowns and 15 interceptions over two seasons. The Cincinnati Bengals then made him the third overall pick after Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb.

    Smith was a minor league baseball player before transferring to Oregon to play football. He led the Pac-10 in passing yards and edged out fellow first-round picks Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown for the right to go third. Unfortunately, Smith's lack of experience was a massive issue, and his accuracy never improved.

    He played in just 22 games over four years with the Bengals and was the backup after his second season in 2000. Smith's struggles reading defenses were compounded by his accuracy issues, and he completed just 46.6 percent of passes for 2,212 yards, five touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his career. The Bengals' losing culture surely didn't help, either.

    The Bengals turned down the Saints' offer to trade their entire draft for Ricky Williams. Not only would Cincinnati have avoided Smith, but it would have also potentially reshaped its roster with the truckload of picks. 

    The list of players taken right after Smith in the first round is hard to stomach. Hall of Famers Edgerrin James and Champ Bailey headline the group, followed by Williams, Torry Holt, Chris McAlister and Jevon Kearse.

4. Charles Rogers, WR, Detroit Lions

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    There have been many tragic stories in the NFL, but few are as well-known as Charles Rogers'. The 2003 No. 2 overall pick was one of the most dominant collegiate receivers of the decade. He specialized in high-flying, acrobatic catches as he finished his Michigan State career with 2,821 yards and 27 touchdowns over two years.

    The Detroit Lions hoped the local star would jumpstart an offense led by Joey Harrington. Unfortunately, Rogers was a non-factor throughout his three-year career. He broke his collarbone twice in an 11-month span and was also suspended for a third violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

    He finished his final season with just 14 receptions for 197 yards and one score in 2005. The Lions released him despite being a 24-year-old with great speed and size, and he only received tryouts from other teams. His career was over that fast.

    The Lions opted to take Rogers ahead of Andre Johnson, Terence Newman, Terrell Suggs, Troy Polamalu, Anquan Boldin, Nnamdi Asomugha and Charles Tillman. 

    Later, Rogers cited pain pills and injuries as the main reasons his career flamed out. He died at 38 years old of liver failure.

3. Ryan Leaf, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Arguably the most infamous draft bust of all time, Ryan Leaf has a history of on-field troubles and off-the-field arrests and convictions. Leaf had been found guilty of violating his probation in 2014, which stemmed from burglary and drug charges in 2012, and was recently arrested for domestic battery in 2020.

    The second overall pick behind Peyton Manning in 1998, Leaf played just three seasons before his NFL tenure was over. He completed only 48.4 percent of his passes between the Chargers and Cowboys for 3,666 yards, 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions.

    For comparison, Manning's lone season with fewer than 3,739 yards came in his final year where he missed seven starts because of injury. Leaf's accuracy was a problem at Washington State, but the Chargers fell in love with his 6'5", 245-pound frame and strong arm. His final season in college featured impressive downfield throwing and 34 touchdown passes to only 11 interceptions.

    However, his lack of consistency in reading defenses pre- and post-snap and accuracy on shorter passes was exposed quickly. He missed the 1999 season with a shoulder injury, and the Chargers gave up on Leaf after a disastrous start to his 2000 campaign. The Cowboys signed him the next offseason but gave up on him after four games.

2. Lawrence Phillips, RB, Los Angeles Rams

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    The powerful Nebraska Cornhuskers football program was churning out productive athletes in the early-to-mid '90s. One of their biggest stars was running back Lawrence Phillips. He rose to prominence in his second season as he ran for 1,722 yards and 16 touchdowns for the national champions.

    The problems were just beginning for Phillips at this point, though. He faced charges after being accused of assault on another student in March 1994. The next year, he attacked his ex-girlfriend after breaking into teammate Scott Frost's apartment. 

    The Rams still decided to take a risk on the troubled back with the sixth overall pick and traded starter Jerome Bettis to the Steelers on draft day. Phillips not only busted on the field but continued to have severe troubles off it. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry for his career and was arrested three times in 19 months while in St. Louis.

    The Rams could have had Willie Anderson, Eddie George, Marvin Harrison or Ray Lewis instead. 

    Phillips was released after he passed out at practice with alcohol on his breath in November 1997. Miami signed him, but he was cut after two games after he pleaded no contest to another assault charge. He was given one final chance with the San Francisco 49ers in 1999 after spending a year in NFL Europe but eventually was released by the team for refusing to practice and mocking coaches. 

    His tragic spiral continued until he died at age 40 in 2016. 

1. JaMarcus Russell, QB, Las Vegas Raiders

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    One reason for pro-day skepticism from both evaluators and fans likely stems from the whirlwind that hit during the 2007 draft process. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell stole the heart of Raiders owner Al Davis with his display of arguably the strongest arm in NFL history. Davis decided Russell's immense physical talent was worth overlooking numerous red flags and made him the No. 1 pick.

    Simply looking at his year-to-year statistical improvement at LSU and his physical traits would help an evaluator fall in love. His final season included a 67.8 completion rate, 3,129 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. However, he had a terrible reputation for not taking his responsibility as a quarterback seriously.

    His lack of work ethic showed in multiple ways. From the infamous blank DVD story from Warren Sapp to his awful conditioning that led to his weight ballooning to 290 pounds to his on-field performance, Russell never had a shot to be successful. He played in only 31 games over three seasons before his career ended.

    The results were awful. The league was seeing completion rates rise after rules and talent made it easier to complete short passes, making his career 52.1 percent completion rate especially notable. He finished with just 18 touchdowns to 23 interceptions and 15 fumbles, including a third season with three scores and 11 picks. 

    The Raiders took Russell over Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis and Darrelle Revis. The blend of overlooked issues, on-field play and the opportunity cost are too overwhelming to top, making Russell the worst draft pick of the last 30 years.