As a redshirt junior in 1997, Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf won the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the most outstanding passer in the country. Helping his case, he led the nation in passing yards (3,968) and finished second in passing efficiency with a 158.7 rating. For as impressive as those numbers were, they seem even more impressive considering that Peyton Manning was a senior at Tennessee that year and trailed Leaf in both categories. In particular, Manning had 149 fewer yards on 67 more attempts and an efficiency rating that was 11 points lower. Returning the favor, Manning had more touchdowns (36 vs. 34) and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the most outstanding quarterback in the country. Given their success, it was no surprise when they went 1-2 in the 1998 draft. From that moment on, however, their paths diverged to the point of Manning becoming an all-time great and Leaf becoming an all-time bust. Of note, Leaf’s career totals of 3,700 yards with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions were horrendous. In addition, he had a 4-17 record as a starter. As if things couldn’t get worse, Leaf has been imprisoned for almost two years because of a drug-related crime. While certain players like JaMarcus Russell, Charles Rogers and Lawrence Phillips are all-time busts, Leaf tops them all as the worst of the worst.
Prior to Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell, Art Schlichter served as the poster child for NFL Draft busts. As a starter for the Ohio State Buckeyes from 1978-81, Schlichter ranked as an NCAA leader in at least one offensive category each year. In addition, he finished 6th or higher in the Heisman voting as a sophomore, junior and senior. Despite his college success, Schlichter failed miserably as a professional. He had approximately 1,000 passing yards with three touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his 13-game NFL career. Furthermore, he never won a single game in six career starts. Adding to his bust status, Schlichter faced numerous suspensions from the NFL for excessive gambling. Never cured of his addiction, he has spent 14 of the last 20 years in prison for gambling-related crimes. With respect to being a Top 10 Bust, Schlichter has it all.
JaMarcus Russell is considered by some to be the #1 Bust in NFL history. While there’s certainly enough support for that claim, I can’t elevate him to that position because no other quarterback drafted in 2007 was even half-way decent. I have argued numerous times that a bust should be determined based on the player’s own poor performance. As such, Russell was a bust given his 7-18 record as a starter and career totals of 4,000 passing yards with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. At the same time, all-time busts are ranked based on their performance relative to other players available in the same draft. Given the failures of every other quarterback in the 2007 Draft, Russell’s failure is less dramatic. Regardless, it probably doesn’t matter to him because he earned over $30 million in guaranteed money from his rookie contract. Even without the ancillary storyline, Russell still is an all-time bust. In fact, he was so bad that he’s the #3 NFL Draft Bust.
Despite having numerous high draft picks in the early 2000s, the Detroit Lions were unable to reverse their fortunes as basement dwellers. Specifically, the Lions failed with their selections of Joey Harrington (3rd overall pick in 2002), Charles Rogers (2nd overall pick in 2003), and Mike Williams (10th overall pick in 2005). As a starting NFL quarterback, Harrington had a pathetic win-loss record of 26-50, but wasn’t a Top 10 Bust (or even an ordinary bust) based on his career totals of approximately 15,000 passing yards and 80 touchdowns. Not quite a Top 10 Bust, Williams receives an Honorable Mention after finishing his career with paltry totals of approximately 130 receptions and 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Unlike these other Lions, Rogers couldn’t escape the countdown. As a former consensus All-American at Michigan State who finished his professional career with fewer than 50 receptions and 500 yards, Rogers deservedly is the #4 NFL Draft Bust.
Quarterbacks were taken with five of the first twelve picks in the 1999 NFL Draft. Interestingly, those five QBs ran the gamut with a super-star (#2 pick Donovan McNabb), a star (#11 pick Daunte Culpepper), a disappointment (#1 pick Tim Couch), a bust (#12 pick Cade McNown), and a Top 10 Bust (#3 pick Akili Smith). Some of you (especially Cleveland Browns fans) might believe that Couch was a bust, but he simply was too productive. In particular, he threw for 11,000 yards with 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions in 62 career games. On the other hand, McNown certainly was a bust after throwing for only 3,000 yards with 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 25 career games. For as bad a McNown was, Smith was even worse. For instance, Smith had career totals of 2,000 passing yards with five touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 22 games. In addition, he had a career record of 3-14 as a starter. In essence, McNown was really bad but Smith was historically bad. As one of the worst quarterbacks ever drafted with an early first round pick, Smith has earned the #5 spot as a Top 10 NFL Draft Bust.
Since quarterbacks are the most important players on a football field, their successes and failures get magnified. In contrast, the performances of players at other positions can get muddled more easily. As the only running back in the countdown, Lawrence Phillips’ failures were too glaring to hide. Unlike most busts who excelled in college but lacked the talent to succeed for the NFL, Phillips had the talent. Unfortunately, his downfall was based completely on an inability to stay on the field because he had severe anger issues off the field. With Ray Rice as a comparison, Phillips was a more talented runner but a much worse person. Depending on what you already know, to the extent you believe that Phillips sabotaged his football career because of some legal problems, then you probably believe that O.J. Simpson sabotaged his broadcasting career because of a disagreement with his ex-wife. In other words, Phillips was one bad dude (and not in a good way). As a talented player who failed miserably in the NFL (and in life), he has been named the #6 NFL Draft Bust.
[Note: Since I first wrote this post in October 2014, Phillips has been charged with first-degree murder for strangling his cellmate while in state prison. So much for thinking he couldn’t sink any lower.]
Jack Thompson was a heralded quarterback from Washington State whose career will always be evaluated in the rear-view mirror of the greatest post-season quarterback in NFL history. As a foreshadowing, the previous sentence can be used to introduce a completely different Top 10 Bust simply by changing the highlighted word. If NFL draft busts were evaluated like NBA draft busts seem to be, Thompson (who was drafted ahead of Joe Montana) would be as well know as Sam Bowie (who was drafted ahead of Michael Jordan). Instead, Thompson hasn’t received his due credit as an all-time bust. With a Weighted Average Value (WAV) of 13 based on career totals of 5,300 passing yards and 33 touchdowns, he has the highest total of any Top 10 Bust. Then again, he had a record of 4-17 as a starter and a total of 45 interceptions so he gained a lot of bonus points. This post should convince you that Thompson, unlike Bowie, was completely unproductive as a professional so his bust status is well deserved.