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 certainly has the résumé to earn the top spot on anyone’s all-time bust countdown. After winning the 2006 Manning Award, Russell went to the Oakland Raiders with the first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. He clearly didn’t live up to expectations given his 7-18 starting record and career totals of 4,000 yards with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Regardless, I can’t rank him higher than #3 because no other quarterback taken in that draft had a successful career. For that reason, his failure seems less dramatic to me. In comparison, the top two NFL draft busts offer poor numbers and drama.
Despite having numerous high draft picks in the early 2000s, the Detroit Lions couldn’t reverse their fortunes as basement dwellers. Specifically, the Lions failed with their selections of Joey Harrington (#3 pick in 2002), Charles Rogers (#2nd pick in 2003), and Mike Williams (#10 pick in 2005). Harrington and Williams underperformed in the NFL, but they both avoided T10B status. On the other hand, Rogers didn’t fare so well. Once a consensus All-American at Michigan State, Rogers finished his professional career with fewer than 50 receptions and 500 yards. As such, he deservedly became the #4 NFL Draft Bust.
NFL teams took five quarterbacks with the first twelve picks of the 1999 Draft. The careers of those five QBs ran the gamut from great to horrendous.
#2 pick Donovan McNabb proved to be a borderline HOF superstar.
#11 pick Daunte Culpepper) made 3 Pro Bowls
#1 pick Tim Couch didn’t live up to the pick, but produced too much to be declared a bust.
#12 pick Cade McNown underachieved and became a bust.
#3 pick Akili Smith underachieved even more and became a Top 10 Bust.
I will discuss each of these quarterbacks in the following post. However, the last one listed deserves the most attention relative to this site. In 22 career games, he threw for approximately 2,000 passing yards with five touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In addition, he had a record of 3-14 as a starter. As one of the worst quarterbacks ever drafted with an early first round pick, Akili 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.