Akili Smith: #5 NFL Draft Bust

Synopsis: 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 Hall of Famer.
  • #11 pick Daunte Culpepper made three 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, Akili Smith threw for approximately 2,000 passing yards with five touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In addition, he had an abysmal 3-14 as a starter. 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.


Many sports pundits refer to the 1983 NFL Draft as the Year of the Quarterback. Six quarterbacks, including three all-time greats (John Elway at #1, Jim Kelly at #14, and Dan Marino at #27), went in the first round that year. The Class of 1999 had the potential to usurp that title given that quarterbacks went with the first three and five of the top twelve picks. However, that didn’t happen.

I remember the 1999 draft differently for two primary reasons. First, nothing could overshadow Mike Ditka’s huge gamble on Ricky Williams. Specifically, Da Coach traded all of New Orleans’ picks that year (plus a couple more) to Washington simply to move up from the 12th to the 5th spot. The only thing more surprising than the trade was that four other teams rejected even better offers.

Second, and more importantly, the quarterbacks drafted in 1999 are better known for being bad than for being good. As a probable Hall of Famer, Donovan McNabb proved to be the best of the bunch. Daunte Culpepper went to three Pro Bowls and was a 2x 1st Team All Pro. Clearly, neither of these players contributed to the negative assessment of this draft class. Whether justified or not, each of the other three QBs has been named on multiple lists of all-time busts.


Benefiting from Kentucky’s “Air Raid” offense, Couch became one of the NCAA’s most prolific passers.


air raid
Not this kind of “Air Raid,” but you might enjoy the Link later.

As detailed in the following table, Couch put up impressive numbers as a sophomore in 1997 and junior in 1998.

Year Yards Comp % TD INT Efficiency Rating Awards / NCAA Ranking
1996 276 38.1% 1 1 67.2  
1997 3,884 66.4% 37 19 141.4 9th – Heisman
2nd – Yards and TDs
1998 4,275 72.3% 36 15 153.3 4th – Heisman 2nd – Yards
4th – TDs
Career 8,435 67.1% 74 35 141.7  

With little else to prove, Couch passed up his senior year and declared for the 1999 Draft.

After a three year absence from the NFL, the Cleveland Browns returned prior to the 1999 season. With the first pick in the draft that year, the Browns wanted a high-profile quarterback to jump-start the team’s return to the city. While McNabb and Smith also drew interest, Couch clearly stood out as the likely pick. to be the fact of the renewed franchise.

During his five years with the Browns, Couch threw for over 11,000 yards and 60 touchdowns. Additionally, he had an efficiency rating of 75.1 and Weighted Average Value (WAV) of 20. While these numbers might not be what a team would want from a 1st overall pick, they certainly don’t qualify him as a bust.

“Hey Tim, can you hear me? It’s Clarence. By any chance, was your bell rung?”


“Way to go, Clarence.”

As the #2 overall pick, McNabb put up some impressive college numbers of his own.

Year Yards Comp % TD INT Efficiency Rating
1995 1,991 61.8% 16 6 162.3
1996 1,776 54.9% 19 9 145.1
1997 2,488 54.7% 20 6 154.0
1998 2,134 62.5% 22 5 158.9
Career 8,389 58.4% 77 26 155.0

Of note, he ranked in the top ten in passing efficiency for three of his four years as a starter. As a senior, McNabb finished fifth (just behind Couch) in the Heisman voting.

Given McNabb’s six Pro Bowl selections and nine playoff victories, he certainly accomplished more in the NFL than Couch. However, the Browns didn’t have much of a supporting cast so who knows what would have happened if McNabb went to Cleveland instead. Even when compared to McNabb, Couch still shouldn’t be regarded as a bust.


Perhaps more than McNabb, Cade McNown proved to be a bigger thorn in Couch’s side. In particular, Couch lost his Playmate girlfriend to the former UCLA Bruin after introducing the pair. Reportedly, McNown won her heart after wooing her with lavish gifts, including a Porsche. Now, what woman would be worth a gift like that?

tim couch heather-kozar-13
Okay, I get it.

At least Couch had elite company because McNown also stole one of Hef’s Playmate girlfriends.

I wonder what kind of car McNown had to give to steal her away from Hef.

The Girls Next Door didn’t exist at the time because those episodes would have been “Must See TV.” In an interesting twist, Couch won back the heart of the woman in the first picture (Heather Kozar) and ended up marrying her. Regardless, McNown earned some D-bag points for violating the Bro Code. Hef must have agreed because he banned McNown from the Playboy Mansion.

While McNown’s character could be questioned, his success as a college quarterback couldn’t be. As a 4-year starter at UCLA, McNown threw for almost 11,000 yards and 70 touchdowns.

Year Yards Comp % TD INT Efficiency Rating Highlights
NCAA Ranking
1995 1,698 49.8% 7 8 110.9  
1996 2,424 52.4% 12 16 115.2 1st – Efficiency
1997 3,116 60.6% 24 6 166.0 Johnny Unitas  Award
1998 3,470 58.0% 25 11 156.6  
Career 10,708 55.5% 68 41 138.9  

In addition, led the NCAA in passing efficiency in 1997 and finished 10th in the country in passing yards in 1998. As a senior in 1998, McNown edged both Couch and McNabb by finishing third in the Heisman voting.

Despite his college success, McNown went after four other QBs in the 1999 Draft. Sometimes, the 5th quarterback doesn’t come off the board until the 4th or 5th round. In this case, that round still would have been too high for him.

During his two-year professional career, McNown started 15 games and lost 12 of them. In 25 career games, he threw for approximately 3,100 yards with 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. If the Playmate magnet had played in Detroit or Cincinnati, he may have survived for a few more pathetic seasons. Instead, he played in Chicago so he blew out of the “Windy City.”

He received subsequent opportunities with the Dolphins and 49ers, but never played in a game for either team. Too bad they didn’t need a pick-up artist because Miami and San Francisco would have been ideal locations for McNown’s true talent.

According to Timbuk 3, when your future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades. Despite the photo, McNown really didn’t need them.


For as big of a bust as McNown was, Smith proved to be even bigger. In particular, the former Oregon Duck had:

  • A worse record (3-14 vs. 3-12).
  • Fewer passing yards (2,212 vs. 3,111).
  • Fewer touchdowns (5 vs. 16).
  • A lower efficiency rating (52.8 vs. 67.7).

As icing on the cake, Smith went nine picks earlier (3rd vs. 12th). While the distinction might not seem significant, the 3rd overall pick tends to be 25% more productive than the 12th pick. 

Overall, McNown qualifies for The Brady Quinn Exemption as someone drafted too low to be qualified as a Top 10 Bust. Regardless, he still deserves an Honorable Mention for his abysmal production.

While at Oregon, Smith split time at quarterback during his junior season and only became the full-time starter for his senior season. Making the most of his limited time, Smith finished his senior year ranked as one of the NCAA leaders in touchdowns (#7), yards (#6), and efficiency rating (#3). 

Year Yards Comp % TD INT Efficiency Rating
1997 1,385 54.0% 13 7 126.6
1998 3,763 58.0% 32 8 167.3
Career 5,148 56.6% 45 15 153.1

Apparently, Smith showed teams enough from his one stellar season and during workouts to be considered one of the best three quarterbacks in the draft. Furthermore, he even was mentioned as a possible #1 overall pick.


As previously discussed, the most memorable moment of the 1999 Draft involved the trade that resulted in Ricky Williams going to the Saints for a total of eight draft picks. Several weeks prior to the draft, Coach Ditka had made his intentions publicly known. In particular, he claimed that he would trade the team’s entire draft of six picks to get Williams.

With the 1st and 2nd overall picks, the Browns and Eagles both badly needed quarterbacks so they weren’t interested in trading their picks despite the attractive offer. As a result, Ditka targeted Cincinnati. Of note, he increased the offer to include the Saints’ entire 1999 draft plus their 1st round picks in 2000 and 2001, and their 2nd round pick in 2002. In all, the Bengals would have gotten eight additional draft picks (including two 1st rounders) simply for moving down from #3 to #12 in the first round. Click here for an analysis of Ditka’s gamble on Williams.

Unlike the other two teams ahead of them, the Bengals had a veteran quarterback (Jeff Blake) on their roster so they had more flexibility to consider Ditka’s offer. However, the Bengals had lost confidence in Blake over the prior two seasons. Consequently, they decided to keep their pick in order to take Smith.


At the time of the selection, Bengals President Mike Brown said, “It was a generous offer, but we felt now is the time to get the quarterback.” When asked about the risk of picking another bust, Bengals Coach Bruce Coslet added

I’m tired of hearing about David Klingler. Why don’t you guys write about John Elway and Dan Marino? The story of this draft is we got Akili Smith and a lot of people had him No.1 on their boards. I’m very pleased.

Akili Smith at the draft
You know you’re a bust when . . . your picture with the commissioner is the highlight of your professional career

In addition to paying a hefty price by not accepting Ditka’s offer, the Bengals paid a hefty price when they finally signed their rookie quarterback. After a 27-day holdout, Smith ultimately agreed to a $56 million deal with $10.8 million up front. At the time of the signing, Tim Sullivan of the Cincinnati Enquirer lamented:

Sudden wealth has ruined more careers than shredded ligaments. It is the crucial test the scouts can’t perform when they examine college prospects — the speed at which ready cash clouds their judgment and erodes their enthusiasm. As the great jockey, Eddie Arcaro, once said: “It’s hard to get up in the morning when you start wearing silk pajamas.”

Did the player’s newfound wealth negatively impact his career? Who knows. However, even Smith believes that his rookie holdout hurt him in the long term. After his NFL career ended, Smith said,

I should have just told my agent to take whatever they were offering me and got myself in camp, that (the holdout) is the biggest reason I struggled in the NFL.

As you might imagine, the reaction to the quote wasn’t too kind. First, the quarterback brought it upon himself. Second, it’s hard to rationalize that a short-term holdout could have such a long-term negative effect. Then again, it seems to be a recurring theme for numerous all-time busts, such as Heath Shuler, JaMarcus Russell, Kelly Stouffer, and Matt Leinart.


Similar to the other top QB picks from the 1999 Draft, Smith began his rookie season as a backup. While Smith carried a clipboard, Jeff Blake started the first 12 games of the 1999 season for Cincinnati.  In those games, the seven-year veteran put up decent numbers with 2,670 yards and a 77.6 rating. Still, the Bengals only had a 3-9 record so the team benched him in favor of Smith.

Throughout the remainder of the season, Smith showed his inexperience. Specifically, he had a pathetic 55.6 passing rating after throwing for 800 yards with two TDs and six INTs. In addition, the team continued to lose and had a 1-3 record in Smith’s four starts. Regardless, the Bengals must have seen enough to let Blake go after the season.

Unfortunately, Smith didn’t get any better in his second season. In 12 games, he threw for 1,300 yards with 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, and had a 52.8 passing rating. The Bengals went 2-9 to begin the 2000 season with Smith under center. In response, the team replaced him with an even “bigger loser.”

The Biggest Loser is the least offensive “reality” show so I won’t go off on Mitchell too much. Still, it doesn’t mean I’m taking the picture down.

Mitchell had been a decent quarterback with the Lions for a couple of years in the mid-90s. By the time he got to Cincinnati, however, he was completely washed up. In his one and only outing during the 2001 season, he with 4-12 with 38 yards and three interceptions. Perhaps needless to say, he never played another game in the NFL.

Unlike Mitchell, Smith lasted two more years with the team. He stayed on the roster as a 3rd string QB and only got two more starts (both losses). When Marvin Lewis became the new coach before the 2003 season, Smith was cut and his career was over.

Akili Smith #11
What’s your guess, an interception or a missed wide open receiver? Either way, it couldn’t have been good.

The following table summarizes the career of Akili Smith as well as the other four quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 1999 Draft.

Player Record Yards TD INT Rating WAV
Tim Couch (#1) 22-37 11,131 64 67 75.1 20
Donovan McNabb (#2) 98-62-1 37,276 234 117 85.6 107
Akili Smith (#3) 3-14 2,212 5 13 52.8 1
Dante Culpepper (#11) 41-59 24,153 149 106 87.8 86
Cade McNown (#12) 3-12 3,111 16 19 67.7 11

Rushing Stats:

  • Tim Couch: 556 yards with 2 TDs.
  • Donovan McNabb: 3,459 yards with 29 TDs.
  • Akili Smith: 371 yards with 1 TD.
  • Daunte Culpepper: 2,652 yards with 34 TDs.
  • Cade McNown: 486 yards with 3 TDs.

It’s worth emphasizing that Smith’s passer rating of 52.8 and Weighted Average Value (WAV) of 1 were incredibly low, even for a Top 10 Bust.


In the previously referenced Cincinnati Enquirer article, the journalist offered Bengals President Mike Brown’s perspective on these quarterbacks. In particular, Sullivan wrote:

There are five quarterbacks who went in the first half (of the first round) of the draft,” Brown said, standing beneath an umbrella Tuesday afternoon at training camp. “If it runs true to form, one or two will pan out, one will be mediocre, and two will wash out.

Whether intended or not, the image of Brown with an umbrella provides an ominous foreshadowing for Smith’s career. Still, it’s worthwhile to digress and evaluate Brown’s statement.

  • “One or two will pan out” – Accurate.
    • McNabb certainly did while Culpepper arguably did. At least Culpepper did for the five seasons during which he benefited from the Randy Moss Effect.
    • Depending on whom you ask, some people will say only one QB panned out while others might say two panned out. 
  • “One will be mediocre” – Accurate.
    • In 62 starts, Couch had a passer rating of 75.1 while throwing 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions.
    • His career only lasted five years, but his stats were quite mediocre.
  • “Two will wash out” – Accurate.
    • Given the abysmal careers of Smith and McNown, Brown was right again.

Overall, Brown gets an A+ for his prediction. Unfortunately, he gets an F for taking Smith. First, he could have taken Culpepper instead. Second, and more importantly, he could have converted the pick used to take Smith into nine picks (including the 12th overall pick in 1999 and two additional first round picks in 2000 and 2001).

Arguably, Brown might have been able to get the picks as well as Culpepper. If he had, the Bengals likely would have avoided so many years of futility. Since he didn’t, the Bengals continued to struggle and Akili Smith earned the #5 spot as a Top 10 Bust.