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Ranking the 10 biggest QB busts in the NFL Draft

Ryan Leaf's failure with the Chargers has changed the way NFL teams analyse quarterback prospects
Ryan Leaf's failure with the Chargers has changed the way NFL teams analyse quarterback prospects
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Chris Winterburn

The NFL Draft is quite a magnificent event, with NFL teams looking to secure their future by selecting the best prospects out of collegiate football on an annual basis.

Scouts work into the late hours of the night for months in advance to ensure every angle on a player is covered, yet scouts can only provide so much information.

Some players also have hidden characteristics that are hugely damaging. These aren’t visible until after a player has been selected in the NFL Draft and paid an awful lot of money.

No position is more expensive than quarterback, and given the desperation to find a good one, there is no position with more NFL Draft busts. This pressure permeates the locker room and pushes players to make mistakes and make poor choices and is something we’ve seen through the years of the NFL Draft.

Here we look at the 10 biggest busts from the draft at quarterback:


Who are the top 10 biggest NFL Draft busts at quarterback?

#10 Robert Griffin III (2012 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 2)

Despite his NFL failures, few have negative words to say about RGIII
Despite his NFL failures, few have negative words to say about RGIII

Labeling Robert Griffin III an NFL Draft bust is perhaps a little harsh. He had an outstanding rookie season in which he led Washington to the playoffs, before injuries ruined his career.

Unlike other names we will revisit later in this list, Griffin’s commitment to football can’t be questioned. He has worked incredibly hard to forge a career for himself as a backup in Cleveland and Baltimore. However, for a player that was taken directly after Andrew Luck, Griffin has simply not produced.

In 2012 and 2013, Griffin threw for 3,200 and 3,203 yards respectively, missing just two games across both seasons. However, in the subsequent six seasons, he has mustered just 14 starts.

RGIII was on the way to having an excellent NFL career before his knee injuries ruined his progress. His numbers with Washington were very strong, throwing for 36 touchdowns across his first two seasons.

However, we also need to consider how much Washington gave up to move up to #2 in the NFL Draft to select him. They effectively ruined their draft strategy for years to come and that makes it difficult to view this pick as anything other than a bust, even if Griffin retains respect in the league.


#9 Tim Couch (1999 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 1)

Tim Couch's body just wouldn't allow him to succeed in the NFL
Tim Couch's body just wouldn't allow him to succeed in the NFL

Injuries are the cause of Tim Couch being labeled an NFL Draft bust. The league never fully saw a healthy version of the Kentucky quarterback who dominated the collegiate game.

Bruce Arians remains one of Couch’s biggest supporters, criticizing anyone who labels the former Cleveland Browns QB as a bust. His shoulder and arm ligaments had been so badly damaged over his college career that he was never healthy in the NFL. He was always playing and practicing in pain.

Couch had undeniable ability; he wouldn’t have been selected first-overall in the 1999 NFL Draft otherwise. Yet, he managed to throw for just 11,131 yards in five years with the Browns, though he notably led them to the playoffs in 2002.

The expectation that comes with him being drafted #1 is something that Couch’s body would never allow him to deliver on. While it is unfortunate to look back on, he remains one of the NFL Draft’s bigger busts.


#8 David Carr (2002 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 1)

David Carr walked into a difficult situation with an expansion franchise
David Carr walked into a difficult situation with an expansion franchise

David Carr was thrown in at the deep end when he was selected as the first-ever Houston Texan shortly after they entered the league as an expansion franchise. His NFL career was average rather than abjectly poor, but this doesn’t cut the mustard when you’re selected as the premier player in your NFL Draft class.

A historically poor offensive line in Houston saw Carr sacked 249 times over the course of five seasons. His inability to escape pressure reflects badly on him while his slow-release time was a huge limitation to his progress in the NFL.

Having never been challenged in college football, the intensity of NFL defenses panicked Carr and he was never able to adjust. You can’t blame a player for where they were selected in the NFL Draft, but for the Texans organization, David Carr was a huge disappointment.


#7 Jake Locker (2011 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 8)

It took Jake Locker just four NFL seasons to fall out of love with the sport
It took Jake Locker just four NFL seasons to fall out of love with the sport

Anticipation for Jake Locker being in the NFL built for a period of over two years. He would have been a top prospect had he declared for the 2010 NFL Draft, yet Locker elected to remain at the University of Washington for a further year.

This allowed him another year of play in the NCAA Division 1, even though some analysts had him as the #1 pick in 2010.

His senior performances were indicative of a drop in standards and focus. By the time the 2011 NFL Draft arrived, Locker had dropped to a grade outside the top-10.

With the NFL Combine starting this week, we've compiled all Pac-12 performances since 2000Top QB 40-Yard Dash Times4.51—Jake Locker, UW, 20114.52—Marcus Mariota, Oregon, 20154.58—Dennis Dixon, Oregon, 20084.59—Andrew Luck, Stanford, 2012All 947:sportspac12.com/historical-pac…

By this time, Cam Newton had overtaken him as the elite QB prospect in the class, and the Tennessee Titans felt they had got a bargain by selecting Locker at #8. A year as a backup to a veteran is no bad thing for a rookie quarterback, and when Matt Hasselbeck went down in late 2011, Locker threw for four touchdowns and scored a rushing TD.

It seemed as though he was ready to take the starting job in Tennessee for the 2012 season, but it simply went downhill from there.

A physical battering in a defeat to the New England Patriots really knocked his confidence. After 11 starts in which he threw for more interceptions than touchdowns, a shoulder injury ended Locker’s season, and his time as a starter with the Titans.

He started just seven games in 2013 and five in 2014, throwing just 13 total further touchdown passes. The interceptions didn’t disappear, and in the blink of an eye, his NFL career was over.

The Titans didn’t pick up his fifth-year option and he quickly retired, suggesting he had lost his passion for the sport. Locker's decision completed the cycle of one of the biggest bust stories in modern times.


#6 Heath Shuler (1994 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 3)

Heath Shuler would leave the NFL and have a signifcant career in politics
Heath Shuler would leave the NFL and have a signifcant career in politics

Heath Shuler was a standout QB prospect at the University of Tennessee, quickly becoming one of the best prospects in the SEC.

Hype over Shuler’s play increased in the build-up to the 1994 NFL Draft and he was selected as high as third-overall by Washington. A training camp holdout followed, which kept Shuler from showing his talent to the team’s coaching staff while seventh-round selection Gus Frerotte did the opposite.

By the time the NFL season began, Washington fans were critical of Shuler and demanded Frerotte be given the starting job. This only became more pronounced as Shuler’s play deteriorated and he threw interception after interception.

Eventually losing his starting spot with Washington, Shuler was traded to the New Orleans Saints. However, he continued to struggle before a foot injury damaged his long-term prospects.

After four years in the NFL, Shuler finished with just 15 touchdown passes to his name.


#5 Andre Ware (1990 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 7)

The 1989 Heisman Trophy winner, Andre Ware, was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. The Detroit Lions pinned their hopes on him, which ended in an unmitigated disaster.

The Lions already had Barry Sanders on their offense and felt that Ware would be the perfect partner for him. Detroit envisaged an era of dominance where the duo would tear teams apart. However, that didn’t happen and they never even came close to doing so.

In four years with the Detroit Lions, Ware started just six games, with his status in Detroit being that of a third-string QB.

Many believe Ware wasn’t given a fair chance early on in Detroit. They also felt that by the time he arrived in Los Angeles and Jacksonville in 1994 and 1995 respectively, he was broken from a sporting point of view.

However, Ware couldn’t adapt to the professional environment and the seventh-overall pick had an NFL career of just five touchdown passes, 1,112 yards and six starts. That is hardly a pick well spent.


#4 Akili Smith (1999 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 3)

Bengals fans have rued the decision to reject Mike Ditka's trade offer
Bengals fans have rued the decision to reject Mike Ditka's trade offer

Cincinnati Bengals fans have often felt that they had a curse at the quarterback position until Joe Burrow arrived. One contributing factor to this fan paranoia is the career of 1999 NFL Draft prospect Akili Smith, who was selected by the Bengals with the third-overall pick.

A lack of college experience mixed with an athletic style that wasn’t quite dominant in the NFL yet were both factors which went against Smith. Furthermore, Bengals fans treated him harshly because the franchise had turned down Mike Ditka’s offer of nine draft picks for their #3 selection.

Missing your rookie training camp courtesy of a holdout is usually a bad sign, and this proved to be the case with Smith.

April 17, 1999: The 1999 NFL Draft featured QB’s being drafted with each of the 1st 3 picks for the 1st time in NFL history as Tim Couch (#1 to #Browns), Donovan McNabb (#2 to #Eagles), and Akili Smith (#3 to #Bengals) all went top-3https://t.co/j7FvF2w9py

His lack of academic intelligence was a real stumbling block, failing to grasp the playbook in Cincinnati. This was compounded by his coaches accusing him of a lack of desire to learn and study. A poor Wonderlic score prior to the NFL Draft had a lot of teams take Smith off their board.

In four years with the franchise, he started just 17 games, throwing five touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. He was then released and never played another snap in the NFL.


#3 Johnny Manziel (2014 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 22)

Johnny Manziel wasted his NFL opportunity
Johnny Manziel wasted his NFL opportunity

At this point, the sympathy for quarterbacks who have become NFL Draft busts runs thin.

Johnny Manziel cultivated a truly successful brand in the build-up to the NFL Draft in 2014. He almost forced himself on the Houston Texans and their first-overall pick, given the hype around him and the fact that he was Texas A&M’s star figure.

The problem with Johnny Money, as he so enjoyed being called, was that he simply wasn’t that good a quarterback. His college performances led to a Heisman Trophy, but NFL teams were suspicious of his talent and he slipped to #22 in the draft.

Cleveland thought they had gotten a miracle bargain at this point, but Manziel proved to be trouble from the start. After receiving a fine for a hand gesture in a pre-season loss to Washington, Manziel immediately fell behind Brian Hoyer in the depth chart.

His work ethic was criticized by those within the Browns organization, and his off-field activities took on an unhealthy level of importance. Injuries should facilitate periods of rehabilitation, yet Manziel often skipped these sessions, only to be seen partying.

The Browns were looking for an out by 2016, and a domestic violence incident was the perfect excuse. Cleveland cut ties with Manziel after two seasons in which he threw for 1,675 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.

A public statement released by Cleveland’s executive vice president of football operations, Sashi Brown, said a lot about Manziel. It read:

“Johnny’s continual involvement in incidents that run counter to our expectations undermines the hard work of his teammates and our organisation.”

#2 Ryan Leaf (1998 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 2)

Ryan Leaf was a victim of the pressure of being an NFL quarterback
Ryan Leaf was a victim of the pressure of being an NFL quarterback

Ryan Leaf was an undisputed NFL Draft bust, but it wasn’t necessarily his footballing talent which was lacking.

His post-playing career has been an inspiring story of redemption and rehabilitation. However, the younger Leaf simply didn’t have the tools to deal with life as a high-profile professional athlete - something he freely admits now.

Ahead of the 1998 NFL Draft, two quarterbacks stood tall at the top of the class: Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Few analysts and scouts could pick the two apart, and it was a coin-flip as to who the Indianapolis Colts would select with the #1 pick.

The first sign that something was amiss with Leaf was when he missed a planned meeting with the Colts immediately before the NFL Draft. Indianapolis has since stated that the plan was always to take Manning, but this missed meeting lessened their opinion of Leaf significantly.

He fell to the grateful San Diego Chargers at #2, but was never able to settle. Leaf's play initially wasn’t bad with the Chargers, but the pressure got to him. A poor performance against Kansas City led to his infamous snapping at a reporter, in which he shouted "knock it off" during a locker room interview.

As the pressure of his position increased, he became less stable and more erratic. He blamed teammates for his own mistakes and alienated much of the San Diego locker room. Injuries and clashes with jeering fans also plagued his second season in the NFL, and his play got worse.

He had a total of 21 starts in the NFL before retiring at the age of 26. He threw 36 interceptions and 14 touchdowns, which is an almost criminal return for a #2 NFL Draft pick.

Ironically, Leaf’s legacy in the NFL is probably a positive one. He is seen as the archetypal modern NFL Draft bust and has convinced teams to analyze prospects in a different way.

No longer is it just arm-strength and 40-yard times. Teams now look at the mental makeup of a young athlete and attempt to avoid drafting the next Ryan Leaf.


#1 JaMarcus Russell (2007 NFL Draft, Round 1 Pick 1)

JaMarcus Russell's lack of effort cost him a career in the NFL
JaMarcus Russell's lack of effort cost him a career in the NFL

If Ryan Leaf didn’t have the tools to deal with life in the NFL, then JaMarcus Russell simply didn’t want them. The Oakland Raiders used their first-overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft to select the quarterback out of LSU and it’s difficult to think of a bigger waste of a draft choice.

Russell immediately put himself in a difficult spot, refusing to turn up to training camp due to a contractual holdout. This would last until the second week of the 2007 season when he finally signed a six-year contract believed to be worth $68 million.

Russell’s effort in practice was virtually non-existent and he didn’t even make his first career start until December of the 2007 season.

This was the first-overall selection: a position that is reserved for players ready to come in and make immediate, elite contributions.

Coaches with the Raiders began to doubt Russell would ever make it in the NFL, as his poor work ethic became almost a running joke within the team’s facility.

There is also the now infamous story regarding coaches giving Russell a blank play-tape to study at home. The former LSU star returned the following day and talked about the plays on the tape, which rings both humorous and disheartening in equal measure.

Keeping in physical shape was of no interest to Russell either and he was out of the NFL within three seasons. He threw for just 18 touchdowns and proved to be the costliest NFL Draft bust, and it was entirely self-inflicted.

The Raiders paid the price in the short-term, yet the lack of regard for Russell as an athlete tells you everything about his wasteful NFL career.


Edited by Anantaajith Ra
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