The 10 Biggest NFL Draft Busts in the Last 20 Years

April 24, 2009

By Jeff Greenwell… With the 2009 NFL entry draft soon to be here, undoubtedly GM’s, coaches and scouts have been studying up on prospective draft picks like there’s no tomorrow.

Hundreds of man hours are put into pouring over stats, game film, combine results in the hopes of landing that franchise player, quality starter, even capable backup.

The whole process can turn into a crapshoot, and many draft picks don’t pan out, while others go on to long and prosperous careers.

Then there are those draft picks who don’t come close to living up to the pre-draft hype, and end up fading into obscurity. Here are 10 of those “busts.”

Peter Warrick, drafted fourth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2000 draft, was considered a can’t-miss prospect after a stellar career at Florida State.

Turns out Warrick wasn’t able to make the adjustment to the NFL, and the bigger, tougher cornerbacks either.

After six lackluster seasons (five with the Bengals, one with Seattle), stints in the  and Canadian Football League, Warrick can now be found running routes and catching passes in some obscure indoor football league.

The St. Louis Rams used their sixth overall draft pick in the 1996 draft on Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, despite several off field incidents that called his character into question.

The Rams cut Phillips during the 1997 season for insubordination. A two-game stint with the Dolphins followed, as did his the beginnings of Phillips’ legal troubles.

A comeback with the 49ers in 1999 was next, followed by a season in the Arena Football League with the Florida Bobcats (2001), but was released for leaving the team without telling the coach.

Phillips actually looked as if he may resurrect his career in the CFL, after a great season in 2002 with the Montreal Alouettes, helping the team capture the Grey Cup.

But history repeated itself and Phillips was cut by the Alouettes for insubordination.

Currently Phillips is incarcerated in a California State prison, serving 10 years for intentionally running his car into a group of teenagers following a dispute.

Blair Thomas is the poster boy for pre-draft hype, and initiated the run of over-hyped, total flop Penn State running backs (Curtis Enis and Ki-Jana Carter followed).

After a dismal 4-12 season, the Jets spent their second overall pick in the 1990 draft on the aforementioned Thomas.

In four seasons with the Jets, Thomas’ season high was a mere 728 yards, and his Jet totals were a whopping 2000 yards and five touchdowns.

The Jets cut their losses in 1993, releasing Thomas, who then had brief stints with the Patriots, Cowboys and Panthers before finally hanging it up in 1995.

Mike Williams is easily the biggest Buffalo Bills draft bust in the last 20 years, and not just because of his ample 360 lb frame.

The Bills chose Williams fourth overall in the 2002 draft (behind questionable draft picks David Carr and Joey Harrington) in the hopes that the gargantuan tackle out of Texas would anchor the offensive line for the next 10 years.

Didn’t quite work out that way.

Williams’ poor skills, especially on pass blocking led to a tryout at left guard, which failed miserably.

Williams was finally cut after the 2005 season, and has been out of football since being placed on injured reserve by the Jaguars prior to the 2006 season.

The Indianapolis Colts made Steve Emtman the first overall pick of the 1992 draft, after foregoing his senior year at the University of Washington.

Emtman could never live up to the hype, although in his defense, he became the very definition of injury prone.

His first three seasons with the Colts all finished with him on injured reserve. Two seasons in Miami and one more in Washington, and Emtman was done at the young age of 27.

Probably the highlight of his NFL career was his brief cameo in the 1994 film “Little Giants”, alongside Bruce Smith, John Madden, Tim Brown, and Emmitt Smith.

Andre Ware was another in the long line of Heisman Trophy winners who couldn’t quite cut it in the NFL. The Detroit Lions used their seventh overall pick in the 1990 draft to take Ware, fresh off his Heisman season at the University of Houston.

Ware was unable to see any significant playing time as a rookie, what with Rodney Peete starting and Erik Kramer backing him up.

Four middling seasons with the Lions (and cup of coffee with the Los Angeles Raiders), and Ware found himself heading north to the CFL.

As if it wasn’t bad enough playing in the CFL, Ware never rose above backup status, thus becoming one of the very few who was a bust in both the NFL and CFL.

The Redskins used the number three overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft to choose Heath Shuler of Tennessee, after an amazing college career in which he held nearly every Volunteer passing record (only to have them broken by some guy named Manning).

Unfortunately Shuler couldn’t translate his accuracy in college to the pros, struggling during his rookie season, which included a five-interception game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Shuler was benched in his third year at Washington due to his poor play, while his replacement, Gus Frerotte ended up going to the Pro Bowl.

After the 1996 season, the ‘Skins shipped Shuler to the Saints. After two awful seasons with the Saints, Shuler retired during training camp with the Raiders. His career passer rating–an abysmal 54.3.

The 1999 draft could’ve included both Tim Couch and Akili Smith in this article, but of the two, Smith was in my opinion an even larger failure.

Drafted by the Bengals with the third overall pick, Smith was expected to be the franchise quarterback the Bengals so desperately needed.

Things couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Smith missed plenty of training camp in 1999 due to a contract dispute, which ultimately hurt his overall readiness for the season.

In four years with Cincy, Smith only started 17 games, never quite panning out like the Bengals had hoped.

Smith tried catching on with Green Bay and Tampa Bay, and much like Andre Ware, tried his hand at the CFL. And much like Ware, Smith flamed out there as well, being released by the Calgary Stampeders in 2007.

The only Canadian on the list, Tony Mandarich was touted as the greatest offensive line prospect ever, and was nicknamed “the Incredible Bulk” for his enormous size and strength.

It was revealed later that much of Mandarich’s size was attributed to his steroid use while at the Michigan State University.

The Packers drafted Mandarich second overall in 1989, ahead of all-time greats Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders and Derrick Thomas.

Whether it was his work ethic, or that he stopped using ‘roids, Mandarich was cut loose by the Packers after three lackluster years. He played for the Colts from 1996-1998, before retiring.

The epitome of draft busts—Ryan Leaf. It’s hard to believe that at one point, many experts thought the Colts should have used their number one overall pick in the 1998 draft on Ryan Leaf, instead of Peyton Manning.

I’m sure Colts fans everywhere are still delirious with joy that the Colts didn’t go that route.

But poor San Diego did, making Leaf the second overall pick in the 1998 draft. Leaf’s career with the Chargers got off to a horrible start (passer rating of 39 for the 1998 season), and only got worse.

Leaf missed the 2000 season with a shoulder injury, but still made headlines for memorable confrontations with a San Diego reporter, and a loud-mouthed heckler.

Released after the 2000 season, Leaf was claimed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to be released before the 2001 season started because he wouldn’t take a pay cut.

The Cowboys took a chance after the Bucs released him, but let Leaf go after the 2001 season was over.

Because of Peyton Manning’s tremendous success, and Ryan Leaf’s giant failures, the two will be forever linked in NFL history.