When the NFL Draft begins later today, every fan will be hoping that their team will end up getting a steal by selecting the next Tom Brady or the next Antonio Brown.
Although that’s the fantasy, the reality is that there’s a much more likely chance that your favorite team will end up drafting a total bust. Over the years, there have been dozens of busts, so with the 2019 NFL Draft right around the corner, it’s time to rank the 10 biggest busts of the past 30 years.
Since we want these ranking to be slightly different than most bust rankings, here are the rules: To qualify for the bust list, you have to be at least a top-10 pick.
For instance, although Johnny Manziel flamed out of the NFL after being selected with the 23rd overall pick in 2014, it’s not as ugly as the time Ryan Leaf flamed out of the NFL, and that’s because Leaf was a higher pick who had much higher expectations.
Also, the team’s decision-making process going into the pick will factor into these rankings.
The other rule here is that we’re only going to list a maximum of one bust per team. If we didn’t make that a rule, then this list would basically only be made up of former Bengals, Browns and Lions draft picks, and as fun as that list would be, we don’t want to terrorize just those three fan bases. We want to embarrass as many teams as possible by pointing out their worst draft picks.
Also, one thing you will notice is that Tim Couch and David Carr didn’t make the cut on this list. Being drafted by an expansion team as a quarterback puts you in a nearly impossible situation, so we’re not going to pile on those two guys by adding them to this list when it’s highly unlikely that any quarterback could have found success with the 1999 Browns or 2002 Texans.
With that in mind, let’s get to the list
Top-10 worst draft busts of the past 30 years
10. LB Vernon Gholston, Jets (2008, sixth overall pick)
After watching Gholston rack up an Ohio State single-season record of 14 sacks in 2007 — a record that still stands — the Jets drafted him with hopes that he would be able to bolster their pass rush. Unfortunately for the Jets, the only thing Gholston bolstered was his bank account. As a rookie in 2008, Gholston signed a contract that ended up paying him a total of $18 million, which is a lot to pay someone who never recorded a single sack in his career. Although the Jets thought they were paying for a pass rusher, Gholston didn’t really end up doing much pass rushing. During his three seasons in New York, he tallied exactly zero sacks before the Jets finally ended up up dumping him following the 2010 season.
9. CB Justin Gilbert, Browns (2014, eighth overall pick)
Johnny Manziel might be the bust that most fans remember when it comes to the Browns’ 2014 draft, but the pick of Justin Gilbert was arguably worse. The Browns went into the draft with the fourth overall pick, then traded down to No. 9, followed by another deal that eventually left them with the eighth overall pick. After all the wheeling and dealing, the Browns ended up drafting Gilbert, who played exactly 23 games for them over two years. Just before the 2016 season, the Browns traded him away to the Steelers, and let’s be honest, nothing says “We’ve totally given up on you” quite like trading a player to a division rival. Although Gilbert was a total bust, the good news for him is that being a first-round pick pays well. The cornerback made a total of $10.66 million during his brief NFL career.
Browns honorable mention busts: Courtney Brown, (2000, first overall pick), Trent Richardson (2012, third overall pick)
8. WR Justin Blackmon, Jaguars (2012, fifth overall pick)
The Jaguars liked Blackmon so much that they actually traded UP to get him. The Jaguars went into the 2012 draft with the seventh overall pick and moved to No. 5 after making a trade with Tampa, and at this point, we can probably all agree that the Buccaneers won this trade. Although Blackmon had an impressive rookie season in 2012 (64 receptions, 865 yards), his career was derailed by multiple suspensions. After his rookie year, Blackmon only played in four games in 2013 and hasn’t played since. Before the 2012 draft, one Pro Football Hall of Famer referred to Blackmon as Dez Bryant, but “with all his brain cells.” It seems that Hall of Famer was wrong.
Jaguars honorable mention bust: Blaine Gabbert (2011, 10th overall pick)
7. DE Steve Emtman — Colts (1992, first overall pick)
Being a bust means you don’t live up to expectations and Emtman definitely didn’t live up to expectations after being selected with the first overall pick in the 1992 draft. Although most of the guys on this list caused their own downfall, Emtman’s struggles in the NFL were mostly due to injuries. In three seasons with the Colts, Emtman missed a total of 30 games due to multiple injuries, including a torn patellar tendon during his second year with the team. Emtman’s career with the Colts ended in ugly fashion when the team cut him following the 1994 season because he refused to take a pay cut. The Colts didn’t feel he was living up to expectations, which was a fair assessment, because he definitely wasn’t living up to expectations.
6. QB Heath Shuler, Redskins (1994, third overall pick)
When Kirk Cousins eventually beat out Robert Griffin for the Redskins starting quarterback job, that probably gave most fans in Washington an ugly flashback to the 1994 draft. Twenty-five years ago, the Redskins were in a dire need of a quarterback so they selected two, just like they did in 2012. In 1994, they took Shuler with the third overall pick and then they followed that up by taking another quarterback in the seventh round (Gus Frerotte). Although Shuler was the starter for 13 games over two seasons, he eventually lost the quarterback job to Frerotte. When you’re the third overall pick and you lose your job to the 197th overall pick, that makes you a bust. Shuler was eventually traded to the Saints in 1997 and he lasted one season before he decided to quit football due to a foot injury.
5. RB Lawrence Phillips, Rams (1996, sixth overall pick)
Despite the fact that Phillips was accused of multiple crimes and suspended while at Nebraska, the Rams still decided to take a risk on him in the 1996 draft and decision ended up backfiring in a major way. Once he got to the NFL, Phillips was unable to stay out of trouble and the Rams ended up releasing him before he even finished his second season with the team. The uglier part here for the Rams is that they were so confident in Phillips that they traded away their starting running back (Jerome Bettis) on the day of the 1996 draft. As for Phillips, he was sentenced to 31 years in prison back in 2008 for convictions that included domestic violence, spousal abuse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft. The former NFL running back .
4. WR Charles Rogers, Lions (2003, second overall pick)
Back in the early 2000s, the Lions apparently thought they could succeed in the NFL by using all their first round picks on wide receivers, and that run started with Charles Rogers, who ended up being a total bust. With the second pick in 2003, the Lions knew they were going to take a receiver and with a pick that high, there were only really two options: Rogers or Andre Johnson. Instead of taking the Johnson — who might end up in the Hall of Fame — the Lions decided to go with the hometown hero in Rogers, who went to high school in Michigan and attended Michigan State. Johnson ended up being selected by the Texans with the very next pick. Rogers would only play in 15 games over three seasons before flopping out of the NFL due to multiple issues including injuries and drug problems. To add insult to injury, Rogers lost a court battle in 2010 and was ordered to pay the Lions back a total of $6.1 million out of his $9.1 million signing bonus.
As for the Lions, they kept trying to land a receiver. From 2003 to 2006, the Lions used three of their four first round picks on wide receivers.
Lions honorable mention busts: Andre Ware (1990, seventh overall pick), Mike Williams (2005, 10th overall pick)
3. QB Ryan Leaf, Chargers (1998, second overall pick)
You can’t have a conversation about the greatest draft busts in NFL history without mentioning Ryan Leaf’s name, so it’s time we mention Ryan Leaf’s name. After the Chargers made Leaf the second overall pick in 1998, it all went downhill from there and it went downhill fast. Basically, it was a disaster from start to finish. In three years with the Chargers, Leaf only started 18 games (he went 4-14) and he missed an entire season due to injury in 1999. By the end of the 2000 season, the Chargers decided they didn’t want him anymore, so they released him. The most embarrassing thing about the Leaf situation for the Chargers is that they actually traded UP to get him. Going into the 1998 draft, the Chargers had the third overall pick. To move up to the second spot, the Chargers gave Arizona the third overall pick, a second round pick AND a first round pick in 1999. Oh, and the Chargers also gave the Cardinals two players. The Chargers would have taken Peyton Manning, but the Colts selected him with the No. 1 overall pick that year.
2. QB JaMarcus Russell, Raiders (2007, first overall pick)
The Raiders only have themselves to blame for this pick and that’s because they basically ignored every red flag in the book when they selected Russell with the first overall pick in 2007. For one, an NFC general manager literally told Raiders owner Al Davis that taking Russell would be a bad idea. It was also well known that Russell hated studying, something the Raiders found out first-hand after they drafted him.
Russell also hated conditioning, which made it hard for him to stay in shape. After drafting Russell, the quarterback thanked the Raiders by holding out for all of training camp during his rookie year. Although Russell eventually reported to the team in September 2007, he didn’t make his first start until the Raiders’ regular season finale in December. In three years with the team, Russell would start 25 games and go 7-18. The Raiders eventually cut Russell in May 2010. The final straw for the Raiders came when he showed up to mini-camp at 290 pounds, which was roughly 20 pounds over his playing weight.
1. QB Akili Smith, Bengals (1999, third overall pick)
At the top of our draft bust list is former Bengals quarterback Akili Smith. The thing about the Bengals is that they were so horrible at drafting during the 1990s that we could probably have made an entire draft bust list consisting of just their picks, but we won’t. Maybe next year. As for Smith, if you’re wondering how he beat out guys like Leaf and Russell as the biggest draft bust of all-time, there’s two reasons. The first reason is that he was just flat out horrible.
During his four seasons with the Bengals, Smith only started 17 games and he went 3-14 in those games. He threw twice as many interceptions in his career (13) as he did touchdowns (5). Smith also completed under 50 percent of his passes (46.6 percent) during his time with the Bengals.
The second reason Smith is at the top of this list is because of what the Bengals gave up to draft him. Before they selected Smith, the Bengals had the chance to trade out of the No. 3 spot in the draft for a deal that would have brought them an embarrassment of riches. Saints coach Mike Ditka was trying to trade up from the 12th spot so he could grab Ricky Williams. Ditka wanted Williams so badly that he offered the Bengals a total of nine picks so he could move up to the third spot.
If the Bengals had accepted the deal, they would have landed New Orleans’ first-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-round selections in 1999 (12th, 71st, 107th, 144th, 179th, and 218th), as well as New Orleans’ first-round pick in 2000 and 2001, along with a second-round pick in 2002. How do you say no to that deal, I have no idea, but the Bengals did.
Mike Brown’s explanation for turning down the offer?
“It was a generous offer, but we felt now is the time to get the quarterback. We’ve been saying that all along,” Brown said back in 1999.
Someone clearly never explained to Brown how the draft works, because the Bengals could have used a few of their nine new picks from the Saints to trade back up and grab Smith, if that’s who they really wanted. Anyway, when you combine the missed opportunity on the trade along with the fact that the Bengals selected a bust, it makes the Smith pick arguably the worst one in the NFL history.
Bengals honorable mention busts: David Klingler (1992, sixth overall pick), Ki-Jana (1995, first overall pick)
Overall honorable mention draft busts: Tony Mandarich, Packers (1989, second overall pick), Troy Williamson — Vikings (2005 seventh overall pick), Jason Smith — Rams (2009, second overall pick), Jake Locker — Titans (2011, eighth overall pick)
If you’re wondering who might be a bust in 2019, make sure to to stream our live draft coverage right here on CBS Sports HQ (or download the CBS Sports app for free on any mobile or connected TV device). We’ll be breaking down every pick and offering instant draft grades for every team.