With the National Football League’s scouting combine officially over and the draft just a few months away, teams are beginning to have an idea of who they will ideally sign. Some players distinguished themselves through stellar performances at last week’s combine, and some merely reaffirmed what scouts already knew: that they are elite.
The difficulty of deciding whom to draft stems much deeper than just how talented an athlete is. The player interviews with respective teams is one area of the combine that reveals more than just what someone can do on the field — it shows his personality, beliefs (though not too much), and character, among other things. These teams put the prospects through such an extensive screening process because they’re potentially investing millions of dollars in their future. They’re doing everything they can to ensure a successful investment (i.e., drafting a player who’s going to succeed).
Despite the combine and scouts’ opinions, sometimes a player just doesn’t work out. An athlete who was healthy in college could end up having an injury-plagued career. This, however, is almost impossible to predict, and sometimes a player’s success in college doesn’t translate into NFL success. It’s the teams’ scouts who are tasked with weeding out those players. Whether it was personal issues or injuries, here are five of the biggest draft busts to ever be taken in the top five spots.
1. Ryan Leaf, 1998, No. 2
Scouts were unsure whether Ryan Leaf, coming out of Washington State, or Peyton Manning would be the first pick of the 1998 draft. As we all know, Manning was selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the first overall pick, and Leaf went second, to the San Diego Chargers. Manning went on to have what many are proclaiming as a Hall of Fame career, and Leaf played for three seasons and then retired. He just never worked out, something that scouts can’t plan for.
In two seasons with the Chargers, Leaf started just 18 games. During that time, he threw for 13 touchdowns and an embarrassing 33 interceptions. Hoping a clean slate would help, Leaf played one more season with the Dallas Cowboys. It didn’t: He appeared in three games, throwing one touchdown and three interceptions. Currently, Leaf is serving a jail sentence for drug possession and burglary. As the second overall pick in 1998, Leaf went down as one of the biggest draft busts ever.
2. Charles Rodgers, 2003, No. 2
Coming into the NFL, Charles Rodgers had been one of the best wide receivers in the history of Michigan State’s storied football program. At 6-foot-3 and 202 pounds, Rodgers had everything NFL teams wanted out of prospective receivers: size, speed, athleticism, and proven success. As a whole, the Lions were completely justified in taking him as the second overall pick. Little did they know that Rodgers would become one of the biggest flops of the past decade.
Not only did he not perform (he had 440 receiving yards and four touchdowns in three seasons in Detroit), but he also struggled with drug addiction. Going back to a failed drug test during his time at the combine, Rogers continually struggled with drugs, which amounted to suspensions and ultimately being cut by the Lions. While then-Lions GM Matt Millen thought Rodgers could overcome his problems, he failed to do so, becoming one of a handful of poor draft picks by Detroit in the early 2000s.
3. Jamarcus Russell, 2007, No. 1
As the Oakland Raiders’ number-one pick, the sky was limit for the Louisiana State University football star. Although he held out before signing his initial contract, when he finally did sign, it was the richest rookie contract in NFL’s history: $61 million for six years. He started 25 games for the Raiders en route to throwing 18 touchdowns, 23 interceptions, and an abysmal 52.1 completion percentage for his career. He’s still attempting to make a comeback, but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll ever become a starting quarterback at the professional level — he just didn’t pan out.
4. Ki-Jana Carter, 1995, No. 1
Unlike a few others on this list that didn’t make it in the NFL because of off-the-field issues, Carter just couldn’t stay healthy in the long run. He appeared in 59 games over a seven-year period and tallied just north of 1,000 rushing yards on his career. His injuries started the minute he set foot on a professional football field — he tore a ligament in his knee during his first preseason game, and various injuries continued to plague him as time went on. It’s difficult to call him a complete bust because he had no control over being injury prone, but ask any Bengals fans and they’ll tell you he was one of the worst picks in franchise history.
5. Tim Couch, 1999, No. 1
Similar to Carter, Couch was selected with the first overall pick. Coming out of college, he appeared to be NFL ready and could step in and almost start immediately. He did, albeit unsuccessfully with the Cleveland Browns. In his rookie campaign, Couch started 14 games, threw 2,447 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The high interception rate would be a trend that all but characterized Couch’s five-year career. His worst season (2001) saw Couch throw 17 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, and he finished the entirety of his career with more interceptions (67) than touchdowns (64). Couch had all the tools to be a solid NFL quarterback, it just never came together for him — again, something few scouts predicted.