The NFL draft is a murky science. All-time greats like Tom Brady slipped all the way to the sixth round, picked 199th overall. In fact, some NFL scouts thought he should take up the Montreal Expos’ offer instead of playing football at all. We all know where he ultimately ended up.
Then there are those mysteries on the opposite side of the draft. That’s where quarterback JaMarcus Russell, LSU great and notorious bust for the Oakland Raiders, lands in NFL history. Here’s why he might be the worst No. 1 draft pick in NFL history, at least according to CBS Sports.
Why the Oakland Raiders burned its No. 1 pick on JaMarcus Russell
In retrospect, it’s always easy to blame busts on bad scouting, or a bad front office. Certainly, when QB Mitchell Trubisky’s struggles manifested in Chicago, quite a few critics could point to their draft day criticisms of the Bears’ insistence on trading up for him. Russell doesn’t fall in that category. What he showed at LSU was incredibly good. He earned his spot in the draft, and if Oakland didn’t make that choice, another team likely would have.
Russell went 11-2 in his final year at LSU. That 2006 season, wrapped with a 168.0 passer rating according to Sports Reference, is about as good as it gets for a Division One QB. He led LSU to roll over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, cementing Russell’s reputation for handling business under pressure.
The Raiders, in need of a fresh direction with their number one overall pick, had no real indication that Russell would struggle the way he did at the NFL’s fiercer level of competition.
Russell’s struggles in Oakland
Sometimes, players simply find their ceiling at a lower level. They absolutely dominate in that space — like Russell did — but either athletically or mentally aren’t able to take on the required new skills. CBS Sports notes that Russell went from a 67.8% completion rate in 2006, to under 54% in 2008, his first season off the bench in Oakland.
Was it just growing pains? Hardly, considering he fell to 48.8% in 2009. That regression was the end of the line. The Raiders let Russell go for good after that terrible season. He never returned to the NFL — not for want of trying.
Unsuccessful comeback attempts prove Russell’s drive to succeed against the odds
At lower levels of football, Russell was a natural athletic talent. He worked on his body, dedicated himself to the game, made great decisions on the fly. The NFL asked for more of him, and he wasn’t prepared to provide it. At one point, the Raiders had to bribe him with a bag of cheeseburgers to sit still and study game film.
While he was actively on the Raiders roster, he never got over this terrible habit. He never got pushed to spend so much time, well, studying. He resolved to change that. After several years out of the league, he went back to conditioning and resolved to become better at the mental conditioning required. In 2013, the league got a look at him.
There wasn’t enough there for any teams to bite, according to Bleacher Report, so he tried again in 2016. This time, with several former NFL stars as mentors, led by wide receiver Mike Clayton, he got close. He dropped to 308 lbs, from a high of 320. He turned heads but still failed to sign a new contract.
Mercury News reports that Russell is a football coach these days. With his personal experience as a talented player uninterested in game film, he’s uniquely equipped to motivate his high school QBs to do better. After all, he’s a living, breathing example of what happens when you don’t take every single aspect of the game seriously.