Most fans remember the 1998 NFL Draft as the one which featured quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf at the very top of the draft board. Manning would lead the Indianapolis Colts to years of success and a Super Bowl title. Leaf, who went second overall to the Chargers, would go down as the NFL’s most infamous draft bust.
What’s forgotten is that the Chargers actually traded up one slot to guarantee themselves one of the blue-chip quarterbacks. What of the Arizona Cardinals, who ended up with the third pick? Surely they dodged a bullet? Well, not really.
Meet Andre Wadsworth, the blue-chip Florida State linebacker
Ryan Leaf was far from the only over-valued prospect from that 1998 draft.
Andre Wadsworth entered the draft off of a stellar career at Florida State. Despite making the team as a walk-on, he made either second or first-team all-ACC in all four of his college seasons. In his senior season, Wadsworth won both ACC Defensive Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year.
Some scouts actually had Wadsworth as their number-one prospect, ahead of both Manning and Leaf. According to a retrospective by The Athletic, at least two NFL general managers compared him directly to Bruce Smith. Colts general manager Bill Polian — who was on the verge of selecting Manning, mind you — was enamored with Wadsworth’s potential.
The Arizona Cardinals desperately needed a playmaker of Wadsworth’s caliber. They finished the previous season a dismal 4-12, and their defense ranked 27th out of 30 in yards allowed. After the two quarterbacks went off the board, the Cardinals took Wadsworth with the third overall pick.
Contract disputes and injuries take their toll
Wadsworth did not make a very good first impression on his new team. He spent much of the 1998 preseason engaged in a contract holdout, demanding a signing bonus similar to those which Manning and Leaf signed for. Fortunately, the two sides came to an agreement the day before the regular season began.
1998 would be a memorable season for the Cardinals. Somehow, they scraped their way into the postseason for the first time since their move to the desert and even managed to upset the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round. It’s hard to tell how much of that success could be attributed to Wadsworth, however. He picked up five sacks and 57 tackles in his rookie season.
The following year, Wadsworth dealt with worsening swelling in his right knee that forced him out of the lineup for much of the season. Despite multiple surgeries on that knee, he never returned to his previous form. After the 2000 season, the Cardinals released Wadsworth, and no other team picked him up in free agency. His career in the NFL seemed to be over after only three seasons.
Other players the Cardinals could have chosen? Charles Woodson, Fred Taylor, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Ahman Green, and Hines Ward, among other Pro Bowlers from the 1998 class.
Wadsworth gets a second chance
After his release from the Cardinals in 2000, Wadsworth kept busy. For a time, he co-owned a chain of car dealerships with an anonymous partner before selling them off in 2010. He was also a minority partner in a short-lived Arena Football League team called the Austin Wranglers which lasted from 2004 to 2008.
More than six years after he’d last stepped onto the field for an NFL game, the New York Jets gave Wadsworth a second chance. Remarkably, Wadsworth slimmed down from 298 pounds to 255 in time for the start of training camp. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. Just before the 2007 season began, the Jets released the now-32-year-old Wadsworth, effectively ending his NFL career a second time.