The Top 10 NFL Draft Busts of All Time

By Ryan Truland   April 16, 2023 

The Top 10 NFL Draft Busts of All Time

The 2023 NFL Draft is rapidly approaching, and all 32 franchises are hoping to add young talent to their squads for the future. Sometimes landing a difference making rookie, especially at the quarterback position, can increase a team’s Super Bowl odds significantly. Unfortunately, teams often select players who don’t pan out in the pros for various reasons.

The draft term “bust” refers to a player who a franchise invested a high pick into who fails to meet expectations. Here, we are going to rank the top 10 biggest NFL Draft busts of all time:

10. Steve Emtman, Defensive Lineman, Indianapolis Colts (1992)

Up first on the list of worst NFL Draft busts is former top overall pick and University of Washington defensive lineman, Steve Emtman. The Indianapolis Colts selected the 1991 Heisman Trophy finalist with the hopes that he’d be harassing opposing offenses for years to come.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Emtman played just six seasons in the NFL and only three for the Colts. The d-lineman tallied just five sacks over a mere 18 games for Indianapolis. After brief stints in Miami and Washington, Emtman decided to retire at the age of 27. 

9. Art Schlichter, Quarterback, Baltimore Colts (1982)

The first of several quarterbacks on the list is Ohio State product Art Schlichter, who was selected fourth overall by the Baltimore Colts in the 1982 NFL Draft. For his career, Schlichter threw just three touchdowns to 11 interceptions to go along with a passer rating of just 42.6.

Unfortunately, Schlichter had a gambling problem that derailed his NFL career. According to USA Today, the quarterback once owed over $700,000 in gambling debts. In 1987, he was arrested in New York City for his involvement in a multimillion-dollar sports betting operation before filing for bankruptcy a year later.

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8. Blair Thomas, Running Back, New York Jets (1990)

Former Penn State star running back Blair Thomas was taken second overall by the New York Jets in 1990, an NFL Draft that included the league’s all-time rushing leader, Emmitt Smith. The tailback spent four years in New York, mainly being a part of a three to four man rotation in the backfield.

Thomas rushed for as many touchdowns (7) as years played in the NFL. The back had brief stints with the Cowboys, Patriots, and Panthers before officially retiring in 1995. 

7. Heath Shuler, Quarterback, Washington Redskins (1994)

Former NFL quarterback turned U.S. Representative Heath Shuler tossed twice as many INTs as touchdowns while in the league. The Tennessee Volunteer standout was viewed as the future in Washington, who took him third overall in the 1994 NFL Draft.  

Poor play and a significant foot injury that required two surgeries led to Shuler’s retirement in 1999. Afterward, he became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from North Carolina’s 11th district, where he served from 2007 to 2013.

Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler (21) walks off the field as the MVP after defeating Boston College 38-23 in the Hall of Fame Bowl game in Tampa, Fla. Jan. 1, 1993. Ut Bowl History
Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler (21) walks off the field as the MVP after defeating Boston College 38-23 in the Hall of Fame Bowl game in Tampa, Fla. Jan. 1, 1993. Ut Bowl History

6. Charles Rogers, Wide Receiver, Detroit Lions (2003)

After two dominant seasons at Michigan State, wide receiver Charles Rogers took the next step and was taken second overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2003 NFL Draft. Following a successful start to his pro career, Rogers broke his clavicle, which ended his rookie campaign. Unfortunately, substance abuse issues and lack of production led to his release in 2006.

Rogers would never step on an NFL field again after several teams passed on signing him prior to the ‘06 season. Sadly, the wideout passed away at the age of 38 due to liver failure.

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5. Brian Bosworth, Linebacker, Seattle Seahawks (1987)

Kicking off the top five biggest NFL Draft busts is Brian Bosworth, aka “The Boz”, who was the first player taken in the 1987 NFL Draft by the newly-minted Seattle Seahawks. The franchise’s first-ever selection hung up the cleats after just two seasons as a result of a shoulder injury.

In fact, team doctor Pierce E. Scranton Jr. claimed that Bosworth had “the shoulders of a sixty-year-old”. While not making much money as a player, the linebacker managed to win a $7 million lawsuit against Lloyd’s of London.

Aug 22, 1987; St. Louis, MO, USA; FILE PHOTO; Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth (44) against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 22, 1987; St. Louis, MO, USA; FILE PHOTO; Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth (44) against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports

4. Tony Mandarich, Offensive Tackle, Green Bay Packers (1989)

The final non-quarterback on the list of the top 10 worst NFL Draft busts is offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, who the Green Bay Packers chose second overall in the 1989 Draft. Once touted as the best offensive line prospect ever, Mandarich was a star, even appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice.

Mandarich started his tenure in Green Bay with a lengthy contract holdout which preceded his unspectacular play on the field. The Packers decided to cut the lineman with one year remaining on his four-year rookie deal. The Michigan State product checked into rehab for drugs and alcohol before returning to the NFL for another insignificant stint.

3. Akili Smith, Quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals (1999)

Akili Smith was the third consecutive quarterback taken off the board in the 1999 NFL Draft, following Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb. By selecting Smith, the Cincinnati Bengals missed out on future stars like Edgerrin James, Torry Holt, Champ Bailey, and even fellow QB Daunte Culpepper.

Smith had a big senior season at Oregon, which led to him being viewed as a marquee prospect. As a rookie, the QB struggled in seven appearances, throwing just a pair of touchdowns to six interceptions. Smith only threw a total of five TDs in the pros when all was said and done.  

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2. Ryan Leaf, Quarterback, San Diego Chargers (1998)

When thinking of NFL Draft busts, two names immediately come to mind and the first is San Diego Chargers 1998 pick, quarterback Ryan Leaf. The emerging Washington State QB was taken just one pick after NFL legend Peyton Manning, as the Chargers were in need of a new signal caller.

In 10 games as a rookie, Leaf threw a mere two touchdowns while tossing a whopping 15 INTs—one of the worst TD/INT ratios that you’ll ever come across. Leaf was unable to rebound in his sophomore campaign after an injury to his throwing shoulder ended his season before it began. Ryan Leaf retired from football at the age of 26.

1. JaMarcus Russell, Quarterback, Oakland Raiders (2007)

The king of the biggest NFL Draft busts is none other than former Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell. The LSU star was a physical specimen when in shape, but that was a big part of the problem. Russell held out through the first week of his rookie season before inking a $68 million deal, with $31.5 million guaranteed—a contract the Raiders would soon regret.

Russell built a reputation for not being fully invested in becoming a professional quarterback, highlighted by the story of the Raiders sending him with blank tapes of film to see if he was actually watching tape; he was not. In all, JaMarcus Russell started 25 games, totalling 19 touchdowns to go against 38 turnovers.  

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