It’s been said that the NFL Draft is more of an art than a science. While the last thing we need in today’s era is another sports cliché, there’s an absolute truth to that statement. For instance, the following list features 25 of the greatest college football players. And the main thing that they all have in common, outside of highly-decorated college careers, is the fact that they were significant failures at the NFL level. Here’s our list of 25 college football players who turned out to be busts.
Archie Griffin, Running Back — For all the greats that have played College Football, running back Archie Griffin is the only player in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy two times. The three-time All-American running back for the Ohio State Buckeyes once made legendary head coach Woody Hayes remark that Griffin was the best football player he’d ever seen; it certainly helped that Griffin helped lead the Buckeyes to four consecutive Big 10 Conference titles, and four Rose Bowl appearances. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Griffin in the 1976 NFL Draft, but he was just never able to replicate his college productivity in the NFL, rushing for only 2,808 yards and seven touchdowns in seven NFL seasons. After a brief last gasp at his NFL career with the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL in 1985, Griffin’s pro football playing days were over before his 32nd birthday.
Tony Mandarich, Offensive Tackle — Once looked at as a futuristic prototype for what an offensive lineman would look like (at 6’6 and 330lbs), and referred to as “the best offensive line prospect ever” by Sports Illustrated magazine, All-American offensive tackle Tony Mandarich from Michigan State University is among the biggest busts in NFL Draft history. Between a lengthy holdout to start his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, major attitude issues, and nagging injuries (that were likely a byproduct of his admitted steroid usage), Mandarich didn’t even finish out his rookie contract before getting released.
Jamarcus Russell, Quarterback — A five-star recruit when he came to LSU, quarterback Jamarcus Russell had what you could honestly refer to as “generational arm talent.” There’s a reason that, after Russell declared after his junior season for the 2007 NFL Draft, Mel Kiper Jr. gushed about Russell’s private workout, calling it the best individual workout he’d seen from a quarterback since John Elway almost a quarter-century prior. As we all know, Russell’s total lack of work ethic, battles with his weight (once ballooning up to over 300lbs), and substance abuse issues (Including his affinity for mixing Codeine with soda pop), led to him going down as one of the biggest NFL Draft catastrophes of all time.
Jeff George, Quarterback — Jeff George is that guy who’s preternaturally talented at his job but never became a success because of his own sense of entitlement and total inability to get along with anyone in the workplace. George backed out of two different college scholarships because the coaches wouldn’t cater their offense to him. But because of his rare arm talent, he was still the #1 overall pick of the 1990 NFL Draft, taken by the Indianapolis Colts. But the Colts had enough of antics after just four seasons (he had a winning record in only one of them), trading him to the Atlanta Falcons, where he famously had the sideline blowup with then-coach June Jones.
Ryan Leaf, Quarterback — Ryan Leaf was such a big, strong, and gifted athlete that coming out of high school, he considered playing football at the University of Miami… as a linebacker. But after former Washington State head coach Mike Price convinced Leaf that the two of them could win a Rose Bowl if Leaf came to Pullman, Leaf would go on to set a number of school records and lead them to their first-ever Pac-10 championship (and that Rose Bowl win Price foresaw). But the second overall pick of the 1998 NFL Draft turned out to be perhaps the biggest bust in history, between a combination of horrible attitude (like his famous berating of a San Diego reporter) and even worse work ethic (like when he skipped a San Diego Chargers practice to play golf).
Tim Tebow, Quarterback — Maybe the most discussed — and even fabled — college football quarterback of this century, Tim Tebow came to the University of Florida as a ballyhooed high school All-American from nearby Ponte Vedra, Florida, and after sitting behind veteran Chris Leak during his freshman year, Tebow became the only player in program history to be named the team MVP three years in a row. Tebow would lead the Gators to two National Championship titles, while racking up an entire trophy case worth of awards, including the 2007 Heisman Trophy. But NFL Draft analysts warned that Tebow’s erratic accuracy, poor passing mechanics, and general lack of passing abilities would hinder his success in the NFL. Between all of those (which were proven right), plus the media attention he brought upon each team (because of his strong Christian beliefs), Tebow bounced around four NFL teams before his career ended after just three seasons.
Robert Griffin III, Quarterback — Thanks to a meteoric rise during his senior year at Baylor University, Robert Griffin III not only became a household name among college football fans, but with the help of a very catchy nickname (“RG3”), he became an outright phenomenon who would go on to win the 2011 Heisman Trophy. In the ensuing NFL Draft, the Washington Redskins traded three first-round picks to move up six spots to give themselves an opportunity to draft Griffin. Griffin had a downright magical rookie year, being named to the Pro Bowl after his first year, winning the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, and putting on several spectacular performances. But Griffin would let the fame — and his favoritism from owner Daniel Snyder — go to his head, clashing with former Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan (which led to the latter eventually being dismissed). Three years later, the Redskins made Griffin a game-day inactive for the entire season, leading to his release just four seasons after he was drafted.
Todd Blackledge, Quarterback — Todd Blackledge is the product of teams being too enamored with the idea of a player being “a winner” and overlooking his shortcomings in favor of that subjective judgment. In 1982, Blackledge led the Penn State Nittany Lions to a national championship, culminating a four-year career in which he went 31-5 as a starter. The Kansas City Chiefs thought so highly of Blackledge that they made him pick number seven of the 1983 NFL Draft, even ahead of future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Blackledge himself admitted to being surprised that the Chiefs picked him over some of the other quarterbacks. He was expecting to hear his name called in the second round. Blackledge spent most of his career being pulled in and out of games by the Chiefs coaching staff. His career high for passing yards was 1,707 yards in a season. After seven seasons in the NFL, Blackledge retired.
Peter Warrick, Wide Receiver — Arguably the brightest star among the star-studded Florida State Seminoles teams of the late 1990s, wide receiver Peter Warrick was perhaps the most electrifying player in college football in 1999. The two-time All-American helped the Seminoles become the first college football team in history to go wire-to-wire with the #1 ranking, and put the Seminoles on his back in the National Championship game against Virginia Tech, leading them to a come from behind victory for the title. But in the lead up to the NFL Draft, several red flags emerged around Warrick’s pro potential, including a surprisingly slow time in the 40-yard dash (4.58 seconds). Thanks to never really being able to translate as a wide receiver in the NFL, and battles with nagging injuries, Warrick was out of the NFL after just six seasons, having less than 700 yards receiving in five of those six seasons.
Byron Leftwich, Quarterback — Carson Palmer might’ve been the consensus “best” quarterback in the 2003 NFL Draft, But few will argue that Byron Leftwich wasn’t the most exciting and prolific signal-caller in that year’s class. At Marshall University, Leftwich put up numbers like he was playing a video game, with the computer being placed on the “Easy” setting. He amassed 12,090 yards of total offense, throwing for 11,903 yards on 1,442 attempts, with 89 touchdown passes. That led to the Jacksonville Jaguars selecting Leftwich with the 7th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. But Leftwich’s career was derailed thanks to injuries and perceptions of him being immature and unwilling to put in the necessary work to be an NFL quarterback. Eventually, Leftwich lost his job to David Garrard, a mid-round pick taken the year before. He spent the remainder of his NFL career as a journeyman backup.
Courtney Brown, Defensive End — In a draft that featured highly-coveted linebacker LaVar Arrington, the do-it-all offensive weapon Peter Warrick, and a franchise-caliber left tackle in Chris Samuels, defensive end Courtney Brown from Penn State was the “no-brainer” choice for the #1 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Considered to be a prototype edge rusher at 6’4 and 285lbs, with a 37” vertical leap and a time of 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash (which was faster than Warrick’s time), Brown set NCAA records with 33 sacks and 70 tackles for a loss. Naturally, that led to the Cleveland Browns taking Brown with the top overall pick in the said draft. However, Brown would go on to struggle mightily with injuries during his NFL career, but even more damaging was the fact that he earned the label from opponents of being “soft.” Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp once famously described Brown as “Look like Tarzan, play like Jane.”
Vince Young, Quarterback — Vince Young capped a stellar four-year career at the University of Texas by being named the MVP of the 2005-2006 National Championship game against USC, considered by many to be the greatest college football game ever played. A physically imposing dual-threat quarterback, Many thought Young might be the #1 overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft. While the Tennessee Titans were able to select him with the 3rd overall pick that year, it’s well reported that then head coach Jeff Fisher preferred quarterback Jay Cutler, and then offensive coordinator Norm Chow preferred Matt Leinart, but owner Bud Adams pulled the trigger on the selection of Young. Young had a brilliant rookie season in 2006, winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and being named to the Pro Bowl. But after spending too much time enjoying the “off the field” perks of being an NFL quarterback, not putting in enough time to get better at his craft, and clashing with his coaches and teammates, the Titans parted ways with Young in 2010. The final nail in the proverbial coffin of Young’s career was when he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 (as a backup) and famously called them a “dream team;” the Eagles would go on to finish with an 8-8 record that year.
Desmond Howard, Wide Receiver/Return Specialist — Just how dominant was wide receiver Desmond Howard during his junior year at Michigan? In the voting for the 1991 Heisman Trophy, Howard accumulated 85% of the first-place votes, which was the largest margin ever recorded. When leaving Ann Arbor, Howard had set or tied five NCAA and 12 school records across various stats. The Washington Redskins traded two first-round picks and swapped third-round picks to move up to #4 overall in the 1992 NFL Draft so they can select Howard. But despite playing behind Washington’s legendary trio of receivers known as “The Posse,” Howard never materialized into an NFL wide receiver. And although he would go on to win a Super Bowl MVP award and earn an All-Pro designation, it was all as a return specialist.
Brian Bosworth, Linebacker — There are famous college football players, and then there are infamous college football players; Brian Bosworth is the heavyweight champion of all-time when it comes to the latter designation. A “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”-type player if there ever was one, Bosworth was the guy who was a two-time winner of the Butkus Award (given to the best linebacker in the nation) and a two-time unanimous All-American. But “The Boz,” which was his egomaniacal alter-ego, was the guy who referred to the NCAA as “Communists” and was eventually banned from playing with his University of Oklahoma Sooners after testing positive for anabolic steroids. Selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 1987 Supplemental Draft, the Bosworth had to retire after less than three NFL seasons due to degenerative arthritis in his shoulders, which could have been a byproduct of the performing enhancing drugs he took.
Andre Ware, Quarterback — Andre Ware is one of the poster children for why NFL teams would shy away from quarterbacks who were products of “run and shoot” offenses in college. At the University of Houston, Ware broke many passing records set by his predecessor (fellow NFL Draft bust David Klingler), setting 26 NCAA passing records of his own. Despite being warned by his own internal scouting directors, Detroit Lions head coach Wayne Fontes made Ware the #1 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. Fontes would then spend the next four years doing everything he can to effectively stunt Ware’s development as a passer, shuffling him to and from the bench in a rotation alongside incumbents Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer. By 1995, the Lions made Ware eligible for the NFL’s Expansion Draft, when he was taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars. But before their inaugural season in the NFL, the Jaguars cut Ware, and he would finish out his career playing in the CFL.
Rick Mirer, Quarterback — If you’re looking for a cautionary tale of why you should never anoint someone as “the next [legendary player],” look no further than the case of Rick Mirer. A prolific quarterback at Notre Dame University, finishing among the school’s historical leaders in several passing categories, Mirer was anointed by some zealous college football fans and Fighting Irish alumni as “the next Joe Montana.” That’s why there was a riveting debate leading up to the 1993 NFL Draft when teams evaluated Mirer versus the other quarterback stud in the draft, Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe would end up going #1 overall, with the Seattle Seahawks then taking Mirer at #2. After a somewhat promising rookie season, Mirer would go on to throw 39 interceptions over his next three years as the Seahawks’ starting quarterback, culminating in Seattle trading him to Chicago in 1997. He subsequently demanded a release and spent the rest of his career as a journeyman backup.
Akili Smith, Quarterback — After a brilliant senior season at the University of Oregon, in which he threw for 3,763 yards and 30 touchdowns, Akili Smith became the third overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, which famously saw quarterbacks taken with the first three picks; Smith was taken behind Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb that year. Smith showed flashes of his dual-threat ability during his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals, but Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski openly groused about how Smith never really took his responsibilities as a professional quarterback as seriously as he should have. During his four-year stint with the Bengals, Smith started only 17 games, throwing five touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. After he was released in 2002, he never played a snap in the NFL again.
Charles Rogers, Wide Receiver — One of the most prolific wide receivers in Big 10 history, wide receiver Charles Rogers looked like a sure-fire stud waiting to happen. The winner of the Fred Biletnikoff Award (given to the nation’s best wide receiver) and named a unanimous All-American, many people argued that Rogers was the best player in college football overall in 2002. That’s what makes his career such a tragedy after the Detroit Lions picked him with the #2 overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. Rogers would go on to break both collarbones, one in each of his first two seasons in the NFL. The led to Rogers suffering issues with addiction to prescription painkillers, which resulted in the Lions releasing him after just three years in the NFL.
Lawrence Phillips, Running Back — Arguably one of the most egregious mistakes in NFL Draft history, Lawrence Phillips was seen as an utterly despicable person by many and a deeply troubled person by nearly everyone. Despite a slew of transgressions while at the University of Nebraska, two separate charges of assault (the latter being his a female basketball player at the school), Phillips was a star running back for the Cornhuskers, running for 1,818 yards and 16 touchdowns during his sophomore year (and 712 yards and 11 touchdowns during his suspension-shortened junior year). That led then-St. Louis Rams head coach Dick Vermeil to believe he could mentor and “fix” Phillips. That didn’t happen, as Phillips reportedly spent many of his nights drinking until 4 am on the night before practices. After being taken with the 6th overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, Phillips was out of the NFL by 1997.
Rashaan Salaam, Running Back — During his junior season at the University of Colorado in 1994, Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman Trophy after becoming only the fourth running back in the college football history to run for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Salaam helped the Buffaloes defeat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl. Coupled with his 24 touchdowns as a junior, that was enough to lead the Chicago Bears to pick Salaam in the first round of the 1995 NFL Draft. But Salaam wasn’t nearly the same player in the NFL that he was in college, thanks in large part to issues with injuries, fumbles, and reported usage of marijuana. The Bears parted ways with Salaam after just three seasons, in which he ran for less than 2,000 total yards.
Trent Richardson, Running Back — NFL Draft analysts and pundits were practically tripping over themselves to declare Trent Richardson the best player in the 2012 NFL Draft, after the two blue-chip quarterback prospects (Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III). In 2011, Richardson won the Doak Walker award and was named the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American. Holding the fourth overall pick in the said draft, the Cleveland Browns swapped a couple of mid-round picks to move up just one spot (to #3 overall) to grab Richardson. After a somewhat successful rookie season (in which he flirted with 1,000 yards rushing), the Browns shockingly traded Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick. But Richardson began to show signs of a shocking lack of vision as a runner, and a total lack of the dynamic style that made him so successful in college. The Colts released him after the 2015 season.
Darren McFadden, Running Back — Under head coach Houston Nutt at the University of Arkansas, running back Darren McFadden paired with fellow running back Felix Jones (and quarterback Matt Jones) to run one of the most prolific offenses in the SEC, including lining up in the “Wild Hog” formation, with McFadden at quarterback. McFadden would go on to accumulate more than 5,000 yards of total offense and 50 total touchdowns (including seven touchdown passes) in three years at Arkansas, leading to the Oakland Raiders picking him as the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. But McFadden struggled with injuries and inconsistency during his NFL career and was curtailed by the constant turmoil the Raiders found themselves in during the latter years of the Al Davis era.
Ron Dayne, Running Back — In 1999, University of Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne won the Heisman Trophy after running for 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns and setting the NCAA Division I-A rushing record for total yards in a career. He became one of only eight players in NCAA history to run for one thousand yards in all four of his college years, and he tied Ricky Williams and Marcus Allen for most games with 200 yards rushing (12). The New York Giants took Dayne with the 11th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, envisioning him pairing with Tiki Barber for a “thunder and lightning”-type backfield. But “The Great Dayne” struggled to stay in shape while in the NFL, constantly drawing the ire of head coach Jim Fassel for his heft. After running for 770 yards as a rookie, Dayne would go on to run for less than 700 yards in five of his next six seasons in the NFL.
Johnny Manziel, Quarterback — Unless you’ve been living under a rock over the last several years, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the meteoric rise and even-more-meteoric fall of quarterback Johnny Manziel. After breaking the single-season record for offensive production in the SEC (4,600 yards), Manziel would become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Manziel’s troubles began from there, after drawing the ire of the NCAA for allegations of making money from autographs, publicly feuding with any public personality who criticized him, and numerous reports of his wild-partying ways. That led a lot of NFL teams to avoid drafting him, but Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam decided his franchise would draft Manziel after supposedly being urged by a homeless person to take him. Manziel would last less than two seasons in the NFL after numerous reports had him partying his off-the-field life away.
Matt Leinart, Quarterback — After winning the 2004 Heisman Trophy and back-to-back national championships as the quarterback of the University of Southern California Trojans, Matt Leinart shocked everyone by deciding to skip the 2005 NFL Draft and come back for his senior year, and the chance to “three-peat” at USC. We would later find out that while Leinart did lead USC back to the national championship, he spent plenty of time in his last year at USC enjoying the Los Angeles nightlife and hobnobbing with the celebrity types. After being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2006 NFL Draft, Leinart spent most of his time away from the team — either in his downtime, or the several times he was injured — continuing the partying habits that he learned his senior year. Before the start of the 2010 season, the Cardinals released Leinart, after throwing 14 touchdowns and 20 interceptions during his tenure with the team.