At first glance, there's not much difference between some of the NFL draft's biggest successes and biggest busts. On the strength of college greatness and lofty expectations, both types of players were promised contracts with sums that rival the GDP of small island nations. Take the 1998 draft for example. There was intense debate over who should be the No. 1 pick: quarterback Peyton Manning or signal-caller Ryan Leaf. Manning became one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game while Leaf turned into an all-around disappointment.
Leaf is on this list with nine others who were poised to be the next big thing. Of course, none of them were: Injuries, prima donna behavior, drug abuse, and plain ineffectiveness on the field turned them into case studies of just how far a reputation can sink in the NFL. Some of these outcomes seem like the karmic fruits of professional-level arrogance. Some are simply tragedies. Let's see who they are.
If you judge a linebacker's worth by the size of his ego, Brian Bosworth earned every penny of his $11 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks in 1987. "The Boz" was full bravado: He displayed flamboyant haircuts, wrote his autobiography after his rookie year and unsuccessfully sued the NFL to wear his college number in the league. While attending the University of Oklahoma, he was barred from participating in the Orange Bowl for failing a steroid test. In response, he stood on the sidelines at the game wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed an alternative meaning for the NCAA acronym: National Communists Against Athletes.
On the field, Bosworth never offered the results to justify his then-record contract and suffered from injuries throughout his three-year career. After leaving the NFL, he filmed the over-the-top action film "Stone Cold" and sporadically appeared on screen in subsequent years.
In 1989, the 6-foot 6-inch, 315-pound frame of offensive tackle Tony Mandarich graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with a tagline that proclaimed him "The Incredible Bulk" and "the best offensive line prospect ever." Three years later, the same magazine anointed Mandarich "The Incredible Bust." Mandarich initially claimed that his intimidating physique was the product of a lot of weight lifting and a ton of calories. He later admitted to using steroids for five years prior to the draft [source: Kozak]. He was drafted second overall by the Green Bay Packers but was cut from the team after the '92 season. He endured an ongoing battle with alcohol and painkillers before returning to the league in 1996 with the Indianapolis Colts. Mandarich had three more average seasons before he retired.
After distinguishing himself as a Heisman Trophy finalist at the University of Kentucky, the Cleveland Browns picked Couch first overall in the 1999 NFL draft. Couch started his second game, but he never delivered and endured a series of injuries throughout his professional career. In his five-season career with the Browns, he threw 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions. Cleveland released him in 2003. He tried to make a comeback several years later but failed. Even though he wasn't an active player, Couch tested positive for human growth hormone and steroids in August 2007 and was suspended by the league.
There was a lot of debate in 1998 about whether Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning deserved to be the first selection in the NFL draft. As it turned out, Leaf was drafted second by the San Diego Chargers and given a $31 million contract. He played well in his first two games before going into a tailspin that included poor play and feuds with the media. The Chargers released him at the close of the 2000 season. Over a subsequent 15-month span, he was signed and released by San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas. A wrist injury he incurred while employed by the Seattle Seahawks sent him to retirement with a cumulative record of 14 touchdowns, 36 interceptions, and a career quarterback rating of 50.0.
Several teams passed on Lawrence Phillips before the St. Louis Rams scooped him up in the 1996 draft with the sixth overall pick. The teams' concerns had nothing to do with his prospects on the gridiron; they related to his character. In a well-publicized incident at the University of Nebraska, the running back dragged his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs by her hair. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning.
Phillips was a solid player, scoring 12 touchdowns during two NFL seasons but he was released by the Rams for insubordination. After stints with the Miami Dolphins and in NFL Europe, he returned stateside with the San Francisco 49ers but was cut for skipping practice.
In August 2005, after losing a pickup football game to a group of teenagers, he intentionally hit them with his car. That same month, he assaulted his girlfriend on two separate occasions. He was convicted on seven felony charges stemming from the incidents and was sentenced to a total of more than 31 years in prison.
Jamarcus Russell is this list's most recent bust, but he's made a strong case for the biggest flameout to date. After a standout college career at Louisiana State University, the quarterback was picked first overall in the 2007 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. even proclaimed him the next John Elway [source: USA Today]. Russell also knew his own worth: He ditched training camp and held out for a six-year, $60 million contract, of which $32 million was guaranteed.
But the young signal-caller started poorly and grew progressively worse, until he was benched in 2009 and finished the season with the worst quarterback rating in the league. The Raiders won just seven of the 25 games in which Russell was its starting QB. After just three seasons, the team released him in May 2010. USA Today calculated that Russell earned approximately $110,000 for each of his 354 completions [source: Weir].
University of Oregon quarterback Akili Smith was drafted in 1999 with the third overall pick, and was paid a $10.5 million signing bonus by the Cincinnati Bengals. Things turned sour right away. The Bengals lost nine of Smith's first 10 starts. He held a spot on the team for four seasons -- though he started just one game in each of his final two -- before drifting to the Packers and the Buccaneers for similarly unimpressive stints. Smith totaled just five touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his NFL career. He briefly retired before returning in the European league and the Canadian Football League. He was released soon after and permanently retired in October 2007.
With a record season capped by 4,699 yards and 46 touchdowns at the University of Houston, 1989 Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware was a natural first pick for the Detroit Lions in the 1990 draft. But it became clear that Ware, who skipped out on his senior year to join the NFL, needed more time to grow. He spent a lot of time on the bench and the spread offense that propelled him to greatness in college never seemed to work in the pros. He spent time with the Raiders and Jaguars, ending his NFL career with 83 completions in 161 attempts, 1,112 yards and five touchdowns. Although his playing career ended in 1999, Ware found success after football as a broadcaster, commentator and analyst.
Living up to a six-year, $55 million contract is a tall order for any draftee. But Charles Rogers had an impressive start to his NFL career: After being drafted second overall by the Detroit Lions in 2003, the wide receiver set a record by becoming the first rookie in team history to catch two touchdown passes in his first game. In his first five games, he averaged 11 yards per catch [source: Hill]. But after five games, he broke his collarbone in practice, and the injury put him out for the rest of the season. In his second season, he broke the same bone during the first game and once again missed the rest of the season. In the meantime, Rogers smoked marijuana and graduated to prescription painkillers. In his third season return in 2005, he was noticeably slower and contributed just one touchdown. He also received a four-game suspension for a drug violation and was cut from the Lions the following year.
Todd Marinovich had a world of expectations heaped on him from the time he was a little boy. His father, Marv Marinovich, had seen his own NFL dreams dashed and raised his son to be a quarterback. The intense family training seemed to work: Todd Marinovich played brilliantly at University of Southern California before being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1991.
But from a young age, Marinovich dabbled in illegal substances to cope with pressure and his father's expectations. The seriousness of his addiction grew during his time in the spotlight. His performance suffered: The 100.3 quarterback rating he held in 1991 plummeted to 58.2 the following year. After failing his third NFL drug test in August 1993, he was cut from the league.
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