Every year NFL teams load up their draft boards with prospects they feel can help them repeat as champions, solve issues to make them competitive, or for the right athlete to keep them relevant and in contention.
Every football team has needs and all eyes are transfixed on the extensive process, including combines, that lead up to the spring entry draft. Who will the next Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Gale Sayers or Jerry Rice? Many names are put on a pedestal and proclaimed, but very few measure up to the reputation that proceeds them.
Like the month of March, they came in like a lion and left the league like a lamb. Their careers have been hugely unsuccessful compared to what they were projected to accomplish.
Here are 20 examples of highly touted collegiate stars who were dominant on the gridiron in the NCAA, but fizzled out once they reached the NFL.
To give you some background on the selection process, all 20 of the players listed here were one or more of the following: Heisman award winner, number one overall draft pick, and/or high first round selection.
20. Tony Mandarich – OT (2nd Overall Pick, 1989 – Green Bay Packers)
Any offensive lineman who is 6’6″, weighs 330 lbs. and can run the 40 in 4.65 seconds is sure to be listed as “A-1” on scout’s draft rankings. So it was that Canadian OT Tony Mandarich was highly rated out of Michigan State in 1989, going second overall to the Green Bay Packers. Already a cause celebre nicknamed the “Incredible Bulk” and featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Mandarich quickly fell out of favor of his new bosses and the NFL in general with his poor attitude, out-spoken ways and party-boy ways. In his rookie season, he infamously held out and because he missed training camp was used mostly on special teams. Mandarich, who was selected ahead of Barry Sanders and Deion Sanders, would play three very sub-standard seasons with Green Bay and was cut before the remaining fourth year of his contract kicked in. In 1992, SI put him on the cover again, only with the tag line “The NFL’s Incredible Bust.”
19. Steve Spurrier – QB (3rd Overall Pick, 1967 – San Francisco 49ers)
Let’s just say Steve Spurrier is a better college football coach (and former player) than he was a NFL quarterback. Having won the Heisman in 1966 after a great career at Florida, the San Francisco 49ers used the third pick in the 1967 draft on him. He was mostly a back-up to John Brodie for his first five seasons and started six of 54 games. Spurrier completed 108 of 204 pass attempts for 1,232 yards, six TDs and 18 interceptions. He took over for Brodie in 1972, starting nine of 13 games and having his “best” season, throwing for 1,983 yards, 18 TDs and 16 INTs. It was pretty much downhill from there as his numbers regressed steadily. Overall, in 10 seasons, Spurrier’s record as a starter was 13-24-1 (he appeared in 106 total games). He passed for 6.878 yards and 40 touchdowns, but also threw 60 interceptions for a QB rating of 60.1. He is, however, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, as a player and a coach.
18. Johnny “Lam” Jones – RB/WR (2nd Overall Pick, 1980 – New York Jets)
We could see why the New York Jets traded up to take running back/wide receiver John Wesley “Lam” Jones second overall in 1980. Not only could he play football, but he was a world class sprinter who won a gold medal with the U.S. track team in the 4 x 100 m relay at the 1976 Summer Olympics. A star at the University of Texas, Jones rushed for 850 yards and six TDs in four seasons, as well as catching 85 passes for 1,603 yards and 14 more touchdowns. At the NFL level, however, Jones struggled badly. While he had the speed to beat any defensive back down the field, his hands never caught up. In five seasons (61 games), the Oklahoma born speedster caught just 138 passes for 2,322 yards and 13 TDs. What made matters even worse for the Jets was the $2.1 million contract they gave him, becoming the first player to ever get over a million bucks to play.
17. Gino Torretta – QB (192nd Overall Pick, 1993 – Minnesota Vikings)
Winning a Heisman Trophy might just be the kiss of death for the majority of future pro quarterbacks. In 1992, Miami Hurricanes pivot Gino Torretta passed for 3,060 yards and 19 TDs (7 INTs) in 11 games, earning him the coveted hardware. He also won a national title with the Hurricanes in 1991, cementing his status as Big Man on Campus. But, NFL success — or distinct lack thereof — didn’t follow for the Californian pivot. He was nearly a “Mr. Irrelevant”, waiting until the 7th round and the 192nd spot to hear his name called by the Minnesota Vikings. He made the team, but dressed for only one game and took no snaps. He languished in football purgatory with Minnesota and Detroit in 1994 and 1995, staying on their practice roster. In 1996, then with the Seattle Seahawks, he got into one game, the season finale, where he completed five of his 16 (career) pass attempts for 41 yards and a touchdown, as well as an interception.
16. Heath Shuler – QB (3rd Overall Pick, 1994 – Washington Redskins)
Like fellow list mate Steve Spurrier, former first round NFL pick and collegiate stud Heath Shuler was better at politics than he was chucking the pigskin. Shuler was a standout QB at Tennessee and in 1993 he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to Florida State pivot Charlie Ward. The Washington Redskins were so enamored of Shuler that they selected him third overall, or 194 picks before they also took Tulsa QB Gus Frerotte, who would supplant Shuler as starter in 1995. Shuler struggled both with adjusting to the pro game and with injuries in three seasons with Washington. He appeared in 19 games, starting 13 and had a record of 4-9. Shuler completed 186 of 390 passes for 2,403 yards, 13 TDs and 19 INTs. He was traded to New Orleans in 1997 and was even worse, going 4-5 with 1,288 yards passing, two TDs and a whopping 14 interceptions. Post football, Shuler spent six pretty productive years as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
15. Danny Wuerffel – QB (99th Overall Pick, 1997 – New Orleans Saints)
Birds of a feather stick together, at least where this list is concerned. In the early 90s, collegiate superstar QB Danny Wuerffel was setting records and leading the Florida Gators to a national championship, under the tutelage of legendary coach and fellow NFL bust Steve Spurrier, no less. Wuerffel finished his Heisman Trophy winning career at Florida with a ridiculous 10,875 yards passing in 46 games, as well as 114 TD strikes, which ranks second all-time in the NCAA. However, he didn’t get any love from NFL scouts and team executives, falling to pick no. 99 by New Orleans in the 1997 draft. He all but languished on the bench there, starting six of 18 games and fashioning a 2-4 record with 1,404 yards passing, nine touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He bounced around from Green Bay to Chicago in 2000-01, taking no snaps and was reunited with Spurrier in Washington, where he went 2-2 as a lackluster starter and was released.
14. Chris Weinke – QB (106th Overall Pick, 2001 – Carolina Panthers)
We were right, the Heisman Trophy is the Kiss of Death for most college superstar quarterbacks. In 2000, Florida State pivot Chris Weinke was the talk of the nation, winning the Heisman after throwing for 4,167 yards and 33 touchdowns. It is interesting to note that Weinke was an older QB at the time, having eschewed football initially to play ball in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system. Like a few others on this list, he didn’t much recognition at the draft, waiting until the fourth round to see his name on the board at no. 106 to Carolina. He was decent in his rookie season with the Cats, attempting 540 passes in 15 starts and completing 293. However, he only had 11 TD passes against 19 interceptions and sported a dismal 1-14 record. In 2002 he lost the starting job to Rodney Peete and was pretty much a forgotten man after that. He started just five of 14 games between 2002 and 2007, going 1-4 as a starter and chucking four more TD passes and seven interceptions.
13. Ki-Jana Carter – RB (1st Overall Pick, 1995 – Cincinnati Bengals)
If we were Saquon Barkley, we’d hope not to get picked first overall in this year’s NFL draft. Just two Penn State players in history have been taken at no. 1 and both have been tremendous busts. The first of two, who both make this list, is Ki-Jana Carter, a “can’t miss” running back that the Bengals tabbed in 1995 who definitely “missed.” Carter, who finished second to Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam in Heisman voting in 1994, had a standout junior season with the Nittany Lions, running the ball for 1,539 yards in 11 games and scoring a crazy 23 touchdowns. None other than Joe Paterno encouraged him to forego his senior season and enter the draft, where the Bengals took him first and then signed him to a rookie record seven-year, $19.2 million contract. In his first two seasons he appeared in 31 games, making 14 starts, but only ran for a pedestrian 728 yards (he did score 15 touchdowns). Injuries limited him to 28 games over his five remaining seasons, however, his numbers when he did play were dismal at only 416 yards and five TDs.
12. Andre Ware – QB (7th Overall Pick, 1990 – Detroit Lions)
Looking back at Andre Ware’s numbers with the University of Houston Cougars in 1989, it’s not hard to fathom him winning the Heisman and being taken seventh overall in the 1990 draft by the Detroit Lions. Galveston born Ware completed 365 of 578 pass attempts for an astounding 4,699 yards and 46 touchdowns in 11 games. Then Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes was so enamored of Ware that he overrode his scouting director’s advice and made the young QB the top pick — after which the director resigned. He was right in doing so, as Fontes only ended up playing Ware in garbage time. The young QB started six of his career 14 games with the Lions, throwing for 1,112 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions. He would go on to play in the CFL with three different teams and in NFL Europe.
11. Johnny Manziel – QB (22nd Overall Pick, 2014 – Cleveland Browns)
Only two freshman have ever won the Heisman Trophy and one of them is still playing NFL football. The one who isn’t — Johnny Manziel — has been tabloid fodder since winning college football’s coveted MVP award. The infamous party boy rocketed to fame in his first year at Texas A&M, throwing for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns. He followed it up with an even better sophomore campaign that included 4,114 yards passing and 37 TDs. The Browns, ever in search of a resilient arm behind center, took “Johnny Football” 22nd overall after he texted QB coach Dowell Loggains that he “would wreck the league.” The only thing he wrecked after that was his reputation. It started with a flip of the bird to Washington fans during a pre-season loss, for which he was fined, and things spiraled out of control from there. He lasted 15 whole games in a Browns uniform, making eight starts and going 2-6. He completed 147 of 258 passes for 1,675 yards and seven TDs, as well as seven interceptions. Tired of his off-field antics, the Browns finally released him on Mar. 11, 2016.
10. Matt Leinart – QB (10th Overall Pick, 2006 – Arizona Cardinals)
Seemingly, Matt Leinart was tailor-made for the NFL when he emerged from USC. The quarterback’s last game in his collegiate career was one that would go down in folklore. Leinart was a three-time Heisman finalist that flawlessly operated USC’s pro-style offense with grace and fluidity. An offense that featured Dwayne Jarrett, Reggie Bush, and Lendale White. An offense that could easily accumulate five hundred yards in a game. Leinart was a part of a team that set records in many different categories. The most impressive was owning one of the longest winning streaks in college football history and nearly winning three straight national championships. The Pete Carroll commanded team functioned as their name would entail, like a rogue Trojan brigade sacking coliseums of different teams, week after week. The same prominence did not translate for Matt Leinart when he reached the next level. His pro career mostly consisted of unproductive numbers and comprising the role of a backup quarterback for his brief stay in the NFL.
9. Mike Williams – WR (10th Overall Pick, 2005 – Detroit Lions)
Seemingly, the Lions have always been on a quest for a truly dominant receiver. Their prayers were answered when the Lions drafted Calvin Johnson in 2007 with the second overall pick. In fact, Megatron may very well continue on to be the greatest receiver of all time. However, the Lions had their share of hiccups before they were graced by Calvin Johnson’s presence.
In 2005, Mike Williams was a highly touted receiver coming to the NFL by way of USC. In college, Williams was dominant and he was a finalist for the Heisman trophy. In his last collegiate year, Williams would collect 95 grabs for over 1,300 yards and 16 reception touchdowns. In the NFL, Mike Williams’ talent would not materialize. He would be taken with the number ten pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and in two seasons with Detroit, he would accumulate less than 450 receiving yards. Ouch.
8. Charles Rogers – WR (2nd Overall Pick, 2003 – Detroit Lions)
The Lions own yet another player in this list, Charles Rogers. The Michigan State product had all the makings of an NFL star. He won both the Biletnikhoff trophy and Paul Warfield trophy in his final year as Spartan. He would post similar numbers to Mike Williams while wearing the Spartan green. Rogers was a unanimous first-team All-American. In 2003, the Detroit Lions took Rogers with the second pick overall in the draft. Seemingly, Detroit found their number one receiver and Rogers was the local hero who would help turn the franchise around. Sadly, Rogers would only accumulate 440 yards and 36 receptions in two NFL seasons. Having been compared to Randy Moss with his 4.4 speed in the 40, Rogers was poised to be a firecracker. Instead, he was a box of poppers. Rogers would submerge into legal troubles off the field and would never even show a faint glimmer of brilliance like he did in his collegiate years. This indictment would lead to Detroit going after Mike Williams in 2005 and ultimately their best receiver in history: Calvin Johnson in 2007.
7. Vince Young – QB (3rd Overall Pick, 2006 – Tennessee Titans)
Vince Young had it all coming out of college at Texas: A National Championship, blazing speed, and a set of intangibles that had not been seen in the college circuit for years. As a junior, Vince Young would finish second to Reggie Bush in Heisman voting. His numbers were stellar: Over 3,000 yards passing and over 1,000 yards rushing. This was a precedent, something never seen nor observed in the game before. The trendy quarterback in the Big 12 was Brad Smith. The Missouri star was a consistent 2,000/1,000 contributor in each of his seasons. But Vince Young raised the bar. He would accrue 38 total touchdowns in 2005, leading the Longhorns on a storied championship run. To this day, many say the USC/Texas Rose Bowl of 2005 is the greatest college football game ever. Furthermore, “InVinceAble” holds many UT records, as well as Rose Bowl and BCS records. Seemingly he was a mythical creature of historic proportion. What has not been historic is Vince Young’s NFL career. He has played for five different NFL teams and has often been relegated to the backup QB position. He has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in his career and only had three starts for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, posting a 1-2 record. The man was supposed to be dynamic and change the game. Instead, he was simply a dud.
6. Courtney Brown – DE (1st Overall Pick, 2000 – Cleveland Browns)
Penn State is known as Linebacker University. Brandon Short and LaVarr Arrington both lived up to the hype that surrounded them. Although both men had brief NFL careers, they were prodigious in the time they had on the field. Courtney Brown (shown below missing a tackle) was supposed to have the same impact for the Cleveland Browns. He didn’t. The Nagurski award winner accumulated a record thirty-three career quarterback sacks and seventy tackles for loss. However, Courtney Brown would only accumulate nearly half those sacks in a long and dull six year career. His best season was his rookie campaign and from there it was a slippery slope downhill. Brown had the tools and unrivaled measurables: 6’4, 270 pounds, with a 4.5 forty-yard time. However, the skill and talent did not matriculate in to anything academic in Brown’s NFL career.
5. JaMarcus Russell – QB (1st Overall Pick, 2007 – Oakland Raiders)
In 2007, the NFL Draft sported one of its thinnest classes of all time. Leading the way for the 2007 recruits was JaMarcus Russell, who was actually a very good college quarterback. In his senior year he was a part of an LSU National Championship team that handily defeated Notre Dame. He was economical as a starter and efficiently managed the game for the Bayou Bengals. The Oakland Raiders at the time were a maligned franchise, searching for a solution at the quarterback position. Marcus Tuiasosopo wasn’t the man that the Raiders thought he would be. They were searching for someone new, someone fresh, someone simple: JaMarcus Russell. With the first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Raiders selected Russell. However, Russell’s tenure as quarterback with the Raiders was extraordinarily short lived. To this day, he is classified by many as one of the worst NFL Draft busts in history. In Russell’s defense, in a typical draft he would have been a mid-round selection. However, the timing was not right and Russell was the sparkling ornament of the 2007 NFL Draft and by virtue of this, he earned the number one selection which led to his ultimate demise.
4. Tim Couch – QB (1st Overall Pick, 1999 – Cleveland Browns)
The Cleveland Browns have had their fair share of busts, but Tim Couch takes the cake. This quarterback was supposed to bring “balance to the force” for Cleveland and seemingly he has been an omen of ill repute since his selection in 1999. The turbulent episodes of protégé quarterbacks gone wrong has turned into a potential mini-series platform for the Browns. Couch would continue on to struggle greatly in the NFL, far different from his efforts at Kentucky. In fact, Couch would come in to the league with a 38 touchdown and 4,611 yard campaign in his last season in the NCAA. However, by the conclusion of his career, Couch was comparable to Vince Young; he threw more interceptions than he did touchdowns. One precursor to Couch’s demise was his sluggish speed for a quarterback. He came into the league in an era where the game was getting faster and his 5.2 forty time just could not cut it for a Cleveland franchise sporting a porous offensive line. He was a prototypical gunslinger that fired blanks before he could ever turn in to the outlaw Cleveland had envisioned.
3. Ryan Leaf – QB (2nd Overall Pick, 1998 – San Diego Chargers)
Ryan Leaf is one of the most frequently cited busts in NFL history. In fact, he could be the greatest of all-time. The Washington State prodigy entered the 1998 NFL Draft with an air of confidence that quickly deteriorated into arrogance. However, Leaf had all the scouts drooling. For the San Diego Chargers, he was going to be the next Dan Fouts. He was the predecessor to Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers, and at the time he was their quarterback of the future. Or so they thought. He set Pac-10 records and averaged over 330 yards per game. He threw for 33 touchdown passes in an era where thirty touchdown passes was considered a rarity. Leaf was a 6’5″, well-framed signal caller. He had poise, moxie, and an apparently advanced skill set. What Leaf lacked was character. His behavior was poor and his conduct disgusting. He had a sense of entitlement and terrible attitude. Nevertheless, Leaf signed a huge contract with San Diego after he was drafted. The funds allocated were one of the worst investments in sporting history. Leaf envisioned awards, Super Bowl rings, and decadence. Instead, he finished with a 50.0 QB rating in his tentative career. Ryan Leaf will forever be associated with the term: overhyped primadonna.
2. Eric Crouch – QB (Third Round Selection, 2002 – St. Louis Rams)
Heisman winner Eric Crouch was the only star football player on this list to not be drafted in the first round. In fact, his fall from grace began from the very moment he won a Heisman trophy with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. It was obvious that the football gods had a soft spot for Nebraska and Eric Crouch when they ascended to play the Miami Hurricanes for a National Championship in 2002, despite the fact that they were trounced by two-loss Colorado just weeks before. Furthermore, the Joey Harrington led Oregon Ducks were removed from the title hunt and relegated to the Rose Bowl. Nebraska would follow up with the good graces by being thumped by a dominant Miami Hurricanes. Eric Crouch was also one of a kind, in terms of Heisman winners: He threw more interceptions than touchdowns but still won the trophy. The justification, of course, was that the Heisman is a team award as much as it as commemorates individual performance. Pageantry decayed to disdain rapidly, and this hex would only follow Crouch to the NFL when he was selected by the St. Louis Rams. Crouch would emerge as a wide-receiver and in spite of this, his career never got off the ground. He bounced around from practice squad to practice squad, acquired and waived like a pony on a carousel. In his next adventure, Crouch was assigned to NFL Europe when it was still in existence. Once NFL Europe dissolved, he emerged in the CFL and finally crash landed in the AAFL. Crouch’s fall was dismal to witness from its genesis.
1. Ron Dayne – RB (11th Overall Pick, 2000 – New York Giants)
To this day, it would be hard to contest that Ron Dayne is the greatest collegiate running back. As a freshman at Wisconsin, he shattered NCAA rushing records in a single season when he rumbled for 2,109 yards and added 20 touchdowns to his resume. In fact, Dayne had one of the most productive careers in NCAA history. This is infallible and this is not arguable. Dayne would accumulate 7,125 rushing yards and 71 rushing touchdowns in an illustrious and immaculate four-year NCAA career. Dayne would win a Heisman trophy and as a senior, he would eclipse the 2,000 yard mark yet again. To this day, this has not been replicated. The first stunner was the fact that Dayne somehow fell to the New York Giants sitting with the number eleven pick overall in the 2000 Draft. What would follow is even more of a shocker.
In his collegiate career, Dayne had a 6.0 yards per carry average in his senior year. In seven-years as a NFL running back, he would finish with an overall average of 3.8 yards per carry. Even more astonishing, Dayne would not have a single 1,000 yard campaign, despite having two effortless 2,000 yard campaigns when he was a Bucky Badger. Finally, Dayne would finish with just twenty-eight rushing scores in his abysmal seven-year stint, averaging just four rushing touchdowns per year. When Dayne was a bull charging toward daylight at Wisconsin, he averaged nearly eighteen rushing touchdowns per year. Ron Dayne is a great running back and he did not earn this title because he was an exaggerated prospect. Dayne was afflicted with overachieving at titanic levels. In a four year span in college, he had put together a body of work that has still not been reproduced. While many experts and analysts predicted Dayne would put up more human-like numbers at the higher level of the NFL, he seemingly nose-dived in the complete opposite direction. It is for this reason that Ron Dayne’s legacy has cemented him as the best college football player who tanked in the pros. A man who put up mediocre figures in the NFL, when he was an unstoppable wrecking machine in his collegiate prime. Ron Dayne is guilty of being a supernatural entity who showed typical human weaknesses. In many ways, he was a messianic figure crucified for then playing at an average level. This is the curse of Ron Dayne.