The NFL Draft is a time of the year that allows fans to dream about the future and invest themselves into a brand new youth movement that, if it’s the right guy in the right situation, could change the course of their favorite team for the next decade. We’ve seen myriad franchise-altering draft picks over the history of the league, and when a team hits it right on the nose, GMs are immortalized, coaches’ jobs get easier and a city gets to root for a winner.
For all of the promise that comes with the draft, there is always the other end of the spectrum: the busts. One of the easiest ways to change a team’s trajectory is to draft a quarterback who can come in and be the face of the franchise and the team’s offensive anchor for the next five to 15 years. However, the easiest way to keep a team a bottom-dweller is to miss badly with a quarterback at the top of the draft. Even with all of the advanced scouting, the analytics and the ever-increasing number of pro-style offenses in the college game, evaluations go awry or guys simply aren’t a fit for the franchise, and the quarterback ends up with a career with production only a fraction of what we expected when he came out of college.
For these five guys, there were no “buyer beware” signs on their backs. They had phenomenal college careers and ostensibly had the tools to succeed at the next level. However, for one reason or another, their careers were cut short because they couldn’t cut it on the gridiron. These are the five biggest quarterback busts since the turn of the millennium:
5. Vince Young (No. 3, 2006) – Titans
Vince Young came out of Texas having one what is arguably the greatest college football game of all time, leading the Longhorns to a National Title over a USC team that was at the tail end of one of the most dominant runs of the BCS era. Young was coming out during a time in which athletic quarterbacks were starting to take over the NFL. He had the arm strength to hit receivers on the fly and the speed to make plays out of the pocket. There’s an argument to make that Young may have had a better NFL career had he stayed healthy, but over his six seasons, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, struggled with accuracy and had way too many valleys to justify his peaks — which were really good. There are maybe a few other quarterbacks who should be in the 5-spot ahead of Young, but at No. 3 overall, he didn’t give Tennessee what you’d expect from a pick that high.
4. Christian Ponder (No. 12, 2011) – Vikings
Christian Ponder was a pretty fun college quarterback out of Florida State. He was a three-year starter, and threw for more than 2,000 yards in each of those three years, including a breakout junior season where he threw for 2,700 yards on the season with 14 touchdowns. In his senior year, he threw for 20 touchdowns and won 10 games, including the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Everything changed when he got to the NFL, though. The Vikings desperately needed a quarterback after a 41-year-old Brett Favre and Joe Webb combined to win six games the year before. Ponder was supposed to save the franchise, but he had fewer seasons throwing for 2,000 yards in the NFL than he did in college. In the one year that the Ponder-led Vikings made the playoffs, Adrian Peterson had more rushing attempts than Ponder had completions. He fizzled out of the NFL after four years.
3. Matt Leinart (No. 10, 2006) – Cardinals
Matt Leinart was another guy who had an excellent college career, but could never quite figure things out once he got to the league. It’s not that Leinart was a terrible quarterback on the field, his issues were that he rarely got on the field to begin with. Leinart’s rookie season is the only year in which he started more than half of the games on the year, in fact, it was the only year in which he started more than five games. Leinart lost his job in Arizona to Kurt Warner (and Warner led them to a Super Bowl appearance, so it’s hard to knock Leinart for this). After Warner retired, Leinart lost his job to Derek Anderson — yup, Derek Anderson. After four years in Arizona, Leinart played one more year in both Houston and Oakland, getting minutes in four total games over those two seasons, starting in only one of them.
2. Joey Harrington (No. 3, 2002) – Lions
Joey Harrington’s NFL career is the exact opposite of what Matt Leinart’s was. Harrington played, he played a lot, and he played terribly. Harrington played six seasons and only missed 15 games, and for some reason, he was given the freedom to air it out every time he took the field. Harrington played 76 games, won only 26 of those games and threw more interceptions (85) than touchdowns (79) during the course of his career. In five of his six seasons, he recorded more picks than touchdowns, and in the only season in which he threw more touchdowns, he still only led the Lions to six wins. Coming out of Oregon, Harrington seemed like as likely a sure thing as anyone, showing that it’s impossible to really evaluate NFL talent until they get to the league.
1. JaMarcus Russell (No. 1 overall in 2007) – Raiders
Could No. 1 here be anyone other than JaMarcus Russell? The Oakland Raiders took Russell No. 1 overall during a stretch in which the franchise made a series of terrible draft picks. Al Davis wanted to draft the fastest wide receivers and wanted a quarterback with the arm strength to get them the ball on the fly. In theory, this sounds like an almost decent idea, in execution, it led to the worst stretch of football in the history of an incredibly storied franchise. Russell wasn’t just a terrible pick, but he held out and got an absolute bag from the Raiders — $68 million total, $31.5 million guaranteed. Russell started only 25 games in his career, won seven of those games and never played again after he was cut with only three seasons under his belt. There were 11 potential Hall of Famers drafted after Russell in the first round alone, including Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch— an Oakland native.