7 Worst NFL Draft Picks Of All Time, Ranked

The National Football League (NFL) Draft brings hope to teams, cities, and fans looking for their next superstar. Over the years, the NFL Draft has produced a range of star players, including Peyton Manning, John Elway, and Tom Brady, who was surprisingly picked last in the 2000 NFL Draft class. However, not every pick pans out, and inevitably, some of the most touted and talented prospects are complete duds at the professional level. For every great pick in the NFL Draft, there are several draft busts. While there are plenty of noteworthy busts to discuss following each NFL Draft, there are those few who can be considered the worst NFL Draft picks of all time.

So, which players are considered the worst draft picks in NFL history? StudyFinds did the digging, consulting nine sports and football-related websites in an effort to bring you a consensus list of the worst NFL Draft picks of all time. Our list comprises the seven most frequently listed players from across these sites. Every team has several draft busts in its history. Did we leave one of your all-time biggest busts off the list? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!

NFL logo and a wall of footballs
NFL logo (Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash)

The List: Worst NFL Draft Picks of All Time, According to Experts

1. JaMarcus Russell, QB, Oakland Raiders

The top spot on the list of the worst NFL Draft picks of all time belongs to JaMarcus Russell who was selected with the top pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. Russell’s stellar college football career at Louisiana State University (LSU) was nothing short of remarkable and he was certainly one of the top talents in the draft that year. But, as Bleacher Report explains, Russell wanted no part of the hard work and dedication that goes into being a great NFL quarterback.

In 2007, Russell came out of LSU at 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 260 pounds. In 2009, Russell came into the Raiders’ training camp weighing nearly 300 pounds and severely out of shape. It wasn’t just Russell’s lack of work ethic and inability to keep himself in peak physical condition that put him out of the league. As CBS Sports notes, Russell not only despised conditioning, but he made it publicly known that he hated studying, a trait that makes it nearly impossible to succeed as a professional quarterback.

Russell’s stats as an NFL quarterback are truly horrific. He held out of his rookie training camp over a contract dispute and played only a few games that season. In 2008, Russell threw 13 touchdown passes to go with his eight interceptions and followed that up with an abysmal 48 percent completion percentage, three touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 2009. As Pro Football Network adds, Russell’s coaches in Oakland went as far as giving him blank tapes instead of the game film just to see if he’d watch. When his coaches asked Russell about what he saw on film, he lied and made up a story. Russell made more than $40 million throughout his very short-lived career.

2. Ryan Leaf, QB, San Diego Chargers

The second player on the list of the worst draft picks in NFL history is none other than quarterback Ryan Leaf who was taken second overall by the San Diego Chargers in the 1998 NFL Draft. Leading into this NFL Draft, the debate over who would be taken first raged between sports pundits as the choice fell to either Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf, notes Sporting News. Manning infamously told the Indianapolis Colts they’d regret choosing Leaf for Manning’s entire career and he was right. The Colts took Manning while the Chargers opted for Leaf. Today, it’s laughable to think this was even a debate.

As RotoBaller describes, the Chargers had to trade up with the Arizona Cardinals to the second spot in the ‘98 Draft to be in position to pick Leaf. The franchise regretted the decision to take Leaf almost immediately as he skipped the mandatory rookie symposium, which is designed to help college players transition to the NFL, and he also lashed out at a reporter asking him questions in the locker room. Fans would later learn that Leaf struggled with addiction issues, but the way he handled himself upon arriving to the NFL was shocking, to say the least.

Still, Leaf suited up for the Chargers during his rookie season, throwing 15 interceptions to go with only two, that’s right two, touchdown passes, explains Sportsnaut. Leaf’s sophomore season in 1999 saw him miss the entire season to a shoulder injury and by 2000, it was clear that Leaf was not going to work out as an NFL starter. Although Leaf was traded to the Dallas Cowboys with the hope they could squeeze the talent out of Leaf, he quickly fizzled out in Dallas and was out of the league. Meanwhile, Manning went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

3. Tony Mandarich, OL, Green Bay Packers

Lumbering his way into the third spot on the list of the worst draft picks in NFL history is offensive lineman Tony Mandarich. Mandarich was taken with the second overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. He was one pick after the Cowboys selected quarterback Troy Aikman and several picks ahead of NFL legends such as Deion Sanders, Barry Sanders, and Derrick Thomas. As The Spun writes, Mandarich was one of the most highly touted offensive tackles in modern draft history to the point where the Cowboys and coach Jimmy Johnson seriously considered taking him with the top pick.

Mandarich had lots of potential based on his size and strength alone. In fact, Mandarich was such a physical specimen that he was given the nickname “The Incredible Bulk,” according to NFL Draft Buzz. After two short years in Green Bay, Mandarich was out of the league amid allegations that he used steroids, and his use of illegal bulking agents caused his rapid decline. Mandarich’s situation served as a warning to the rest of the league and suddenly teams were more interested in learning more about a prospect’s off-field behaviors before committing a valuable draft pick on a player.

Many times, a draft pick is considered more of a bust when there are plenty of other talented players on the board that a team could pick. The ultimate consensus on NFL Draft picks comes many years later when players have a few seasons under their belt. Mandarich was drafted by Green Bay over the aforementioned Hall of Fame talents. As Sporting News describes, Barry Sanders falling to the rival Detroit Lions when Green Bay had every opportunity to select the all-time great running back must have made Packer fans sick for years. Mandarich eventually cleaned himself up and in 1996, he got another chance with the Indianapolis Colts where he played well and started for three seasons.

4. Akili Smith, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Throwing his way into the fourth spot on the list of the worst NFL Draft picks in history is quarterback Akili Smith. Smith was drafted third overall in the 1999 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and for good reason. Smith was a generational quarterback talent at the University of Oregon who had loads of upside as an NFL prospect. Unfortunately, the former Bengals signal caller just couldn’t put it together at the NFL level, notes Pro Football Network.

To make matters worse, Smith was taken ahead of NFL legends such as running back Edgerrin James, wide receiver Torry Holt, defensive end Jevon Kearse, and cornerback Champ Bailey. As CBS Sports writes, Smith only started 17 games throughout his career, winning only three and losing 14 of those contests. Smith also threw twice as many interceptions as he did touchdowns – 13 to five. Factor in that Cincinnati turned down the Saints’ offer of a whopping nine draft picks in exchange for their third selection and you easily have one of the worst picks by any team in modern draft history.

Despite Smith’s solid career at Oregon, many NFL scouts had questions regarding his ability to read NFL defenses and make the right decisions with the football, notes Bleacher Report. Not only did the Bengals not listen to some of the doubters, they chose Smith third overall ahead of generational talents such as Kearse, James, and Bailey. Smith’s abysmal stats during his time in the league came as no surprise to many, but the Bengals simply couldn’t get out of their own way in the ‘90s.

5. Brian Bosworth, LB, Seattle Seahawks

The man, the mullet, the Boz. Linebacker Brian Bosworth was taken with the first pick in the supplemental NFL Draft in 1987. As Sportsnaut writes, it’s extremely rare for a supplemental draft choice to be considered one of the top busts in NFL history, but given that the Seattle Seahawks gave up their first-round pick to choose Bosworth, it’s worth noting this all-time blunder.

Although Bosworth was considered one of the best defensive players in college football history, his time in the league was steeped in controversy. Bosworth won two Butkus Awards as college football’s top linebacker and helped the Oklahoma Sooners win a National Championship in 1985, notes RotoBaller. NFL General Managers were salivating over “The Boz” for years before he declared himself for the NFL Draft. That didn’t last long, though, as Bosworth infamously wrote several NFL teams to tell them he would refuse to play for their franchise and not to draft him – the arrogance. The linebacker also became the center of controversy when he brought a lawsuit to the NFL over wearing jersey number 44. All of this and the Oklahoma standout hadn’t yet played a down in the NFL.

If you’re old enough to remember Bosworth, then you probably know his biggest career moment came when he challenged the legendary Bo Jackson. When Jackson’s Raiders eventually met Bosworth’s Seahawks on Monday Night Football, Jackson dominated “The Boz” and freight-trained the linebacker into the endzone on an all-time touchdown run. Throughout two seasons in Seattle, Bosworth had a total of four quarterback sacks and three fumble recoveries, Gameday News mentions.

6. Andre Ware, QB, Detroit Lions

Scrambling his way into the sixth spot on the list of the worst picks in NFL Draft history is former Detroit Lions quarterback Andre Ware. Ware was the seventh pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, explains NFL Draft Buzz. Coming out of the University of Houston, there’s no doubt that Ware was a talented thrower of the football. However, he just couldn’t make it in the NFL and his career quickly fizzled out.

As Gameday News points out, Ware won the Heisman Trophy in 1989 and seemed like a great NFL prospect. Detroit took the signal caller at the top of the first round and NFL fans quickly realized that winning a Heisman in college football meant nothing in terms of an NFL career. Despite having one of the best running backs of all time next to him in the backfield with Barry Sanders, Ware played miserably. The quarterback only saw six NFL starts, throwing only five touchdown passes to go with eight interceptions and seven fumbles.

There was no denying Ware’s potential. Like most draft busts, Ware flashed his talents in college. As Bleacher Report notes, Ware broke 26 collegiate passing records during his time at the University of Houston where he ran the vaunted run-and-shoot offense. Unfortunately, Ware’s success didn’t follow him to the league and he was quickly replaced in Detroit.

7. Lawrence Phillips, RB, St. Louis Rams

Rounding out the list of the worst NFL Draft picks in history is running back Lawrence Phillips who was the sixth pick of the 1996 NFL Draft. The St. Louis Rams decided to take a chance on Phillips despite a history of trouble and nonsense while he was in college at the University of Nebraska, says CBS Sports. To make matters worse, the Rams traded away Jerome Bettis on draft day so they could take Phillips as his replacement. It was an all-time backfire.

As RotoBaller notes, Phillips had a great college career, regardless of his off-field troubles. He helped power the Nebraska Cornhuskers to a National Championship during the 1994 season. He ran for over 1,800 yards and 26 touchdowns en route to helping Nebraska win the championship. In 1995, Phillips dominated the Fiesta Bowl as he powered his way for over 160 yards, making him a valuable NFL prospect poised to go in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Phillips became an example of how ignoring off-field issues and red flags can backfire on an NFL team, writes Sportsnaut. The Rams eventually cut Phillips in ‘97 after less than two full seasons in the NFL. Although Phillips bounced around the league for a while after his release, his troubled past eventually caught up to him and he was sentenced to over 25 years in prison. Sadly, Phillips tragically took his own life in 2016 while serving his sentence. The draft pick stands as one of the franchise’s worst decisions, setting the team back a few years.


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