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Biggest NFL Draft Quarterback Busts All-Time

Draft busts are the best, aren’t they? Sure, they set franchises back for years and cripple the resolve of fanbases, but for the rest of us, they simply lead to years’ worth of yuks and endless trash talking. Let’s go over the garbage quarterbacks throughout history whom experts thought were worth high picks. Here are the five biggest NFL Draft quarterback busts of all time.

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Biggest NFL Draft Quarterback Busts of All Time

Some names that are frequently included in such articles you won’t see on the list: Tim Couch, David Carr, Johnny Manziel and Trey Lance. Lance we’re still giving another year or two to prove he absolutely is never going to make it, whereas everyone else on this list is established in their busthood. Couch and Carr were not as bad as you remember and also were on garbage teams, so they don’t fall among these mega NFL Draft busts. Manziel, well, he just wasn’t drafted high enough.

An important facet in defining a bust is the other quarterbacks taken, either in the first round or soon after. That’s going to factor heavily in some of the entries on this list.

5. Andre Ware, Detroit (1990)

It was a toss-up between Ware and Josh Rosen for this spot. Ware was in the league a little longer, but Rosen started more games. Ware also was taken three picks higher and was the better college quarterback than Rosen, so he gets No. 5 (congratulations?).

More congratulations — Ware is the only Heisman winner on this list!

Ware won the Heisman a year after Barry Sanders, and then he went to the team that drafted Sanders the year before. Sanders gave the Lions 1,470 yards rushing his rookie year, so pairing the dynamic Ware with him seemed like a match made in heaven.

To keep it succinct, Sanders continued to carry the Lions by himself throughout the 1990s, because Ware did not have a single season of more than five games played (played, not started) in his career. His career high for passing yards was 677, which he accomplished in 1992 by playing in four games and starting three.

This is where we invite debate — is a quarterback who couldn’t even make the starting lineup but was drafted seventh better or worse than one who was taken higher but started more games (while playing terribly)? You decide …

4. Heath Shuler, Washington (1994)

I sort of love Shuler for making the most of his college prominence. The guy still appears in commercials (donning his Tennessee polo, not any NFL gear) AND, more importantly, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing North Carolina. But NFL-wise, woof.

1994 wasn’t a great draft — Trent Dilfer and Gus Frerotte ended up as the best quarterbacks and were coattail riders at best — but Shuler still set the standard of underwhelming. Dilfer and Frerotte each accounted for over 20,000 NFL passing yards. Shuler? He failed to hit 4,000 in his career — you know, the number we now view as a basic, productive quarterback season in this day and age.

You’ve heard of Brock Purdy and Trey Lance? Shuler/Frerotte was the original — only these two came in the same draft. Washington selected Shuler No. 3 overall (like Lance) and Frerotte in the seventh round (like Purdy). The public backed Frerotte, and Shuler got benched.

Shuler ultimately only made 22 starts, and he made waves in a terrible way by throwing 14 interceptions against just two touchdowns in nine starts in 1997. Essentially, Shuler was not an NFL quarterback by any stretch of the imagination, and Frerotte was. Getting blown out of the water by a seventh-rounder in the same draft is a one-way ticket to Bustville, and Lance presumably will end up here sooner rather than later.

For now, though, this spot is Shuler’s domain.

3. Akili Smith, Cincinnati (1999)

What I love about the 1999 draft as a hindsight exercise is how blatantly wrong almost everyone was on it. This was a QB-needy team’s paradise — not one, not two, but five quarterbacks viewed as viable to go at the top of the first round. And what makes this such a fun draft is that only two picks managed to hack it, and they were the more maligned ones.

Eagles fans hated when Donovan McNabb was drafted over Ricky Williams. McNabb wasn’t even necessarily viewed as being better than Akili Smith, whom the Bengals quickly took at No. 3. Tim Couch went first, and the other two quarterbacks drafted were Daunte Culpepper to the Vikings at No. 11 and Cade McNown to the Bears at No. 12.

Well, McNabb and Culpepper were legitimate franchise quarterbacks in the NFL, if not Hall of Fame level. McNown’s greatest achievement was somehow being a featured character in Backyard Football 2002 (why? how?). Couch is often considered an NFL Draft bust, and he was to a degree, but A) he started 59 career games and has bad but NFL-level numbers, and B) the Browns were so trash in every way that it’s hard to blame it all on Couch.

Smith, on the other hand, was the third overall pick and made just 17 career starts, throwing 461 total passes in his NFL lifespan. For reference, Dak Prescott led the NFL in 2023 with 410 completions. Prescott completed 51 fewer passes in one season than the 1999 No. 3 overall pick threw in his entire career. To salvage Smith’s self-esteem, we won’t compare his career passing yards with those of 2023 Las Vegas Raiders part-time starter Aidan O’Connell (2212 career for Smith, 2218 in 2023 for O’Connell).

2. JaMarcus Russell, Oakland (2007)

In one way, we’re breaking the rules that we set forth at the top of the article. 2007 was not a great quarterback year: Brady Quinn famously slipped from the top 10 down to the No. 22 pick, and the slip was quite justified. Quinn was no better than Russell as an NFL quarterback.

However, by golly, Russell is the worst No. 1 quarterback in NFL history, and there really are no other arguments. It’s genuinely not even close.

Physically, Russell had everything: Arm strength, accuracy, size, college production. Mentally, however, by all accounts Russell had close to nothing. Notoriously terrible drafter Matt Millen reportedly told Al Davis not to draft Russell because he didn’t like Russell’s focus. Another fantastic arbiter of NFL wisdom, Lane Kiffin, is confirmed to have wanted to draft Calvin Johnson instead. Rare (NFL) Lane Kiffin W — he’s actually a pretty good college coach, all things considered.

Russell’s NFL career amounted to a whopping 4,083 yards over 31 games, 18 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and a 7-18 quarterback record. He was done by 2009 — despite a handful of pretend comebacks. Getting three years out of a No. 1 pick is unheard of in this day and age, and I’d like to think we’ve grown since then.

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1. Ryan Leaf, San Diego (1998)

Now we return to the parameters we set. In a vacuum, a useless No. 1 pick like Russell is worse than a useless No. 2 pick like Leaf. But …

Context matters a ton. Like I said, Russell’s 2007 draft was not a good one for quarterbacks. The best QB in that draft ended up being Trent Edwards, who went in Round 3 and was not good at all. Leaf, meanwhile, was realistically in the debate to be No. 1 overall with … Peyton Manning.

I personally was five years old when this was going on, but every documentary I’ve watched has insisted there were folks on both sides — despite Manning almost winning the Heisman and being the name contemporary draft analysts go to as the standard of pro-readiness. Leaf’s college stats were really good in 1997 as well, to be fair, not way off from Manning’s, at least. And Leaf was the upside pick — swagger, arm strength, craziness, whatever it was. Manning was born and bred to be an NFL star; Leaf forged his own path.

That path led to Leaf being absolutely effing abysmal as an NFL quarterback. As bad as you think he was, the actual results were 10 times worse: 36 to 14 was his INTERCEPTION TO TOUCHDOWN RATIO. He completed 48.4% of his goldang passes. The Chargers, who took him second, went 4-14 with him. Also, he wasn’t a very nice person.

This is why Leaf is the standard of NFL Draft quarterback bust. Was he the highest selected? No. Was he close to it? Yes, and his NFL results are closer to the worst NFL quarterbacks of all time (sorry for the sub-tweet, Nathan Peterman) than they are to even a competent NFL quarterback, let alone Peyton Motherflipping Manning.

Let’s try to bring Leaf into modern parlance.

Imagine if Peterman went second overall in the 2017 Draft and Patrick Mahomes went first. Now also imagine that Peterman had the ego of Mahomes + a Taylor Swift-dating Travis Kelce, and you have Ryan Leaf.

Sam Smith


Sam Smith

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