With the 2021 NFL Draft just a few weeks away, The Game Day takes a look back at the 11 Worst NFL Draft Picks of the Modern Era. Memorable first-round NFL Draft busts feature the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns aplenty — organizations historically prone to losing, and pressure and scrutiny of their top selection are intense.
It’s no surprise quarterbacks are represented five times on this list — a club can be set back years when it takes a quarterback, especially in the top half of the first round, and the QB tanks.
So here, in no particular order, are the 11 worst NFL Draft picks of the modern era we can safely say are some of the biggest NFL Draft busts ever.
For the latest tips and predictions on this year’s draft — and as we try to locate the 2021 NFL Draft busts — read our full 2021 NFL Draft Guide, which includes Marcus Mosher’s 3-round mock draft, player scouting reports and more.
11 Worst NFL Draft Picks of the Modern Era
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
2011: No. 10 Overall
Blaine Gabbert managed to regress in his rookie season when he really didn’t start great, to begin with. In three games, Gabbert threw for less than 100 yards and five games where his completion percentage was below 50. The Jacksonville Jaguars wound up 4-11 in Gabbert’s rookie season. In the two seasons that followed, Gabbert was 1-12 in 13 starts.
Somehow, Gabbert has lasted 10 seasons (on five different teams) in the NFL. He went 8-13 in 21 starts over a six-year period. But hey — Gabbert got himself a Super Bowl ring in the process as the backup to Tom Brady. Gabbert is currently on the street without a football home. If Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians indeed wants to “keep the band together," Gabbert may end up being re-signed.
It could actually be worse. The Jags could’ve drafted Christian Ponder (12th overall), who made three starts in four seasons.
Ron Dayne, RB, New York Giants
2000: No. 11 Overall
Ron Dayne‘s case is one where his talents never manifested in the NFL. The New York Giants planned for Dayne to be the thunder to Tiki Barber‘s lightning.
Unfortunately, there was not even a threat of rain, as Dayne’s best days were already behind him. At Wisconsin, Dayne was a four-year starter rushing for 7,125 yards and 71 touchdowns and graduated a Heisman Trophy winner.
In the pros, Dayne’s yards-per-attempt average was a dreadful 3.8, and he never cracked 800 yards rushing in a season. After New York, he played three more seasons for Denver and Houston before fading out of the league altogether.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears
2017: No. 2 overall
The Mitchell Trubisky era has come to an end in Chi-Town. He’s now in the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills as the backup to Josh Allen.
Let’s note how this brief era began. In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Bears desperately wanted Trubisky — so much so that Chicago traded the Nos. 3, 67 and 111 picks and a 2018 third-rounder to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for the second overall pick. It’s been bandied around that the 49ers weren’t even planning to select Trubisky, so the Bears didn’t even need to make a deal to move up.
Trubisky’s rookie season was a nightmare, and Chicago finished the season 5-11. His sophomore season offered a glimmer of hope as the Bears went to the playoffs at 12-4. Chicago’s first-ranked defense was viewed as the primary reason for their success. After the Bears went 8-8 in the following two seasons, the club declined to offer Trubisky a fifth-year option, making him a free agent in 2021.
It seems that the once-coveted quarterback is now destined to be a career backup.
Adding salt to the wound, general manager Ryan Pace and president Ted Phillips passed on Super Bowl-winning Patrick Mahomes and 3-time Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson. This draft disaster with this NFL Draft bust will haunt them for a lifetime.
Aaron Maybin, LB, Buffalo Bills
2009: No. 11 Overall
Aaron Maybin started what would be a four-year NFL career as a hold-out, and it set the tone for his career.
In two seasons and 27 games (one start) with the Bills, Maybin recorded 25 tackles and one forced fumble. Drafted to sack quarterbacks, Maybin had zero to his name until his release and subsequent pickup by the New York Jets.
He played two total seasons with New York and logged six sacks, four forced fumbles, 11 tackles and 10 quarterback hits. Maybin, known as a ferocious pass-rusher coming out of Penn State, failed to impact the pros.
Mike Williams, WR, Detroit Lions
2005: No. 10 Overall
It’s not often that an offensive selection sets a defense back, but this NFL Draft bust did in this instance for the Detroit Lions. As a 6-foot-5 big-play wideout from USC, expectations for Mike Williams were high. Though their defense was in shambles and desperate for a first-round talent, general manager Matt Millen was hell-bent on drafting wide receiver after wide receiver until they got it right. The Lions did not get it right with Williams.
He played like a future first-rounder at USC, but Williams was not as advertised once he got to the pros. He put on some pounds, earning the name “Big Mike Williams." The extra weight slowed Williams down, and he never played at a high level. In two seasons with the Lions, Williams managed only 37 receptions for 449 yards and two touchdowns in 22 appearances and six starts.
The Lions passed on defensive beasts DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Thomas Davis and Derrick Johnson to select Williams. They finished their careers with 19 Pro Bowls combined.
Courtney Brown, DE, Cleveland Browns
2000: No. 1 Overall
In 1999, the Cleveland Browns ranked last in yards allowed — the unit needed some help and fast. The team selected Courtney Brown first overall to anchor the defense, and while his career started fine, it progressively got worse.
Brown’s rookie year was his sole full season in which he recorded 4.5 sacks and 69 tackles (16 for loss). His 2001 season looked promising as five games in, Brown racked up 4.5 sacks, two fumbles recovered (one for a touchdown), and 21 tackles.
The remainder of the season, however, was spent on injured reserve. And that’s how the rest of Brown’s career went — injury after fateful injury. When Brown was healthy, he struggled to make an impact. During his five-year stint in Cleveland, Brown missed 33 games and posted just 17 sacks.
Noteworthy defensive ends taken mid-first round were New York Jets Pro Bowlers Shaun Ellis and John Abraham.
David Carr, QB, Houston Texans
2002: No. 1 Overall
In hindsight, the top of the 2002 quarterback draft class was downright awful. But only one could be selected first overall, and that distinction went to David Carr. He led the expansion Houston Texans to a record of 4-12 while being sacked a record 76 times and coughing up 15 interceptions. Carr led the league in sacks on two other occasions: 49 in 2004 and 68 in 2005.
Through injuries to nearly every major body part, Carr somehow survived five seasons in Houston. He threw 59 touchdowns to 65 interceptions and fumbled 40 times on his way to an overall record of 22-53.
Cedric Benson, RB, Chicago Bears
2005: No. 4 Overall
It’s hard to put up stats when you keep getting arrested. And that’s what happened to Cedric Benson, which ultimately led to the Bears washing their hands of him after three not-first-round-worthy seasons. Benson spent only one year as the featured back and started just 12 games.
Benson’s career was somewhat resurrected when the Cincinnati Bengals signed him in 2008. The scenery change did him good as he posted three consecutive seasons of 1,000+ yards and 21 touchdowns. But, by then, it was too late for the Bears.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
2014: No. 22 Overall
Name a first-round quarterback bust over the past two decades, and chances are the Cleveland Browns drafted him. Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden (at 28 years old, the oldest first-round NFL draft pick of all time), Tim Couch.
But Johnny Manziel takes the cake. The first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, Manziel broke record after record over two seasons at Texas A&M. When all was said and done, he threw 8,000 yards, 63 touchdowns and 22 interceptions; that was just through the air. Manziel was also a big threat on the run, amassing 2,169 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground.
But Manziel left that talent behind at Texas A&M, and as quickly as “Johnny Football" rose to fame among Browns fans, he faded into obscurity. Manziel played 14 games (eight starts) in two seasons resulting in a 2-6 record. He completed 147 of 258 passes for 1,675 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Manziel’s litany of off-the-field issues overshadowed his career in Cleveland, and he was cut in 2016.
Charles Rogers, WR, Detroit Lions
2003: No. 2 Overall
A hometown kid from Saginaw, Mich., Charles Rogers came out of Michigan State the holder of numerous receiving records and awards to go with them. His NFL career was steeped in misery, as devasting injuries haunted Rogers. Six weeks into his rookie season, Rogers sustained a broken clavicle during bye week practice and missed the final 11 games. On the third play of his second season, Rogers sustained another broken clavicle which knocked him out for the season.
The Lions cut Rogers in 2006 with 440 yards receiving and four touchdowns in 15 games. Injuries, coupled with league suspensions, wrecked what could’ve been a promising career.
JaMarcus Russell, QB, Oakland Raiders
2007: No. 1 Overall
The Oakland Raiders should’ve known better. The organization was warned repeatedly about red flags that surrounded JaMarcus Russell. Russell’s baggage included detesting fitness work and lack of motivation, but they proceeded to draft him first overall anyway.
As a rookie, Russell, entangled in contract negotiations, refused to show up to training camp. Upon his return to the team, he inked the richest rookie deal in NFL history to the tune of a six-year, $68 million contract with $31.5 million guaranteed.
Despite several comeback attempts and 300 pounds later, Russell was done. He finished his career with a passer rating of 65.2 after starting just 25 games. He threw only 18 touchdown passes on his way to a record of 7-18.
While it’s clear Russell is the biggest Raiders NFL Draft bust, some would argue that he’s the most significant fail of all 32 teams in league history.
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