Ron Dayne – Wisconsin
During his four years at the University of Wisconsin, Ron Dayne set the the NCAA Division I-A rushing record for total yards in a career, and became one of the most decorated college football players ever. He won the Heisman Trophy, among a slew of other postseason awards, ahead of nominees like Michael Vick and Drew Brees.
But when he got to the NFL, Dayne’s size (approximately 250 lbs on a 5’10 frame) and lack of commitment to keeping his weight down frustrated New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel, who began to phase Dayne out of the offense. Dayne played a total of seven years in the NFL, and never ran for more than 800 yards or seven touchdowns in a given season.
Trent Richardson – Alabama
Running back Trent Richardson seemed like a sure-fire bet to become a workhorse in the NFL. In three years at the University of Alabama, Richardson ran for 3,860 yards and 42 touchdowns. But many people believe that his NFL career was doomed before it even started…
During the Crimson Tide’s BCS National Championship win over LSU in early 2012, Richardson tore the meniscus in his left knee. Several scouts believe Richardson was never the same player after the injury, and that his knee injury impacted his speed and triggered weight problems. He never demonstrated the speed and athleticism in the NFL that he had in college.
The Browns might’ve seen the writing on the wall early, when they shockingly traded away Richardson after just one year, to the Indianapolis Colts. Less than two seasons after arriving in Indianapolis, the Colts released him (after relegating him to the bottom of the depth chart). There’s little chance he will ever be more than a backup at best.
Archie Griffin – Ohio State
To this day, Archie Griffin remains the only player in the history of college football to win the Heisman Trophy two times during his collegiate career. Griffin ran for over 1,400 yards in three of his four seasons in college, and is the only player in college football history to play in four straight Rose Bowl games.
But at the professional level, Griffin had a very mediocre seven-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. He never ran for more than 700 yards or three rushing touchdowns at any point in his career.
Rashaan Salaam – Colorado
As a junior in 1994, Rashaan Salaam become just the fourth college running back to run for more than 2,000 yards in a season. With his 24 combined touchdowns, he helped lead his University of Colorado Buffaloes to an 11–1 record, including a 41–24 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl, and won the 1994 Heisman Trophy (ahead of Steve McNair and Kerry Collins).
The Chicago Bears took Salaam with a first round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, but never really got the record-setting running back from Boulder; Salaam’s career was derailed by injuries, fumbling issues, and substance issues. By 1999, the Bears had discarded him.
Sadly, Salaam took his own life on December 5, 2016. Due to religious reasons, Salaam’s family did not consent to neurological tests that would have revealed whether he had previously sustained chronic head trauma. Without having his brain tested, there’s no way to determine whether his depression had been linked to injuries from his days as a player.
Charles White – USC
At the University of Southern California, Charles White was a two-time Pac-12 Player of the year, and two-time consensus All-American. He led the nation in rushing in both 1978 (running for 1,859 yards) and 1979 (running for 2,050 yards), and won the Heisman in 1979. That led to the Cleveland Browns selecting White with their first round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft.
Unfortunately, during his first four seasons with the Browns, he struggled mightily, simultaneously battling substance issues. He did have a career year in 1987 as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, but outside of that one year when he ran for 1,374 yards, he ran for less than 350 yards in seven of the other eight seasons he played in the NFL.
Lawrence Phillips – Nebraska
The story of Lawrence Phillips is unlike any other player on this list. Phillips’ disastrous NFL career is a trivial in comparison to his long list of run-ins with the law. Phillips was a problem child who couldn’t avoid trouble from day one. An electrifying runner while at the University of Nebraska, but his college career was mired in controversies that included accepting gifts from a sports agent to assaulting his girlfriend.
For some reason, that didn’t stop the St. Louis Rams from selecting him with the 6th-overall pick in the 1996 NFL draft. To make matters worse, the Rams traded away Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis to make room for Phillips.
Between 1997 and 1999, Phillips bounced between the Rams, Dolphins, and 49ers, with each team giving up on him because of his attitude and mounting legal incidents. Unfortunately, those issues were just the tip of the iceberg for Phillips and his legal troubles. Here were a few of the available players when the Rams selected Phillips at #6; Eddie George, Marvin Harrison and Ray Lewis.
Curtis Enis – Penn State
An All-American in high school and at Penn State, running back Curtis Enis was a highly coveted player entering the 1998 NFL Draft. It’s rumored that the Jacksonville Jaguars offered two first round picks to move up in the draft to select Enis. Thankfully for the Jags, the Bears didn’t take that generous deal, and the Jags ended up taking Fred Taylor instead.
Enis, the 5th-overall pick, suffered a knee injury during his rookie season, and was never the same player. Injuries continued to plague him throughout his career, and Enis eventually developed a degenerative knee condition when he was just 24 years old.
He retired in 2001, having rushed for a grand total of 1,497 yards and four touchdowns in his NFL career… Not exactly the type of production you’re hoping for from a top 5 pick.
Darren McFadden – Arkansas
A highly coveted running back coming out of high school in North Little Rock, Darren McFadden spurned programs like Alabama, Auburn, and Tennessee to play for Houston Nutt and the hometown University of Arkansans Razorbacks. A two-time All-American and two-time SEC Offensive player of the year, McFadden piled up over 5,000 combined yards from scrimmage (including his 205 passing yards), and had a combined 50 touchdowns (including his seven touchdown passes).
But McFadden simply never lived up to his lofty college billing in the NFL. The 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, McFadden’s struggled with injuries (he only played in 16 games two times during his 10-year NFL career) and terrible coaching (during his first few years with the Oakland Raiders), derailing his professional career.
Ki-Jana Carter – Penn State
Kenneth Leonard “Ki-Jana” Carter was the centerpiece of a Penn State University team under Joe Paterno that won the Rose Bowl in 1995. That year, he was recognized as a consensus first-team All-American, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, after compiling over 1,600 yards from scrimmage, and 23 rushing touchdowns. As a sophomore and junior in Happy Valley, Carter had back-to-back seasons with 1,000 yards rushing.
Whether you want call Carter’s career a “bust” is up to you, because injuries completely stole any chance of him making a name for himself in the NFL. On his third carry of his first preseason game with the Cincinnati Bengals, Carter blew out his knee was out for the season. In his third, fourth, and fifth seasons in the league, he suffered major season-ending injuries every year. Carter never ran for more than 464 yards in any of the seven seasons he played in the NFL.
Cedric Benson – Texas
Even as “the man following the man,” University of Texas running back Cedrick Benson had four-straight seasons with 1,000 yards rushing and double-digit rushing touchdowns. In fact, his 5,540 rushing yards ranks second all-time only to his predecessor, Ricky Williams. As a senior in 2004, Benson won the Doak Walker Award, and was named an All-American.
But Benson’s NFL career basically ended before it even started. He held out for 36 days after the Chicago Bears drafted him with the 4th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, and the Bears coaching staff placed him behind veteran running back Thomas Jones on the depth chart, acknowledging that the latter was a better player than him. While Benson did have three seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing, they came after the Bears parted ways with him after just three seasons.
Montee Ball – Wisconsin
Another product of the running back factory at the University of Wisconsin, Montee Ball was a two-time All-American who set the NCAA record for most career touchdowns (83) and tied the NCAA record for most total touchdowns in a year (39).
But in the lead-up to the 2013 NFL Draft, pro scouts worried that the smallish Ball (5’10 and 214lbs) was more of a product of Wisconsin’s offensive line, and might’ve gotten worn out from all the carries he had with the Badgers (he had 924 carries in college). Despite all his college accomplishments, Ball only played two years in the NFL, running for a total of 331 yards. He had almost as many fumbles (four) as touchdowns (five) as a pro.
Ameer Abdullah – Nebraska
A the University of Nebraska, running back Ameer Abdullah ran for at least 1,137 yards and had at least 10 total touchdowns in three of his four college football seasons. As a senior, Abdullah had 2,152 yards from scrimmage, and 22 combined touchdowns. He named to the All-Big Ten team twice, including a first-team selection in 2013.
While his lack of size (5’9 and 203lbs) led to him falling to the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, several teams were hoping they could “steal” Abdullah on the second day of said Draft. While the Detroit Lions did end up taking Abdullah, he failed to live up to any level of expectations. In three seasons in Detroit, he never started more than 11 games, and never ran for more than 600 yards.
Tyrone Wheatley – Michigan
After the Michigan native enrolled with the home-state University of Michigan, running back Tyrone Wheatley set a record for the highest yards per attempt, running for 6.4 yards a carry on 86 attempts. From there, Wheatley was named first-team All-Big 10 three straight times, and ranks 5th on Michigan’s all-time rushing leaders list. His 47 rushing touchdowns is ranked second-all time in school history.
But after the New York Giants drafted him in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft, they basically sat him on the bench behind incumbent Rodney Hampton, never giving him more than 152 carries in his first four years in the league. There were rumors of Wheatley being a locker room “Cancer,” a major reason why Wheatley was traded for only a 7th round pick after just four seasons to the Miami Dolphins. He was cut before the 1999 season began and signed with the Oakland Raiders.