This is not your typical list of NFL draft busts. The guys on this list were elite college stars, many of them Heisman winners, and yet they did not succeed at the next level. For every Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, you’re 10 times more likely to end up with a Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell. Unfortunately, for NFL franchises and their fans, things don’t always go according to plan, because it is VERY difficult to tell if success in the college game will translate to the pro level…
So sit back and relax, as we guide you through a list of elite college quarterbacks who were major busts in the NFL. Let’s see how many of these quarterbacks you still remember!
Brady Quinn (Notre Dame)
Brady Quinn was everything you look for in a young quarterback: a strong arm, a charismatic leader, and a million dollar smile. During his time in South Bend, Quinn won just about every award you can win as a college quarterback. And in his final two seasons with the Irish — he threw 69 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions. With jaw-dropping numbers like that, the Cleveland Browns were thrilled to draft Quinn in the 1st Round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan when Quinn got to the NFL. After three miserable seasons with the Browns, he was traded to the Broncos. In two full seasons with the Broncos Quinn did not take a single snap. Over the next few seasons he tried out for several teams, but wasn’t able to drum up any interest. In 2015, Quinn officially retired from the NFL, with just 12 touchdown passes in 24 career games. For a man who set 36 school records during his time at Notre Dame, Quinn’s career was a major disappointment.
Pat White (West Virginia)
White had a historic career at West Virginia, including a stellar performance in a victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. He is the only quarterback in history to start and win four bowl games in his career, and when he headed to the NFL, he held the record for most rushing yards by a quarterback.
White was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the 2nd Round of the 2009 draft. But his magical collegiate career didn’t translate to the NFL. White was cut by the Dolphins after just one season. After he was cut by a team in the Canadian Football League (ouch) White decided to retire from pro football. Here are White’s career stats: 5 pass attempts, 0 completions, 0 passing yards. Not exactly the type of production you’d expect from one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the history of college football.
Chris Weinke (Florida State)
Chris Weinke enrolled at Florida State in 1997, when he was already 25 years old (he spent the previous six years pursuing a Major League Baseball career). As the quarterback of one of the best Seminoles teams ever assembled, he won the Heisman Trophy in 2000, ahead of guys like Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson. By the time he was selected in the 4th round of the 2001 NFL Draft, Weinke was already a few months away from his 29th birthday. He played five seasons in the NFL, which included a two-year stint where he was out of the league (2003 and 2004).
Rick Mirer (Notre Dame)
Legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh was right about a lot of things during his time in the NFL, but his evaluation of Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer was not one of them. After observing Mirer during his college days, Walsh boldly called him the second-coming of Joe Montana. Apparently Walsh wasn’t alone in thinking Mirer was the greatest thing since sliced bread, because the Seattle Seahawks took him with the #2 pick in the 1993 draft.
Mirer started all 16 games his rookie season, and managed to set rookie records for attempts, completions, and yards. But that’s not the entire story. But Mirer’s record setting rookie season wasn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds — if you dig a little deeper you’d see he threw for just 12 touchdowns and tossed 17 interceptions. Mirer strung together a few more mediocre seasons in Seattle before he was eventually traded to the Bears. When Mirer officially retired after the 2004 season, he had played for 7 teams, and totalled just 50 touchdowns compared to 76 interceptions. Apparently he wasn’t the second coming of Joe Montana, you know, the guy who is a 4x Super Bowl Champ and is recognized as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Joey Harrington (Oregon)
Joey Harrington kicked off a decade of mostly terrible first-round picks for the Lions. Detroit selected him third overall out of Oregon in 2002, hoping for some of the magic he used to guide the Ducks to a 25-3 record and become a Heisman finalist. He brought none.
Instead, he threw 62 interceptions against 60 touchdowns, never completed more than 57% of his passes and went 18-37 as a starter. Harrington also had brief stints with the Dolphins and Falcons before officially retiring in 2008, after only 7 seasons in the NFL.
JaMarcus Russell (LSU)
JaMarcus Russell is the gold standard for draft busts – in the NFL – or any sport. Russell is a perfect example of what happens when teams overvalue a player’s physical attributes and ignore everything else. As a junior at LSU, Russell threw for 28 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, and was recognized as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. But, as an NFL prospect, he was still tremendously raw, and needed loads of refinement. But, because of his “pro day” workout, which NFL Draft Mel Kiper compared to watching John Elway, Russell became the first overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.
Despite possessing the superb arm strength and prototypical size of a budding NFL superstar, JaMarcus Russell fizzled in Oakland after three seasons, over which the LSU product threw for 23 interceptions and only 18 touchdowns. After Russell was reported to have shown up to training camp in March 2010 weighing over 300 pounds, the Raiders traded for veteran QB Jason Campbell and cut Russell the first week of May.
In addition to his horrendous play on the field and his lack of conditioning, several former teammates and coaches confirmed rumors that Russell was notorious for falling asleep during team meetings. Here’s where it gets really ugly for Raiders fans… By drafting Russell, the Raiders passed up on Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, and Patrick Willis. Ouch!
Ryan Leaf (Washington State)
For those of you who think JaMarcus Russell was a disaster, we would like you to meet Ryan Leaf! This “then and now” photo, is all you need to know about former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf. As the poster child for “NFL Draft Busts” it’s impossible to compile a list like this without including Leaf. Why is Leaf considered one of the worst draft busts in NFL history?
Well it seems hard to believe now, but prior to the 1998 NFL draft there was a legitimate debated as to whether Leaf or Peyton Manning should be the first overall pick. Many scouts thought Manning was “the safer pick” but favored Leaf’s arm strength and viewed him as the better prospect.
You want your quarterbacks to have confidence, but Leaf was arrogant and believed he was better than everyone and it was painfully obvious. Everyone remembers the (caught-on-camera) incident of him screaming at a reporter in the locker room, and having to be physically restrained by teammate Junior Seau. Less than a year later, Leaf started a screaming match with General Manager Bobby Beathard (the guy who drafted Leaf). At one point, Leaf even approached a heckler in the crowd during Chargers training camp.
In 2002, just four years after the Chargers drafted him, Leaf was out of football. Leaf finished his NFL career with miserable totals of 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. If that wasn’t bad enough — future Hall of Famers Charles Woodson and Randy Moss were both available when the Chargers drafted Leaf.
Akili Smith (Oregon)
In an unexpected development, Oregon quarterback Akili Smith rocketed up draft boards during the 1998 season. A relatively unknown commodity at the beginning of the season, Smith burst onto the scene with 36 touchdowns compared to just 8 interceptions. Seduced by a dominant performance in his final season at Oregon, and an impressive workout at the NFL combine, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Smith with the #3 pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Before we get into his horrific NFL career, this is the part that is going to blow your mind …
Before the 1999 draft, the New Orleans Saints offered the Bengals NINE draft picks in exchange for the #3 pick, which they used to draft Smith (the Saints wanted Texas running back Ricky Williams). In one of the worst decisions in NFL history, the Bengals passed up on the Saints insanely generous offer and decided to stick with Smith.
To make matters worse (yes, they can get worse) here are the four players drafted immediately after Smith; Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Torry Holt, and Champ Bailey! Back to Smith’s NFL career… At Oregon he excelled because of his elite athleticism, but at the pro level Smith needed to understand a playbook and display accuracy on his throws. He was never able to do either, and was out of the NFL after four miserable seasons in which he played 22 games and totaled 5 touchdowns and 26 turnovers.
Tim Couch (Kentucky)
Talented young gunslinger Tim Couch set several NCAA records during his time at Kentucky, including most completions in a season and highest career completion percentage. Sadly, that success never translated to the NFL. When Cleveland drafted him as their first pick in the 1999 draft, it was hoped that he would be the foundation upon which the franchise could be built. With the No. 1 pick, the Browns had their choice of two of what would become the biggest quarterback busts of all time, Tim Couch and Akili Smith. While Heisman trophy finalist Couch made 62 starts with the Browns in comparison to Smith’s 17 with the Bengals, his numbers were entirely mediocre.
Couch threw for a miserable 11,571 yards, 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions in five injury-plagued seasons. After being released at the end of the 2003 season, he attempted several comebacks but was never more than a backup. His disappointing career ended in 2007 when he tested positive for steroids and HGH.
Cade McNown (UCLA)
Cade McNown put up video game numbers during his time at UCLA. In his junior and senior season, he totalled 56 touchdowns compared to just 17 turnovers, and finished with several Pac-10 records (now known the Pac-12). McCown is the only UCLA quarterback to go 4-0 against the USC Trojans. If you’re familiar with their heated rivalry, you understand just how significant that is. The Bears selected McNown with the #13 pick in 1999, hoping he would be their franchise quarterback for at least a decade.
But in two seasons with the Bears he started 15 games, throwing 16 TDs compared to 19 interceptions and an eye-popping 14 fumbles. McNown was traded after two seasons to Miami for a 6th round pick, but never played another down in the NFL. His lack of accuracy, poor decision-making and an attitude that reminded many of Ryan Leaf limited his career in Chicago. He is widely regarded as one of the worst draft picks in franchise history.
Robert Griffin III (Baylor)
To borrow his own words, Robert Griffin III’s meteoric ascent in 2011, culminating in him winning the Heisman Trophy (and eventually becoming the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft) was “unbelievably believable.” He had the combination of a rocket-launching arm, and elusiveness of a running back. He was absolutely sensational in his rookie year with the Washington Redskins, leading the team to an NFC East championship and winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
But his conflicts with head coach Mike Shanahan in his sophomore season, and his inability to adapt to Jay Gruden’s offensive philosophy, created an irreparable rift between Griffin and the Redskins, eventually leading to his release after the 2015 season. He signed on with the Cleveland Browns, but suffered a shoulder injury in the Browns first regular season game, likely ending his season. Although he’s still only 27 years old, Griffin is currently unsigned, and it looks like his once promising career is already over.
Matt Leinart (USC)
Of all the great players to ever suit up for the Trojans of the University of Southern California, few players truly embodied everything that program was about the way Matt Leinart did. The two-time national champion, two-time First-team All-American, and two-time quarterback of the year was the most successful quarterback in school history, and the savvy maestro of one of the most exciting offenses in college football history.
But Leinart, by his own admission, enjoyed his newfound celebrity a bit too much after getting to the NFL. The success he found in Los Angeles didn’t follow him to Arizona, who selected Leinart in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Between a myriad of injuries weaved in with generally poor performances, Leinart was out of the NFL by 2011.
Eric Crouch (Nebraska)
In his senior year as a Cornhusker, Crouch led Nebraska to an 11-2 record, completing 105 of 189 passes for 1,510 yards and seven touchdowns. Even more impressive were his rushing stats — 203 carries for 1,115 yards and 18 TDs. He was picked in the third round by the Rams, 95th overall in the 2002 draft. The Rams planned to convert Crouch into a wide receiver, but he retired on Sept. 11 without having played a down in the NFL.
Jay Zigmunt, Rams president of football operations, was completely blindsided by his sudden retirement. “It’s pretty shocking,” he said. “We’re as surprised by this as anyone. All I can say is it’s a first for me. Eric was nicked up a bit, but Mike (Martz) felt he was progressing. It certainly surprised all of us.”
Ty Detmer (BYU)
Detmer’s 1990 junior season ranks as one of the greatest seasons for a quarterback in college football history. He passed for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns in 12 regular season games, and finished the year with 42 NCAA records (and tied for five others). The highpoint of the season was BYU’s 28-21 upset victory over the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes; Detmer led the Cougars by passing for 406 yards and three touchdowns against the defending national champions. For his performance that season, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy, as well as many other honors including the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards.
Detmer was a ninth-round selection by the Green Bay Packers in the 1992 NFL Draft, and then spent the majority of his 14-year NFL career as a backup. He made a total of 26 career starts (including a 1997 wild-card playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers). Detmer completed his NFL career with 34 touchdown passes and 35 interceptions. Not exactly “Heisman Quality” statistics.
Tim Tebow (Florida)
There have been many great college football players in recent years, but perhaps none of them have been as famous — for many reasons — as Tim Tebow. The three-time All-American, two-time SEC Player of the Year and two-time BCS national champion won the Heisman Trophy in 2007. However, many NFL scouts believed he would be a very poor fit at quarterback at the professional level, and that Tebow would have to change positions to enjoy a long pro career.
Spurning that idea, Tebow tried his hand at quarterback in the NFL, with very limited success. While he did lead the Denver Broncos to a playoff win in his second season (2011), by 2012, he was out of the league. There was a brief moment where he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 in training camp, but he never made the team’s final roster. He saw limited action with the New York Jets, but has since ditched his football days and is currently playing in the Mets minor league system.
Danny Wuerffel (Florida)
Head coach Steve Spurrier had many quarterback put up some crazy numbers when he coached the University of Florida Gators, but few quarterbacks ran his “Fun ‘n’ Gun” offense as marvelously as Danny Wuerffel. During his time in Gainesville, Wuerffel completed 708 of 1,170 passes for 10,875 yards and 114 touchdown passes, setting SEC records and piling up the second most passing yards in major college history.
But Wuerffel, like many of Spurrier’s quarterbacks, were the modern precursor to the concept of “system quarterbacks.” Wuerffel lacked the arm strength, and the general ability to adapt to the pro game. At one point, people began to call him “Danny Awful.” He played for four teams in six years, the last of which coming in Washington, when Spurrier was the coach of the Redskins.
Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M)
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Johnny Manziel became the first freshman and fifth player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season. “Johnny Football” became a national sensation, culminating with his Heisman Trophy award in 2012.
After leaving Texas A&M, and as he slid down into the latter portion of the 2014 NFL Draft, amidst questions of his reckless personal style(s) on and off the field, he sent a text to then Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains, pleading his case for the Cleveland Browns to take him, saying “let’s wreck the league.” Instead, between a total lack of commitment to football, and an alarmingly increased abuse of alcohol, Manziel was out of the NFL by 2015.
Troy Smith (Ohio State)
Troy Smith had such an illustrious career as the quarterback of the Ohio State Buckeyes than an ESPN analyst listed him as “Big Ten player of the decade.” In 2006, he accounted for 31 total touchdowns produced by the Buckeyes offense, and led them to the 2007 National Championship game (where Ohio State lost to the University of Florida).
But standing less than six-feet tall, and not really possessing the pure passing skills that NFL teams covet, he never enjoyed anywhere near that level of success at the pro level. He spent his first three years in the NFL as a backup for the Baltimore Ravens, and started a handful of games in his lone season in San Francisco. He spent two more years in the CFL before his professional football career effectively ended.
Andre Ware (Houston)
In the run-and-shoot system employed by the University of Houston Cougars in the early 1990’s, Andre Ware threw for 4,699 yards and 44 touchdowns as a junior, setting 26 NCAA records en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. But Ware quickly became of one of the “poster children” for NFL teams becoming wary of college quarterbacks playing in this style of offense.
Between 1990 and 1999, Ware played for seven different football teams in the NFL, CFL, and even NFL Europe. He barely got off the bench in the NFL. In four seasons he completed just 83 passes for five TDs. Ware has the unique distinction of also being a major flop in the CFL, where he won a championship backing up Doug Flutie.
Gino Torretta (Miami)
Gino Torretta led his University of Miami Hurricanes to the 1993 Sugar Bowl — where they would eventually lose their shot at the national championship — capping off a two-year college career where the threw for more than 6,100 yards and 39 touchdowns. Despite his collegiate-level success, Torretta received little attention from NFL teams during the 1993 NFL Draft; he wasn’t taken until the seventh round.
He didn’t play a single snap in his first two years in the NFL, and eventually bounced around five more NFL teams before finally retiring in 1997. During his limited time in the NFL, he never started a single game, and attempted only 16 passes in his entire NFL career. I hate to pile on here, but Torretta finished his career with 41 passing yards, or 102 yards LESS than running back Ladainian Tomlinson (who finished with 143 yards).