Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Anatomy of a Draft Bust

Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated with the NFL Draft.  My parents got me an NFL almanac for Christmas when I was 10 years old, and I spent the next few months memorizing the first rounds of previous drafts and learning the overall draft positions of some of my favorite players.  It might sound weird, I know, but is it any different from all of us who memorized batting averages from the backs of the our baseball cards?  By the time the next April rolled around, I was ready to see which college players would go where.  I sat the entire day in front of the TV, watching the draft for the first time.  Within three years, I was making my own mock drafts and comparing my accuracy to Mel Kiper.  I even tried (unsuccessfully) to get the local newspaper to publish my mock draft over the syndicated one they ran every year the day before the draft.

I love the NFL Draft because it's simultaneously a time of cathartic closure and hopeful beginnings.  Many of these young men have been working toward and dreaming of making the NFL, and the suspense ends on draft day.  But as one door is closing, these prospects are bursting through another.  I'm the kind of guy that hopes that every draft pick succeeds, even though I'm not always convinced they are all they're cracked up to be.  In my perfect world, all first rounders become Pro Bowlers.  The top five picks should all pan out to be Hall of Fame caliber players.  I would love starting lineups to be filled with players taken between rounds two and four.  It's not that I especially love scouts and GMs, but I want all the players to live up to expectations.

While I have high hopes for every prospect, the chance that some may fail while others succeed well beyond their scouting report's ceiling adds drama to the draft.  But to me the question is always, "Who could be the hidden gem?" rather than "Which of these guys will go down in flames?"  I've been familiarizing myself with the big names at the top of the draft for weeks and wish them a successful career.

I suppose that's why I'm so intrigued by draft busts.  These are guys who I believed in.  A lot of people believed in them.  General managers put their jobs on the line to select them.  Fans invested in the idea that these players are the future of the franchise.  These guys have proven something somewhere along the way to get to where they are.  And then a few years down the road, hope has succumbed to disappointment, excitement has morphed to anxiety, and welcoming fanbases have turned angry.   How does it all go wrong?

The Injury Bug

Some of these busts are not to blame.  It's that pesky injury bug who won't leave them alone.  Ki-Jana Carter immediately comes to mind.  The number one overall pick blew out his knee in the preseason of his rookie year, and it was lights out for his career; he never fully recovered.  The injury bug busts are by far the most pitiable.

The Workout Warrior

Some guys were never really thought of as a great prospect--until the combine, that is.  Then they put on a show and flew up the draft boards to a bloated ranking.  Once at the professional level, the balloon is burst and they show that they may be physical freaks, but they can't keep up with the football talent around them.  Mike Mamula is Exhibit A.  He trained for the combine and came away with unbelievable numbers.  The Eagles traded up to snatch him, passing on both Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the process.  He finished his career with 31.5 sacks.  It wasn't awful, but he became the poster child for the Workout Warrior.

The Overreach

The scouts agree: this player is a late first-rounder, early second-rounder.  But what's this?  He gets his name called at #7?  What is going on here?  Poor Kiper and Mayock are left scrambling to explain this pick, but the fact of the matter is, [insert your team here] just fell in love with this kid and couldn't risk losing him by waiting until next round.  Now the expectations are sky high, as is the eventual fall.  Darrius Heyward-Bey comes to mind here.  Heyward-Bey was a speedy receiver, and that was enough for Al Davis.  It wasn't, unfortunately, enough for his career.  Was he decent as a first-round pick?  Maybe.  He is still kicking around the league, after all.  But the expectations set with his draft position turned him into a bust.  Christian Ponder has fallen into this category, and E.J. Manuel is dangerously close to the edge.

The Character Issues

Some guys just can't stay on the field, but it has little to do with injuries.  In these cases, talent trumped red flags during the draft, but the issues ended up weighing far more in the end.  Lawrence Phillips and Johnny Manziel both fit the bill here.  Phillips had far more character concerns coming out of college than Manziel, and he managed to live up to about all of them.  His sad story ended in prison, where he passed away last year.  Johnny Manziel just managed to party his way of the league.  Always the hopeful one, I really do hope that he gets his life together, even if his future doesn't hold the NFL.

The Gilded Boy

And sometimes, the Can't-Miss Prospects just miss horribly.  I don't have an explanation for this, but the laundry list is long: Andre Ware, Tony Mandarich, Todd Marinovich, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown (what was wrong with that 1999 QB class?), Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jamarcus Russell, Trent Richardson, etc.  I wish I knew why.  So does every scout, talent evaluator, GM, and coach out there.  Sometimes people just get it wrong.  Remember the genuine debate over Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf?  Bill Polian made the right decision, but many (my high school self included) thought he got it wrong.  But imagine the course of NFL history if he had selected Leaf instead and Peyton ended up in San Diego.

As a disclaimer, I had no intention of making a comprehensive list of NFL Draft Busts.  There are plenty out there who receive no mention here.   I just wanted to touch on a few draft bust types and highlight some cards along the way.

Sometimes I feel like I should start a draft bust PC.  Or maybe a Frankenset.  Maybe that's just the morbidity in me, keeping mementos as kind of a requiem for the career of a player busted out of the league.  But it's too sad a collection to think about.  I appreciate having the piece of draft history in my collection, but I'll pass on having an entire collection of it.

What do you think?  Who was the biggest draft bust of all-time?  Sound off in the comments.  Thanks for reading!


  1. This was a intriguing read - it's so easy to get lost in the hype of the draft and forget that these hyped up draft picks are at that, barely old enough to even legally drink. This isn't just a sporting event to them, as it is for us spectators; this is a turning point in their lives.

  2. I've got a stack of extra Heath Shuler cards you can add...

    I always wonder if any of these guys still watch ESPN or the other sports networks and see themselves discussed as busts. What do they think at that moment? It would be horrible to be famous for this level of failure...