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Who is the NFL’s biggest draft bust?

By Elad De Piccioto
 getty / Elsa / Jed Jacobsohn
*Updated 2020
The world as we know it may have come to a temporary but extended halt, but even the coronavirus pandemic can’t stop the NFL draft. This year’s draft is taking place remotely from league commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement in New Jersey instead of from Las Vegas. While its format has changed, it will nevertheless result in predictable speculation over some of the players who will be selected. While some players will be considered a bargain, others will turn out to be busts.
In 1989, then-offensive lineman Tony Mandarich defined the term “busts.” Ever since, many players have been considered busts. However, the two contenders for being the biggest NFL draft bust since 1989 are the Raiders’ JaMarcus Russell and the Chargers’ Ryan Leaf.
Here are three arguments on why each of them is the NFL’s biggest draft bust:

Why Leaf is the NFL’s biggest draft bust:


Leaf’s stats were worse 

Draft busts aren’t set solely by players’ failures to meet expectations but also by their field performance. The intensity of a player’s failure on the field is a decisive factor when evaluating bust levels. A look at the stats of Leaf and Russell proves that Leaf was a bigger failure on the field.


JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf stats


Leaf had a better team environment

Coming into the league, Russell had an unsupportive environment. His coach, Lane Kiffin, didn’t want him picked, and once picked, his coach refused to work with him. Moreover, his team`s offense was unskilled, and the several good players that were part of the team were unavailable on a regular basis during Russell`s playing years. In contrast, Leaf had a solid team with a good coach when he entered the league. Unlike Russell, Leaf failed to make it on other teams, which is clear evidence that the main problem was Leaf himself.


Leaf`s failure was more surprising

Russell`s work ethic and weight were the main reasons for his failure during his NFL years. These problems were known prior to his selection in the 2007 draft. Scout reports indicated a potential weight problem that could affect his quickness and agility, as well as his supposed poor work ethic.

On the other hand, Leaf was supposed to be the next-big-thing in the NFL, and was one of the most coveted players in the1998 draft. Most scouts identified a vast amount of talent in him, and he was considered as being at the same level as Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Eventually, it was a combination of injuries, immaturity, and lack of passion that paved Leaf’s way out of the league. Leaf was a typical example of a quarterback who had everything a coach would want in a quarterback. So, in comparison to Russell, whose problems were well known, Leaf`s failure was more surprising and disappointing.


Why Russell is the NFL’s biggest draft bust:


Russell had bigger expectations to live up to

Coming into the league, Russell had bigger expectations placed on him than Leaf had. His size and arm strength (he could throw a football for 70 yards while on his knees!), together with his dreamy appearance on the Sugar Bowl, marked him as the next dominating quarterback of the game. The Raiders’ owner believed Russell would be a franchise quarterback, meaning a player that is not only the best on his team but also a player that the Raiders could build their future team around. The expectations were huge, and, therefore, so was the disappointment when Russell failed to meet them.


The Raiders had better options  

The NFL draft is about making choices, which is always a question of alternatives. When picking Russell, the Raiders could have chosen Calvin Johnson, who was a great option and was considered as one of the most dynamic receivers in the league for a decade. Potential future Hall of Famers Joe Thomas (who is in the College Football Hall of Fame), Adrian Peterson and Patrick Willis were alternative choices for Russell.

The Chargers’ choice of Leaf is more understandable. During the 1998 draft, the Chargers needed a QB. They preferred Peyton Manning (who is considered one of the best QB of all times), but he was chosen first by the Colts. The Chargers were left with Leaf, who was then considered around the same level as Manning. So, the Raiders had better options and yet made the worst choice, which makes Russell a bigger bust.


His contract negatively affected the Raiders

The negative effect Russell’s signing had on the Oakland Raiders team was far from negligible and affected the franchise for years. In 2007, Russell signed the biggest rookie contract as of that year: a six-year contract worth $61 million, including $32 million guaranteed. Although the Raiders were known for their player-friendly contracts, Russell’s contract had immense financial ramifications on the team`s morale. The Raiders paid him almost $40 million, which could have, instead, helped them build a reasonable team. Sure, the Raiders’ struggles were not just because of Russell’s contract, but it definitely made a huge, negative impact on the team.


The Bottom Line: Ryan Leaf’s stats prove he is the biggest bust in NFL history. Moreover, he had better conditions to enable him to succeed than Russell but failed anyway. On the other hand, the Raiders had bigger expectations for Russell, and, more importantly, chose him despite having had better draft options. Of the two of them, who do you think is the NFL’s biggest draft bust?

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