Who is the NFL’s biggest draft bust?

By Elad De Piccioto
 getty / Elsa / Jed Jacobsohn
Like any previous NFL draft, this year’s draft in Philadelphia on April 29 has resulted in speculation over some of the players who were selected. While some players will be considered a bargain, others will turn out to be busts.
Offensive lineman Tony Mandarich defined the term “busts” in 1989. 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 

Busts aren’t set solely by players’ failure 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 didn’t want him picked, and once picked, his coach refused to work with him. Moreover, his team`s offence 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 in 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. Scouts’ reports indicated a potential weight problem that could affect his quickness and agility, as well as a potential work ethic problem.

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 1998 draft. Most scouts identified a vast amount of talent in him, and he was considered as around 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 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. The main reason Tony Mandarich is considered a huge draft bust is that the next three direct picks after him were Berry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, three Hall of Famers.

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. Future Hall of Famers Joe Thomas, 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’s effect on 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 that could have helped them build a reasonable team, if spent wisely. Sure, the Raiders struggled not just because of Russell’s contact, but it definately made a huge, negative impact on the team.


Bottom lines: Ryan Leaf’s stats prove he is the biggest bust in the NFL history. Moreover, he had better conditions to enable him to succeed than Russell, but failed anyway, and his failure was more surprising. On the other hand, the Raiders had bigger expectations for Russell, and, more importantly, chose him despite having had  better draft options, which makes him the NFL’s biggest draft bust.

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