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College Football Sensations Who Were Busts in the NFL

Busts in the NFL: Washington State QB Ryan Leaf
© RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Many college football fans enjoy keeping tabs on their favorite players as they transition from Saturdays to Sundays, and while a fair number of those players excel, others become busts in the NFL. Some of the most highly-regarded college players flop at the pro level, while plenty of undrafted players and athletes selected near the bottom of the draft go on to excel. This article focuses on the former category rather than Pro Football Hall of Fame players like Kurt Warner who rose to stardom after going undrafted.

The Top 3

There is not much wiggle room when it comes to identifying the top 3 NFL draft busts of all time. Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich and JaMarcus Russell were all drafted No. 1 or No. 2 overall after abundant hype and fanfare, and all three of them were unmitigated failures in the NFL.

Tony Mandarich

Featured twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated and proclaimed the greatest offensive line prospect ever, Mandarich was selected No. 2 overall by the Green Bay Packers in the 1989 NFL Draft. Mandarich, who is now 57-years-old, was a two-time All-American at Michigan State.

Busts in the NFL: Michigan State OL Tony Mandarich
© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

After three seasons plagued by contract disputes, lackluster performance and attitude issues, the Packers released Mandarich. It was a spectacular fall from grace for one of the most highly regarded college players ever.

Eventually, Mandarich disclosed that he had endured a long battle with steroid use.

JaMarcus Russell

After a standout career at LSU, Russell was the No. 1 overall selection of the Oakland Raiders in the 2007 NFL Draft. His career with the Raiders began inauspiciously, with a contract dispute that resulted in Russell skipping training camp and not signing with the team until after the regular season was underway.

Busts in the NFL: LSU QB JaMarcus Russell
© David Kadlubowski, AZR—USA TODAY Sports

After persistent poor performance, the Raiders waived Russell in the 2010 offseason.’s Steve Wyche described Russell as the biggest draft bust in NFL history.

During his NFL career, Russell had a positive drug test result. After his career, he was arrested on drug charges. However, those charges were eventually dismissed.

Ryan Leaf

Leaf's NFL performance was a mirror image of his collegiate performance. His abysmal stat line in the NFL was the converse of the impressive numbers he put up during his career at Washington State. In three NFL seasons, Leaf threw nearly three times more interceptions than touchdowns—14 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions. Furthermore, he completed only 48.4 percent of his NFL passes. By contrast, at Washington State, Leaf was named first-team All-American in 1997, after throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns.

Leaf and Peyton Manning were widely regarded as the two best players in the 1998 NFL Draft. Many regarded Leaf as the better prospect of the two. History leaves no doubt about who was correct on that score.

Leaf was cut after a brief and unsuccessful NFL career. His life then spiraled downward, as he was in the throes of drug addiction.

Happily, Leaf has rebounded. He facilitates efforts to help those afflicted with drug addiction and has become a successful sportscaster and commentator.

Busts in the NFL: 'Honorable' Mention

Many other collegiate standouts have entered the NFL with high hopes, only to flame out. However, two in particular deserve mention in this article—Johnny Manziel and Trey Lance.

Johnny Manziel

Manziel won the 2012 Heisman Trophy, as a freshman. In that remarkable season, "Johnny Football" almost single-handedly led Texas A&M to a victory over the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide. Any college football fans who were awake during the seasons when Manziel was the starting quarterback at A&M remember his brilliant performances.

The Cleveland Browns selected him with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He was also a talented baseball player and was drafted as a shortstop by the San Diego Padres. Two years after drafting Manziel, the Browns waived him.

Busts in the NFL: Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
© John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, after entering the NFL, Manziel's career was plagued by drug problems and legal issues. However, Manziel seems to be on the road to redemption. He is a coveted speaker at A&M events, and he played an instrumental role in the decision of the Heisman Trust to return the 2004 Heisman Trophy to its rightful winner, Reggie Bush.

Trey Lance

The San Francisco 49ers expended considerable draft capital to trade up to select Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, even though Lance played only 17 games at the collegiate level at an FCS school—North Dakota State.

Busts in the NFL: QB Trey Lance
© Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Lance played in only eight games for the 49ers throughout two seasons. After the 2022 season, the 49ers traded Lance to the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round draft pick. He is currently listed as the Cowboys third-string QB. The former No. 3 overall draft pick is paid well to carry a clipboard.


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