NFL draft busts

X plus three years is generally accepted as the appropriate time span to fairly evaluate a given NFL draft.

And while the 2021 “Player Selection Meeting” had already come into fairly clear focus, its near-rampant disappointment from a quarterback perspective continues to crystallize. Top pick Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars has been far closer to average than the generational prospect he was labeled to be. Yet he seems Canton-caliber compared to draftmates Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, who will all be on teams different from the ones that drafted them next season if, as expected, the Jets soon part ways with Wilson.

And while the indictment of the 2021 NFL draft’s arms may smack of recency bias, some of its members have truly earned a spot on this list of the 50 hugest busts of the past 50 years.

Some words about the methodology: This ranking and analysis are certainly interspersed with opinion. But I tried not to view these wayward picks in a vacuum – taking into account what teams sacrificed to take a player, either in terms of trade currency or whom they opted not to select, when evaluating each bust. Some deals themselves are included since many prevented teams from choosing superior options. Naturally, extra weight was given to quarterback gaffes.

Lastly, I tried to have some fun and creativity in select spots to keep you (and me) engaged, so try not to get too bent out of shape if that guard or defensive back your team took in the top 10 before he petered out didn’t warrant a mention.

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1. QB Ryan Leaf, 2nd overall 1998, Chargers

It seems patently obvious who was superior more than a quarter-century after the fact, but he was very much in the conversation to be this draft’s No. 1 pick. Of course, the Colts wisely chose eventual five-time league MVP Peyton Manning. Meanwhile, the Bolts set themselves back years by taking Leaf (4-14 in 18 starts for the club with a 48.8 passer rating), whose gross immaturity and inability to solve pro defenses trumped his vast physical talent. What cements his infamy is the price San Diego paid to simply swap its initial No. 3 pick to get Arizona’s spot at No. 2 (more on that later). But the freight the Cardinals commanded, aside from the switch, was a second-rounder, an additional first-rounder in 1999 and two veterans (WR Eric Metcalf and LB Patrick Sapp). Oof.

2. OT Tony Mandarich, 2nd overall 1989, Packers

The Sports Illustrated cover boy deemed “The Incredible Bulk” prior to the draft – he had uncommon athleticism and size for the position at the time – was labeled “The NFL’s Incredible Bust” by SI only three years later. Mandarich’s steroid-fueled body and poor work ethic didn’t hold up against professional competition, and he later descended into drug and alcohol abuse. Any value he later provided at guard might have helped the Colts but obviously didn’t do the Pack any good. But this context truly frames his failure: Mandarich was the only player selected in the top five that year who didn’t wind up in the Hall of Fame. Troy Aikman went No. 1, but Green Bay passed on Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.

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