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The Five Biggest QB Busts

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

Everyone loves a rags to riches story, and there are plenty of them in the NFL, including quarterbacks. Before he led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl championship, remember, Kurt Warner was bagging groceries at a local supermarket. And then there’s a guy named Tom Brady, who went from a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 to the greatest quarterback of all time.

Then, of course, there is the opposite extreme: highly-touted signal callers who, for whatever reason, wind up failing to live up to expectations. We looked at NFL Drafts from the past 25 years to see which highly drafted QBs never quite lived up to their billing. (If you hear whispers that Hawaii’s Tua Tagovailoa may already get tagged with the “bust” label, rest assured he’s another Patrick Mahomes compared to the QBs we’re about to list.)

Here are the NFL’s five biggest QB busts from the last quarter-century:


The Tennessee Titans selected the cannon-armed Washington Huskie with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 Draft. Many NFL observers felt it was a reach. One scout noted before the Draft: “Locker has all the physical tools, and a team will likely take a chance on him in the first round despite his inconsistent production.” Locker lasted only four seasons with the Titans, starting 23 games. For his career, he passed for 27 TDs with 22 interceptions. He retired before the 2015 season, saying he no longer had the desire to play football.


Shuler was the No. 3 overall pick of the Washington Redskins in 1994. He possessed the size, athleticism and accuracy, scouts said, to be a star in the league. One scout compared him to Troy Aikman. The former Tennessee Volunteer, however, never panned out in the league. In his four NFL seasons (three with the Redskins, one with the New Orleans Saints), Shuler threw 15 TDs and a whopping 33 picks. His completion percentage was a miserable 49.2%. Noted Cam Cameron, his QB coach: “He had all the measurables for a guy to be successful. It just didn’t happen.” Shuler would go on to represent North Carolina as a member of the U.S. Congress.


Smith left the University of Oregon as the Pac-10 Conference’s “Co-Offensive Player of the Year” (with UCLA’s Cade McNown), and NFL Draft pundits raved about his potential as a pro QB. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Smith with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1999 Draft. On draft day, they rejected a trade proposal by the New Orleans Saints and their head coach, Mike Ditka, that would have sent the Saints’ entire set of draft picks, plus first-round picks in 2000 and 2001. (Ditka wanted to use the No. 3 pick to draft running back Ricky Williams. He would later acquire the No. 5 pick from Washington to select Williams.) Smith never panned out for the Bengals, lasting only four seasons before being released. His career stats: 5 TDs, 13 INTs, 46.6% completion percentage. After failing tryouts with Green Bay and Tampa Bay, Smith joined the CFL.


In the weeks leading up to the 1998 NFL Draft, the hot question among football pundits was which QB would go No. 1 – Washington State’s Ryan Leaf or Tennessee’s Peyton Manning? Leaf’s problems began on the first day of the NFL Combine, when he weighed 261 pounds, 20 over his playing weight. The Indianapolis Colts would select Manning at No. 1, and the San Diego Chargers scooped up Leaf with the second pick. He signed a four-year, $31.25-million contract with the team, including an $11.25-million signing bonus (the largest ever given to an NFL rookie at the time). In his three NFL seasons, Leaf passed for only 14 TDs and threw 36 INTs. His completion percentage was only 48%. His post-football career was clouded by legal troubles; in 2014, he was sentence to prison for breaking into a home to steal prescription drugs. Recently, however, Leaf has turned his life around. He began working as a “program ambassador” for Transcend Recovery Community, a group of sober living houses. He is now a college football analyst for ESPN.


NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper called Russell “John Elway-like.” Another observer noted that Russell possessed an arm that “makes Brett Favre look like Danny Wuerffel.” Standing 6-6 and weighing 260 pounds, the beefy QB out of LSU was compared favorably to NFL QBs Ben Roethlisberger, Daunte Culpepper and Byron Leftwich. Believing the hype, the Oakland Raiders nabbed Russell with the top overall pick in the 2007 Draft. It would prove to be a move that set back the franchise for years. Russell initially held out from the team, then signed a six-year deal worth up to $68 million ($31.5 million guaranteed). Right away, his work ethic was called into question. One story goes that the Raiders coaching staff gave him a gameplan on DVD to study at home. Russell returned the next day and said he watched the DVD, but there was one problem: The coaches deliberately gave him a blank disc. Russell only lasted three seasons in the league, throwing 18 TDs and 23 INTs. He also fumbled the ball away 15 times. After he was released, it would be years before the Raiders allowed another player to wear Russell’s jersey number (#2).

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