JaMarcus Russell Busts

April 30, 2011

NFL fans love talking about draft busts.

Ask any fan about the biggest draft busts of all-time, and he or she will rattle off Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, and Lawrence Phillips without even thinking about it. Ask who the best draft picks of all-time are and the same fan will say Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round and…um…

This shouldn’t be surprising: draft busts get way more coverage. A Google search for “best NFL draft picks” pulls up 75,000 results. “NFL draft busts” pulls up 504,000.

I’m not exactly sure why we love talking about busts. Maybe it’s because busts are easier to quantify. We could go back and forth on which team got the better end of the Eli Manning/Phillip Rivers trade in 2004, but we can all agree that the Colts made the right move in selecting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998.

Or maybe we just like picking on teams when they screw up. Sure, it’s easy to pick a Hall of Fame quarterback with the first pick of the draft – it’s the first pick! – but to destroy your team’s playoff chances for five years by screwing up the second pick? Now that’s worth talking about.

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There are two basic types of busts. The first kind are the retrospective busts. Retrospective busts are the busts that no one saw coming. Only after the pick flamed out of the league do we realize why the pick is a failure.

Ryan Leaf is an example of the retrospective bust. Every NFL fan knows this story – Manning and Leaf were neck-and-neck heading into the draft. One was going to the Colts at #1 and the other was going to the Chargers at #2.* It was pretty close to a coin flip. You know how the story ended. The Colts made the playoffs 12 of 13 years following Manning’s rookie season and won Super Bowl XLI; the Chargers drafted Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers before they returned to the playoffs and Ryan Leaf was last seen getting arrested for selling painkillers to West Texas A&M football players (Go Buffaloes!).

* Interesting sidebar that no one seems to mention any more: the Chargers traded up from #3 to #2 to pick Leaf. The Cardinals picked DE Andre Wadsworth at #3, who turned out to be almost as big of a bust as Ryan Leaf. The #4 pick? Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Ryan Leaf pick went so wrong. Manning is the consummate professional – not only does he have a great arm, he works and studies more than anyone else. Leaf is a socially awkward crybaby who you wouldn’t trust to coach your kid’s Little League team, let alone lead an NFL team. At the time, we didn’t know that. We thought he could be just as good as Peyton Manning.

The list of these picks are endless: Brian Bosworth and Tony Mandarich (too much ‘roids), the aforementioned Wadsworth (noodles for knee ligaments), Andre Ware and David Klingler (before teams realized that being a system quarterback is a bad thing), and Heath Schuler (couldn’t throw).

These busts aren’t that fun to pick apart. Sure, we can get mad at our own general manager for these picks, but we would have made the same move. This is the same reason why no one talks about busts in the MLB draft. In every draft in every sport, teams work with incomplete information. You can’t really know if a high school senior can hit a breaking ball because no high school pitcher can throw a particularly nasty curve. NFL busts get more attention because we have three or four years of college to work with. But even with those extra years, teams miss qualities that haven’t shown up yet. It happens.

The more interesting busts are the prospective busts – the busts that you can see coming from a mile away but, for one reason or another, teams pick them anyway. I’ll call these the JaMarcus Russell busts.

I find these picks fascinating. They are the equivalent of going to a restaurant and having a large piece of cheesecake after you’ve already destroyed two plates of appetizers and a steak. You know that there’s no way you’re going to feel like living within about five minutes after you’ve eaten it…but damn it looks tasty.

JaMarcus Russell is the MVP of the JaMarcus Russell All-Star bust team.* The Raiders couldn’t help but pick him at #1. He could throw the ball farther than any other quarterback in the league and he was extremely hard to sack. Never mind that he could barely beat out Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job at LSU. Or that LSU fans spent the majority of his career ripping on him, save for the last seven games of his Tiger career. Or that he looked impressive in exactly one career college game against a decent opponent (the 2007 Sugar Bowl at home against an overrated Notre Dame team). Or that giving $32 million guaranteed to a 265-pound guy with no discernible work ethic might not be the best idea.

* Thank goodness…might have been awkward if someone else won the MVP award on his own team. Who knows how many cheeseburgers JaMarcus would have eaten in his depression.

I remember thinking that Russell was going to be a colossal bust at the time. If I was blogging back then, I would have devoted 1,500 words to the subject. Pretty much every single red flag was there, but the Raiders just couldn’t help picking that cheesecake (neither could Russell), simply because he could throw the ball really, really far.

For my own team, the Packers’ best known bust is Tony Mandarich in 1989. The Packers selected Mandarich with the second overall pick, just ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. Those three players make the Mandarich pick exceptionally painful for Packers fans. Yet the guy was the cover story of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Draft people. Pretty much everyone thought he would be a great NFL lineman. No one knew about the detriment his massive steroid use had on him, just how abrasive his personality was, or how he much he liked drugs and alcohol.

The bigger JaMarcus Russell-style bust happened in 2001 for the Packers. The Packers traded up to the tenth pick in the draft to pick defensive end Jamal Reynolds.* More precisely, they drafted the 6’3″, 265-pound defensive end Jamal Reynolds. With that size, Reynolds would have been an excellent pick in 1978. Not so much in 2001. Predictably, he played 18 games and had 3 career sacks before exiting the league following the 2003 season.

* The Packers traded Matt Hasselbeck and the #17 pick (Steve Hutchinson) to Seattle, which worked out fairly nicely for the Seahawks.

Then there is former Husker Lawrence Phillips, who the Rams selected with the #6 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Phillips is batshit crazy. He missed most of his final season at Nebraska because he pushed his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. He was such a terrible person that Husker fans were upset when he was allowed back on the team. To most teams, that would be a red flag. The Rams couldn’t help themselves. Unsurprisingly, he finished with almost three times as many years sentenced to prison (41) than NFL touchdowns (14).

The other reason JaMarcus Russell busts are interesting is that sometimes they work out. Donovan McNabb was booed at the 1999 NFL Draft by Eagles fans clamoring for Ricky Williams. That pick turned out pretty well for the Eagles.

I thought Josh Freeman would be a colossal bust for Tampa Bay after three unimpressive years at Kansas State. It’s still early, but it certainly looks like I am wrong about that one.

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That brings us to this year’s NFL Draft and the four quarterbacks drafted in the first 12 picks. I’m sticking with quarterbacks because this post is getting too long already. And if you think I analyzed the top four so I can make fun of the Vikings in about four paragraphs, you know me too well.

Cam Newton was selected first, but I don’t think he qualifies as a Russell bust. He’s certainly got some concerns, but the guy is a winner. He didn’t lose a game in college. Maybe he has accuracy issues, but he has more natural leadership, poise, and confidence than any quarterback I’ve seen in years. I just can’t picture a guy like that as a loser. He might be a bust, but not a Russell bust.

Eighth overall pick Jake Locker, on the other hand, kinda sucks. Locker is a strange case, because I’m not entirely sure why he was ever projected to be the #1 pick in the draft, other than Mel Kiper told me so. Certainly I wouldn’t have thought that by looking at his Washington Husky team that went 16-34 in his four seasons, including 0-12 in his sophomore year. And I definitely didn’t see it in the first full game I saw him play, when he went 4-20 passing for 71 yards and 2 interceptions in a 56-21 loss to Nebraska last season. I am not persuaded that Locker was even a good college quarterback, let alone an NFL prospect worthy of the eighth overall pick.

Likewise, I’m not sold on tenth overall pick Blaine Gabbert, but I’m a bit torn. Gabbert and Josh Freeman both committed to Nebraska before they changed their minds and attended a different Big 12 school. Both weren’t all that impressive in college, but were high on every NFL expert’s draft list. I expected Freeman to fail in the NFL, just like I expect Gabbert to fail. But now Freeman is actually pretty good and I’m all kinds of confused. Let’s just move on…

To Christian Ponder. I applaud the Vikings’ strategy, but only because I’m a Packer fan. Apparently their thinking was that we need a quarterback, so why change things up when all the good quarterbacks have already been drafted?

I admit to not following the draft as well as I should have beforehand – I’m just too bummed about the lockout. I didn’t read a lot of Mel Kiper or Todd McShay before the draft, so I don’t know how high Ponder was on their draft boards. However, I do watch a lot of college football and I can say that at no point over the last four years did I think Ponder was an NFL quarterback, let alone a top 12 draft pick.

I briefly questioned my own thoughts when I looked back at his stats. He clearly isn’t bad, although he was injured much of his career. But I shouldn’t have to do that for the #12 pick in the draft. Before the draft, Ponder was just another in a long line of disappointing, highly recruited Florida State quarterbacks.

Judging by the comments on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website, Vikings fans agree with that sentiment. Ponder makes this year JaMarcus Russell bust All-Star team.

And I get to make fun of the pick for years.

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