— JaMarcus Russell is such a monumental knucklehead, I hesitate to name him the greatest failure in NFL draft history, lest it superlative goes to his head. He'd probably brag about how I called him the greatest in history.
I’ve little doubt the hulking ex-quarterback would see it that way. From the day in 2007 when the Raiders selected him No. 1 overall until today, he’s never understood what it takes to play the most difficult position in sports. He began his career with a holdout. He’s ending it beind accused of drug possession. In between, he never put in the work to succeed. With more than $30 million in the bank, he preferred lifting cheeseburgers to weights.
Still, it’s hard to avoid slapping that biggest bust label on him. His record as a starter is 7-18. In three years, he threw for 18 TDs and 23 interceptions and set standards for incompetence that will be hard to equal, let alone surpass.
All of which begs the question: Is Russell the worst draft-day bust in the history of not just the NFL but the four major North American sports?
That’s a hard one. There are a ton of awful draft choices in every sport. It's hard to choose just one, especially if you’re a Cleveland Browns or New York Jets fan. And how far back do you go? If there’s no time limit, I’d go back to the 1966 MLB draft, when the Mets, picking first, passed on some kid named Reggie Jackson, choosing to go instead with Steve Chilcott, a catcher who made it all the way to AAA ball before his career ended.
But 1966 is a long time ago, too long. Besides, there are other fabulous busts much closer to hand. So let’s keep it to 30 years.
One final note: I decided to favor flat-out busts like JaMarcus over guys who were injured and then flamed out like Ki-Jana Carter.
10. Tony Mandarich
There are bigger busts than Mandarich, but almost all of them are quarterbacks and running backs. Rather than fill this list with a lot of Andre Ware clones, it needs an offensive lineman, and Mandarich is it. A monster left tackle for Michigan State, Mandarich was a Sports Illustrated cover boy who, the experts said, was destined to redefine that position. He was the No. 2 overall draft choice in 1989 and never played well enough to be a back-up on most teams. A bigger reason for putting him on this list is this: After he went at No. 2, the next choices were Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders; Troy Aikman was the overall No. 1 that year.
9. Brian Bosworth
We also need a defensive bust. There are plenty, but I’m going with Bosworth strictly because this guy was celebrated as the middle linebacker heir to Dick Butkus, and Ray Nitschke, and Jack Lambert. Despite being banned from the 1987 Orange Bowl for steroid use, Boz was snapped up by the savvy personnel geniuses in Seattle, who gave him the biggest contract ever lavished on a rookie. The highlight of his career was probably getting run over by Bo Jackson on Monday Night Football. Bosworth lasted through two games of the 1989 season, but not a third.
8. Sam Bowie
He’s probably no worse than Chris Washburn, Joe Barry Carroll or Benoit Benjamin, and he was hampered by injuries, but you have to give Sam extra credit for being the second pick of the ’84 draft, sandwiched around Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan. Sure, Bowie would have been better for Portland if he had stayed healthy, but still, there’s Jordan, who arrived with an NCAA title and his own sneaker model, and there’s Bowie, who arrived with bad feet. Picks don’t come much dumber than this.
7. Brian Lawton
The NHL deserves recognition, having its own rich heritage of disastrous drafts. The most recent was Alexander Daigle, who set Ottawa back for years when he was the top pick of 1993. But I have to go with Lawton, who wins by virtue of failing to deliver on the promise of being the American Wayne Gretzky. Drafted first overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1983, he never scored more than 44 points in a career that saw him shuffle off to six teams. Other players the Stars could have taken instead of Lawton included Sylvain Turgeon, Pat LaFontaine, Steve Yzerman and Cam Neely.
6. Darko Milicic
Detroit was flush with talent and a year away from an NBA championship when they used the second pick in 2003 to take the Serbian star. The first pick that year was LeBron James. The next three after Darko were Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Now with his fifth team — Minnesota — Milicic is so bad he couldn’t even stick with the Knicks. In seven NBA seasons, he’s averaged 5.6 points per game.
5. Kwame Brown
This guy would be the No. 1 all-time worst draft bust on a lot of charts. He came to the Wizards in 2001 straight out of high school and was labeled can’t miss by Michael Jordan, who was ending his career as a player and beginning another as a lousy judge of talent. Jordan could have taken Pau Gasol, who went third, or traded way down for Joe Johnson or Tony Parker. Now on his fourth team, Brown has a career scoring average that only Darko could envy: 6.7 ppg.
4. Ryan Leaf
I could have put any one of a number of QB busts here, from Andre Ware to Akili Smith to Joey Harrington. But Leaf is worse than all of them put together. He went No. 2 in 1998 when some thought he should've been drafted ahead of Peyton Manning. The Chargers traded up to snatch Leaf, who they thought was the second coming of Dan Fouts. Instead, they got a head case and a guy who started 18 games and lost all but four of them.
3. Matt Bush
If you find yourself asking, “Who’s he?” it’s not without reason. Bush was a highly touted shortstop who the Padres drafted No. 1 overall in 2004. He makes it this high on my list because he’s such a spectacular screw-up. If he were an NBA or NFL draftee, he’d be No. 1, no question. Bush not only didn’t play in the majors, he didn’t make it to AAA or even AA. He celebrated being drafted and signed by trashing Padres’ owner John Moore’s suite. He’s also been arrested for suspicion of DWI and vandalism and last year admitted to assaulting a group of high-school lacrosse players.
2. JaMarcus Russell
We discussed him above. All I have to add is the one good thing he did, which is to make Raiders fans forget Todd Marinovich.
1. Lawrence Phillips
A no brainer. Phillips was on top of the world when he was leading a great Nebraska team with his rushing and winning the 1996 Fiesta Bowl and a National Championship. He was also starting to build his rap sheet when he was suspended for beating up his girlfriend. Despite serious questions about his character, the Rams took him sixth overall in 1996.
Before the 1997 season was over, Dick Vermiel was calling Phillips one of the best running backs he had ever seen even, only to later cut him for being an insubordinate jerk. Phillips went to the Dolphins, where he did little on the field but did beat up another woman. He tried NFL Europe, where he was very good, came back to the 49ers where he missed a block that got his quarterback, Steve Young, knocked out, went to Canada, and eventually got himself thrown out of the game entirely.
After a few more criminal escapades, Phillips took up residence last year in the California prison system, where he could remain for another 30 years.