Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning? That was the drama at the top of the 1998 NFL draft, with two seemingly elite quarterbacks in play.
Fortunately for Indianapolis, Manning was the pick, and the Colts eventually won a Super Bowl with him at the helm. Infamously for San Diego, Leaf didn’t have the same makeup and quickly fizzled out of the league.
Two years ago, while Manning was on his way to winning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award with Denver, Leaf was beginning a prison sentence for burglary and drugs. That’s the extreme contrast of success and failure at this critical position, of course, but Leaf isn’t the only high-profile quarterback whose struggles in the professional game significantly set back the team that drafted him.
Here are six of the biggest busts of the last decade, weighing actual performance, selection number and franchise impact:
JAMARCUS RUSSELL: By far the Leafiest pick since that fateful selection by the Chargers, Russell was taken by Oakland first overall out of LSU in 2007. After a 7-18 record as a starter, with 23 interceptions and only 18 touchdowns on his resume, Russell was overweight and out of the league three years later. The worst part for the Raiders, who have yet to find their franchise quarterback, is the list of other players drafted that spring among the top 15 picks: Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch and Darrelle Revis, to name a half-dozen potential Hall of Famers.
VINCE YOUNG: The third pick in the 2006 draft out of Texas, Young was at the forefront of the new wave of dual-threat quarterbacks to enter the league. The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award winner for Tennessee and a two-time Pro Bowl pick, Young had more on-field success than many of his underachieving peers. But he had a falling out with the team, struggled to stay healthy, had off-field issues and has not appeared in an NFL game since 2011. The Titans used the eighth selection in 2011 on quarterback Jake Locker and still aren’t close to being sure if this position is set.
MARK SANCHEZ: After two trips to the AFC championship game in his first two years in the league, Sanchez carried a nickname ”Sanchise” that suggested long-term success with the New York Jets. But the fifth overall pick in 2009 out of USC was never able to cure his turnover problem, becoming an easy target for the tabloids in town, and his average of 6.4 yards per pass attempt in 2012 ranked 29th in the league. Last season he got hurt in preseason and the job went to rookie Geno Smith. Sanchez is now a backup for the Philadelphia Eagles after being released by New York.
CHRISTIAN PONDER: Following the retirement of Brett Favre, a deep crop of quarterbacks in 2011 offered several options for Minnesota with the 12th selection. Ponder, from Florida State, took over the job midway through his rookie year and improved enough in 2012 for the Peterson-driven Vikings to finish 10-6 and in the playoffs. But some of the warning signs of ill-timed turnovers and poor decisions under pressure that popped up in his first two seasons persisted last year, and he was eventually benched for Matt Cassel, leaving the Vikings looking anew in this draft.
BLAINE GABBERT: Two picks before Ponder, Jacksonville took Gabbert out of Missouri. The Jaguars didn’t have much support for him at other positions, but he struggled to keep up with the pro-style offense and went a woeful 5-22 as a starter, with one touchdown against seven interceptions over three starts last season. He was benched for Chad Henne, a relative journeyman. The Jaguars are still searching for a long-term solution, and Gabbert has become a backup for the 49ers behind Colin Kaepernick, who was drafted in the second round that year.
BRADY QUINN: Somebody had to make this list on Cleveland’s behalf. The 22nd pick in 2007, Quinn memorably tumbled down the board from top-of-the-draft projections, looking stunned and ashen as the television cameras captured his reaction each time a quarterback-deficient team passed on him. Quinn is 4-16 as a starter, and the St. Louis Rams last year were his sixth NFL team. The Browns have had as much trouble drafting and developing quarterbacks as any team, and by 2012 they were taking another would-be bust in the first round, Brandon Weeden, who has already been released after two seasons and now is with Dallas.
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