Four of the Most Disappointing No. 1 Draft Picks Ever

NFL draft night is one of the most hotly anticipated events on the sporting calendar. Thousands of column inches and gigabytes of bandwidth are devoted to debating where college stars will land in the pros. For fans of sides who've come off a bad season, a high draft pick in return is something to bring hope for next. For successful franchises, it's about finding lower-ranked players who can fit into a working system.

We've reported in our 2022 NFL Draft Day 1 review that the New York Jets' prize for a truly horrendous last few seasons was two top 10 picks, taking cornerback Ahmad 'Sauce' Gardner at 4th overall and top wide receiver off the board, Garrett Wilson at 10th. This year's top pick went to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who selected Georgia defensive end Travon Walker - the first time since 2017 the top spot has gone to a non-quarterback when fellow DE Myles Garrett was snapped up by the Cleveland Browns. Garrett has gone on to make 3 Pro Bowls in his 5 seasons thus far and new Jags HC Doug Pedersen has high hopes for Walker. But while a top pick usually yields a top player, some have busted hard.

Let's take a look at a forlorn four.

Jeff George (Indianapolis Colts, 1990)

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The Colts traded up to take hometown boy George top of the board in 1990, and promptly signed him to the richest rookie deal in history, worth $15m. 16 touchdowns in his first season was a respectable return, but George quickly regressed and in his only winning season with the Colts (1992) he managed to throw 7 TDs to 15 picks. Things came to a head the next season when George refused to attend training camp and only did so under the threat of a huge financial penalty for breach of contract. A trade to Atlanta followed where he took the Falcons to the playoffs in 1995, only to be suspended for the season in 1996 after a blazing on-field row with head coach June Jones. Moves to Oakland, Minnesota and Washington followed, but by the time George retired in 2006, he hadn't taken the field in a game since 2001.

Steve Emtman (Indianapolis Colts, 1992)

Another No. 1 pick 2 years after George shows he didn't have quite the impact Indy hoped, and they elected to take defensive end Steve Emtman first in 1992. A stud for University of Washington, Emtman's pro career was horribly disrupted by injuries. Emtman beat the odds by being the first player ever to return from patellar tendon knee surgery but in 3 seasons with the Colts he only featured in 18 games total. A trade to Miami saw him play the entirety of the 1995 season and most of 1996. Nerve damage in his neck saw Emtman call time in his career in 1997. He remains one of the NFL's biggest what-ifs.

Ki-Jana Carter (Cincinnati Bengals, 1996)

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If you're wondering why running backs seem never to be taken high in the draft - and outside of an elite group like Derrick Henry and Zeke Elliott are fairly poorly paid - look no further than Ki-Jana Carter. Carter signed a $19m rookie deal, including a $7m signing bonus, as Cincy sought an heir to legendary rusher Ickey Woods. Unfortunately for all concerned, Carter missed his entire rookie season after rupturing a knee ligament in his very first preseason outing. 4 years with the Bengals saw him start only 14 times total. While the nature of the position means injury may well come with the territory, Carter's bad luck reverberated around the league. No RB has been selected as the top pick since, and Henry himself went to the Titans from Alabama at 45th in 2016.

JaMarcus Russell (Oakland Raiders, 2007)

JaMarcus Russell played just three seasons in the NFL and has to be one of the worst No. 1 picks of all time. The Las Vegas Raiders are certainly not among the betting favorites with Coral for Super Bowl LVII, but in 2007 they hoped to have bagged a star to help them achieve some success. Whilst still in Oakland they snared Russell and hoped he might help them repeat their Super Bowl XXXVII appearance. Spoiler alert; he didn’t: in fact, they haven’t made the postseason since picking Russell, even in their new Las Vegas home. A high school phenom and winner of the Manning Award for the nation's top college quarterback at Louisiana State, 6'6 and 265lb Russell had physical stature rarely seen at the QB position before - for perspective, 2006's top signal-caller Drew Brees is 6'0 and 209lb. However, mentally, it seemed he checked out before he even got in. USA Today reports coaching staff once gave him a blank DVD and told him it had the game plan for his review. Russell, apparently, confirmed that he'd liked it.

There's a mystique about the prime draft pick. Top picks like John Elway (1983), both Manning brothers (Peyton in 1998, Eli in 2004) all the way through to Joe Burrow (2020), have been stellar successes. However, when number 1 picks don't live up to expectations, the tag can become a millstone. 2021 draft leader Trevor Lawrence - also selected by Jacksonville - endured a torrid rookie season under the disastrous tenure of head coach Urban Meyer. If it seems unfair that 'bust' is being prematurely whispered around his name in some quarters, it reflects the pressure placed on the shoulders of No. 1 picks. A team that went 3-14 last season need Lawrence and Walker to be good this year. Best of luck guys.

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