Debates Down South: Who is the biggest SEC bust in NFL history?
As the confetti fell on the party at every draft prospect who came off the board in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft, there’s 1 word that was nowhere to be found.
It’s a buzzkill of a word. It gets used a bit too liberally these days on social media — a guy isn’t a bust for failing to make a Pro Bowl as a rookie — but it is a word that’s been used for decades in professional sports. Defining a bust in football, however, isn’t what it is in basketball. Longevity in the NFL is fleeting for anyone, and with nearly 4 times as many players on an active roster, the chance to get replaced or lost in the shuffle is greater than it is in the NBA.
To call someone a bust implies 2 things. One is that expectations were sky-high. We define that in pro sports as being one of the first few picks in the draft. Guys like Johnny Manziel might be considered busts, but getting picked No. 22 overall means that 2/3 of the NFL wasn’t all in on him. In other words, there are bigger busts.
Today, we’re going to focus on the SEC’s biggest bust in NFL history. And to be clear, that’s the biggest bust of the Super Bowl era (since 1967).
Let’s get to it.
Why was/is this a debate?
In a weird way, it seems more common to see discussions about the biggest busts as opposed to the best draft picks. As a society, I don’t believe all of us actively root for players to fail, but we take more interest in why these players failed. “No. 1 overall pick busted for drugs” draws more eyes than “No. 1 overall pick throws touchdown pass.” That’s reality. We gravitate to the non-linear career paths.
So, why break this down?
Besides the basic belief that fans are fascinated by draft busts, I couldn’t find a time when it was broken down using only former SEC players. Obviously thousands of SEC players have been picked in the NFL Draft in the past 50-plus years. That’s not the easiest thing to narrow down. Can you be a bust as the No. 15 overall pick? Absolutely. But to be the biggest bust of all-time, I’d argue that half the league passing on a player hurts the “can’t miss” label.
I limited this debate to SEC players who were drafted in the top 5 or top 10. After researching every draft since 1967, I narrowed our list of “biggest SEC bust in NFL history” candidates to the following 6 players:
- LB Aundray Bruce (Auburn), No. 1 overall in 1988
- QB Heath Shuler (Tennessee), No. 3 overall in 1994
- QB Tim Couch (Kentucky), No. 1 overall in 1999
- QB JaMarcus Russell (LSU), No. 1 overall in 2007
- RB Trent Richardson (Alabama), No. 3 overall in 2012
- OT Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M), No. 2 overall in 2013
Honorable mention: Steve Spurrier (Florida), Keith McCants (Alabama), Jonathan Sullivan (Georgia), Derrick Harvey, (Florida).
At one point or another, you’ve probably seen those guys on a list of all-time busts. Actually, Richardson and Joeckel might be a bit too new to that discussion, but both are worthy of being in the conversation with how quickly they flamed out.
Consider that another reason this discussion needed to be visited in 2020.
What people said at the time
Comparing a linebacker from 1988 to a running back in 2012 isn’t easy. For now, I’ll lay out why each of those 6 players made the list and save those comparisons for later. I’ll go in chronological order:
LB AUNDRAY BRUCE (Auburn)
Draft, pick — 1988, No. 1 overall to the Atlanta Falcons
Career NFL stats — 275 tackles, 32 sacks, 9 forced fumbles and 4 interceptions in 11 seasons
Here’s the amazing thing about Bruce’s NFL start. Yes, he was the No. 1 overall pick in 1988. At the time, he was the SEC’s 2nd ever No. 1 overall pick in the post-merger era (Bo Jackson was No. 1 overall in 1986). The Falcons, who had the No. 1 overall selection, tried to trade the pick. But as Terence Moore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution said, “nobody wanted the pick.” It didn’t matter that Bruce earned Lawrence Taylor comparisons as the league’s next imposing outside linebacker.
It was widely considered a weak draft class. That didn’t prove to be the case because it yielded 5 future Hall of Fame inductees and 10 of the first 17 picks made at least 1 Pro Bowl. Bruce, however, was not one of them.
Why? Effort. A New York Times story written before Bruce’s rookie year made 2 claims. One was that he was “unquestionably the least heralded No. 1 pick of the decade.” The other was that “he was ripped because, by his own admission, he pushed his seemingly unlimited talent to the limit on only every other play.”
Bruce was quoted as saying that people were waiting for him to fail. Unfortunately for him, he did much more to prove them right than wrong.
Even though Bruce played 11 years in the league, he only started 41 games, 29 of which came in his first 2 seasons in the league. The effort issue could be attributed to a lack of maturity. There was the time that Bruce was accused of pulling a BB gun on a pizza delivery guy because he didn’t have the cash to pay for it. There were also the multiple paternity suits involving Bruce.
Bruce was a cautionary tale for the NFL Draft. Even though he was a 2-time All-SEC selection with special physical gifts, obviously there were warning signs with his motor.
In the 32 drafts since Bruce went No. 1, nobody used the top pick on a linebacker.
QB HEATH SHULER (Tennessee)
Draft, pick — 1994, No. 3 overall to the Washington Redskins
Career NFL stats — 15 touchdown passes, 33 interceptions, 3,691 passing yards, 49.2% completion percentage and 22 starts in 4 seasons
If you ever want to waste an entire day on YouTube, look up old draft videos. I know from experience.
Here was the reaction when Shuler was picked No. 3 overall by Washington in 1994:
The legend Chris Mortensen with the “I think Norv Turner has got his Troy Aikman and it’s gonna be Heath Shuler” line is an all-timer.
Mortensen correctly predicted that the Redskins would take Shuler, but that was the last time he earned Aikman comps (poor mechanics with a ball that fluttered far too often should have prevented those from ever happening). After taking the college football world by storm and finishing 2nd in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1993, Shuler’s career was doomed from the start.
He was forced to hold out, not because of anything in his control, but because his contract had an option buyback put in. It’s common now, however, at the time it was such a new wrinkle in a rookie deal that the lawyers were still figuring out how to write that.
That certainly played a part in Shuler’s struggles to adapt to Turner’s offense after showing up late to camp and getting thrown into the fire as a rookie. He went 1-7 as a starter, and quickly, the guy Washington drafted that year in the 7th round, Gus Frerotte, became a fan favorite. A 5-interception game against the Cardinals didn’t help Shuler in Year 2, nor did the growing animosity from fans who were accustomed to quality quarterback from guys like Joe Theismann and Doug Williams, both of whom won Super Bowls in Washington.
Shuler admittedly didn’t know how to handle not being liked for the first time in his career. Frerotte won the job at the start of Shuler’s 3rd season in 1996. The Saints traded for him and made him the starter … and Shuler followed with a 2-14 TD-INT ratio in his lone season in New Orleans.
It didn’t help that Trent Dilfer, the 2nd QB taken and No. 6 overall pick in 1994, made a Pro Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. He wasn’t Aikman by any stretch, but he certainly got much closer than Shuler.
QB TIM COUCH (Kentucky)
Draft, pick — 1999, No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Browns
Career NFL stats — 64 touchdown passes, 67 interceptions, 11,131 passing yards, 59.8% completion percentage and 59 starts in 5 seasons
One might look at those numbers and think, “wait a minute, he was way closer to average than I remember.” After he became the SEC’s single-season record holder passing yards in a season — Joe Burrow broke that mark in 2019 — Couch was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick for the recently-revived Browns.
But that didn’t come without some skepticism. Mortensen might have butchered the Shuler projection, but he nailed it with Couch the night before the draft:
“Everyone is always trying to create a legend before it’s ever a fact. I think Tim Couch is this year’s hype.”
Mortensen was right.
Couch struggled with the speed of the NFL. Why? He had extremely little experience reading a playbook running Kentucky’s Air Raid offense. As a result, Couch was sacked a league-high 56 times as a rookie in 1999. A season-ending thumb injury in the middle of Year 2 didn’t help Couch’s development and even though he was the Browns starter for 3 more years, injuries and inefficiency derailed his chances of living up to that No. 1 overall billing.
Surely his surroundings didn’t help. Browns offensive coordinator Bruce Arians later called Couch “the most misunderstood player he ever coached.” That could have been because Couch actually led the Browns to their only playoff appearance of the 21st century in 2002, but he broke his leg in the last game of the regular season.
The No. 1 overall pick never played a regular-season snap in the NFL after his rookie contract with the Browns was up. Practice squad stints with the Packers in 2004 and the Jaguars in 2007 was as close as the oft-injured quarterback got to a comeback.
QB JaMARCUS RUSSELL (LSU)
Draft, pick — 2007, No. 1 overall to the Oakland Raiders
Career NFL stats — 18 touchdown passes, 23 interceptions, 4,083 yards, 52.1% completion percentage, 25 starts in 3 seasons
There were plenty of people like me who remember watching Russell torch Notre Dame in the January 2007 Sugar Bowl and thinking, “wow, this dude is a waaaaaaaay better prospect than Brady Quinn.” At the time, that was a big deal because Quinn was considered the favorite to become the No. 1 overall pick. What Russell did that night shot him up draft boards after his breakout 2006 season:
His physical tools were on a different level. Russell not only had an absolute cannon for an arm, but at 6-5, 260 pounds, he was a 68% passer as a junior. The more that came out about him during the pre-draft process — the stuff about him throwing 60 yards from his knees made the rounds — the more obvious it was that he was the next No. 1 overall pick.
When the Lane Kiffin-led Raiders made Russell the top pick in 2007, Mel Kiper Jr. delivered a quote that’ll live in infamy:
“Oakland could’ve taken a guy like Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler last year, but the quarterback situation, the way it is right now, JaMarcus Russell is gonna immediately energize that Raider Nation, that fan base, that football team on the practice field and in that locker room. Three years from now, you could be looking at one of the guys who is one of the elite, top 5 quarterbacks in this league.”
Oh, and Kiper also said “the skill level he has is certainly John Elway-like.”
Almost 3 years to the day after Kiper said that, Russell was cut by the Raiders.
That took the perfect storm of bad decisions. It didn’t help that Kiffin, who said afterward that he didn’t want to draft Russell but that he was Al Davis’ choice, was fired in Year 2. It was a dysfunctional franchise that suffered from the divide between Kiffin and Davis, but Russell played a part in that.
He lacked maturity. It wasn’t just the holdout that kept him away from all of training camp his rookie year or that he showed up to camp at 290 pounds before the start of his all-important Year 3.
One story, as told by former Raiders teammate Kirk Morrison on the Rich Eisen Show in 2018, summed up why Russell became a bust. If you haven’t heard it, here’s the rundown.
Then-Raiders quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo told Russell that he wanted him to go home and watch a DVD that had 15-20 plays on it so that they could decide which ones to run in their upcoming game. DeFilippo gave Russell the DVD and he went off on his way. The following day at practice, DeFilippo asked Russell which plays he liked, and he said that he “liked them all” and that they can run whatever he wanted.
The only problem? It was a blank DVD.
Yep. That’s not a great sign from a quarterback who signed a $68 million contract with $31.5 million guaranteed.
More on Russell later.
RB TRENT RICHARDSON (Alabama)
Draft, pick — 2012, No. 3 overall by the Cleveland Browns
Career NFL stats — 614 rushes for 2,032 rushing yards, 113 catches for 912 yards and 19 career touchdowns in 3 seasons
“The Beast” was such an appropriate nickname for Richardson, who earned comparisons to Earl Campbell in high school. The guy power cleaned 365 pounds, benched 475 pounds and squatted 650 pounds … and it showed. Richardson’s combination of power and speed allowed him to just bounce off defenders. As a junior in 2011, he set an Alabama record with 2,017 scrimmage yards, which was the first year he didn’t split carries with Mark Ingram.
As a result, Richardson was an obvious choice to be selected as a high draft pick despite the growing shift to the pass-happy NFL. But trading 4 picks to move up 1 spot to take someone who was billed as the next LaDainian Tomlinson/Adrian Peterson made sense for someone like Jon Gruden, who said after his selection that “(Richardson) is like a Marshawn Lynch with speed and elusiveness. The Cleveland Browns solved some major problems today.”
And as a rookie, Richardson actually looked the part. He had 1,317 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns, which earned him the No. 71 on spot on NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2012.”
After that, though, it was all downhill.
The following year, the Browns made a stunning midseason trade to the Indianapolis Colts, who forked over a first-round pick for Richardson. At the time, the Colts appeared to have fleeced the Browns. Go back and look at the replies to this tweet:
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) September 19, 2013
At the time, none of those people praising the Colts knew why the Browns traded Richardson just 17 games into his career.
Richardson never came even close to looking worthy of either 1st-round pick that was spent on him. With the Colts, he ran for just 2.9 yards per carry in 2013, and in 2014, he was held to 3.3 yards per carry. More troubling was that he had a season-long run of 22 yards in 2013 and 27 yards in 2014. The Colts had such little trust in him that in their 3 playoff games while he was on the team, he had 4 carries for 1 yard.
After just 3 years, Richardson’s NFL career was over. So what happened? Why didn’t Richardson turn into Tomlinson, Peterson or Lynch?
It’s pretty simple. As former Browns CEO Joe Banner said years later, they soon realized that Richardson lacked an important skill to become an elite back — vision. Richardson’s strength and explosion in college masked what become an obvious issue during his NFL career. The increased speed of the game turned “The Beast” into 3 yards and a cloud of dust.
And if anyone saw that coming, well, they were certainly in the minority.
OT LUKE JOECKEL (Texas A&M)
Draft, pick — 2013, No. 2 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars
Career NFL stats — 50 games and 50 starts in 5 seasons
You won’t find Joeckel on many lists for NFL busts because he’s only been out of the NFL for a few years, but there are a few reasons he made the cut.
Imagine picking an offensive tackle with the No. 2 pick in the draft … and then he’s out of the league in 5 years. Joeckel was considered a safe pick at No. 2 overall, and there was even talk that he could go No. 1 instead of Eric Fisher.
At the time, it wasn’t that far-fetched after the way his college career ended. In addition to being a 2-time All-American and a winner of the Outland Trophy in 2012, Joeckel was better known as “the guy who protected Johnny Football’s blindside.” Joeckel (along with A&M teammate Jake Matthews) was credited for allowing Manziel to run wild. He was deemed an elite pass-protection guy entering the 2013 NFL Draft as the league shifted into a pass-heavier approach.
But go back and watch Joeckel’s draft and you’ll hear some obvious concerns about him even as the No. 2 overall pick:
It’s probably not great when the analysts are questioning the “nastiness” of an offensive lineman. In hindsight, those concerns were validated. Joeckel wasn’t an elite run-blocker in college — Manziel’s quarterback runs and scrambles might’ve boosted those A&M rushing numbers a bit — and he could be pushed back by stronger edge rushers.
Joeckel didn’t come close to living up to Chris Berman’s Tony Boselli comp. Joeckel didn’t live up to Kiper’s “durable” claim, either.
He suffered season-ending injuries early in 2 of his 4 seasons with the Jaguars, and in between them, he just wasn’t very good (Bill Barnwell called him “arguably the worst left tackle in the NFL in those 2 seasons). He closed the 2015 regular season by allowing 5 sacks in a game, and after his injury-plagued 2016 season, the Jaguars cut bait. One disappointing year with the Seahawks and that was all she wrote for Joeckel’s NFL career.
What was the only thing that saved Joeckel from being more widely known as a bust? He was part of a historically bad 2013 draft.
The worst take you can have about this debate
You already know what it is.
“But I already knew ‘Player X’ was gonna be a bust.”
A bust isn’t based on what that person sitting at home in their living room in Tupelo thought. These 6 former SEC stars earned a spot on this dubious list because the overwhelming majority believed they were worthy of a top selection. We have the benefit of hindsight to say “oh, Couch couldn’t read defenses” or “Richardson lacked vision,” but if we’re being honest, nobody would have been surprised if any of these players had turned into Hall of Famers.
The point is that no prospect ever has 100% approval rating. Once upon a time, the margin between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf was slim. Even if you thought Manning was the better prospect, Leaf is still considered a bust in every sense of the word. Nobody expected Leaf to fall apart as quickly as he did.
So as much as certain people want to give themselves a pat on the back for correctly predicting a player wouldn’t succeed, a bust is based on a macro scale.
Things I didn’t know/forgot until revisiting this debate
To be honest, Bruce wasn’t someone I remembered at all. He was drafted before I was born, and he’s not considered an SEC legend. His collapse wasn’t dramatic, either. He played for a decade as more of a rotational linebacker. In my defense, that’s the type of guy who becomes easy to forget about.
Couch was the one who I didn’t remember enough about. I see him on that jersey that lists failed Browns quarterbacks, and he shows up on every “biggest busts ever” list, but I forgot several things about him. One was that despite those Xs and Os issues, he actually was an OK NFL quarterback when healthy after his rookie year.
He was a career 60% passer who averaged went 15-15 with the Browns from 2001-02. He averaged nearly 3,000 passing yards in those seasons and his sack numbers went way down when he led the Browns to that lone 21st century playoff berth in 2002. And hey, he could throw a heck of a Hail Mary:
In other words, he was significantly better than the guys he’s often lumped with. He just couldn’t stay healthy.
But he’s always going to be in these conversations because when a quarterback who was a No. 1 overall pick is out of the league in his mid-20s, people don’t forget that. They also point out that 8 of the 10 players drafted after Couch made a Pro Bowl, including quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper.
Still, Couch doesn’t deserve to be No. 1 on this list.
Where do I stand on the debate?
I tried to give everyone a clean slate here because when I decided to do this list, Russell was the name who I kept coming back to. I wanted to look back at what was said and what some of these guys’ numbers were before I settled on an answer to the question “who’s the SEC’s biggest bust in NFL history?”
But yeah, my answer is still Russell.
I decided to rule out Couch for the aforementioned reasons, and I thought weak draft classes for Joeckel dropped expectations going into the draft, and it wasn’t like there were boatloads of future Hall of Fame guys picked after him. Bruce at least spent 11 years in the NFL, which doesn’t fit the typical “bust” mold. Richardson would have probably been No. 3 on this list, but I wouldn’t have put him in the top 2 because I think by 2012, we were already so skeptical about taking running backs that high that it didn’t make his sudden league exit quite as noteworthy.
For me, this really came down to Shuler vs. Russell. Shuler was so bad that Redskins fans were already out on him in 2 short years. His interception numbers fueled that. The guy only played 1 down in Year 3, and it didn’t seem like even he could argue about that. The fact that the Redskins got a 3rd and a 5th-round pick from the Saints was a miracle in itself.
Russell, however, had a couple more things than Shuler that just scream “bust.” Being the No. 1 overall pick is certainly one of those things, but it’s how quickly it fell apart. Three years was all he got, and no team was even willing to take a chance on him. His skills diminished so badly in Year 3 that he couldn’t even complete half of his passes, and he averaged a woeful 5.2 yards per attempt.
I reached out to his former LSU teammate, Jacob Hester, to see if there were any warning signs that teams should have been aware of when it came to Russell. Hester believed the surroundings Russell had in Oakland played a huge part in him not panning out. As Hester admitted, Russell didn’t do some of the things he needed to do to succeed (the blank DVD story stands out). Kiffin didn’t manage Russell like former LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher did. Russell needed communication from the coaching staff to succeed. Structure. Guidance. Without it, he spiraled.
Unfortunately for Russell, the lack of interest he received after multiple comeback attempts only added to the “bust” tag. Within a few short years, the No. 1 overall pick couldn’t make a 53-man roster as an extremely talented player in his mid-20s.
There’s a reason why Russell is the first name that comes to mind when this question gets thrown out there. Every angle you look at it, it’s clear.
There’s no bigger SEC bust in NFL history.