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From Bust to Boom: How Failed NFL Draft Prospects Become Grist for the Content Mill

JaMarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, Ryan Leaf: What do they have in common? They were highly touted football draft picks who flamed out of the league. And they all lived long enough to become sympathetic figures of the bust economy.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last November, former no. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell made a comeback—not as a quarterback, but as a piece of content. It happened like this. David Diehl, a former Giants offensive lineman, went on the radio and told a story about Russell’s supposed laziness. It seems the Raiders suspected Russell wasn’t doing his homework. So the team gave Russell some tapes to study. Russell assured his coaches he’d watched them. Only—get this—the tapes were blank.

That anecdote (which sometimes involves DVDs) has been in circulation since at least 2011. It has been told over and over. But when Diehl repeated it, it was like Wright Thompson had taken Russell on a soul-baring fishing trip for ESPN the Magazine. Bleacher Report picked up the anecdote, added a photo of Russell yawning, and shared it with 7 million Twitter followers. A few hours later, ESPN’s main account shared it with 35 million.

It might seem like a lot of attention to devote to a player who threw his last NFL pass in 2010. But Russell is part of a zombie class of content sources that emerges every year to compete for airspace with Kyler Murray and the stars of tomorrow. Russell is an NFL draft bust.

This time of year, it’s almost better for a media outlet to have a story about a draft bust than a story about a draft pick who actually did well. On Sunday, E:60 ran a piece on Packers offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. USA Today dropped a list of the top 100 draft busts of all time that included Russell, Mandarich, and Ryan Leaf. In January, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg became at least the third decorated longformer to profile Todd Marinovich, another failed Raiders first-round quarterback.

For sportswriters, a “bust” is a player who is disappointing because he failed to live up to the hype the writers themselves created. The circumstances and stakes of each player’s life hardly matter. Sam Bradford (first overall pick, 2010) is always hurt. Dion Jordan (third overall, 2013) violated the league’s drug policy. Dimitrius Underwood, a ’99 first-round pick of the Vikings, attempted suicide. All three routinely show up on bust lists.

Stories about busts have certain features. After being cut, a bust tells a writer he has “no regrets.” OK, maybe a few regrets. He wasted his signing bonus (former Browns running back Trent Richardson) or read the papers too much (former Vikings receiver Troy Williamson). But the bust has achieved a kind of peace with all that. I put my heart and soul into this organization when I was there,” he insists. And, the writer inevitably notes, “He’s still only [insert shockingly young age].”

Bounced from the NFL, busts often have a jarring, non-football job. (Rick Mirer is a winemaker.) The job may afford the bust a small honor. (Former Eagles guard Danny Watkins was a Texas fire department’s “rookie of the year.”) Sometimes, the bust takes a gig as a high school coach so he can counsel youngsters about the pitfalls of fame. This is how he “gets back in the game.”

If you watch enough NFL drafts, you know that almost all of them are the same. A tiny number of picks become great players; a larger number become competent NFL starters; and a still-larger group is bad or hurt or both. But when reporters invest so much reporting capital in the draft (see The Ringer’s contribution here), a bad pick starts to seem like a world-historical event. A “miss” becomes a “bust.”

Mandarich is a classic example. In 1989, when he was a Michigan State offensive tackle, Sports Illustrated put Mandarich on its cover with the headline “The Incredible Bulk.” Mandarich was drafted no. 2 overall, between Troy Aikman and Barry Sanders. He was really bad. But the massive hype SI helped nurture necessitated a makeup call three years later, when the magazine put Mandarich on the cover with the headline “The NFL’s Incredible Bust.”

Similarly, Sunday’s E:60 piece on Mandarich functions as an unintended appetite suppressant for ESPN’s draft coverage, which will run on two networks and somehow involve Luke Bryan and Bobby Bones. The Mandarich story is a cautionary tale about investing too much in college prospects. ESPN’s coverage is an argument that you can’t invest enough.

Some bust stories overlap with another sportswriterly favorite: stories about an athlete’s “demons.” Mandarich, as his ’89 profile writer Rick Telander suspected, was using steroids. Former no. 2 overall pick Charles Rogers—the subject of several compelling stories and TV spots—was addicted to Vicodin. Former Colts quarterback Art Schlichter—a go-to for stories and profiles for decades—was a gambler.

When Ryan Leaf went no. 2 overall in the 1998 draft (the pick behind Peyton Manning), he tangled with writers and hecklers. After serving prison time for drug possession and burglary, Leaf donated his body to sportswriting. He’s now part of the draft coverage ecosystem. There have been Leaf profiles (“A New Leaf”) and an E:60 segment; Leaf has even guest-hosted The Rich Eisen Show. Once, Leaf was seen as a poster boy for wasted talent. Now, he’s a touching portrait of human frailty.

Other busts are PSAs for the tape-grinding generation. A story about Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller doubles as a cautionary tale about drafting quarterbacks with low college completion percentages. Every profile of Eagles pick and combine star Mike Mamula, like this one from February, is about putting too much stock in “measurables.” (“I mean, what was I supposed to do?” Mamula told one reporter who sought him out in retirement. “Try not to do well at the combine?”)

Some bust stories don’t have satisfying morals because the player just got hurt. Steve Emtman, 1992 no. 1 overall pick, begins his litany of woe with “After blowing my ACL, MCL, and patellar tendon …” Injured busts tend to be written about less than others, because that would suggest that drafting is complicated by the fact that football is a slaughterhouse.

Still other busts are nearly lost to obscurity. In 1997, the 49ers drafted Jim Druckenmiller, a quarterback from Virginia Tech, in the first round. Years after Druckenmiller washed out of the league, he showed up on the NFL Network to wish his old coach, Steve Mariucci, a happy birthday. Mooch looked at him uncomprehendingly, as if Druckenmiller were a stranger ambling toward him at a high school reunion. Clearly, Druckenmiller’s content possibilities are underexploited. Somebody call David Diehl!

Why are bust stories compelling? On a recent Ringer podcast, Ryen Russillo noted that NFL front-office drama has the same cringey appeal as a reality show. “Those of us that are obsessed with sports … deep down you think you can be a GM, or you think you know stuff,” Russillo said. “[Fans are] going, I like it when the front office screws up with a quarterback, because it proves that they’re just like me.”

A bust story is a way for a fan to get level with the professionals. In December, Bill Barnwell noted, fans seized on Mike Mayock’s failed evaluations when he left the NFL Network for the Raiders. You could do that to any draft genius, including Bill Belichick or Jimmy Johnson. The NFL draft isn’t a crapshoot. It’s more like a lottery.

Failed draft picks create a whole subgenre of what-if pieces—a kind of Player Personnel Director in the High Castle. In 2005, Lions president Matt Millen took wide receiver Mike Williams in the top 10. What if he’d taken DeMarcus Ware? What if the Seahawks took Brett Favre instead of 6-foot-8 Dan McGwire? Nearly every piece about a bust mentions he was taken “[X number of picks] before [future Hall of Famer].”

A bust story is peddling a warped sort of nostalgia. In the same way a bad movie becomes a “cult classic,” a bad draft pick, after repeated writerly visitations, morphs into a lovable misfit. Al Davis drafting Todd Marinovich in ’91 showed how Davis was losing his touch and falling prey to his own legend. (Marinovich’s dad played for the Raiders.) But as Michael Rosenberg noted in Sports Illustrated, the Raiders have hired Marinovich to sign autographs outside the stadium before games. Last year, the Browns got a video out of Tim Couch’s return to their practice facility for the first time since his career fizzled. The NFL Network monetized the league’s biggest busts with a countdown show.

A few bust stories move beyond basic tear-jerking. Rosenberg complicates an earlier Esquire story (which won an ASME) and unearths the key detail that Marinovich’s father abused him. Aaron Maybin, picked 11th overall in 2009, told Kevin Van Valkenburg about how Penn State players underwent “an almost Rastafarian physical transformation” when they escaped the clutches of the paternal Joe Paterno. Charles Rogers once said, “How many people been the no. 2 draft pick? Bro, I got there. … I earned that, period.”

Like athletes who die young, busts make for interesting stories because their careers are unresolved. They’re the rare athletes we’re allowed to see at our own miserable level. Witness the media cheers for Jimmer Fredette, a former 10th overall pick in the NBA draft, when he got a standing ovation in Utah in March. Mike Williams, the Lions bust, became a feel-good story when he resuscitated his career with the Seahawks. An NFL Network doc about Tony Mandarich’s second career was titled From Incredible Bust to Incredible Photography.

ESPN’s aggregators forgot a crucial chapter in JaMarcus Russell’s career. In 2013, after being cut by the Raiders and letting his weight drift north of 300 pounds, Russell tried to catch on with another NFL team. The story was so clickable that ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi got a long TV piece out of it! Five years later, the same network that monetized Russell’s comeback would have another laugh about his initial failures. Sounds like somebody forgot to do their homework.