02 May

Johnny Manziel, Montee Ball among college football stars who turned into most surprising busts

The 2024 NFL Draft commences Thursday, and hundreds of college football’s top players will see their professional dreams realized over a three-day period. No matter what comes afterwards, it’s always a special moment to see players that have developed and broken out at the amateur level hear their names called on the biggest stage in their sport.

For some players, unfortunately, walking across the stage in April is the pinnacle of their career. Projecting college talent to the NFL level is incredibly hard for myriad reasons, and there are some ballyhooed draft selections that just don’t work out.

We often refer to these prospects as “busts,” and each draft has at least a handful of them. But for those that cover college football, there are some busts that come as an absolute shock. Even the most surefire, can’t-miss prospect can flame out.

Ahead of Thursday’s NFL Draft, the CBS Sports and 247Sports college football crews — who often see these players come into their own at their respective universities — got together to reminisce on some of the most surprising letdowns in NFL Drafts past. In other words, these are college football players that we were absolutely sure would be stars in the NFL, that just weren’t for whatever reason.

Chase Young, EDGE, Ohio State
As more offenses are adopting spread-based, pass-heavy schemes, good edge rushers are at a premium. When Young, who was the No. 4 prospect nationally in the class of 2017, was at Ohio State, he wasn’t just good — he was downright elite. After a relatively quiet freshman season, Young burst onto the scene in 2018 with 10.5 sacks. He blew that number out of the water in 2019 with 16.5 sacks in just 12 games, collecting unanimous All-America honors, the Ted Hendricks Award, Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. He also finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, becoming just the ninth defensive player to ever be nominated for college football’s most illustrious individual award.

He was then selected No. 2 overall, ahead of the likes to Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Justin Jefferson in the 2020 NFL Draft. So, yeah, expectations were incredibly high. Things started so well. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 after registering 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 44 total tackles. That was the high point of his career thus far. Young hasn’t played in a full season since. From 2021-22, he had 1.5 sacks and missed a lot of time while dealing with a torn ACL. The Washington Commanders traded him to the San Francisco 49ers in the final year of his rookie contract, and the latter team let him walk in free agency. Young is still just 25 years old, so there’s time to turn it around, but neck surgery after signing with the New Orleans Saints is a tough start. Given his already extensive injury history, who knows what the future holds. — Will Backus

Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball earned All-America honors in back-to-back seasons as an astronomically productive rusher for Wisconsin during a college career that spanned 2009-12. He totaled 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2011 to finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, and he followed up with 1,830 yards the following season for good measure. The Denver Broncos took Ball with the 58th pick in 2013, making him just the third running back selected behind Giovani Bernard and Le’Veon Bell. He was also taken ahead of Alabama’s Eddie Lacy.

Both Bell and Lacy made Pro Bowls, and Bernard enjoyed a 10-year NFL career. To the contrary, Ball fizzled out of the league with just 731 career rushing yards to his name after 21 appearances in two seasons. A confluence of on- and off-field factors contributed to Ball’s demise, but it made for a jarring twist to those who watched him in college. Given Ball’s prolific collegiate production and status as a multi-year star in the Big Ten, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that he would enjoy at least some success in the NFL. — David Cobb

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
After managing one of the most efficient seasons for a quarterback in college football history en route to a perfect season and national title, Jones was primed to lead New England for the next decade post-Tom Brady. It didn’t happen. His confidence was noticeably different from the pocket, windows that were open in the SEC leading to big plays transformed into interceptions, and he was traded for a sixth-round pick before the end of his rookie deal — shocking to say the least. — Brad Crawford

Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
I covered Coleman as a student reporter and was blown away by his talent. On paper, he seemed to be the complete package — elite speed, freakish athleticism, and a knack for coming down with the ball in traffic and making plays after the catch. While the receivers coming out of the old Baylor system never quite reached stardom in the NFL, Terrance Williams and Kendall Wright built solid careers for themselves. Blame Browns incompetence if you want (and I will), but Coleman never put the pieces together. Honorable mention goes to Josh Rosen, who I was convinced would thrive around real NFL talent. Apparently not! — Shehan Jeyarajah

Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert was a consensus All-American coming out of Oklahoma State and went No. 8 overall to the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 NFL Draft. Considered one of the top cornerback prospects in the draft, Gilbert went on to start just three games in two seasons for the Browns before being traded to division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. — Cody Nagel

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
I’ll gladly roll through the shame wash one more time for how emphatic I was that Johnny Football could be a game-changer at the next level. Covering the SEC and college football as a whole throughout those 2012 and 2013 campaigns featured not only absurd playmaking by the Aggies’ quarterback, but some terrific performances against defenses that were loaded up with NFL talent. Of course, time has given us the perspective to understand the unique peak that was ongoing for Texas A&M’s offense (even beyond the quarterback), and a better idea of what was going on behind the scenes and off the field around this college football supernova. But when the doubters and haters were loud in 2013, I got louder, and it turns out I was just loud and wrong. — Chip Patterson

Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Blackmon’s breakout season in 2010 at Oklahoma State was the first year I started watching college football consistently. My pre-teenage self was so convinced that Blackmon would star in the NFL, and for good reason. Blackmon caught 38 touchdowns during his final two seasons in Stillwater before the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Blackmon only played 20 games in the NFL — including 16 of those in his rookie season — and his career was derailed by various suspensions. — Cameron Salerno

Jamarcus Russell, QB, LSU
I was shocked that Jamarcus Russell was a draft bust. Yes, in hindsight there were tons of red flags. But this was almost 20 years ago and I was not working in sports media, so I did not know about his work habits, the changes in his support structure, etc. At the time I just saw a huge, mobile QB who was productive at LSU with a crazy arm. Eighteen touchdowns in three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, who took him No. 1 overall to kick off the short-lived Lane Kiffin era, was not what anybody was expecting. — Bud Elliott

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *