The first round of the NFL Draft is where franchises are built. Teams like the Steelers, Eagles, and Falcons have developed into postseason contenders thanks to savvy selections with high-value picks each spring. An impact rookie doesn’t just add value on the field, but his low-cost contract also allows a well-managed team to spend money on veterans elsewhere on the roster, building the foundation for long playoff runs.
And then there’s the Browns, who have obliterated top prospects en route to a miserable existence as an NFL franchise.
Cleveland has been a graveyard for first-round draft picks, a black hole whose gravity only a handful of players have been able to escape. The worst enabler of that awful record was a man who got promoted after helping draft Barkevious Mingo No. 6 overall: Ray Farmer.
Farmer wasn’t a general manager for long, but his impact left a crater in an already barren landscape. He contributed to, or made, five first-round picks in three years as an executive in Cleveland. Four of them combined to start 44 games with the Browns — as many as the fifth, nose tackle (and Patriots buy-low trade target) Danny Shelton. None are still on the roster.
But the Browns — and even Farmer, to an extent — are not alone.
Which teams had the worst record with first-round draft busts?
For this endeavor, we used a low bar to determine NFL success, especially for a first-round pick. Busts were designated as any player with fewer than three seasons of full-time starting experience with the team that drafted them.
All data came from Pro-Football-Reference.com, which created a problem when assessing players who may not have been on the field for the first snap of the game, but still added value as a rotational piece. We’ve corrected some of the most glaring omissions there; Nick Perry, who has led the Packers with 18 sacks the past two seasons, hardly started before 2016. That leaves some wiggle room in the interpretation of the PFR data, and we’ve taken players like Perry out of the “busts” list.
Some players missed out due to injury. Others washed out due to a lack of talent or bad fit. In any case, they were big misses that stained the resumes of the general managers who built around them.
Between 2000 and 2014 — allowing the last crop of draftees four seasons to make an impact — 115 players have come into the league as first-round picks and spent just two years or less as NFL starters. Unsurprisingly, no team has had more busts than the Browns, who had seven:
- Phil Taylor
- Trent Richardson
- Brandon Weeden
- Johnny Manziel
- Justin Gilbert
- Brady Quinn
If you expand the scope of our bust data to 2015, you’ll even find an eighth — current Chiefs rotational lineman Cameron Erving. This is a tremendous accomplishment of failure, especially considering 37 percent of those busts were quarterbacks. Cleveland more than doubled the NFL average in draft busts from 2000-2014.
But the Browns weren’t alone. The Packers have built a perennial postseason contender behind a roster-building strategy that prioritizes homegrown talent over free agents, but Green Bay has had its share of high-profile draft misses. The franchise has six designated busts — including zero-year starters like Jamal Reynolds, Datone Jones, Derek Sharrod, and Justin Harrell — but the metric also includes Pro Bowler Javon Walker, who had only two seasons with more than seven starts under his belt. As mentioned before, the method isn’t foolproof.
Most 1st round draft busts, 2000-2014
|Green Bay Packers||6|
|San Francisco 49ers||6|
Two other teams topped out at six busts apiece: the 49ers and, most surprisingly, the Vikings, who were hurt by recency bias as well as the metric’s unfeeling indifference toward special teams play and injured players (Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharrif Floyd, and Teddy Bridgewater were all counted on the list, but could still play their way out of “bust” status). Fortunately for Minnesota, a higher number of draft wins and some savvy moves in free agency have mitigated those mistakes.
Three teams shot to the other end of the spectrum. The Steelers, Ravens, and Texans all drafted just one first-round player between 2000 and 2014 who failed to start for at least three seasons as a pro.
That sets a few teams apart from the others.
Which general manager holds the record for most first-round draft busts this millennium?
The Browns have had nine general managers since 2000, which you’d think would leave no single man enough digging time to truly bury himself among the all-time worst. In a field of mediocrity, Farmer’s four busts in three years — Manziel, Gilbert, Mingo (as assistant GM), and if we’re counting 2015, Erving — rise above the rest like a sunflower.
That’s a mark technically shared by former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, albeit over a much longer timeframe. He has four busts — David Terrell, Rex Grossman, Michael Haynes, and Gabe Carimi — over the course of an 11-year career. So does Bengals GM in perpetuity Mike Brown, though Tyler Eifert is just one healthy season from dropping that number down to three.
49ers GM Trent Baalke, replaced by John Lynch in 2017, is responsible for three first-round busts (Jimmie Ward, A.J. Jenkins, and former All-Pro but only two-year full-time starter Aldon Smith). There’s still time for Ward to shed his bust status — the Niners picked up his fifth-year option, which paves the way for him to add another season as a high-value starter — but he could be replaced on the list by 2015 pick Arik Armstead, who has just 11 starts and six sacks in three seasons.
Former Packers GM Ted Thompson also had three from 2005-14, Perry not included. Vikings top executive Rick Spielman clocks in with three busts between 2007 and 2014, a lineup that somehow doesn’t include Christian Ponder (35 starts in three years and a 38:36 career TD:INT ratio). He gets dinged for injuries to Floyd and Bridgewater as well as Patterson’s lack of traditional offensive success. He doesn’t really belong on this list, even if Laquon Treadwell (21 catches in two seasons) threatens to taint his record. He’s tied with some other respected names, including former Colts architect Bill Polian, at three busts apiece.
There are plenty of other bad general managers out there — Mike Tannenbaum drafted Vernon Gholson, Kyle Wilson, and Quinton Coples for the Jets between 2006 and 2012 — but few ever got the chance to stick around long enough to really rack up an awful track record. Even Jeff Fisher, harbinger of football mediocrity, did ... fine ... with his picks as VP of player personnel with the Rams.
So while there’s a tie for “most busts,” Farmer’s impressive ratio of busts per year — 1.33 as GM or assistant GM in Cleveland — is the tiebreaker that makes him the patron saint of bad decisions. Farmer went for home run swings with the Browns, and given the franchise’s putrid history, it’s tough to blame him. All but one of his first-round picks blew up in his face. Even Shelton struggled in his three seasons in Ohio, earning his ticket to New England alongside a fifth-round pick in exchange for a 2019 third-rounder.
Farmer missed on more than one first-round draft pick per year. Small sample size or no, that’s a record that should withstand the tests of time.