Every player who steps onto an NFL field is a brilliant athlete. However, many of them never reach their full potential. Sometimes this is for reasons outside of their control like playing for a garbage franchise or suffer a lot of injuries. Then there are the stars who ruin their own careers.
Let’s look at 25 NFL stars who failed to reach their full potential. This list isn’t full of draft busts because we want to focus on players who actually showed glimpses of talent in the NFL. In fact, some of them even achieved amazing success but still fell short of reaching the level they could have. Dive into the list below via The Sportster.
25. Robert Griffin III
RGIII had one of the greatest rookie seasons in history but that was the peak of his career. The Washington Redskins drafted Baylor’s first Heisman winner after a sensational college season. He won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award and earned a Pro Bowl appearance. However, he tore the ligaments in his knee and it all went downhill from there.
Griffin was never the same player again. It’s a tragedy because it appeared as though he had the potential to be great. A combination of injuries and a poor attitude resulted in his continuous decline (via Clutchpoints). Finally, he ended up as a backup quarterback with the Baltimore Ravens. Griffin’s story is a warning to young players because everything can change in an instant.
The Houston Texans never gave Carr a chance. He was their first-ever draft selection and had the potential to be a great signal-caller. However, the young QB received no protection in Houston and everything went downhill very quickly. Carr makes this list because it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t have an attitude problem like Johnny Manziel or Ryan Leaf. In the end, the Texans failed him.
The former Fresno star was the most sacked player in franchise history. He absorbed so many hits it was no wonder that he struggled to make an impact. However, according to USA Today, Carr was also the last rookie quarterback to win on their debut. He achieved that rare positive statistic way back in 2oo2. Carr could have been so much more than he was but was dealt a raw deal.
Few players have wasted their careers like Bell. The former Steelers running back was on track to become a franchise icon but threw it all away. After a couple of drug violations, he had a major contract holdout in 2018. This came after Pittsburgh slapped him with the franchise tag for a second time. Bell declined a $70 million deal and sat out for the entire year.
After missing a season, he joined the New York Jets. This went horribly too but seemed excusable because Adam Gase was a hopeless head coach. Finally, the Chiefs decided to take a gamble on the volatile star. He fell into the laps of the reigning Super Bowl champions but wasted this opportunity (via SBNation). Poor attitude problems meant he only started two games before they cut him.
These days, Jones is a parody of himself, spending more days in jail than on a football field. However, the former Bengals star was a genuinely talented player. The cornerback’s sophomore year was excellent and it looked like he was going to be a major star for the Titans. Then, there was that shooting incident that resulted in his departure from the franchise. He was his own worst enemy.
Jones spent a season on an excellent Cowboys roster but didn’t achieve anything. Seven seasons with Cincinnati saw him show flashes of his potential. He even receive a late-career Pro Bowl appearance in 2015 (via Bleacher Report). But all of his arrests and off-the-field issues prevented him from becoming the player and star he should have been. It’s really disappointing because he had all of the physical gifts.
Gordon was electrifying in 2013 for the Cleveland Browns. This was even more impressive because he had Brandon Weedon throwing to him. But the wideout couldn’t sustain his early form. The main reason was that he constantly made poor decisions in life. He only made 11 appearances over the next four seasons because of drugl issues.
The NFL suspended him indefinitely after multiple substance abuse violations. They banned him six times over the course of his career with five of those related to drug use (via Sports Illustrated). The former All-Pro just couldn’t stay clean. Fans watched him crash and burn with a number of franchises. Instead of being a superstar, he washed out of the NFL because of his personal vices.
Culpepper had a good NFL career but it could have been brilliant. Unfortunately, a major injury stalled his prospects after his best season. It looked like he was finally developing into a top-tier passer. The three-time Pro Bowl selection led the league in passing yards in 2004. Then, he damaged his major knee ligaments and it all went downhill.
The All-Pro never recovered properly. He drifted from Miami to Oakland before retiring with the Detroit Lions. Culpepper spent most of the final five seasons as a backup. However, he was very effective at his best for the Vikings. Minnesota fans remember him fondly albeit with some frustration because of his stunted potential. He threw for over 4,700 yards in his best season with 39 touchdowns (via The Undefeated).
Hardy earned his place as a regular NFL starter for the Carolina Panthers, making the Pro Bowl in 2013. But then along came his domestic violence case and he became untouchable. When Jerry Jones thinks a player isn’t good news, it says a lot. Meanwhile, he was a pernicious influence in the locker room so the Cowboys let him go.
After leaving the NFL, Hardy decided to become a professional martial artist. He signed with the UFC and fought numerous times under their banner. However, fans never warmed to him and booed every appearance (via The Guardian). It was a major fall from grace for Hardy because he was making less money than his football days. The former Ole Miss star threw away opportunities and failed to reach his full potential.
Cutler’s career was a mixture of hot streaks and inconsistency. He suffered from a combination of poor coaching and his own indecisiveness. The Bears saw potential in him and that’s why they handed him a $124 million contract. But they never settled on an offensive coordinator. It seemed like the franchise changed coaches every season so Cutler never got to grips with a clear system.
He played in the 2008 Pro Bowl game after a great year with the Broncos. But he barely came close to that level again while he was the Bears’ starter. Cutler could have made a Super Bowl appearance in his second season with Chicago if it wasn’t for a torn MCL. CBS Sports called him the Bears’ greatest-ever quarterback but not every fan agrees with that sentiment. There’s no denying that his tenure was a strange time for the franchise.
It looked like Finley was going to be the next big thing for the Packers. But like a lot of players on this list injuries curtailed his potential. In 2010, he had a breakout year that put him on par with the likes of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. The tight end played basketball in college and this was clear with his catching ability and ball control. Unfortunately, fans never saw the best of him.
Finley missed the Packers’ Super Bowl because he was on the injury reserve. His knees were a big problem as well as at least five known concussions. NFL players endure a lot of punishment and these types of health issues are very common. They added up over time and forced him to call time on his career (via Zone Coverage). Later, the Packers tried to replace him with Jimmy Graham.
Jones replaced a Giants franchise legend in Eli Manning. However, it’s safe to say that the quarterback hasn’t lived up to his potential. The former Duke star is notoriously a fumble machine. But he was lucky to avoid a lot of heat in his first couple of seasons (via USA TODAY). That’s because a number of NFC East quarterbacks like Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz were even worse than him.
However, the Giants still used a high first-round pick on him. Fans expected him to be a building block when it looks like he’s a stop-gap until the next college pick comes along. New York could have picked Josh Allen, but he went upstate to Buffalo instead. The NFL isn’t a kind league and players don’t receive a lot of second chances. Maybe Jones isn’t good enough to lead a franchise.
We’ve tried to avoid loading this list with draft busts, but DGB is worth a mention. Unlike other busts, he actually showed glimpses of his potential and talent. The trouble was that he couldn’t stay on the right side of the law. The warning signs were clear because Mizzou kicked him off their team. Then, he joined the Sooners but only played on their scout team.
The Titans took a gamble on the wide receiver and the signs were good. He started all 16 games of his rookie season and made a positive impact on the field. However, his antics away from football landed him on a plane to Philadelphia. Once again, he played 15 games for the franchise, but he caused too much trouble to keep around. FOX Sports called him ‘a physical freak who couldn’t live up to his potential.”
Hernandez was a tragic and twisted human being but a phenomenal football player. Make no mistake, the dual threat that Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski offered the Patriots was unbelievable. The tight end was had incredible physical gifts that separated him from many of his compatriots. He had 18 touchdowns and 175 receptions in 38 games, with just under 2,000 yards.
Nobody should make light of his horrible crimes because his actions were pure evil. But from a sporting perspective, it’s fascinating to consider how good he could have been. Hernandez had so much potential but his wickedness prevented him from showing it. In 2021, Gronkowski told the Kyle Brandt Podcast (via Yahoo) that “Hernandez was a great player, but that means nothing.”
Leonardo DiCaprio treats his 20-year-old girlfriends better than the Jets treat their quarterbacks. Darnold set bunches of records for USC before Gang Green used the third overall pick on him in 2018. There was no doubting his potential but his accuracy didn’t help him. He threw 15 interceptions in his rookie season with 13 and 11 over the following two years (via Fansided).
Darnold infamously saw ghosts against the Patriots in 2019. Things didn’t get much better in his third and final season with the franchise. But Adam Gase deserves a lot of criticism because Darnold regressed under his tutelage. He didn’t have a chance to blossom and was constantly under pressure. It looked like Darnold was a new player when he finally departed New York for Carolina.
Unlike other players on this list, Smith is an inspirational figure. The way he won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2020 was like something fans never saw before. Nobody expected to see him starting games again after his gruesome leg break in 2018. However, the downside was that he couldn’t perform at his highest level. Unfortunately, that’s the story of Smith’s career.
His early days with the Niners were tough. However, he settled down as a functional NFL starter with the Kansas City Chiefs. Smith never had a losing season in KC and that convinced the Redskins to bring him East (via Washington Post). Unfortunately, fans never saw him play as much as they wanted because of his harrowing injury. The three-time Pro Bowler had more to give but we never saw it.
Another former Washington player, Haynesworth’s inclusion on this list may seem strange. After all, he enjoyed 10 years of success in the NFL before he joined the Redskins. But that’s where everything went wrong. After a couple of great seasons with the Titans, the Redskins swooped. They handed him a massive contract but it didn’t pay off. Haynesworth fell out of love with football and ballooned in weight.
He lost his motivation and wasted his remaining potential (via Fansided). The defensive end was a disaster and only spent two seasons with the franchise. He played just 20 games for the Redskins and his main contribution was stamping on Andre Gurode’s helmet. It’s a pity when a signing like this turns out to be total garbage. But that’s what happens sometimes in football.
It says a lot that Toon retired at 29 but still went down as a Jets legend. The receiver was very exciting and effective for the franchise. He was also their top pass catcher in 1992. However, he suffered nine diagnosed concussions in eight years. The writing was on the wall for Toon and he reluctantly retired on health grounds. At the time, he was the second leading receiver in Jets history.
Toon had the ability to be the greatest Jets wideout ever. But he accepted that another concussion could change his life (via Sportscasting). The three-time Pro Bowler endured the effects of post-concussive syndrome after he left the sport. Fortunately, he was able to manage it but a lot of players weren’t as lucky. Toon was a great player but he should have been an all-time great.
One of the strangest stories in recent NFL history, Wentz’s career imploded after a great start. In hindsight, the Eagles should never have handed him a massive contract after one good season. But they made that bold step and paid the price. His decline was bizarre because his output dropped. Meanwhile, his mistakes rose when he should have been in his prime.
It’s bizarre because Wentz lost his passing accuracy. Yes, there were major issues with his surrounding cast in Philadelphia but that’s not the full reason (via Sky Sports). He achieved success before with mediocre support. In the end, the Eagles cut their losses and traded him to the Colts. Perhaps he’ll reignite his career in Indianapolis but there’s no doubt his potential was wasted in Philly.
Vick was a brilliant quarterback for Atlanta but he should have achieved so much more. However, he lost some of the best years of his career because of his lawbreaking. The former Falcons star was the ringleader of a dogfighting operation and served time in jail. Obviously, this wasn’t conducive to a successful NFL career. But to his credit, Vick returned to the league after his release.
He also performed to a high standard for the Philadelphia Eagles. But he never reached his full potential because of his antics outside of football (via The Guardian). Vick’s influence on the sport shouldn’t be understated. His ability as a rushing quarterback revolutionized many coaching strategies. Unfortunately, he let himself down and this cost him the opportunity to become an all-time great.
Theismann had a similar situation to Alex Smith. The Washington legend also suffered a horrific broken leg that cut his career short. Unlike Smith, there’s no denying his prowess on the field. He won a Super Bowl with the Redskins and an MVP award in 1983. But there’s still a feeling that he never reached his full potential. Lawrence Taylor broke his leg in a game against the Giants.
To be fair, Theismann was in the twilight of his career anyway. But another couple of years of football could have sealed his place in Canton. He missed out on election to the Hall of Fame despite all of his accolades. The franchise legend is in a rare position because he achieved and contributed to a lot of iconic moments. However, he fell short of that top tier that he could have reached.
The Houston Texans have had a miserable few seasons but one thing they did right was draft Watson. A genuine franchise quarterback, it looked like Watson would lead them forward to greatness. Then, they started trading all of his weapons and he wanted to leave. But the Texans star became embroiled in multiple sexual harassment scandals. Now he’s in danger of becoming the NFL’s most unwanted man.
It’s the most Houston story ever. Watson’s influence on the franchise was profound but he left them in an unenviable position. Nobody wanted to risk trading for him while he was under an active investigation. Meanwhile, the Texans didn’t want to play him because of the same situation (via Sporting News). It was unfortunate that such a great player created a situation where he was stuck on the sidelines and disgraced.
Miami fans were very excited to see Tagovailoa play for their franchise. But they didn’t see him until later in his rookie season because Ryan Fitzpatrick started. Then, he displayed a lot of rookie nerves when he finally usurped the veteran. The Dolphins benched him twice because of his mistakes.
Tagovailoa faced a summer of rumors that the Dolphins wanted to trade him. However, he started his sophomore year as their undisputed first-choice QB. Things didn’t get any easier for the former Alabama star. After making a number of mistakes on opening day, he fractured his ribs the following week (via ESPN). There’s no doubting his potential but the NFL is passing him by.
Smith had an unbelievably high ceiling. He achieved 14 sacks for the Niners in his rookie year but never started a game that year. As a sophomore, he went even further. This time Smith broke the franchise record for most sacks in a season with 19. It looked like they had a future Hall of Famer on their hands but it wasn’t to be. Smith’s personal issues cost him his career and broke the hearts of fans.
In 2012, police arrested him for a DUI. Nobody condones that kind of behavior but people make mistakes. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just a one-off. The Raiders gave him a second chance but Smith committed domestic violence. Then, he became involved in a domestic battery case and that ended his career (via NBC News). Fans saw his potential but he didn’t have the discipline to make the most of it.
Rice’s situation was similar to Aldon Smith’s. He proved himself as one of the NFL’s top running backs and was a three-time Pro Bowler. Meanwhile, he helped the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2012. Rice holds a number of franchise records. Unfortunately, he blew his NFL career by knocking his girlfriend out cold and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator.
This instantly made him unsignable. He had the potential to be a franchise icon and appeared to be a lock for the Hall of Fame. But Rice ruined his image with one punch. Nobody wants to touch a woman-beater as he soon discovered. It didn’t help that he couldn’t deny the incident (via ABC News). The video went viral after cameras captured the incident. It’s a shame that such a talented athlete did this to himself.
There’s no denying that Newton didn’t live up to his full potential. The former MVP was outstanding in his first few seasons for the Panthers. He set a number of rookie records but couldn’t sustain his brilliance. Injuries wrecked his career and left him on the sidelines. It’s a shame because he had the potential to be one of the greatest rushing quarterbacks of all time.
He played for the Patriots in 2020 and fans saw how his body betrayed him. Meanwhile, he made some poor decisions off the field that caused the team management to lose faith in him. They cut him and replaced him with rookie Mac Jones (via Boston Globe). Newton could have been a truly special QB but he never sustained in his place in the top-tier. Nobody saw this coming after his stunning 2015 season.
We’re not saying that Luck wasn’t a great player because he was elite. However, he also retired at the age of 29 and was never able to show his full potential. Many quarterbacks blossom in their thirties because their brain catches up with their arm. Unfortunately, Luck suffered so many injuries that he was unable to take the step toward the Hall of Fame level of greatness. And that was a real tragedy.
He was still a four-time Pro Bowler and led the league in passing touchdowns in 2014. However, Luck absorbed a ludicrous number of hits during his seven seasons in the NFL. The Colts had a genuine franchise quarterback on their hands. But they threw him away because they didn’t protect him. The Ringer reported that he was hit or sacked 352 times across his career.