The 10 Biggest Draft Busts in Cleveland Browns History

Andrew Harner

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Former Browns quarterback, Johnny Manziel, watches a men's basketball game between his alma mater, Texas A&M, and the University of Kentucky in 2017. Off-the-field issues were one of Manziel's primary downfalls in his time with the Browns.© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Worst Draft Picks in Cleveland Browns History

Since the Browns returned to the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999, they have struggled tremendously. Unfortunately, as youll soon see, their talent evaluation hasn't seemed to be much better than their play on the field. Cleveland has flubbed numerous first-round selections and has drafted just one player who has established himself as a Hall of Fame-caliber player (unlike the original Browns, who were in the NFL from 1950 to 1995).

Reasons the Franchise Has Failed to Build a Winning Lineup

  • There have been 10 general managers since 1999.
  • There have been 12 head coaches since 1999.
  • There have been three principal owners since 1999.
  • There have been numerous other executives with a voice in player personnel decisions.

The Browns have not been able to maintain a consistent front office or coaching staff since 1999; the resulting string of constantly changing philosophies has hindered player development. That's not to say that draft busts are new to Cleveland (the first bad pick the franchise made came in 1952), but the majority of picks featured here are from the past two decades.

Selection Criteria for This List

Among the factors used to develop this list, which includes the 10 worst draft picks the Browns have ever made, as well as a handful of honorable-mention selections, are:

  • Return on Investment: A top pick who failed to meet expectations, a top pick who created off-the-field distractions, etc.
  • Risk vs. Reward: How much risk was involved in the pick, and how far back was the franchise set by the failure?

For this list, only time spent in Cleveland is considered when determining how bad the draft pick was. So while running back Trent Richardson failed to live up to general expectations of a player drafted at No. 3, his one season with the Browns was fairly successful. Therefore, he's not on this list even though his NFL career lasted just three seasons. Feel free to leave your thoughts on these selections in the comments.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Former Browns quarterback, Mike Phipps, is seen playing for Purdue University. He was an All-American quarterback there before being selected with the No. 3 pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.1969 Debris (Purdue yearbook), page 521 [Public domain]

10. Mike Phipps

  • Year Drafted: 1970
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 3
  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Purdue

When the Browns made a shocking trade that sent future Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield to the Dolphins, the franchise was likely counting on making a strong selection with the draft pick it received in return. Mike Phipps was a serviceable quarterback for several seasons but certainly didn't provide the return on investment a team would expect from a No. 3 pick. The idea was that Phipps would eventually take over for the aging and injury-prone Bill Nelsen, who had led the Browns to the Conference Championship game in both '68 and '69.

Phipps was used throughout the seven years he was with the Browns but started just one complete 14 game season. In 51 starts, he had a 24-25-2 record, and he also lost both playoff games he started. In his career with Cleveland, Phipps completed 633 of 1,317 passes for 7,700 yards, 40 touchdowns and 81 interceptions. All was not lost, however, as the Browns sent Phipps to the Bears in 1977 in exchange for a fourth-round pick and a first-round pick in 1978. With that first-round selection, Cleveland drafted Ozzie Newsome, a tight end who stayed with the Browns until his retirement in 1990 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

9. William Green

  • Year Drafted: 2002
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 16
  • Position: Running back
  • College: Boston College

William Green's on-field talent was undeniable, but there was some uncertainty about his off-the-field behavior that caused the talented running back to fall to the Browns in the 2002 NFL Draft. While at Boston College, Green was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Year and an All-American in 2001, but he had problems with drugs and alcohol. He was drafted to be paired with quarterback Tim Couch and form a one-two punch on offense for the Browns. "There was very little conversation about who we should take once we were on the clock, because everyone was looking at the same card on the wall, and that was Green's card," said Browns president and chief executive officer, Carmen Policy. "There was never any question . . . this was the best running back by far on the board. I think our people feel that he's really going to add the dimension that we desperately require" (Smith, 2002).

Green had a solid rookie season, gaining 887 yards and six touchdowns on 243 carries. That included a game-sealing and career-long 64-yard touchdown run against the Falcons, which helped put the Browns into the postseason. He was off to a strong start in 2003, but an arrest led to a suspension by the NFL, and he was stabbed in a domestic dispute during that suspension. He struggled in 2004 with an average of 39 yards per game in 15 appearances, and injuries ravaged him in 2005, leading to the end of his career. Altogether, Green had carried the ball 568 times for 2,109 yards and nine touchdowns in 46 games.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Former Browns quarterback and busted first-round draft pick, Brandon Weeden, reacts during a game against the Colts in the 2019 AFC Wild Card playoff round. Weeden has remained a backup quarterback in the NFL with three teams.© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

8. Brandon Weeden

  • Year Drafted: 2012
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 22
  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Oklahoma State

At 28 years old, Brandon Weeden became the oldest first-round NFL draft pick of all time when the Browns gambled on his talents in 2012. Weeden began his athletic career as a professional baseball player, but after failing to reach the major leagues, he enrolled at Oklahoma State and became the starting quarterback. Weeden found great success in college, and some believed that would translate to an NFL career.

"When you're talking about a quarterback, we just didn't think it was worth taking a risk," said general manager Tom Heckert. "There's some teams we know that were interested in him behind us. Eventually he's gonna be a starter for us. That's why we drafted him" (Ulrich, 2012). That did turn out to be truejust not exactly in the way the Browns had planned.

Weeden tossed four interceptions in his debut but rebounded, finishing the season with 3,385 yards, 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. After a coaching change for the 2013 season, however, Weeden fell out of favor after losing five starts and was released following the season. He's remained a backup in the NFL since but has never found success equal to his draft slot.

7. Steve Holden and Pete Adams

  • Year Drafted: 1973
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 16 (Holden) and 22 (Adams)
  • Position: Wide receiver (Holden) and offensive guard (Adams)
  • College: Arizona State (Holden) and University of Southern California (Adams)

With seven selections in the first four rounds, the 1973 NFL Draft was expected to be an important draft for the Browns. Unfortunately, the Browns whiffed on the first two picks. Cleveland spent a selection from the Giants on wide receiver Steve Holden at pick No. 16, and then added offensive guard Pete Adams at No. 22.

In combination with several other promising picks throughout the early rounds, the team's front office believed they had constructed a championship-caliber team. ". . . I think this has the potential to be the best draft in the 10 years that I've been associated with the Browns," said head coach Nick Skorich. The third-year head man described Holden and Adams as players "who could step in and do a regular job for us next year" (AP, 1973).

The Browns rated Holden as the best college player in the draft and as the best player to come to the pro ranks since running back O.J. Simpson, who was the top pick in 1969. The pair of first-rounders were supposed to help take the Browns to the next level after finishing the 1972 season at 104. Instead, Holden caught just 62 passes for 927 yards and four touchdowns in 48 games over four seasons with Cleveland. Adams, meanwhile, was out of football four years later and played just 25 games.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Brady Quinn is one of several quarterbacks who the Browns have drafted since 1999, and like so many, he never became a solid starter.Kate [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

6. Brady Quinn

  • Year Drafted: 2007
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 22
  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Notre Dame

There was speculation that quarterback Brady Quinn could be a top-10 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, and that he could go as high as No. 3 to the Browns. And if none of that happened? Well, no one really planned that far. After the Browns elected to pick left tackle Joe Thomas with the No. 3 pick, Quinn was left to sit awkwardly in the green room as he fell outside the top 20. The Browns, however, seemed to simply be waiting. Cleveland traded a second-round pick and its first-round pick in 2008 to the Cowboys in exchange for the No. 22 pick in the 2007 draft, using that selection to nab Quinn. He was not expected to be the starter at the beginning of the season, but there was a chance he would be a starter before the season was up. Instead, it was another quarterback who would provide the Browns with a winning record in 2007.

That was Derek Anderson, who would join Quinn as an on-again, off-again starter throughout the next two seasons. Quinn mostly watched from the sidelines, as injuries and poor performance limited him to just 14 games in three years. He had a 39 mark in his 12 starts with the Browns and was traded to the Broncos in March 2010. With Cleveland, Quinn completed 184 of 353 passes for 1,902 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Former Browns quarterback Bobby Garrett is seen on his 1954 Bowman football card. He was Cleveland's No. 1 draft pick that season, but hardly played in the NFL.Bowman [Public domain]

5. Bobby Garrett

  • Year Drafted: 1954
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 1
  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Stanford

The NFL instituted a "bonus pick" for the 1947 NFL Draft, and it wasn't until the 1954 draft that the Browns won the since-halted lottery that determined which team would get the No. 1 selection in each year's draft. At the time, it was assumed Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham would retire soon, so Cleveland spent that bonus pick on the best college passer available, Bobby Garrett.

Garrett was touted as a future star after he won the W.J. Voit Memorial Trophy, an award given annually to the best college player on the Pacific coast. Less than six months after the draft, however, Cleveland traded Garrett to the Packers. It was a six-player deal designed to help the Packers immediately and the Browns in the future, but neither team significantly benefited from the deal.

It was discovered that Garrett suffered from a speech impediment, and his inability to clearly communicate play calls left him with a nine-game NFL career. "He stuttered," former Packers fullback Fred Cone told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He couldn't get the plays out in the huddle. We had to crack him on the back so he could spit out the play. He couldn't say words that started with an 's,' like split left or split right. That was a real surprise to us. I think Coach (Lisle) Blackbourn was surprised, too. Bobby had a lot of ability and he was a real nice guy. You kind of felt sorry for him. But a quarterback has to get up there and bark out the signals, and he couldn't do it" (Merron, 2005). If there was ever a year for the Browns to misfire in the draft, however, 1954 was a good time to do so. Only one Hall of Famer was picked in the entire draftRaymond Berry, who was selected by the Colts in the 20th round.

4. Courtney Brown

  • Year Drafted: 2000
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 1
  • Position: Defensive end
  • College: Penn State

A "humble superstar" was the expectation given to defensive end Courtney Brown after he was selected by Cleveland with the No. 1 pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Brown, the gargantuan from Penn State who was praised by those who knew him, was selected to anchor the defense in Cleveland, which ranked last statistically in yards allowed in 1999. "I think if you drew up a football player, particularly a defensive football player, and put all the ingredients in you were looking for, you'd end up with Courtney Brown," said Browns owner Al Lerner (Withers, 2000). Unfortunately, Brown's promise was never realized in the NFL.

Brown's only full season in the NFL was his rookie year, which he ended with a paltry 4.5 sacks. In 2001, however, he looked like he was on his way to becoming the player everyone expected him to be. He had another 4.5 sacks in his first five games but missed the remainder of the season due to injury. Brown struggled with injuries for the rest of his career, playing in 26 more games with Cleveland over the next three years. Brown was released in 2005. Cleveland intended to re-sign him to a restructured contract, but he signed with the Broncos instead. In Cleveland, Brown missed 33 games over five years, and only had 17 sacks.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Former Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert was a first-round draft selection, but he never became a star defender for Cleveland.© Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

3. Justin Gilbert

  • Year Drafted: 2014
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 8
  • Position: Cornerback
  • College: Oklahoma State

First-year general manager Ray Farmer was extremely busy during the first round of the NFL Draft in 2014. Originally owning the No. 4 pick, Farmer traded that selection to the Bills to take over the No. 9 spot in the order. He then made another trade, this time with the Vikings to acquire the No. 8 pick. That is where Farmer would draft cornerback Justin Gilbert to start on the opposite side of the field as budding superstar Joe Haden.

Gilbert, however, never figured out how to be successful in the NFL. His lone highlight came on a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown as a rookie. Otherwise, he played in just 23 games over two seasons for the Brownsstarting only three. In the days leading up to the 2016 season, Gilbert was traded to the Steelers for a sixth-round draft pick, ending his tenure in Cleveland with just 39 tackles.

Looking back on the 2014 draft, the selection of Gilbert is quite the anomaly. The three players selected right before Gilbert and the nine players selected immediately after him have all made at least one Pro Bowl appearance. Gilbert, meanwhile, has been out of football since 2016 and faces a one-year suspension if he is ever re-signed. With the No. 4 pick, the Bills drafted wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who became a dynamic playmaker and won a Super Bowl in 2020 with the Chiefs. Some had hoped Cleveland would select Watkins at No. 4 and later draft a quarterback to pair with him.

2. Mike Junkin

  • Year Drafted: 1987
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 5
  • Position: Linebacker
  • College: Duke

The Browns were tiring of the antics of Pro Bowl linebacker Chip Banks as the 1987 NFL Draft approached, and with the No. 5 pick, the team's leadership devised a plan. Not only would the Browns be rid of the troublesome Banks, but they would also get an NFL-ready replacement for him that would keep the defense rumbling. That's where All-American Mike Junkin enteredexcept he never held up his end of the bargain.

Excited about Junkin's prospects, the Browns made a huge trade with the Chargers to make sure they got him. Cleveland traded Banks, as well as the No. 24 and No. 53 picks, in exchange for the No. 5 and No. 32 picks. "Of all the linebackers I have had the chance to evaluate, Mike Junkin is one of the very best I've seen," said head coach Marty Schottenheimerwho was in his 14th season as a coach in the NFL. "In my mind, he's going to be a very effective (pass) rusher for us. He has a tremendous knack for getting to the football" (Meyer, 1987). Junkin staged a 16-day holdout before signing a 4-year contract, but closed his rookie season on injured reserve. In 1988, Junkin was plagued by a knee injury and missed several games.

Schottenheimer quit as coach of the Browns after the 1988 season, and the new regime began to dismantle the rostertrading away several players who were favorites of the ex-coach. That included Junkin, who was sent to the Chiefs for a fifth-round draft pick. There, Junkin was reunited with Schottenheimer, who had been hired as that team's head coach. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're proud that we took the fifth player in the (1987) draft and had to turn around and trade him for a fifth-round pick," said Browns executive vice president Ernie Accorsi. "Not to demean the man, because I think he'll go someplace and hopefully have a productive career with a fresh start, but we based what we were going to do with him on what our new coaches felt about his chances of contributing. . . . Our coaches now really didn't feel he was going to have much of an opportunity to play so we just had to get what we could out of it" (Meyer, 1989).

Cleveland got 57 tackles, no sacks, and no interceptions from Junkin in 15 games. With the fifth-round selection from the Chiefs, the Browns selected wide receiver Vernon Joines, who gained just 86 yards in his NFL career.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Former Browns and Montreal Alouettes quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) reacts after throwing an interception during the second quarter of a 2018 game in the Canadian Football League. Manziel couldn't find success in Cleveland or Canada.© Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

1. Johnny Manziel

  • Year Drafted: 2014
  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 22
  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Texas A&M

Quarterback Johnny Manziel was considered the most polarizing college football player eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft. His talent was undeniable (he won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 and was a finalist in '13), but his arrogance had some wondering if he would be disciplined enough to succeed in the NFL. After watching team after team pass on him, he had a message for the Browns, who declined to select him with the No. 4 pick. According to then-quarterbacks coach Dowall Loggains, Manziel sent him a text message that stated: "I wish you guys would come get me. Hurry up and draft me because I want to be there. I want to wreck this league together" (Sanchez, 2014). Loggains forwarded the message up the ranks, which inspired the Browns to take the risk and trade up to draft him at No. 22.

Manziel quickly became a fan favorite and carried high expectations into his rookie season. But controversy quickly arose in the preseason, when he was fined for flipping off Washington players during a game, and in what limited action he saw as a rookie, he had tremendous struggles. After the 2015 preseason, he still couldn't land the starting role, but filled in as the backup starter for several games. By the middle of the season, he moved up to starter, but after a video surfaced of him partying during the team's bye week, he was demoted to third-string. Manziel eventually worked his way back into a starting role, but then was injured. For the final game of the season, Manziel was ruled out with a concussion and missed a check-in with a team physician.

In Feb. 2016, Manziel was under a domestic violence investigation in Dallas, and on March 11, the Browns released the troubled quarterback. Manziel's parade of off-the-field troubles led Associated Press reporter Tom Withers to begin a story about his release by writing: "Johnny Manziel's tightest spiral with the Browns was a downward one" (Withers, 2016). Manziel was apologetic in a statement following his release, "I'd like to thank the Browns for the opportunity they gave menearly two years ago, we all hoped that we were building what could be a championship team in Cleveland. I will always remember the support I received from the organization, my teammates, and especially, the fans" (Withers, 2016).

"Johnny Football" attempted to revive his career in the Canadian Football League, but was barred from that league in 2019 for violating his contract. He then played in the Alliance of American Football, but that league suspended operations before its first season was completed. I believe it to be unlikely Manziel will play in the NFL again. With the Browns, Manziel played in 15 games, with a 26 record in his starts. He completed 147 of 258 passes for 1,675 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. To me, that makes him the biggest bust in Browns history.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Former Browns offensive guard Austin Corbett stretches during the team's 2018 training camp in Berea. After reaching to draft Corbett that year, the Browns released him three games into the 2019 season.© Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable Mentions

The Brownslike all franchiseshave had numerous draft busts. Here are some others that were significant but fell just outside of the top 10.

Craig Powell

The Browns originally owned the No. 10 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, but with the players they coveted most already drafted by other teams, they elected to trade down to the No. 30 slot. That is where they selected Ohio State linebacker Craig Powell, but he never made significant contributions for the Browns. Powell appeared in just three games with Cleveland as a rookie and moved with the franchise to Baltimore after the season. In 1996, he only appeared in nine games for the Ravens.

Tommy Vardell

Going into the 1992 NFL Draft, the Browns had several players available to play running back and fullback, so when they selected Stanford fullback Tommy Vardell with the No. 9 pick, it was a bit surprising. He was known as "Touchdown Tommy," but he didn't give Browns fans much to cheer about. Vardell scored just five total touchdowns during a 40-game tenure in Cleveland that stretched across four seasons.

Harry Agganis

The story of Harry Agganis is a sad one. In the 1952 NFL Draft, the Browns selected Agganis as the No. 12 selection as a backup to quarterback Otto Graham. Agganis, however, would spurn the Browns and sign with the Boston Red Sox of Major League Baseball. He debuted for the Red Sox in 1954, but was hospitalized in the summer of 1955. He died from a pulmonary embolism on June 27, 1955.

Kurt Burris

The Browns drafted center Kurt Burris with the No. 13 pick in the 1955 NFL Draft. Burris finished as the runner-up for the 1954 Heisman Trophy at the University of Oklahoma, but he declined to sign with the Browns and went to the Canadian Football League instead. He won a pair of Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos, so he probably could have helped further solidify Cleveland's offensive linewhich in 1955 already featured Hall of Famers Lou Groza, Frank Gatski and Mike McCormack.

Austin Corbett

The Browns were criticized for drafting offensive lineman Austin Corbett with the first pick in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and rightly so. In 22 games with the Browns, Corbett played just 15 offensive snaps before getting traded to the Rams for a fifth-round draft pick in 2019. Making matters worse, the offensive line was one of Cleveland's biggest weaknesses, so wasting time on a failed player set back the line's development.

the-10-biggest-draft-busts-in-cleveland-browns-history
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett hits Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) with his own helmet as David DeCastro (66) intervenes in a 2019 game. Garrett has tremendous talent but concerns about his demeanor are still unanswered.© Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Browns Draft History

The Browns didn't make too many draft mistakes from their debut in the NFL in 1950 through their final original season of 1995. But after the franchise relocated to Baltimore and returned as an expansion team in 1999, there have been numerous missteps, including three failed quarterbacks who were each taken with the No. 22 pick. The following table includes several of the Browns' first-round draft picks who I believe failed to live up to expectations after finding little to no success in the NFL.

Browns First-Round Draft Busts

Year
Player
Pick
Pos
Last Year
College/Univ

1952

Harry Agganis

12

QB

 

Boston Univ.

1954

John Bauer

12

T

1954

Illinois

1954

Bobby Garrett

1

QB

1954

Stanford

1955

Kurt Burris

13

C

 

Oklahoma

1962

Leroy Jackson

11

HB

1963

West. Illinois

1963

Tom Hutchinson

9

TE

1966

Kentucky

1973

Pete Adams

22

G

1976

USC

1973

Steve Holden

16

WR

1977

Arizona St.

1979

Willis Adams

20

WR

1985

Houston

1984

Don Rogers

18

DB

1985

UCLA

1987

Mike Junkin

5

LB

1989

Duke

1988

Clifford Charlton

21

LB

1989

Florida

1995

Craig Powell

30

LB

1998

Ohio St.

2000

Courtney Brown

1

DE

2005

Penn St.

2002

William Green

16

RB

2005

Boston Col.

2007

Brady Quinn

22

QB

2012

Notre Dame

2011

Phil Taylor

21

DT

2014

Baylor

2012

Brandon Weeden

22

QB

2018

Oklahoma St.

2014

Johnny Manziel

22

QB

2015

Texas A&M

2014

Justin Gilbert

8

DB

2016

Oklahoma St.

2016

Corey Coleman

15

WR

2018

Baylor

Works Cited

  • Associated Press (1973, January 31). "Skorich all smiles about top four." Chillicothe Gazette. pp. 23. Retrieved from Newspapers.com January 29, 2020.
  • Merron, J. (2005, April 15). "The List: Weird NFL draft moments." Retrieved from ESPN.com January 27, 2020.
  • Meyer, E. (1987, April 29). "Junkin Will Step Right In." Akron Beacon-Journal. pp. C1C4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com January 23, 2020.
  • Meyer, E. (1989, April 24). "Schottenheimer Era is History." Akron Beacon-Journal. pp. C5. Retrieved from Newspapers.com January 23, 2020.
  • Sanchez, J. (2014, May 16). "Johnny Manziel vowed to 'wreck this league' in mid-draft text to Cleveland Browns." Retrieved from Sports Illustrated.com January 28, 2020.
  • Smith, M. (2002, April 21). "In rush to grab runner, Browns turn to Green." Boston Globe. pp. D18. Retrieved from Newspapers.com January 29, 2020.
  • Ulrich, N. (2012, April 27). "Browns go on offensive." Akron Beacon-Journal. pp. C1-C6. Retrieved from Newspapers.com February 1, 2020.
  • Withers, T. (2000, April 16). "Guesswork over: Brown No. 1 pick." Chillicothe Gazette. pp. B1. Retrieved from Newspapers.com January 28, 2020.
  • Withers, T. (2016, March 12). "Browns Release Manziel." Lancaster Eagle-Gazette. pp. 7A8A. Retrieved from Newspapers.com January 23, 2020.
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