In a sense, they have become as much a part of the fabric of football history as anything else. The players that failed to live up to their promise, the would-be superstars who flamed out in a tight spiral of lost potential and painful disappointment.
It's a list that gets longer every season, with new tales of failure added to the scrapbook and then reappraised in springtime, draft season, when the parade of prognostication returns.
In 2011, the "bust list" likely is causing a host of teams particular discomfort, namely those teams considering a quarterback in the first round. No selection is riskier, for you can't hide a bust in the pocket. Quarterback disappointments don't disappear. They linger for years, on the sideline and also in the mind -- because a pick spent poorly is a pick that could have been spent constructively on another more useful piece of the puzzle.
As Thursday night and the start of the NFL draft draw near, the Carolina Panthers are the first team in the spotlight, holding the No. 1 overall pick and expected by many to pull the trigger on Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner and leader of the national champion Auburn Tigers. Newton is by no means without question marks, what with a limited college resume (only one season at Auburn) and character issues (having left Florida after an arrest for theft, and left college under the cloud of an NCAA investigation).
Tim Couch: In the dog pound
» Sept. 1999: First career start: 134 yards passing and one TD in 26-9 loss at Tennessee.
» Oct. 2000: Suffers shoulder injury vs. Denver, forces him to miss final nine games. Browns finish 3-13.
» 2001 season: Starts all 16 games: 3,040 yards, 17 TDs, 21 INTs, guiding Browns to 7-9 record.
» 2002 season: Throws for 2,842 yards, 18 TDs, 18 INTs; guides Browns to 9-7 record but misses playoff game after knee injury suffered in Week 17.
» 2003 season: Loses starting job to Kelly Holcomb in training camp; wins it back; loses it again.
» June 2004:Browns release couch after five seasons.
Skeptics might be tempted to compare Newton to three of the biggest busts of the last dozen years -- Tim Couch, Alex Smith and JaMarcus Russell, all top overall picks, all quarterbacks. But whether the Auburn QB joins their infamous company might depend on things having very little to do with Newton -- and perhaps only so much to do with those busts themselves.
In 1999, Couch was drafted by the Browns in the first season of their revival, following the departure of the previous franchise (which moved and became the Baltimore Ravens). Couch was inserted into the lineup as a rookie in the team's third game, after Cleveland lost its first two contests by a combined score of 69-9. With Couch behind center, the Browns would lose another five games before earning a victory in Week 8. Couch would go 2-12 on the season as a starter and 2-5 in 2000 before hurting his shoulder and being sidelined for the year. Though Couch would lead the Browns to the playoffs in 2002, he broke his leg in the final regular season game that year and started only eight more games in his career.
Next up is Smith, a live case, as his career is still ongoing. Smith was drafted in 2005, with the Niners coming off a 2-14 season, the conclusion of a swift decline from the Steve Mariucci era. The 2005 Niners, then, were a rebuilding team, and led by a rookie coach, Mike Nolan. Smith went 2-5, being shuttled in and out of the lineup by Nolan in a 4-12 season.
The following year, a new offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, was hired, and Smith again had mixed results in a new system. In 2007, it was the same story: another offensive coordinator and more uneven play. In 2008, bad luck struck: Smith hurt his shoulder and missed the entire season.
» 2006: Starts all 16 games: 2,890 yards, 16 TDs, 16 INTs. 49ers finish 6-10.
» Sept. 30, 2007: Suffers shoulder injury in Week 4 vs. Seahawks.
» Oct. 28, 2007: Returns to starting lineup. 49ers lose three straight.
» Nov. 18 2007: Benched by coach Mike Nolan; feud between Smith and Nolan intensifies over severity of injury. Smith placed on IR in December.
» 2008: Loses training-camp competition to J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill; Smith doesn't start a game.
» 2009: Loses training camp competition to Hill; replaces Hill in Week 7, then starts remainder of season: 2,350 yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs in 11 games.
» 2010: Disappointing year as starter; coach Mike Singletary fired in December.
Ever since, he has looked to recapture the form that made him the top overall pick but has struggled to do so. This year, he will play for his third head coach in six years, whether he stays with the 49ers or moves on elsewhere.
The Russell story already is notorious as a cautionary tale about character issues.
Russell held out as a rookie into the first week of the regular season, eventually playing in spot duty and earning a start in the final game of the season. Though he showed signs of progress in 2008, he took a step back in '09 and was benched by new coach Tom Cable midway through the season. In 2010, he showed up to mini-camp overweight and was released in May, well before training camp. Since then, Russell has been shadowed by drug possession charges, and there does not currently appear to be a return to the NFL on the horizon.
Now, perhaps Russell is more to blame than the average bust for his own struggles. But the volatility of the Raiders franchise, with coaching changes and the unpredictability of owner Al Davis, surely were not the best environment for Russell to develop.
For example, before Russell was released in 2010, the Raiders had five quarterbacks on their roster, all with NFL starting experience. That's hardly the sign of a team committed to developing a franchise quarterback.
Which brings us back to Smith and Couch, both of whom came into the league on teams in serious transition. Couch played behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league in his first few seasons. Smith fared little better.
Contrast the experiences of this trio with a few other top overall picks:
JaMarcus Russell: Lazy boy?
» Sept. 12, 2007: Signs contract to end six-week holdout. Plays in four games with one start.
» 2008: Starts 15 games: 2,423 yards, 13TDs, eight INTs. Raiders finish 5-11.
» 2009: Starts first nine games (1,000 yards, two TDs, nine INTs) before being benched.
» March, 2010: Russell's offseason conditioning comes into question after reports surface that he weighs 290 pounds.
» May 6, 2010:Raiders release Russell well before the start of training camp.
» July 6, 2010: Russell arrested for possession of codeine syrup.
» April 14, 2011: "Life coach" John Lucas reportedly gives up on Russell.
So if the Panthers are nervous about Newton being a bust, they can run all the tests and do all the scouting on Newton they want. But there are some other important questions.
Is first-year coach Ron Rivera the right leader to usher Newton into the NFL? That remains to be seen.
Yes, Carolina's decision on Thursday night might be, in many ways, a flip of the coin. But determining how Newton can avoid joining the list of all-time NFL draft busts is far from only being about evaluating the quarterback.