10 biggest NFL draft busts in Tennessee football history

The Tennessee Volunteers have produced many legendary players into the NFL, but a few early draft picks had careers that didn't pan out after leaving Knoxville.
Tennessee sophomore quarterback Heath Shuler (21)
Tennessee sophomore quarterback Heath Shuler (21) / Rex Perry / The Tennessean / USA TODAY
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After a resurgent season in 2022, Tennessee produced Darnell Wright, the No. 10 overall pick to the Chicago Bears, and four more players who were selected on Day 2 of the draft. However, 2023 didn’t go nearly as well for Josh Heupel’s Volunteers, and that will likely be reflected in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

Even without any Vols projected to be selected in the first round and only three players heading to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, it’s still worth looking back at the biggest draft busts in Tennessee history. 

Not every first-round pick, especially every first-round quarterback can be Peyton Manning. Joe Milton III won’t be selected high enough to break a team’s heart, but Tennessee has had highly-drafted quarterbacks who did. So, let’s dig into the list and see if the QB who went No. 3 overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft ranks as Tennessee’s biggest NFL draft bust in program history. 

Todd Kelly, LB. 10. 42. . No. 27 overall. Todd Kelly, LB. player. Todd Kelly. . 1993

Kelly was an elite linebacker across his four-year career in Knoxville, but he didn’t translate to the NFL. In his first season with San Francisco, he played just 14 games, only starting five of them, and registering one sack and 15 tackles. 

Despite how underwhelming that 1993 season was, it may have been his best as a pro. In 1994, he played 11 games and finished with 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, but just nine tackles and only started one game. Kelly earned a Super Bowl ring as the 49ers defeated the Chargers that postseason, but he was cut before 1995 and claimed by Cincinnati. 

Kelly did not start another game in the NFL after his first two seasons in San Francisco and after four seasons he had played on three teams (San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Atlanta) and had racked up 5.5 sacks, and 27 tackles. 

His career in the NFL did not amount to much, but he doesn’t check in higher on this list because he was taken near the end of the first round, and San Francisco was still able to win a championship two years after making the mistake.