Bust: the prospect that never truly reached their potential. Whether it be due to injury, off-the-field foolishness or simply failing to transition from the college to professional level, the NFL has certainly seen its fair share of busts over the past several decades. Names like Ki-Jana Carter, Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell all invoke awkward memories relevant to the reasons rookies never pan out. But what about that highly drafted player that does just enough to leave folks asking 20 years later “was he worth it?”
Mike Mamula will always be an interesting footnote when reflecting on the history of the Philadelphia Eagles. The former Boston College defensive end finished his senior season in 1994 with an impressive 17 sacks. What was more impressive than anything, however, was how Mamula intended on approaching and preparing for the series of events leading up to the 1995 NFL Draft.
By the mid-1990’s, professional football’s popularity was at an all-time high. Gone were the days of just watching games in the Fall and Winter. With the emergence and soap opera-worthy drama of free agency, the growing spectacle that the draft was evolving into, and the larger-than-life personalities that now represented the league, it was painfully evident that any and everything to do with the NFL was worth covering in great detail. The league’s annual scouting combine, an event that serves as a means for representatives of each team to evaluate draft prospects in a standardized setting, also benefited from this increased coverage.
While the combine had been around for over a decade by 1995, the various series of drills featured was not something prospects rigorously prepared for at the time. The general consensus was that good football players were simply good football players, regardless of the amount of reps they could bench press or how high they could jump, so when Mike Mamula set his sights on mastering every aspect of every test he would encounter at the event, he was, in many ways, venturing into uncharted territory. His plan was simple: specifically prepare for and simulate every drill hundreds of times over.
By the time the combine arrived in February, the results were spectacular. Mamula jumped higher than defensive backs, benched more than top ranked offensive tackles (including 3x All Pro, Tony Boselli) and scored an outstanding 49 on the Wonderlic test. This, combined with his 4.58 40 yard dash time at a staggering 6’4 248 lbs., opened the eyes of countless General Managers across the league. Initially viewed as a potential 2nd-to-3rd round talent, Mamula’s consummate combine essentially made him an overnight prodigy with a first-round projection. The question was just how high did the workout warrior’s stock rise and who would be willing to take a chance?
Heading into the 1995 Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles were fresh off one of their more disappointing seasons in recent memory. The team started the season off 7-2, only to finish 7-9, fired their Head Coach and were now two full seasons removed from the departure of Reggie White to the Green Bay Packers. Desperately hoping to recapture Reggie’s magic, the Eagles dealt the 12th overall draft pick and two 2nd round picks to Tampa Bay for the 7th overall selection and a pick later in the 3rd round. With the 7th pick, the Eagles selected none other than Mike Mamula, the presumed successor to the incomparable Reggie White.
Mamula’s professional career started off rather promising. Through his first two seasons, he amassed a total of 13.5 sacks and was considered a key piece in a young, up-and-coming defense. Despite an underwhelming campaign in 1997 and a right knee injury in a 1998 preseason game (that forced him to miss the entire regular season), Mamula returned to full form in 1999 and eclipsed his previous single-season sack total with 8.5. He even managed to score a touchdown on an interception of NFL MVP, and eventual Super Bowl MVP, Kurt Warner to close out Philadelphia’s ’99 season. Unfortunately, for both Mamula and the Eagles, the 2000 season would not be as promising. After suffering a number of critical injuries, he was forced to retire at the early age of 28.
So how, one might ask, does a player that had 31.5 sacks in five fairly productive seasons come to be labeled a bust? Some would point to the fact that the Eagles traded a number of valuable picks to move up for a guy that had to retire before turning 30. Most choose to overlook Mamula entirely and focus their attention on who the Eagles didn’t draft when they exchanged picks with Tampa Bay. That would be eventual Hall-of-Famer, Warren Sapp. To make matters worse, Tampa Bay used Philadelphia’s two 2nd round picks to move back into the first round and select another eventual Hall of Fame inductee, Derrick Brooks.
I get it. The Eagles essentially passed on two legends to draft Mike freakin’ Mamula. It is very important to remember, however, that the Eagles’ intention at the time was to add a dynamic pass rusher to fill the void left by Reggie White. Taking this into consideration, it is safe to assume that even if the Eagles didn’t trade up for Mamula, they still probably wouldn’t have drafted Sapp with the 12th pick. Who they likely would have ended up with was Florida State defensive end, Derrick Alexander. Alexander, by comparison, was drafted 11th overall and finished with only 20 sacks in his short-lived career. That’s the thing about the draft: you never truly know until you know.
Looking back 20 years later, was Mike Mamula a perennial Hall of Fame-talent or the 2nd coming of Reggie White? Absolutely not. What he was, however, was a productive player that deserves to be remembered for more than just changing the way players approach the combine.