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Picks of the littered

Ten years ago next month, the Indianapolis Colts selected quarterback Peyton Manning first overall in the NFL draft, bypassing Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf and almost single-handedly changing the course of a franchise that had posted just two playoff seasons in the previous decade.

Before Manning arrived, the Colts had gone 20 consecutive years without a 10-win season and had made the postseason just three times in that span. Since taking Manning, Indianapolis has been a playoff team eight times in 10 years, with six division titles, a Super Bowl championship, and an average of 10.5 wins per regular season -- ranking second in the NFL behind New England's 10.8 since the start of 1998.

Ideally that's how it's supposed to work when you draft first overall in the NFL. You take a franchise-level player and get at least 10 years of great results out of him, leading the organization to great things in the process. But it rarely happens, of course, as the teams who selected Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer and Alex Smith can readily attest. Peyton's little brother, Eli Manning, this year became just the second overall No. 1 pick to win (or even reach) a Super Bowl in the past decade, so for all we know it's just a Manning thing that the rest of the league wouldn't understand.

But it's not just the No. 1 Miami Dolphins who face some pretty daunting odds when it comes to hitting it big in next month's draft. Picking anywhere in the top 10 has become pretty hazardous duty in the NFL in recent years, with the draft misses at least keeping pace with, if not out-numbering, the hits.

This offseason we've seen more recent top 10 picks who have parted ways with the teams that drafted them, with Minnesota shipping away receiver Troy Williamson (No. 7 in 2005), Atlanta cutting ties with cornerback DeAngelo Hall (8th in 2004), and the Jets trying like heck to move defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson (4th in 2003). And if Pacman Jones (6th in 2005) is even re-instated to the league in time to play this season, Tennessee will be attempting to bid adieu to him as well.

Add those names to the disappointing results of recent top 10 draft classes that have included 2003's Charles Rogers, Johnathan Sullivan and Byron Leftwich, 2004's Robert Gallery and Reggie Williams, and 2005's Alex Smith, Cedric Benson, Antrel Rolle and Mike Williams. In the case of the draft's past two top 10s, the jury is still very much out on the likes of highly-touted talents such as Vernon Davis, Michael Huff, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Reggie Bush, Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell and Ted Ginn Jr. And don't even get me started on the Class of 2002, which is a disaster all by itself.

Picking in the top 10 is indeed no picnic these days, and I think Colts general manager Bill Polian is on to something when he pinpoints the prohibitive financial commitment that comes with working in the draft's high-rent district, as he did at length at last month's NFL scouting combine. Boiled down, Polian's thesis is the cost of doing business at the top of the draft at least partly works as a deterrent to those teams who are trying to use their high draft picks in order to become more competitive. Which is exactly opposite of the original intention of the draft's last-shall-be-first formula.

"The draft was designed to either allow the weakest teams, based on record, to choose the best players, or if they chose not to take a particular player, to gather a bunch of picks to further accelerate their growth and competitiveness,'' Polian said. "That's what (longtime Bears owner/coach George) Halas and commissioner (Bert) Bell intended way back when, and that's now been skewered completely by the cost of the picks in the top 15 of the first round.

"It's completely changed because of the cost of those picks, and in my view, that's wrong. It should change. That's bad for the game. It isn't about money, it's about the integrity of the game on the field.''

Crunching some numbers from the past five drafts (2003-07), one trend quickly becomes clear: The same downtrodden teams are doing a whole lot of the picking in the top 10 year after year. Teams that consistently know what they're doing when it comes to the draft might make an occasional appearance in the top 10, but you can really round up the usual suspects every April when it comes to the first 10 picks off the board.

Consider the following:

• Twenty-six of the NFL's 32 teams had at least one top 10 pick in the past five drafts, but just 15 of the league's clubs (47 percent) made 41 of those 50 top 10 selections (82 percent).

• To break it down even further, just seven teams accounted for 25 of those 50 picks in the top 10, a whopping 50 percent of the league's elite selections the past five Aprils. Detroit "leads'' the way with five top 10 picks in that span, or one each year. Houston and Arizona had four each, with Oakland, Cleveland, Washington and Minnesota having three each.

• Every team in last year's top 10 were repeat participants in regards to the past five drafts, and seven of them had picked in the top 10 at least three times in the past five years. It bears noting that of the 15 teams that made 41 of the 50 top 10 picks from 2003-2007, five are back in this year's top 10, with a sixth team (San Francisco) having traded its No. 7 selection to New England.

In other words, rather than a top 10 pick helping a team get a leg up in the NFL's salary cap era, it often works in reverse. The bad teams get more top 10 picks, which means they're statistically likely to have more top 10 misses, which are more costly than ever, resulting in the same bottom-feeding teams showing up again in the top 10 of the draft.

No doubt there are a lot of factors that play into all of this, not the least of which is the draft incompetence of a team like Detroit, which saw fit to select a first-round receiver three years in a row, and four out of five years. But Polian's point about the costly nature of top 10 failures these days, and the vicious circle that can result from them, seems to underline just how much the draft's top 10 has become very dangerous territory.

"If you're just in the top 10 once every four or five years, it can be a real benefit to you because you can get yourself a really great player,'' said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, whose club's record in the draft may be the league's best in the past 10 years, and who is in this year's top 10 (No. 8) for only the second time in six drafts. "But when you're in it every year, or three out of four, that's when it's detrimental. You almost certainly are going to have a young team in that situation, with no leaders in the locker room. You've probably changed coaches at least once in that span too, so you've had a different plan in place every couple years, and that much change is always difficult.''

Picking in the top 10 also shortens the window that teams are willing to wait before their selection either shows himself to be an impact player -- or not. In some cases, three years is about the extent to which teams exhaust their patience, such as what happened with Williamson in Minnesota, Sullivan in New Orleans, and Rogers in Detroit. The Lions also gave Mike Williams just two years before giving up on him. Thus, the results of missing in the top 10 can contribute mightily to keeping a team in position to select in the top 10.

"When you pick a top 10 player, everyone expects that player to step on the field and play right away,'' Newsome said. "And with most players there's still some development needed. But he may not get that development because he's out there playing. If you rush him, you can hurt the player, and you've seen that a lot with the quarterbacks, like Tim Couch and David Carr.

"If you're picking that high, you want at least to give the team three or four years to become a player. But at the same time, you have the kid and you're not sure about him, but you really can't afford to draft anyone to replace him. You've already invested a ton of money and cap room, and you can't afford to put any more money into that position.''

Amid the landscape of top 10 mistakes, there are some success stories to balance out the picture. Last year, two of the 10 teams picking in the draft's upper echelon rebounded to make the playoffs. The Redskins and Bucs both went 9-7 and were quickly dismissed from the NFC playoff field, but they made it. Ditto for the Saints and Jets in 2006, who were both 10-6 after having top 10 picks that April. In each of the past five years, either two or three top 10-drafting teams each year wound up in the playoffs that season, with the high-water mark being Carolina's 2003 trip to the Super Bowl after choosing 8th overall (offensive tackle Jordan Gross) that spring.

All told, 12 of the 50 teams drafting in the top 10 the last five years went on to qualify for the playoffs that season, a respectable enough 24 percent. There were however only six total playoff wins among that 12-team group, with the Panthers accounting for half of that total in 2003. Eight of the 12 teams that made the postseason in that situation did not win a game in the Super Bowl tournament.

Last year, the No. 3 Browns selected left tackle Joe Thomas, and he played a major role in helping solidify the Cleveland offensive line and send Romeo Crennel's team to a 10-6 season that fell just short of the playoffs. So picking in the top 10 doesn't have to be a death knell. It can be done and done successfully. To repeat, if done sparingly.

"You've got to hope that (Browns general manager) Phil (Savage) has turned that corner with what he's done in Cleveland,'' said Newsome, who was once Savage's boss in Baltimore. "He came out of the top 10 last year and won 10 games, so he's making it pay off. But Bill (Polian) is right in that when you draft in the top five or six, you're going to wind up paying guys coming into the league more salary than everybody but your top four players or so. That's tough. There are guys who have earned their way up the salary ladder, and then you have one guy who steps right in and over them. That's a difficult situation to work around.''

Polian has come out in favor of a more defined slotting system for the salaries of draft picks that would reduce the dollars being paid the highest selections, but the NFL Players Association says a consensus of their members are against such a wage scale. Which leaves teams with only one really good option: Win enough games to stay out of the draft's sometimes treacherous top 10.

"It needs to change because the draft was designed to positively affect the game on the field and create competitive balance, and now we find it's doing just the opposite,'' Polian said. "In my view it's a competitive problem and not a labor management problem. Our game is based on competitive balance, the fact that every year every franchise believes they can win, unlike other sports.

"Every team in our league enters training camp saying, 'Hey, we've got a chance.' You can go from worst to first in one year, sometimes based on how well you do in the draft. Look at the Giants. They get terrific contributions from virtually every player they drafted this year. When that's skewed and changed, then that isn't good for the game.''

Then again, NFL teams can always just draft a Manning at quarterback. That approach seems to work just fine.

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