It gets more hype than ever, but the NFL draft is still a crapshoot
So you probably know that I was a draftnik before that word was cool. Oh, wait, that word is still not cool. OK, so, to rephrase -- I was a draftnik when it was ESPECIALLY uncool to be one. My buddy Robert and I used to skip school to watch the draft, an astonishingly sad thing to do, looking back.
Now, of course, the NFL draft is probably one of the five biggest sporting events of the year. Every year, people talk about how ridiculously big it has become, and every year it doubles in size again. This year, you know, it's the biggest thing ever. They are breaking the draft up over three days, putting the first round in prime time, bringing in
The thing that amazes me about the draft is not the hype -- at some point, yeah, you get it, this thing is hyped -- but how quickly the whole NFL draft thing dies after, you know, players are actually taken by their teams. There's this huge build-up, and then when the draft's over it's like every football fan in America, all at exactly the same time, goes: "OK, that's done. Let's go to the mall." I mean, if you think about it, the draft is supposed to be the BEGINNING of something, not the end. You are taking a bunch of players who have never played a single down in the NFL, and you are hoping that they can help turn around your team's fortunes. But, it seems to me, people treat the draft like it's a one-time event, the fun is in the picking. How the player turns out seems almost beside the point.
Anyway, in celebration of draft day, I thought that instead of doing the 5,949,483,847th mock draft, I instead would take a quick look back at the last 20 years of drafts, starting with the 1990s.
George was a bad pick that has been properly lambasted through the years. But based on the other quarterbacks available that year --
On the other hand, the second pick that year was the Jets' selection of running back
To this day,
Then he went to Oakland, and played for terrible defenses... so he couldn't do it alone.
Most NFL GMs would probably agree that no single thing is more more important than having a good quarterback. And yet, nobody really seems to know what makes a good quarterback... or how to to develop one. In 1991 the first two quarterbacks taken were
Emtman is one of the all-time busts at No. 1 overall, but to be fair that really was a pretty atrocious draft. The best defensive lineman taken was probably
1. The day the Raiders were playing Kansas City he, supposedly, told the Chiefs players not to block him too hard because he was going to sign with the Chiefs the next year.
2. He offered the nicest no-comment in NFL history. McGlockton did not talk to the media, but whenever someone would ask him for an interview he would always say, in a perfectly calm voice, "No, thank you."
Emtman is involved in one of my favorite ever college football stories, one I'm pretty sure I've told before. But I'll tell it again... a good friend of mine was a left tackle at Kansas State when they faced Washington and Emtman. You might remember that Emtman was an absolute beast in college -- that should be obvious since he was the No. 1 overall pick, but even that does not begin to describe just how big and strong and fast Emtman was. He was inhuman. Anyway, he played inside a lot at Washington, so my buddy Michael did not block him much. But one time, Emtman came around on a stunt, and Michael was isolated with him.
So Michael set himself and held out his arms and did all the things that he had been trained to do. Emtman then picked him up and threw him out of the way, like he was a giant aluminum can. That's pretty typical, I guess, of Emtman. My favorite part of the story is that when Michael went to the sideline, a coach started screaming at him: "You have to set yourself! Lower you butt! Punch with your hands!" On and on, just screaming, and all the while Michael was thinking: "Um, he picked me up and threw me out of the way. I don't think blocking technique is the issue here."
Once again, the quarterback situation was pretty bleak. The two best quarterbacks to come out of the 1992 draft were
The Giants really set up their 2000 Super Bowl appearance by taking two excellent defensive players in the same draft. This also was the draft that, eventually, created that remarkable Kansas City Chiefs offensive line of 2002-2005. The Chiefs scored more points than any team in the NFL over those four years.
Bledsoe was the best No. 1 overall pick up to this point in the 1990s. You probably didn't know -- I certainly didn't know -- that Bledsoe is sixth all-time in passes completed (3,839), eighth in yards passing (44,611) and 13th in touchdown passes, just three behind
You could certainly argue that
I was in Cincinnati in 1994, and back then I used to think that one of the main purposes of the NFL was to pull tricks on the Cincinnati Bengals. I would imagine
I say this because of the Dan Wilkinson scam. I saw several Ohio State games that year. I saw Dan Wilkinson play. And I have to tell you, not once did I think about him being even an especially good player, much less the No. 1 pick in the draft. I will admit, up front, that I do not exactly consider myself an expert of interior line play. I didn't watch Wilkinson much. Still, if someone's THAT GOOD you would think you would notice it, right? I mean, you would expect the player to be like
The Bengals had the No. 1 pick, and it seemed pretty apparent to those of us who did not know much that Faulk was the guy. He had run for something like 5,493,584 yards at San Diego State. But then, all of a sudden, people started talking about Dan Wilkinson -- suddenly known as "Big Daddy" Wilkinson -- being the No. 1 guy. Really? Dan Wilkinson? Hmm. Interesting. You started hearing people talk about his massive strength -- I will never forget that the Bengals strength coach called him "Freakishly strong." Freakish. Yes. That's what the Bengals needed. And while, no, he had not put up big numbers, you started hearing about the way teams had to block him, with four or five men and a battering ram and an electric fence. The longer the talk went on, the more apparent it became that not only should the Bengals take him but they would be FOOLS if they did not take him.
And so... they took him.
And I suspect that behind closed doors, every single GM and football staff in the NFL laughed their heads off.
I was in Cincinnati this year, too... and the Ki-Jana Carter experience was very different from the Dan Wilkinson experience, at least for me. The day before the draft, I wrote that the Bengals should find a way to get Ki-Jana Carter. I felt sure, absolutely sure, that Carter was going to be a big-time player, a playmaker, exactly what the Bengals needed. Of course, I don't know anything. But when the Bengals the next day actually traded up and got Ki-Jana Carter, I could not help but feel thrilled... they saw it the same way I did! I had been writing a column in Cincinnati for about a year, and I was finally in the flow, finally in the middle of things. The Bengals PR staff even clipped out a couple of paragraphs from my column and handed it out to the writers. I was at the heart of things.
When you're a sports columnist in a town, people tend to think (against most of the available evidence) you have some real power. I would get dozens and dozens of emails and letters every month from people who wondered why I had not yet fired
Of course, you can respond by saying that you're just a silly sports columnist who has no power in such things... but that isn't 100% true. It's probably 95% true. But not 100%. People involved do read the paper. Talk radio sometimes amplifies what you write. Television sometimes builds off of talk radio amplifying what you write. I've written here before that when Kansas State hired
My point is, I felt that in some way I had encouraged the Bengals to take Ki-Jana Carter. I was confident that it was a good move, exactly what the Bengals needed, the kind of move that turns around a franchise.
Ki-Jana Carter blew out his knee on his third carry of the preseason.
And Baltimore, more or less, built its Super Bowl champ with this incredible draft -- Lewis and Ogden, a couple of first-ballot Hall of Famers in the same first round.
I don't think there should be any hard-and-fast rules in sports. Everything is up for debate. But I think it's probably a pretty good idea to never take a wide receiver with the No. 1 overall pick. Every draft, there are good receivers -- almost certainly BETTER receivers -- available later. This year's a perfect example. Keyshawn had a nice career -- 11 years as a starter, three Pro Bowls, four thousand-yard receiving seasons. A nice career.
Later in that first round, Indianapolis took
Don't take a receiver with the first pick. Just don't. There are receivers to be had later.
This, incidentally, was probably the worst quarterback draft ever. And, to the scouts' credit, they knew it. No quarterback went in the first round. The first quarterback taken was
The year before the draft, an editor at
The interesting thing is that Pace might not even have been the best left tackle taken IN THAT DRAFT. You could certainly argue that Jones, taken out of Florida State by Seattle, was at least his equal. Pace was a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro. Jones was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a four-time first team All-Pro. With Jonathan Ogden going in the first round the year before, it's really pretty amazing... this was a golden age for left tackles. Someone should write a book about that, you know, the guys protecting the quarterback's Blind Side.
Quarterback update: Another rather dreadful year. The only quarterback to go in the first round was
What a draft. Manning,
There is an NFL coach... I'm not sure if I've told this story before so to protect the guilty I'll leave his name blank for the moment. There's an NFL coach who I really like who told me the day before this draft that if he had the No. 1 overall pick, he would take
Anyway, the point was not that he would have taken Leaf -- like I say, lots of people felt that way and anyway Leaf did go No. 2 in the draft, where he created much wreckage for the San Diego Chargers (it still astonishes me that in his rookie year, Leaf threw two touchdown passes... and FIFTEEN interceptions). No, the point was later when I went to bust the chops of this coach, he insisted that he had NEVER said that he would have taken Leaf first, and he would never have said that, and he did not think that, and he knew that Manning was going to be great and so on.
That stuff really annoys me.
OK, well, Couch was a disastrous pick. So that would make our tote-board look like this for first overall picks:
I originally had Wilkinson and George as disasters -- but I can't do it. Wilkinson did play 195 games in the NFL and started all four years for Bengals. George started 124 games in the NFL and led the league in passing yards one year.
I can't really break down the 2000s drafts the way I did the 1990s because, as we get closer to present day, it's harder to draw any real conclusions about the players. But while looking at the decade a little bit, I did find this jewel... in 2001 the St. Louis Rams had three picks in the first round. Remember, this was the Rams team about to go 14-2 and lose to the Patriots in the Super Bowl... pretty good. Three great picks there could have set them up for decade domination.
The Rams three picks that year were:
12th overall: Defensive tackle
So what's the point? Pickett and Archuletta were starters for the most part, Lewis bounced in and out but got some playing time. So, eh, not great, but not tragic, either. What's interesting, though, is that each time the Rams picked that year, the player taken immediately AFTER their pick turned out to be a significantly better player.
• Right after Lewis, Jacksonville took three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle
• Right after Archuletta, Buffalo took Pro Bowler and nine-year starter DB
• Right after the Rams took Pickett, Indianapolis took Pro Bowl receiver
I think you file this under the whole "NFL draft is a crapshoot" line that always comes out this time of year. Except... I'm not sure that the NFL draft SHOULD be this much of a crapshoot. In baseball, sure, it's easy to understand why the scouts miss so often. They're drafting very much on spec. They're drafting high school players that they hope will be good in five years. They're drafting college players that they hope will be good in three years. They're drafting hitters using aluminum bats who are facing suspect pitching. They're drafting pitchers with elbows... always a negative for pitchers.
But football... well, they're ONLY drafting college players. And they're college players who, for the most part, are playing at a pretty reasonable level... I don't know where big-time college football would rank compared to the NFL, but it's got to be Class AA or so, right? Baseball scouts take a lot of heat. But if they were drafting out of Class AA, I would bet they would get it right a whole lot more.
And yet, the NFL draft is very much a crapshoot. I would say that the 22 best players selected from, say, 2000 through 2005 might be as follows (in alphabetical order):
Now, admittedly, these are just my opinions. But you will notice... not one of them was chosen with the No. 1 overall pick. And frankly, I don't think there's a particularly compelling argument to be made for any of the No. 1 overall picks --
Look at the group of players again. There are as many players here taken in the second round (Brees, Ochocinco, Sanders, Tatupu) as taken in the top five(Fitzgerald, Johnson, Peppers, Tomlinson). And you can see there are some pretty special players taken after the third round -- heck, there are three undrafted players on the list (Gates, Harrison, Welker). This isn't surprising, if you want to look back over the draft. If you could only choose players third round or later from, say, 1995 to today you still could put together this team:
QB: Tom Brady
That's pretty good. Every player on that list is or was a Pro Bowler, some are all-time stars. None were taken in the first two rounds. You will notice those with asterisks... those players were not drafted at all.
So even as the NFL draft becomes more and more hyped, even as it soaks up more and more attention, even as more and more people do their own mock drafts, even as teams spend more and more resources on their scouting... there are just a whole lot of misses out there. I realize that the Oakland Raiders are not exactly the model franchise, but for them to take
Look at the 2008 draft. Five running backs went in the first round. The first four were
The fifth pick, however, was
I think in the end they undervalue and overvalue players -- they take Tim Couches and Courtney Browns and miss James Harrisons and Wes Welkers -- because football is both more and less complicated than we generally think. It's more complicated in that there are countless talents that we still do not know how to scout, talents that probably involve vague-sounding things like work ethic and decision-making and motivation and sturdiness and consistency and so on.
At the same time, it's probably less complicated, too. And the less complicating factor is this -- in football, I think, players often tend to be about as good or as bad as the players around them. It's such a team game. I sometimes wonder if teams might not be better off doing just that -- spending less money and effort on scouting and more on coming up with better teaching and development techniques. Sure, James Harrison wasn't drafted -- people doubted his individual talents -- but he went to Pittsburgh, where they know exactly how to coach linebackers, where they know how to place linebackers in positions to make plays, where they know how to prepare linebackers to be their best in games.
Meanwhile, that same year, David Carr was the first overall pick -- scouts almost unanimously loved his ability -- and he went to a Houston team with no offensive line, and he got sacked 76 times his first year, and 49 times his third, and 68 times his fourth (all league-leading totals) and he played for a team that did not know how to develop a quarterback and a team that had no history with good quarterback play.
In other words, the New England Patriots seem likely to have a good draft no matter who they take because they will coach those players up and put them in a winning atmosphere. And the Detroit Lions seem likely to have a lousy draft no matter who they take because they are the Detroit Lions
Of course, things change. That's the fun part of sports. Maybe the Lions have it figured out now. Maybe the magic runs out on the Patriots. That's why we keep watching. This year the No. 1 overall pick was Oklahoma's Heisman-winning quarterback
And the point of all this? I have as much chance being right or wrong as anybody else.