April 24, 2009

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LONGSHOTS: Draft winds blow NFL teams to make interesting decisions
by Dave Long

The NFL draft arrives this weekend, which to many who follow football is nearly as much fun as a playoff game. They love the pre-draft intrigue, the maneuvering up and down the board on draft day and Mel Kiper Jr.’s big board and mock draft.

But most of all, almost everyone loves the number-one picks more than anything. That includes personnel people who do it for a living. These picks are guarded by most with their football life. Funny, though, while most think first-rounders are a lock to be an impact pro, each year around 25 percent turn out to be anywhere from mediocre to a flat-out bust.

Take the 2003 draft, which now offers enough time gone by to judge how everyone turned out. With Carson Palmer at the top pick, the Bengals beat their history, which over the previous 20 years saw them blow it on the first overall pick TWICE and seven of the nine times they’ve been in the top six. Though I’d say Palmer’s USC teammate Troy Polamalu, taken at 16 by the Steelers, is probably the best player. But 11 of the 32 players picked either go into the “still around but are nomads” or “flat-out bust” categories led by Charles Rogers out of Michigan State at number two and New Orleans sixth pick Jonathan Sullivan, who are both already out of the league. And with David Carr the top pick and Joey Harrington going third, 2002 is even worse. According to my grading system it had four A selections, 11 Bs and 11 Ds or Fs. And of the 64 players selected in the first round of those two drafts, 32 are with different teams and seven are out of the NFL entirely!

Looking further back to the first combined AFL-NFL draft in 1967, when Michigan State’s Bubba Smith was the first pick, an astonishing 11 of the 41 players taken first overall have been a complete bust for what was expected of them. That group includes the serviceable but not close to great Kenneth Sims with the Patriots in 1980, Ki-Jana Cater and Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson in back-to-back years for the Bengals. And then there’s QB busts Carr, Tim Couch and Alex Smith all in just this decade! And that doesn’t even take into account talented under-achievers like Jeff George, who had his moments but spent more time wrecking teams with a surly personality and me-first ways than turning them into winners like Peyton Manning did after going first overall. Though George doesn’t have the most destructive personality of a high QB pick. That was Ryan Leaf, who set the Chargers back years after being taken second overall in 1998 by lasting just three years, thanks in large part to a personality that only a mother could (maybe) love. 

What I’m saying is that while drafting well is a critically important component to building a contender and staying at the top of the league, as the Patriots have done since Coach B arrived, it’s still a crap shoot. And unless you do it well, and have people who can identify players in the low rounds — like they did with Tom Brady at 199 or like Danny Ainge has in finding four straight good players in the second round when NBA teams rarely get one — the draft can have an expensive down side. 
So my question is, are number one picks over-valued by NFL teams vs. what you can see in front of their eyes, like in the case of several QB-hungry teams this winter? Some are lining up to take one in the draft or go with mediocre guys at best because they wouldn’t part with a number one for Matt Cassel, who was very solid in his first year as a starter. And in the case of Minnesota, who are going with Tavaris Jackson, who can’t play, it’s particularly nuts, because if they have decent QB play they’re arguably the best team in the NFC. Seems to me a number one is worth a trip to the Super Bowl. 

That’s because people treat those picks like gold and would rather give up their first born than a first or high pick even when it’s a known quantity coming back like the Patriots did when they smartly gave Miami a second pick for Wes Welker as he was headed to free agency. With him catching over 200 balls already, could they have done better with a number-one pick, let alone a second? Not likely. And they made similar deals for Randy Moss and Corey Dillion that paid big dividends. So it makes me wonder why more people don’t see that and do the same thing when you can get great value from a player who you KNOW can perform in the NFL instead of giving too much value to a top pick when there’s a 25-percent chance they’ll be an expensive bust. Especially now in the free agency era when good players often don’t stay with the team that drafted them as long as they once did.

One of the few who took the opposite view was George Allen when he coached the L.A. Rams and  Redskins starting in the ’60s. He hated draft picks and was always willing to trade them for reliable veterans who were, to quote Hillary Clinton, ready to go on day one. That was really true with Washington, who went ELEVEN years without a number-one pick. And on draft day in ’72 he traded away so many (his first seven) he had Commissioner Pete Rozell laughing out loud while announcing the final move. And while most frown on that route, it should be pointed out he’s behind only John Madden and Vince Lombardi in all-time NFL winning percentage.

Then again the Steelers and Cowboys dominated the 1970s after abandoning the traditional method of drafting for need in becoming the first teams to take the best athlete available regardless of position. It made them bigger, stronger, faster and eventually deeper. In 1974 alone the Steelers got an astonishing four Hall of Famers in a single draft. And as the good players piled up in Dallas they flipped expendable veterans to bottom dwellers for more high first-rounders where they got terrific players like the Manster (half man, half monster) Randy White and Too Tall Jones for parts they didn’t need. 

So it works either way and, like in most things, it’s decision making and being able to judge talent that counts most. Because in the end all a first-round pick is is a tool to get where you want to go. Which for the Vikings is the Super Bowl, and if they don’t get there with the team they have, it’ll most likely be because they were penny wise and pound foolish with their number-one pick.

Dave Long can be reached at dlong@hippopress.com. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.


4/16/2009 Spring cleaning of a cluttered sports mind

4/9/2009 Red Sox Nation springs back to life
4/2/2009 Climbing sports Mt. Rushmore
3/26/2009 Mount Rushmore offerings and other spring thoughts
3/19/2009 B-Ball, Coach B and Baseball in the mailbag today
3/12/2009 Great talent a rush but not all it's cracked up to be
3/5/2009 In Bill we still trust?
2/26/2009 A mountain over this molehill
2/19/2009 Steroids muscle in on game's strength
2/12/2009 Bonner bombs away on Cs in garden party homecoming
2/5/2009 Nation's angst ends as V-Tek says what the heck and rejoins flock
1/29/2009 Super Bowl Sunday brings to mind past and present
1/22/2009 The elusive quality of greatness is the topic of the day
1/15/2009 Spring cleaning of the sports mind a little early
1/8/2009 Will hall have Rice on the menu come July
1/1/2009 Predictions and wants for the year ahead
12/25/2008 A look in the rear view mirror at 2008
12/18/2008 The Pats' playoff run and new Yankees contracts make big news
12/11/2008 Random thoughts and associations
12/4/2008 Pats should consider options when it comes to Cassel and Brady
11/27/2008 Putting the thanks in Thanksgiving
11/20/2008 News of the week has people talking
11/13/2008 Cassel's in the clouds compared to early expectations11/6/2008 Mail bag delivers some interesting questiont10/30/2008"Yankees Suck" - like mentality fuels political discontent10/23/2008 No ray of hope as season closes in Tampa Bay
10/16/2008 Going to the nines a thing of the past
10/9/2008 C-eeing some interesting stories unfold this week
10/2/2008 "How come?" is the main question of the day
9/25/2008 Observations on baseball in 2008
9/18/2008 If I were a QB, a DB, a stat geek or a soccer mom ...
9/11/2008 After disaster Brady's bunch won't pass on season
9/4/2008 Pats start off with high expectation and some concerns
8/28/2008 A race to the finish to take all month long
8/21/2008 National news items of interest for local folks
8/14/2008 A little of this and that from the good side of sports pile
8/7/2008 Manny happy returns from the Evil Empire
7/31/2008 Manny being Manny - the sequel Part XXXII
7/24/2008 Open the mail bag for some Red Sox questions
7/17/2008 Hall-worthy or not the latest question on Schilling
7/10/2008 Baseball season has actually started
7/03/2008 UL editorial in denial — stop the presses
6/26/2008 Boston turnaround makes NBA green with envy
6/19/2008 Letters from the NBA finals
6/12/2008 A Father's Day letter to dad
6/5/2008 Twenty-one and six are the lucky numbers for the Cs
5/29/2008 Sometimes a bat is just a bat
5/22/2008 Some questions for folks right up there in the front row
5/15/2008 Numbers don't add up to supposed Fenway
5/8/2008 Cavalier attitude nearly derails first meeting with LeBron
5/1/2008 I'm so old,I remember ...
4/24/2008 Sox Line-ups, Celtics and ESPN investigations are in the mail bag
4/17/2008 Show me the way to that All-Star Game
4/10/2008 For C'ing a great time ahead as playoffs arrive this spring
4/3/2008 Bill James and the stats for 2008 — Take Two
3/27/2008 Drowning in the NCAA office pool
3/20/2008 Whether forecast is right or not is the question
3/13/2008 Comment sparks wonder over just what I did
3/6/2008 New hires, new trades in pro sports
2/28/2008 Celtics issues far from black and white in the early days
2/21/2008 Congressional ineptitude muscles in on steroid hearings
2/14/2008 Basketball rounds into form under the cover of Pats football
2/7/2008 A giant win leaves Patriots fans feeling blue
1/31/2008 Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
1/24/2008 Mail bag asks about Rice, the hall and wild-eyed liberals
1/17/2008 Peyton manning the fort back home as Pats take on Chargers
1/10/2008 Grumpy old Dolphins are lost at sea on this one
1/3/2008 The primary concern is getting a clear picture
12/27/2007 The annual sports awards close out 2007
12/20/2007 Holiday gifts for the deserving and not so deserving
12/13/2007 Jets land in Foxboro as pat go number 14
12/06/2007 To include or not to include Ellsbury — that is the questione
11/29/2007 Yanked from the sports pages in the Big Apple
11/22/2007 Here's what I'm thankful for at Thanksgiving
11/15/2007 Waiting game leads to a series of random thoughts
11/8/2007 OK — it's week nine and I'm ready to talk
11/1/2007 Finally a little shut-eye for a sleep deprived nation
10/25/2007 A rocky mountain high for Red Sox Nation
10/18/2007 Time to go to the mailbag
10/112007 Who'd more popular, Patriots or Red Sox
10/4/2007 IA weekend chock full of nuts, chokes and great moments
9/27/2007 I hate to say I told you so...
9/20/2007 Media and fan bias shades the severity of sports crime
9/13/2007 All round baseball week starts with a look at leaders
9/6/2007 It's Superbowl or bust for Pats in 2007
8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September
8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
7/12/2007 Masse still a honeymooner in local baseball culture
7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 M’s for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
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02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Hero’s death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat