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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.