JaMarcus Russell Busts

April 30, 2011

NFL fans love talking about draft busts.

Ask any fan about the biggest draft busts of all-time, and he or she will rattle off Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, and Lawrence Phillips without even thinking about it. Ask who the best draft picks of all-time are and the same fan will say Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round and…um…

This shouldn’t be surprising: draft busts get way more coverage. A Google search for “best NFL draft picks” pulls up 75,000 results. “NFL draft busts” pulls up 504,000.

I’m not exactly sure why we love talking about busts. Maybe it’s because busts are easier to quantify. We could go back and forth on which team got the better end of the Eli Manning/Phillip Rivers trade in 2004, but we can all agree that the Colts made the right move in selecting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998.

Or maybe we just like picking on teams when they screw up. Sure, it’s easy to pick a Hall of Fame quarterback with the first pick of the draft – it’s the first pick! – but to destroy your team’s playoff chances for five years by screwing up the second pick? Now that’s worth talking about.

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There are two basic types of busts. The first kind are the retrospective busts. Retrospective busts are the busts that no one saw coming. Only after the pick flamed out of the league do we realize why the pick is a failure.

Ryan Leaf is an example of the retrospective bust. Every NFL fan knows this story – Manning and Leaf were neck-and-neck heading into the draft. One was going to the Colts at #1 and the other was going to the Chargers at #2.* It was pretty close to a coin flip. You know how the story ended. The Colts made the playoffs 12 of 13 years following Manning’s rookie season and won Super Bowl XLI; the Chargers drafted Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers before they returned to the playoffs and Ryan Leaf was last seen getting arrested for selling painkillers to West Texas A&M football players (Go Buffaloes!).

* Interesting sidebar that no one seems to mention any more: the Chargers traded up from #3 to #2 to pick Leaf. The Cardinals picked DE Andre Wadsworth at #3, who turned out to be almost as big of a bust as Ryan Leaf. The #4 pick? Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Ryan Leaf pick went so wrong. Manning is the consummate professional – not only does he have a great arm, he works and studies more than anyone else. Leaf is a socially awkward crybaby who you wouldn’t trust to coach your kid’s Little League team, let alone lead an NFL team. At the time, we didn’t know that. We thought he could be just as good as Peyton Manning.

The list of these picks are endless: Brian Bosworth and Tony Mandarich (too much ‘roids), the aforementioned Wadsworth (noodles for knee ligaments), Andre Ware and David Klingler (before teams realized that being a system quarterback is a bad thing), and Heath Schuler (couldn’t throw).

These busts aren’t that fun to pick apart. Sure, we can get mad at our own general manager for these picks, but we would have made the same move. This is the same reason why no one talks about busts in the MLB draft. In every draft in every sport, teams work with incomplete information. You can’t really know if a high school senior can hit a breaking ball because no high school pitcher can throw a particularly nasty curve. NFL busts get more attention because we have three or four years of college to work with. But even with those extra years, teams miss qualities that haven’t shown up yet. It happens.

The more interesting busts are the prospective busts – the busts that you can see coming from a mile away but, for one reason or another, teams pick them anyway. I’ll call these the JaMarcus Russell busts.

I find these picks fascinating. They are the equivalent of going to a restaurant and having a large piece of cheesecake after you’ve already destroyed two plates of appetizers and a steak. You know that there’s no way you’re going to feel like living within about five minutes after you’ve eaten it…but damn it looks tasty.

JaMarcus Russell is the MVP of the JaMarcus Russell All-Star bust team.* The Raiders couldn’t help but pick him at #1. He could throw the ball farther than any other quarterback in the league and he was extremely hard to sack. Never mind that he could barely beat out Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job at LSU. Or that LSU fans spent the majority of his career ripping on him, save for the last seven games of his Tiger career. Or that he looked impressive in exactly one career college game against a decent opponent (the 2007 Sugar Bowl at home against an overrated Notre Dame team). Or that giving $32 million guaranteed to a 265-pound guy with no discernible work ethic might not be the best idea.

* Thank goodness…might have been awkward if someone else won the MVP award on his own team. Who knows how many cheeseburgers JaMarcus would have eaten in his depression.

I remember thinking that Russell was going to be a colossal bust at the time. If I was blogging back then, I would have devoted 1,500 words to the subject. Pretty much every single red flag was there, but the Raiders just couldn’t help picking that cheesecake (neither could Russell), simply because he could throw the ball really, really far.

For my own team, the Packers’ best known bust is Tony Mandarich in 1989. The Packers selected Mandarich with the second overall pick, just ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. Those three players make the Mandarich pick exceptionally painful for Packers fans. Yet the guy was the cover story of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Draft people. Pretty much everyone thought he would be a great NFL lineman. No one knew about the detriment his massive steroid use had on him, just how abrasive his personality was, or how he much he liked drugs and alcohol.

The bigger JaMarcus Russell-style bust happened in 2001 for the Packers. The Packers traded up to the tenth pick in the draft to pick defensive end Jamal Reynolds.* More precisely, they drafted the 6’3″, 265-pound defensive end Jamal Reynolds. With that size, Reynolds would have been an excellent pick in 1978. Not so much in 2001. Predictably, he played 18 games and had 3 career sacks before exiting the league following the 2003 season.

* The Packers traded Matt Hasselbeck and the #17 pick (Steve Hutchinson) to Seattle, which worked out fairly nicely for the Seahawks.

Then there is former Husker Lawrence Phillips, who the Rams selected with the #6 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Phillips is batshit crazy. He missed most of his final season at Nebraska because he pushed his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. He was such a terrible person that Husker fans were upset when he was allowed back on the team. To most teams, that would be a red flag. The Rams couldn’t help themselves. Unsurprisingly, he finished with almost three times as many years sentenced to prison (41) than NFL touchdowns (14).

The other reason JaMarcus Russell busts are interesting is that sometimes they work out. Donovan McNabb was booed at the 1999 NFL Draft by Eagles fans clamoring for Ricky Williams. That pick turned out pretty well for the Eagles.

I thought Josh Freeman would be a colossal bust for Tampa Bay after three unimpressive years at Kansas State. It’s still early, but it certainly looks like I am wrong about that one.

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That brings us to this year’s NFL Draft and the four quarterbacks drafted in the first 12 picks. I’m sticking with quarterbacks because this post is getting too long already. And if you think I analyzed the top four so I can make fun of the Vikings in about four paragraphs, you know me too well.

Cam Newton was selected first, but I don’t think he qualifies as a Russell bust. He’s certainly got some concerns, but the guy is a winner. He didn’t lose a game in college. Maybe he has accuracy issues, but he has more natural leadership, poise, and confidence than any quarterback I’ve seen in years. I just can’t picture a guy like that as a loser. He might be a bust, but not a Russell bust.

Eighth overall pick Jake Locker, on the other hand, kinda sucks. Locker is a strange case, because I’m not entirely sure why he was ever projected to be the #1 pick in the draft, other than Mel Kiper told me so. Certainly I wouldn’t have thought that by looking at his Washington Husky team that went 16-34 in his four seasons, including 0-12 in his sophomore year. And I definitely didn’t see it in the first full game I saw him play, when he went 4-20 passing for 71 yards and 2 interceptions in a 56-21 loss to Nebraska last season. I am not persuaded that Locker was even a good college quarterback, let alone an NFL prospect worthy of the eighth overall pick.

Likewise, I’m not sold on tenth overall pick Blaine Gabbert, but I’m a bit torn. Gabbert and Josh Freeman both committed to Nebraska before they changed their minds and attended a different Big 12 school. Both weren’t all that impressive in college, but were high on every NFL expert’s draft list. I expected Freeman to fail in the NFL, just like I expect Gabbert to fail. But now Freeman is actually pretty good and I’m all kinds of confused. Let’s just move on…

To Christian Ponder. I applaud the Vikings’ strategy, but only because I’m a Packer fan. Apparently their thinking was that we need a quarterback, so why change things up when all the good quarterbacks have already been drafted?

I admit to not following the draft as well as I should have beforehand – I’m just too bummed about the lockout. I didn’t read a lot of Mel Kiper or Todd McShay before the draft, so I don’t know how high Ponder was on their draft boards. However, I do watch a lot of college football and I can say that at no point over the last four years did I think Ponder was an NFL quarterback, let alone a top 12 draft pick.

I briefly questioned my own thoughts when I looked back at his stats. He clearly isn’t bad, although he was injured much of his career. But I shouldn’t have to do that for the #12 pick in the draft. Before the draft, Ponder was just another in a long line of disappointing, highly recruited Florida State quarterbacks.

Judging by the comments on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website, Vikings fans agree with that sentiment. Ponder makes this year JaMarcus Russell bust All-Star team.

And I get to make fun of the pick for years.


Cam Newton: Stud or Bust?

March 4, 2011

In recent memory, perhaps no quarterback prospect has been as polarizing as Cam Newton. In the past three days alone, I heard Colin Cowherd saying he would be a shoo-in as the #1 overall pick, Mel Kiper Jr. dropping him from seventh to tenth on the Big Board (and dropping him from first to second among quarterbacks in the process) because of a poor performance at the draft combine, and KC Joyner argued that Newton should not even be drafted in the first round. That is what you call diversity.

You could make an argument that Tim Tebow was fairly polarizing last year, since nearly every analyst ripped the Broncos for taking him in the first round. But even that doesn’t really work, because it was only the Broncos who thought Tebow should have been a first round pick. Nobody else outside of Gainesville would have drafted Tebow in the first round.

Maybe Vince Young was that polarizing. I seem to recall that people had concerns about his throwing motion. The 2006 draft was weird though – three teams in the top eleven picks drafted quarterbacks. 2004 was the only other year in the past decade that happened. Young was clearly one of the three best options at quarterback that year, so you couldn’t really make an argument that he was not a first round quarterback.

As I have pointed out in this blog before, drafting quarterbacks is largely a crapshoot. For every Peyton Manning there is a Ryan Leaf. For every Donovan McNabb there is an Akili Smith. And so on.

Analysts have been trying to figure out which quarterbacks will succeed since the inception of the NFL Draft. Now there is a mini-industry around projecting NFL draft picks, the draft combine is actually televised, and analysts start writing up mock drafts within days after one draft ends. Yet they haven’t really gotten much better at predicting successful quarterbacks. JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick, anyone?

The most egregious recent example is Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Check out this gem of a report from Alex Smith’s pro day in March of 2005. At the time, the 49ers were expected to take the hometown Rodgers with the first overall pick. Then Smith wowed with his arm accuracy and footwork at his pre-draft workout. It would be the last time he wowed anybody. You know how the story ends: Rodgers won this year’s Super Bowl with the Packers and 49ers fans actually chanted for David Carr during a game this season.

Which brings me back to Newton. Apparently Newton was less than impressive at the combine this past week. I can’t figure out why anyone should care. Newton is a freakishly good athlete who just put up ridiculous stats en route to winning both the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship. He is exceptionally fast and elusive and has the size of Big Ben. How is the best quarterback in the draft up for debate? If you know that drafting a quarterback is a crapshoot anyway, do you want to go down in flames with Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton? Seems that the answer should be pretty simple.

Yet Mel Kiper writes gems like this on his Big Board when bumping Gabbert over Newton: “Strong arm, excellent accuracy, prototypical size and physical skills. Smart not to throw in Indy, though proved he’s probably an underrated athlete.” That’s not a knock on Kiper – he just writes what NFL teams are thinking. The knock is on NFL teams for thinking that, and if the Alex Smith debacle taught us anything, it’s that NFL teams actually are thinking on those lines. What use is a draft combine when someone who DOESN’T THROW AT ALL comes out looking better than someone who did step up and throw. That doesn’t even border on anything close to logic.

Then there are the straight-up Newton haters like KC Joyner. In the second sentence of his column, he points out that the NFL Draft is full of physical specimens who didn’t pan out, like Brian Bosworth, Mike Mamula, and Lawrence Phillips. Two sentences in and Joyner has already lost me. He just compared Newton to a) a linebacker who ingested enough steroids to take down a horse; b) a guy who was never considered good until he bench pressed a lot of weight at the aforementioned combined; and c) the worst person ever. Assuming Newton isn’t on the ‘roids, none of those three situations are at all comparable to his situation.

Joyner then goes on to point out all of Newton’s flaws. Things like he overthrew a pass after he took an eight-step drop when he was supposed to take a nine-step drop or taking too long to throw a ball because he lingered too long with his running back on a play fake. Who cares?

As you can tell from my blog posts, I hate under-thinking things. I have spent time thinking about minor nuances in sports that no one else ever bothered to think about. But my pet peeve is over-thinking things. That is exactly what Joyner and the rest of the people that question Newton’s draft stock are doing here. When a guy like Newton is out there and you spend time dissecting his eight-step drop versus nine-step drop…well, that’s over-thinking.

With a physical specimen and proven winner like Newton, you draft first and worry about minor footwork issues later. Maybe Blaine Gabbert will end up being a better quarterback. Maybe Newton will end up being a huge bust. Maybe the whole “pro-style” quarterback ranking that puts Gabbert at #1 is really all it is cracked up to be. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that in three years, half of the analysts will get to say “I told you so” no matter what happens. Those analysts don’t know any more than the rest of us, they will just happen to guess right.

So if we’re guessing anyway, which of these two do you draft:

Player A: 14-0 record, 30 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 2,908 passing yards, 2nd in nation in QB rating
Player B: 10-3 record, 16 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 3,186 passing yards, 69th in nation in QB rating

I thought so.


The Hasheem Thabeet Problem

February 26, 2011

Hasheem Thabeet – the #2 draft pick in last year’s NBA Draft – was shipped from Memphis to Houston on Thursday in a trade that barely registered on anyone’s radar screen. The Rockets dealt Shane Battier and Ishmael Smith for Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and a first-round pick.* Smith does not figure into the Grizzlies’ future plans and Battier’s contract is up in four months, so they essentially traded away the second pick in the 2009 draft, the 29th pick in the 2009 draft, and a first round draft pick in 2013 to rent Battier’s services for a potential playoff push. Wow.

* Carroll was the Grizzlies’ 29th pick in the 2009 draft. He has scored eleven points this ENTIRE SEASON. Not a good draft for Memphis. These are things that happen when Chris Wallace is your GM.

I am not sure what is more stunning: that Memphis gave up on a #2 draft pick that soon or that the trade was completely lost in the shuffle over the weekend. It’s fine to be overshadowed by the Carmelo trade…but it’s pretty sad to see Thabeet being overshadowed by Baron Davis to Cleveland for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams.

When I say stunning, I mean theoretically stunning. On a personal level, I am not at all surprised that Thabeet has been an absolute train wreck. I knew he was going to be a huge bust on February 16, 2009 – a full four months before he was drafted. On that date, I had my longest career ESPN Streak for the Cash streak going. Sitting on eleven consecutive wins, I went with #1 Connecticut at home against #4 Pittsburgh. A couple minutes into the game, this happened:

DeJuan Blair finished with 23 points and 22 rebounds, while Thabeet put up five points, four rebounds, and two blocked shots. And just like that, my streak went up in flames. So did my faith in Thabeet.

What NBA team could watch that video and not realize that Thabeet’s CEILING was a Tanzanian Shawn Bradley? Blair is 6’7″ and 265 pounds and put up 22 rebounds on Thabeet – what made anyone think he could handle the bigger and taller centers in the NBA?

I understand the arguments for drafting him. You can’t teach height. Even if he can’t rebound, he will block and re-direct shots. He has only been playing basketball since he was 15, so he will learn more. And so on. I get the arguments. I just think they are all stupid.

It is true that you can’t teach height. I should know – I am pretty deadly from three-point land, but no NBA team has drafted me yet because I am only 5’10”. If I could grow nine more inches, I would absolutely be playing in the NBA or be the top porn star in the world, depending on where that nine inches went. It is also true that you can’t teach instincts in the NBA. You can try, but you probably won’t be successful. Try to name a skinny, raw young center that actually filled out his frame to become a dominant center after being thrown around for his first couple of years int he league. Seriously…I’ll wait.

Moses Malone maybe? He was a skinny high school center. I’m not even sure he counts though, because he had some of the greatest rebounding instincts of any player in NBA history. Beyond that, the list of “project” centers is littered with a bunch of stiffs. I didn’t think Thabeet would be any different, so I’m not sure why any other team would think Thabeet would be any different?

I swear I don’t mean to sound like Bill Simmons, but Thabeet is a perfect example of the upside phenomenon in the NBA Draft. NBA teams are obsessed with upside, but there is a catch-22. An NBA team can only carry 15 players, 12 of whom are active for each game. Realistically, an NBA team cannot develop a raw player with upside other than by being patient as he gets torched by better players. The NBA Developmental League is not a feasible solution. It could be, but there is a stigma with sending draft picks to the league. Look no further than Thabeet’s two-week journey to the Dakota Wizards last season for proof of that. The media KILLED him.

All American sports leagues are obsessed with upside, but none more so than the NBA. Just watch an NBA Draft – as Simmons observes in his annual NBA Draft Diary, they speak in code words: wingspan, great feet, long arms, incredibly athletic, etc. NBA teams love players with upside. They look to what players can be, rather than what they already are.

Unlike the NBA, other sports leagues actually have the ability to develop players. MLB teams are well aware that every single draft pick is a developmental project, hence the five levels of minor league baseball. Rarely do you see any top pick make an impact in the majors in less than three years, so busts don’t really hurt teams. Similarly, the NHL draws players from leagues all over the world. Other than a few standout prospects each year, a team does not really know what they are getting, so busts really don’t sting these teams either. In the NFL, a team can carry 53 players plus another eight on a practice squad. If a player isn’t ready, you let him learn and watch from the bench for a couple of years while playing on special teams.

Most NBA teams play nine or ten man rotations. That really only leaves two spots for a developmental prospect. But you really can’t even use those for an extended amount of time because of the stigma attached to them. Analysts expect top draft picks to contribute right away. When they can’t, they are forced into action when they aren’t ready. They don’t learn anything but getting destroyed constantly and their confidence is shot.

To top that off, if a team is actually a contender, they cannot even afford to develop a project. Memphis drafted Thabeet knowing that he was an extremely raw center they would have to develop his skills to make him an NBA center. The team turned out to be surprisingly good this year but are a piece away from contending. Project over. Now it is the struggling Houston Rockets’ turn to try to develop him into an NBA center.

All of this leads to a unique phenomenon in the NBA in which you can actually pick out the busts before they happen, and teams draft them anyway. In the last five years, I saw the biggest three busts from the top three picks well ahead of time. In addition to Thabeet, I had a long debate with a Portland fan at my work on why they should draft Durant over Greg Oden in 2007. Sadly, I could not find a video of Oden running, but any 19-year old that runs like a 38-year old probably shouldn’t go first overall. Portland drafted him anyway because they did not want to be the team that let a franchise center slip away. Four years later, Oden has played 103 career games, Durant will win his second scoring title this year, and “Oden over Durant” has already joined “Bowie over Jordan” in Portland lore.

Adam Morrison with the #3 pick in the 2006 Draft was also a bust waiting to happen. This one is just a matter of common sense. Watch this video for all the proof you need:

How many unathletic white guys who wore a t-shirt in college and cried on the floor after a game were worthy of a #3 overall pick in the NBA Draft? Zero. Adam Morrison was no exception.

Before that, there was Darko Milicic in 2003 and Michael Olowokandi in 1998. Both Detroit and the Clippers took raw prospects in an attempt to hit a home run. Both failed miserably. Their failures are only exasperated by the players drafted after them: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade for Milicic, and Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce for Olowokandi.

As these failures keep adding up, you’d think that NBA teams would forget it out. But I doubt it. Taking a big swing to try to hit a home run is always more exciting than a base hit.

In the meantime, I will get to brag that I saw all these busts coming before they happen. Now I even have a blog to commit these predictions to writing.


Twenty-five Years of #1 High School Recruits

February 24, 2011

ESPN the Magazine ran an interesting “where are they now” story a few weeks ago about the #1 ranked high school recruits over the past 25 years. The top recruits ranged from solid NFL players like Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, and Anquan Boldin; to NFL busts like Tim Couch and Kevin Jones; to college busts like Randy Fasani and Kyle Wright; to busts in all walks of life like rape and incest suspect Xavier Crawford.

Top recruits have certainly met varying degrees of college and professional success. Some are still too young to tell how good they will be. Off the top of my head, the list of successful pros would look like this:

1. Hines Ward (WR, 1994, Georgia) – still active with 2 Super Bowl rings, 4 Pro Bowls, and 11,702 career receiving yards
2. Ricky Watters (RB, 1987, Notre Dame) – rushed for 10,643 yards and made 5 Pro Bowls in 10 seasons
3. Anquan Boldin (WR, 1999, Florida State) – one of best active receivers in NFL, has 8,357 yards, 51 TDs, and 3 Pro Bowls in 8 seasons
4. Shaun Alexander (RB, 1995, Alabam) – rushed for 9,453 yards and made 3 Pro Bowls in 9 seasons; briefly held single season rushing TD record with 27 TDs in 2005
5. Amani Toomer (WR, 1992, Michigan) – an above average receiver for 13-year career, retired with 9,497 career receiving yards
6. Jeff George (QB, 1986, Illinois by way of Purdue) – passed for 27,602 yards (154 TD, 113 INT) in 12 seasons
7. D.J. Williams (LB, 2000, Miami) – a solid starting linebacker for Broncos for last 8 seasons
8. Terry Kirby (RB, 1989, Virginia) – accounted for 8,471 yards as a returner/third down back for 4 teams in 10 seasons
9. Vince Young (QB, 2002, Texas) – two-time Pro Bowler has below average stats and may be on way out of Tennessee
10. Tim Couch (QB, 1996, Kentucky) – #1 draft pick bust wasn’t as horrendous as people remember (11,131 yards, 64 TD, 67 INT in 62 games)
11. Eugene Monroe (LT, 2005, Virginia) – already an established left tackle for Jaguars in second year in league
12. Kevin Jones (RB, 2001, Virginia Tech) – ran for 3,067 yards as starting running back for Lions for 4 seasons
13. David Givens (WR, 1998, Notre Dame) – 166 catches over 5 NFL seasons
14. Ted Ginn Jr. (WR, 2004, Ohio State) – #9 draft pick in 2007 is used primarily as a returner and is edging dangerously close to the “bust” label
15. Da’Quan Bowers (DE, 2008, Clemson) – projected #1 draft pick in 2011 Draft; that’s already a bigger accomplishment than everyone below him on this list
16. Chris Weinke (QB, 1990, Florida State) – after minor league baseball career, went 1-14 in 1 season as starter before riding the bench for his last six years in the league
17. Joe McKnight (RB, 2007, USC) – 189 rushing yards in rookie season as Jets backup (4.8 yards per carry)
18. Randy Fasani (QB, 1997, Stanford) – 44 passes thrown (0 TD, 4 INT) in 1 NFL season
19. Myron Rolle (DB, 2006, Florida State) – rookie spent year on Titans practice squad
20. Marquette Smith (RB, 1991, UCF by way of Florida State) – drafted but never played a regular season game
21. Ron Powlus (QB, 1993, Notre Dame) – saw some action in three preseasons; never played a regular season game
22. Kyle Wright (QB, 2003, Miami) – saw some action in one preseason; never played a regular season game
23. Xavier Crawford (RB, 1988, Memphis State) – never played in pros; currently an alleged rapist

Matt Barkley (QB, 2009, USC) and Ronald Powell (LB, 2010, Florida) are still active in college. Barkley has had an ugly USC career: the team is 17-7 in the 24 games he has started after going 72-7 in their previous six seasons (although we can’t really blame Barkley for all of that). Powell made the All-SEC Freshman Team as a linebacker in his first season with the Gators.

Interesting stuff. I don’t really have a whole article on the list, but I had a bunch of random thoughts.

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Five of the 22 #1 high school recruits that already graduated have made a Pro Bowl. I’m not sure if that’s a high number or a low number. On one hand, it seems low, as it seems to imply that 18 of the kids were busts. But on the other, that actually seems really high. Eugene Monroe seems like a great bet to make a Pro Bowl in the near future; D.J. Williams certainly might (he was an alternate in 2009). So we could be looking at seven of the best 18-year old football players in the country that could make Pro Bowl.

That’s really not too bad. Imagine picking 22 very good 18-year old football players that would make good professionals at some point in the future. If five actually ended up making the Pro Bowl, I feel like you’d consider that a success.

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I am sure that high school scouting overall has improved. It has become a huge industry in the Internet era: Rivals, Scouts, and every random football fan on the street has an opinion. I actually watched a game on ESPNU this year in which a potential Nebraska quarterback recruit played. High school recruiting is a BIG DEAL.

But with that said, these recruiting agencies have sure whiffed on a lot of #1 overall prospects. The six best pros on my list all graduated high school before 2000. Some of the #1 players from the past decade could potentially still crack the list, but that would be a long shot for most of them. D.J. Williams seems to have fallen into a role as an above average, but not great linebacker. Vince Young might be looking for a new team this offseason to try to resurrect his career. Eugene Monroe probably is a good bet to keep rising higher, but there’s not much of a chance for the rest of the #1 recruits of the 2000s. Kevin Jones and Kyle Wright have already left football; Ted Ginn Jr. has all the makings of a bust; Myron Rolle could not crack the Titans’ 53-man roster this season; and Joe McKnight is the Jets’ third-string running back. Da’Quan Bowers looks promising, but Matt Barkley hardly looks like a pro quarterback. That’s an awful lot of busts from this industry.

Compare that to the earlier years of recruiting, before the Internet turned recruiting into an entire industry. Jeff George, Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters, and Amani Toomer all put together great college and pro careers. At the same time, the busts were bigger than they are now. Marquette Smith, Randy Fasani, Xavier Crawford, and Ron Powlus were all huge busts. In the last twelve years, only Kyle Wright has been an overwhelming bust.

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I have an interesting theory on the type of college program these recruits go to. The highest picks in the NFL draft on the list were Jeff George and Tim Couch (#1 overall in 1990 and 1999), Da’Quan Bowers (will be top-three pick in 2011), Vince Young (#3 in 2006), and Eugene Monroe (#8 in 2008). Here are the records of the college teams that these players went to in the three years previous to each player’s first college season:

Illinois (Jeff George): 3-7-1, 4-7, 6-5-1
Kentucky (Tim Couch): 4-7, 1-10, 6-6
Clemson (Da’Quan Bowers): 9-4, 8-5, 8-4
Texas (Vince Young): 11-2, 9-3, 9-5
Virginia (Eugene Monroe): 8-4, 8-5, 9-5

All five of those schools struggled prior to signing the #1 overall recruit. Only Texas really carried any kind of national prestige at the time.* So far, George, Couch, and Young are considered busts, while the verdict is still out on Bowers and Monroe.

* I could count Clemson, but Bowers joined the Tigers in 2008. Clemson really hasn’t been relevant for the past couple of decades.

Each of these players was a rousing success in college. As a result, they were all drafted high. They have had better NFL careers than most of the #1 high school recruits, but how much of that comes from the simple fact that they were a high draft pick? Teams are much more willing to give their top draft picks a longer leash – what if these players really weren’t better than their fellow top high school recruits, but they just stood out in college more because their teammates weren’t that great?

On the flip side, look at the schools of the top five players on my NFL list:

Georgia (Hines Ward, 92nd overall pick in 1998): 5-6, 10-2, 9-3
Notre Dame (Ricky Watters, 45th overall in 1991): 5-6, 5-6, 7-5
Florida State (Anquan Boldin, 54th overall in 2003): 11-2, 11-1, 11-1
Alabama (Shaun Alexander, 19th overall in 2000): 12-1, 9-3-1, 13-0
Michigan (Amani Toomer, 34th overall in 1996): 10-2, 9-3, 10-2

Notre Dame and Georgia are the weak links, but all five of those players went to schools with a fair amount of national prestige. We have a really small sample size here, but maybe this tells us something about which schools a top ranked player should go to. Better schools and better competition prepares players for the NFL more than lesser schools. But there is a huge risk and reward with going to a top school: leaving aside certified headcase Xavier Crawford, the other three players who never played in the NFL went to:

Miami (Kyle Wright, undrafted): 12-1, 12-0, 11-1
Notre Dame (Ron Pawlus, undrafted): 10-1-1, 10-3, 9-3
Florida State (Marquette Smith, 142nd overall pick in 1996): 10-2, 10-2, 11-1

I have a hunch that Matt Barkley (12-1, 11-2, 11-2) joins them soon. The common theme is that those top recruits that go to powerhouse schools are battle-tested. Those that have the talent to survive to make it to the professional ranks are likely to thrive. Those that don’t will be badly exposed in college.

On the other hand, it is quite a bit easier for the top recruits to stand out at lower programs. This is somewhat obvious – look no further than Matt Barkley and Joe McKnight for proof. Both were #1 recruits, both went to talent-laden USC, and neither has done much to show he was worthy of being the #1 recruit. If McKnight went to UCLA instead of USC, we could very well be talking about him as a first round NFL running back. Instead of focusing on his inadequacies, it would have been much easier to blame his teammates for his lack of production. The same goes for #1 picks Jeff George (16-7-1 in two seasons as a starter) and Tim Couch (12-11). Neither were battle-tested and both are considered among the biggest busts from the #1 draft slot.

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Finally, I was curious as to how far these players traveled to school. College away from home sounds good on paper and these guys have a chance to go anywhere in the country that they want. That can certainly lead to trouble: an 18-year old kid leaving to a different part of the country, living on his own for the first time, and pretty much being worshiped by everyone around them? Talk about a recipe for disaster.

But remarkably most of these players were not intrigued by the possibility of being a hero/partier in a different part of the country and instead stayed closed to home. Here is the list of players that went to school more than 500 miles away from home:

D.J. Williams (Miami): 3,033 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Kyle Wright (Miami): 3,020 miles from Monte Vista High (Danville, CA)
Ronald Powell (Florida): 2,346 miles from Rancho Verde High (Moreno Valley, CA)
Amani Toomer (Michigan): 2,340 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Joe McKnight (USC): 1,889 miles from John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, LA)
Chris Weinke (Florida State): 1,330 miles from Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, MN)
David Givens (Notre Dame): 1,132 miles from Humble High (Humble, TX)
Myron Rolle (Florida State): 1,064 from The Hun School (Princeton, NJ)
Ricky Watters (Notre Dame): 568 miles from Bishop McDevitt High (Harrisburg, PA)
Ron Powlus (Notre Dame): 566 miles from Berwick High (Berwick, PA)

That seemed surprising to me at first, but I suppose it really isn’t. A kid that has worked hard enough to be the best high school football player in the country probably has a college in mind already. He is likely to stick close to home to go to the school he has been idolizing.

Looking at the list again we can discount the three players who went to Notre Dame because the Irish have such a large national presence. Wright, Weinke, and Rolle come from areas of the country where professional football is far more important than college football. Williams and Toomer both went to De La Salle, which fancies itself as the best high school football program in the country – in a way, high school football is the biggest game for De La Salle. So that really only leaves Powell and McKnight as surprising college choices.

Both Powell and McKnight were the #1 recruit in the last five years. Will the surprising college choices continue in the future now that recruiting is a huge nationwide industry? Or will local colleges still dominate recruiting? I’m not sure. That might be a post for another day.


Revisiting the Draft Classes of the Steelers and Packers

February 5, 2011

As readers are well aware based on my previous posts, I’m fascinated by the NFL Draft. Both of this years’ Super Bowl teams built their squads almost entirely through the draft. Neither team has made anything close to a free agent splash in the last several years. You have to go back to the Packers’ signing of Charles Woodson in the 2006 offseason for the last big free agent signing.

I decided to look back at the last ten NFL drafts for each team. Although both teams built through the draft, they took different routes to get there. The Steelers dominated the early half of the decade, knocking several drafts out of the park. Meanwhile, the Packers struggled in the first half of the decade and have built their team through successful drafts in the latter half of the decade. The Steelers have tended to nail the first picks of each draft while the Packers have struck gold in the later rounds.

A comparison of the drafts from 2001 to 2010:

2001 –

Green Bay: 6 picks (0 still with team)
1st pick – Jamal Reynolds, DE, Florida State (10th overall)

Best pick: Robert Ferguson, WR, 41st overall pick. Ferguson is the best of a weak Packers draft class. He contributed for five years with the Packers as a #3 or #4 receiver before the team cut him in 2006.

Worst pick: Reynolds. Many thought the undersized defensive end was a reach with the tenth overall pick in the draft. They were right. Reynolds never cracked the starting lineup and languished behind 2000 fifth round pick Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila for three years before the Packers cut him.

Other contributors: Not much. Only Ferguson, SS Bhawoh Jue (71st overall), and TE David Martin (198th overall) lasted more than three years with the team, and all were gone by 2006.

Pittsburgh: 7 draft picks (1 still with team)
1st pick: Casey Hampton, NT, Temple (19th overall)

Best pick: Hampton, by a mile. The five-time Pro Bowler has been the anchor of the Steelers’ front line for the past decade. Hampton is a proverbial “destructive force” and is instrumental in the success of the Steelers’ feared defense.

Worst pick: T Mathias Nkwenti (111th overall). Sure, the Steelers probably weren’t expecting a ton of production from a fourth round project. However, they probably were expecting more than eight games and zero starts in three seasons.

Other contributors: LB Kendrell Bell (39th overall). Bell was a Pro Bowl linebacker and had three productive seasons with the Steelers before injuries prematurely ended his career. Besides that, a pretty dry draft for the Steelers.

2002 –

Green Bay: 6 picks (0 still with team)
1st pick – Javon Walker, WR, Florida State (20th overall)

Best pick: Aaron Kampman, DE (156th 0verall). The fifth round draft pick anchored the left side of the Packers’ defensive line for most of the 2000s. Kampman had 54 career sacks for the Packers and made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and 2007 before he signed with the Jaguars in the 2010 offseason.

Worst pick: Marques Anderson, SS (92nd overall). The third round pick wins the worst pick by default. The Packers did not have a pick between Walker and the third round, so Anderson was the second pick of the Packers in this draft. He only played two seasons for the Packers and, according to Wikipedia, is currently coaching football in Norway.

Other contributors: Walker; RB Najeh Davenport (135th overall). Walker was a Pro Bowl receiver and potential star in the making before an ugly contract dispute in 2005. Najeh “Poopy Pants” Davenport was a decent but injury-prone backup running back for the Packers for four years.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (3 still with team)
1st pick: Kendall Simmons, G, Auburn (30th overall)

Best pick: Brett Keisel, DE (242nd overall pick) with honorable mention to LB James Harrison. This was a great draft for the Steelers, but surprisingly, the best pick goes to seventh round pick Kiesel. Kiesel rode the bench for several years before he entered the starting lineup in 2006. Since then, he has been a mainstay on the Steelers line and made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2010. Honorable mention goes to four-time Pro Bowler and 2008 NFL Defense Player of the Year James Harrison, who inexplicably went undrafted, so I can’t give him the best pick award. Currently Harrison is perhaps the most feared defender in the NFL. Any time you can get two Pro Bowlers in the seventh round or later, that’s a solid draft.

Worst pick: None. Although none of the Steelers’ picks became stars outside of Keisel and Harrison, there wasn’t a single bust in the group.

Other contributors: Simmons, Antwaan Randle El (62nd pick), Chris Hope (94th pick), Larry Foote (128th pick), Verron Haynes (166th pick). Simmons was a five-year starter at guard, including the Super Bowl-winning 2006 season. Randle El has never put up big numbers, but the college quarterback-turned-wide receiver seems to pull off at least one gadget play every game. Hope was a solid safety for the Steelers, but didn’t become a Pro Bowler until he left for the Titans in 2006. Foote was a starter at linebacker for six years and now provides backup support off the bench. And Haynes was a fun third down back for several years.

2003 –

Green Bay: 9 picks (1 still with team)
1st pick: Nick Barnett, LB, Oregon State (29th overall)

Best pick: Barnett. Although not without his faults, Barnett has anchored the Packers’ linebacking corps for most of the past decade. He started fifteen games as a rookie and hasn’t relinquished his starting role since then. Unfortunately, he was hurt in the fourth game of this season and will miss the Super Bowl.

Worst pick: Take your pick. The rest of the Packers’ draft is littered with the names of players that most Packers fans don’t remember: Kenny Petersen, James Lee, Brennan Curtin, Chris Johnson (the cornerback), DeAndrew Rubin, Carl Ford, and Steve Josue. None lasted more than two seasons with the Packers. Fifth round pick Hunter Hillenmeyer has had a decent career with the Bears after the Packers cut him in the 2003 preseason.

Other contributors: Cullen Jenkins, DE, Central Michigan (undrafted). The injury-prone Jenkins is still contributing for the Packers. He was an average defensive end for his first several years in the league, but has come into his own under Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. He had a career-high seven sacks in just eleven games this season.

Pittsburgh (5 picks, 2 still with team)
1st pick: Troy Polamalu, S, USC

Best pick: Polamalu. Only five picks in 2003, but the Steelers still knocked it out of the park. If Harrison isn’t the most feared defender in the NFL, then Polamalu certainly might be. Six Pro Bowls, three First Team All-Pro selections, and one Defensive Player of the Year Award, and my only thought when I looked that information up was: “he only has three first team selections?” Enough said.

Worst pick: Alonzo Jackson, LB (59th overall). Jackson never started a game in two seasons with the Steelers – a rare miss at the linebacker position from the Pittsburgh front office.

Other contributors: Ike Taylor, CB (125th overall). Taylor has started at cornerback for the last six seasons for Pittsburgh and has helped the team win two Super Bowls. Amazing to think that the Steelers only got two producers out of five picks and they STILL had one of the best drafts of any team in 2003.

2004 –

Green Bay (6 picks, 1 still with team)
1st pick: Ahmad Carroll, CB, Arkansas, 25th overall

Best pick: Scott Wells, C (251st overall). I promise, future drafts get better for the Pack. Wells is the only pick still with the team and is one of the stalwarts of the sometimes porous Packer front line. He started all 16 games for the team this season.

Worst pick: Carroll. Hands down the worst cornerback I’ve ever watched on a consistent basis. Carroll had a knack for a) getting burned and b) picking up a lot of penalties. Not the ideal characteristics you want in a cornerback. Carroll was abruptly cut after Week 4 of the 2006 season after he was beat for two long touchdown passes.

Other contributors: None. I suppose you could make an argument for sixth round draft pick Corey Williams’ four seasons as a backup defensive end and undrafted fullback Vonta Leach’s three productive seasons. But I won’t. Another crappy draft for the Pack.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (2 still with team)
1st pick: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (OH)

Best pick: Roethlisberger. Another no-brainer. Two Super Bowl wins plus another appearance this season…all before he turns 30.

Worst pick: Ricardo Colclough, CB (38th overall). Colclough never started a game in four seasons with the Steelers. Although you can’t say that the Steelers don’t learn their lessons: they have yet to draft another cornerback from Tusculum University. So that’s something.

Other contributors: T Max Starks (75th overall), RB Willie Parker (undrafted). The 6-foot-8 Starks has been a starter at tackle for the better part of the last seven years. Fast Willie earned two Pro Bowl nods and was the main running back on both of the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning teams in the 2000s. Funny how the Steelers tend to go boom or bust in these drafts. With Roethlisberger and Parker, this was another rousing success for the team despite the fact that four of the team’s eight picks never even played a down for the Steelers.

2005 –

Green Bay: 11 picks (4 still with team)
1st pick: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California (24th overall)

Best pick: Rodgers (duh!). The first of several strong draft classes for the Packers. Three players are starters on the Packers’ Super Bowl team: Rodgers, Pro Bowl FS Nick Collins, and LB Brady Poppinga. Still, the obvious pick is stud young quarterback Rodgers. As an aside, as Joe Posnanski pointed out today, drafting quarterbacks is a crapshoot. The Packers and Steelers are set for years to come because they were one of the lucky teams to draft a star QB in the first round.

Worst pick: Marviel Underwood, SS (115th overall). This award probably should go to second round pick Terrence Murphy. Murphy’s career unfortunately ended with a broken neck suffered in the first game of his second season. I can’t bring myself to put Murphy as the worst pick, so the honor goes to Underwood. Underwood actually had a productive first season, but missed his second season with an injury and was cut in the preseason before his third year.

Other contributors: Collins (51st overall), Poppinga (125th overall), C Junius Coston (143rd overall), DE Mike Montgomery (180th overall). Collins and Poppinga have anchored the Packers’ defense since they were drafted. Coston and Montgomery were decent backup contributors for a few seasons for the team.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (4 still with team)
1st pick: Heath Miller, TE, Virginia (30th overall)

Best pick: Miller. For the third year in a row, the Steelers knocked their first round pick out of the park. The Pro Bowl tight end has been an integral part of the Steelers’ offense, starting all but six games since he entered the league.

Worst pick: WR Fred Gibson (131st overall). The fourth round draft pick out of Georgia never played a down for the Steelers.

Other contributors: CB Bryant McFadden (62nd overall), T Trai Essex (93rd overall), G Chris Kemoeatu (204th overall), WR Nate Washington (undrafted). McFadden was mostly a backup for his first four seasons with the Steelers before joining the Cardinals in 2009. He was traded back to the Steelers in 2010 and started every game this season. Essex was shifted to guard after he was drafted. He was a full-time starter in 2009 but has been mostly a backup since then. Kemoeatu turned into a decent steal – the sixth round pick has stared for the Steelers for the last three seasons. Washington earned two Super Bowl rings as the Steelers’ slot receiver before the Titans overpaid for him in 2009.

2006 –

Green Bay: 12 draft picks (5 still with team)
1st pick: AJ Hawk, LB, Ohio State (5th overall)

Best pick: Greg Jennings, WR (52nd overall). Another solid draft for the Packers. Perennial Pro Bowler Jennings might have been one of the steals of the draft. Drafted 52nd overall out of Western Michigan, the sure-handed Jennings quickly established himself as a favorite of former QB Brett Favre. He has been the Packers’ best receiver for the last five years and led the NFL in touchdown catches this year. Perhaps even more importantly, his emergence allowed the aging Donald Driver to drop into the #2 receiver spot and gave the Packers one of the best receiving crews in the league.

Worst pick: Abdul Hodge, LB (67th overall). Count me as one of the many Packer fans who thought the team got a steal with Hodge in the third round. He only lasted one season with the Packers and is currently a backup for the Carolina Panthers.

Other contributors: Hawk, G Daryn Colledge (47th overall), G Jason Spitz (75th overall), DT Johnny Jolly (183th overall), CB Tramon Williams (undrafted). Hawk is not the star linebacker that the Packers hoped for, but he has been a starter for five seasons. Colledge was a bit of a mess for a few years but have since become better than average guards. Spitz has served as backup for pretty much every offensive line position. Jolly looked like a potential steal after he was a dominant force for the team for a few years. Then the NFL suspended him indefinitely after he was caught trafficking codeine. And Williams, who first signed with the Packers in November 2006, has been so good that he inspired me to write this post.

Pittsburgh: 9 picks (1 still with team)
1st pick: Santonio Holmes, WR, Ohio State (25th overall)

Best pick: Holmes. Yet another strong first round selection from the Steelers. Holmes was the top receiver alongside Hines Ward on the Steelers’ Super Bowl XLIII winning team. For his efforts in the big game, he was named Super Bowl MVP. The Steelers traded Holmes to the Jets in the 2010 offseason because of legal troubles.

Worst pick: Take your pick. Five of the Steelers’ nine picks never played for the team and a sixth, WR Willie Reid, caught only four passes in two seasons. If pressed, the award probably goes to third round pick Reid, as the five players who never played for the team were drafted later than the fourth round.

Other contributors: T Willie Colon (131st overall). Colon started 50 consecutive games at tackle between the end of the 2006 season and the 2009 season before tearing his Achilles tendon in the 2010 preseason.

2007 –

Green Bay: 11 draft picks (6 still with team)
1st pick: Justin Harrell, DT, Tennessee (16th overall)

Best pick: LB Desmond Bishop (192nd overall). The 2007 class didn’t produce any stars, but did produce some solid contributors. Bishop gets the nod as best pick with his clutch performance this season. Prior to this year, Bishop was viewed as an undersized backup; his emergence as a decent player led to the team waiving Hodge. However, this season, with the Packers’ linebacking corps decimated by injury, Bishop has stepped in to solidify the defense and help lead the team to the Super Bowl.

Worst pick: Harrell. Harrell was viewed as a reach with the 16th overall pick. He has done nothing to sway critics since then. Although he is still on the team (thanks to injured reserve), he has only started two career games for the Pack. With the emergence of B.J. Raji this season, Harrell is unlikely to have a role next season. Fortunately for him, he will likely get hurt in July so the Packers will be able to move him to the injured reserve.

Other contributors: RB Brandon Jackson (63rd overall), James Jones (78th overall), FB Korey Hall (191st overall), K Mason Crosby (193rd overall). The Packers didn’t end up with a single starter (other than Crosby) in this bunch, but all are still contributing to the team. Jackson has been decent as a rusher and Jones has given the squad a talented #4 receiver that allows the team to run their beloved four receiver set.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (5 still with team)
1st pick: Lawrence Timmons, LB, Florida State (15th overall)

Best pick: LaMarr Woodley, LB (46th overall). In just three seasons as a starter, Woodley already has a ridiculous 39 sacks. He finished third in the league with 13.5 sacks in his Pro Bowl 2009 season. Woodley gets the slight edge over the under-appreciated Timmons, who has been less dynamic but no less impressive in his two seasons as a starter.

Worst pick: None. Each of the Steelers’ top four picks in the draft are still key contributors. Hard to give a worst draft pick honor after that.

Other contributors: Timmons, TE Matt Spaeth (77th overall), P Daniel Sepulveda (112th overall), CB William Gay (170th overall). Spaeth is not the star tight end that Heath Miller is, but has still been solid for the Steelers. When he plays, Sepulveda is one of the best punters in football, averaging 43.4 yards per punt. Unfortunately, he has torn his ACL three times and his missed parts of two seasons. Gay sees plenty of game action as the Steelers’ nickel back.

2008 –

Green Bay: 9 draft picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: Jordy Nelson, WR, Kansas State (36th overall)

Best pick: Nelson (for now). The Packers did not have a first round pick in 2008 but still came up with solid role players. Nelson joined Jones as a slot receiver in the Pack’s four receiver sets. He figures to be a contributor in that role for years to come. He gets the best pick honor (for now) because fourth round pick TE Jermichael Finley emerged as a stud early this year before an injury ended his season early.

Worst pick: Brian Brohm, QB (56th overall). Funny how times change. The Packers drafted Brohm in the second round to challenge then-new starter Aaron Rodgers. Brohm couldn’t even beat out seventh round pick Matt Flynn for the backup job and was last seen throwing three interceptions for the Buffalo Bills as a spot starter in the 2010 season finale. And Rodgers…well, he turned out pretty good.

Other contributors: Finley, G Josh Sitton (135th overall). After years of wasting second and third round picks on guards, the Packers may have found their long-term solution in fourth round pick Sitton. He has started every game in the last two seasons. Four other Packers are still on the roster, but none have done much outside of special teams work.

Pittsburgh: 7 draft picks (5 still with team)
1st pick: Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Illinois (23rd overall)

Best pick: Mendenhall has been by far the best player of the Steelers’ weak 2008 class. He saw little action in his first season but has since become the running back that the Steelers expected when they drafted him. He entered the starting lineup for good in Week 4 of the 2009 season and has run for almost 2,400 yards since then.

Worst pick: Limas Sweed, WR (53rd overall). Sweed was a mess for his first two seasons and grabbed only seven career catches. He missed the entire 2010 season with an Achilles injury.

Other contributors: Not much. The Steelers grabbed a decent backup quarterback in the fifth round with Dennis Dixon and a backup strong safety with Ryan Mundy in the sixth round. Dixon has started three games and Mundy two games as spot starters.

2009 –

Green Bay: 8 draft picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College (9th overall)

Best pick: Clay Matthews, LB (26th overall). This really was an amazing draft for the Packers. The obvious standout is Matthews. In two years, Matthews already has two Pro Bowl selections and finished runner-up this season for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Just a stud.

Worst pick: Jamon Meredith, T (162nd overall). Tough to name a worst pick this soon after the draft. Meredith wins by virtue of being the only Packer draft pick not still with the team.

Other contributors: Raji, T T.J. Lang (109th overall), FB Quinn Johnson (145th overall), LB Brad Jones (218th overall), P Tim Masthay (undrafted). Matthews and Raji are probably enough to make this an amazing draft for the Pack – anything else is just icing on the cake. Lang and Johnson are both valuable backups for the team and Jones could prove to be a steal based on his performances in spot starts over the last two seasons. Masthay has been only an average punter, but that undrafted looks a lot better when you remember that the Packers spent a third round draft pick in 2004 on a punter (B.J. Sander) who only played one season with the team.

Pittsburgh: 9 picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: Ziggy Hood, DT, Missouri (32nd overall)

Best pick: WR Mike Wallace (84th overall). The third round draft pick had a breakout season this year after the Steelers traded away Santonio Holmes in the offseason. The deep threat caught 60 passes for 1,257 yards this season. His 21.0 yards per catch led the AFC.

Worst pick: T Kraig Urbik (79th overall). In what appears to be an ongoing theme for the Steelers, their second pick in the draft never played a game for the team. He was released after the 2009 season and currently plays for the Buffalo Bills.

Other contributors: Hood, TE David Johnson (241st overall). Hood cracked the starting lineup midway through this season and looks like the Steelers’ potential defensive end of the future. Seventh round pick Johnson started seven games this year at the tight end position. The remaining players still on the team have seen little action.

2010 –

Green Bay: 7 draft picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: Bryan Bulaga, T, Iowa (23rd overall)

Best pick: Bulaga. Another year, another great draft. Amazingly, four of the seven rookies that the Packers drafted started a game this season (Bulaga, S Morgan Burnett, TE Andrew Quarless, and RB James Starks). Two more undrafted rookies started games (CB Sam Shields and LB Frank Zombo). The best pick so far has been Bulaga, who struggled early, but has shown enormous potential in his first season.

Worst pick: TBD. The early favorite is second round draft pick DT Mike Neal, who didn’t contribute at all for the Packers this season. It’s early though.

Other contributors: See above.

Pittsburgh: 10 draft picks (8 still with team)
1st pick: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida (18th overall)

Best pick: Pouncey. The center emerged as a star in the making in his rookie season. He was one of only five rookies to be selected to the Pro Bowl.

Worst pick: TBD. Early favorite is DE Jason Worilds (52nd overall). The second round draft pick saw very little action this season.

Other contributors: WR Emmanuel Sanders (82nd overall), WR Antonio Brown (195th overall). Sanders had a great rookie season as the slot receiver, catching 28 passes for 376 yards. Brown only caught 16 passes, but made the biggest catch of the year for the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.


Cornerbacks and the NFL Draft

January 17, 2011

Sometimes I have ideas for posts that simply don’t pan out when I do my research. Generally, I’ll come up with a theory that turns out to be wildly wrong, so I scrap the whole thing.

That’s what happened on this post. I had a theory that cornerbacks drafted in the first round tend to be busts a high percentage of the time and the best cornerbacks are drafted later in the draft. This turned out to be incorrect (sorta), but for reasons that were entirely unexpected by me. The research turned out to be pretty interesting though, so I decided to post it anyway.

I had the idea for this post right about the time that Packers cornerback Tramon Williams made the second half of Saturday night’s Packers/Falcons a mere formality with a devastating TAINT on the last play of the first half. For those not well-versed in Packers defensive backs, Williams was an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech in 2007. He has become the best cornerback that the Packers have developed since they drafted Mike McKenzie in 1999. It’s not that they haven’t tried either – since 1999, they have drafted 15 cornerbacks. Two are still with the team – Brandon Underwood (drafted last year, primarily a special teams player) and Pat Lee (drafted in 2008, the dime back and part-time punt returner). Their top three cornerbacks are Charles Woodson (first rounder in 1998, came to Packers in 2004 via trade), Williams, and Sam Shields (an undrafted rookie).

My theory was that, judging from the Packers’ experience, it just isn’t worth it to draft a cornerback in the first couple of rounds. The short answer? I was wrong. The long answer? I might be right for a completely different reason.

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Here are the cornerbacks that were drafted in the first round between 1998 and 2008:

1998 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 average players, 1 bust) –
Charles Woodson (4) – Future Hall of Famer made the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons, was adequate for six seasons, then made four more Pro Bowls between 2008 and 2011.
Duane Starks (10) – Intercepted 25 passes and was a solid player for four teams in ten-year NFL career.
Terry Fair (20) – Lasted only four seasons before crashing out of the league.
R.W. McQuarters (28) – Intercepted 14 passes and was a decent player for four teams in eleven-year NFL career.

1999 (2 Pro Bowlers, 2 semi-busts) –
Champ Bailey (7) – 9-time Pro Bowler has 48 interceptions and is still one of the premier corners in the league.
Chris McAllister (10) – 3-time Pro Bowler was a shutdown corner for Ravens in eleven-year career.
Antuan Edwards (25) – Played for five teams in lackluster seven-year career.
Fernando Bryant (26) – Played for four teams in slightly less lackluster nine-year career.

2000 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 busts) –
Deltha O’Neal (15) – 2-time Pro Bowler. Had 34 interceptions in nine years, but was out of the league after the 2008 season.
Rashard Anderson (23) – Lasted only two seasons in the league due to a combination of substance abuse and lack of talent.
Ahmed Plummer (24) – Decent player for four years before injuries forced him to retire in 2005 after playing in only nine games in the previous two seasons.

2001 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 above average player, 2 busts) –
Nate Clements (21) – 1 Pro Bowl. Very good player, but 49ers questionably made him highest paid defensive player in history in 2007.
Will Allen (22) – No Pro Bowls, but has reputation as one of the best corner covers in league. Currently playing with Dolphins.
Willie Middlebrooks (24) – started one game in five years. Currently plays in Canada.
Jamar Fletcher (26) – played for five teams in eight years. Out of the league by age 29.

2002 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 average players, 1 bust) –
Quentin Jammer (5) – No Pro Bowls, only 14 interceptions in nine years with the Chargers.
Phillip Buchanon (17) – No Pro Bowls, 20 interceptions. Has played for five teams; was released outright twice.
Lito Sheppard (26) – 2 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro. Carved out a solid career playing for Eagles, Jets, and Vikings.
Mike Rumph (27) – Was called the worst corner in the league before the 49ers mercifully moved him to safety. Still lasted only three healthy seasons in league.

2003 (3 Pro Bowlers, 2 busts) –
Terence Newman (5) – 2 Pro Bowls, 26 interceptions. Has spent entire career as starter for Cowboys.
Marcus Trufant (11) – 1 Pro Bowl, 20 interceptions. Has spent entire career with Seahawks.
Andre Woolfolk (28) – Rarely played in four seasons with Titans. Out of league by 2006.
Sammy Davis (30) – Rarely played in five seasons with three teams. Out of league by 2007.
Nnamdi Asomugha (31) – 4 Pro Bowls. Premier shutdown corner in NFL. Amazingly, the ball was thrown his way only 27 times in 14 games in 2010. Signed to largest contract for cornerback in NFL history.

2004 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 above average players, 1 bust) –
DeAngelo Hall (8) – 3 Pro Bowls, 32 interceptions in seven seasons.
Dunta Robinson (10) – Was a starter for six seasons for Texans. In 2010, Falcons signed him to second largest contract ever for a cornerback.
Ahmad Carroll (25) – Weaknesses included not being able to cover receivers. Played parts of four seasons with three teams. Last seen as practice squad member of UFL’s Hartford Colonials.
Chris Gamble (28) – Has started at cornerback for last seven seasons for Panthers and grabbed 24 interceptions. One of the highest paid defensive players in NFL.

2005 (1 average player, 3 busts plus 1 bust at cornerback position) –
Pacman Jones (6) – Weaknesses included sobriety and not getting arrested. Actually had two decent seasons for Titans in 2005 and 2006. Last seen as member of Bengals, displaying little of the athleticism that made him the sixth overall pick.
Antrel Rolle (8) – Injuries and lack of coverage ability cost Rolle to lose his starting job after three seasons. Converted to safety in 2008, and has made two Pro Bowls since then.
Carlos Rogers (9) – Solid six-year starter for Redskins.
Fabian Washington (23) – Really fast, but not all that good. Has been mainly a backup for career.
Marlin Jackson (29) – A poor man’s Antrel Rolle. Mainly a backup cornerback, he has also filled in at safety at times, where he has done well. Eagles signed him in 2010 to be a safety, but a ruptured Achilles ended his season in June.

2006 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 average player, 2 busts) –
Tye Hill (15) – Part-time player has played for four teams in five years. Was waived by Titans before 2010 season.
Antonio Cromartie (19) – 1 All-Pro, 1 Pro Bowl, 18 interceptions in five seasons.
Johnathan Joseph (24) – Solid, if unspectacular five year starter with Bengals.
Kelly Jennings (31) – Still hanging around with Seahawks, despite being only a nickel or dime back.

2007 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 above average player, 1 TBD) –
Darrelle Revis (14) – 3-time Pro Bowler. Along with Asomugha, has reputation as premier shutdown corner in the league.
Leon Hall (18) – No Pro Bowls, but has been a standout corner with Bengals. Has 18 interceptions in just four seasons.
Aaron Ross (20) – Decent, injury-prone cornerback with Giants. Has started 24 games in four seasons.

2008 (2 Pro Bowlers, 1 above average, 2 TBD) –
Leodis McKelvin (11) – A good return man, but has been largely ineffective at corner in three seasons.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (16) – A standout with 13 interceptions. Selected to 2010 and 2011 Pro Bowls.
Aqib Talib (20) – Another standout, has grabbed 15 interceptions in three seasons.
Mike Jenkins (25) – Shutdown corner for Cowboys was selected to 2010 Pro Bowl, although he seemingly took a step backwards in 2010 season.
Antoine Cason (27) – Intercepted four passes in 2010 season, his first as a starter.

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For those counting at home, that’s 14 Pro Bowl cornerbacks, 16 busts, and only eleven that fell in between (I excluded Ross, McKelvin, and Cason because each has spent only one full season as a starter so far).

Generally, if a team has an almost 40% chance of essentially wasting a draft pick if they draft a player from a certain position, you’d think they’d stay away. But clearly teams are swayed by the 35% chance of hitting a Pro Bowl pick. And there’s very little in-between – they either waste a first round pick for a bust or get a Pro Bowl cornerback.

Six cornerbacks were selected to the Pro Bowl this season; five were drafted in the first round (fourth round pick Asante Samuel was the lone non-first rounder). That was a higher percentage than any position other than inside linebacker (all four are first-rounders).* It is hard to fault teams for looking for another one of these Pro Bowl cornerbacks, but I can’t help but think that using a first round draft pick on a 50/50 shot is something that the Detroit Lions would do.

* I quickly looked up all linebackers (the NFL doesn’t differentiate between OLB and ILB in  the draft, and I was too lazy to break them down myself) from 1998 to 2008. The result: 16 Pro Bowlers, 13 average/TBD, and just 6 busts. And this is at a position significantly more likely to face career-ending injuries than cornerbacks. Needless to say, this is a way better success rate than cornerbacks.

So what explains the results of first round cornerbacks? I have a few theories. I suspect it’s a combination of one or more of these:

1. It’s extremely difficult to identify first-round talent for the cornerback position. College receivers are just that much easier to defend. This year’s top CB prospect, LSU’s Patrick Peterson, faced the #2 WR prospect Julio Jones of Alabama…and that’s it for receivers projected to go in the draft. The second best CB prospect, Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara, faced exactly zero receivers projected to go in the draft.

More than any other defensive position, a cornerback faces a series of one-on-one matchups. Good college linebackers and safeties have to make reads each play. Good defensive lineman face double teams if they are dominant players. Good college cornerbacks, on the other hand, simply aren’t targeted. The offensive team will gladly leave the cornerback to cover a receiver and make the game 10-on-10. There’s a reason that Darrelle Revis’s nickname is “Revis Island” after all. It’s hard to figure out just how well a cornerback’s skills will translate to the pros if they don’t get the reps against the best receivers.

2. NFL teams look at the wrong numbers. The most important attribute for a pro cornerback is instinct. And yet NFL teams still fall for cornerbacks who perform well at the draft combine. Nebraska’s Fabian Washington was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in 2005. Washington was a solid cornerback for the Huskers, but no Husker fan realistically viewed him as a standout. Then he ran a 4.25 40 at the combine, the fastest time for any player that year, and jumped 41 1/2 inches in the vertical jump. Somewhat predictably, he didn’t crack the starting lineup for the Raiders and was traded to the Ravens in 2008. He started for parts of 2008 and 2009 before the Ravens benched him for good early in 2010.

Nnamdi Asomugha is probably the best shutdown cornerback in the league. He ran a comparatively slow 4.45 and jumped only 37 1/2 inches. Closing speed helps, but it doesn’t help that much. Yet since that’s all teams can measure in the combine, they fall for guys like Washington’s pure speed and neglect guys like Asomugha’s “quickness.”

3. Teams don’t know how to develop cornerbacks. For reasons that aren’t really clear to me, teams tend to thrust rookie cornerbacks right into the starting lineup. Because of the 1-on-1 nature of the position, a rookie cornerback is extremely easy to exploit. They also standout far worse when they have bad games; it’s easier to point to the one cornerback covering the 200-yard receiver than it is to point out just one of the seven lineman and linebackers charged with stopping the 200-yard rusher.

Fans jump on the rookie cornerback, and his confidence is shot. The most famous example of this is Broncos’ rookie Roc Alexander, who was charged with covering the Colts’ Reggie Wayne in the 2005 NFL Playoffs. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning mercilessly picked on Alexander. Wayne finished with 10 catches for 221 yards; Alexander played one more season with the Broncos and was out of the league for good by 2007.

Other than quarterback, cornerback is probably the hardest position for a rookie to play for all the reasons that I described above. And yet teams mostly refuse to keep a roster spot for a rookie backup cornerback. On top of that, only 18 of 32 NFL teams even bothered to keep a cornerback on their practice squad this season. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to line up opposite an NFL receiver every week in practice, instead of being thrown to the wolves each week in a game?

Look no further than Asomugha for support. He sat on the bench for the better part of his first two seasons in the NFL. Now he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Sure, Revis started right off the bat and developed into a premier shutdown corner. But for every Revis, there’s an Ahmad Carroll – the Packers first round pick in 2004 that was such a train wreck that he was abruptly cut four weeks into the 2006 season.

4. Reputation. I think this plays a small part in how long a cornerback stays in the league. Cornerbacks are a lot like offensive lineman in that we tend to notice them only when they do something bad. Occasionally a cornerback will come up with a good interception, but more likely, you’ll only notice them if they get burned on a long pass or get an illegal contact or pass interference penalty called on them. Revis and Asomugha combined for zero interceptions this year, yet we know them as the best shutdown corners in the league. Every week, we see that the receiver that they cover is out of the picture. Like an offensive lineman who doesn’t allow sacks, we just know that they are good.

But this can also turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Quarterbacks see that other teams don’t throw towards those good corners, so they don’t throw their way either. But the cornerbacks that get burned once or twice a game…well, those corners will be getting picked on. Just like that, the gulf between good cornerbacks and bad cornerbacks grows wider, simply because that’s who quarterbacks choose to target.

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The schism between Pro Bowl and bust cornerbacks is probably a combination of those four theories. Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara is projected to go in the top five of the draft. I watched every Husker game this year and I couldn’t tell you if he’ll be a Pro Bowler or a bust. He was great for Nebraska, but it wasn’t so much for what he did – he had zero interceptions – but for what other teams didn’t do against him. Who knows if that will cut it against far more talented quarterbacks and receivers.

So what does this mean for NFL teams that draft a cornerback in the first round? Simply, beware: you have a 50/50 shot at getting a franchise cornerback and a 50/50 shot of wasting your first round draft pick.

If your team has a lot of needs, it’s probably not worth it to draft a cornerback. Your fans will remember. Trust me, Packers fans remember the name Ahmad Carroll. And not for good reasons.


Andrew Luck staying at Stanford

January 6, 2011

From ESPN.com: “Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in this spring’s NFL draft, announced Thursday that he will stay in school and play his redshirt junior season. ‘I am committed to earning my degree in architectural design from Stanford University and am on track to accomplish this at the completion of the spring quarter of 2012,’ Luck said in a statement.”

Wow. Just wow. I have three quick thoughts on this:

1. I hate that our society has placed such a high value on education. Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids that the most important thing is finding something that he or she loves to do? For the vast majority of our children, the path to that something will be through education. In that case, I’m all for education. I finished seven years of post-secondary school because I want to be an attorney and that education was necessary. But I didn’t go to law school for the education. Education is a means to an end.

I have to assume that Luck’s biggest goal in life is to become an NFL (and hopefully Super Bowl-winning) quarterback. A degree in architectural design is not necessary to achieve that dream. On the off-chance that he actually wants to be an architect more than an NFL quarterback, I’d seriously question his commitment if I was the team drafting him. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s more likely that he’s heard that education is the most important thing his entire life and actually buys into that nonsense. He has a chance to fulfill a dream that he has worked to achieve for his entire life but is jeopardizing it because our society can’t tell the difference between means and ends.

2. I’ve seen several people applaud his decision because he didn’t fall into the “show me the money” trap that’s so pervasive in American culture. This is beyond ridiculous to me. That’s the type of stuff that you say when financial advisors get busted running Ponzi schemes. Luck’s decision isn’t like the people who forsake their personal lives and become workaholics for an extra $25,000 a year. Last year’s #1 draft pick Sam Bradford signed a six-year deal worth $78 million, $50 million of which is guaranteed. That’s over $8 million a year (by the way, the average architect makes about $75,000 a year). This isn’t a let’s-applaud-Luck-for-not-saying-show-me-the-money situation. It’s just a dumb financial decision. He’s going to be drafted to be an NFL quarterback regardless of whether it’s this year or next. For why this was dumb, look no further than fellow Pac-10 quarterback Jake Locker. Locker was the probable number 1 pick after his junior season. He decided to come back to school, hurt his draft stock by playing poorly, and is expected to fall to the second round of the draft. Jimmy Clausen, the only quarterback who was drafted in the second round last year, signed a four-year, $6.3 million contract, with $2.5 million in guarantees – about $620,000 a year.

Look, I get that sports are sports. I agree even if I’m more obsessed than most. There are many, many, many things more important than sports. But at the end of the day an athlete is still a profession. Is there another profession anywhere that people would actually applaud a person just entering the workforce for taking a $7.4 million dollar pay cut to do the same job? Rich CEOs and the Bill Gateses of the world don’t count – I’m talking about a first job in a field. Imagine if McDonald’s offered me $8 million to flip burgers but Burger King offered me $620,000 and I decided to go work for Burger King. You’d say that’s irrational: the flame-grilled burgers are delicious, but no where near that delicious. Why should sports be different just because they’re sports? Staying in school isn’t about not saying “show me the money,” it’s about making a irrational economic decision.

3. The Carolina Panthers are a mess. Not wanting to play in North Carolina absolutely had to go into Luck’s decision. Expanding to Charlotte and Jacksonville was viewed as questionable at the time and still looks questionable. Exhibit a for this is Jacksonville playing home games in front of 20,000 people last year. This would be exhibit b. If the Los Angeles Panthers had the first pick of the draft, Luck wouldn’t have had to give it a second thought: he’d be the LA quarterback of the future. Poor Panthers fans. They already have to live in North Carolina and then a franchise quarterback slips through their hands simply because they live in North Carolina. Now they get to choose between giving this another year:

Or drafting this:

Tough break.