NFL talent evaluators may spend millions of dollars and months of work poring over the available prospects, but that doesn't mean the draft will ever rise to the level of science. Now that the league's annual personnel crapshoot is again upon us, let's review one recent key draft decision for each of the NFL's 32 clubs, a pivotal move that for better or worse helped shape the teams they are today:
BALTIMORE RAVENS Ed Reed, S, Miami, first round, 2002 We're sorry to break it to Ray Lewis, but it's Reed who has been the team's preeminent playmaker on defense in recent years. Lewis still has his pregame dance ritual, but he can't take over and dominate once the whistle blows the way he did circa 2000-2001. And let's face it: Until further notice -- or until '03 No. 1 pick KyleBoller develops into a consistent NFL quarterback -- the Ravens remain a team led by Reed and the rest of its defense.
BUFFALO BILLS Mike Williams, OT, Texas, first round, 2002 Looking for reasons the Bills are tied with Detroit for the second-longest playoff drought in the NFL, trailing only Arizona? Since Buffalo last made the postseason, in 1999, it has had far too many failures on the draft front, and Williams epitomizes that record. Selected fourth overall in 2002, the former Longhorn was never a player the Bills could count on, and his release this offseason proved once again that there are no sure things in the draft, even in the top five picks.
CINCINNATI BENGALS Carson Palmer, QB, Southern Cal, first round, 2003 The Bengals' long national nightmare finally ended in 2005, when they snapped their NFL-high 15-year streak of nonplayoff seasons and won a division title. The biggest step in their renaissance was coach Marvin Lewis' making Palmer his first draft pick in Cincinnati. It sounds silly now, but Palmer wasn't a slam dunk at the time. As late as a few weeks before the draft, Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman was still a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. Score one for the former Bungles.
CLEVELAND BROWNS Tim Couch, QB, Kentucky, first round, 1999 We're going to bestow the distinction of tone-setter on Couch, but Cleveland's almost unfathomable record of first-round draft misses and misfortune since re-entering the league in 1999 is truly a team award that should be shared by the underachieving likes of Courtney Brown (2000), Gerard Warren (2001), William Green (2002) and, yes, we didn't forget you, Kellen Winslow Jr. (2004). New coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage may turn this thing around, but the Browns squandered a bunch of draft picks in their formative years.
DENVER BRONCOS Tatum Bell, RB, Oklahoma State, second round, 2004 The train just keeps on rolling in Denver, and it's usually led by the Broncos' numbingly consistent rushing game, which produces star running backs as though Denver owns the patent. Bell is just the latest name atop the depth chart, and he, too -- like MikeAnderson, Quentin Griffin, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, Olandis Gary and Terrell Davis before him -- didn't come with a first-round price tag. Though the name of the ballcarrier changes, the Broncos keep running and keep winning. And no, that's not a coincidence.