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Unfair expectations

Defense linemen who go No. 1 overall face tough road

Posted: Wednesday March 21, 2007 1:11PM; Updated: Wednesday March 21, 2007 1:11PM
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Courtney Brown's career has been so has been so injury-riddled that there's talk he might be finished after his dismissal from Denver.
Courtney Brown's career has been so has been so injury-riddled that there's talk he might be finished after his dismissal from Denver.
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There was little shock around the NFL when the Denver Broncos cut defensive end Courtney Brown earlier this week. Brown can't stay healthy and it appears that he'll never measure up to the excessive expectations pinned on him when he entered the league as the first pick in the 2000 draft.

But Brown's not alone. I'm convinced that defensive linemen who are picked No. 1 overall in the draft are cursed.

Aside from future Hall-of-Famer Bruce Smith (the top selection in 1985) and former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Russell Maryland (who helped that team win three Super Bowls after being selected first in 1991), D-lineman that have been No. 1 picks have had little impact on the game over the last three decades. And to be fair, some were far worse than Brown, who has been so banged up that he's played a full season only once in his career.

Remember how dominant defensive tackle Steve Emtman was supposed to be when the Indianapolis Colts selected him in the 1992 draft? Knee injuries marred most of his disappointing career, one that ended after six seasons with three teams. Or how about when the New England Patriots thought another defensive tackle, Kenneth Sims, would become the next stud defender in the NFL in 1982. He didn't come close to reaching that level. There's also Denver Broncos defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who bombed in Cincinnati after the Bengals drafted him first overall in 1994. He's stuck around the league for 11 seasons, but there's also a reason why he's now playing for his fifth team.

Despite their varied experiences, these players couldn't live up to the hype that followed them into the NFL. Just by becoming the top pick in the draft, they were thrust into a position in which their chances for success were already limited. And while injuries did dismantle some of their careers, it's still impossible to overlook the fact that a defensive lineman faces a different kind of public scrutiny when he's drafted that high. For one, even if a guy can play, it's hard for the average fan to know if such a player can even do his job well.

Aside from sacks and quarterback pressures, there's no real way for people outside the game to evaluate how these players help their teams. That was always an issue with Brown, who was compared to Bruce Smith when Brown entered the league. Even when Brown wasn't injured, he faced constant criticism that he was too soft, that he didn't impact the game in the same way that a truly dominant defender could, that he was essentially a waste of a valuable pick. But what's also interesting about Brown is how many of his coaches defended him.

I recall a conversation I had with former Browns head coach Butch Davis a year ago, when Davis swore that Brown was an effective player when he was healthy. Of course, Brown wasn't healthy often -- his biggest problem has been a chronically troubled left knee that has required four surgeries and sidelined him for all of 2006 -- but that's beside the point. In Davis' eyes, and he coached Brown for four seasons, there were some positive things that Brown brought to that team. It's just that most of those attributes couldn't be quantified in a stat sheet.

You can also bet that Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams, the first pick in last year's draft, can relate to this topic. He wasn't even one season into his pro career before the critics started hovering over him. They questioned why he wasn't producing more sacks or making as much of an impact as fellow rookie DeMeco Ryans, a middle linebacker who eventually ran away with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Forget that Williams played most of the season with plantar fasciitis in his right foot that was so painful that he could hardly practice during the week. To many people, the Texans would've been better off picking Saints running back Reggie Bush or Titans quarterback Vince Young.

So if Williams is smart, he'll pay attention to what's happened to those who came before him. He'll see that his situation could be far worse and that the odds will always be stacked against him. In fact, it's probably best that he deal with whatever struggles he faces the same way Brown has -- by remaining silent and steadfast. For when it comes to being the most visible defensive lineman in any draft class, you have to know one thing: It's pretty damn easy to end up disappointing the people who expect so much from you.

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