NFL draft still a crapshoot (cont.)
I can't really break down the 2000s drafts the way I did the 1990s because, as we get closer to present day, it's harder to draw any real conclusions about the players. But while looking at the decade a little bit, I did find this jewel... in 2001 the St. Louis Rams had three picks in the first round. Remember, this was the Rams team about to go 14-2 and lose to the Patriots in the Super Bowl... pretty good. Three great picks there could have set them up for decade domination.
The Rams three picks that year were:
12th overall: Defensive tackle Damione Lewis
So what's the point? Pickett and Archuletta were starters for the most part, Lewis bounced in and out but got some playing time. So, eh, not great, but not tragic, either. What's interesting, though, is that each time the Rams picked that year, the player taken immediately AFTER their pick turned out to be a significantly better player.
Right after Lewis, Jacksonville took three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.
Right after Archuletta, Buffalo took Pro Bowler and nine-year starter DB Nate Clements.
Right after the Rams took Pickett, Indianapolis took Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne, Baltimore took Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap and San Diego took Leader-In-The-Clubhouse-For-Sportsman-Of-The-Year Drew Brees.
I think you file this under the whole "NFL draft is a crapshoot" line that always comes out this time of year. Except... I'm not sure that the NFL draft SHOULD be this much of a crapshoot. In baseball, sure, it's easy to understand why the scouts miss so often. They're drafting very much on spec. They're drafting high school players that they hope will be good in five years. They're drafting college players that they hope will be good in three years. They're drafting hitters using aluminum bats who are facing suspect pitching. They're drafting pitchers with elbows... always a negative for pitchers.
But football... well, they're ONLY drafting college players. And they're college players who, for the most part, are playing at a pretty reasonable level... I don't know where big-time college football would rank compared to the NFL, but it's got to be Class AA or so, right? Baseball scouts take a lot of heat. But if they were drafting out of Class AA, I would bet they would get it right a whole lot more.
And yet, the NFL draft is very much a crapshoot. I would say that the 22 best players selected from, say, 2000 through 2005 might be as follows (in alphabetical order):
Jared Allen, 4th round, 2004 draft
Now, admittedly, these are just my opinions. But you will notice... not one of them was chosen with the No. 1 overall pick. And frankly, I don't think there's a particularly compelling argument to be made for any of the No. 1 overall picks -- Courtney Brown, Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning or Alex Smith -- to be on that list.
Look at the group of players again. There are as many players here taken in the second round (Brees, Ochocinco, Sanders, Tatupu) as taken in the top five(Fitzgerald, Johnson, Peppers, Tomlinson). And you can see there are some pretty special players taken after the third round -- heck, there are three undrafted players on the list (Gates, Harrison, Welker). This isn't surprising, if you want to look back over the draft. If you could only choose players third round or later from, say, 1995 to today you still could put together this team:
QB: Tom Brady
DE: Jason Taylor
That's pretty good. Every player on that list is or was a Pro Bowler, some are all-time stars. None were taken in the first two rounds. You will notice those with asterisks... those players were not drafted at all.
So even as the NFL draft becomes more and more hyped, even as it soaks up more and more attention, even as more and more people do their own mock drafts, even as teams spend more and more resources on their scouting... there are just a whole lot of misses out there. I realize that the Oakland Raiders are not exactly the model franchise, but for them to take JaMarcus Russell with the first pick in 2007 and sign him to a $68 million contract with Adrian Peterson and Darrell Revis and Patrick Willis and Joe Thomas on the board, that tells you that they probably should probably shut down their scouting department and just buy a few draft magazines.
Look at the 2008 draft. Five running backs went in the first round. The first four were Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall. Stewart has been quite good, Jones and Mendenhall have contributed, McFadden has shown flashes of talent.
The fifth pick, however, was Chris Johnson. And, as you already know, Johnson last year ran for 2,006 yards and in just two seasons has scored 14 touchdowns that covered 20 yards or more -- these include runs and receptions of 52, 57, 58, 66, 66, 69, 85 and 91 yards. That's high school stuff. How could NFL scouts undervalue a talent that good, that fast, that special?
I think in the end they undervalue and overvalue players -- they take Tim Couches and Courtney Browns and miss James Harrisons and Wes Welkers -- because football is both more and less complicated than we generally think. It's more complicated in that there are countless talents that we still do not know how to scout, talents that probably involve vague-sounding things like work ethic and decision-making and motivation and sturdiness and consistency and so on.
At the same time, it's probably less complicated, too. And the less complicating factor is this -- in football, I think, players often tend to be about as good or as bad as the players around them. It's such a team game. I sometimes wonder if teams might not be better off doing just that -- spending less money and effort on scouting and more on coming up with better teaching and development techniques. Sure, James Harrison wasn't drafted -- people doubted his individual talents -- but he went to Pittsburgh, where they know exactly how to coach linebackers, where they know how to place linebackers in positions to make plays, where they know how to prepare linebackers to be their best in games.
Meanwhile, that same year, David Carr was the first overall pick -- scouts almost unanimously loved his ability -- and he went to a Houston team with no offensive line, and he got sacked 76 times his first year, and 49 times his third, and 68 times his fourth (all league-leading totals) and he played for a team that did not know how to develop a quarterback and a team that had no history with good quarterback play.
In other words, the New England Patriots seem likely to have a good draft no matter who they take because they will coach those players up and put them in a winning atmosphere. And the Detroit Lions seem likely to have a lousy draft no matter who they take because they are the Detroit Lions
Of course, things change. That's the fun part of sports. Maybe the Lions have it figured out now. Maybe the magic runs out on the Patriots. That's why we keep watching. This year the No. 1 overall pick was Oklahoma's Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford. And while I like Bradford... I think that was a mistake. Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska's dominant defensive lineman, is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, a Warren Sapp-level disruptor who seems even more motivated to dominate. I think Suh should have been the first pick.
And the point of all this? I have as much chance being right or wrong as anybody else.
NFL Truth & Rumors