March 03, 2009
I've spent much of the morning going over the top of the last 20 NFL drafts (how are those TPS reports coming, by the way? Sounds great.) and I say this without hesitation: Jason Smith, Baylor tackle and increasingly dead-certain top five pick in April, is the most obscure elite draft prospect since at least 1989, the beginning of the Kiper-fueled, draft-as-theater era.
That's not a judgment on his potential or any team that thinks he's worth the choice -- Smith was voted first-team all-conference by Big 12 coaches and first-team all-American by the Football Writers of America, whatever that's worth. So he's good, and the combine apparently pushed him over the top. There's no accounting for who'll succeed in the pros and who won't.
But no other pick in the Kiper era (i.e. in Smith's lifetime) has risen as high as Smith from nowhere, by which I only partially mean "from Baylor" -- unquestionable college stars turned top picks like Steve McNair, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson and David Carr drew the spotlight to equally obscure schools, as quarterback Robert Griffin threatens to do in Waco two or three years from now. Smith, though, is almost totally unknown even to people who obsess over college football except as a rising draft prospect. He began his college career as an unheralded, woefully undersized tight end, redshirted and was only an "honorable mention" sort even after his junior year. I doubt he stood out all that much to hypothetical Baylor fans.
Number of first round picks from Baylor: Two. Daryl Gardener went 20th to the Dolphins in 1996 and James Francis was No. 12 to the Bengals in 1990. Excluding punter Daniel Sepulveda (a fourth-rounder last year), the Bears have only had one player (Gary Baxter, Ravens' second-round pick in 2001) picked before the fifth round since '96. Baylor has one top-10 pick in its history, DB Gary Green at No. 10 in 1977.
Number of top-10 picks from 'rock-bottom' schools: Zero. The 22 schools with a winning percentage under .400 since 1988 have produced seven first-rounders in that span, including Tulane quarterbacks J.P. Losman and Patrick Ramsey and Chris Williams and Jay Cutler from Vanderbilt. But only Williams (No. 14 last year to Chicago) went in the top-15; Smith would be the first in the top ten.
Number of top-five picks off a losing season: Three. Charles Rogers (Michigan State, No. 2 to Detroit in 2003), Justin Smith (Missouri, No. 4 to Cincinnati in 2001) and Sean Gilbert (Pitt, No. 3 to the L.A. Rams in 1992) were each part of one of the worst efforts in their schools' histories. That's the thing, though: Three and four-win seasons are disasters for Michigan State, Missouri and Pitt; Baylor's 4-8 mark last year was almost considered a breakthrough. Rogers, Smith and Gilbert were all on winning teams as underclassmen. Smith will be the first top-five pick since at least '89 who was never on a winning team in college.
Number of top-five picks who didn't play a game on national television. Zero. The vast majority of top picks are from elite schools on national TV on a weekly basis. Small-school guys like McNair, Tomlinson and Faulk had postseason games broadcast to the entire country, and it's not like they even needed it -- all three were Heisman finalists. David Carr landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated after leading Fresno State to a pair of early season upsets on ESPN in 2001. Other than showing up on the wrong end of other teams' highlight packages, Baylor's widest exposure during Smith's tenure was a random Friday night game with UConn on ESPN2 last September.
From a college perspective, only two other high draft picks can possibly match Smith in the "Who Dat?" department: DeWayne Robertson, the one-year wonder Kentucky defensive tackle who went fourth to the Jets in 2003, and Eric Swann, No. 6 to the Cardinals in 1991 -- and that's only because Swann didn't go to college. In that sense, he may have Smith beat for obscurity. But not by much.