Draft numbers not adding up
By Michael Silver, Yahoo Sports
April 18, 2008
Hello, and welcome to America's most overblown sporting event, a two-day spectacle during which fans of 32 teams convince themselves that life has suddenly gotten much, much grander for the lads in pads.
It's a quaint, socialistic concept: Each NFL team, from weakest to strongest, gets a chance to improve its fortunes by plucking from a rather large pool of former collegiate football players. Many months of research, tens of thousands of dollars and a small forest's worth of pastry boxes are expended, countless options are analyzed and, when a franchise is finally on the clock, a decision is made that will be instantly hailed as terrible or transcendent.
Yet if you break it down, the supposed consequence of the draft – and especially the first round – is basically a scam. More often than not, after all that buildup, the end result simply isn't that earth-shattering.
I'm not just talking about the Ryan Leafs of the world, either. Along with the well-known busts, there is a strikingly high percentage of first-round picks that end up becoming what NFL insiders term "just a guy" – serviceable, semi-productive complementary players who don't make a significant impact.
"I've heard people say that 70 percent of all first-round picks fail to become Pro Bowl-type players," one team's college scouting director told me recently. "Go back and look at the last five or 10 first rounds and see how many of those players become difference-makers for the team that picked them. It'll blow your mind."
So I did, and though I didn't do any hard statistical analysis, the exercise helped convince me that for the most part, the selections didn't merit the heightened level of fan excitement during draft weekend.
Pick a number, any number, and there's an underwhelming story waiting to be told.
Let's start with that sixth overall pick. Since 2002, the players selected in that slot were: defensive tackle Ryan Sims (75 tackles in 59 games with the Kansas City Chiefs, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers); defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan (three non-impressive seasons with the New Orleans Saints before being traded to New England); tight end Kellen Winslow (fought back from potential career-ending injuries to become a 2008 Pro Bowl performer, albeit a replacement selection, for the Cleveland Browns); cornerback Pacman Jones (train wreck); tight end Vernon Davis (seven touchdown catches in two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, though it's too early to deem him an outright disappointment) and safety LaRon Landry (had an impressive rookie season with the Washington Redskins).
Getting grumpy, Jets fans? History suggests you should have plenty of company. As St. Louis Rams fans anticipating their team's selection at No. 2 overall will be happy to recall, the past five picks in that slot were wideout Charles Rogers (out of football), offensive lineman Robert Gallery (now an Oakland Raiders guard after getting abused at tackle), halfback Ronnie Brown (was becoming a star for the Miami Dolphins before blowing out his knee last season), halfback Reggie Bush (3.7-yard rushing average over two NFL seasons) and wideout Calvin Johnson (showed promise in catching 48 passes as a Detroit Lions rookie).
Adrian Peterson was an instant dominator as last year's No. 7 overall pick, but three of the four men before him in that slot (Raiders safety Michael Huff, Jaguars wideout/Vikings washout Troy Williamson and unemployed quarterback Byron Leftwich) have been hugely disappointing.
Earlier this century there was a run of ugliness at No. 12 that included Cade McNown, Damione Lewis, Wendell Bryant and Jimmy Kennedy. At 17 we've had Phillip Buchanon, Bryant Johnson, David Pollack (career-threatening neck injury in '06) and Chad Greenway. Among those selected 19th in recent years were Ashley Lelie, Kyle Boller, Vernon Carey and Alex Barron. A spot later brought us Adam Archuleta, George Foster and Kenechi Udeze. The 22nd picks have included Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman and Mark Clayton.
Obviously, projecting which college football players will become standout pros isn't an exact science. Injuries, difficulty adjusting to new systems or immaturity in the face of newfound riches can derail the most talented of prospects.
But when it comes to the highest-profile of picks, shouldn't the NFL's powers-that-be have a far higher rate of success than, say, 2005 No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith's completion percentage on deep passes?
The answer: Absolutely. But like 2002 No. 1 overall pick David Carr in a collapsing pocket, too many of the people running war rooms make poor decisions under pressure.
Talent evaluation, in its purest form, involves scouts traveling to colleges in the fall, observing players on tape and in person and talking to coaches and others involved with the program. There are many reasons the process gets polluted between then and April, from unimaginative groupthink among some scouts to an overemphasis on all-star games, the NFL scouting combine and pro days. It gets worse as coaches seeking a quick fix, general managers trying to cover their butts and owners in search of star power bring their respective agendas to pre-draft meetings and to the war room. Teams tend to reach for need picks and place too much value on measurables and even allow media coverage to impact their thinking, seeking to avoid ridicule and earn good next-day grades from alleged experts.
An entire column can be devoted to the way franchises muck up these decisions, but the gist is this: The tenet that a team will take the best player available is too often compromised.
"It's something that should be so simple," says the scouting director, "but it gets way more complex than it has to be."
It's not surprising that, for many scouts, the second day of the draft is more exhilarating than the first. After the first two rounds, outside influences wane and the bulk of the media coverage subsides. History has shown that plenty of impact players – even future superstars like Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Terrell Davis and Terrell Owens – can still be found.
"You can't really judge a team's personnel department on its first-round picks because there are so many outside forces at play," the scouting director says. "But from the second round on, those are what we call 'scouts' rounds.' You can still find good football players, guys who may have been eliminated from the first round because they didn't run fast enough at the combine or they weren't tall enough or big enough or they weren't well-known in college. But if you've done your homework, the film tells you they can be successful at this level, and picking guys like that isn't so risky at all."
Maybe there will come a day when later-round picks receive the same degree of attention as the ones at the top of the draft, when Jets fans will go nuts over a guy they view as the next Anquan Boldin or a potential Matt Birk. In the meantime, as New York prepares to pick sixth, let's look back at the last time the franchise selected a player in this slot.
To great fanfare, the Jets took a quarterback who had played for Bear Bryant at Alabama.
It was Richard Todd, he of the 121 career touchdowns against 164 interceptions.
Take it to the ATM
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick will be polished, insightful and forthcoming as an analyst on the NFL Network's draft coverage. … Now that the playoffs are here, Shaquille O'Neal will suddenly seem about six years younger. … The Cowboys will blink first on draft day and trade for Pacman Jones by sweetening their offer to the Titans.
Lies, lies, lies
2. I believe most of the pre-draft rumors I hear, because team executives would never dream of using reporters to help obscure their true intentions.
3. Lame duck coach Mike Holmgren will have a lot of input in the Seahawks' war room on draft day.
Oxygen-deprived thought from above
OK, so you are emasculated Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, and you really want your boss, Al Davis, to take a specific player with the fourth overall selection in the draft. Let's say you feel strongly that, given the retirement of defensive tackle Warren Sapp, you need a potentially dominant interior force like Glenn Dorsey or Sedrick Ellis to shore up your line. So what do you do? Given your lack of standing in the war room and Davis' spiteful nature, it seems to me this is the best play: Start making a big public fuss about how you definitely believe the Raiders should draft an offensive skill player and, for good measure, denigrate Dorsey and Ellis at every turn. Reinforce these desires by fawning over other players in pre-draft meetings while sneering each time Dorsey or Ellis is discussed. Don't laugh, people. It just might work.
Let's do some Don Julio Silver shots for …
Former Baltimore Colts center Buzz Nutter, who died last Saturday at the age of 77. I don't know much about Nutter, other than the fact that he spent much of the Colts' 1958 and '59 seasons staring upside down and through his legs at the great John Unitas en route to capturing consecutive NFL championships, but I do love his name – even though hearing it reflexively makes me reach for my groin region.
Rollin' with the Royals
Just when it appeared that the Reading Football Club would safely extend its first-ever stint in the English Premier League to a third season, the host Royals suffered a ghastly 2-0 defeat to Fulham that put their standing in jeopardy. Now in 16th place in the 20-team league (and only three points clear of the relegation zone) with four games to play, Reading faces a stiff road test at third-place Arsenal Saturday before closing against three opponents in the bottom half of the standings. If the Royals do get dropped, they'll look back at last Saturday's defeat to lowly Fulham at Madejski Stadium as a missed opportunity. In a battle of American goalkeepers, Fulham's Kasey Keller was barely tested. Another American, Brian McBride, opened the scoring with a sliding goal in the 24th minute, and sub Erik Nevland added the clincher in second-half injury time. To underscore their dominance, the Cottagers hit the post without scoring on three separate occasions in the second half.
Lyric-altered song dedication of the week
Carson Palmer tried to put a positive spin on disgruntled teammate Chad Johnson's bitterness toward the Bengals, insisting "Ocho Cinco" would show up for team activities "when he has to." Johnson reacted by calling a reporter and ripping his quarterback. Here's a screeching version of his rant against Palmer, to the tune of Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55."
One foot out the door and one on Marvin's throat, hey!
Go on & throw to TJ on third-and-25
So I signed my contract just two years ago, hey!
Go on & throw to TJ on third-and-25
You can't drive 85!
When you say I'll play, you know it's hard to hear
Go on & throw to TJ on third-and-25
No, no, no, you can't drive … (You can't drive 85!)
Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, Apr 18, 2008 12:23 pm, EDT