Life is an infinite series of small choices, often with no true downside: Now or later? Movie or ballgame? Paper or plastic? Even when pondering more far-reaching decisions, we often select one option that works out well enough, even if hindsight says a different choice might have been more rewarding. For instance: You're OK with your job, but it gnaws at you that the guy who took the one you turned down earned a quick promotion. Or you like the house you bought, though the one you passed up on the other side of town recently sold at a nice profit. And your marriage is working out pretty well, but … well, let's not even go there.
NFL executives often find themselves in a similar position at draft time. Sure, every so often, a first-round stink bomb is tossed: Think Ryan Leaf. And let’s not forget even the Colts for a while agonized over this pick and nearly took Leaf, who was perceived to have more upside, over Peyton Manning with the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft.
But when dealing with legitimate top-of-the-board talent, franchises seldom blunder terribly. Still, that doesn't mean draft headquarters wouldn't like the occasional do-over. So with the combine, pro days, individual workouts and Wonderlic tests behind us, it seemed a good time to analyze decisions made on first-round selections since the 1970 merger comparing two players who played the same position.
The Colts drained the drama out of the top pick when they announced they would select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. But would they have been so wrong had they turned over their team to Heisman Tophy-winning Robert Griffin III of Baylor? Probably not. That's not what the 49ers think about the 2005 draft, when they went with a fine quarterback, Alex Smith, at No. 1. Meanwhile, the Packers had to settle for Aaron Rodgers at No. 24.
The Bengals knew they had a good receiver when they took Miami's Eddie Brown with the 13th pick in 1985, and he made the 1988 Pro Bowl with an NFL-record 24 yards per catch. But three picks later, the 49ers were only too happy to scoop up Jerry Rice. In 1977, coach John McKay lobbied the Bucs to take a great running back he'd coached at USC. So Tampa Bay spent the No. 1 selection on Ricky Bell, who rushed for more than 3,000 yards and scored 19 touchdowns in a decent six-year career. Of course, that left Tony Dorsett on the board for the Cowboys at No. 2, and the rest is history.
Were Smith, Brown and Bell disastrous decisions? Not in and of themselves. But you'd better believe that NFL executives will be losing sleep fearing that this year's first-rounders will eventually make their way onto the list of Top 10 regrettable draft picks.
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