Sports Nut

Draft of History

The NFL draft Mel Kiper isn’t talking about.

If there’s anything worse than the buildup to the NFL draft—endless rumors, 40-yard-dash times, and tales of flunked drug tests—it’s the Monday after, when everyone from Mel Kiper Jr. to your mailman weighs in with an insta-analysis of every team’s picks. Kiper and other draftniks (such a Bolshevik-sounding term for the quintessential American sport) split the league into draft-day “winners” and “losers” and prattle on about how the Patriots helped themselves by filling their void at tight end. This is insane. These experts have no way of knowing which players will blossom into stars. And because most players take time to mature, little to nothing that happens this weekend will have much to do with how your favorite team performs next season.

Sports Nut suggests that a far more revealing measure is how your team drafted five years ago. Yes, five years ago. Forget David Carr, Julius Peppers, and this year’s studs—we have no idea if they’re going to be good, and neither does anyone else. But we can show how Orlando Pace, Darrell Russell, and Rae Carruth, all 1997 picks, are affecting their team’s fortunes right now. As such, here’s the only draft review you need to read this year, an analysis of the 1997 draft. For laughs, we’ve thrown in some tasty insta-analysis from Mel and the rest of the guessers.

Chose only decent starting QB in entire draft, Jake Plummer, in second round. First choice DB Tom Knight hasn’t merited No. 9 overall status, but was solid starter. G Chris Dishman nice pick in fourth round. Joel Buschbaum, Pro Football Weekly: “Plummer is a winner and a competitor with great intangibles. A great pick.” Grade: B

Traded down in DB-heavy draft and came away with Michael Booker, a bust. Neither No. 2 selection, DE Nathan Davis or RB Byron Hanspard, made much of an impact. No. 3 TE O.J. Santiago and No. 4 DE Henri Crockett were strong picks, but left as free agents. Grade: D

Ray Lewis came the year before, but Super Bowl champion defense really built here, with LB Peter Boulware, LB Jamie Sharper, and S Kim Herring coming in first fhree picks. Boulware was defensive rookie of the year, and Herring started a second straight Super Bowl with St. Louis in ‘02. Rest of draft solid as well—RB Jay Graham (No. 3), C Jeff Mitchell (No. 5), and DE Cornell Brown (No. 6) all played role in rise to top. Kiper: “One of the biggest steals of the draft was No. 4 Tyrus McCloud.” Grade: A

No. 1 RB Antowain Smith was meant to replace Thurman Thomas, but never found success until arriving in New England. No. 2 DE Marcellus Wiley became sack leader, but left after ‘99 to free agency. No. 6 T Marcus Spriggs made team. A draft general manager John Butler left off his résumé. Grade: C-

Coming off surprise run to NFC West title and conference championship game, made disastrous No. 1 selection of WR Rae Carruth, now in the state pen for conspiring to murder a pregnant woman. Franchise has not picked well since inception, and rest of draft reflects that—only journeymen DB Mike Minter and TE Kris Mangum are still in NFL. Poor picking accelerated decline after aging vets used to build team lost the inevitable step. Here’s Kiper on Carruth: “He’s the perfect fit for this team.” Grade: D-

No first-rounder (traded to Seattle for Rick Mirer—ugh). Used No. 2 on TE bust John Allred. Caved to local media pressure and picked overmatched RB Darnell Autry from Northwestern in the fourth. No. 5 WR Marcus Robinson spectacular when healthy, which is seldom. Grade: D

No. 1 DE Reinard Wilson good example of patience in evaluation—early bust, solid starter in ‘01. Overlooking character issues paid off with standout No. 2 RB Corey Dillon, didn’t with No. 4 DB Tremaine Mack, who’s out of the league after multiple skirmishes with the law. Hard-hitting No. 6 LB Canute Curtis still with team. Bengals clearly better off when not saddled with top five pick (see Ki-Jana Carter, Dan Wilkinson, Akili Smith). Grade: A-

Traded up to snag TE David LeFleur, Troy Aikman’s personal choice to replace Jay Novacek. Decisions like that are why ‘Boys fans rue the day Jerry Jones replaced Jimmy Johnson at the head of the War Room table. LB Dexter Coakley a dandy in third round, DB Omar Stoutmire stuck after being nabbed in seventh. Grade: C

Only three selections, but made most of time at the party by nabbing pocket-busting DT Trevor Pryce with 28th pick of first round, then grabbing C Dan Neil with No. 3 choice. Good value for a team coming off best record in NFL—back-to-back titles ensued. Grade: B+

Hard to slam them for choosing CB Bryant Westbrook at No. 5 overall—draft was defense-heavy, and he filled a major need. Injuries have watered down his value, as they did promising LB Matt Russell, taken in fourth round. G Juan Roque was creation of media hype, fellow No. 2 DB Kevin Abrams another poor choice. Howard Balzer declared this “one of the best drafts, Grade A.” Grade: C-

Green Bay
General Manager Ron Wolf earned rep for drafts like this—despite picking last, snared OT Ross Verba in first, future All-Pro DB Darren Sharper in second. Both played roles in Pack’s return to the Super Bowl. Brett Conway not worth a No. 3 pick, kickers rarely are. Grade: B

Marvin Harrison came in ‘96 and Peyton Manning in ‘98—this draft was less heralded but every bit as important. The Ponies went O-line and came away with bookends Tarik Glenn and Adam Meadows 1-2. Rest of draft was euphonious dross (Bert Berry, Delmonico Montgomery, Nate Jacquet, Scott van der Ahe). Grade: A-

Explosive offense established in ‘96, Jags went for D in draft with quasi- success. DT’s Renaldo Wynn (No. 1) and Seth Payne (No. 4) made it; DB Mike Logan (No. 2), LB James Hamilton (No. 3) didn’t. No. 5 TE Danon Jones is still a Jag. Grade: B-

Kansas City
Made one of franchise’s best-ever moves on draft day by trading up with Houston to snag TE Tony Gonzalez at No. 13 overall, arguably the second-best skill player to come out of this draft (after Dillon). Rest of draft amounted to nothing. Grade: B

Jimmy Johnson brought his pick-hoarding ways south, and the results were good. No. 1 WR Yatil Green couldn’t get through a practice without a season-ending injury, but next three picks were DB Sam Madison (’98 All-Pro), DE Jason Taylor (14.5 sacks in ‘00), and LB Derrick Rodgers. Third No. 3 pick T Brent Smith is still around, as is No. 6 TE Ed Perry. Value-heavy drafts like this are every team’s dream when the commish steps to the mike at noon on the third Saturday in April. Peter King, Sports Illustrated: “Yatil Green will have the biggest impact of any rookie this year.” Grade: A

First six picks are defenders, and only the last one, DB Robert Tate, was still on the team last year. No. 1 LB Dwayne Rudd, No. 3 DE Stalin Colinet, No. 5 DT Tony Williams all took better money to leave—none made huge impact while in purple. Biggest money made by departing went to No. 7 WR Matthew Hatchette, the lowest pick (pick No. 235 overall) still in NFL. Now he’s an overpaid Jet. Grade: C+

New England
Established low-cost free agency as new paradigm for team building in ‘01, which is good because they failed utterly on draft day. No. 1 DB Chris Canty couldn’t back up his smack talk, No. 3 RB Sedrick Shaw couldn’t hold ball or job, No. 4’s Damon Denson and Ed Ellis O-line mistakes. Only No. 2 DT Brandon Mitchell, a reserve, stuck, and he just left via free agency. Grade: F

New Orleans
Traded out of No. 2 hole to No. 10, where they plucked G Chris Naeole, an immediate starter who just signed big contract with Jags. He provided five good years, unlike rest of draft, including S Rob Kelly, DE Jared Tomich, RB Troy Davis. No. 4 QB Danny Wuerffel now “savior” in D.C. Both SI’s Dr. Z and Balzer declared Davis was a “steal”. Grade: C-

N.Y. Giants    
Desperate for points, the late George Young snagged WR Ike Hilliard and RB Tiki Barber 1-2. Value kept coming in mid-draft, with LB Ryan Phillips, P Brad Maynard, and especially No. 5 S Sam Garnes (just signed with Jets). Young took a lot of criticism for reaching for Ike and Tiki, but was named Executive of the Year after G-Men went 10-5-1 and won NFC East. Both have been brittle, but were key in run to ‘00 Super Bowl. Grade: A-

N.Y. Jets        
Bill Parcells was given opportunity to “pick the groceries,” and on this first shopping trip, he went the Price Club route—quantity over quality. Unable to convince Peyton Manning to skip his senior season, the Jets traded out of No. 1 overall slot to fill multiple holes. Top pick LB James Farrior finally developed in ‘01 (but Jets brought in Sam Cowart to replace him anyway). Others—DT Rick Terry, WR Dedric Ward, DE Terry Day, RB Leon Johnson—provided little bang for buck. No. 7 DT Jason Ferguson may have been best choice. Buchsbaum: “Farrior could be this year’s John Mobley.” He meant it as a compliment. Grade: C-

Top pick DT Darrell Russell was an All-Pro in ‘98, but he was suspended from league last year for drug use. Classic Raider draft hubris, believing problem guys make the best Raiders. DE Grady Jackson at No. 6 became starter, then a Saint. Balzer: “I have a gut feeling Russell will never be what everyone expects.” Grade: C+.

Traded down on first two picks, getting DE Jon Harris and LB James Darling, both nonentities. Moved up in third to snare RB Duce Staley, a far wiser move. No. 4 S Damien Robinson is keeping the authorities busy as N.Y. Jet, while No. 5 DE Ndwuke Kalu was cut, went to ‘Skins, came back for more dough as free agent in ‘01. Give Kiper credit for tabbing Harris a bust: “This is the biggest reach since Denver selected (QB) Tommy Maddox.” Grade: C+

Annually among the savviest drafters, Steelers took this year off. No. 1 DB Chad Scott has underachieved, No. 2 WR Will Blackwell is average at best, No. 3 T Paul Wiggins just didn’t cut it. Other No. 3 DE Mike Vrabel picked up a ring with the Pats in ‘01. Main reason this draft flubbed—no LB’s selected. No team mines them better. Grade: D+

St. Louis
Diametric opposite of Jet draft—traded to top spot for T Orlando Pace, a perennial All-Pro and the best player from the ‘97 crop. Only other two quality picks, DB Dexter McCleon and T Ryan Tucker, started on ‘99, ‘01 Super Bowl squads. Dick Vermeil not afraid to pull trigger after ugly ‘96 draft, featuring No. 1 picks Lawrence Phillips and Eddie Kennison. Grade: A

San Diego
For the fourth straight year, Bolts traded away their No. 1 pick. No. 2 TE Freddie Jones never reached stardom seemingly within grasp. No. 4 T Raleigh Roundtree only other choice to stick in NFL. In ‘98, SD finally kept its No. 1, and picked Ryan Leaf. Ahh, irony. Grade: D+

San Francisco
The story line seemed set—Bill Walsh and Co. draft the next great Niner QB, and Jim Druckenmiller steps in for Steve Young without missing a beat. Didn’t quite work out that way. Only two other picks, and FB Marc Edwards was no William Floyd, TE Greg Clark no Brent Jones. Kiper: “Druckenmiller is by far the best QB in the draft, and should have gone in the top ten.” Grade: D-

With two choices in top six overall, ‘Hawks were poised to alter course of franchise. Instead, DB Shawn Springs and T Walter Jones accept big paychecks to imitate impact players. More quality stemmed from No. 6 TE Itula Mili. Grade: D

Tampa Bay
Superb draft saw Rookie of the Year RB Warrick Dunn, WR Reidel Anthony, T Jerry Wunsch, G Frank Middleton, and DB Ronde Barber all arrive in first 66 picks. Granted, Bucs offense hardly a strong suit, but still fine work by John McKay Jr. Remaining picks TE Patrick Hape and DB Al Harris are still in league. Dr. Z.: “Dunn’s one of the only guys in this draft with superstar qualities.” Grade: A

Last draft in Houston not a glorious one, with frustrating DE Kenny Holmes and bust WR Joey Kent going 1-2 (not easy to pick a bad U of Tennessee wideout, but they managed). Better luck in mid-draft, especially WR Derrick Mason (fourth). Grade: C-

L’il Danny Snyder gets most of the blame for the ‘Skins freefall, deservedly, but this draft helped. No. 1 DE Kenard Lang found groove too late, No. 2 Greg Jones and No. 3 Derek Smith are mediocrities at LB. No. 4 WR Albert Connell is just plain scary. No. 5 G Brad Badger became starter. Grade: C-

There’s clearly a link between strong drafts and Super Bowl victories. Of the champs since the ‘97 draft (Denver x 2, Baltimore, St. Louis, New England), only the Pats had a lousy grade. The 11 teams I gave a B grade or higher have averaged 8.4 wins per year since. Ten of the 11 have made the playoffs (only the Bengals, typically, buck this trend), and of those, all but Arizona have made multiple visits to the postseason.

Of course, if you had believed the insta-analysis, there should have been burning tires and tipped-over police cars in the Motor City at some point during the last five years. The commentariat was united behind the excellence of the Lions’ draft, trumpeting the acquisition of a “shutdown corner” (all first-round corners are given this label, which usually lasts until the first quarter of the opener), a “road grader” for the O-line, and a “steal” in Abrams. Nothing unleashes draftnik drool like a player getting plucked a round or two below his perceived value. Of course, none of those players made any impact, and Detroit has remained helplessly mired in mediocrity.