Right…..Let’s get this out the way early. The NFL draft is a lottery. It’s a sporting scratch card given elevated status and significance by the surrounding media scrum in an age of twenty four hour news.
I still enjoy watching it. I like to play GM and fill potential holes in the team’s roster with what is available from each year’s collegiate class. We all do. It’s the number one post season past time of any passionate football fan. But if there were any real science to it, any form of reliability in judging talent, then Aaron Rogers wouldn’t have been 24th out the Green Room in 2005 and Antonio Brown wouldn’t have been passed up by everyone half a dozen times before he became a Steeler seven years ago. There are a million over examples of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers being much further down the pecking order than their career suggested they should’ve been. I’m sure you are all recounting specific examples from your favourite team as you read this. There are too many to make reference to in one short article. So I’m not going to even try- we are all busy people, after all….
— Jim Dale (@JamesFDale) November 28, 2016
Of course, there are number one draft picks that go on to do incredible things. Payton Manning was first out in 1998 (more on that draft class in a bit, folks!) and put up monster numbers throughout an incredible career. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?! Some work. Some don’t. That’s always been the case. In fact, Trent Dilfer said were it not his job to cover the draft for ESPN, he wouldn’t bother watching it. The former Ravens Quarterback and NFL pundit is clearly more exciting in interview than he ever was on the field.
So if it is so difficult to predict who will be a success in the professional game, then what can really be decided as ‘Bust’. In my mind, a bust is only such if the player is a high 1st round pick with high expectations of greatness, only to offer very little productivity when they reach the big leagues. Such examples are actually extremely rare.
Bad luck with injury doesn’t count- not in my eyes anyway
Ki Jana Carter suffered a serious knee injury early in his NFL career. He never recovered the form he showed at Penn State. As is the nature of the running back position, their shelf life is shorter than most and there are always plenty of guys around the league that are capable of productivity. If anything you have to question whether it is ever a value for money decision to take an RB in top spot of a draft, however talented.
Brian Bosworth. Image: seahawks.com
Brian Bosworth is another ‘legendary bust’ but he retired after his second year through injury after a reasonable start in Seattle. What can you do? The fact that his hair cuts were dubious, there were rumours of steroid use in College and that he was offered a bonkers rookie contract (estimated at a guaranteed $10m back in 1990) are by the by.
Tim Couch….took a beating and damaged his shoulder. His down field threat that was part of the allure in his college days. As soon as his arm lacked the horse power to deliver the ball deep, it was only a matter of time. He was disappointing, sure. But he was at the Browns.
Circumstance are a big factor in how rookies perform…
David Carr got sacked 76 times (76!!!) in his rookie season in Houston. The number one overall pick in 2002 would likely have had a better than average career if he was learning the game behind an offensive line blessed with the gift of opposable thumbs. Being dumped on your backside every other play isn’t going to instil confidence in your team, your body or your game. It’s no coincidence that Dak Prescot and Ezekiel Elliot have thrived in the league, given they have the best O-line in the game in front of them. It also helps to have a big game wide out in Bryant and a gutsy slot guy in Beasley as a safety valve. Stick Carr in this Cowboys side and things could, and probably would have been very different.
Vince Young was a victim of politics and lacked the emotional maturity to deal with his situation. He ended up at the wrong Franchise with a Head Coach that didn’t want him, all because the Titans owners were playing a game of one-upmanship. That was a move that had a huge effect on both Young and Rose Bowl rival Matt Leinart’s career. Yes they had chances elsewhere and didn’t cut it, but their formative years in the pros were sure to have a lasting impact. Indeed Titans HC Jeff Fischer actually wanted Lienart because he fitted in his system. The pressure of following up one of the greatest games of College football in history is also a factor in how things panned out. (As an aside, check out the documentary on 2006 Rosebowl between USC and Texas. One of the greatest College games ever. It’s got Snoop Dogg and Matthew McConaghey in it, too. What’s not to like?!)
I realise that it is easy to explain in hindsight what went wrong with these guys… but that’s the point- you never know until they get there. Is it attitude, physique, bad luck, mentality to handle the pressure? Maybe fans, scouts and media alike should stop over hyping these young men into superstars before they take their first snap. Expectation is the yardstick and justification for a dubbing someone a ‘draft bust’. I have always found it easy to manage my expectations, in football terms at least. I guess that’s why I don’t believe in the ‘bust’….with the possible exception of Ryan Leaf, that is.
Leaf went a close second overall in 1998 behind a certain Payton Manning. He went to the Chargers, Manning to the Colts. Leaf wasn’t just disappointing. He was absolutely hopeless. The former Washington State Quarter Back played four seasons in the pros for four different teams, with a horrible 14/36 TD-to-INT ratio and a QB rating of 50. He was a great physical specimen, but was his heart ever in it? His life spiralled out of control after retirement. Drug abuse and prison sentences meant he spent more of his life on the front pages of the papers than the back.
We all know that Tom Brady is a freak for winning five Superbowls
It is all the more ridiculous after being taken on day 17 of the draft as the 9,463rd pick overall. But Malcolm Butler was found in the later rounds, too. This goes to show the importance of the team doing the drafting, and scouting a player to fit that scheme.
It is no coincidence that certain teams draft well and certain teams don’t. It’s not bad luck. The Browns are more likely to take a risk on players like Johnny Manziel than the Pats. Why? Because there is a desperation in Cleveland that means they have (or at least they think they have) to gamble talent over personality. The AFC north has been dominated by Pittsburgh and Baltimore for 20 years. How can the other two teams compete in a division with such well run ball clubs? The answer is they can’t. Not without playing the ‘long game’ and building for a long term future. It’s hard to do that when your organisation won’t be patient enough to allow for any coaching continuity. How often do the Steelers trade up or down in the draft to chase a name? The answer is they don’t. They plan and recruit based on an ethos and identity that is redolent of a structured, confident franchise. You never get a big disappointment in Steeler country on draft weekend. You don’t get much excitement either. That’s the way they like it. Same with the Ravens. Same with the Pats. Same with the Colts. Same with the Packers. That’s why they are the best at it.
If you take the examples of the Raiders and the Falcons, they have been two of the worst drafting sides in the pro game in the past 20 years. In the past couple of years, there has been a real effort from both of those organisations to project an identity. Much has been made of the turn around on defence in Atlanta because they are drafting the right players for the way they want to play. They are reaping the rewards (the last game of the season aside).
There is no guarantee any player you select in the draft will work out. All you can do is minimise the risks by selecting the right style of player with the right sort of attributes, physically and mentally, for your organisation. Losing teams seem more prone to drafting ‘problem characters’. Really, they should avoid them like the plague. Let the Belichicks, and Tomlins of this world deal with the bad boys of the league. They have the ability to turn them in to company guys as well as the courage to kick them to the curb if they need to.
I suppose what I am trying to say, in a very long winded way, is that only in very exception circumstances is the player alone to blame for failing in the NFL. Even if their attitude stinks, it is as much a GMs fault for not doing due diligence and taking a wide birth. Moreover, given the high turnover of talent, an average career lasting only 3 years, and different individuals peaking at different times, we shouldn’t be surprised that big college talent under achieves. If anything, we should be surprised it doesn’t happen more often.