On May 11 (the day after the completion of the 2014 draft) football fans will be inundated with draft grades for NFL teams. While this makes for some interesting reading, we must bear in mind that these grades are for players that have yet to be seen in an NFL uniform.
The irony is that, while there are isolated exceptions, by the time a draft class is truly “gradable” there is little interest in doing so by the media. Draft classes will begin to disassemble as early as the 2014 training camp and continue as players drop by the wayside one by one. It will not take long for a draft class to lose its identity.
This article attempts to remedy this situation by taking a look back at past drafts and identifying the winners and losers in those drafts at this point in time. The issue of who had the best draft in 1994 is not particularly relevant right now so I confined this review to the 2004 through 2013 draft classes. The evaluation of recent drafts is problematic as careers are still evolving, but I will do a preliminary assessment anyway.
The assessment of draft classes is not a cut and dried exercise. Do you focus only on impact players or place more emphasis on solid starters? How much weight is given a player departing the team that drafted him after his rookie contract expires? There are a myriad of factors to be considered. I will try to weigh all relevant factors in my analysis.
This is a tough call between the Chargers and Cardinals, with the minor edge going to the Chargers. This was the Eli Manning draft with the Chargers taking Manning and sending him to the Giants for Philip Rivers and draft choices that turned out to be Shawne Merriman (2005) and Nate Kaeding (2004). San Diego’s 2004 draft ended up with four players who were selected to the Pro Bowl at least once, though Michael Turner had to move onto Atlanta to get playing time and earn his honors.
The Cardinals also had a great draft, adding Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith. Fitzgerald and Dockett have spent their entire careers in Arizona, while Dansby and Smith moved on midway through their careers. Regardless, four solid starters with two Pro Bowl level players is an enviable draft.
It might be unfair to downgrade the Ravens’ draft because they did not have a first round selection, but their draft class started only 90 NFL games in their careers. Second round selection Dwan Edwards accounted for 65 of those starts, but only 23 were for the Ravens, as Edwards moved on in free agency. Basically there was no help for the Ravens in this draft.
Of the teams with a full complement of draft selections, neither the Eagles nor the Vikings did much to help themselves. The Eagles had 10 selections but no second round pick. Shawn Andrews was the only player who added much value and he had only 57 starts in his career. The Vikings had eight selections and three picks in the first three rounds. Kenechi Udeze was the most productive player selected but his career ended prematurely when he was diagnosed with leukemia after four seasons.
The Cowboys were the clear winner of the 2005 draft, selecting three Pro Bowl players as part of a draft class that started 560 NFL games. Demarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Kevin Burnett and Chris Canty were part of this draft, along with RB Marion Barber. Burnett didn’t do much for the Cowboys and all but four of his starts were split among the Chargers, Dolphins and Raiders. No team was really a close second to the Cowboys.
All you need to know about the Bills draft (with no first rounder) is that Duke Preston was the best starter drafted. Roscoe Parrish saw plenty of action as a kick returner but he started only five games in his career. Third round draftee Kevin Everett had his career end early due to injury and contribution was limited.
Of the teams with first round selections, the Bengals were possibly the unluckiest team in the history of the draft. First round pick David Pollock saw his career end due to injury early in this second season; second rounder Odell Thurman was suspended for drug and alcohol abuse, effectively ending his career; and third round pick Chris Henry was involved in a series of off-field incidents before being killed in a fall from a pickup truck.
There is strong competition for the winner of this draft. I would have to give the edge to the Saints as they turned eight picks (with no third round pick) into six starters. This list of starters includes Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Rob Ninkovich, Zach Strief and Marques Colston. Ninkovich, of course, is best known for his play with the Patriots and Bush was moved by the Saints to Miami in a trade in which they received practically nothing in return.
The Broncos, also without the benefit of a third round pick, had a great draft crop that did not stay long in Denver. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall saw things differently than management and were traded for a combination of hits and misses that included Tim Tebow, Demaryius Thomas, Orlando Franklin and Richard Quinn. Elvis Dumervil was lost through a paperwork foulup with nothing received in return.
The Rams had the worst draft as they turned 10 overall picks and five in the first three rounds into only 109 total career starts with second round TE Joe Klopfenstein having the most with 38. First-rounder Tye Hill was a bust as were all three third round picks.
The 49ers were the clear winner of the 2007 draft as they selected three players who achieved All-Pro Status. They parlayed two first round picks into Patrick Willis and Joe Staley and also added Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown later in the draft.
The Ravens trailed the 49ers but picked up three players who achieved Pro Bowl status in Ben Grubbs, Marshall Yanda and Le’Ron McClain. Grubb and McClain both departed from Baltimore relatively early in their careers.
The Colts and the Rams brought up the rear in the 2007 draft. The Colts had nine selections with four in the first three rounds and ended up with only 105 career starts from the group. First round pick Anthony Gonzalez had two decent seasons before hurting his knee and never returned to form. Second round pick Tony Ugoh played three seasons for the Colts before being waived. Clint Session was the only other player to see much NFL action.
The Rams had eight selections in a full complement of choices in the first three rounds but were able to get only 107 starts from the group. Most of these came from 1st round pick Adam Carriker but he had only 25 of his 58 starts for the Rams before being traded to the Redskins for basically nothing.
The Chiefs were the clear winner of the 2008 draft adding six players who became NFL starters. This group included Glenn Dorsey, Brandon Albert, Brandon Flowers, Jamal Charles, Brandon Carr and Barry Richardson. Kansas City had 12 total selections and six in the first three rounds and they made good use of them. This group is starting to disassemble, though, as Carr and Richardson left in free agency before the 2012 seasons, Dorsey before the 2013 season and Albert after the 2013 season.
The Steelers had a full complement of picks but earned the loser title in this draft. Only Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Mundy achieved starter status, and Mundy’s one starting year was with the Giants. Mendenhall had three starting seasons with the Steelers before moving on to Arizona and then retiring after the 2013 season.
This is a tough call between the Lions and Packers. The Lions had 10 selections and five in the top three rounds and added Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy and Sammy Lee Hill.
The Packers added an All-Pro selection in Clay Matthews along with BJ Raji and TJ Lang.
The Broncos failed to take advantage of a great opportunity. They had 10 picks with five of those in the first two rounds. Knowshon Moreno has started 45 of the 96 starts registered by this group and he has moved on to the Dolphins for the 2014 season. Fellow first-rounder Robert Ayers, after a pretty good start to his career, has started only three games in his last two years. None of the three second-round picks has made an impact with all being cut or traded after only a couple of years.
The Cowboys had 12 total selections but none in the first two rounds. This group of players started only 32 NFL games with 25 of those from TE John Phillips. Phillips left the Cowboys in free agency before the 2013 season.
Probably not surprisingly, three 2013 playoff teams did well in this draft. The Seahawks arguably did the best adding Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, Walter Thurmond, Kam Chancellor and Anthony McCoy.
The 49ers list is shorter but still impressive with Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Navorro Bowman in their draft class.
The Patriots draft looked better before the Aaron Hernandez episode but still included Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes.
The Vikings probably had the worst draft despite having eight selections with two in the second round (none in first or third). Only Chris Cook has evolved into a starter and it took until his third season to earn that distinction and he has departed for San Francisco.
While this draft is still a long from getting a final evaluation, the Browns lead the pack with Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, Greg Little, Jordan Cameron and Buster Skrine added to their roster. Cleveland had eight selections with one in the first round, two in the second and none in the third.
The Packers appear to be in the worst position here despite having 10 selections with their full complement in the first three rounds. First choice Derek Sherrod has not contributed so far and third-round pick Alexander Green was waived before the 2013 season. Randall Cobb should be a contributor along with possibly Davon House.
The Rams have a tenuous lead over the rest of the league at this point. The Rams had 10 selections with five in the first three rounds, partly due to the RG3 trade. Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson seem to have claimed starting roles with the potential for Brian Quick to step up as well. K Greg Zuerlein also seems solidly entrenched.
The Colts with Andrew Luck also have to be in the discussion. Add Coby Fleener, Duane Allen and T.Y. Hilton to the mix and they could easily move to the top.
The 49ers traded AJ Jenkins, their first round pick, to the Chiefs for Jonathan Baldwin in an exchange of first round flops. Second round pick LaMichael James plays behind Frank Gore and may be his ultimate successor. At this point, though, no one from this draft class has started a single game for the 49ers.
Several rookie classes look good in 2013. The Jets are off to the best start as five (Dee Milliner, Sheldon Richardson, Geno Smith, Brian Winters and Tommy Bohannon) of their seven selections started at least eight games in 2013.
The Bears, Bills, Bucs, Chargers, Jaguars, Rams and Texans are also in the conversation.
Rookies from the Dolphins and Broncos are off to the slowest start. Only TE Dion Sims started even a single game for the Dolphins.
First round pick Sylvester Williams started four games for the Broncos, Kayvon Webster started two games and Montee Ball saw considerable actions for the Broncos so there is still a lot of promise for the Broncos draft class.
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