On the eve of the 2016 NFL Draft, much of the drama surrounding the top two picks has subsided. Over the last two weeks, both the Rams and Eagles traded up in order to secure a potential franchise quarterback. Arguably, it will take several years before anyone can properly evaluate the trades. However, I believe the evaluation can begin already based on the expected value of the draft picks involved. For example, the Rams will win if their pick matches the career of Eli Manning. Similarly, the Eagles will win if their pick matches the career of Philip Rivers. Is either case possible? Certainly. Probable? Certainly not.
Influenced by impressive combine results, the St. Louis Rams took Baylor OT Jason Smith with the #2 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Despite high expectations, Smith ended his four-year career as the least productive offensive lineman ever taken with a top 5 overall pick. While he seemingly deserves to be labeled a Top 10 Bust, his lack of production can be attributed to a history of serious head injuries. In particular, he suffered two season-ending concussions during his first three years in the league. Smith recovered from the first one, but never started again after the second. It’s uncertain how good he might have been without the injuries, but it’s unfair to label him as an all-time bust because of them.
Prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, I identified Jameis Winston as a potential Top 10 Bust. In particular, I labeled him as an interception-prone QB lacking the maturity needed to lead an NFL franchise. Winston proved me wrong by having a productive rookie year on the field and avoiding problems off of it. Of note, he earned a spot in the Pro Bowl and became the inspirational leader of the significantly improved Buccaneers. If his career stalls for whatever reason (e.g. over confidence, decline in work ethic), Winston still may end up being a bust. For now, however, it appears that Tampa Bay made a good choice with its #1 overall pick.
Throughout the opening night coverage of the 2015 NFL Draft, Mel Kiper continually stated that teams should avoid running backs such as Todd Gurley and Mel Gordon in the first round even though they were top prospects. Kiper is well known for making bold speculative predictions, but it seemed like this one could be analyzed. In response, I reviewed drafts from 1977-2007 to evaluate top ten draft picks by position. I’ve already written two posts (one focused on offense and the other on defense) discussing the upside and downside associated with those draft picks. In this post, I’ll use that analysis to evaluate the first ten overall picks in the 2015 Draft to try to identify the most likely future Top 10 Busts.
As detailed in my last post, I was intrigued by Mel Kiper’s pre-draft comment that running backs such as Todd Gurley and Mel Gordon should be avoided in the first round even though they were top prospects. In response, I reviewed previous drafts from 1977-2007 to evaluate top ten draft picks by position. In this post, I evaluate draft picks on the defensive side of the ball to determine which positions are the most worthwhile. As a quick summary:
Defensive Linemen: 5% are complete busts / 45% make at least one Pro Bowl / 20% are truly game changers;
Defensive Backs: 10% are complete busts / 60% make at least one Pro Bowl / 15% are truly game changers; and
Linebackers: 5% are complete busts / 50% make at least one Pro Bowl / 15% are truly game changers.
Based on these numbers, it appears that defensive linemen offer the best risk/return profile with the lowest percentage of busts and highest percentage of game changers. With respect to defensive backs vs. linebackers, the decision is less clear with DBs having more upside and more downside.
The most interesting debate from the first night of the 2015 NFL Draft involved the exchange between Chris Berman and Mel Kiper regarding the sensibility of taking a running back in the first round. As Berman pushed for teams to select highly rated running backs Todd Gurley and Mel Gordon, Kiper argued that teams shouldn’t waste a first round pick on either player. Specifically, the long-time NFL draft expert claimed productive running backs could be found in later rounds. In response, I researched early first round picks to determine which positions provide the most value.
Quarterbacks: 25% were complete busts / 50% became Pro Bowl players / 20% won at least one Super Bowl;
Running Backs: 20% were complete busts / 55% became Pro Bowl players / 25% are Hall-of-Fame caliber;
Receivers: 10% were complete busts / 50% became Pro Bowl players / 30% could be considered game changers; and
Offensive Linemen: 5% were complete busts / 60% became Pro Bowl players /25% made at least five Pro Bowls.
So, which position offers the best risk/return profile? You’ll just have to read on.
This post summarizes the Top 10 Busts from the NFL Draft, as well as a group of Honorable Mentions who just missed the cut. You can refer to individual posts in which each bust is thoroughly evaluated and discussed, but here’s a ranking to whet your appetite.
#10. Brian Bosworth
#9. David Klingler
#8. Heath Shuler
#7. Jack Thompson
#6. Lawrence Phillips
#5. Akili Smith
#4. Charles Rogers
#3. JaMarcus Russell
#2. Art Schlichter
#1. Ryan Leaf
In the 2015 Rose Bowl, Florida State’s chance for a second consecutive FBS title ended with a humiliating 59-20 loss to Oregon. Although only a semifinal game in the first College Football Playoff, the match-up between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will provide an interesting backdrop as these two Heisman Trophy winners move on to the NFL. As a college superstar who likely will be a top 10 overall pick, Winston will be eligible for consideration as a Top 10 Bust when his career ends. Should I start the betting at five years?
When conducting my research, I noticed that many busts could be characterized by recurring themes. I have summarized these themes by presenting them as 7 Lessons from Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks.
1. There’s no such thing as a sure thing
2. When in doubt, draft offensive linemen and avoid receivers
3. Don’t reach with the pick
4. Character matters
5. Avoid players who have peaked already
6. Avoid QBs who were interception leaders in college
7. Get to camp on time
Hypothetically, these NFL draft lessons can be applied going forward to help teams avoid making similar mistakes. Regardless, you can apply them when evaluating the draft decisions made by your favorite team.
As a redshirt junior in 1997, Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf won the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the most outstanding passer in the country. Helping his case, he led the nation in passing yards (3,968) and finished second in passing efficiency with a 158.7 rating. For as impressive as those numbers were, they seem even more impressive considering that Peyton Manning was a senior at Tennessee that year and trailed Leaf in both categories. In particular, Manning had 149 fewer yards on 67 more attempts and an efficiency rating that was 11 points lower. Returning the favor, Manning had more touchdowns (36 vs. 34) and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the most outstanding quarterback in the country. Given their success, it was no surprise when they went 1-2 in the 1998 draft. From that moment on, however, their paths diverged to the point of Manning becoming an all-time great and Leaf becoming an all-time bust. Of note, Leaf’s career totals of 3,700 yards with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions were horrendous. In addition, he had a 4-17 record as a starter. As if things couldn’t get worse, Leaf has been imprisoned for almost two years because of a drug-related crime. While certain players like JaMarcus Russell, Charles Rogers and Lawrence Phillips are all-time busts, Leaf tops them all as the worst of the worst.