Best and Worst in the First Round
It won’t be a surprise to see which teams have been the best and worst in making first-round draft picks (1995-2005). Each team, save one, listed in the “best” group either won a Super Bowl or led its conference in wins at least once during the period. The “worst” teams have been some of the weakest teams in recent memory, and only one got to a Super Bowl during the period.
The first round is both overrated and underrated in the draft. True, a team’s success often can hinge on finding players late in the draft – Terrell Davis and Tom Brady were both sixth-rounders and can honestly say they’re the reason their teams won a combined five Super Bowls. But first-rounders are the guys you have to pay big money. If you pick well, they’ll pay for themselves. If you pick poorly, even with the ability to release players quickly, you’re going to be on the hook for them for at least a while.
And teams will do anything to prove they didn’t make a big mistake with a high pick, so they’ll likely hang on to a first-rounder longer than necessary, often in vain. Tying up salary in a player who doesn’t pan out is the surest path to mediocrity in the NFL. Here are the teams that have done the best and worst with what they’ve had to work with in the first round.
Best First-Round Drafters
Baltimore – Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Duane Starks and Chris McAlister came in consecutive first rounds and formed a nucleus for one of the best defenses in NFL history. They’ve also picked up Jonathan Ogden, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. If Kyle Boller can turn it around, they might have the nucleus of another Super Bowl team.
Indianapolis – A virtual Pro Bowl team can be made from their first-round selections: Peyton Manning at QB, Edgerrin James at RB, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne at WR, Dallas Clark at TE, Tarik Glenn at OT, and Dwight Freeney at DE. And until James left for Arizona a month ago, each one was still with the Colts. Nevertheless, the abundance of offensive talent reflects the team’s neglect of defense, which is why they haven’t won a championship.
Seattle – The Seahawks drafted many of the key cogs in their Super Bowl team in the first round: Walter Jones, Shaun Alexander, Steve Hutchinson, Jerramy Stevens, Marcus Trufant and Marcus Tubbs. Two of their biggest busts – Chris McIntosh and Koren Robinson – came in years when they had two first-round picks, and they got Alexander and Hutchinson with the others. They also drafted Joey Galloway in 1995 and Pete Kendall in 1996.
New York Jets– The Jets may be the only team to not have a legendary bust during this period. Check out this group: Kyle Brady, Hugh Douglas, Keyshawn Johnson, James Farrior, Shaun Ellis, John Abraham, Chad Pennington, Anthony Becht, Santana Moss, Bryan Thomas, Dewayne Robertson and Jonathan Vilma. Their faults are taking some of these players a little too high (Brady, Johnson, Robertson) and letting a few (Douglas, Farrior, Moss) get away.
Jacksonville – They nearly got to the Super Bowl with Tony Boselli, James Stewart, Kevin Hardy, Fred Taylor and Donovan Darius. They went 12-4 last year with Taylor, Darius, Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, and Byron Leftwich. Time will tell about 2004 and 2005 draftees Reggie Williams and Matt Jones.
Pittsburgh – A team that has drafted low in most first rounds but has landed Mark Bruener, Alan Faneca, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller. And then there was that quarterback they took with the 11th pick in 2004. If only the Steelers would stay away from wide receivers (Troy Edwards in 1999, Plaxico Burress in 2000).
Tampa Bay – A franchise that once made a laughingstock of the draft has actually righted itself nicely in the past 10 years, getting Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the same first round, then picking up Warrick Dunn and Anthony McFarland in later drafts. They also scored Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams in the first round last year.
Denver – They haven’t been perfect (Marcus Nash, Willie Middlebrooks) and often have drafted near the bottom of the first round, but all three linebackers from last season (John Mobley, Al Wilson and D.J. Williams) were first-rounders, as well as offensive starters Ashley Lelie and George Foster.
Worst First-Round Drafters
Cleveland – They had the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years and misfired bigtime on both – Tim Couch and Courtney Brown. Then there’s Gerard Warren, William Green and Kellen Winslow. All of these have come since 1999, which explains why Romeo Crennel has his work cut out for him.
Miami – The Dolphins haven’t had many first-rounders (only seven in 11 years) and used four of them on Billy Milner, Yatil Green, John Avery and Jamar Fletcher. Daryl Gardener was nothing special and Vernon Carey is just becoming a starter. There’s hope for Ronnie Brown to start a new era.
Chicago – They’ve improved in recent years, if Rex Grossman can stay healthy. But that doesn’t undo some legendary misses, including Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Enis, Cade McNown, David Terrell and Marc Colombo. Brian Urlacher is clearly the gem in this group.
Arizona – Some memorable busts, including Tom Knight, Andre Wadsworth, Wendell Bryant and Bryant Johnson. The jury is still out on Antrel Rolle. Simeon Rice and Thomas Jones have done better elsewhere. Leonard Davis hasn’t lived up to a No. 2 pick.
San Francisco – Aside from Julian Peterson in 2000, you're looking at the likes of J.J. Stokes, R.W. McQuarters, Reggie McGrew, Ahmed Plummer, Andre Carter, Mike Rumph and Rashaun Woods. Let's hope for the Niners sake that Alex Smith pans out.
Oakland – The Raiders’ sin has often been to reach for players too high, such as Rickey Dudley and Sebastian Janikowski. There was the late Darrell Russell at No. 2 in 1997 and forgettable first-rounders in Napoleon Kaufman, Matt Stinchcomb, Phillip Buchanon and Nnamdi Asomugha. One exception: 1998, when the Raiders drafted Charles Woodson and Mo Collins.
Detroit – Oh, those receivers. Roy Williams has been OK. Mike Williams was a nonfactor last year. Charles Rogers has been injured. Then you have the quarterback who was trying to get them the ball, Joey Harrington (No. 3 in 2002). Aaron Gibson was a big bust, in more ways than one. Terry Fair was fair at best and Bryant Westbrook wasn’t much better. We’ll let them off the hook for Reggie Brown, whose career was cut short by a neck injury.
Cincinnati – If this study went back further, the Bengals might be the runaway winners, er, losers, thanks to Alfred Williams, David Klingler, and Dan Wilkinson, among others. But here the Bengals only have to pay for Ki-Jana Carter, Akili Smith, and Peter Warrick, and they’ve balanced it somewhat with Willie Anderson, Takeo Spikes, Levi Jones and Carson Palmer.