NFL Drafts in Hindsight
May 7, 2013 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
This year's NFL draft has already been analyzed to death. And why not? The NFL is the most popular sports league in North America, and there's not much else going on right now.
But rather than continuing to guess about players who have never taken the field as pros, let's look back at those who have, examining the best and worst from recent NFL draft classes.
First Three Picks â€” Cleveland Browns — Courtney Brown (DE, Penn State); Washington Redskins — LaVar Arrington (OLB, Penn State); Washington Redskins — Chris Samuels (OT, Alabama)
Still reaping the benefits of the Ricky Williams trade the year before, Washington traded up to get two of the first three draft spots. Coming off a division title and adding two elite prospects to their bold moves in free agency, Washington was forecast as a Super Bowl contender. Daniel Snyder fired head coach Norv Turner while the team had a winning record and was still in playoff contention; Washington missed the postseason.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Mike Anderson, RB, Denver Broncos
Anderson was caught in a weird RB situation in Denver, but as a 27-year-old rookie, he rushed for 1,487 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging just over 5 yards a carry. Among drafted players, Jamal Lewis probably had the best rookie season.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago Bears
Urlacher was overrated early in his career, but he probably did deserve his DROY selection. It was in '01 and '02 that opponents really began to take advantage of his difficulty shedding blockers.
Best Offensive Player â€” Tom Brady (QB, Michigan), 199th overall
One of the most famous draft snubs in history. Running backs Shaun Alexander, Jamal Lewis, and Thomas Jones were all first-round draft choices this year.
Best Defensive Player â€” Brian Urlacher (MLB, New Mexico), 9th overall
John Abraham and Keith Bulluck were also in this draft class, both as first-rounders.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Tom Brady (QB, Michigan), 199th overall
Worst Draft Pick â€” Jacksonville Jaguars — R. Jay Soward (WR, USC), 29th overall
Soward only lasted one season in the NFL. He caught 14 passes for 108 yards, with no TDs.
Imagine if... the Browns drafted Urlacher.
Tom Brady wasn't on anyone's first-round radar, and Cleveland had just drafted Tim Couch the year before, so it wasn't looking for a quarterback. But what if the Browns had drafted Brian Urlacher or John Abraham? The team made an improbable playoff run in 2002, and with a true defensive standout rather than Courtney Brown, might have sustained that success.
First Three Picks â€” Atlanta Falcons — Michael Vick (QB, Virginia Tech); Arizona Cardinals — Leonard Davis (OL, Texas); Cleveland Browns — Gerard Warren (DT, Florida)
Having been burned by Ryan Leaf three years earlier, the San Diego Chargers wanted no part of Vick with the top slot in the draft. They traded the choice to Atlanta and selected LaDainian Tomlinson from TCU with the 5th pick.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Anthony Thomas, RB, Chicago Bears
Thomas and Tomlinson looked roughly equal as rookies, but if the voters could go back and choose this one again, I suspect they might go in a different direction.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Kendrell Bell, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell had a legitimately impressive rookie season, with 70 solo tackles and 9 sacks, as Pittsburgh advanced to the AFC Championship Game. He struggled with injuries and never repeated that level of productivity.
Best Offensive Player â€” LaDainian Tomlinson (RB, TCU), 5th overall
Drew Brees is still playing at a high level, and it's possible (though not likely) that he could eventually overtake LT. Wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Steve Smith were also drafted in '01. Smith, valued largely as a returner on special teams, lasted until the 3rd round.
Best Defensive Player â€” Richard Seymour (DL, Georgia), 6th overall
Seymour immediately played a critical role in helping the Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVI, and later two more titles. Fellow defensive linemen Justin Smith and Casey Hampton, along with safety Adrian Wilson, were the other standouts from this defensive class.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Drew Brees (QB, Purdue), 32nd overall
Brees had his best years with the Saints, not the Chargers, but a Hall of Fame quarterback still counts as the best pick after the first round. Alternatively, 10-year starter Ryan Diem was a 4th-round draft pick this season.
Worst Draft Pick â€” Green Bay Packers — Jamal Reynolds (DE, Florida State), 10th overall
Reynolds played for three seasons and never started a game. He retired with 3 career sacks.
Imagine if... the Chargers kept the top pick.
This could dramatically re-shape the last decade in the NFL. I don't know what the dog-fighting community in San Diego is like, but it's at least plausible that Vick's career might have gone much differently if he went to the Chargers. Barring a trade up to get him, Tomlinson probably would have slipped to the Bears, who'd choose him instead of Thomas. And since the Chargers got their QB at the top of the draft, it's not out of the question that the Chicago Bears might have drafted both Tomlinson and Brees.
First Three Picks â€” Houston Texans — David Carr (QB, Fresno State); Carolina Panthers — Julius Peppers (DE, North Carolina); Detroit Lions — Joey Harrington (QB, Oregon)
I don't think it's a good idea for expansion teams to draft quarterbacks. With no offensive line and an awful defense that usually had him playing from behind, Carr was doomed to failure. The Texans could have been successful much sooner if they had drafted Peppers and taken one of the '04 QBs (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger) when there were more pieces in place.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Clinton Portis, RB, Denver Broncos
Portis rushed for 1,500 yards, with a 5.5 average and 17 total TDs. Jeremy Shockey also had a good season, but he was annoying.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina Panthers
Dwight Freeney actually had more sacks (13.0) than Peppers (12.0), but Peppers did that despite missing four games. Dallas safety Roy Williams began his career with a bang, including 2 sacks, 8 takeaways, and 2 touchdowns on INT returns. John Henderson managed 6.5 sacks at a position that doesn't usually lend itself to stats.
Best Offensive Player â€” Clinton Portis (RB, Miami), 51st overall
Portis rushed for at least 1,200 yards six times, and at least 1,500 in three of those years. The Broncos traded him after two years, getting Champ Bailey and a second-round pick in return.
Best Defensive Player â€” Ed Reed (DB, Miami), 24th overall
Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney will probably be Hall of Famers one day, but Ed Reed may be the greatest defensive back in the history of football.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Brett Keisel (DL, BYU), 242nd overall
Portis was probably a little better player, but purely on value, 7th-rounder Keisel is king. He's spent the past decade as an anchor on the best defensive line in the NFL.
Worst Draft Pick â€” Arizona Cardinals — Wendell Bryant (DT, Wisconsin), 12th overall
Even before he was suspended for a third violation (in three years!) of the NFL's substance abuse policy, Bryant looked like a major bust. He started only 9 games in the NFL.
Imagine if... the Texans drafted Peppers instead of Carr.
First Three Picks â€” Cincinnati Bengals — Carson Palmer (QB, USC); Detroit Lions — Charles Rogers (WR, Michigan State); Houston Texans — Andre Johnson (WR, Miami)
This was Detroit's second consecutive season with a top-three pick, but as bad as the Lions were in the Matt Millen era, they never drafted first overall. Millen was gone by the time Detroit drafted Matthew Stafford in 2009.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Anquan Boldin, WR, Arizona Cardinals
In his very first game, Boldin broke Hugh Taylor's rookie record for single-game receiving yards, catching 10 passes for 217 yards and 2 TDs. He finished the year with 101 receptions for 1,377 yards and 8 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Terrell Suggs, DE/OLB, Baltimore Ravens
Used mostly as a situational pass rusher, Suggs recorded 12 sacks and an interception in 2003. Terence Newman (4 INT, 17 PD) and Kevin Williams (10.5 sacks) also had very strong rookie seasons.
Best Offensive Player â€” Jason Witten (TE, Tennessee), 69th overall
This is a really close call over Andre Johnson and Anquan Boldin. Johnson has been a monster when healthy, and Boldin's numbers would be much bigger if he'd played on more explosive offenses. But Witten's outstanding receiving and good blocking make him one of the 10 best tight ends in history.
I'm not evaluating undrafted players, but I'd probably have Witten ahead of fellow tight end Antonio Gates, as well. Gates was unstoppable from 2004-10. But he missed the second half of 2010 with an injury, and hasn't looked nearly the same since he returned, while Witten is coming off one of his best seasons, including a career-high 110 receptions. They're both 8-time Pro Bowlers, but Witten is quickly pulling ahead.
Best Defensive Player â€” Troy Polamalu (DB, USC), 16th overall
This is one of the most loaded defensive classes in the history of the draft. Just looking at defensive backs, you've got Terence Newman, Marcus Trufant, Polamalu, Nnamdi Asomugha, Charles Tillman, Rashean Mathis, Terrence McGee, Asante Samuel, and Ike Taylor. The 2003 draft class also included Kevin Williams, Terrell Suggs, and Lance Briggs, not to mention Osi Umenyiora and Robert Mathis.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Jason Witten (TE, Tennessee), 69th overall
Lance Briggs (68th) and Robert Mathis (138th) are in the running here, as well.
Worst Draft Pick â€” Detroit Lions — Charles Rogers (WR, Michigan State), 2nd overall
Rogers, taken one pick before Andre Johnson and 52 before Anquan Boldin, caught 36 passes for 440 yards in his NFL career. Both Johnson and Boldin topped that as rookies. Both now have over 10,000 receiving yards, and both are still playing at a high level.
Imagine if... Detroit chose Andre Johnson over Charles Rogers.
Matt Millen might still be their GM.
First Three Picks â€” San Diego Chargers — Eli Manning (QB, Ole Miss); Oakland Raiders — Robert Gallery (OT, Iowa); Arizona Cardinals — Larry Fitzgerald (WR, Pitt)
Manning's daddy announced before the draft that he would not play for the Chargers. They drafted him anyway, but traded Eli to the Giants in exchange for Philip Rivers and the choices used on Shawne Merriman (in '05) and Nate Kaeding.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The first QB to win OROY honors in 30 years, Big Ben was an easy choice after he helped the Steelers to a 15-1 record and broke Dan Marino's rookie record for passer rating (98.1).
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Jonathan Vilma, ILB, New York Jets
In a year with no other obvious standouts, Vilma made 77 solo tackles, with 2 sacks, 3 INTs, and a touchdown.
Best Offensive Player â€” Larry Fitzgerald (WR, Pitt), 3rd overall
All three first-round QBs (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger) have done good things, and Steven Jackson has put together a very nice career in St. Louis. But Fitzgerald has most consistently distinguished himself from his peers.
Best Defensive Player â€” Jared Allen (DE, Idaho State), 126th overall
Allen is easily the strongest defensive player from the '04 draft class, but Vince Wilfork and Darnell Dockett also came into the league through this draft. Sean Taylor was the 5th overall pick, an explosive player whose career ended with his death from gun violence.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Jared Allen (DE, Idaho State), 126th overall
Allen played four seasons for Kansas City, including two with double-digit sacks, before the team traded him to Minnesota for a pair of first-round picks.
Worst Draft Pick â€” San Francisco 49ers — Rashaun Woods (WR, Oklahoma State), 31st overall
Woods played only one season and never made a start. He caught 7 passes for 160 yards and 1 touchdown.
Imagine if... you scrambled the QBs.
Manning to the Steelers, Ben to San Diego, Rivers to the Giants. How many Super Bowls has each team won?
First Three Picks â€” San Francisco 49ers — Alex Smith (QB, Utah); Miami Dolphins — Ronnie Brown (RB, Auburn); Cleveland Browns — Braylon Edwards (WR, Michigan)
The Dolphins were one of three teams to draft a running back in the top five, with the Bears choosing Cedric Benson and the Buccaneers drafting Brown's teammate, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.
Braylon Edwards was the third straight receiver chosen 3rd overall.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Cadillac Williams, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When I named my 2005 All-Pro team, I sold out and went with Cadillac over Patriots lineman Logan Mankins. I wish I could have that one back.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Shawne Merriman, OLB, San Diego Chargers
Probably the best class of rookie linebackers in the history of the draft. Merriman was a runaway choice as DROY, but in most years, Lofa Tatupu (Pro Bowl), DeMarcus Ware (8 sacks), and Odell Thurman (98 tackles, 5 INT) would have been contenders. Derrick Johnson and LeRoy Hill had nice years at outside linebacker.
Best Offensive Player â€” Aaron Rodgers (QB, California), 24th overall
Rodgers sat on the bench behind Brett Favre for three years, but he's become such an exceptional player that he's the right choice. Roddy White, Logan Mankins, and Frank Gore were also rookies in '05.
Best Defensive Player â€” DeMarcus Ware (OLB, Troy), 11th overall
Ware could retire today and he'd be a Hall of Famer. He's had double-digit sacks for seven seasons in a row, including two years leading the league.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Jay Ratliff (DT, Auburn), 224th overall
Straight up, I'd probably go with Frank Gore. But Gore was a third-round pick. Ratliff was a seventh-rounder, and for a year or two, he might have been the best interior lineman in the NFL.
Worst Draft Pick â€” Minnesota Vikings — Troy Williamson (WR, South Carolina), 7th overall
The combination of Williamson (7th) and Erasmus James (18th) has got to rank among the most disappointing first rounds in the history of the draft. Williamson stuck in the league for five seasons, as a returner and backup receiver, but James played only 12 games for the Vikings and ended his career with just 5 sacks.
Maurice Clarett (101st overall) earns a dishonorable mention. He was cut in training camp and never played a down in the NFL.
Imagine if... Daniel Snyder were smart.
In the week leading up to the draft, Washington traded first-, third-, and fourth-round choices to the Broncos so it could move up and take quarterback Jason Campbell 25th. Aaron Rodgers unexpectedly fell in the draft, and Green Bay selected him 24th. If Snyder had waited until draft day, he could have traded up to get Rodgers instead of Campbell. Joe Gibbs and Santana Moss still have nightmares about this.
First Three Picks â€” Houston Texans — Mario Williams (DE, NC State); New Orleans Saints — Reggie Bush (RB, USC); Tennessee Titans — Vince Young (QB, Texas)
Leading into the draft, it was a foregone conclusion that Houston would either select Bush (supposedly the second coming of Gale Sayers), or reach for a local hero and take Vince Young. All three players had their moments, but none are still with the teams that drafted them.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Vince Young, QB, Tennessee Titans
Let the record show that I chose Maurice Jones-Drew, who led all rookies in TDs (16) while contributing as a rusher (941 yds, 5.7 avg), receiver (436 yds), and kickoff returner (860 yds, 27.7 avg). Young went 8-5 as a starter, but he had a 66.7 passer rating. Marques Colston was the prohibitive favorite halfway through the season, but injuries cost him time and contributed to a slow finish.
Devin Hester made the All-Pro team as a returner.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” DeMeco Ryans, MLB, Houston Texans
Ryans led the NFL in tackles and won DROY easily, but fellow rookies Mark Anderson and Kamerion Wimbley each got double-digit sacks, and Ravens rookies Dawan Landry and Haloti Ngata started for one of the greatest defensives in modern history.
Best Offensive Player â€” Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, UCLA), 60th overall
Jones-Drew is one of the most outstanding running backs of this generation. Until last year, his career was comparable to (and probably a little bit better than) Adrian Peterson's. But he's not an obvious choice here. I'd entertain arguments for a pair of linemen (Nick Mangold and Jahri Evans) and a trio of wideouts (Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, and Marques Colston). If you count his returning as offense, Devin Hester could be a factor here, as well.
Best Defensive Player â€” Haloti Ngata (DL, Oregon), 12th overall
I might regret this in a couple years. Ngata has had some very good years, but he's been overrated for a while, and he did not play well last season. If I were writing this in 2015, I might drop Ngata and go with Chad Greenway (drafted 17th), Johnathan Joseph (24th), or Cortland Finnegan (215th). Antonio Cromartie, Tamba Hali, and Elvis Dumervil are in the conversation as well. Mario Williams can't seem to stay healthy, but his best seasons are just as good as Ngata's.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Cortland Finnegan (DB, Samford), 215th overall
MJD and Hester were second-round picks, and Brandon Marshall and Jahri Evans both went in the fourth round, but for sheer value it's got to be either Finnegan or Marques Colston (252nd out of Hofstra).
Worst Draft Pick â€” St. Louis Rams — Tye Hill (DB, Clemson), 15th overall
Matt Leinart (10th overall to Arizona) was also a pretty disastrous pick, but he got stuck on the depth chart behind a likely Hall of Famer (Kurt Warner) and his opportunities since then have been limited by injuries. Leinart's still in the league, while Hill has been gone for a couple of years now.
Imagine if... the Texans drafted Vince Young.
They wouldn't have traded for Matt Schaub, and he might have still been with the Falcons when Michael Vick got suspended. With Schaub in place, the Falcons never choose Matt Ryan...
First Three Picks â€” Oakland Raiders — JaMarcus Russell (QB, LSU); Detroit Lions — Calvin Johnson (WR, Georgia Tech); Cleveland Browns — Joe Thomas (OT, Wisconsin)
Going back to 1999, when the Browns returned to Cleveland, they "earned" a top-three draft pick in five of their first nine seasons: Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Braylon Edwards, and Thomas. None were unqualified failures, but only Thomas was really any kind of success.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
He broke the single-game rushing record (296 yds) — the big record, not just the rookie mark — and rushed for 1,341 yards, with a 5.6 average. Joe Thomas also had a very strong rookie season.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Patrick Willis, MLB, San Francisco 49ers
Willis led the league with 135 solo tackles. Fellow linebacker Jon Beason also played very well as a rookie.
Best Offensive Player â€” Calvin Johnson (WR, Georgia Tech), 2nd overall
This is a razor-close call between two players who have already established themselves among the best ever at their respective positions. I give Johnson the slightest edge over Adrian Peterson.
Best Defensive Player â€” Darrelle Revis (DB, Pitt), 14th overall
Another close call. I've always thought Patrick Willis was a little overrated.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Eric Weddle (DB, Utah), 37th overall
These players are all mid-career, so the choices are in flux, but I like Weddle a little better than Dashon Goldson (126th) and Ahmad Bradshaw (250th).
Worst Draft Pick â€” Oakland Raiders — JaMarcus Russell (QB, LSU), 1st overall
People still talk about Ryan Leaf, but I don't think there's ever been a worse draft choice than Russell, including the Buccaneers' selection of Bo Jackson in 1985. Russell held out, scored a record contract, and then stunk up the field about as badly as possible.
Imagine if... the Raiders drafted Calvin Johnson instead of Russell.
Why select the best receiver in a generation when you can reach for a quarterback?
First Three Picks â€” Miami Dolphins — Jake Long (OT, Michigan); St. Louis Rams — Chris Long (DE, Virginia); Atlanta Falcons — Matt Ryan (QB, Boston College)
On draft day, I thought the top four GMs were crazy for not choosing Glenn Dorsey (DT, LSU). Oops.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Along with new head coach Mike Smith and free agent RB Michael Turner, Ryan turned the Falcons from a 4-12 disaster into a playoff team. A number of other rookies had big years, most notably 1,000-yard rushers Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, and Steve Slaton.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Jerod Mayo, LB, New England Patriots
In a bit of a down year for rookie defenders, Mayo was the only contender, winning 49 of 50 DROY votes. Cincinnati's Keith Rivers got the other.
Best Offensive Player â€” Chris Johnson (RB, East Carolina), 24th overall
Please append a "so far" to all of the entries from here on. Johnson earned the scorn of Titans fans (and fantasy football owners) for his slow starts the past two years, but he's rushed for over 1,000 yards every season and averaged over 4.7 yards per carry, including one of the finest seasons ever by a running back. Ray Rice has 1,000 more receiving yards than Johnson, but CJ has a 1,300-yard edge in rushing, with a better average and more touchdowns.
Offensive tackles Jake Long and Ryan Clady are in this conversation, too, as is guard Carl Nicks. Matt Ryan will probably be the best of all eventually, but that's projecting. I'll stick with Johnson for now.
Best Defensive Player â€” Jerod Mayo (LB, Tennessee), 10th overall
Playing inside or outside, Mayo is among the best linebackers in the league when healthy. There are any number of defenders who might eventually be considered the best from this draft class, but for now the closest to catching Mayo are a pair of linemen, Calais Campbell and Chris Long.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” Carl Nicks (OL, Nebraska), 164th overall
This is a value pick. Straight up, you'd probably go with Ray Rice (55th).
Worst Draft Pick â€” New York Jets — Vernon Gholston (DL, Ohio State), 6th overall
Yeah, you knew this was coming. He started five games and was out of the league after three years.
Imagine if... we could re-draft RBs.
Five running backs were chosen in the first round of the '08 draft: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, and Chris Johnson. In the second and third rounds: Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Kevin Smith, Jamaal Charles, and Steve Slaton.
If you let those teams choose again, the Raiders would probably take Rice (or Johnson, if Al Davis were running the draft). The Panthers would choose the other, then waste him in a time share with three other RBs. The Cowboys would presumably want Forte or Charles. Let's give them Forte. That leaves Pittsburgh with an easy choice, Jamaal Charles.
All the really appealing choices are gone at this point, but the Texans don't care, because the next year they signed Arian Foster as an undrafted free agent.
Let's begin with a disclaimer that this draft was not a very long time ago, and these players are early in their careers. We're just messing around at this point.
First Three Picks â€” Detroit Lions — Matthew Stafford (QB, Georgia); St. Louis Rams — Jason Smith (OT, Baylor); Kansas City Chiefs — Tyson Jackson (DL, LSU)
How far down do you have to go in this draft to find an obvious success? Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eugene Monroe, B.J. Raji. I guess you could argue for Stafford or Raji. But to find a player of whom everyone would say, "Yes! He is worth a top-10 draft pick," I think you'd have to go to Clay Matthews with the 26th pick. So far at least, this was not a strong first round.
Offensive Rookie of the Year â€” Percy Harvin, WR, Minnesota Vikings
This was a sad year for offensive rookies. Someone had to win.
Defensive Rookie of the Year â€” Brian Cushing, LB, Houston Texans
As a rookie, Cushing recorded 5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, double-digit pass deflections, and a safety, while leading his team in tackles. If he stays healthy and on the field, Cushing is a Hall of Fame-caliber player. He's a rare talent.
This was also a strong year for other rookie defenders. Jairus Byrd tied for the league lead with 9 interceptions, while Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews both had double-digit sacks.
Best Offensive Player â€” N/A
How can you choose a standout? There are quarterbacks who could be good (Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman), but they've both been down as often as up. LeSean McCoy has had two good seasons and two partial seasons. Percy Harvin and Mike Wallace have had their moments, but Harvin can't stay healthy and Wallace hasn't really developed. Both their teams let them leave this offseason. Michael Crabtree and Hakeem Nicks could be great one day, but they aren't there yet. Max Unger, Andy Levitre, Michael Oher, Phil Loadholt, Sebastian Vollmer ... there are plenty of good offensive linemen, but the group is still developing.
Is it cheating not to name anyone? Fine, McCoy. The Eagles chose him 53rd overall out of Pitt. But RBs have short careers, and he's coming off an injury. When future generations evaluate this class, I suspect they'll go with Stafford or one of the linemen.
Best Defensive Player â€” Clay Matthews III (OLB, USC), 26th overall
If Brian Cushing hadn't missed about a year because of injury and suspension, this might be close. Right now, though, it's clearly Matthews. Brian Orakpo, James Laurinaitis, and Jairus Byrd aren't on the same level, but all have shown some good things.
Best Non-First Round Pick â€” LeSean McCoy (RB, Pitt), 53rd overall
Jairus Byrd (42nd) is close, and if you project a year or two, Henry Melton (105) and Glover Quin (112) could be in this conversation, as could the offensive linemen. Unger (49) and Levitre (51) both had very good seasons in 2012.
I'm looking at the draft itself, so undrafted free agents don't count. Arian Foster has obviously been even better than McCoy, but he's not technically part of this draft class.
Worst Draft Pick â€” St. Louis Rams — Jason Smith (OT, Baylor), 2nd overall
The Rams let him go after just three years and 26 starts. He was a backup and special teamer for the Jets in 2012.
Imagine if... Mark Sanchez went to the Jaguars with the 8th pick.
Trade New York for Jacksonville. Swap Tim Tebow for David Garrard. Shonn Greene for MJD. Cold weather for warm, stress for sunshine, media scrutiny for the league's smallest market. Would Sanchez be a happier person and a different player? Probably not, but aren't you curious?
* * *
Let's cut things off there. Trying to make accurate "hindsight" judgments about players who haven't even reached their primes yet strikes me as a waste of time, even more than the rest of this exercise. To conclude, I'll just list the leaders each year:
Best Offensive Player
2000: Tom Brady (QB, Michigan), 199th overall
2001: LaDainian Tomlinson (RB, TCU), 5th overall
2002: Clinton Portis (RB, Miami), 51st overall
2003: Jason Witten (TE, Tennessee), 69th overall
2004: Larry Fitzgerald (WR, Pitt), 3rd overall
2005: Aaron Rodgers (QB, California), 24th overall
2006: Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, UCLA), 60th overall
2007: Calvin Johnson (WR, Georgia Tech), 2nd overall
2008: Chris Johnson (RB, East Carolina), 24th overall*
2009: LeSean McCoy (RB, Pitt), 53rd overall*
* will probably change within a year or two
This list includes five first-round picks, three second-round picks, a third-rounder, and Tom Brady. I picked five running backs and no offensive linemen, though I don't believe that reflects a personal bias. Running backs have the shortest careers of any position and tend to peak early, so it makes sense that players like MJD, CJ2K, and McCoy would take early leads they'll give up a few years down the line.
Best Defensive Player
2000: Brian Urlacher (MLB, New Mexico), 9th overall
2001: Richard Seymour (DL, Georgia), 6th overall
2002: Ed Reed (DB, Miami), 24th overall
2003: Troy Polamalu (DB, USC), 16th overall
2004: Jared Allen (DE, Idaho State), 126th overall
2005: DeMarcus Ware (OLB, Troy), 11th overall
2006: Haloti Ngata (DL, Oregon), 12th overall
2007: Darrelle Revis (DB, Pitt), 14th overall
2008: Jerod Mayo (LB, Tennessee), 10th overall
2009: Clay Matthews III (OLB, USC), 26th overall
This list includes 9 first-round picks and Jared Allen. For all that we talk about what a crapshoot the draft is, the early picks are the guys who pull away. The Ravens and Patriots drafted four of the 10 players above.
Best Non-First Round Pick
2000: Tom Brady (QB, Michigan), 199th overall
2001: Drew Brees (QB, Purdue), 32nd overall
2002: Brett Keisel (DL, BYU), 242nd overall
2003: Jason Witten (TE, Tennessee), 69th overall
2004: Jared Allen (DE, Idaho State), 126th overall
2005: Jay Ratliff (DT, Auburn), 224th overall
2006: Cortland Finnegan (DB, Samford), 215th overall
2007: Eric Weddle (DB, Utah), 37th overall
2008: Carl Nicks (OL, Nebraska), 164th overall
2009: LeSean McCoy (RB, Pitt), 53rd overall
Undrafted free agents were ineligible for this list.
Worst Draft Pick
2000: Jacksonville Jaguars — R. Jay Soward (WR, USC), 29th
2001: Green Bay Packers — Jamal Reynolds (DE, FSU), 10th
2002: Arizona Cardinals — Wendell Bryant (DT, Wisconsin), 12th
2003: Detroit Lions — Charles Rogers (WR, MSU), 2nd
2004: San Francisco 49ers — Rashaun Woods (WR, Oklahoma State), 31st overall
2005: Minnesota Vikings — Troy Williamson (WR, S.Carolina), 7th
2006: St. Louis Rams — Tye Hill (DB, Clemson), 15th
2007: Oakland Raiders — JaMarcus Russell (QB, LSU), 1st
2008: New York Jets — Vernon Gholston (DL, Ohio State), 6th
2009: St. Louis Rams — Jason Smith (OT, Baylor), 2nd
Two of these players were chosen 2nd overall. Watch out, Luke Joeckel.