A Decade Later: Grading the 2004 NFL Draft

The 2014 NFL Draft will begin at the end of this week, and many journalists (including this one) will pass judgment afterwards, issuing grades and critiquing picks and trades — all of it based on educated guesses, sometimes not even all that educated.

Before I try to evaluate the new draft, I'm tackling a project I can handle with more confidence: grading the 2004 NFL Draft. It's a famous class, including three first-round QBs who still start, plus big names like Steven Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald, Vince Wilfork, and Jared Allen. Many of the best players are still active, but we've got a good sense at this point for which teams did well in '04, and which ones did not.

A+

San Diego Chargers

One of the best drafts, by any team, in the last 20 years or so. From 1996-2003, the Chargers never had a winning record, including 4-12 in '03. Following this draft, they posted a winning record for the next seven seasons in a row, including five division titles.

San Diego used the first overall pick on Eli Manning, but immediately traded him to the Giants for Philip Rivers and the draft picks used to select Nate Kaeding (3rd round) and Shawne Merriman (2005), both future All-Pros. Rivers himself has made five Pro Bowls and is still among the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But it's not just the Manning trade that made this a great draft for San Diego. The team also picked up longtime center Nick Hardwick and Pro Bowl pass rusher Shaun Phillips, plus Igor Olshansky, Shane Olivea, and running back Michael Turner. Counting Rivers, the Chargers drafted 10 players who appeared in a regular-season game, including five eventual Pro Bowlers and several solid starters (like Olshansky and Olivea) who never made the Pro Bowl.

A

Arizona Cardinals

With their first three choices, the Cardinals drafted Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, and Darnell Dockett. All three are stars, and all played for Arizona in 2013. Their draft class also included Pro Bowl defensive lineman Antonio Smith, though his best seasons have come with Houston. Fitzgerald is the gem, obviously, but Dansby, Dockett, and Smith are all among the best defensive players from this draft class.

B+

New York Giants

They're here mostly for Eli Manning and Chris Snee. The Manning trade worked out well for San Diego, but the Giants still ended up with a 10-year starter and two-time Super Bowl MVP. Snee is a four-time Pro Bowler who still starts on the offensive line. The Giants' draft also produced defensive back Gibril Wilson, special teamer Reggie Torbor, and 1,000-yard rusher Derrick Ward.

B

Atlanta Falcons

Used their first pick on DeAngelo Hall, who had a nice a rookie season but spent his best years in Washington. Their other first-rounder, Michael Jenkins, never developed into a star, but he played nine years (seven with Atlanta) and gained over 4,000 yards receiving. The Falcons also drafted DeMorrio Williams, who a couple of nice seasons, and Matt Schaub, whom they later traded for a second-round pick (used on guard Justin Blalock), and a move up in the first round of the '07 draft (10th to 8th).

Jacksonville Jaguars

First-rounder Reggie Williams never amounted to much, but the Jags hit gold — or at least silver — with their second-round choices, linebacker Daryl Smith and fullback Greg Jones. Smith spent eight years with Jacksonville, and he had a great season for Baltimore in 2013. He's one of the better LBs of the past 10 years. Jones was underrated nationally, but he lead-blocked for both Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. This draft also produced kicker Josh Scobee and wide receiver Ernest Wilford.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Their draft was almost a complete washout. It produced only three players that appeared in a regular-season game, one of whom, Ricardo Colclough, was never a major contributor. But the other two were quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive tackle Max Starks, both starters on a pair of Super Bowl teams.

Chicago Bears

Chicago drafted two Pro Bowl defenders this year, months after Lovie Smith was hired as head coach. In the first round, the Bears selected Oklahoma DT Tommie Harris, an anchor on the 2006 team that appeared in Super Bowl XLI. In the fourth round, 110th overall, Chicago added defensive back Nathan Vasher. As a rookie, Vasher led the NFL in interception return yardage (177). The following season, he led the league in INTs (8) and set an NFL record with a 108-yard touchdown return of a missed field goal, making the Pro Bowl and the Associated Press All-Pro team. The Bears also drafted Tank Johnson and Bernard Berrian in '04.

B-

Indianapolis Colts

Didn't make a first-round pick, but they got All-Pro safety and 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders in the second round. Fifth-round draft choice Jake Scott, a guard from Idaho, started eight seasons (four in Indianapolis), protecting Peyton Manning and blocking for Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai. Scott was among of the biggest steals of the draft. The only other player of any consequence to join the Colts from this draft was cornerback Jason David, though the 193rd pick did yield longtime backup QB Jim Sorgi.

Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals

The Titans drafted 13 players in 2004, the most of any team. Only one of those 13, University of Maryland defensive tackle Randy Starks, ever made the Pro Bowl, but he did so with the Miami Dolphins. Players like Antwan Odom, Travis LaBoy, Jacob Bell, and Eugene Amano never became stars, or even standouts, but all were productive for at least a few seasons. It wasn't a great draft, but it wasn't a failure, either.

Cincinnati made 11 picks, second-most of any team, and nine of those players made the roster. None of them became stars, and first-round choice Chris Perry, a running back from Michigan, bombed badly. But the draft patched holes, providing average and above-average players to replace bad ones. Madieu Williams, Landon Johnson, and Robert Geathers were the best of the bunch. In 2005, the Bengals made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

These teams succeeded with volume. If you throw enough darts at the board, a few of them will stick.

New York Jets

Their first draft choice, Miami Hurricanes linebacker Jonathan Vilma, won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Vilma later became the defensive captain for the Super Bowl XLIV champion New Orleans Saints. The Jets' draft also produced longtime receiver Jerricho Cotchery (in the fourth round) and DB Erik Coleman (in the fifth).

Carolina Panthers

First-round selection Chris Gamble and third-round choice Travelle Wharton both became good players, and both have spent their whole careers with the Panthers. Wharton still starts on Carolina's offensive line. Their only other player from this draft class to start with any frequency was wide receiver Keary Colbert, a second-round choice out of USC.

New England Patriots

Drafted eight players, six of whom were useless and out of the league within four seasons. The other two were first-round selections Vince Wilfork and Benjamin Watson. Wilfork is a five-time Pro Bowler, one of the greatest defensive linemen of the past decade. When healthy, he has anchored New England's line and given opposing teams nightmares. Ben Watson had a few productive seasons and is still in the league. He started seven games for the Saints in 2013.

C+

New Orleans Saints

Eighteenth overall choice Will Smith became a good defensive end. Smith played nine years in New Orleans, had two seasons with double-digit sacks, made the Pro Bowl in 2006, and started for the team that won Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints' next pick, Devery Henderson, gained over 4,000 receiving yards in the NFL, most of them with New Orleans.

St. Louis Rams

Only four of their seven draft picks made the team, but one of those seven was running back Steven Jackson, the 24th overall choice out of Oregon State. DE Anthony Hargrove and LB Brandon Chillar also contributed for a while.

Kansas City Chiefs

They caught an awfully big fish in the fourth round, Idaho State DE Jared Allen. After four strong seasons, the Chiefs traded him to Minnesota for a first-round selection and two third-rounders. Those picks eventually became Branden Albert, Jamaal Charles, and DaJuan Morgan. Allen alone made this a successful draft, which is good, because KC's next-best pick was probably linebacker and special teamer Keyaron Fox, whose best years came with the Steelers.

Washington

Fewest selections of any team, four players. But the first two were University of Miami safety Sean Taylor and Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley. Taylor was a rising star before his murder in 2007, and Cooley may be the team's most popular player since the first Joe Gibbs era.

San Francisco 49ers

Last year, I named their first draft choice, Oklahoma State WR Rashaun Woods, the worst pick in the entire '04 draft. Woods played only one season and never started a game. He caught 7 passes for 160 yards and 1 touchdown. But the Niners made up for it with multi-year starters like second-rounders Shawntae Spencer and Justin Smiley, DT Isaac Sopoaga, and All-Pro punter Andy Lee.

C

Dallas Cowboys

No first-round selections, but two picks in the second round. The earlier pick, Notre Dame running back Julius Jones, rushed for over 5,000 yards in the NFL. The second, USC tackle Jacob Rogers, played two games in his professional career. Wide receiver Patrick Crayton was a nice value in the seventh round, and third-rounder Stephen Peterman spent six years as a starting offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions.

Green Bay Packers

Best pick was the last one, Tennessee Volunteers offensive lineman Scott Wells. The Packers chose Wells in the seventh round, 251st overall, and he spent eight years as a starter, even made a Pro Bowl. Sixth-round choice Corey Williams was probably the next-best Packer drafted in '04. The team later traded him to Cleveland for a second-round choice in the 2008 draft. Green Bay's first-rounder, CB Ahmad Carroll, drew too many penalties and never developed.

Teams rarely draft kickers and punters, especially in the first five rounds. Green Bay spent a third-round selection on Ohio State punter B.J. Sander, even trading away a fifth-round pick to move up for him. Sander appeared in only 14 games in the NFL.

Seattle Seahawks

First three picks were Marcus Tubbs, Michael Boulware, and Sean Locklear. Tubbs didn't work out, but Boulware contributed for a few seasons and Locklear became an anchor on the offensive line. Wide receiver D.J. Hackett was a decent find in the fifth round, and punter Donnie Jones became a success in St. Louis.

C-

Detroit Lions

Only made six selections in this draft, but all six players produced for a little while, and all spent most of their careers in Detroit. The most successful were both first-round picks. Texas wide receiver Roy Williams had an up-and-down career, but he did play very well at times, especially in 2006. Running back Kevin Jones showed flashes of promise but had trouble staying on the field.

Miami Dolphins

The success of their draft revolved around a pair of offensive linemen, frst-round draft pick Vernon Carey and sixth-round man Rex Hadnot. Carey started over 100 games for the Dolphins, while Hadnot was a 16-game starter from 2005-07 before moving on to other teams. He started every game for the 2011 Arizona Cardinals and retired following the 2012 season.

Cleveland Browns

Their later picks failed to produce, but the Browns did draft Kellen Winslow, Jr. Winslow was a tremendous talent who struggled with injuries and inconsistency, but did contribute some excellent seasons. Cleveland spent its second-round pick on defensive back Sean Jones, and in the fourth round took Luke McCown, who is still bouncing around the league as a backup QB.

Houston Texans

They had two first-round picks, both of which produced good players: cornerback Dunta Robinson and defensive end Jason Babin. As a rookie, Robinson intercepted six passes and forced 3 fumbles. He spent six seasons as a starter for Houston, three for the Falcons, and played part-time for Kansas City in 2013. Babin spent only three years in Houston, and had his best seasons with the Titans and Eagles.

D+

Philadelphia Eagles

Their first-round pick, Arkansas lineman Shawn Andrews, played brilliantly for a few seasons, before injuries wrecked his career. The rest of their draft was almost totally useless.

Buffalo Bills

Spent one of their two first-round selections on Tulane quarterback J.P. Losman, a major disappointment at the pro level. The other first-rounder, WR Lee Evans, was a valuable player for a few years, though he never lived up to the heights promised by his 40-yard dash time. No one else from their draft class amounted to much.

Denver Broncos

First-round choice D.J. Williams quickly became Denver's starting middle linebacker, a position he held for eight seasons. The rest of their draft flamed out, although RB Tatum Bell, acquired with the extra pick they got in the Clinton Portis/Champ Bailey trade, had his moments.

D

Minnesota Vikings

They drafted Kenechi Udeze one spot before the Patriots chose Vince Wilfork. Udeze's career was shortened by injuries and a leukemia diagnosis. If Udeze's career was a disappointment, second-rounder Dontarrious Thomas was simply a bust. Ohio State DE Darrion Scott stuck in the lineup for a couple of years, and Mewelde Moore was a useful backup RB.

Oakland Raiders

Robert Gallery was supposed to be a can't-miss prospect, a brilliant technical tackle and a smart pick with the 2nd overall selection. Gallery lasted eight years in the NFL, but he was never a standout. The only other Raiders drafted in '04 who amounted to much of anything were center Jake Grove and defensive back Stuart Schweigert.

D-

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Chose LSU wide receiver Michael Clayton in the first round. A couple times, it looked like Clayton was ready to emerge as an NFL playmaker, but it never happened. Fourth-rounder Will Allen is still in the league, but he's played mostly on special teams, with both the Bucs and Steelers.

F

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are a good organization with a smart front office, but they just didn't do anything in this draft. First-rounder Dwan Edwards was a starter for a few years, but even most Ravens fans won't remember the names of their other draft picks, guys like Devard Darling and Roderick Green. None of them ever contributed anything meaningful on an NFL field.

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