NFL Drafts in Hindsight: 2005-2011

This year's NFL Draft is on the horizon, and speculation about Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota makes daily headlines. 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 guessing about players who have never taken the field as pros, let's look back at those who already have, examining the best and worst from recent NFL draft classes. I did a project like this in 2013, covering the 2000-09 NFL drafts. Not much has changed from 2000-04, so this article examines 2005-11.

2005 NFL Draft

First Three Picks — 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 — 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 — Shawne Merriman, OLB, San Diego Chargers

Possibly the most successful group 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, as well.

Best Offensive Player — 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 — DeMarcus Ware (OLB, Troy), 11th overall

Ware has eight seasons of double-digit sacks, including two years leading the league. He has more career sacks (127) than Derrick Thomas (126.5), Julius Peppers (125.5), Dwight Freeney (111.5), or Terrell Suggs (106.5).

Best Non-First Round Pick — Frank Gore (RB, Miami), 65th overall

Two years ago, I gave this to Jeremiah Ratliff. But Ratliff has been invisible since then, while Gore is approaching a point in his career where he will deserve serious Hall of Fame consideration.

Worst Draft Picks — Minnesota Vikings' first round

The combination of Troy 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.

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.

2006 NFL Draft

First Three Picks — 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 — hyped as 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 — 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 — 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 — Nick Mangold (OL, Ohio State), 29th overall

This is still a really close call. I think Mangold will be the obvious standout five years from now, but at the moment, he's not very far ahead of Maurice Jones-Drew, Brandon Marshall, or Jahri Evans. If you count his returning as offense, Devin Hester could be a factor here, as well.

Best Defensive Player — Haloti Ngata (DL, Oregon), 12th overall

Ngata was a successful pro right away, and he's continued to play well, but this is also very close. Elvis Dumervil and Mario Williams both average 10 sacks a year. Antonio Cromartie is one of the best cornerbacks of this generation. Tamba Hali is quite a player. I'll be really interested to see how this class breaks down a couple years from now.

Best Non-First Round Pick — Jahri Evans (OL, Bloomsburg), 108th overall

Devin Hester and Maurice Jones-Drew were second-round picks, while Brandon Marshall and Evans both went in the fourth round, but for sheer value it might be Marques Colston (252nd out of Hofstra).

Worst Draft Pick — 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 afterwards were limited by injuries. Hill dropped out of the league after making 25 starts in five years.

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...

2007 NFL Draft

First Three Picks — Oakland Raiders — JaMarcus Russell (QB, LSU); Detroit Lions — Calvin Johnson (WR, Georgia Tech); Cleveland Browns — Joe Thomas (OT, Wisconsin)

I don't know if there's anything interesting to say about the top three selections — Russell was a disaster, while Johnson and Thomas are future Hall of Famers — but it's sobering to remember that the fourth overall pick, Clemson's Gaines Adams, has been dead for more than five years.

Offensive Rookie of the Year — 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 — 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 — Adrian Peterson (RB, Oklahoma), 7th overall

This is a close call between two players who have already established themselves among the best ever at their respective positions. I give Peterson a slight edge over Calvin Johnson, though I think Megatron will pass him eventually.

Best Defensive Player — Darrelle Revis (DB, Pitt), 14th overall

I've always thought Patrick Willis was a little overrated.

Best Non-First Round Pick — Eric Weddle (DB, Utah), 37th overall

Weddle is a two-time all-pro, and he's still one of the Chargers' best defensive players.

Worst Draft Pick — 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. He 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?

2008 NFL Draft

First Three Picks — 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 — 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 — 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 — Chris Johnson (RB, East Carolina), 24th overall

Johnson never duplicated his incredible 2009 season, but he did have five other 1,000-yard rushing seasons, his career average is over 4.5, and he had four years of double-digit touchdowns.

Fellow RB Ray Rice had some great years, and Saints guard Carl Nicks is one of the best at his position. Matt Ryan will probably be the best of all eventually, but that's projecting. I'll stick with Johnson for now.

Best Defensive Player — Calais Campbell (DL, Miami), 50th overall

Jerod Mayo can't seem to stay healthy, and Campbell has emerged as the best 3-4 defensive end this side of J.J. Watt. He does a lot of the same things for Arizona that Justin Smith did for the 49ers.

Best Non-First Round Pick — Carl Nicks (OL, Nebraska), 164th overall

This is a value pick. Straight up, you'd probably go with Calais Campbell (50th).

Worst Draft Pick — New York Jets — Vernon Gholston (DL, Ohio State), 6th overall

Gholston 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 Charles (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 Rice. Let's give them Forte. That leaves Pittsburgh with Ray Rice.

The first four RBs off the board (Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, and Rashard Mendenhall) don't hold a candle to the second- and third-round guys.

2009 NFL Draft

First Three Picks — 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, and B.J. Raji complete the top 10. I guess you could argue for Stafford. 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. This was not an especially strong first round.

Offensive Rookie of the Year — Percy Harvin, WR, Minnesota Vikings

This was a sad year for offensive rookies. Someone had to win.

Defensive Rookie of the Year — 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. Fellow rookie Jairus Byrd tied for the league lead with 9 interceptions, while Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews both had double-digit sacks.

Best Offensive Player — LeSean McCoy (RB, Pitt), 53rd overall

McCoy has three seasons of 1,300 rushing yards, and his playing style has drawn comparisons to Barry Sanders. Several offensive linemen could eventually claim this title from McCoy: Max Unger, Andy Levitre, Sebastian Vollmer, Louis Vasquez ... the group is still developing. The other potential threat to McCoy comes from top overall draft pick Matthew Stafford. His career has been a little uneven, but with more consistency, Stafford could make half a dozen Pro Bowls.

Best Defensive Player — Clay Matthews III (OLB, USC), 26th overall

Matthews might the most well-rounded linebacker in football today. He's an imposing pass rusher, good at playing the run, and effective in pass coverage. He can play anywhere on the field, and he has an instinct for big plays.

Best Non-First Round Pick — LeSean McCoy (RB, Pitt), 53rd overall

These players are still young, and this list is in flux. James Laurinaitis (35th), Jairus Byrd (42), Connor Barwin (46), Max Unger (49), Sebastian Vollmer (58), DeAndre Levy (76), and Glover Quin (112) are some of the most notable possibilities to surpass McCoy.

I'm looking at the draft itself, so undrafted free agents don't count. Arian Foster obviously belongs in this conversation, but he's not technically part of this draft class.

Worst Draft Pick — 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, then out of the league.

Imagine if... we knew about Clay Matthews.

Four linebackers were chosen before Matthews: Aaron Curry, Brian Orakpo, Brian Cushing, and Larry English. How terrifying would the Seahawks' defense be if they had drafted Matthews instead of Curry? What would opponents do if Washington had Matthews lining up opposite Ryan Kerrigan? Cushing has shown flashes of brilliance, but even the Texans probably wish they had drafted Matthews instead. Larry English is a special teamer, and a good one, but Matthews could have seamlessly filled the void left by Shawne Merriman.

2010 NFL Draft

First Three Picks — St. Louis Rams — Sam Bradford (QB, Oklahoma); Detroit Lions — Ndamukong Suh (DT, Nebraska); Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Gerald McCoy (DT, Oklahoma)

Three of the first four picks were Oklahoma Sooners, with Washington selecting offensive tackle Trent Williams fourth overall.

Offensive Rookie of the Year — Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams

The worst selection in the history of the award. Bradford's 76.5 passer rating ranked 25th in the NFL, while the Rams had the 26th-ranked offense in the league. I'm curious to see how Chip Kelly uses Bradford — until the inevitable season-ending injury — but I don't understand the enthusiasm for a player who has never looked like an above-average NFL quarterback.

I selected Maurkice Pouncey.

Defensive Rookie of the Year — Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions

Detroit's ranks for yards allowed and points allowed — 2007: 32nd and 32nd, 2008: 32nd and 32nd, 2009: 32nd and 32nd, 2010: 21st and 19th. Suh almost single-handedly turned this from one of the worst defenses in history into a unit that was pretty close to average. He closed out his rookie year with 49 tackles, 10 sacks, 3 pass deflections, an interception, a forced fumble, and a touchdown on a fumble return.

Best Offensive Player — Rob Gronkowski (TE, Arizona), 42nd overall

Gronkowski is a good blocker, and the best receiving tight end in the NFL. He's on a Hall of Fame trajectory. If Gronk has trouble staying healthy, this would probably go to a lineman (Mike Iupati, Maurkice Pouncey, Trent Williams) or a receiver (Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Jimmy Graham, Demaryius Thomas).

Best Defensive Player — Ndamukong Suh (DT, Nebraska), 2nd overall

Suh is a monster, the most disruptive defensive tackle in the game. But this was a seriously loaded defensive class, also including NaVorro Bowman, Joe Haden, Gerald McCoy, and Earl Thomas, among several other standouts.

Best Non-First Round Pick — Antonio Brown (WR, Central Michigan), 195th overall

NaVorro Bowman (91st) and Jimmy Graham (95th) were third-round picks, and Kam Chancellor (133) was a fifth-round choice, but for sheer value, it's tough to beat Antonio Brown. He's had back-to-back 100-catch seasons, he's a standout returner, and he was first-team all-pro in 2014.

Worst Draft Pick — Baltimore Ravens — Sergio Kindle (LB, Texas), 43rd overall

The worst pick from the first round was probably Tim Tebow, but Kindle basically never played, an almost unheard-of washout for a second round pick. Dogged by injuries and off-field issues, Kindle played in three regular-season games, mostly on special teams. He retired with one tackle in his NFL career.

Imagine if... the Rams took Suh

... and waited until 2012 to draft their quarterback of the future, with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Russell Wilson all on the board.

2011 NFL Draft

First Three Picks — Carolina Panthers — Cam Newton (QB, Auburn); Denver Broncos — Von Miller (LB, Texas A&M); Buffalo Bills — Marcell Dareus (DL, Alabama)

Everyone at the top of this draft has been successful. Besides Newton, Miller, and Dareus, A.J. Green (4th), Patrick Peterson (5th), and Julio Jones (6th) have also capitalized on the promise that got them drafted — those six players have already made a combined 17 Pro Bowls. The highest-drafted player not to reach the Pro Bowl was Jake Locker, who was drafted 8th, but had trouble staying healthy and announced his retirement earlier this year.

Offensive Rookie of the Year — Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

The Bengals' top two choices both played well. A.J. Green gained over 1,000 yards and became the first rookie wideout to make a Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003. Andy Dalton took over for Carson Palmer and played mostly like a veteran, passing for 3,400 yards, with 7 more TDs than INTs, and leading Cincinnati to the playoffs.

But Newton had one of the greatest rookie seasons in history. He threw for 4,051 yards, a rookie record, and ran for 706 more. He threw 21 TD passes and rushed for another 14. He took over an offense that ranked last in the NFL by a huge margin, and directed it to the 5th-highest total in the league.

Defensive Rookie of the Year — Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

Miller contributed 11 sacks and dominated the voting (39 ballots out of 50), but this was a strong year for rookie defenders. Aldon Smith, who drew the 11 votes that didn't go to Miller, had 14 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a safety. Ryan Kerrigan tallied 7.5 sacks, 4 FF, and an interception, while Patrick Peterson was a 16-game starter at cornerback, who intercepted 2 passes and scored 4 punt return TDs.

Best Offensive Player — Cam Newton (QB, Auburn), 1st overall

Newton put up exceptional stats in his first two seasons, then led the Panthers to back-to-back NFC South titles. A.J. Green has been one of the best wide receivers in the NFL since he set foot on the field.

Best Defensive Player — J.J. Watt (DL, Wisconsin), 11th overall

Out of his four NFL seasons, Watt has been all-pro in three of them, Defensive Player of the Year in two, and the only unanimous DPOY in history. Watt is the only player since 1982, when the stat became official, with two 20-sack seasons. And sacks might not even be the strongest aspect of Watt's game. He routinely makes the most tackles of any lineman, he knocks down the most passes, he beats the most double-teams. Watt is on pace to become the most dominant defensive lineman in the history of the sport.

Richard Sherman, Justin Houston, and Von Miller were also drafted this year.

Best Non-First Round Pick — Richard Sherman (DB, Stanford), 154th overall

Sherman has become the most dominant cornerback in the National Football League, but third-round pick Justin Houston (70th) is one of the greatest pass rushers in the league. Andy Dalton (35), Randall Cobb (64), and DeMarco Murray (71) are also early success stories from beyond the first round.

Worst Draft Pick — Jacksonville Jaguars — Blaine Gabbert (QB, Missouri), 8th overall

At no point in Gabbert's pro career has he looked like an NFL-level quarterback. The Jaguars didn't give him much help, but Gabbert never adjusted to the pro game, and looked like he was guessing on every play. Gabbert failed to outplay Chad Henne, and the Jags gave up on him after only three seasons. Gabbert was a backup for the 49ers in 2014.

Imagine if... we could re-draft QBs.

The top of this draft was so strong, it's hard to re-think many picks, but Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder all went in the top 12 picks, while Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick lasted until the second round. Third-rounder Ryan Mallett also looks like a better investment than any of the top three.

* * *

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. To conclude, I'll just list the leaders each year:

Best Offensive Player

2005: Aaron Rodgers (QB, California), 24th overall
2006: Nick Mangold (OL, Ohio State), 29th overall
2007: Adrian Peterson (RB, Oklahoma), 7th overall
2008: Chris Johnson (RB, East Carolina), 24th overall
2009: LeSean McCoy (RB, Pitt), 53rd overall
2010: Rob Gronkowski (TE, Arizona), 42nd overall
2011: Cam Newton (QB, Auburn), 1st overall

This list includes 5 first-round picks, but only two in the top 10. I am continually amazed how many GMs think they have solved the eternal problem of identifying QBs who will succeed in the NFL. Alex Smith (2005), JaMarcus Russell (2007), Matt Stafford (2009), Sam Bradford (2010), and Newton were all drafted first overall, and Newton is the only one who has come close to justifying his draft position.

Even if we add Andrew Luck in 2012, gambling on a QB with the first pick is an incredibly risky proposition.

Best Defensive Player

2005: DeMarcus Ware (OLB, Troy), 11th overall
2006: Haloti Ngata (DL, Oregon), 12th overall
2007: Darrelle Revis (DB, Pitt), 14th overall
2008: Calais Campbell (DL, Miami), 50th overall
2009: Clay Matthews III (LB, USC), 26th overall
2010: Ndamukong Suh (DL, Nebraska), 2nd overall
2011: J.J. Watt (DL, Wisconsin), 11th overall

This list includes 6 first-round picks and a second-rounder. I mentioned above that I would hesitate to draft quarterbacks with my early selections. I'd probably choose a defensive player instead; they seem easier to sort out.

Best Non-First Round Pick

2005: Frank Gore (RB, Miami), 65th overall
2006: Jahri Evans (OL, Bloomsburg), 108th overall
2007: Eric Weddle (DB, Utah), 37th overall
2008: Carl Nicks (OL, Nebraska), 164th overall
2009: LeSean McCoy (RB, Pitt), 53rd overall
2010: Antonio Brown (WR, Central Michigan), 195th overall
2011: Richard Sherman (DB, Stanford), 154th overall

Evans and Nicks were the starting guards for the New Orleans Saints for most of the past decade. Undrafted free agents were ineligible for this list.

Worst Draft Pick

2005: Minnesota Vikings — Troy Williamson (7th) and Erasmus James (18th)
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 (OL, Baylor), 2nd
2010: Baltimore Ravens — Sergio Kindle (LB, Texas), 43rd
2011: Jacksonville Jaguars — Blaine Gabbert (QB, Missouri), 8th

The Rams' poor draft choices set them up to have high draft picks over and over again. They seem to have gotten the hang of things under current GM Les Snead.

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