The retirement of Ricky Williams ended one of the most bizarre careers in NFL history. No one can ever say of Ricky that he was just another brick in the NFL’s wall.
He was certainly different. Everything about his career was.
Yet, it’s the way his NFL career began that rings most relevant, considering his role in the NFL draft.
With the season now over and the draft looming in the not-too-distant future, it’s worth diving into Ricky’s story first, since it was one of the most extreme draft experiments ever.
Mortgaging the Future
After winning the Heisman Trophy and setting the (then) record for most rushing yards in NCAA history, Williams looked poised to become a star in the NFL.
Needless to say, Ricky’s fearsome services were coveted by numerous teams. But no other evaluator’s eyes went as wide for Ricky’s potential as legendary Saints coach Mike Ditka.
Ditka coveted Williams, and it’s not hard to see why. His Saints were largely bereft of talent at running back and had finished last in the league rushing yards. Suddenly, the newly minted NCAA rushing champion was coming into the draft.
Ditka contrived to get Williams by any means necessary. His methods, true to his character, were bold and brash.
In probably the most aggressive trades in draft history, Ditka gave up every pick he had in the 1999 draft as well as his first and third-round picks in the 2000 draft in order to get Washington’s fifth overall pick (which he used to get Ricky).
(What most people forget is that the Colts actually took a running back one pick ahead of Williams: Edgerrin James.
Armed with his new talent, Ditka proceeded to go 3-13 the next season. It was an unmitigated disaster. It’s impossible to blame Ricky, though many certainly tried. Ditka received ultimate blame and was fired.
This has stood, and may for all time, as a monument to mortgaging the future in the draft. Granted, there are many more measured examples of trading up, where a team is still left with other draft picks. Yet, the historical examples are mixed.
Most remember last year’s draft, where the Falcons made a dazzling five-pick trade to secure the sixth pick and take Julio Jones.
The jury is still out on Jones, yet the Falcons' front office has definitely been blamed for the trade as an example of a team focusing too much on a glamour need and not on depth (the Falcons lost in the Wild Card Round 24-2 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants).
The Patriot Way
While the obvious strategy to the draft is to trade up and get the big talent players, there is another method. And the New England Patriots have mastered it.
Their goal, more than anything else, is to maximize options. No matter what happens, they want to have the ability to move around the board, securing the players they want.
And one of the great things about the Patriots' scouting has always been trying to identify undervalued players. So they don’t need the top five picks.
As they’ve become famous for, Bill Belichick and his team will trade down, or trade for future draft picks.
Yet this perpetual stocking for the future has had its naysayers in recent years. Given some of the players the Patriots have passed up recently (the biggest being Clay Matthews in 2009), the strategy looks to have shortcomings.
Still, it’s produced infinitely better results overall than trading up in the style of Ditka.
Choose Your Strategy
The Ricky trade remains the most extreme example of trading up and New England’s system the most extreme example of trading down/away.
Both have very defined goals. You either covet the talent or the versatility. It’s as philosophical a choice as the draft can present.
Trading up can make a splash, and occasionally hits the jackpot, but trading down can land a slew of potential diamonds in the rough.
The legendary Bill Walsh hit on both in his time during the 80s. In fact, he was one of the original promoters of trading heavily on draft day.
In 1985, he traded his first and second picks to the Patriots for their first pick (16th overall). With that, he chose a slightly undervalued wide receiver Jerry Rice, who only went on to become the greatest receiver of all time.
Yet the next year, Walsh applied the Belichick strategy and traded down. Making six trades and acquiring 14 picks in all (some for future years), he managed to turn limited options into eight players who would start on two Super Bowl teams.
So perhaps, it’s not a case of choosing one strategy or the other, but knowing when to apply each one.
One thing that is indisputable, however, is that whatever strategy is used, do not (under any circumstances) end up with only one player, especially if it’s Ricky Williams.
Adios Ricky, you are gone from the NFL, but certainly, your legacy will be forever linked to one of the craziest draft moves ever.