NFL Draft, 1st Pick: An Examination of the Past and a Look at the Present

will schmidleyAnalyst IMarch 6, 2008

NFL Draft Scouting has come a long way.

Or has it?

Well, the tricks of the trade have been refined, and the scouting process has grown increasingly meticulous.

Despite these developments, however, the term " bust" is still on the tip of any draft enthusiasts' tongue—whether in referencing a once prized prospect who has since failed to live up to expecations, or in projecting the demise of a currently draft-eligible player.

When one considers the profusion of professional opinion provided by scouting services and media outlets, it only adds to the perplexity.

Of particular note, it seems, is the science behind the draft's first pick--or lack thereof, for that matter.

     There have been 72 "first picks" in the NFL draft, dating back to 1936. In the interest of space, let's take a look at the last 25 and how they fared.

1983: John Elway, QB-There's just not much I need to say here.

1984: Irving Fryar, WR-Five Pro Bowls. 84 Touchdowns. One of the better receivers of his time.

1985: Bruce Smith, DE-We're off to an awfully good start here, folks.

1986: Bo Jackson, RB: Bo had his moments, but never lived up to expectations. Maybe it was the injuries. Maybe it was baseball. It was probably both, but either way, he was one of the greatest athletes of all time, and the Bucs can't be faulted for taking him first overall.

1987: Vinny Testaverde, QB: He had a long, rollercoaster career. In some years, he found success. In others, he most assuredly did not. Though he's not a bust, the word "boom" is just as far away from describing him.

1988: Aundray Bruce, LB: Anyone know who this guy is? I  didn't when I saw his name on the list. He busted pretty hard.

1989: Troy Aikman, QB: **See 1983**

1990: Jeff George, QB: Played for a lot of teams. Made some playoff apperances. Had a few good seasons. Pretty decent career numbers. Neither a boom or bust.

1991: Russel Maryland, DT: Enjoyed a productive career, but never consistently played like a #1 overall pick should. He's probably slightly more of a boom than bust, but didn't distinguish himself either way.

1992: Steve Emtman, DT: Hampered by injuries early in his career, and didn't make much noise when he did play. Huge bust.

1993: Drew Bledose, QB: Similar to two of his #1 overall QB predecessors, Testaverde and George, he is in the"Purgatory" of the #1 overall group-respectable but not the transcendent player he was expected to be.

1994: Dan Wilkinson, DT: Another solid but unspectacular player.

1995: Ki-Jana Carter, RB: Just about everything went wrong for this guy.

1996: Keyshawn Johnson, WR: One of the NFL's most widely recognized players around the new millenium, though that's more attributable to his mouth than his play. He was good, in fact, quite good, at times. Still, he can't be labeled a "boom", quite.....

1997: Orlando Pace, OT: What a #1 pick should be. Superb, and for a long time.

1998: Peyton Manning, QB: Is there a point in putting any comments here?

1999: Tim Couch, QB: For every Peyton Manning, there's always a  Tim Couch.

2000: Courtney Brown, DE: He had a few moments, but is pretty much a bust.

2001: Michael Vick, QB: Prior to the dog fighting scandal, he was in purgatory. Though his career stands an outside shot at resurrection, for now he's a bust.

2002: David Carr, QB: Like Vick, he could turn it around. Will it happen, though? The odds seem slim. He was the recently released by the Panthers.

2003: Carson Palmer, QB: On the straight and narrow to being a "boom".

2004: Eli Manning, QB: As wonderful as this past year was for him, the jury is still out. Boy, he's come a long, long way though. Definitely on the right track and I'm no longer betting against him.

2005: Alex Smith, QB: Took a step backwards this year. Still has time though, and the next few years will be critical.

2006: Mario Williams, DE: Looks like he'll be booking a lot of tickets to Hawaii over the next 10 years.

2007: Jamarcus Russell, QB: The baby of the group. Only next year will we begin to know.

Of the 25 names on this list, we have as follows:

Seven "Booms", seven "Busts",  one "Pseudo-Boom", five players in the previously explained "Purgatory" of #1 overall, four yet to be decided, and one player whom I will not judge, because I'm not sure how to judge him (Bo Jackson).

So, from this list, we can see we have twenty #1 overall picks whose careers are fair to judge.

Given the expectations (that are highly justified, I might add) that come with being selected #1 overall, eight of these players, it seems, can be deemed "successful" #1 overall picks (Seven "Booms", one "Pseudo-Boom"). Twelve (Seven "Busts", five in "Purgatory") however, can be deemed "unsuccessful" to varying degrees.

That's a 60% failure rate the teams with the first overall selection have had since 1983.

Does anyone else find this figure perplexing?

Drawing on what I said earlier regarding the refinement of the scouting process and the fast-growing expanse of "professional" opinion, it seems as though "perplexing" is the only way to describe it—particularly since we are, after all, talking about the first overall choice.

So, in light of the facts, how do we explain the woes of some #1 draft picks?

More importantly, how do we explain why teams wasted so much money on them?

To be honest, there is no "good" answer to any of these questions. Given the amount of money shelled out to scout and cover the draft, both my teams and media outlets, if there was a magic formula, we'd know it.

When I find myself contemplating the answers to these (literally) million dollar questions, I think an appreciation of three factors can help us better understand things:

1. Faulty Scouting—Given our limited resources, at least relative to NFL teams and media outlets, it's difficult for us to pinpoint flaws in the scouting work these teams have done.

What I can say with confidence, however, is that all the athletic ability in the world isn't going to make a football player—a lesson many draft experts\team personnel could use to learn.

2. Cirmustance-This is a little appreciated but highly relevant consideration.

Simply put, some players are put into better situations than others.

Whether it's a weak supporting cast, a resurgent veteran who cuts into playing time, mistreatment at the hands of the drafting organization, or a devestating injury, adverse and sometimes unfair circumstances can contribute vastly to whether or not a player finds success.

3. The "it" Factor-I'm sure most readers know what I'm talking about. The "it" factor has a malleable set of criteria, depending on who you ask.

For me, the criteria is a mix of intangibles, clutch ability, and innate athletic ability that is "translatable" (i.e. able to be transferred onto the football field) that a player possesses allowing him to transcend circumstance, and thus be properly equipped to succeed in any situation.

Of the eight #1 overall picks since 1983 I deemed "successful", I believe four unquestionably would be able to "transcend circumstance" any thus would have been able to succeed in virtually any situation.

They are, in order of how much "it" they possess(ed): John Elway, Peyton Manning, Bruce Smith, Orlando Pace.

Elway, in my opinion the best QB of all time, had both special, rare athletic ability and unparalleled intangibles.

Peyton Manning has some of the best intagibles in football history.

Bruce Smith was not only a tremendous athlete, but also had one of the greatest motors of all time

Lastly, I'm not sure about Orlando Pace's intangibles, but anyone who watched him block knows the guy would have been a superstar anywhere as a result of his dominating athletic talents. 

Thus, after much research and long-winded writing, I can offer but three conclusions:

First, we must realize that "circumstance" does and will play an integral role in how many players fare in the NFL.

Secondly, the scouting process remains flawed and highly inexact.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there are some players who have "it", which makes them able to succeed under most circumstances—and these, my friends, are the players who really are special.

I'll round out my article my giving my take on the Dolphins options with the #1 pick, with a particular emphasis on the "it" factor.

Option #1: Matt Ryan, QB: Ryan has shown himself to have superb intangibles, as evidenced by his clutch play throughout this past year. He was also productive despite a less than stellar supporting cast.

His 19 interceptions are a cause for concern, though, and he doesn't have any standout physical tools.

Bottom Line: He's got some "it", that's for sure.


Option #2: Jake Long, OT: It's tough to evaluate the intangibles of an OT. What I can say with confidence, however, is that Long is not the type of guy with otherworldy athleticism.

Bottom Line: For now, I'm inclined to say that Long is "nothing more" than a top-drawer offensive line prospect.


Option #3: Chris Long, DE\LB: When you're Howie Long's son, you're going to have tremendous intangibles, it's about as cut-and-dry as that. Chris isn't a transcendent athlete, but he's more than solid in that regard.

And the pick is......


Chris Long. Given his surplus of "it" and the fact that the Dolphins need to give John Beck another year, I think the best way to go is Chris Long.

In all honesty, people, ask yourself: Is Chris Long, a straight and narrow guy with solid athleticism along with top notch intangibles and genetics going to fail in the NFL?

In my opinion, the answer is an unequivocal "No". Given what I've written in this article, that should tell you something. 


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