Five years have passed since the 2008 draft, giving NFL teams more than enough time to evaluate their first-round selections. Nine of the 31 players chosen are no longer with their initial teams. Many more are hitting free agency this offseason, as a four-year deal was the norm for the rookie players.
The draft was fairly successful in the top end. The Miami Dolphins hit with offensive tackle Jake Long, who has made four Pro Bowls in five seasons. Chris Long and Matt Ryan are franchise players for their respective teams, and the Baltimore Ravens just got a Super Bowl championship from signal-caller Joe Flacco.
This year also featured one of the biggest busts in NFL history in Vernon Gholston. Several others came nowhere close to reaching their potential and would surely have rated last if not for Gholston.
Like my previous articles, this article grades the players solely on the production they’ve given their team so far. Players taken in the top five are held to higher standards than those taken later in the draft. And as expected, injuries have to be counted against a player.
The New England Patriots didn’t have a first-round pick this year due to Spygate. But the Patriots losing their draft pick is better than the production the New York Jets got from Vernon Gholston.
Gholston came out of Ohio State with an impressive resume. He was one of two players to record a sack against Jake Long. Gholston ran a ridiculous 4.58 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 225 pounds 37 times at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Jets snatched him up with the sixth overall pick.
Gholston was going to be a supreme pass-rusher in their 3-4 defense, a player that could get to Tom Brady and make his life miserable.
Gholston rewarded the Jets with a grand total of 16 tackles in three seasons. He had zero sacks, zero forced fumbles, zero fumble recoveries and he was mercifully cut in the spring of 2011. What’s really sad about Gholston is that he had a $9 million bonus in his contract if he recorded a sack or recovered a fumble, but he never got it.
Derrick Harvey has been one of the biggest draft busts of the past decade. The Jacksonville Jaguars traded up to the eighth overall pick to select him, giving up their 26th overall pick, two third-rounders and a fourth-round pick. Then they signed Harvey to a five-year, $23.8 million deal with about $17.5 of that guaranteed.
Harvey collected eight sacks and no forced fumbles in his first three seasons, suiting up for 47 of a possible 48 games. By year three, he lost his starting spot to fifth-round rookie end Austen Lane.
It’s tough to find a draft pick as bad as Kentwan Balmer in terms of pure production. Balmer was drafted as a 4-3 defensive tackle and moved to a 3-4 defensive end early in his career.
He lasted two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, appearing in 27 of 32 games and starting none. Balmer was then traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 before bouncing to the Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins. Balmer’s grand total: zero sacks, zero forced fumbles, zero fumble recoveries and just 39 tackles in his NFL career.
In four years with the Chicago Bears, Chris Williams never came close to being the franchise tackle the team thought he would be.
Williams started just 38 of a possible 64 games, appearing in only 50. He missed time as a rookie due to a herniated disc and then three games in 2010 due to a hamstring injury. In 2011, Williams played in just nine contests because of a season-ending wrist injury.
In Williams’ lone full season as a starter (2009), he surrendered seven sacks and 34 pressures while committing nine penalties. He was eventually moved to guard and then released early in 2012.
A grand total of four defensive ends were taken in the first round in 2008. The Seattle Seahawks were one of three teams that completely whiffed.
Lawrence Jackson lasted two seasons with the team, picking up 6.5 sacks as a full-time starter. He was shipped off to Detroit for a low draft pick but never started a game in three years with the Lions. Jackson has now played 69 games since 2008, starting only 24. His lifetime total of 19.5 sacks ranks tied for 37th among defensive ends during that span. Among all defensive players, Jackson is tied for 60th place.
Picks like Glenn Dorsey in 2008 and Tyson Jackson in 2009 could be the reason the Kansas City Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game in ages.
Dorsey was drafted fifth overall after a stellar career at LSU. He started regularly for his first four NFL seasons, the initial two at defensive tackle and then at 3-4 end. Dorsey averaged fewer than one sack per year and he doesn’t play on many obvious passing downs, as he’s more of a run-stuffer. Dorsey’s underwhelming career in Kansas City will end after earning $51 million.
It’s tough to call Sedrick Ellis a bust. He’s started 70 of 80 games since being drafted seventh overall, all of those coming at 4-3 defensive tackle. During that span, there have been 11 defensive tackles to have started at least 70 games. Ellis ranks seventh in sacks and 10th in tackles.
The biggest problem with Ellis is that he’s just not a playmaker. Teams don’t draft players like Ellis that high for the amount of production they’ve gotten from him. That’s the kind of production many defensive tackles could have given their team.
Considering Ellis’s rookie deal just expired, he probably won’t return to New Orleans.
Keith Rivers’ rookie season looked promising enough until he broke his jaw when Hines Ward blindside crack-blocked him. Rivers missed the final nine games of the year, and he’s continued to struggle with injuries throughout his NFL career.
Rivers missed three games in 2009 with a calf injury, one in 2010 due to a foot injury and the entire 2011 season due to a wrist injury. Rivers was eventually traded to the New York Giants for ’12, missing five more games due to a nagging hamstring injury.
He’s provided limited production when he has played. Rivers has totaled just two sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble in 39 NFL games since ’08.
The potential has been there for Darren McFadden. He rushed for 1,157 yards on 5.2 yards per carry in 2010, adding over 500 receiving yards out of the backfield and scoring 10 total touchdowns. And that was all in just 13 games with a poor quarterback situation.
But McFadden’s biggest problem has been his inability to stay off the injury list. He has missed at least three games every season of his career. Last year, he saw his yards per carry average dip to a shockingly poor 3.3 rate.
He’s still got another year left to the massive $60 million rookie contract he signed, but it would be foolish for the Oakland Raiders to think they can count on McFadden to stay healthy.
It’s a shame what happened to Jeff Otah, because he was going to be really good. He showed a lot of promise when he did play, but he never got over the knee problems that plagued him.
Otah missed seven games in his first two seasons, the entire 2010 campaign and 12 games in 2011. Otah was eventually traded to the New York Jets for a conditional draft pick but he failed his physical there. It’s highly doubtful he will ever play again, which is unfortunate because he started strong.
It took Antoine Cason some time to crack the San Diego Chargers’ starting lineup as a cornerback. But he’s now started for three seasons straight, and he’s held his own.
Among the 17 cornerbacks that have started at least 45 games since 2010, Cason ranks in the middle of the pack with just eight interceptions. His 45 passes defensed rank fifth, though. Last year wasn’t one of his better years, as he allowed five touchdowns and a 98.0 passer rating on throws his way. But he’s been at least a league-average cornerback since he took over as a starter.
Strictly as a cornerback, Leodis McKelvin hasn’t been worth the 11th overall pick. He’s started just 32 of a possible 80 games since being drafted, and he’s appeared in only 64. McKelvin has intercepted just six passes, largely as a nickel cornerback.
He’s an explosive return man, though. McKelvin has twice been named AP All-Pro as a kick returner, and he’s run back a total of four punts/kickoffs for touchdowns. That led the Bills to bring him back for 2013 and beyond on a new four-year, $20 million contract.
Sam Baker’s career in Atlanta could be coming to a close this offseason, as he’s hitting the open free-agent market. Baker has been inconsistent in his five years with the Falcons, struggling with injuries and even getting benched for a period of time in 2011.
Baker played his finest football last year, although he still only rated as the 18th-best left tackle in the NFL. Baker’s career has been a disappointment considering he was supposed to be the franchise left tackle for quarterback Matt Ryan. He will likely be starting over with a new team, but Baker is a league-average tackle who could certainly help a handful of teams.
Felix Jones hasn’t amounted to the running back the Dallas Cowboys thought he would be. They drafted him as a complement to bruising goal-line runner Marion Barber, and Jones has definitely had his splashes.
He averaged a ridiculous 8.9 yards per rush as a rookie, the highest single-season average in history by a running back with at least 30 carries.
He followed that up with 685 rushing yards and three scores, leading the NFL with 5.9 yards per carry. And since he was drafted, Jones is fourth-best in yards per carry (4.9) among running backs with at least 500 carries, trailing just Jamaal Charles, DeAngelo Williams and Adrian Peterson.
But Jones hasn’t proven he can handle a full workload or stay healthy. He’s never carried the ball more than 180 times in a season and he hasn’t stayed off the injury list. Jones missed 10 games as a rookie due to a torn ligament, two more in 2009 with a sprained PCL and four more with an ankle injury in ’11.
As part of the rotation though, Jones could do some serious damage for another team in the future, even if he’s not back in Dallas.
Early on, Mike Jenkins played very well in Dallas. He actually made the Pro Bowl in 2009, starting 15 games at cornerback with five interceptions and 19 pass deflections.
Jenkins started two more years with the Cowboys before the team felt an upgrade was necessary. They inked free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year deal and drafted corner Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. Jenkins didn’t start a game in 2012, participating in just 374 snaps without an interception.
The Cowboys have said they have no interest in retaining Jenkins in Dallas. He could still be a viable option for a team looking for a talented young corner, especially since Jenkins has shown flashes of success.
Jonathan Stewart has been underutilized since the day he was drafted. He’s been fairly productive, twice scoring 10 touchdowns in a season and rushing for as many as 1,133 yards in a single season. That led the Carolina Panthers to extend him through the 2017 season to the tune of a five-year, $36 million contract with a ridiculous $22 million guaranteed.
How the Panthers plan to pay Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton is their problem. Stewart’s performance really dropped off last year, as he picked up only 336 rushing yards, one score and a 3.6 yards-per-carry average. The Panthers have three running backs all signed to long-term deals, and Stewart’s production last year doesn’t justify his pay.
After four relatively average seasons with the Detroit Lions, Gosder Cherilus broke out in 2012. He played at a very high level all year. He allowed just four sacks in 16 games. Cherilus rated as the eighth-best offensive tackle in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
Cherilus is hitting free agency and probably won’t be back with the Detroit Lions considering the team re-signed offensive tackle Corey Hilliard. Cherilus is just 28 years old and he picked a fine time to have a career season. That could make him a fairly attractive commodity in the free-agent market.
Branden Albert has started from day one with the Kansas City Chiefs. He has never made a Pro Bowl and he’s probably not much more than an average blindside tackle.
Since being drafted, Albert has started 71 games, averaging 14.2 per season. He commits his fair share of penalties, and he allows an average of about five sacks per year, which is close to the league average.
Last year was one of Albert’s better campaigns. He did miss four games due to a back injury, but he surrendered just one sack in 12 starts.
He’s hitting free agency, which prompted the Chiefs to franchise tag him for 2013. There has been speculation about whether Albert really fits at left tackle at all. He will have to face Von Miller twice per season, which is no easy task for any player.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made a big splash early on. He recorded four interceptions and a touchdown as a rookie, then intercepted two more passes in his first two playoff games. That year, DRC helped the Arizona Cardinals reach their first Super Bowl appearance ever.
DRC followed it up in 2009 with his finest year ever. He picked off six passes and totaled 25 passes defensed, tied for the fourth-highest single-season total in NFL history. He was well on his way to being one of the game’s finest cornerbacks.
Rodgers-Cromartie hasn’t regained his form, though. He was awful in 2010, rating as the worst cornerback in the league, per Pro Football Focus. He played sparingly in ’11 after he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and spent a roller coaster of a season as a starter in ’12.
Dustin Keller has been a pretty formidable tight end since the New York Jets drafted him in 2008. He’s 13th in receptions (241), 11th in receiving yards (2,876) and tied for 14th in touchdowns (17). He topped out at 65-815-5 in 2011, servicing as Mark Sanchez’s top receiving weapon.
That’s good production, although the Jets probably could have gotten that from a second- or third-round pick. Many of the game’s best tight ends during that span (Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Owen Daniels, Brent Celek to name a few) put up that production as a mid-round pick (or even undrafted).
Kenny Phillips’ time in New York has been marred by knee injuries, which will affect his status as a free agent. Phillips missed 14 games in 2009 and nine more in 2012, meaning he’s seen action in fewer than three-quarters of the games since he was drafted.
Phillips is a pretty good player when healthy. He had four interceptions and 11 passes defensed in 2011, leading the Giants to a Super Bowl championship in the 2012 playoffs.
Spending a first-round pick on a running back is always a risky move because that position tends to have the shortest NFL lifespan.
Rashard Mendenhall averaged 1,100 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground during his three years as a starter. That’s fairly good production, even if Mendenhall’s yards-per-carry average is just 12th among 16 backs in the league during that span.
Mendenhall won’t likely return to Pittsburgh, and he still has a lot to offer. He’s just 25 years old and fully recovered from the ACL injury he suffered at the end of the 2011 campaign.
Since he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Aqib Talib is fifth among all cornerbacks in interceptions (19). Three times he’s picked off at least four passes in a season, and he’s scored a total of four defensive touchdowns during that span.
Talib is pretty big (6’2”, 202 pounds) for a corner, and he’s talented enough to shut down some of the game’s best receivers. He has struggled with injuries, never starting 16 games in a season and missing 17 since ’08. He’s also had his fair share of well-documented off-the-field issues, which led the Buccaneers to trade him to the New England Patriots midway through 2012.
As it stands now, Talib’s proven track record of success will probably lead him to be one of the more sought-out players in free agency.
It’s easy to pick apart Joe Flacco’s career. He has never thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season. He’s never been to a Pro Bowl. Among the 20 quarterbacks to have started at least 50 games over the last five seasons, Flacco is 11th in passer rating, 12th in yards per attempt and 13th in completion percentage. And his team defense has finished in the top three in scoring four of five seasons.
But Flacco has done more than his share of work at the position himself. He’s one of three quarterbacks to have started all 80 games since 2008. He has the sixth-lowest interception percentage in NFL history. He has won a playoff game every season of his career, including the greatest contract run ever that culminated in a world championship this past year.
Flacco has elevated his game in the clutch time and time again, never more so than this past year. He posted a passer rating over 100 in all four playoff games, throwing 11 touchdowns to no interceptions. He earned the Super Bowl MVP following a tremendous performance against the league’s second-ranked scoring defense.
And that earned him the largest contract in NFL history.
It took Chris Long a few years to reach his potential at the NFL level. But now he’s a bona fide star. In fact, most people probably don’t realize just how productive Long is.
He finished second among all 4-3 defensive ends in quarterback hurries (57) in 2010. He led all ends with 58 hurries in 2011. And he led ends again in 2012, this time with 55 hurries. That gives Long 170 quarterback hurries in a three-year span. That’s absolutely ridiculous.
During that same three-year span, Clay Matthews has 113. DeMarcus Ware has 130. Jared Allen has 123.
Long has parlayed those hurries into 8.5, 13 and 11.5 sacks. That’s 33 sacks since ’10, which ranks him fifth among all defensive ends.
The only things holding Long back from rating higher are the slow start to his career and his poor play against the run.
By year one in the NFL, Ryan Clady was playing at an All-Pro level. That season, he started all 16 games as Jay Cutler’s blindside protector, allowing just half a sack. He’s started all 80 games since entering the league despite a serious patellar tendon injury in the 2010 offseason.
Clady has been selected to three Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams in five seasons. Last year, he was a major reason the Denver Broncos won the AFC West. Clady allowed just one sack in over 1,100 offensive snaps.
The Broncos have already franchised Clady for the 2013 season. They’re going to have a tough time signing him long-term, as he rejected a five-year, $50 million extension last offseason, one that included $28 million in guarantees.
There aren’t many stars on the New England Patriots defense. Other than Vince Wilfork, this team has won games largely because of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Count Jerod Mayo among the top defensive players, though. Mayo is one of five players from this year’s first-round draft class to earn a long-term extension before hitting free agency. The others were Chris Long, Jonathan Stewart, Duane Brown and Chris Johnson.
Mayo has made two Pro Bowls and an AP All-Pro team in five years. He was the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008. He’s the consummate professional who shows up early, stays late and works out incredibly hard in the weight room.
Duane Brown began his career slowly, like many of the offensive tackles taken in the first round. He was a liability as a rookie but showed major improvement by year two. By year three, he was playing at a Pro Bowl level and by year five, he was officially voted to the Pro Bowl team for the first time.
Brown has been a top-five tackle in the business for the past five seasons, whether people realize it or not. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller rated Brown the best left tackle in the game.
Brown has started 75 of a possible 80 games since he was drafted. He allowed just four total sacks the past two seasons.
Compare that to Joe Staley (14), Jake Long (9) or even the great Joe Thomas (6). There’s a reason the Houston Texans signed Brown to a six-year extension last year, and they’re going to stay in contention for many years as a result.
Even with his two-year hiatus now that he’s gotten paid, Chris Johnson still has a five-year stretch that stacks up favorably against the all-time greats.
Since being drafted, Johnson has rushed for 6,888 yards and 44 touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry. He’s also averaged over 330 receiving yards per campaign. He’s made three Pro Bowls, earned an All-Pro team and was named the 2009 AP Offensive Player of the Year for his 2,006-yard season.
Johnson has shown the electric ability unseen from almost every player to play the game. He owns three career 90-yard rushing touchdowns. He’s rushed for 100 yards 33 times and scored multiple touchdowns in the same game 13 times.
Every year anymore, there seems to be speculation that the Tennessee Titans may cut Johnson because of his ridiculous contract. Even if that does happen, he’s given them Hall of Fame production for a half-decade.
The No. 1 selection belongs to either Matt Ryan or Jake Long. It wasn’t until I started crunching the numbers that I realize the guy is easily Jake Long.
Ryan has been a franchise quarterback since he was drafted, that’s for sure. He’s started 77 of 80 games and led the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs four times, including as a rookie. Ryan is a two-time Pro Bowler and despite his struggles in the postseason, he’s twice led the NFL in both fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives.
When comparing Ryan’s numbers to his peers, he blends in more than standing out. Among the 20 quarterbacks with 50 starts since ’08, Ryan is fifth in passing yards, seventh in touchdowns, ninth in completion percentage, ninth in passer rating and 10th in yards per attempt.
This shouldn’t reflect poorly on Ryan at all. He’s being compared to guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, who were in the primes of their careers. Ryan was thrust in as a rookie on a team that went 4-12 the previous season, and he’s done a remarkable job. He’s been a top-six quarterback over the past five years, and that’s totally worth the third overall pick.
Long was the No. 1 overall pick, which came with high expectations. He fulfilled them immediately.
Until his recent bouts with injuries, Long made the Pro Bowl his first four seasons. As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell points out, Long is the 14th offensive tackle ever to pull off the four Pro Bowls in five seasons feat. Seven of the 12 that are eligible for the Hall of Fame are now enshrined.
Long gave up just two sacks all season as a rookie, and he also rated as one of the best run-blockers in the business. By 2009, a case could be made the Long was the best non-quarterback in football. He allowed seven quarterback hurries…all season. Long went a stretch of 10 games from Week 5 through Week 14 in which he didn’t allow a hurry. He played 632 snaps without allowing a hurry, a nearly unprecedented streak.
Long’s play has dropped off in the past two seasons. He missed two games in 2011 with a biceps injury and four in 2012 with a triceps injury. His play has also declined, which will make him less sought-after on the free-agent market.
Regardless of what Long’s future is, he’s played at an extremely high level. The last player drafted first overall to match Long’s level of production was Orlando Pace, who was drafted back in 1998.