Every NFL draft since the first common one back in 1967 has made one thing clear: The first round offers the best chance of finding good talent.
You can name any position, outside of centers and kickers, and many of the best players of all time at that position were first-round picks.
But the first round has a dirty secret: Roughly half the players are going to be disappointments in the NFL. A fraction of those will be flat-out busts, because expectations are very high for a first-round pick. The cost is never greater in terms of pick value and the size of the contract.
With two offensive tackles taken at the top of the draft, you might expect one to be a bust. But the tackle position rarely busts, if only because we are uncertain how to judge subpar performance from them. However, the odds that either Eric Fisher or Luke Joeckel disappoints are fairly high.
Whether it is a first-round pick or a late-round steal, most players need to be drafted into a good situation to succeed. There are very few transcendent talents that would have worked well anywhere, such as Peyton Manning and Calvin Johnson.
Combining a player’s red flags with the situation we know he is going into, we can pinpoint which players are most likely to be an NFL bust. Here are the top five candidates from the 2013 draft, all taken in the first round.
Defensive End Ezekiel Ansah—Detroit Lions (No. 5 Overall)
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock may have summed up Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah the best when he concluded that in three years from now, “he’s an All-Pro or he’s on the streets, and I don’t mean that negatively.”
Keep in mind, Ansah did not play football until 2010, which means it was only three years ago when he needed help putting his pads on. Raw may be a little too kind to Ansah. Mayock also pointed to the fact that Ansah's career probably never happens if he did not fail to cut it with the BYU basketball team.
At BYU, Ansah played a limited number of snaps, only making a real impact this past season. Even then, he tallied a total of 4.5 sacks.
But in the Senior Bowl, Ansah had seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and forced a fumble. This big performance impressed many scouts, shooting him up the draft boards, much like what happened for Adam Carriker in 2007. Carriker was drafted No. 13 by the Rams and has not lived up to that status.
In what is essentially an all-star game between players with little-to-no experience in playing together, can you really put that much stock in the results?
Now consider the Ghana-born defensive end is going to the Detroit Lions, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of developing high draft picks into good players. The Lions’ locker room also has had issues with several off-field incidents involving their players, so this may not be the greatest destination for someone looking for leadership.
Well, if this all doesn’t reek of a top-five bust, then what else would?
Much talk was spent on “explosion on tape” for Ansah and other players, but doesn’t production still matter the most?
I remember watching Elvis Dumervil bulldoze Big East blockers on his way to a 20-sack season for Louisville in 2005. When watching the 2006 draft, it was hard to figure out why he was still on the board. Dumervil was not drafted until the fourth round by Denver, perhaps due to his small size. But that pick worked out pretty well as he’s produced in the NFL with 63.5 sacks in 91 games (one late fax).
You can have all the talent in the world, but it doesn’t mean a thing without production.
Drafting a player as raw as Ansah with the No. 5 pick just seems like a typical Lions move. Clearly, they have issues on defense, but taking a risk on another defensive lineman is hardly the solution.
Joining Ansah on the defensive line with other high picks in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley sounds good in theory, but it rarely works out. Ask Buffalo what adding Mario Williams to Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams really did for its defense last season. Buffalo’s defense suffered some of the league’s worst beatings in 2012.
Strengthening one part of the defense does not work as well as having aptitude at each level.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore have ruled the defensive side of the ball this century, and part of the reason is how they build with a great player at each level. With the Ravens, you could go right down the middle with Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed while Terrell Suggs was the stud, outside player.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had Casey Hampton front and center, an edge-rusher like James Harrison and Troy Polamalu roaming the secondary.
Building the defense around the line is not the best idea, but it’s what Detroit is doing given the lack of quality players in the back seven.
With the Lions still trying to make Suh and Fairley work together on the line, adding another project might just further stall production. Playing in the Motor City, the Lions should know by now production is what wins games.
Guard Jonathan Cooper—Arizona Cardinals (No. 7 Overall)
This one is tricky as guards are rarely viewed as busts. But when you pick one at No. 7, you expect nothing short of greatness. The last guard picked at No. 7 was Brian Jozwiak. A hip injury in his third season ended his career, but before that, he started just three games for the Kansas City Chiefs, so you can call him a bust.
That should not happen to Jonathan Cooper, but expecting him to show greatness in Arizona is unrealistic.
With new coach Bruce Arians running the offense, there will be a lot of stress put on Cooper and his battered offensive line teammates. Arians loves the vertical passing game, which often means deep drops for the quarterback and linemen having to hold blocks longer.
The reason Arians has had some success is because he’s had rare quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, who can break out of sacks and make unbelievable plays under pressure.
The new quarterback in town is Carson Palmer, and he will fold like a cheap suit under pressure. If he’s not taking sacks (something Arizona surrendered 58 of last year), Palmer will force passes and throw interceptions.
Cooper is noted for his ability to get out on screens. Well, Arians knows very little of screens outside of little bubble screens to wide receivers, where blocking from the guards is not even the critical element of the play. Arians’ offense is also allergic to checkdowns and throwing to the running back.
This is why it’s hard not to view Arians as a bad fit in Arizona, because his offense is too dependent on an elite quarterback overcoming a poor offensive line. The Cardinals did not have the quarterback, and they may have had the only offensive line worse than the Indianapolis Colts' in 2012.
Arians had a great left guard in Alan Faneca when he first took over as offensive coordinator of the Steelers in 2007. That season, Roethlisberger was sacked a career-worst 10.4 percent of the time, but the offense still thrived in spite of the line. Faneca even played his NFL swansong for the Cardinals in 2010, starting all 16 games for a putrid offense that was missing Kurt Warner.
After six seasons of poor interior line play in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, Arians will welcome a guard that is supposed to be a franchise player. Just don’t expect him to run an offense that will tap into Cooper’s strengths or ever expect one guard to solve the many problems with Arizona’s offense.
Quarterback EJ Manuel—Buffalo Bills (No. 16 Overall)
The Doug Marrone era in Buffalo will indeed start with a quarterback joining him at the hip, which is usually the way to go about it.
But instead of it being his college quarterback (Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib) or the favored prospect (West Virginia’s Geno Smith), the Bills pulled the shocker of the first round by taking Florida State’s EJ Manuel with the No. 16 pick.
Everyone knew this was a suspect quarterback class, but no one saw this coming. Manuel was climbing the draft boards of many experts, thanks to his MVP performance at the 2013 Senior Bowl, but that was more about the lackluster play in the game more than any dominant performance.
Historically, when the first quarterback in the draft does not go in the top 10 picks, the results are not favorable. Quarterbacks are always in high demand, so when it takes 16 picks to draft one, that is a big red flag. Obviously, the draft demonstrated how the league felt about this 2013 quarterback class.
Here is the full list since 1967, also making note of the five drafts where the first quarterback was not taken until the second or third round:
Those first-round picks are not very good at all. Chad Pennington was the latest example (2000 draft) and the best of the bunch, but he could never stay healthy or productive in consecutive seasons.
There was a bit more success when the first quarterback slid to the second or third round, so maybe that is a good sign for Geno Smith and the New York Jets should he be like Boomer Esiason or Randall Cunningham. It's interesting that the two third-round quarterbacks, Danny White and Tom Tupa, both played punter in the NFL as well.
But Manuel is entering a league where expectations are for a rookie quarterback to start on opening day. He really cannot afford to sit for a year or two like Esiason, Cunningham and Pennington did.
Buffalo should be getting a dual-threat quarterback, though Manuel will have to improve his passing as it is not to the level of someone like Robert Griffin III by any means. He is more like Cam Newton, though not as explosive both on the ground and down the field.
Manuel also did not play in the SEC, which just set a record with 63 players taken in the 2013 draft. The ACC is not really a powerhouse these days, and Manuel played poorly (Sports-Reference.com) in a loss to Florida last year.
Manuel threw an interception on 3.12 percent of his pass attempts at Florida State. Usually the first quarterback taken in the draft protects the ball better than that. Here are the college passing stats for quarterbacks drafted first:
Manuel is mostly in line with the average, though the interception percentage stands out. The only players below Manuel in interception percentage are Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford, Vince Young and Michael Vick.
Palmer has continued to regress in his career. Stafford struggled as a freshman at Georgia and is still a work in progress for the Lions as well. Young and Vick were much more dynamic as runners than Manuel, while gaining more hype for leading their teams to a national championship game.
Christian Ponder, Manuel’s predecessor at Florida State, had a very similar 3.11 interception percentage. For reference, Geno Smith threw an interception on just 21 of his 1,465 pass attempts at West Virginia (1.43 percent).
Manuel’s decision-making must get better. Right now, he is more of a thrower than a passer and more of an athlete than a pro quarterback. He does not have the same polish as many of the first quarterbacks taken in the draft.
In Buffalo, Manuel has a good receiver in Steve Johnson, a big-play running back in C.J. Spiller, intriguing rookie wide receivers in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, but also a virtual unknown in what kind of offensive system Marrone will want the team to run.
Buffalo is definitely starting a project here, though that is understandable. The Bills have not made the playoffs since the 1999 season. You cannot go from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Kevin Kolb and pretend like you are trying to win. Something drastic had to happen at quarterback, but no one ever expected this player in the middle of the first round.
This pick has boom or bust written all over it. Either Manuel will be the player who leads Buffalo back to glory, or he will be the next J.P. Losman.
He has the similar first name to be the latter and may never find the consistency to be the former.
Speaking of names…
Guard Kyle Long—Chicago Bears (No. 20 Overall)
While again noting that guards rarely are viewed as busts (though Kyle Long is rumored to eventually play tackle, according to GM Phil Emery (h/t Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times), this is a pick that definitely raises red flags.
One would be that Long is a first-round pick in large part due to his genes. His father Howie was a Hall of Fame player for the Raiders and is still very visible in the media with his work for Fox. His brother Chris was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Rams.
Those two played defensive end while Kyle has barely gotten his feet wet at guard. He even started at defensive end himself at rough-and-tough Saddleback Community College before switching to the offensive line in 2011. This came after being a 23rd-round draft pick by the Chicago White Sox in the 2008 MLB Draft.
So we have a great athlete with football genes, but in terms of relevant offensive line experience, Long comes up short, as he is limited to one season at Oregon. According to ESPN, Long started just four games in 2012 for the Ducks. Some sources report more starts, but the number four is confirmed by Oregon’s own statistics.
How stellar could those four starts have really been to be picked in the first round? Had his name been Kyle Davis, the draft likely would have gone much differently for the NFL’s latest Long.
The young prospect with the star brother and star father hoping to make a name for himself is far from a given. Sometimes you get Eli Manning and sometimes you get the acting of Bill Skarsgård (brother of Alexander, son of Stellan) in Hemlock Grove.
This just feels like a panic pick by the Bears, who have been in need of offensive linemen for years now. However, so many of the best ones were already off the board at No. 20.
With Tyler Eifert, the best tight end prospect in the draft, available, it was surprising Chicago went with Long. The Bears’ issues are not that far off from the Cardinals', in that they not only need more talent up front, but a change in offensive design may also be necessary.
The talent of an individual lineman is wasted without strong unit play. No matter if he plays at guard or tackle, it is not hard to picture Jay Cutler yelling at Long eventually for a blown assignment or unfavorable stare.
Marc Trestman is the new head coach, and he does come with an offensive background, which could provide a change in dynamic for the Bears. Lovie Smith was a defensive-minded coach, as were Dick Jauron, Dave Wannstedt, Mike Ditka, etc.
But of all the picks in the draft, this is the one that looks like nepotism, going with a name and potential over any real production.
Wide Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson—Minnesota Vikings (No. 29 Overall)
After two first-round picks, Minnesota just had to get greedy for a third one, late in the round. Once again, New England and Bill Belichick found a sucker willing to make a trade.
So to get the No. 29 pick, Minnesota sent picks 53, 83, 102 and 229 to the New England Patriots.
The delay for the selection was long, but with such value, you expected maybe a quarterback like Geno Smith here.
Instead, the Vikings traded up to get a risky, luxury pick in Cordarrelle Patterson—the receiver with one year of major college football at Tennessee.
That might have been the dumbest move of the first round.
Patterson has talent, but he’s very raw and inexperienced. He does not have the greatest hands or run the best routes. Patterson did not impress in team interviews, according to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah.
Sure, if you put the guy on a team with Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball, he probably produces. But he’s going to the Vikings with Christian Ponder, where throwing short passes and handing the ball to Adrian Peterson has been the offense.
Ponder threw every pass for the Vikings last year, but he still finished with just 2,935 yards. Sure, Peterson is unlikely to run for 2,000 yards again. Ponder is only a third-year player who can improve, but this isn’t going to turn into a passing juggernaut overnight.
There’s also the fact Minnesota just signed No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings to a five-year deal worth $47.5 million ($18 million guaranteed). You don’t sign a guy to that type of contract and only expect to get 750 yards out of him. There was already concern about Jennings not getting his usual production in Minnesota, but now you throw in Patterson to stir the pot.
A successful first-round receiver going to a team with an established No. 1 receiver usually needs one of two things.
He needs to be an incredible prospect like when Arizona drafted Larry Fitzgerald a year after Anquan Boldin shined. Then there’s the easy way: have a stud quarterback like when Reggie Wayne joined Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. Julio Jones in Atlanta would be a rare example of fulfilling both requirements.
Not even the elite quarterback is always a predictor of success. Robert Meachem, another Tennessee wide receiver drafted late in the first round (2007), was a moderate success at best for the Saints, moving on to San Diego last year where he caught just 14 passes.
You might see a bigger impact on special teams than in receiving for Patterson in his rookie season.
About the only good thing for Patterson is he will not have the expectations of being a No. 1 receiver in the way 2005 bust Troy Williamson did after Minnesota traded Randy Moss to Oakland.
But Patterson could still easily be a bust. Being a secondary receiver on a team that is not very interested or equipped to throw the ball well does not sound like a developmental hot spot for a receiver in need of refinement.
Besides, with three first-round picks, you know the Vikings probably missed on at least one. That’s just how the draft is.
The odds favor Patterson being the wrong pick.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.