6 Biggest Draft-Day Mistakes in New York Jets History
Optimism reigns in March as NFL fans bask in the warmth of new free-agent signings and the prospects for the upcoming draft. Surely things will be better this coming season. I'm here to say that's not always the case.
I've taken the responsibility of raining on every New York Jets fan's parade. It's my job in 2014 to use the lessons of history to sow the seeds of doom and gloom throughout Jets Nation as the 2014 NFL draft approaches by revisiting past blunders.
I can hear the objections now:
- "Hindsight is 20/20."
- "Other teams make mistakes."
- "You can't predict things like injuries."
I understand these concerns. Still, the Jets have demonstrated a macabre skill in getting horrible results from draft day. In their story, "New York Jets: Best and worst draft picks," NFL.com writers Dan Hanzus and Jason Smith called the Jets' blunders, "...the gold standard of disappointing draft picks." They can't be alone in that opinion.
So in the interest of avoiding a repetition of history, here's a list of the leading Jets draft mistakes. A couple of factors influence the ranking:
- First is the productivity of the player himself. It’s important to consider a player's results not as absolute numbers, but in the context of his selection round. We're talking about early selections here, none later than the 39th pick. Many of these players here had perfectly good numbers for fifth-round selections. The Jets took them in the first or second rounds.
- Second is the amount of trouble the Jets took to get him. If they traded players for picks and wound up with nothing, that’s an even worse result than blowing the pick they earned through their regular-season play.
- Third is missed opportunities. This is the "what might have been" section. It lists the future Hall of Famers or All-Pros who were still on the board when the Jets made their blunder. It often gets more attention than it deserves. For example, in 1983 the Jets were one of four teams whose first-round pick was a quarterback other than Dan Marino.
Let's begin by looking at some players who appear on these lists all too often. Then it's on to the real mistakes.
- College Football Statistics: Sports-Reference.com
- NFL Draft History and Player Statistics: NFL.com
- New York Jets Draft History: NewYorkJets.com
Give These Guys a Break
This slide replaces the usual "Honorable Mentions." It lists players who others have called "draft mistakes" who really aren't. They may not have had Hall of Fame careers, but they achieved results commensurate with their draft position.
1981: RB Freeman McNeil (No. 3)
In his piece, "New York Jets: Biggest Draft Day Regret In Franchise History," Football Nation's Gary Thomas includes McNeil because "…the ultra-talented back just couldn't stay healthy spending almost as much of his career on I.R. as he did on the field." Thomas also notes that the Jets could have picked among safeties Kenny Easley, Dennis Smith and Ronnie Lott.
It's true that injuries plagued McNeil. He only played 16 games in two of his 12 seasons. It's also true that in the 12 games he averaged per season, McNeil used 1,798 carries to gain 8,074 yards and to score 38 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He added 295 receptions for 2,961 yards and 12 touchdowns. He even threw a five-yard touchdown pass.
Only Curtis Martin surpassed McNeil's rushing attempts, yards and 100-yard games as a member of the Jets. McNeil's career average of 4.5 yards per carry and his 1982 mark of 5.2 yards per carry are team records.
He performed pretty well for a draft mistake.
1985: WR Al Toon (No. 10)
Yahoo! Sports contributor James Moffat acknowledges Toon's status as a Jets "Ring of Honor recipient" in "NFL Draft: Top Five Busts in New York Jets History." His main beef with Toon is that he wasn’t Jerry Rice, who the 49ers picked at No. 16.
Concussions limited Toon's active career, but he still set the Jets' single-season reception record with 93 and the record for most consecutive games with a reception at 101. His 517 receptions in eight years, 19 100-yard games and 14 receptions in a single game are among the top career totals in Jets history.
1983: QB Ken O'Brien (No. 24)
O'Brien is a staple on Jets worst-pick lists. He deserves better. His major flaw was not being Dan Marino, who the Dolphins selected three picks later.
O'Brien had a solid career. His 3,465 passing attempts were second in Jets history to Joe Namath's 3,655. His 24,386 passing yards are second to Namath's 27,057. His 2,039 completions are a team record. O'Brien is also the first Jets quarterback to win the NFL passer rating title and the only one to achieve a perfect rating during a 400-yard game.
His duels with Marino were legendary, including a 1986 51-45 overtime thriller that set a combined passing yardage record.
Look at O’Brien's selection another way. He's not Todd Blackledge (Kansas City, No. 7) or Tony Eason (New England, No. 1). He's also not Jim Kelly (No. 14), but the Bills had to delay their gratification until 1986, as he spent 1984 and 1985 in the USFL.
Cynics will say the Jets would have taken Blackledge or Eason if they could. Still, fans of Kansas City and New England would have traded these guys for O'Brien.
Freeman, Toon and O'Brien all achieved satisfactory results for first-round draft picks. They moved into prominent roles quickly and established standards of performance that left them among their team’s all-time leaders. Their biggest fault, especially for Toon and O’Brien, was not their play. It was that they were not someone else. It's time that we all GIVE THESE GUYS A BREAK!
6. 2003: DT Dewayne Robertson (No. 4)
It's bad enough when a team's first-round pick proves to be a disappointment. It's even worse when a team works a trade to get him. That's what happened to the New York Jets in 2003.
The Jets had two first-round picks in 2003, the 13th and 22nd. They traded both of these picks plus their fourth-round pick to Chicago for a chance to get defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson.
Robertson wasn't bad. During five years with the Jets he made 258 tackles, 174 of which were solo. He added 14.5 sacks, two passes defended and three forced fumbles. Some might call him a "solid" performer, which is why he's the best of this list of the worst.
What makes him a bust is a combination of the effort the Jets made to get him and the achievements of a defensive tackle they could have selected instead. That player was Kevin Williams , who the Minnesota Vikings selected five picks after the Jets took Robertson.
In his first five seasons, Williams made 237 tackles; 176 of them were solo. Williams added 34.0 sacks, four interceptions (two of which were pick-sixes), 29 passes defended and three forced fumbles. Williams completed his 11th season with the Vikings in 2013.
In contrast to Robertson, Williams contributed both longevity and an imposing presence in pass defense. When he wasn't collecting sacks he was a threat to knock the ball down or catch it outright. Robertson showed some promise but ultimately surrendered to knee injuries.
Why compare these picks so closely after exonerating the choices of McNeil, Toon and O'Brien? It's a matter of expectations. You don't expect every first-round pick to go to the Hall of Fame, but you'd like him to stabilize his position for a few years.
McNeil, Toon and O'Brien won't make the Hall of Fame, but they were mainstays on the team for long enough to be among the all-time team leaders at their positions.
That's not so with Robertson. He's a case of the pick who would have been a fine lower-round selection. For the Jets to pick him in the first round was bad; for them to trade two picks for one on his behalf was worse.
5. 1995: TE Kyle Brady (No. 9)
If your draft philosophy is to pick the best available player regardless of position, you'll really think the Jets blew this one. It's not higher on the list because at least the Jets didn't scheme to acquire this pick.
They earned the pick with a 6-10 record in 1994. They used it to select Kyle Brady, who had caught 76 passes for 940 yards and nine touchdowns during his four-year Penn State career.
Brady's four years with the Jets roughly duplicated those numbers. He contributed 93 catches for 949 yards and 10 touchdowns. His production would have been fine if it had occurred in a single year.
Two factors besides low production make Brady's selection a bust.
First was that the Jets already had a tight end, Johnny Mitchell, who had caught 58 passes for 749 yards and four touchdowns in 1994. Mitchell appeared to be coming into his own, so using a high-round pick on a tight end seemed wasteful.
The second and perhaps most damaging factor was the missed opportunity to grab a high-impact player. DT Warren Sapp, G Ruben Brown, CB Ty Law and OLB Derrick Brooks were still available. Law and Brooks were still on the board by the 16th pick, when the Jets took DE Hugh Douglas.
In the end, taking Brady was one of many cases in which the Jets' first-round selection yielded fifth-round results.
4. 1990: RB Blair Thomas (No. 2)
At least the Jets didn't have to work a deal to draft Blair Thomas. They earned the second overall pick by posting a 4-12 record in 1989. That's why he's the lowest No. 2 pick on this list.
Had Thomas carried the ball 468 times for 2,009 yards and five touchdowns in one season, the football world would have hailed this first-round selection. His 64 receptions for 473 yards and two touchdowns would have heightened the praise.
The problem was it took Thomas four years with the Jets to amass those numbers. He added two kickoff returns for 39 yards.
At Penn State, the 5'10", 202-pound Thomas appeared to be the complete offensive package. He carried the ball 606 times for 3,301 yards and 21 touchdowns, caught 48 passes for 477 yards and two touchdowns, returned 25 kickoffs for 658 yards and a touchdown and returned 10 punts for 76 yards.
He topped 1,000 rushing yards in each of his last two seasons and placed 10th in the 1989 Heisman Trophy vote.
With the Jets, Thomas' receiving was the only function that approached his collegiate years. He gained four fewer receiving yards and needed 16 more passes to do it.
Thomas' numbers would have been good for a fifth-round draft pick who played the role of change-of-pace back. His average yards per carry is one of the team's highest.
But he couldn't handle the workload of a feature back, which is why his first-round selection was a mistake. The success of a Florida All-American and 17th overall pick named Emmitt Smith only made things worse.
3. 1980: WR Johnny 'Lam' Jones (No. 2)
Many consider Jets WR Stephen Hill to be a bust in the making. Should that be so, however, he'll still not approach one of the worst wide receiver picks in Jets history, Johnny "Lam" Jones. It wasn't just the pick itself that made it a mistake, it was the effort the Jets made to get him. That's what makes it a worse No. 2 pick than picking Blair Thomas.
It took the Jets two deals to acquire this pick. First, they sent QB Matt Robinson to Denver for QB Craig Penrose and the 20th (first round) and 47th (second round) overall selections. The next step was to trade their assigned 13th pick plus the 20th pick to San Francisco for the second pick, with which they took Jones.
Jones began his collegiate career at Texas as a running back and switched to wide receiver as a sophomore. He only gained 1,603 receiving yards in three years, but that was good enough to be the leading receiver in a run-dominated offense.
His biggest claim to fame was his role with the U.S. Olympic 4x100 relay team, which he helped win a gold medal.
Maybe the Jets thought Jones would do for them what world-class sprinter Bob Hayes did for the Dallas Cowboys from 1965 to 1974. Hayes made three Pro Bowls on his way to contributing 365 catches for 7,295 yards and 71 touchdowns to the Dallas cause. It never happened.
Jones never achieved more than part-time numbers. He lasted five years with the Jets, during which he caught 138 passes for 2,322 yards and 13 touchdowns, rushed nine times for 17 yards and returned five kickoffs for 73 yards. It was the contribution of a late-round pick, not the second overall selection.
The irony is that the Jets could have avoided the pick shenanigans and selected eventual Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk with their original 13th pick. Washington didn't take Monk until pick 18.
To add insult to injury, the Jets dropped from 8-8 in 1979 to 4-12 in 1980. Penrose didn’t make the team.
2. 1984: 3 Worthless Picks (Nos. 10, 15 and 39)
Things looked good for the Jets entering the 1984 draft. Thanks to a couple of trades, they owned four of the first 39 picks. A team that finished 7-9 in 1983 was ready to build the core of a playoff-caliber team, perhaps more.
Things didn't work out that way. The only first-round or second-round pick to make a long-term impact was the 37th selection, offensive lineman Jim Sweeney. The Jets owned that pick outright with no trading required.
Here's who they got with the other three picks:
The Jets traded QB Richard Todd to New Orleans for this pick. Their selection was DB Russell Carter, who intercepted 11 passes in his first two years at SMU. He showed some promise in 1984 by contributing 3.0 sacks and four interceptions.
He lasted three additional years with the Jets but only added one more sack.
The Jets used their assigned first-round pick for DE Ron Faurot. He lasted two seasons, contributing 2.0 sacks in 2003.
New York Sack Exchange member Abdul Salaam and fellow defensive lineman Kenny Neil went to Green Bay for this pick. The selection, TE Glenn Dennison, caught 106 passes for 1,095 yards and five touchdowns for the University of Miami.
He spent half of his NFL career with the Jets, which amounted to one season. His contribution was 16 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown.
The Jets traded three players for two picks who produced virtually nothing. It's not surprising that 1984's won-lost record matched that of 1983.
Such futility would make the top of most "worst-draft mistake" lists. However, with the Jets, there's one draft choice they won't live down for years to come. Mistake No. 1 is next.
1. 2008: DE Vernon Gholston (No. 6)
You would have thought that a 6'3", 260-pound defensive end from Ohio State who picked up 22.5 sacks and an interception in his last two years at Ohio State would have a positive impact on an NFL defense. You would have thought just as the Jets did when they made Vernon Gholston the sixth selection in the 2008 NFL draft after earning the pick with a 4-12 record in 2007.
You would have thought wrong. Gholston picked up neither a sack nor an interception during three years in the NFL.
His NFL Scouting Combine performance was cause for optimism. Gholston ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, lifted 225 pounds 37 times, had a broad jump of 125 inches and a vertical leap of 35.5 inches. He appeared to have all the athletic tools that a top pass-rusher needs.
Somehow, that didn't add up to results in the NFL.
He performed so poorly that Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith responded to news of Gholston's impending release by observing, "Gholston, taken sixth overall in 2008, may have been the biggest bust of any defensive end ever selected in the NFL draft."
Gholshon's play was so bad that it's hard if not impossible to say he merited a lower-round selection. That's what makes this draft pick the Jets' worst despite the lack of draft-day manipulation. Gholston did it by himself.
The Jets will have to work hard to top that.
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.