The Best Players I've Ever Scouted: Where Did It Go Right, Wrong?
The job of evaluating football players is one filled with misses and some hits. But the good people at home rarely remember when you get one right—they'll always remember when you miss.
When you work in media and are asked to evaluate players, I've found it is best to be up-front and honest about missing on players. No one wants to hear excuses from analysts on why Jimmy Clausen didn't become a franchise quarterback—the fan at home wants to laugh at your misfortune and hear honest analysis on why Clausen didn't pan out.
I've been evaluating players since the 2002 draft, and I like to think I've improved with age. This article will peel back the curtain, though, showing you my top 10 players ever graded at each position. You'll also get notes on why certain players failed or why I was higher on some players than other analysts and even NFL teams were.
Young didn't have the football IQ or the work ethic to become great. Bradford couldn't stay healthy and when he was on the field played far too conservative. RGIII has flashed greatness, but injuries and a struggle to evolve as a player are holding him back.
The wild card of the bunch is Teddy Bridgewater. Ranking him so high wasn't a common belief before the 2014 NFL draft. That pick could quickly become a hit or a miss.
10. Aaron Rodgers (Cal)
9. Philip Rivers (North Carolina State)
8. Vince Young (Texas)
7. Matthew Stafford (Georgia)
6. Carson Palmer (USC)
5. Sam Bradford (Oklahoma)
4. Matt Ryan (Boston College)
3. Robert Griffin III (Baylor)
2. Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville)
1. Andrew Luck (Stanford)
Running Backs (2002-Present)
Trent Richardson looked like the total package when he left Alabama, but I have since learned that backs who lack the burst to hit the hole at full speed (and those who play behind five All-American offensive linemen) will struggle in the pros.
There are no other real misses here on talent, but Jonathan Stewart, Reggie Bush and Darren McFadden have failed to live up to expectations thanks to injuries (Stewart, McFadden) and a role as a secondary option (Bush).
Of course, we don't know yet how Georgia junior Todd Gurley will fare in the pros. Gurley is the lone active college player to appear on my Top 10 list at any position, and he's played well enough so far in 2014 to earn a high draft grade. There is still time for that to change, though, depending on the predraft process.
You may also notice a trend of big backs on this list. Only Jamaal Charles and Bush would qualify as smaller running backs. Just like some general managers want a certain size or speed from their backs, apparently I like them big and strong.
10. Carlos Hyde (Ohio State)
9. Jamaal Charles (Texas)
8. Steven Jackson (Oregon State)
7. Jonathan Stewart (Oregon)
6. Reggie Bush (USC)
5. Darren McFadden (Arkansas)
4. Todd Gurley (Georgia)
3. Cedric Benson (Texas)
2. Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma)
1. Trent Richardson (Alabama)
Wide Receivers (2002-Present)
A valuable lesson was learned in my grading of Michael Crabtree—making signature plays against an elite college football team does not always equate to NFL greatness.
There are no real surprises here, except maybe the Alshon Jeffery grade. He and I are dang near linked together given my high ranking of him and his early success in his career after being a second-round pick. But for every Jeffery there is a Charles Rogers and Roy Williams who make you wonder what might have been.
10. Braylon Edwards (Michigan)
9. A.J. Green (Georgia)
8. Roy Williams (Texas)
7. Andre Johnson (Miami, Florida)
6. Larry Fitzgerald (Pitt)
5. Charles Rogers (Michigan State)
4. Sammy Watkins (Clemson)
3. Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina)
2. Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech)
1. Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech)
Tight Ends (2002-Present)
A look at the 10 best tight ends I've graded offers no real surprises or gambles, as each of the players was a highly regarded player within his own class.
That's really been the status quo with tight ends, though. Few players slip through the cracks and become stars. You might have hoped to find a Jimmy Graham or Julius Thomas here, but I had Graham with a third-round grade and Thomas was rated No. 178 overall in 2011.
10. Eric Ebron (North Carolina)
9. Zach Miller (Arizona State)
8. Dustin Keller (Purdue)
7. Marcedes Lewis (UCLA)
6. Greg Olsen (Miami, Florida)
5. Brandon Pettigrew (Oklahoma State)
4. Kellen Winslow Jr. (Miami, Florida)
3. Heath Miller (Virginia)
2. Jeremy Shockey (Miami, Florida)
1. Vernon Davis (Maryland)
Offensive Tackles (2002-Present)
Looking back at 12 years of draft grades at offensive tackle, you see some of the NFL's best at the position from the last decade. You also see a new-age emphasis on athleticism (Luke Joeckel, Greg Robinson) overtaking the hard-core technique of middle America blockers like Trent Williams, Robert Gallery, Jake Matthews, Russell Okung, Jake Long and Joe Thomas.
Speaking of Gallery, too many people are quick to point at him as a major draft bust, when reality is that he enjoyed a good career at offensive guard. He wasn't worth the No. 2 overall pick, but he's not the JaMarcus Russell of offensive tackles, either.
This list gets an incomplete grade with Matthews, Robinson and Joeckel all very young, but so far Matt Kalil and Gallery may be the biggest misses of the bunch.
10. Matt Kalil (USC)
9. Trent Williams (Oklahoma)
8. Andre Smith (Alabama)
7. Robert Gallery (Iowa)
6. Jake Matthews (Texas A&M)
5. Russell Okung (Oklahoma State)
4. Jake Long (Michigan)
3. Joe Thomas (Wisconsin)
2. Greg Robinson (Auburn)
1. Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M)
Offensive Guards (2002-Present)
You wouldn't think of offensive guard grades giving a person regret, but I have some. I shouldn't have graded David DeCastro over Steve Hutchinson, but it happened and I'm not one to change my grade after the fact.
DeCastro was a very good guard at Stanford, but Hutchinson was dominant at Michigan. That should have came into play when stacking their grades and it didn't.
The rest of these grades were warranted. Eric Steinbach and Davin Joseph have not become top-tier guards, and Justin Blalock is probably more of a mid-tier starter, but the Logan Mankins grade wasn't popular at the time and he went on to have a brilliant pro career.
10. Jonathan Cooper (North Carolina)
9. Chance Warmack (Alabama)
8. Logan Mankins (Fresno State)
7. Eric Steinbach (Iowa)
6. Davin Joseph (Oklahoma)
5. Justin Blalock (Texas)
4. Branden Albert (Virginia)
3. Chris Snee (Boston College)
2. Steve Hutchinson (Michigan)
1. David DeCastro (Stanford)
The center position is incredibly difficult to evaluate at times, and is one of the positions that has given me the most trouble in my career.
LeCharles Bentley was on his way to being the best center in the early 2000s before a freak injury ended his career short. Eric Wood, Ryan Kalil, Maurkice Pouncey, Nick Mangold and Alex Mack are all top-tier NFL centers now. Jeff Faine has been out of the NFL since 2012, and never quite lived up to No. 1 grade all-time status.
10. LeCharles Bentley (Ohio State)
9. Lyle Sendlein (Texas)
8. Eric Wood (Louisville)
7. Ryan Kalil (USC)
6. Andre Gurode (Colorado)
5. Maurkice Pouncey (Florida)
4. David Baas (Michigan)
3. Nick Mangold (Ohio State)
2. Alex Mack (Cal)
1. Jeff Faine (Notre Dame)
Defensive Ends (2002-Present)
On this list of 10 players, the only one I'd like to have back is Nick Perry. During the 2012 predraft season, I let explosive numbers, straight-line speed and potential cloud my judgement. It's no surprise that Perry continues to look the part, but has yet to produce in the NFL.
David Pollack didn't go on to a great NFL career, but that's due to injury. You could say the same for Shawne Merriman, who was never the same again after the 2007 season and was dogged by knee and Achilles injuries.
Jadeveon Clowney has the most potential of any player I've seen at the position—hence the grade—but he could be the biggest miss of my career if he doesn't pan out.
10. Nick Perry (USC)
9. Shawne Merriman (Maryland)
8. Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue)
7. Chris Long (Virginia)
6. Terrell Suggs (Arizona State)
5. David Pollack (Georgia)
4. Dwight Freeney (Syracuse)
3. Mario Williams (North Carolina State)
2. Julius Peppers (North Carolina)
1. Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)
Defensive Tackles (2002-Present)
Ndamukong Suh was the most dominant draft prospect I had ever seen before Andrew Luck came around. He still ranks as the second best defensive player I've scouted (behind Jadeveon Clowney) and was a rare, game-changing tackle at Nebraska.
Let's talk misses. Glenn Dorsey was a 4-3 pass-rushing tackle drafted to play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, so he was never really allowed to play to his strength. Tommie Harris was fantastic before injuries cut his career short in Chicago. You could look at B.J. Raji and say he's been a bust given this grade, and that would be very fair given his struggles to improve as a player.
I wish J.J. Watt were on this list, but I had him in the 10-15 range of the first round and not graded as an elite prospect all time.
10. Michael Brockers (LSU)
9. Nick Fairley (Auburn)
8. Gerald McCoy (Oklahoma)
7. Tommie Harris (Oklahoma)
6. Marcell Dareus (Alabama)
5. B.J. Raji (Boston College)
4. Star Lotulelei (Utah)
3. Haloti Ngata (Oregon)
2. Glenn Dorsey (LSU)
1. Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska)
Outside Linebackers (2002-Present)
A list of the top 10 outside linebackers graded includes guys who went on to play inside linebacker in the NFL (Karlos Dansby, D.J. Williams, Derrick Johnson) and also looks at players who have lined up as a 3-4 pass-rusher or a classic linebacker in a 4-3. The versatility is important to note given the diversity here.
Aaron Curry and Keith Rivers are clear misses here, but Ernie Sims ranks in that category, too. If you're wondering what went wrong with Curry—a player so many thought was a can't-miss prospect—it has a lot to do with his talent failing to improve in the NFL and him being a terrible scheme fit for Seattle.
The hits were relatively easy ones. Von Miller was my No. 2 player in the 2011 draft (behind Patrick Peterson), and that's a grade I'm proud of given he was a top 10 player for me all season prior to that draft.
10. Jarvis Jones (Georgia)
9. Ernie Sims (Florida State)
8. Karlos Dansby (Auburn)
7. D.J. Williams (Miami, Florida)
6. Brian Orakpo (Texas)
5. Aaron Curry (Wake Forest)
4. Keith Rivers (USC)
3. Derrick Johnson (Texas)
2. Khalil Mack (Buffalo)
1. Von Miller (Texas A&M)
Inside Linebackers (2002-Present)
The University of Alabama is well-represented here, but it's worth noting those players haven't all panned out in the NFL.
Rolando McClain had elite talent, but off-field issues had him out of the NFL (leaving the Raiders) before coming back to try to catch on with the Baltimore Ravens. That didn't work out and McClain signed with the Dallas Cowboys, where he's been an anchor for their rebuilt defense. He's gone from being a miss to possibly rehabilitating his career into a hit.
Of the other nine players listed here, all have either succeeded or are too young to evaluate (C.J. Mosley) at this time. You could say A.J. Hawk didn't live up to his billing as an elite draft prospect, and that's accurate. He hasn't been great in Green Bay, and would rank as the biggest miss on the list from a purely football standpoint.
10. Dont'a Hightower (Alabama)
9. C.J. Mosley (Alabama)
8. Kevin Burnett (Tennessee)
7. A.J. Hawk (Ohio State)
6. Nick Barnett (Oregon State)
5. Rolando McClain (Alabama)
4. Jon Beason (Miami, Florida)
3. Jonathan Vilma (Miami, Florida)
2. Jerod Mayo (Tennessee)
1. Patrick Willis (Ole Miss)
Evaluating cornerbacks takes on an interesting balance of grading athleticism, size, instincts, confidence and the player's upside. Missing on one area can completely ruin your evaluation. Thankfully, when looking at cornerbacks, I've had some lucky breaks.
There is no Richard Sherman here (I ranked him No. 249 overall), but the NFL's top cornerbacks are represented. Joe Haden, Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson make the top 10—and you could hear a strong argument that Antonio Cromartie is one of the NFL's best cornerbacks this season.
Terence Newman and Leon Hall are getting older—and Marcus Trufant and Quentin Jammer are already out of the league—but they were all solid starters during their prime.
The biggest potential miss here will be Justin Gilbert, who has struggled in his first six weeks in the NFL. It's too early to call him a hit or miss, but with fellow rookies Kyle Fuller and Jason Verrett outplaying him thus far, there is pressure on him to perform.
10. Marcus Trufant (Washington State)
9. Prince Amukamara (Nebraska)
8. Darrelle Revis (Pitt)
7. Terence Newman (Kansas State)
6. Leon Hall (Michigan)
5. Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State)
4. Quentin Jammer (Texas)
3. Antonio Cromartie (Florida State)
2. Joe Haden (Florida)
1. Patrick Peterson (LSU)
There have been many good safeties in the NFL draft since 2002, but none of them compare to Sean Taylor.
The University of Miami safety was bigger, stronger, faster and more instinctive than anyone else on the field. Even Ed Reed's greatness was overshadowed by Taylor—and that's why he's still the best safety I've graded.
Reed, Eric Berry and Earl Thomas all represent smaller safeties who were highly graded due to their athleticism and instincts. They've all also been very successful in the NFL.
Oddly enough, two of my biggest misses here (LaRon Landry and Roy Williams) were too big and too stiff to compete in the NFL on passing downs.
10. Brandon Meriweather (Miami, Florida)
9. Michael Griffin (Texas)
8. LaRon Landry (LSU)
7. Roy Williams (Oklahoma)
6. Michael Huff (Texas)
5. Kenny Vaccaro (Texas)
4. Earl Thomas (Texas)
3. Ed Reed (Miami, Florida)
2. Eric Berry (Tennessee)
1. Sean Taylor (Miami, Florida)