The One That Got Away: NFL Execs Tell the Tales of Their Biggest Draft Misses

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistApril 24, 2015

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As Bill Tobin prepared to leave his suburban Chicago home shortly before sunup on May 4, 1979, his wife Dusene asked him who he thought the Bears would draft that day. They were thinking about defensive lineman Dan Hampton and linebacker Al Harris in the first round, he told her. And he was certain who the Bears would select in Round 3. That would be Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana.  

In all of the team's preparatory discussions, the only possibility the Bears considered in the third round was Montana. They had given themselves Montana in every mock draft they had prepared in the month leading up to the event. Tobin, in fact, said he had Montana rated as a first-round talent, and the Bears' inside connections with the Notre Dame coaching staff had given them a good feel for everything Montana could become.

In the draft room that day were team founder George Halas, general manager Jim Finks, treasurer Jerry Vainisi, assistant to the GM Bill McGrane, head coach Neill Armstrong and top scouts Jim Parmer and Tobin. After the Dolphins chose tight end Ronnie Lee with the ninth pick in the third round, several in the room exhaled. The Bears were up and Montana was available. Tobin's heart began to race. Vainisi said he stood and removed a magnet with Montana's name on it from the bullpen area of the team's draft board. He placed it under the Bears' picks.

And then Finks, clearly in command, spoke up. "Put him back in the bullpen," Finks said, according to Vainisi. Finks then expressed concern about a crowded quarterback depth chart. The Bears had Bob Avellini as their starter, and he was being pushed by Mike Phipps. Vince Evans had been showing great ability in practices. Why, Finks asked, should we muddy the waters with another quarterback? And then Finks started talking about how he was uncomfortable with the running backs behind Walter Payton.

By now the Bears were deep into the allotted time on the draft clock. As the seconds wound down, Finks announced the Bears would take Willie McClendon from Georgia, the highest-rated running back remaining on the Bears' board.

"I was stunned," Vainisi said.

"Bill Tobin almost had apoplexy," McGrane said. "He was beside himself, sick he didn't get Montana."

LENNY IGNELZI/Associated Press

McClendon lasted four years in the NFL and never rushed for more than 160 yards in a season. If the Bears had chosen Montana, and Montana had become Montana in Chicago, they could have ruled the 1980s with dominance on both sides of the ball. They almost certainly would not have lost to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Games following the 1984 and 1988 seasons. And the Bears' 1979 draft class, with Hampton and Montana, would have been remembered as one of the most transcendent in history.

Finks, who died in 1994, is classified as a great general manager by all who knew him or studied what he did. But like everyone who ever drafted, Finks made regrettable decisions.

Every drafter has a story about "the one that got away."

Tobin has another story about one that got away, but this story has been buried in the "Who the hell is Mel Kiper?" story.

The Colts came into the 1994 draft with the second and seventh overall picks, the latter of which they had acquired from the Falcons for quarterback Jeff George. Tobin, recently named Indianapolis' director of football operations, had just begun a rebuild and was ready to put his mark on the team. With the second overall selection, he chose running back Marshall Faulk. He moved up from the seventh pick to the fifth and took outside linebacker Trev Alberts.

This did not sit very well with ESPN draft expert Kiper, who strongly believed the Colts should have taken a quarterback. The Redskins chose Heath Shuler with the third pick, and the Bucs took Trent Dilfer with the sixth. When Kiper criticized Tobin for selecting Alberts instead of Dilfer, Tobin went off on the now-famous "Who the hell is Mel Kiper?" rant.

What few people know is Tobin's initial target in a trade-up was neither Alberts nor a quarterback. In Tobin's estimation, neither Shuler nor Dilfer were worth taking so high. That's why he had signed free-agent quarterback Jim Harbaugh prior to the draft. The player Tobin really wanted with his second pick in the first round was outside linebacker Willie McGinest. 

"I was talking with New England [which had No. 4], trying to trade up to take McGinest," Tobin said. "I called the Redskins [No. 3] too. Alberts was my fallback. Alberts didn't turn out the way we hoped, but Faulk is in the Hall of Fame and Harbaugh was the AFC Player of the Year the following year and is in the Colts' Ring of Honor. If we had been able to get McGinest on top of that, it would have been something."

ELISE AMENDOLA/Associated Press

McGinest became a linchpin of three Super Bowl winners in New England and a player who regularly tormented the Colts. Alberts wound up with four career sacks—12 fewer than McGinest had in postseason games alone. If McGinest had been a Colt instead of a Patriot, the fragile balance of power may have shifted in the AFC.

McGinest is not the only outstanding pass-rusher who qualifies as one that got away. In fact, there is one pass-rusher who is identified as the one that got away from at least three teams. The Bears had the fourth pick in the 2005 draft, the Redskins had the ninth and the Lions had the 10th. All of them could have used a pass-rusher—someone like DeMarcus Ware.

After ranking 32nd in offense in the NFL the previous season, the Bears felt they needed to focus on that side of the ball. They selected running back Cedric Benson, who topped out at 674 yards in three years with Chicago and eventually was cut after off-field problems.

"In that draft, we dismissed defensive players, in particular DeMarcus Ware, because we felt we needed to bring some juice to the offense," former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "We were fixed on that. If we had been more open-minded and stayed true to who we were, we would have taken Ware. He would have had a much greater impact on our team, because we had Thomas Jones at running back.

"Ware would have played into the strength of who we were. We should have spent more time looking at him because we would have seen how special he was."

The Redskins, meanwhile, were focused on another need: cornerback. They picked Carlos Rogers ahead of Ware, and then had to deal with Ware twice a year for nine years after the Cowboys made him the 11th selection of the first round. Eleven of Ware's 127 career sacks have come against the Redskins.

LM Otero/Associated Press

"We liked Ware, but we needed corners badly," said Vinny Cerrato, who was the Redskins' vice president of football operations at the time. "Ware was kind of a project out of Troy. We had Carlos rated high too. He made a Pro Bowl, and if he could have caught the football, he would have made three or four Pro Bowls. He dropped a lot of interceptions."

Former Lions CEO Matt Millen was desperate for a home run pick in 2005, and then a high, hanging curveball came his way. He had Ware rated as the best pass-rusher in the draft and the fourth- or fifth-best player at any position. So Millen's eyes got big when Ware slipped to his pick, 10th overall.

"The draft fell perfect for us," Millen said. "Lo and behold, there he is. We needed a pass-rusher bad. DeMarcus was the guy I targeted. I couldn't believe it. I turned and said, 'Get DeMarcus on the phone.'"

At that point, a conversation started in the Lions' draft room. Millen recalls offensive coordinator Ted Tollner pushing to take wide receiver Mike Williams. Then head coach Steve Mariucci got on board. "I said, 'OK, if you think he's going to make that big a difference, we'll do it,'" Millen said. "But as soon as I did it, it didn't feel right."

The Lions had used first-round picks in the previous two drafts on wide receivers Charles Rogers and Roy Williams, so most of the draft audience was stunned by the move—especially because questions had been raised about Mike Williams' conditioning, commitment and play speed.

Millen's son Matthew, who was in the draft room, famously punched his father after the selection. Matt understands why. "All those talks should have been taken care of already," Millen said. "I allowed it to happen, and I caved like a freaking idiot. It was nobody's fault but my own. It still bugs me."

The Lions were right about Ware and wrong about Williams. Dead wrong. Millen said most of the money from Williams' rookie contract came back to the Lions in fines.

"You name it, he did it," Millen said. "He didn't show up for meetings. He was late. He skipped things. He was overweight. He just didn't get it."

The Millen Lions never recovered from his "one that got away." Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, on the other hand, recovered quite gracefully from his.

These days, Johnson has become quite the fisherman down in the Florida Keys. If he chose, he could talk all day about ones that got away. But Johnson prefers to talk about the ones he got on the boat. Always has. Those aren't always the best stories, though.

Twenty-five years ago, Johnson was an unproven head coach of the Cowboys with a maverick style. Even though Johnson had the 21st pick in the draft, he was still trying to acquire the player he rated as the best at any position: linebacker Junior Seau.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

"I really, really wanted him," Johnson said. "I'm sure I made phone calls to the first four or five teams before he was picked. I couldn't get a deal done. But I thought he was a great, great player."

The Cowboys already had young Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin on offense. And Johnson thought they were set at running back after signing a Plan B free agent from Cleveland that offseason: Keith "End Zone" Jones.

"I thought he was going to be our guy," Johnson said. So Johnson was intent on adding a defensive player.

As it turned out, all of the defensive players Johnson liked were taken well before the Cowboys' pick. Johnson was looking at taking running back Rodney Hampton with the 21st pick. But there was another running back he liked more—so much more that he had him rated as the fourth overall player in the draft. Johnson was able to arrange a deal with the Steelers to move up four spots. That's where he chose Emmitt Smith.

"End Zone" Jones blew out a lumbar disc before the season began and never played a down for the Cowboys. Smith went on to a Hall of Fame career and helped the Cowboys win a trio of Super Bowls.

For Bill Parcells, the one that got away came in the 1984 supplemental USFL draft. The Bucs chose quarterback Steve Young first, and then the Oilers selected running back Mike Rozier. With the third pick, Parcells' Giants chose a player who would have a Hall of Fame career. But they passed up a player who could have given them a dynasty.

Parcells recalls the team was drawn to offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman because the Giants needed offensive linemen, and their defense already was strong with promising outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. So the late, great general manager George Young chose Zimmerman—ahead of defensive lineman Reggie White.

JERRY REDFERN/Associated Press

"I was not in charge of the draft, but it was not a big argument," Parcells said. "We had them rated closely."

As it turned out, Zimmerman did not want to play for the Giants, so the team traded him to the Vikings for a pair of second-round picks they later would use to select defensive back Mark Collins and safety Greg Lasker.

One pick after the Giants, the Eagles, of all teams, chose White.

"The first game that year, we played Philadelphia," Parcells said. "I think he got two sacks. He was playing defensive tackle, and he wasn't playing every down yet. I remember telling my coaches, 'We're going to have to deal with this guy for a long time.' It was pretty obvious right away. Looking back on it, had we chosen Reggie, I think our defense, which was pretty dominant as it was, would have been really exceptionally strong for a good length of time.

"The combination of Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor would have been something special."

And they would have been playing in game plans designed by Bill Belichick.

The Packers also could have put together a duo for the ages—a quarterback-wide receiver duo. The one that got away from Ron Wolf was Randy Moss.

Wolf will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this August, and he is regarded as one of the best talent evaluators in NFL history. As Wolf prepared for the 1998 draft, he recognized Moss' unique ability. But the Packers general manager never seriously considered Moss because of his checkered past.

"In Green Bay, Wisconsin, if your player runs a traffic light, that is the lead story on the 6 o'clock news," Wolf said. "So we were very, very careful about the people we brought in. I didn't do my due diligence on him like I should have. It was a bad job on my part."

With the 19th selection in the first round, the Packers chose defensive end Vonnie Holliday, who had a 15-year career but never became an elite player. Two picks later, the Vikings selected Moss.

In his 14-year career, Moss had more receiving yards (1,320) and more touchdowns (14) against the Packers than any other team. So by the time Moss "mooned" Packers fans at Lambeau Field during a playoff game in 2005, Wolf had already seen more of the wide receiver than he ever cared to.

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Moss, one of the most productive and dynamic wide receivers ever, almost certainly would have had an even more prolific career if he had been paired with gunslinger Brett Favre, a kindred football spirit.

"Favre and Moss would have really been something," Wolf said. "Moss demonstrated he was a quality, quality player. To my knowledge, never had any [major] problems. That's one I'd like to do over."

Many teams probably would like a do-over when it comes to Russell Wilson—none more than the Eagles.

Joe Banner, who was the Eagles president in 2012, recalls Philadelphia having a first-round grade on Wilson, but the team believed he would be available when they were scheduled to make a selection with the 25th pick in the third round. They used second-round picks on linebacker Mychal Kendricks and defensive end Vinny Curry.

"Considering what Russell has turned out to be and how high we had him graded, we should have used one of those picks on him and not outsmarted ourselves," Banner said. "Howie [Roseman] and Andy [Reid] had so much enthusiasm for him. We thought if he were 6'3", he'd be the first pick in the draft with no debate. We were all invested and excited. We thought he was going to be our quarterback of the future."

It would have been interesting to see the reaction of Eagles fans if their team had drafted a 5'11" quarterback.

"I wasn't really worried about his height," said Reid, who has a history of strong quarterback evaluation. "I thought he could function. He didn't look small behind the biggest line in the country at Wisconsin. He was a big Drew Brees fan and fit his game after his. He had natural leadership ability and was smart—those are two good qualities. He won you over with his attitude and desire to be great."

Michael Perez/Associated Press

As fate would have it, the Seahawks chose Wilson with the 12th pick in the third round. Thirteen picks later, the Eagles chose quarterback Nick Foles.

The man who drafted Wilson, Seahawks general manager John Schneider, once worked down the hall from Reid in Green Bay. They shared thoughts and watched tape together when the Packers were drafting quarterbacks like Mark Brunell. So it is not a surprise that they were of like mind on Wilson.

The most interesting part of the story might be that both Wilson and Foles could have been Eagles. Back in Green Bay when Reid worked with Wolf, he came to appreciate the value of stockpiling the quarterback position.

"If we could have, we would have taken Russell in the third round and Nick in the fourth," said Reid, now head coach of the Chiefs. "It would have been great competition."

Maybe Reid still would be coaching the Eagles. Maybe the Seahawks never would have played in a Super Bowl. Maybe Wilson would have become an NFL MVP in Chip Kelly's offense.

Instead, he's one of the ones that got away. One of the missed opportunities that changed the course of NFL history.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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