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If only… Looking back at the worst misfires in the history of the NFL Draft

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 13:00, 8 April 2022

That the NFL draft is an imperfect science is a given. There’s always risk in trying to predict which young players will thrive at the sport’s highest level. Misfires are to be expected. However, certain suboptimal selections from NFL Draft history cut the franchises that made them particularly deeply.

It will come as no surprise that the history of the NFL draft is littered with ‘what ifs’. Teams draft in the top five picks with the expectation of landing franchise-altering superstars. Franchises selecting later in the first round are looking for quality, longtime contributors or, hopefully, diamonds in the rough. For better and for worse, the draft is a time of unbridled hope. Unfortunately, more often than not, a franchise’s best laid plans are derailed by injury, attitude, bad scouting, poor coaching – or some combination thereof.

Below is a collection of some of the draft misfires in NFL history.

A few things to note before we get started:

  • This list is not comprehensive list. One could probably write a book on this topic.
  • As much as possible, I’ve tried to remove pure benefit-of-hindsight-fueled critiques – meaning that if a team was targeting a particular position, passing on a future star at a totally different position is somewhat understandable.
  • To a point, missing out on a superstar while landing a lesser star as a longtime quality contributor is excusable.
  • If there’s one particular type of pick that’s judged harshly, it’s the massive misfire on a prospect, while a future superstar at the same position not only remained on the board, but was selected soon after.
  • Considered here are first round picks from the first 45 post-NFL/AFL merger drafts (1967-2011)

Let’s get to it, shall we?

1967 – San Diego Chargers select DE Ron Billingsley #14 overall

The University of Wyoming alumnus appeared in 61 career games over six forgettable NFL seasons with the Chargers and the Houston Oilers, and amassed a total of eight sacks.

Chosen with the very next pick, from the University of Notre Dame, was a player at the same position, Alan Page. Page went on to start for 15 years, racked up 148.5 sacks, made nine Pro Bowls, six All-Pro First Teams, and is in the Hall of Fame.

For good measure, Page went on to a highly successful post-NFL legal career and, in 1992, became the first African-American to serve as an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

1969 – Philadelphia Eagles select RB/DB Leroy Keyes #3 overall

That positional oddity Keyes was effectively out of the NFL after four seasons, with 369 rushing yards and eight interceptions is bad enough. That the man selected one pick later, defensive tackle ‘Mean Joe’ Greene, not only went on to start for 12 years and rack up 77.5 sacks, 10 Pro Bowls selections and 4 All-Pro First Teams nods, he also won four Super Bowls and earned enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. That he did so as a foundational piece of the cross-state Steelers’ legendary ‘Steel Curtain’ defense added insult to injury.

1975 – Baltimore Colts select guard Ken Huff #3 overall

The selection of the University of California signal caller Steve Bartkowski with the #1 overall pick didn’t pan out as spectacularly as the Falcons would have hoped, but Bartkowski did start for the team for ten years, and was twice named a Pro Bowler. Fair enough.

With the second pick, the Dallas Cowboys selected defensive tackle Randy White, who recorded 111 career sacks, was named First Team All-Pro seven times, not only starred for the Cowboys’ first Super Bowl title team, but was also named MVP of the game, and is now in the Hall of Fame.

With the third pick, the Baltimore Colts selected guard Ken Huff out of the University of North Carolina. Huff started for eight years, but made no meaningful impact. One would imagine that the Colts would like a do-over, as the Chicago Bears used the next pick to select Walter Payton, who’d go on to break the NFL’s all time rushing record and is generally regarded as one of the best players in NFL history.

1977 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers select RB Rickey Bell #1 overall

Two years later, with the first overall pick, the Buccaneers selected a running back of their own: Rickey Bell from the University of Southern California, which was noted for producing standout running backs. Unfortunately, Bell was out of the NFL after just 64 games and just over 3,000 rushing yards.

Given Bell’s collegiate pedigree and the relative dearth of top-quality players in the first round in 1975, it was an justifiable misfire. At least, it would have been, had the second overall pick not been another running back: the University of Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year, started for the Cowboys for 11 seasons, rushed for over 12,000 yards and helped the Cowboys to a Super Bowl title before his induction into the Hall of Fame.

1981 – New Orleans Saints select RB George Rodgers #1 overall

Two years after inexplicably selecting a punter with the #11 overall pick (two spots ahead of Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow), the Saints used the #1 overall pick to select South Carolina running back George Rogers. It must be said that Rogers produced in his first six seasons, rushing for more than 7,100 yards and 54 touchdowns, and earning two Pro Bowl selections an All-Pro nod.

There’s no comparison, however, to the player who was selected immediately afterward. University of North Carolina linebacker Lawrence Taylor earned 10 Pro Bowl selections and eight First team All-Pro selections in 13 seasons as a starter, led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles, and is generally considered the best defensive player in NFL history.

1985 – Cincinnati Bengals select WR Eddie Brown #13 overall, and the Kansas City Chiefs select TE Ethan Horton #15 overall

I’m trying very hard to avoid purely hindsight-based ‘Player X should obviously have been the #1 overall pick’ proclamations. Plus, the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings probably don’t regret their selections of future all-time sack leader Bruce Smith and Hall of Fame pass rusher Chris Doleman with (respectively) the #1 and #4 overall picks.

Everyone else in the top 15 – especially the Bengals, who selected University of Miami wideout Eddie Brown with the 13th pick, and the Kansas City Chiefs, who selected tight end Ethan Horton #15 overall? Oh dear…

Though Brown and Horton each made a Pro Bowl during the course of their careers, if you were looking for a dude to catch passes for your team, you literally could not have done better than the San Francisco 49ers did at #16, with Jerry Rice.

1989 – Green Bay Packers select OT Tony Mandarich #2 overall

The top of the 1989 draft is about a superstar-studded as it gets. With the first overall pick, the Dallas Cowboys selected UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman. Aikman went on to make six Pro Bowls, and team with Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin to lead America’s Team to three Super Bowl titles.

The Green Bay Packers had the second overall pick, and an hilarious array of options. Would they select future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders? Perhaps they’d opt for University of Alabama pass rushing maestro and future Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas? Maybe they’d try to bolster the secondary and select Florida State cornerback, Deion ‘Prime Time’ Sanders. That trio went on to start for a combined 33 NFL seasons, with 27 Pro Bowl selections and 14 First Team All-Pro nods. 

Alas, in one of the great examples of the pre-draft hype machine running amok, the Packers selected Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, who appeared in a total of 86 NFL games.

1990 – New York Jets selects RB Blair Thomas #2 overall

With the second overall pick of the 1990 NFL Draft, the New York Jets selected running back Blair Thomas from Penn State University. That he only went on to appear in 64 NFL games and rush for just 2,236 yards, while two of the next three selections – defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy and linebacker Junior Seau – went on to be Hall of Famers is gutting on its own. That the draft’s next running back, selected 17th overall by the Cowboys, went on to lead the NFL in rushing four times, earn four All-Pro selections, won league MVP in 1993, helped the ‘Boys to three Super Bowl rings and is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, while helping lead – is downright devastating.

That running back was the University of Florida’s Emmitt Smith.

1995 – Minnesota Vikings select DE Derrick Alexander #11 overall

It’s NFL Draft Day 1995. You’re the Minnesota Vikings, and you hold the #11 pick. You’ve decided to select a defensive lineman from a university in Florida. That you opted for Florida State’s Derrick Alexander (20 sacks over four NFL seasons) – and not future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp from the University of Miami – probably sticks in your craw.

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1997 – Atlanta Falcons select DB Michael Booker #11 overall

Although they’d wind up acquiring each in the years that followed, you’d imagine the Falcons wish they’d used the #11 overall pick in 1997 on either spectacular Florida State running back Warrick Dunn (nearly 11,000 career rushing yards and three Pro Bowl selections), or University of California tight end Tony Gonzalez – who remains the all-time leader at the position in receptions (1,325), receiving yards (15,127) and ranks second all-time among tight ends in touchdown catches (111) – who were selected with the next two picks.

Instead, the Falcons chose University of Nebraska defensive back Michael Booker, who appeared in a total of 73 NFL games.

1998 – 90% of the draft’s first 20 selections

There is a defense (not a super compelling one, but a defense nonetheless) for Jerry Rice falling to the 16th overall pick in 1985. Rice hadn’t played in a powerhouse conference in college, there were questions about whether he had elite-level speed and, frankly, the infrastructure around the NFL Draft was rather archaic at the time.

There is no excuse for most of the teams (we’ll assume that the Colts and Raiders were happy with Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson at #1 and #4 overall) that allowed Randy Moss – a tall, effortlessly fast, hyper-agile, sure-handed can’t-miss prospect – to slip to the Vikings at #21.

Particularly egregious was Dallas passing on Moss at #8 overall, despite having verbally committed to selecting him earlier in the process, and the Tennessee Titans, who selected a receiver – the University of Utah’s Kevin Dyson – at #16 overall.

Moss hit the ground sprinting in the NFL, turning in one of the most impactful rookie seasons in history. In his first 12 seasons, Moss earned six Pro Bowl selections, four All-Pro selections, and retired with nearly 1,000 catches, over 15,000 receiving yards, 156 touchdowns and a cemented spot on the short list of the greatest receivers in NFL history.

1999 – Cleveland Browns select QB Tim Couch #1 overall

The best and worst thing about having the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft is that every option is available to you. Thus, the judgement thrown your way is especially harsh if you misfire egregiously.

Now, imagine you’re the reborn Cleveland Browns, awarded the first overall pick by the NFL ahead of your first season back in the league after a three-year hiatus. The pressure to select a foundational superstar was massive. That the Browns chose a quarterback was understandable – that they selected the University of Kentucky’s Tim Couch (five unremarkable seasons) and not six-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb (37,276 passing yards and 234 TDs over 13 seasons), who was selected second overall, was devastating.

Also infuriating will be the fact that another pair of Hall of Famers – running back Edgerrin James (#4) and cornerback Champ Bailey (#7) – were selected in the top seven, as was seven-time Pro Bowl (and should-be Hall of Famer) wide receiver Torrey Holt (#6) and a 10,000-yard rusher in Ricky Williams (#5).

2001 – Cleveland Browns select DT Gerard Warren #3 overall

Two years later, the struggling Browns held the #3 overall pick. They chose… not future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson… not future Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Seymour… not deserving Hall of Fame candidate defensive end Justin Smith… but University of Florida defensive tackle Gerard Warren, whose ten NFL seasons made no impact that’s worth discussing 20 years on.

2003/2004 – Detroit Lions select WR Charles Rodgers #2 overall; Oakland Raiders select offensive tackle Robert Gallery #2 overall

Two years later, the Detroit Lions, having picked their presumptive QB of the future (Joey Harrington – this did not work out) #3 overall the year before, set out to give Harrington an elite weapon. Unfortunately, the Lions opted for Michigan State’s Charles Rogers – who appeared in a total of 15 NFL games, and had 36 catches in his career – and not the man who was selected next: the University of Miami’s Andre Johnson, who made seven Pro Bowl appearances in 14 NFL seasons as a starter, and retired with more than 1,000 catches and 14,000 receiving yards.

The following year, it was the Oakland Raiders who held the #2 overall pick. Like the Lions, the Raiders were looking to bolster their attack – though they hoped to do so by strengthening up front. Thus, their selection was University of Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery… and not 11-Time Pro Bowler and 17,000-yard receiver Larry Fitzgerald (who went #3) or eight-time Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers, who was selected fourth. 

Gallery was out of the league after eight unremarkable seasons.

2005 – At least 22 of the draft’s first 23 selections

Aaron Rodgers slipping to the 24th overall pick in 2005 remains one of the most inexplicable mass-gaffes in NFL draft history. With the possible exceptions of the Cowboys, who had Tony Romo entrenched at QB and selected future Hall of Famer Demarcus Ware (138.5 sacks, nine Pro Bowls and four All-Pro selections) at #11, every franchise that held a top-23 pick in 2005 (it’s worth noting the Cowboys also had #20) has some regrets.

2007 – Oakland Raiders select QB Jamarcus Russell #1 overall

Two years later, the Raiders got aggressive in their pursuit of a quarterback, and selected massive-armed LSU signal caller Jamarcus Russell with the first overall pick. It’s bad enough that Russell only appeared in 31 NFL games over three seasons and offered virtually no value, but that the next two picks were future Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson and future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Joe Thomas – and future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson (nearly 15,000 rushing yards and 120 TDs went seventh – was doubly galling.

2011 – Jacksonville Jaguars select QB Blaine Gabbert #10 overall

Naturally, every NFL team is looking for a franchise quarterback. And one thing we’ve learned over time is that drafting quarterbacks is an imperfect, high-risk/high-reward science.

At least, that’s what you tell yourself if you’re the Jacksonville Jaguars, and you selected University of Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick… and allowed your division rival Houston Texans to grab J.J. Watt with the next pick.

 

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