Last week we took a look at some of the greatest NFL players of all time who weren’t drafted very high in their respective draft year.
Any player drafted below the third round that still puts together a Hall of Fame career has to be considered a steal. General managers, coaches, and owners all look for those hidden gem that turn out to be superstars. They don’t happen often but as you read last week, they do happen.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those players who are sure-bets; can’t-miss college athletes who, unfortunately, do just that — miss by a mile. It is more difficult to do research on them because they don’t have a Wikipedia site extolling their career accomplishments but here are a few names that you die-hard fans might remember.
Ryan Leaf: The Chargers gave up extra draft picks just to move up one slot to select Leaf, who many thought had better potential than Peyton Manning who was taken #1 that year. Silly people!
Tony Mandarich: Once regarded as the best offensive lineman prospect ever, he only lasted three years in the league. Taken #2 by the Packers, second thoughts now abound as the Lions took some guy named Barry Sanders with the next pick.
Brian Bosworth: The Oklahoma linebacker won two Butkus Awards but was connected to steroid use (ya think!). His most memorable pro moment came when Bo Jackson ran over him for a touchdown on Monday Night Football.
Penn State has had great success in producing linebackers for the NFL but running backs have been another story.
Both Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter failed miserably in their pro efforts along with Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips. Phillips, who had a bad character rap coming out of college anyway, has seen his face on more mug shots than he did on football trading cards.
And the glamour position of quarterback has seen its share of failures. Along with Leaf you can name Akili Smith, Heath Shuler, Andre Ware, and Todd Marinovich as big-time flops.
And even though it hurts us to do so, we must not forget that the Falcons, our beloved Falcons, have had more than their share of draft miscues but I guess the biggest flop has to be Bruce Pickens. The celebrated cornerback out of Nebraska only had two interceptions in his three lackluster years with the Birds. Maybe this year the Falcons will find that superstar-to-be.
But for all of these bad choices, there have been a few teams that enjoyed multiple successes in a given draft year. It is fortunate indeed when a team can pick one gem that gives them years of great play on the field. When a team can have two or more players they select that turn out to be great from a particular draft- well, that is draft magic and what earns the GM’s the big bucks. Sure, a little luck is involved but it also takes a keen eye for talent. I’ve put together a list of several of these great draft years by teams. See if you agree that there was something special going on in those war rooms that day as they made these selections.
The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have had the best success in these multiple star player picks throughout the years. In fact, in one six year period of 1969-1974, the Steelers drafted nine players who would go on to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Two of those years, 1970 and 1974, are exceptional stand-out years.The foundation for those great Steeler Super Bowl teams started in 1969 with the selection of Mean Joe Greene but 1970 warranted double good luck. Terry Bradshaw, even though I still feel he is the most overrated quarterback of all time, was taken #1 that year and in the third round, the Steelers struck gold again with the great defensive back, Mel Blount.
1971 saw them selecting Jack Ham which was followed in 1972 by the pick of one Penn State running back who did make it big, Franco Harris. But 1974 has to be the single greatest draft of any team in pro football history. The Steelers chose four, that’s right four, future Hall of Famers in one draft. In round one they chose Lynn Swann; round 2 had them picking linebacker Jack Lambert; something happened in round 3, they must have been asleep but they picked right up in the fourth by selecting John Stallworth. They capped things off in the fifth round by choosing the greast center in the history of the game, Mike Webster. I hope that GM got a huge raise after that year — he deserved it.
The 1957 Cleveland Browns made Jim Brown their first pick with the sixth selection. What I have to wonder is what were the other five teams that picked ahead of them thinking. Then they chose Henry Jordan and promptly traded him where he became a defensive tackle stalwart for the Packers. The Packers themselves had a good 1958 draft by choosing both Jim Taylor and Ray Nitschke that year.
1964 was a good draft year for both the Redskins and Cowboys. Washington chose Charley Taylor, a fine wide receiver and Paul Krause, a defensive back who gained most of his success with the Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys countered with the great Mel Renfro and they were able to steal Roger Staubach in the tenth round because the other teams were reluctant to choose him because of his commitment to military service. For those of you who may not remember, Staubach attended the Naval Academy.
But the greatest, in my opinion, draft of all time has to be the 1963 Chicago Bears because not only did they choose two future Hall of Famers, they chose them back-to-back. In 1965, because of trades, the Bears had both the 3rd and 4th picks in the first round.
They hit the daily double for sure because they chose Dick Butkus with the third and, perhaps, did that pick one better by choosing Gale Sayers, “The Kansas Comet” who only lasted six years due to injuries but still had a phenomenal career, with the fourth.
Sayers just might have gone down as the greatest running back of all time had it not been for those injuries.
Whether its luck or adept player evaluation, drafting is an important part of team development. Millions of dollars are spent on the draft and when drafts like these occur, those dollars are well spent.
Randy Blalock is a columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.