The Jets pulled off a dramatic trade and finally landed their quarterback of the future.
For the Raiders, it was the linebacker they’d coveted so much who would turn around a chronically weak defense.
And the Browns were convinced they’d just selected the second coming of Jim Brown.
Or so it seemed.
While the NFL Draft each year creates hope for teams around the league, the cold reality is that selecting the right players – even at the top of the draft, where it should be easiest to figure out – isn’t an exact science. Just look at the top 10 picks in the draft – any draft – and chances are you’ll find some colossal disappointments as well as cornerstone players who go on to Hall of Fame careers. The three aforementioned examples are evidence that getting it right can be an elusive proposition.
The Jets did pull off a trade last year to get Sam Darnold, who is coming off a promising rookie season and has injected legitimate hope for a terrific career. But it was 10 years ago that another former USC quarterback – Mark Sanchez – offered similar promise. While Sanchez was part of a team that went to the AFC Championship Game two years in a row under Rex Ryan, his career didn’t pan out over time and he joined a chorus of post-Joe Namath disappointments.
A year later, the Raiders selected Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain at No. 8 overall, hoping he would restore greatness to their defense. Not quite. After three disappointing seasons in which he totaled 6½ sacks and had off-field problems, McClain’s career with the Raiders was over.
And Browns fans won’t soon forget one of the biggest busts of all time. No, Trent Richardson wasn’t another Jim Brown. Not after the Alabama tailback was traded to the Colts in just his second season and lasted all of three NFL seasons before fading away.
The top of the 2009 draft is one of the biggest cautionary tales. After No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford, who has had a solid career with the Lions, there was Rams tackle Jason Smith at No. 2, Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson at No. 3, Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry at No. 4, Sanchez at No. 5, Bengals tackle Andre Smith at No. 6, Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey at No. 7, Jaguars tackle Eugene Monroe at No. 8, Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji at No. 9, 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree at No. 10 and Bills defensive end Aaron Maybin at No. 11.
There isn’t a Hall of Fame career to be found, and most are already out of the league.
“This is such an inexact science that we all make a number of mistakes,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “I think it’s critical to the process that you continue to self-evaluate, see where you made mistakes before.”
One of the hardest things to get right: What makes a player tick.
The conundrum may have been best exemplified at the very top of the 1998 draft. Peyton Manning went first overall to the Colts and enjoyed a Hall of Fame career; Ryan Leaf was selected next by the Chargers, and became one of the biggest busts ever.
“I say it over and over that we miss on the person more than we miss on the player,” Keim said. “[All top players] have a skill set. The two hardest things to read are the heart and the mind. When you're evaluating guys on tape you see all those skills, you get excited about it, and we all get enamored this time of year. In the fall we fall in love with them, and in the spring we confuse ourselves because we get enamored with the three-cone [drill] and the Wonderlic. All those different factors that play into it, you have to find out: Does he love it? And that is the biggest challenge in this process.”
The measurables are the easy part. How fast they run, how much they bench press, how well they react. But general managers and coaches need to be mindful of what they see on film as much as anything. Trusting your instincts is paramount.
“There’s always the height, weight, speed measurable component, and that’s really important,” said Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, the former NFL Network draft expert. But beneath it all, Mayock said, “We’re just trying to figure the kid out. What makes the kid tick is more important than anything.”
There will be plenty of hits in the days ahead, when a draft considered deep at several positions – especially on defense – will unfold in Nashville. Unfortunately for many NFL teams, there will be many costly misses.