Life is an infinite series of small choices, often with no true downside: Now or later? Movie or ballgame? Paper or plastic? Even when pondering more far-reaching decisions, we often select one option that works out well enough, even if hindsight says a different choice might have been more rewarding. For instance: You're OK with your job, but it gnaws at you that the guy who took the one you turned down earned a quick promotion. Or you like the house you bought, though the one you passed up on the other side of town recently sold at a nice profit. And your marriage is working out pretty well, but ... well, let's not even go there.
NFL executives often find themselves in a similar position at draft time. Sure, every so often, a first-round stink bomb is tossed: Think Ryan Leaf. And let's not forget even the Colts for a while agonized over this pick and nearly took Leaf, who was perceived to have more upside, over Peyton Manning with the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft.
But when dealing with legitimate top-of-the-board talent, franchises seldom blunder terribly. Still, that doesn't mean draft headquarters wouldn't like the occasional do-over. So with the combine, pro days, individual workouts and Wonderlic tests behind us, it seemed a good time to analyze decisions made on first-round selections since the 1970 merger comparing two players who played the same position.
With the seventh pick in the 1982 NFL Draft, the Vikings, needing a running back, took Stanford's Darrin Nelson. In the ninth spot, the Falcons took Arizona State's Gerald Riggs. USC's Marcus Allen languished until the Los Angeles Raiders took him with the 10th pick.
In an era when the stopwatch started taking over the draft, Allen's perceived lack of speed became an issue for a number of teams. Ironically, Al Davis was willing to overlook this even though he valued speed more than most.
Meanwhile, Nelson and Riggs both had reasonably solid but unspectacular careers. Nelson lasted 11 seasons, mostly in Minnesota, and finished with 4,442 career rushing yards. Riggs played 10 years and found glory late with the Redskins, finishing with 8,188 rushing yards and winning a Super Bowl in his final season.
When the Buccaneers made Ricky Bell the No. 1 overall selection in the 1977 draft, the choice was controversial, to be sure. Bell had an outstanding career at USC -- the program was in the midst of a glorious run as Tailback U -- but he had finished as runner-up in the Heisman voting, second to Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett. But it was hardly surprising that the Bucs took Bell over Dorsett. After all, Bucs coach John McKay just completed a Hall of Fame career as the USC coach before taking over the expansion franchise. He had recruited and coached Bell while with the Trojans. After a rookie season plagued by injuries, Bell came into his own in 1979, leading the Bucs with 1,263 rushing yards and into the NFC Championship Game. But unbeknownst to nearly anyone, he began to suffer from dermatomyositis, a rare disorder that attacks a body's skin and muscles. Bell would last three more seasons in the NFL before he was forced to retire when he could no longer lift even his 3-year-old daughter. Bell died in 1984 at the age of 29 from heart failure caused by the disease.
Recently, Charles Rogers has been making more headlines than Andre Johnson. Unfortunately for Rogers, it's not the kind of news he'd like to be making. On April 5, he turned himself in after there were a couple of warrants issued for his arrest including one for threatening his own mother. It's not exactly what the Lions had hoped would become of Rogers when they chose him with the second overall pick in 2003. His career started out promising with 243 yards in his first five game but he suffered a broken collarbone during practice and was out the rest of the year. In the first game of the following season he broke his collarbone yet again. The year after that, he was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy and was used sparingly upon his return. Rogers was released in 2006 and the Lions sued him for breach of contract for violating the substance abuse policy and in 2010 he was ordered to pay back $6.1 million of his $9.1 million signing bonus. The Texans took Johnson with the third pick and he has made five Pro Bowls, has led the league in receptions and receiving yards twice, and is widely considered one of the top five active receivers in the league.
Lawrence Phillips was the ultimate high-risk, high-reward player. He dazzled on the field with his combination of speed and size. During his junior year at Nebraska he averaged a ridiculous 7.2 yards per carry and rushed for 165 yards in the 1995 national title game. But Phillips only played in six games that season because he was suspended after assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Despite the character issues, the Rams didn’t feel they should pass on someone they thought could be the cornerstone of their offense for years to come and took him with the sixth pick. They were so confident in his abilities that on draft day they traded Jerome Bettis to the Steelers. But Phillips' ability was trumped by his attitude. After multiple arrests, the Rams cut him midway through his second season. He would end up playing in NFL Europe before getting another shot in the NFL and then played a few years in the CFL before his life spun completely out of control. He has been arrested multiple times for assault and is now serving a 31-year prison term where he isn't eligible for parole until 2033. Because of the Rams' questionable decision, one of the most consistent players fell to the Oilers. With the 14th pick Houston selected Eddie George, a Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State.
One of the biggest stories heading into the 1998 NFL Draft was where would Randy Moss go? No one doubted his supreme talent. In his freshman year at Marshall, Moss tied Jerry Rice's Division I-AA mark of 28 touchdowns while averaging nearly 115 yards per game. After an equally successful sophomore campaign that ended with him winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award and finished fourth in the Heisman race, Moss declared for the draft.
There were rumors Moss would go as high as third to the Cardinals. Many others expected the Raiders to bite with the fifth pick. But team after team passed on Moss because of questions about his character. He had pled guilty to battery in high school, tested positive for marijuana in college and was arrested for domestic battery his freshman year.
The Oilers had the 16th pick and looked to improve their anemic passing attack that ranked second-to-last in the league the previous season. It seemed like a blessing that Moss had lasted that long and had fallen into their laps. But instead, Tennessee went with what it thought was a safer choice in Utah's Kevin Dyson.
With the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft the 49ers were prepared to add to their legacy of great quarterbacks. The only question was who would they choose to follow Joe Montana and Steve Young in leading the 49ers to Super Bowl glory.
There were two quarterbacks thought to be options with the top pick, Alex Smith from Utah and Aaron Rodgers out of Cal. New 49ers coach Mike Nolan met with both, but ultimately decided on Smith, feeling that Rodgers had a bit of an attitude problem and Smith was more cerebral. As few teams were looking for a quarterback, Rodgers fell all the way to the 24th pick when he was selected by Green Bay.
Smith has struggled as he’s bounced in and out of the starting spot for the 49ers, while Rodgers famously waited behind Brett Favre before taking the reins, leading the Packers to Super Bowl victory after the 2010 season, and most recently winning the league MVP award. Smith had a resurgence in 2011 under new coach Jim Harbaugh, but 49ers fans are left to wonder if Rodgers would have already cemented his place next to Montana and Young.
Looking back, it's hard to imagine what anyone might have seen wrong with Jerry Rice. He's undoubtedly the greatest receiver in NFL history and NFL Films listed him as the greatest player in NFL history, period. But despite setting numerous NCAA records, Jerry Rice was overlooked because of his lack of speed and in part because he played at I-AA Mississippi Valley State. With the 13th pick in the 1985 draft the Bengals opted for Miami's Eddie Brown (for that matter the Jets opted for Wisconsin's Al Toon with the 10th pick) and Rice fell to the 49ers at No. 16. At first it didn’t seem like Cincinnati made a horrible choice. Brown won the rookie of the year award over Rice and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1988, putting up solid number over a six-year career. In 1988 Brown was an integral reason the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl. Of course, in that Super Bowl the Bengals lost to the 49ers, and of course, Jerry Rice was the game's MVP. But compare anyone to Jerry Rice will seem silly as Rice would go on to obliterate nearly every NFL receiving record during his Hall of Fame career.
Yes, the Lions messed up their draft picks even before Matt Millen was in charge. Heading into the 1996 draft Detroit needed a linebacker and they were prepared to get one. The Lions gave up a third-round pick to move up four spots to 17th to get the man they wanted. The problem is the man they wanted was Reggie Brown out of Texas A&M, meanwhile some other guy named Ray Lewis lasted until the 26th pick.
Lewis, who played at Miami, was more accomplished than Brown in college, but gaudy combine numbers shot Brown up the draft board. And at the start of his career it seemed as if Brown might become the centerpiece of the Lions' defense. In his second season he notched 100 tackles and scored two touchdowns, but in the last game of the season he suffered a spinal cord contusion making a tackle. Brown laid motionless on the field for 17 minutes, nearly losing use of his limbs and his life. He could never play football again, but luckily through surgery and hard work he was able to walk and live a normal life.
Of course Ray Lewis would go on to have one of the greatest careers of any middle linebacker and turn Baltimore into one of the best defensive teams in football. Even if Brown had been great, he probably wouldn't have been Ray Lewis.
Despite a great college career some teams thought Florida's Emmitt Smith was too slow and too small to become an effective running back at the pro level. For that reason the New York Jets, in need of a running back, opted for Penn State's Blair Thomas with the second pick of the 1990 NFL Draft.
Smith slipped all the way to the 17th pick to the Dallas Cowboys and at that moment a dynasty was born. In his first six seasons Smith would make the Pro Bowl each year, lead the league in rushing four times, and propel the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories.
Blair Thomas meanwhile only lasted six seasons in the league before his career was over. By the time Smith finished playing football he would become the NFL's all-time leading rusher.
In 1983, with the seventh overall pick the Chiefs selected Penn State's Todd Blackledge. Blackledge is now a college football analyst. You might remember his work from when, during an overtime game, fellow announcer Mike Patrick asked, "What's Britney Spears doing with her life?" To which Blackledge responded, "Why do we care at this point? Is she here?" The same could be said for Blackledge, but Chiefs fans bitterly think of him as probably the biggest draft bust in franchise history.
In his five years with Kansas City he went 13-11 but threw just 28 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions while completing less than half his passes. But what makes this pick so terrible is that the 1983 NFL Draft is forever remembered for its vaunted quarterbacks class in which six QBs were taken in the first round. After John Elway went with the first pick, the Chiefs arguably could've selected any of the other four quarterbacks and fared better: Tony Eason at No. 15, Ken O'Brien at No. 24, and of course, Hall of Famers Jim Kelly (14th) and Dan Marino (27th).
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