A letter to GMs: four big draft-day don'ts

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 20, 2011

By Luis DeLoureiro
Cold, Hard Football Facts Pen Pal of Pigskin
This is an open letter from the fact-filled and well-fed staff of ColdHardFootballFacts.com to GMs and other decision makers around the NFL.
Dear NFL General Managers:
The old saying goes that an "expert" is someone who has made every conceivable mistake in a narrow area of knowledge. By that definition, NFL decision makers are indeed "experts" in the art of football talent evaluation.
After all, you seem to make the same draft mistakes year after year.
So we are here to shed some light on common practices/beliefs that seem to yield negative results – and yet get repeated year after year.
Our hope is that you will learn the lessons of the past and not make these mistakes again in 2011. But we're not holding our breath, either.
1. Do not draft a wide receiver in the first round. Period. 
If you want to put together a winning team, you'll have to resist the temptation of the flashy wide receiver.
But we have no faith you'll find the will power any time soon. After all, you are obsessed with wide receivers – for reasons the Cold, Hard Football Facts do not understand. Matt Millen is the poster child for the GM foolishly obsessed with wideouts. But he's hardly alone.
Since 2001, 40 wide receivers have been taken in the first round. As we discussed last week, that's more first-round selections than any other offensive position. This haul included seven first-round wide receivers in 2004 and six each in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2009. 
They're not ALL busts – but the success rate is extremely poor.
Put it this way: the average NFL team has drafted 1.25 wide receivers in the first round over the past decade. Yet, despite all those first-round receivers floating around the NFL, only six teams in 2010 were led in receiving yards by a player they picked in the first round: the Chiefs, Colts, Falcons, Lions, Texans and Vikings.
The first three teams made the playoffs but each failed to win a single postseason game. The other three teams sucked.
The Packers and Steelers – the two Super Bowl contenders – were led by Greg Jennings (second round) and Mike Wallace (third round).
The Patriots owned the league's best record and the No. 1 scoring offense in 2010. Their leading receiver was an undrafted former return specialist. In fact, NFL walk-on Wes Welker has hauled in an incredible 432 passes in the last four years.
New England and Pittsburgh are the two most successful franchises of the past decade. They seem to understand the Cold, Hard Football Facts and typically avoid first-round wideouts. They've combined to draft one wide receiver in the first round since 2001: Pittsburgh took Santonio Holmes No. 1 in 2006.
And even that pick, by what is perhaps the best drafting organization in football, yielded mixed results. Holmes was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. But – like many WRs – he had problems on and off the field. The Steelers dumped him last year for a fifth-round pick out of the Jets. 
The Patriots last drafted a wide receiver No. 1 way back in 1996. Terry Glenn had a record-setting rookie year. But his career ultimately proved a disaster on and off the field.
The rate of failure at WR is immense. For every Calvin Johnson there is a Ted Ginn, Robert Meachem and Craig Davis (all drafted in the 2007 first round). For every Larry Fitzgerald there is a Reggie Williams, Rashaun Woods and Michael Clayton (all drafted in the 2004 first round).
And here's the biggest reason not to draft wide outs in the first round. Even if you nail the pick, great wide receivers simply do not have a big impact on the success or failure of a team.
For example, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were perceived as "can't miss" prospects.  Read their reviews coming out of college. Hindsight – they're fantastic!
Both – especially Fitzgerald – have even lived up to the billing with prolific careers to date.
But even in these cases, do not fall prey to the pretty reviews ... because the impact of these players is negligible. Fitzgerald's Cardinals tasted some success, but only with Hall of Famer Kurt Warner at quarterback. Fitzgerald caught a lot of passes before Warner was the quarterback and again last year without Warner. But the team didn't win without a great quarterback. Fitzgerald had a great season last year. But as we noted in their off-season review, Arizona fielded one of the worst passing attacks in football last year.
And Johnson has had a nice little career in Detroit. But the team has gone 15-49 since drafting him in 2007. Johnson's best season came in 2008 (1,331 yards, league-high 12 TDs) – a year during which the Lions went 0-16.
So, even if you DO hit on a great wide receiver in the first round, your pick would have been better spent anywhere else.
2. Do not search for "value" with a second-round quarterback
Before you think you're being clever by forgoing a quarterback in the first round in order to achieve "value," take a look at the list of quarterbacks taken in the second round since 2001:
Drew Brees, Marques Tuiasosopo, Quincy Carter, Kellen Clemens, Tarvaris Jackson, Drew Stanton, John Beck, Kevin Kolb, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, Pat White and Jimmy Clausen.

A few points about the list:
  • The only player on the list who is a definite starter is Brees – and he's not with the team (San Diego) that drafted him.
  • Kolb will likely become a starter soon – but he'll become a starter largely based on projected capabilities from teams desperate for a quarterback, not on actual accomplishments.
  • The Dolphins drafted three of those quarterbacks – Henne, White and Beck. They also traded a second round pick for Daunte Culpepper. That's four second-round picks devoted to QBs in recent years.
  • In related news, the Dolphins have appeared in exactly one playoff game in the last nine years.
Read here to get a full rundown of second-round quarterbacks.
Now, once again in 2011, many of you are talking about getting quarterback "value" in the second round. On the surface, this makes sense.
First, there seems to be a glut of quarterbacks in the draft this year perceived to have NFL starter's potential. As many as eight players – Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, Ryan Mallett, Christian Ponder and Ricky Stanzi – have been talked about as potential first or second rounders. And that's too many players to go in the first round.
And second, past failure doesn't indicate future failure. Just because John Beck couldn't play doesn't mean future second rounders will suffer his fate.
So we see how tantalizing it can be to take a QB in the second.
After all, as many as 12 teams need a quarterback heading into the 2011 season. For any of these players to get to the second round, he would have to be passed up by a number of teams with serious quarterback needs.
A later-round pick is more likely to slip through the cracks due to a lack of diligence – these eight players have been poked, prodded and probed to the point where most teams could give you a detailed, minute by minute description of what each player did on his prom night.
Put another way, if your 12 most desperate friends all pass on pretty little Suzie – isn't that an indication that, even if you haven't seen it, Suzie has a deep, dark secret? Perhaps she has a disfiguring scar or a couple of bodies in her closet. Regardless, the research has been done for you. And the researchers passed.

Do you really want to meet Ryan Mallett's three other personalities after bragging to the world that he was a "value" pick?
3. A first-round RB won't get you fired, but won't lead to a championship either
Let's put it this way: Ned Flanders is the type of guy who would pick a running back in the first round.
This is not to say that first-round running backs don't become good pros. Most do. In fact, 30 RBs have been taken in the first round since 2001 and you can argue that only three – William Green, Michael Bennett and Chris Perry – were outright busts.

In other words, to completely bust as a first round running back, a player has to either:
  1. Get stabbed in the back by his girlfriend during a domestic dispute a few weeks after getting arrested for drunk driving and marijuana possession (Green)
  2. Get the nickname "The Human Enema" due to his propensity to run directly into the ass of the lineman in front of him (Bennett).
  3. Get drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals (Perry)
Not all other first-round RBs have become stars. Laurence Maroney and Kevin Jones come to mind. But even they tend to be serviceable players. Maroney was widely seen as a bust in New England. But he averaged a solid 4.2 YPA and scored 21 TD in three-plus seasons with the Patriots. Kevin Jones ran for 24 touchdowns and caught 141 passes in four years with the Lions.
But with all that said, with the generally high rate of contributions you get out of RBs, there are two reasons that you should not waste a first-round pick on one of them
  • You don't need an elite RB to win in the NFL
  • Serviceable running backs grow on trees
Most of the league's best teams have managed to fill the position adequately without using a first-round pick.
Of the league's 12 playoff teams, only the Colts (Donald Brown) and Steelers (Rashard Mendenhall) were led in rushing by a player they picked in the first round. LaDainian Tomlinson, a former first-round pick of the Chargers, led the Jets in rushing after signing with NY as a free agent.

The other nine teams were led in rushing by undrafted free agents (Benjarvus Green-Ellis of the Pats and Chris Ivory of the Saints) or later picks.
The Super Bowl champ Packers were led in rushing by unheralded Brandon Jackson (703 yards), a second-round pick in 2007 who had logged 157 carries before 2010. He got the bulk of the work after the team's leading rusher of the past three years, Ryan Grant, went down with an injury in Week 1. Grant, who rushed for 2,456 yards over the previous two seasons, was an undrafted free agent.
The Super Bowl champion Saints of 2009 also failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher. Their leading ball carrier was Pierre Thomas (793 yards). Thomas, too, was an undrafted free agent.
4. Don't take a QB from Tulane (or Notre Dame or Louisville) in early rounds
Tulane has given us J.P. Losman and Patrick Ramsey. Two late first rounders who couldn't achieve their life-long goals of mediocrity as an NFL quarterback.
In recent years, Notre Dame has featured high-hype/low-production players in Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen.
Louisville has only one major strike against it – in the form of Brian Brohm. However, Brohm, who was drafted in the second round by the Packers, was cut before the first week of his rookie season. That's hard to do. Further, he has been riding the bench in Buffalo unable to beat out third-round pick Trent Edwards or seventh-round pick Ryan Fitzpatrick
As a side note, have you ever tried to picture what it must have been like when Edwards (a Stanford product), Fitzpatrick (Harvard) and Brohm hung out together?
Was Brohm outmatched in their Sudoku competitions? Did he have anything to add when Edwards and Fitzpatrick discussed Chaos Theory? 
Perhaps there's a future for Brohm as an NFL draft "expert."

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