At the 18-hour marathon that is this weekend's 71st NFL Draft, hope abounds for all 32 pro football teams. The right selection - that first-round future Hall of Famer or diamond in the rough that everyone else overlooks - can catapult a franchise to greatness for years to come. Johnny Unitas, arguably the greatest quarterback in pro football history, was selected in the ninth round in 1955.
But that launching pad is also riddled with the wreckage of drafts gone wrong, those can't-miss choices that somehow did. The Cincinnati Bengals are just pulling themselves out of a long draft funk that included first-rounders David Klingler, Ki-Jana Carter, and Akili Smith, all now out of the game.
It's hard to overstate the import of selection weekend. "To me, the draft is the reason why the [Pittsburgh] Steelers won the Super Bowl" last season, says ESPN football analyst Mel Kiper, a cult figure among draftniks.
This year's draft pool, one of the deepest in memory, is no exception. Most observers agree that Reggie Bush, Southern California's all-everything back, is a lock for NFL immortality. But then the hand-wringing begins, especially for the marquee position: quarterback. There's Bush's teammate, Matt Leinart, who led his team to back-to-back national championships; Texas Longhorn Vince Young, who single-handedly kept Leinart from winning a third one;and sleeper Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt, whose pro upside is huge, draft experts say, even if his college teams only managed an unimpressive 11-34 record.
On the eve of this year's draft, the Monitor looks back over the past quarter century at five choices that changed the course of NFL history.
John Elway (No. 1), Eric Dickerson (No. 2), and Jim Kelly (No. 14) were no-brainers; each is in the Hall of Fame. But with the exception of Washington, every other team had the chance at Dan Marino in 1983, picked second-to-last in the first round by the Miami Dolphins. Marino would become the NFL's all-time passing leader for quarterbacks. "Marino didn't have much mobility" in college, says Gil Brandt, who spent 29 years in charge of personnel with the Dallas Cowboys. "What people didn't realize was he had great field presence and probably the quickest release ever." His NFL-best 61,361 passing yards and 420 TD tosses attest to that. (The Jets and Chiefs, each of whom chose QBs ahead of Marino, would like a mulligan.)
2. Rice boils over the league
You could argue that a mid-first-round selection isn't too shabby for a guy out of tiny Mississippi Valley, but what this really means is that in 1985, 13 teams (including Houston and Buffalo twice) passed on the greatest wide receiver in NFL history. Rice played 20 seasons, won three Super Bowls with the 49ers, and set the all-time league marks for career receptions, receiving yards, and TD catches. "Our chief scout rated him as no better than a fifth-round pick," says former San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh, who selected Rice after trading up for the 16th pick. "I felt differently. Now all I hear years later is that everyone else was about to draft him [when the 49ers did]."
It seems ridiculous now, but in the weeks leading up to the 1998 draft, debate raged over who was the better pro QB prospect, Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning. With the first pick, the Colts took Manning, a certain Hall of Famer who now holds the single-season record for TD passes (49) and is a two-time MVP still in his prime. Leaf, picked second by San Diego, was a disaster from the start, feuding with teammates, coaches, and the media. "Leaf got the big contract and that was his utopia - he didn't want to work for anything else," says Brandt. "That's what makes this so hard: You don't know how guys are going to respond to financial success, if they will still work hard. If you knew that, you wouldn't have so many busts."
Want a quick glimpse of how a high selection can make or break a team? See 1999, where three of the first five picks failed to ignite Cleveland (QB Tim Couch, No. 1), Cincinnati (QB Akili Smith, No. 3) and New Orleans (RB Ricky Williams, No. 5), while the other two made perennial winners of former doormats. (Philadelphia took QB Donovan McNabb at No. 2, and Indianapolis grabbed RB Edgerrin James at No. 4.)
Quarterback Tom Brady is the poster child for draft follies. "Brady is one that almost everybody overlooked," Walsh says, "including me." New England took him in the middle of the sixth round in 2000. All he's done since then is lead the Pats to three Super Bowl wins and garner two Super Bowl MVP awards. QBs chosen before him include Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, and Spergon Wynn. Who?