Why? There were legitimate concerns about Curtis Martin's durability. He dealt with multiple injury issues in college and teams were concerned that he might continue to struggle through injuries in the NFL. Yet Curtis Martin, tagged as an injury risk, played his way into the NFL Hall of Fame, while first overall pick Ki-Jana Carter saw his promising career derailed by injuries. NFL scouts cannot predict everything.
Speaking of injuries, another great running back was selected in 1995. Terrell Davis was selected in the 6th round, with the 196th overall selection. A great running back with Denver, Davis won two Super Bowls, one Super Bowl MVP, and one league MVP award, and has found his way into Hall of Fame discussions numerous times. Davis missed three games as a senior due to a groin pull. That's not enough, on its own, to derail a player's draft stock. However, Davis was mired in a pass-heavy offense at Georgia, and he didn't generate huge counting stats as a running back. In an ironic twist of fate, Georgia was known for producing great running backs, but the program switched towards a more pass-oriented program behind quarterback Eric Zeier just as Davis transferred. He made the Broncos as a special teams player, and quickly worked his way into the starting lineup.
Clearly, NFL teams can and do miss in big ways on draft day. Continuing to look at the 1995 draft, a few more things stand out. New York Jets WR Wayne Chrebet went undrafted that season and went on to have a big impact with the team. He entered Jets training camp as the 11th ranked WR out of 11 options. He went on to catch 580 career passes for 7365 yards and 41 touchdowns before his career prematurely ended due to a concussion. "Too small" to play football as a professional wide receiver, Chrebet proved the scouts wrong and went on to have a long and successful NFL career.
A few more interesting notes in the 1995 draft. Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks was the second linebacker selected in 1995, taken 15 selections after Pro Bowler Mark Fields. Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp was the first defensive tackle taken, but he was selected after three defensive ends were already off the board. Antonio Freeman was the 9th WR off the board, taken in the third round. Clearly, based on pure NFL production, NFL teams were less than effective when it came to analyzing talent in the 1995 NFL Draft.
What about 1996? The 1996 NFL Draft started out well-enough, with three Pro Bowlers and one Hall of Famer rounding out the top four picks (Keyshawn Johnson, Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice, and Jonathan Ogden). Then things start to get a little bit dicey. Running backs Lawrence Phillips and Tim Biakabutuka were both selected ahead of Eddie George. However, George was still a first round draft pick. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis was the fourth linebacker selected, drafted behind Kevin Hardy, John Mobley, and Reggie Brown. While looking back Ray Lewis had the greatest NFL impact out of these four players, Lewis was still a first round pick, drafted at 26 overall, so it wasn't that big of a fall.
The 1996 Draft was a great draft for wide receivers. Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison became the fourth receiver off the board at 19 overall (after Keyshawn Johnson, Torry Holt, Terry Glenn, and Eddie Kennison). Eric Moulds was the fifth WR off the board, at 24th overall. Amani Toomer was the seventh WR off the board, to the Giants. Mushin Muhammad was the 9th, to the Panthers at 43 overall. Terrell Owens was the 12th WR taken, 89th overall. 1996 was an extremely deep class for receivers (add fifth round picks Joe Horn, selected 135th overall and Jermaine Lewis, selected 153 to the discussion and you have potentially the deepest WR class in NFL history).
Three players make this draft really interesting. While the wide receiver class was extremely deep (explaining why great talent at the position was available late), defensive tackle, kicker, and linebacker were not that deep. Adam Vinatieri, one of the greatest postseason kickers in NFL history, went undrafted in 1996. Kickers do often go undrafted, so that is not, in itself a huge story. The bigger story is what happens at linebacker later in the draft.
What if I were to tell you that a fifth round pick at linebacker would generate 1076 career tackles, 20.5 career sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 17 interceptions, and seven Pro Bowls? What if I were to then tell you that 16 linebackers were selected before he was taken with the 154th overall pick? What if I continued,, telling you that at two and a half years old, his HEAD was ran over by the back tire of a pickup truck TWICE, that at 13, he tried to navigate a flooded river on an air mattress before getting swept two miles downstream, and by 20, was a passenger in a car that rolled five times on a dirt road? You would either call me a liar or say "oh yeah! Zach Thomas." Thomas dropped for a couple of reasons. First, he was considered too small to play linebacker. My answer to that criticism is to look at his numbers, but I digress. Russell Wilson was too short to play quarterba....wait a minute, he won a Super Bowl! But I digress. The second criticism on Thomas was character. He was caught up in an incident shooting BB's at the ankles of passers-by from his dorm. That being said, Thomas was still a hard worker, and he wound up in a locker room that was able to keep him reigned in early in his career. The character concerns are legitimate, but questions about size always bug me, especially when you look forward to players like Chris Borland (who was basically a Zach Thomas clone who thrived in the NFL before retiring after his rookie season due to concussions). Height for linebackers? Doesn't seem to be a legitimate reason to write them off.
As the 166th overall draft election in 1996, La'Roi Glover was the 15th defensive tackle selected. Glover made six consecutive Pro Bowls, finished his career with 320 tackles, 83.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions, and led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2000. Glover was a slow bloomer. His first year was spent as a special teams guy, and the spring before his second year was spent playing in NFL Europe with the Barcelona Dragons. He was successful with Barcelona, generating 6.5 sacks and 36 tackles in spring of 1997, and was signed by the Saints in fall of 1997 as well. Much like Zach Thomas, Glover was viewed as too small to play defensive tackle in the NFL, especially in a 4-3. That led to him first falling in the draft, and then him playing in NFL Europe in his second year of professional football. Under Coach Mike Ditka from 1997-1999, Glover had decent numbers. However, when the Saints replaced Ditka with Haslett and Haslett made changes to New Orleans' defensive front, Glover immediately responded with a 17 sack season. This suggests that system fit played a key role in Glover's emergence as a dominant player. However, given his numbers once he was in system that fit his skills, many front offices in the NFL missed out on a great player.
A few final notes from the 1996 draft. Special teams ace Larry Izzo went undrafted, but went on to make three Pro Bowls as a special teams specialist, showing that career special teams players can make a noticeable impact. Center Casey Wiegmann went undrafted as well, and went on to start 127 consecutive games in the NFL during a sixteen season career that included one Pro Bowl appearance. The Green Bay Packers struck gold on three time Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera in the 6th round, with the 208th overall selection. Clearly, starting-caliber talent is present throughout the draft. Clearly, teams regularly fail to recognize this talent during the draft process, often for superficial reasons.
The 1997 NFL Draft was best known for its offensive linemmen, with offensive tackles Orlando Pace and Walter Jones both selected in the top six selections, as well as some other solid offensive line talent scattered throughout the draft. Center Mike Flynn, out of Maine, and offensive tackle Joe Andruzzi, out of South Connecticut State, both went undrafted. Both were overlooked largely because of their school, and both went on to have strong NFL careers. This suggests that school size, while analyzing the sorts of competition that a player has faced, is not an effective tool for weeding out prospects except when comparing between two extremely closely ranked players on a draft board.
School size is an interesting theme in the 1997 draft. Darren Sharper fell to the second round at least partly due to the school he played at, William & Mary. Jason Taylor, a borderline hall of fame caliber defensive player, fell to the third round after playing his college football at Akron. Al Harris, a great player by anyone's definition, played for the almost unknown Texas A&M-Kingsville football team. He was drafted 169th overall, in the 6th round.
Other than Al Harris, the fifth through seventh rounds are not that notable for the purposes of this study. What is notable is the selection of players who went undrafted. Quarterback Jake Delhomme, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Jon Kitna out of Central Washington continue the small school theme. Two undrafted players who were not undrafted due to school size in 1997 were Priest Holmes (RB from Texas) and Pat Williams (DT from Texas A&M).
Pat Williams split his career between the Buffalo Bills and the Minnesota Vikings. Over fourteen seasons, Williams made three Pro Bowls and finished his career with 566 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, and 1 interception. Over the first four seasons of his career, Williams was a backup. He emerged as a starter in 2001. Williams is a perfect example of a player who outplays his draft stock, as are all the players in this study. He went undrafted, worked hard to find a role in an NFL system, and made a significant impact on the league.
To say that Holmes' early career was defined by adversity is an understatement. He missed the entire 1995 season as a college player due to a knee injury, and then fell behind Ricky Williams (and Shon Mitchell) on his college depth chart. Holmes only received 59 carries that season, but still managed to rush for 13 touchdowns. Still, Holmes went undrafted and signed with the Baltimore Ravens following the draft. Holmes rushed for over 1000 yards in 1998, but was benched in favor of Jamal Lewis in 2000. In 2001, Holmes signed with the Chiefs and began to dominate the league as a running back, leading the league with 1,555 rushing yards in 2001. Holmes is not only a beloved player in Kansas City. He is also a player who was drafted way lower than he should have been due to injury and other situational factors, even though his college production and film hinted at his huge potential.
The 1998 NFL Draft is perhaps best known for Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, and Randy Moss. While Leaf makes an interesting case study in and of himself, that is outside the scope of this article; we're focusing on guys who fell in the draft for various reasons. There are a few huge names that dropped in 1998. Matt Birk was drafted out of Harvard in the 6th round by the Minnesota Vikings with pick # 173. Matt Hasselbeck was also a 6th round pick out of Boston College, selected by the Packers with the 187th overall pick. Jeff Saturday (center, North Carolina) and London Fletcher (linebacker, John Carroll) both went undrafted.
Matt Birk is probably the easiest player on this list to explain away. School size. Ivy League players do not get much recognition in the NFL, and Birk continued that trend. School size also had an effect on Fletcher's draft stock. So did size; Fletcher was deemed undersized by scouts, and his school wasn't a known producer of top defensive talent. Meanwhile, Fletcher went on to become one of the most durable and consistent linebackers in the history of the NFL. Matt Birk became one of the best centers in the league. Clearly, NFL teams missed on both of these guys.
Matt Hasselbeck was not invited to participate in the NFL Combine. He was described as undraftable by multiple NFL scouts, and only one coach, Andy Reid from the Green Day Packers, attended his private workout. While most teams viewed Hasselbeck as "undraftable," a player with no NFL future, Reid had him as his third ranked quarterback (behind Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf). Hasselbeck's college stats likely played a major role in his draft stock; he threw for 22 touchdowns and 26 interceptions over four seasons. After making it to the NFL, Hasselbeck made three Pro Bowl appearances, throwing for 36,638 yards, 212 touchdowns, 153 interceptions, and an 82.4 career passer rating over an 18 year NFL career. Sometimes system fit trumps counting stats, and Hasselbeck is a perfect example of why this is true. While he struggled in college, he was a quality NFL quarterback. Stats in college don't mean everything.
At Jeff Saturday's Pro Day, every scout in attendance told him that A) his arms were too short to be successful in the NFL, B) he was too short to be successful in the NFL, and C) that he was too slow to be successful in the NFL. He responded by making six Pro Bowls over a 14 year NFL career with 202 starts. Clearly the scouts missed majorly on Saturday, showing that, once again, size is not a good measure of whether a player is NFL material.
The most memorable fact about the 1999 NFL draft is the fact that two of the three quarterbacks selected, Tim Couch by the Browns and Akili Smith by the Bengals, were rather unsuccessful in the NFL. Both were good college athletes who had the talent to succeed in the NFL. Both fell into terrible situations as NFL starters. The Cleveland Browns were a first-year expansion team in 1999, and still have been unable to develop a starting quarterback 17 years later. The 1999 Cincinnati Bengals were a team in shambles, a perennial AFC Central last-place team who, like the Browns, struggled to develop quarterbacks. I mention Couch and Smith here because they are, in a sense, relevant to this discussion. Just as a situation or system can make a player's career, it can also undermine it. Neither Couch nor Smith had much to work with in their respective teams, and they struggled as starters. It is entirely irresponsible to expect one player to be the savior of a franchise. In order to succeed, the team as a whole must be well-structured. I'm not arguing that Couch or Smith necessarily would have succeeded had they been drafted elsewhere. There's no way to empirically argue for or against that point. My point is that they were, in a very real sense, set up to struggle by the situations that they were drafted into.
But I digress. Continuing with our discussion of players who were under-drafted, the most notable player in the 1999 NFL Draft was Donald Driver. Donald Driver was selected by the Green Bay Packers with the 213th overall pick in the 7th round of the 1999 NFL Draft. Driver was knocked for both his school and his height. Alcorn State was not a known producer of NFL talent. At 6'0, Driver was deemed to be borderline "too short" to play WR in the NFL by scouts. He responded by becoming one of the most recognizable wide receivers in the history of one of the most storied franchises in the NFL.
Speaking of unrecognized schools, with the 109th pick of the NFL Draft, in the fourth round, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Aaron Smith, DE out of Northern Colorado. While Smith was not necessarily a prototypically "elite" NFL player, he was a very productive defensive end for Pittsburgh throughout his career. He outperformed players drafted in the first round in 1999 at his position, making him an intriguing mention here.
Roderick Coleman is another player who fell in the 1999 draft largely due to his school. A defensive tackle out of Eastern Carolina, he fell to the fifth round, where he was selected by the Raiders with the 153rd overall pick. He finished his career with 248 tackles, 58.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, and an interception. Clearly he was a very productive player, and clearly he outperfomed his NFL draft stock.
Everyone is familiar with Tom Brady's story from the 2000 NFL Draft, but it still bears mentioning here. Six quarterbacks were selected ahead of Brady, who was finally drafted by the Patriots in the 6th round with pick # 199. First, Brady was criticized for his size; scouts claimed that his frame was too small. Scouts also criticized his foot speed, arm strength and throwing mechanics. As a college player, Brady did not receive many awards, leaving him a relative unknown. Brady is a guy who put up decent numbers in college, but is set apart by his character and mind. He is an extremely driven player who demands perfection from both himself and everyone around him. While he likely succeeded at least in part as a result of Bill Belichick as a head coach (thus being at least partially a product of a system), the onfield numbers do not lie. Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. Measurables and workout numbers conspired to drop Tom Brady into the sixth round of the NFL Draft. Brady, like many (if not all) of the players in our discussion, would have best been scouted through a hard look at game tape and thorough interviews as opposed to focusing on measurables, pure numbers, and workout results.
With the 186th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft, in the sixth round, the Baltimore Ravens selected linebacker Adalius Thomas out of Southern Mississippi. Thomas recorded 517 career tackles, 53 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, and 7 career interceptions. Thomas was a product of a relatively unknown school, and slipped on draft day. He was projected as a third round pick prior to the draft, but got caught up in the chaos that was and is the NFL draft. Sometimes good players get overlooked heading into the draft. Other times, players drop during the draft itself as a byproduct of the process. In the case of Adalius Thomas, he may have been pushed down draft boards because of his school or because teams had other needs, but he was a productive player, especially for a sixth round pick.
Linebacker Dhani Jones was selected a few picks ahead of Adalius Thomas with pick #177. Jones had a decent career in college at Michigan, but did not receive much hype heading into the draft. He is a perfect example of a player who can succeed in the right system. Jones finished his career with 889 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, and 5 interceptions. He did not play in 2000, but played in all 16 games in 2001, recording 27 combined tackles and 1 interception. He broke out in 2003 with 120 combined tackles with the Giants. He then spent three seasons in Philadelphia, recording 71 combined tackles in 2004, 70 in 2005, and 76 in 2006. In 2007, Jones went to Cincinnati, recording 89 tackles in 2007 playing in only 14 games, 116 tackles in 2008, 113 in 2009, and 125 in 2010. Jones proves that great defensive talent can be found anywhere in the draft if one pays attention to a player's best fit in a system.
Quarterback Marc Bulger was drafted by the Saints with the 168th pick of the 2000 draft, in the sixth round. Like many of the quarterbacks in this discussion, Bulger was dinged for size. Scouts also had questions about his ability to make NFL throws and force the ball into tight windows. Bulger moved around the league a bit as a practice squad player before finding a fit with the Rams later in 2000. Bulger was a productive player for the Rams, and finished his career with 122 touchdowns, 93 interceptions, and 22,814 passing yards with an 84.4 passer rating. He made two Pro Bowls and lead the NFC in passing yards in 2003. Bulger is a perfect example of an underdrafted late-round player who found a perfect system fit and blossomed in it.
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was drafted by the Green Bay Packers with the 149th pick of the 5th round of the 2000 NFL Draft. A defensive end prospect out of San Diego State, Gbaja-Biamila finished his career with 286 tackles, 74.5 sacks, 18 forced fumbles, and an interception. Gbaja-Biamila was one of the best pass rushers in Green Bay history, and spent his entire career as a Packer. Gbaja-Biamila fell to the fifth round for two reasons. First, teams were concerned about his size. He was branded as a tweener, and teams had questions as to whether he would be able to stick at OLB or DE. Teams were also concerned about the level of competition he faced in college. Clearly these concerns were unfounded, as he had a dominant NFL career and retired as the Green Bay Packers' all time sacks leader.
There were also a few great undrafted free agents in 2000. First, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, out of Indiana, signed with the Miami Dolphins following the draft. His fall is semi-understandable; Ogunleye missed his entire rookie season as a result of a devastating knee injury sustained as an undrafted free agent. He led the AFC in sacks in 2003 and made the Pro Bowl that same season. He had an extremely productive career as a pass rusher, generating 389 tackles, 67 sacks 17 forced fumbles, and an interception. Center Shaun O'Hara signed with the Cleveland Browns following the 2000 NFL draft. He made three Pro Bowls and started 135 games in his NFL career. He was overlooked partly as a result of his college program; in 2000, Rutgers was relatively overlooked by NFL scouts. O'Hara overcame his undrafted status and went on to have a strong and successful NFL career.
So, what have we learned from the first five years of our study? First, a player's draft position does not necessarily predict how they will perform in the NFL. It's not how you start, it's how you finish. Second, players are often snubbed by NFL teams for foolish reasons. Often, these overlooked players can have extremely successful NFL careers in spite of their lack of a high draft position, especially in a system that fits their strengths. Clearly, the scouts often miss many things. Where did they miss most in the 1995-2000 period?
First, size doesn't matter. Many of the players on this list were "too short" or "too small" to succeed in the NFL. Yet they thrived in the NFL. Guys like Jeff Saturday, Zach Thomas, and Wayne Chrebet were deemed "too small" to succeed in the NFL, yet all went on to have great NFL careers. Tape matters. Tape measurements of height and girth? Not so much.
Second, school size does not necessarily matter, at least not too much. If a player is dominating against what a scout may deem to be a "lower level of competition" than other players entering the draft, do not overcompensate. If you have two nearly identical players statistically and one is dominating against top DI teams and the other is dominating against DIII teams, then maybe it makes sense to value the guy dominating against DI teams higher than the guy dominating against DIII teams. However, don't over-compensate. Just because a WR prospect played for the relatively unknown Alcorn State University does not mean that he will not be a great WR.
Third, statistics aren't everything. When scouting players, pay more attention to player fit than to statistics. Both Priest Holmes and Terrell Davis were overlooked largely due to stats (in the case of Holmes there were injury questions as well). If a player looks like a perfect fit for your system as a scout, throw the stats away and watch the film. If he is playing in a system that he clearly isn't suited for, pay attention to what he does well and don't dock him for his lack of counting numbers. If the system he is in isn't conducive to a large number of counting stats (for example a defensive scheme where the defensive tackle's main goal is to keep blockers busy and open holes for linebackers to generate numbers), don't dock the player for what he does well. A lack of system fit does not mean a lack of talent. In some cases, when players change schemes, they can blossom, as was the case with La'Roi Glover, who generated 17 sacks in a single season following a new defensive scheme.
Unfortunately, today's scouts still hold many of the same preconceived notions that led to players dropping in the period from 1995-2000. While school size is not as big of a deal as it once was, scouts still use it as a way to write off players in draft-room discussions. While size is not quite as problematic as it once was, teams are still obsessed with it, and as this discussion hopefully shows, a player's size should not be an issue, especially in instances where a player does a lot of good things on tape.
Until the next installation, I leave all readers, especially NFL scouts, analysts, and GMs, with the following message. Watch the film. Watch the film. And when you've gotten tired of watching the film, sit down and watch the film. Film and player interviews are the two most important tools for player evaluation. Film tells you who a player is on the field. Interviews tell you who he is both on and off of the field. Interviews and film study should be what any scout bases their final evaluation of a player on. Superficial "warts" created by scouts and the media to write players off are both lazy journalism and lazy scouting. Take the time to evaluate a player's game tape, interview the player to evaluate the player's personality, and do your best to figure out how he will fit in your system. Then sit down and watch more film. Some guy running 40 yards in underwear does not give a full picture of that player's athletic talent. Watching him play in full pads against competition doesn't give a perfect picture of how he might play in your specific scheme, but it does give a good picture of him as a player. Fill in that picture with data gleaned from interviewing him, and you've got a pretty good idea of how the player will fit with your team. It is time to stop writing off players for foolish reasons such as height. Three more segments of this study to come!