Skip to main content

NFL Draft History: Busts, Sleepers and Solid Picks - Part 1


The first round of the 2012 NFL Draft will commence on Thursday night, marking the 77th installment of what is officially called the “NFL Player Selection Meeting.” From Thursday through Saturday 253 college players will hear their names called, adding their name to the NFL history books, regardless of whether they ever make it on the field.

Indeed, as history will tell, some past drafts have become more known for the players who were selected and did not enjoy success in a NFL uniform than those that did. There are also those players who did not hear their names called in the draft, but signed on with a team as an undrafted free agent and would eventually become solid players, if not All-Pros.

Here is a look back at the 1998-2007 drafts, as we reminisce and see which picks panned out for teams (Solid Picks), and those that failed miserably (Busts), as well as acknowledging those players that didn’t let disappointment on draft day get in the way of fulfilling their dreams of playing in the NFL (Sleepers).

Note: Part 1 will cover drafts from 1998-2002, Part 2 will cover the 2003-2007 drafts.

1998 NFL Draft
We start with 1998 because of the obvious synergy with this year’s draft involving No. 1 picks, quarterbacks and the Indianapolis Colts. In 1998, the Colts took Peyton Manning No. 1 overall over Ryan Leaf. While Manning is no longer with the Colts, no one can say the franchise didn’t make the right pick as Manning led them to 150 wins, eight divisional titles, two AFC championships and a win in Super Bowl XLVI in 2007. The Chargers didn’t have near the same success with Leaf, who lasted just three seasons in the league and won a total of four games in his short-lived career. To make matters worse, Leaf has had his share of personal and legal issues since his NFL playing days.

Just like what happened with Manning in 1998, the Colts are hoping history will repeat itself 14 years later as they have informed Andrew Luck they will take him with the No. 1 overall pick on Thursday night. The Colts have decided to go with Luck over Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, who will presumably go to the Washington Redskins at No. 2. Whether Luck becomes the second coming of Manning for the Colts remains to be seen, but the Redskins certainly hope that Griffin doesn’t follow in the forgettable footsteps of Leaf.

Solid Picks: The Colts weren’t the only team to draft a franchise player in 1998. The Raiders took Charles Woodson with the fourth overall pick and the Vikings took a chance on Randy Moss that turned out pretty well for them. Fred Taylor and Alan Faneca also were taken in the first round. Other players selected include Olin Kreutz (3rd – No. 64), Hines Ward (3rd – No. 92), Matt Birk (6th – No. 173), and Matt Hasselbeck (6th – No. 187).

Busts: While Leaf is certainly the headline in terms of busts from the 1998 draft, he was not alone as many recall the career of Andre Wadsworth, who went No. 3 overall to the Arizona Cardinals, and Bears’ fans are still trying to forget Curtis Enis, who was taken with the fifth pick.

Sleepers: Besides a franchise quarterback, the Colts also ended up with an All-Pro offensive lineman from the class of 1998. Jeff Saturday, Manning’s long-time center, originally signed as an undrafted free agent with Baltimore. He ended up in Indianapolis in 1999 and went to become a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in his 13 years with the Colts. London Fletcher and David Akers also went undrafted, but ended up on an NFL roster and both made the Pro Bowl and earned All-Pro recognition in 2011.

1999 NFL Draft
Although this draft is probably remembered more for the New Orleans Saints trading all of their picks in 1999 plus two more in 2000 to the Redskins for Ricky Williams, it also represented the last draft in which the first two players taken were quarterbacks. In fact, quarterbacks were taken with the first three selections as the Cleveland Browns took Tim Couch, the Philadelphia Eagles took Donovan McNabb and the Cincinnati Bengals took Akili Smith.

Everyone knows what happened after that, Couch never panned out, lasting just five seasons and finishing his career with more interceptions (67) than touchdowns (64). Smith fared even worse, as he was in the league for four seasons, but only played in a total of 22 games. McNabb clearly had the best career of the three and now will wait to see if his overall body of work (37,276 passing yards and 234 passing touchdowns, 3,459 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns) is worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame.

Solid Picks: After the Saints took Williams fifth overall, the St. Louis Rams selected Torry Holt and the Redskins took Champ Bailey. Holt retired as a Ram earlier this month after a productive 11-year career, while Bailey, an 11-time Pro Bowler, is entering his 14th year in league, ninth with the Denver Broncos, this fall. The Steelers took both Joey Porter (3rd – No. 73) and Aaron Smith (4th – No. 109), while the Green Bay Packers drafted Donald Driver in the seventh round (No. 213), who has since become the Packers’ all-time leading receiver.

Busts: Couch and Smith weren’t the only quarterbacks taken in the first round who didn’t pan out. The Bears took Cade McNown with the twelfth overall pick. McNown’s career was even shorter than Smith’s, as he was done after the 2000 season after winning three games in 15 career starts under center.

Sleepers: I’m not so sure two punters (Chris Hanson and Brian Moorman) qualify, although both had careers that lasted more than 10 years and earned at least one Pro Bowl invitation.

2000 NFL Draft
Let’s face it, the first draft of the 21st century will forever be known as the Tom Brady draft. The Patriots took Brady, a relatively unknown quarterback from Michigan with 199th overall pick in the sixth round. Three Super Bowl rings, nearly 40,000 yards passing, 300 touchdowns, 124 regular-season wins and counting, this is arguably the greatest value pick in the history of the NFL Draft.

Solid Picks: That’s not to say Brady was the ONLY player taken in the 2000 draft, mind you. The Ravens took running back Jamal Lewis, who had just the fifth 2,000-yard season in NFL history in 2006, with the fifth overall pick, and the Arizona Cardinals selected fellow back Thomas Jones seventh. Jones has rushed for more than 10,000 yards in his career. The Pittsburgh Steelers took Plaxico Burress with the eighth overall pick, but unfortunately Burress’ career will always be overshadowed by what took place off the field, rather than on it.

Chicago got Brian Urlacher with the ninth pick and he quickly became the next great Bear linebacker, following the likes of Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. The New York Jets got more than lucky with John Abraham at No. 13, while the Seattle Seahawks took Shaun Alexander from Alabama with the 19th pick. All Alexander did was earn NFL MVP honors in 2005 as he led the league in both rushing (1,880 yards) and touchdowns (27) as the Seahawks rode his legs all the way to the Super Bowl.

Also let’s give some credit to the Oakland Raiders, who have earned more than fair share of criticism when it comes to draft decisions. In 2000, however, they got two picks right when they selected kicker Sebastian Janikowski with the 17th overall pick and punter Shane Lechler in the 5th round (No. 142). All these two have done is form the NFL’s most valuable kicking duo for 12 years running. Too bad their success and productivity hasn’t rubbed off on the team as a whole.

Busts: The Browns missed big on Courtney Brown, who they took No. 1 overall. Brown never adjusted to the pro game, lasting just six forgettable seasons. The Bengals didn’t fare much better with Peter Warrick, who they took with the fourth overall pick, and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, who was selected by the Giants at No. 11, was never able to establish himself in the NFL.

Sleepers: As has already been mentioned, Brady is probably the biggest draft sleeper of all time, but he was drafted. That was not the case for offensive linemen Shaun O’Hara and Brian Waters. O’Hara won a Super Bowl with the Giants, while Waters is a two-time All-Pro and been named to six Pro Bowls in his career.

2001 NFL Draft
The Atlanta Falcons and the San Diego Chargers swapped first-round picks, a trade which gave the Falcons the No. 1 overall pick in exchange for a third-round pick in 2001, second-rounder in 2002 and a player (wide receiver Tim Dwight). All in all, it was a trade that worked out for both sides as the Falcons took Michael Vick with the first pick and the Chargers ended up with LaDainian Tomlinson at No. 5. Vick took what was a moribund franchise to new heights and helped usher in a new era of athletic, mobile quarterbacks, while Tomlinson, who is currently third on the all-time touchdowns list and fifth in rushing yards, will go into the Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.

Solid Picks: Besides Tomlinson, Richard Seymour (No. 6 overall) and Steve Hutchinson (No. 17) could both end up in the Hall of Fame eventually. Other notable first-round selections include Justin Smith (No. 4), Santana Moss (No. 16), Deuce McAllister (No. 23), Reggie Wayne (No. 30) and Todd Heap (No. 31). Drew Brees (No. 32) was taken by the Chargers with the first pick in the second round and Chad Johnson was taken by the Bengals four picks later. The New England Patriots took Matt Light (No. 48) later in the second round. Light is expected to retire at some point this offseason after a 10-year career as the Patriots’ left tackle otherwise known as the blindside protector for the aforementioned Brady. In the third round, the Carolina Panthers selected Steve Smith (No. 74), who holds all of the franchise’s receiving records.

Busts: While Wayne, Johnson and Smith were hits for their respective teams, there were several wide receivers drafted in 2001 that ended up being big misses. In the first round alone, the Bears whiffed on David Terrell (No. 8 overall), the Redskins with Rod Gardner (No. 15) and the Eagles with Freddie Mitchell (No. 25). Mitchell was known more for what he said (including his infamous “FredEx” nickname) than what he accomplished on the field. Not what you want in any draft pick, let alone a first-rounder.

Sleepers: The Redskins signed linebacker Antonio Pierce, who would go on to make the Pro Bowl as a Redskin in 2006, as an undrafted free agent, while the Tennessee Titans (Rob Bironas) and Buffalo Bills (Shayne Graham) signed reliable kickers. Bironas was named first-team All-Pro in 2007, while Graham would only be with the Bills for one season before eventually becoming a Pro Bowler with the Bengals. Several other solid players got their start as undrafted free agents in 2001, including offensive lineman Stephen Neal (Patriots) and Rich Seubert (New York Giants).

2002 NFL Draft
Another draft with quarterbacks taken early that didn’t pan out. This time it was David Carr, who the Houston Texans took with the franchise’s first-ever No. 1 overall pick. Carr spent most of his five years with the Texans running around for this life, as he was sacked a NFL-record 76 times in his first year. It didn’t get much better in the years that followed as in many ways Carr was a victim of a lack of support. Detroit took Joey Harrington third, who in four years with the Lions won just 26 games and finished with more interceptions (62) than touchdown passes (60).

Solid Picks: In between the two quarterbacks, the Carolina Panthers selected defensive end Julius Peppers with the second overall pick. The athletic freak of nature was named the 2002 NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and racked up 81 sacks and 37 forced fumbles in his eight years with the Panthers. He signed with the Bears as a free agent in 2010 and is still one of the NFL’s most-feared defensive players. The Colts also selected a defensive end with their first-round selection, Dwight Freeney (No. 11), and like Peppers, Freeney is a three-time, first-team All-Pro and has 102.5 sacks in his career.

While Peppers and Freeney could end up enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Canton when their careers are over, one player who’s already secured his spot is Ed Reed. The Ravens drafted the dynamic ball-hawk from Miami with the 24th overall pick and he has not disappointed. Reed is an eight-time Pro Bowlers, been named first-team All-Pro five times and is ninth in career interceptions with 57. The 2004 AP Defensive Player of the Year, Reed is the record-holder for longest interception return in NFL history, 108 yards.

The 2002 NFL Draft also had Clinton Portis (No. 51) and Brian Westbrook (No. 91) taken in the second and third rounds, respectively.

Busts: Besides Carr and Harrington, other first-round picks that didn’t exactly work out included defensive tackle Ryan Sims (Chiefs – No. 6), running back William Green (Browns – No. 16), wide receiver Ashely Lelie (Broncos – No. 19), and quarterback Patrick Ramsey (Redskins – No. 32).

Sleepers: The Steelers and the Ravens both found hidden gems among the undrafted free agents as the Steelers signed James Harrison and the Ravens brought in Bart Scott. Harrison was the 2008 AP Defensive Player of the Year, while Scott was a key member of the Ravens’ defense, which consistently ranked among the NFL’s best, for seven seasons.

Part 2: 2003-07 NFL Drafts

— by Mark Ross, published on April 23, 2012

Other NFL Draft-Related Content

NFL Draft: A Look at First-Round Trades
2012 NFL Draft First-Round Primer
2012 NFL Draft: Ranking the Positions
2012 NFL Draft Sleepers and Steals
2012 NFL Draft Busts: Ryan Tannehill and Dontari Poe
Biggest Busts in NFL Draft History
2012 NFL Mock Draft: Our First-Round Projection
2012 NFL Draft Stock Watch
2012 NFL Draft: Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III

2012 NFL Must-See Match Ups
2012 NFL Schedule Highlights