By Bobby Wiabel
Every year we ask ourselves questions like Will Kevin White be more successful than DeAndre Smelter because he was drafted three rounds earlier? The answer may be… not necessarily. While White may have the better opportunity to succeed, Smelter can be just as successful with a little extra work. In the NFL draft players rise and fall due to numerous reasons; Off-Field issues, failed drug tests, size, excellent or underwhelming combine performances. Most teams draft a player on what they hope they can become, not what they are currently. If you look at the top of any draft you will find loads of super athletes who run fast, jump high and far, and have superhuman strength. This does not in any world guarantee production (ala Vernon Gholson).
What will determine a player’s ability to succeed is not something that can be measured with timers, rulers, or weights. It is a player’s determination and will to succeed that will set them apart. Lets take a trip down memory lane, and look back at the last 5 NFL drafts (2010-2014) broken down by position. We will be looking at players who either didn’t live up to the hype, or exceeded all expectations. In the end you will find that a player taken in round 1 can fall short just as fast as someone who went undrafted, and an undrafted player can make as big of an impact as a 1st rounder.
The QB position is the one that can really throw a wrench in my argument. It has the lowest variation of success from players taken in the later rounds. There are, of course, some obvious late round success stories: Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Matt Hasselbeck. During our target era, however, the success stories at this position are very few and far between. Of the 52 QB’s drafted since 2010, 36 were taken after the 3rd round. Of those 36 only 7 have started a game (48 games altogether). The closest to success of that group is Zach Mettenberger who was replaced this season by first round pick Marcus Mariota.
Now let’s focus on the biggest underdog story of the past 5 years. You guessed it: Russell Wilson, a 3rd round pick in the 2012 draft, who is now on his way to becoming the most expensive QB in the league. Standing at 5’11” Wilson was selected in the middle of the draft based mostly on his size. There was no way to measure his drive or intellect. Flipping to the opposite end of the spectrum, let’s look at Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert was drafted 10th overall in the first round of the 2011 draft. He had everything you looked for in a QB, the size, the arm, the moxy. what he did not have though was the vision, the drive, or the intellect. I will say that young QB’s are no longer groomed for success, they are thrown into the ocean and taught to sink or swim, and more often than not they sink.
The RB position has become very devalued in recent years. This is mostly due to the NFL becoming more pass and less run focused, but also due to teams finding talented players late in the draft. Let’s take a look at the 2012 draft. There were three backs taken in the first round: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, and David Wilson. However, arguably the best back from that draft class was drafted int he 6th round, Alfred Morris. Subsequently, for the next two years and for the first time ever there were no RBs drafted in the first round.
So lets take a closer look at two players entering the NFL the same year, on the same team. The Denver broncos, who already had former first round pick Knowshon Moreno and had just taken Ronnie Hillman in the 3rd round the previous year, used a 2nd round pick to draft Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. Following the draft they signed Cal RB CJ Anderson as an undrafted free agent. Fast forward to 2014, Knowshon left via free agency, and Montee Ball is the starter, Hillman the back-up, and Anderson closing out the group at the bottom of the depth chart. Six games in, Ball is sidelined with an injury as is Hillman. Enter Anderson, who took the league by storm, rushing for 865 yards and 10 all purpose TD’s in the final 10 games. He is now the unquestioned starter, ahead of the RB who was drafted very high in the very same draft.
There are more wide receivers drafted every year than any other offensive position. In our target era 150 WR were drafted. There have been quite a few first and second round busts: Jon Baldwin, AJ Jenkins, Justin Blackmon, Stephen Hill, Ryan Broyles, Greg Little, Arrelious Benn, and Titus Young. Throughout that time span there has also been plenty of guys drafted in the later rounds that have excelled considering their draft position. Antonio Brown is the biggest success story as he has solidified himself as one of if not the top receiver in the NFL, but here are some others: Emmanuel Sanders (3rd), Riley Cooper (5th), Jeremy Kerley (5th), Marvin Jones (5th), TY Hilton (3rd), Kenny Stills (5th), Keenan Allen (3rd), Martavis Bryant (4th)
Taking a look back there are two players from the 2013 draft who were taken at opposite ends of the spectrum. In the first round the St. Louis Rams selected the electrifying gadget receiver Tavon Austin with the 8th overall pick. Although it is too early to deem him a bust, Austin has nowhere lived up to the hype that was expected of him. He has become a glorified return man instead of the pro bowl receiver that is expected when you are drafted in the top 10.
Now lets flip to the 216th overall pick in the 7th round of the draft where the Green Bay Packers took a little known guy out of Grand Valley State named Charles Johnson. Johnson is an athletic guy, but his only production came from little known competition. Green Bay took a shot on him, and although it didn’t pan out for Johnson with the Packers, he still had the determination to never give up. After bouncing around a few teams he landed in Minnesota, and took the Vikings by the horns. He only got the start in 6 games tallying a 19-328-2 line. He is now the starting X receiver in Minnesota, and is only beginning to come out of his shell.
The Tight End position is a slim one, as they are drafted for two different reasons: blocking and receiving. Throughout our designated time span 69 TE’s have been drafted. Most of the top premier TE’s were drafted between the 2nd and 3rd round including: Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce, and Colby Fleener. Notable first round TE’s like Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert haven’t lived up to the success of the guys taken after them. Like every other position we have gone over talent can be found in the later rounds of the draft. In 2013 the Oakland Raiders selected Mychal Rivera in the 6th round, He has gone on to become the starting TE in Oakland, and had a breakout campaign last season starting 10 games and catching 58 passes for 534 yards and 4 TD’s. He is now slated to open the season as the starter, although he will face tough competition from 2015 3rd round pick Clive Walford. I personally expect Rivera to continue to be determined and keep the starting job.
This goes to show that it doesn’t necessarily matter what round a player is selected in the NFL, they always have the chance to become successful. It takes hard work, determination, and a never quit attitude.