“We attach too much importance to a small number of observations,” said Peter Kilbanoff, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He, as well as other economists, believe that people tend to fall in love with one thing based on a limited amount of data. Once they fall in love, they usually do what they can to attain or be close to it. They also agree we can apply this basic concept to how NFL executives select players in the draft.
According to a report by Globe Correspond Keith O’Brien, in May 2013, NFL executives tend to fall in love with one player in the first round and try to convince themselves the player will be a star. O’Brien notes executives should rethink their drafting technique because players in the second round and lower actually hold more value than players in the first round.
This general philosophy likely also coincides with first overall draft picks, but to a much higher level. In the 2014 draft, analysts expect Houston to draft quarterback Johnny Manziel first overall. According to the experts listed above, it might be better to find a quarterback later in the draft or see if Manziel drops. After all, missing on a first overall pick can set a franchise back for years.
Usually, teams don’t recover quickly from first-overall busts like they might with players they select later in the draft. First overall selections have long-term, expensive contracts, so it can take the length of the rookie deal for a franchise to reset and start over at the failed position.
In saying that, let’s examine exhibit A: the top five worst first overall draft picks since 2000. Each of these players played a significant role in the collapse of some portion of their franchise, and each of these franchises made the mistake of overvaluing these players.
5 Sam Bradford, QB, Drafted in 2010 by the St. Louis Rams
Some still have hope Sam Bradford will discover his true number one self and transform the Rams back into the “Greatest Show on Turf.” Likely, this is a pipe dream. While Bradford isn’t a bust yet, he’s failed to become the franchise’s savior like many expected.
Over his four year career, Bradford only holds an overall QBR of 40.7 and quarterback rating of 79.3. While his injuries have certainly hurt his development—he’s missed 15 games the last four seasons—they fail to completely explain why he’s struggled the two full seasons he’s been healthy.
For example, when he was healthy in 2012, his quarterback rating and QBR still ranked 19th and 15th in the NFL. While we can make the case other starters during that time ranked lower, teams did not draft them number first overall. In other words, people expect Bradford to be more consistent.
If you dismiss Bradford’s stats, then one glaring issue still stands out. The expensive quarterback has yet to lead the Rams to a winning season. While his failure might coincide with the team’s sub-par talent and his lack of on-the-field experience, I believe it has more to do with Bradford’s failure to utilize his supporting cast. Quality quarterbacks make surrounding players look great. It shouldn’t be the other way around.
4 Courtney Brown, DL, Drafted in 2000 by the Cleveland Browns
Once compared to Hall-of-Fame pass rusher Bruce Smith, Courtney Brown’s career never took off because of a series of devastating injuries. After his final stop with the Broncos came to a crushing end, Mike Shanahan commented, “I told him if he was my son, I’d tell him not to play. He’s got bone on bone.” The comment was almost as devastating as his injuries. For those who scouted Brown years before, he showed nothing, but upside.
Sports Illustrated believed “…they [the Browns] may have found the perfect player.” Cleveland owner Al Lerner praised Brown by saying, “I think if you drew up a football player, and put all the ingredients in you were looking for, you’d end up with Courtney Brown.” After four years with the team, the Browns discovered it was all the wrong ingredients.
While his rookie season was productive, he totaled 61 tackles and 4.5 sacks, he failed to expand on that campaign. Brown would later miss a number of starts, and in his last three years, managed to notch only three sacks. In his six year career, Brown had only 19 sacks, 155 tackles and seven forced fumbles.
3 David Carr, QB, Drafted in 2002 by the Houston Texans
With the Texans, David Carr may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coming out of college, analysts heavily touted him as the next, great franchise quarterback, but he failed to live up to the hype. While some reports speculated he failed because of poor skills and a lack of desire, he certainly failed because of a porous offensive line and an undisciplined team.
In 2002, the Houston Texans became the newest addition to the NFL. With their first ever draft pick, they selected David Carr out of Fresno State. During his rookie campaign, he was sacked an NFL record 76 times and in five years with Houston, he was sacked 249 times. It’s hard to establish a relationship with the now great receiver Andre Johnson, who the Texans selected in 2003, when you are laying on the turf.
As Carr walked onto the draft stage, ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman declared, “There can be no debate. What a person—what a person—to build a franchise around, guys.” Another analyst agreed, “I don’t see anything with Harrington [selected by the Lions with the 3rd pick that year] or Carr that you can say is a question mark…” The same analyst continued, “When you look at Carr or Harrington three or four years down the road, you are not going to call any of these two players a bust or disappointment. Right now, Harrington is out of the league and Carr is a free agent.
I think it's fair to say, both are busts.
2 JaMarcus Russell, QB, Drafted in 2007 by the Oakland Raiders
While he’s now labeled as one of the biggest busts in draft history, JaMarcus Russell’s legacy wasn’t always so tarnished. Actually, up until his time with the Raiders, he impressed on the gridiron.
Russell succeeded as the quarterback for Louisiana State University. In 2005, he propelled the Tigers to the Southeastern Conference Western Division Title and a top five ranking going into the SEC Championship. In 2006, Russell topped his previous season by leading the Tigers to a 41-14 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
So, where did it all go wrong for the Raiders and Russell? First, the Raiders past on drafting future Hall-of-Fame receiver Calvin Johnson and selected Russell way too high. Prior to the draft, ESPN Senior Analyst John Clayton believed it would be slightly unusual for the Raiders to pass on Johnson because, “Al Davis will forever be a fan of speed, so it may be hard for him to pass on a wide receiver as big and fast as Calvin Johnson of Georgia Tech.” Davis passed anyway.
Between 2007 and 2009, Russell won just seven of 25 games, threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, held a 21.1 QBR and a 65.2 quarterback rating. Even worse, during that time, he held an average completion percentage of 52.1 and only topped 2,000 yards passing once. By 2010, Russell was out of a job. Soon after the Raiders released him, the quarterback faced legal trouble for drug possession and questions transpired about his financial woes. Russell still hopes to make an NFL comeback.
1 Michael Vick, QB, Drafted in 2001 by the Atlanta Falcons
When grading players, usually I consider only their statistics and if they helped their team win; however, Michael Vick’s case is special. He was easily one of the most electrifying players in the 2000s, but also one of the league’s most controversial.
Vick became a star as quarterback for Virginia Tech. In 1999, he led the Virgina Tech Hokies to an undefeated season and a national title game and was named Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year. NFL teams were salivating at the chance to work with Vick, and in 2001, the Falcons selected him. Because of his style of play, Vick quickly made the Atlanta a formidable opponent.
Then scandal hit. The same year the Falcons awarded Vick with a nine year, $130 million extension, he seemed to find trouble more than the end zone. In 2007, he personally hit rock bottom and admitted to operating dog fighting rings. He faced jail time, suspension and bankruptcy and was a major reason the Falcons’ franchise fell apart. That same year, the team finished with a 4-12 record.
Years later, Vick would “redeem” himself as quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and win a bunch of comeback of the year awards; however, many still find it difficult to forgive him for his darkest days. At the same time, he did serve his time and has showed considerable remorse for actions. He has doubled his charitable efforts and often speaks to the youth about the slippery slope he fell down.
No matter what, his ability to breathe life into a franchise and then quickly snatch it away skyrockets Vick to the worst number one overall pick since 2000…and maybe of all time.