Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.
Best choice: Taking Matt Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in 2008. Yeah, he was the third pick and you should hit when you’re drafting in that territory. But look at how many quarterbacks, including some No. 1 overall picks, haven’t hit. The Falcons did their homework and were totally convinced Ryan was a franchise quarterback when they drafted him. He’s backed it up. You can still debate whether Ryan is an “elite quarterback,’’ whatever that means. But he came to a franchise that probably had hit a lower point than any franchise at any time in NFC South history and has produced nothing but winning seasons. Sure sounds like a franchise quarterback to me.
Worst choice: Jamaal Anderson. He has become a serviceable defensive tackle in the past year or so, but this guy was drafted as a defensive end in the top 10 in a draft where teams were reaching for pass-rushers (see Tampa Bay and Gaines Adams). This falls on a past regime and is part of the reason that regime failed. In four seasons, Anderson has produced 4.5 sacks and, as they head into the 2011 draft, the Falcons are, once again looking for a pass-rusher.
On the bubble: Peria Jerry. The Falcons thought they had a solid pick when they took Jerry in the first round in the 2009 draft. Jerry injured his knee early in his rookie season. He came back last year, but wound up as a backup to 2010 third-round pick Corey Peters. The Falcons are saying they expect a fully healthy Jerry to emerge in 2011. If that happens, there will be vindication. If not, Jerry will go down as a bust.
Best choice: Ryan Kalil. Center didn’t seem like a huge need when the Panthers used a second-round pick on Kalil in 2007, and he did very little as a rookie. But the guy has turned into a consistent Pro Bowler. We won’t weigh this down by going into the labor situation, although the Panthers placed a franchise tag on Kalil. They’re still looking for the first true franchise quarterback in their short history. But they’ve got a franchise center to snap the ball.
Worst choice: Dwayne Jarrett. We’re only going back five years, so Keary Colbert is not eligible and he at least had a few productive moments. But the Panthers compounded that mistake by taking another USC receiver in the second round in 2007. Colbert should have been a major warning sign.
On the bubble: We’ll go with a tie between quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receiver Armanti Edwards. It’s tough to call anyone a bust after just one year, but the production of Clausen and Edwards as rookies makes that very tempting. We’ll give them a pass for the moment because they were emblematic of former coach John Fox’s refusal to embrace a youth movement. They get a fresh start with new coach Ron Rivera, and we’ll see how that works out.
Best choice: Marques Colston. Yep, we’ll go all the way back to the first draft class of coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis as a team. They used the second of two seventh-round picks (No. 252) on the little-known receiver out of Hofstra. All they got was a guy who instantly became a very good No. 1 receiver. His numbers would be spectacular if Payton and quarterback Drew Brees weren’t so good at spreading the ball around. Colston is the definition of a value pick, and guys like guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans aren’t far off.
Worst choice: Al Woods. It’s hard to find any flaws in the way Payton and Loomis have drafted. They haven’t totally missed on any early picks. Woods was a fourth-round pick in 2010, but he ended up getting cut in the preseason. You generally expect a fourth-round pick to at least make the roster.
On the bubble: Reggie Bush. Yes, five drafts into this regime, you can still say the first pick Payton and Loomis made is on the bubble. Bush might stay there for his entire career because opinions are widely divided, and that’s understandable. He was the second overall pick in the 2006 draft. He never has produced the kind of numbers you would expect from a running back taken so early, and injuries have slowed him. But the flip side is that Bush is much more than a running back. He’s also a receiver and a return man. When you factor all that in and remember the role Bush played in the Saints' first Super Bowl title in franchise history, it’s tough to say categorically he’s been a bust.
Best choice: Josh Freeman in a landslide. He wasn’t a popular pick when the Bucs traded up to get him in the middle of the first round in 2009. That was only because the Tampa Bay fan base had been schooled from the beginning that defense is most important. But general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris departed from that philosophy in their first draft. They landed a franchise quarterback who might not even be close to hitting his full potential.
Worst choice: Dexter Jackson. He was the modern-day Tampa Bay version of Booker Reese, which says a lot. But I’ll say even more and anoint Jackson as the worst draft pick any NFC South team has made in the past five years. In their last draft, former coach Jon Gruden and former general manager Bruce Allen used a second-round pick (No. 58) on the receiver/return man from Appalachian State. They made matters even worse moments after the pick by walking into the media room and saying they had found the second coming of Carolina receiver Steve Smith. It turned out the only things Smith and Jackson had in common were their size and the fact that both had spent some time in North Carolina. The Bucs quickly found out Jackson had no business being in the NFL. Maybe somebody should tell Jackson there's an opening in that flag-football league at the Siskey YMCA in Charlotte.
On the bubble: Gerald McCoy. Again, it’s tough to declare anything about a player after just one season. But McCoy was the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft. With a weak supporting cast, he got off to a slow start and probably didn’t do himself any favors by talking so much about it. McCoy started to come on as the season progressed but suffered a season-ending injury. Throw in the instant success of Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh and that places lots of pressure on McCoy to become a star in his second season.