NFC West: Drew Bledsoe
Initial reports tend to focus on maximum payouts, which can be misleading. Sometimes the new money available through an extension produces a misleading new average per year.
For context, John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information recently put together charts showing how much money players received after signing deals reportedly worth at least $100 million. The answer was less than 50 percent in most cases.
The first chart examines the numbers for contracts that are no longer active.
The second chart shows how much money players have received on active contracts with maximum values of at least $100 million. It counts the $29 million signing bonus associated with Joe Flacco's deal as money already paid.
They were 4-1-1 against the NFC West under Fisher in 2012.
The Rams from 2007 through 2011 lost by 11.1 points per game in division play. The final scores for those games were 25-14 on average. Those figures flipped to plus-five points per game with a 20-15 average final score under Fisher.
"Fisher is a heckuva coach," ESPN's Matt Williamson said, "but he is behind two of the top five in the league when it comes to ranking head coaches in the NFC West."
Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, ranked the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh first and the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll second as part of his predraft positional rankings for NFC West teams.
We pick up the conversation there.
Sando: We could have made that call on the Russell Wilson move alone. General manager John Schneider was the driving force behind drafting Wilson, but Carroll was the one who decided Wilson should be the starter in Week 1 -- a move I'm not even sure Schneider would have made so quickly. Coaches are under so much scrutiny that it's sometimes easy to make the decisions perceived to be "safest" in the short term. Starting Matt Flynn would have been the "safe" decision last year. It also would have been the wrong one. Carroll trusted what he saw from Wilson and made the call.
Williamson: He also gets the most from his guys. His team building has been phenomenal, starting with all the changes they made as soon as he got there. And then he brought along Wilson extremely well -- just did a phenomenal job there.
Sando: Carroll has admitted some shortcomings in the game-management department. He's called it going "hormonal" with some of his decision making. That is one area where I think he can continue to improve. As far as ranking the best coach in the division, it's tough to argue with the results in San Francisco. Harbaugh and staff have gotten more than anyone could have expected they would get from two completely different quarterbacks. The team has won consecutive division titles, reached two NFC Championship Games and gone to a Super Bowl.
Williamson: I think Harbaugh is the second-best coach in the league behind Bill Belichick. He took over a bad team and was competitive immediately. His offensive mind is off the charts. He got so much from Alex Smith, who I don't think is a very good player. He brought along Colin Kaepernick. They have the most physical and diverse offense. His offensive mind rivals anyone's and meanwhile, they've had the best defense in the league. They've been fortunate with so few defensive injuries, but you can't knock him for that. He was in the Super Bowl last year. He saw that day coming with Kaepernick and he planned for that last season. Randy Moss and A.J. Jenkins and Mario Manningham were not for Alex Smith. Those were all for that day when Kaepernick would start. And meanwhile, he did not hurt himself in the short term until Kaepernick was ready.
Sando: Putting Harbaugh up there with Belichick is high praise. It's interesting, I think, that Belichick enjoyed tremendous success after moving away from Drew Bledsoe, who was the safe choice at quarterback, and moving forward with a less-proven Tom Brady.
Sando: The Patriots have been awfully close to winning it all more recently, but there's no question it's tougher building a dominant team when the quarterback's contract is eating up considerable cap space. Kaepernick is under contract through 2014, with a chance to renegotiate his current deal following the 2013 season. Wilson is signed through 2015 and cannot renegotiate until after the 2014 season.
Williamson: You're really tested two years from now if you win the Super Bowl and get raided like the Baltimore Ravens did and then have to pay your quarterbacks.
Sando: Fisher inherited a quarterback earning $50 million guaranteed under the old labor deal. Arians inherited Kevin Kolb, whose old contract is eating up $6 million in cap space for 2013 even though Kolb is playing for the Buffalo Bills now. Those situations put Fisher and Arians at a disadvantage.
Williamson: No argument there.
Sando: Overall, I'd say the NFC West is in good hands with two head coaches arguably ranked among the top five in the league, plus Fisher and now Arians, who happens to be the reigning NFL Coach of the Year for his work on an interim basis with Indianapolis last season. We'll revisit this one again following the 2013 season.
Consider it a sign of the times.
Thirty-three years earlier, Seattle's Steve Largent tied what was then a Pro Bowl record with five catches. Not five touchdown catches, but five catches of any kind. The NFC won that game, 13-7 -- the sixth consecutive Pro Bowl in which the losing team failed to exceed 20 points.
On Sunday, Fitzgerald's three scoring receptions weren't even the highest total for the game. The AFC's Brandon Marshall caught four.
The game doesn't really matter, of course. Players love the Pro Bowl because they love hanging out with their peers in Hawaii, without any pressure.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com breaks down Fitzgerald's contributions while noting that rookie Patrick Peterson also made an impact.
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic explains why he does not expect Peyton Manning to play for the Cardinals. Bickley: "Assuming he becomes available, courting the future Hall of Fame quarterback will require breathtaking entrepreneurial spirit. Serious pursuit will be fraught with risk. It will require a ton of guaranteed money going out the door with no guarantees that Manning will last another season in the NFL. Sorry, that just doesn't sound like the Cardinals. This franchise hasn't changed that much. I welcome them to prove me wrong." Noted: The Cardinals would have a window in which to make a decision. The Colts have until March 8 to exercise a $28 million option on Manning. The $7 million bonus Arizona owes Kevin Kolb does not come due til March 17. The gap between those dates would give the Cardinals flexibility.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic has this to say about the Cardinals' refusal to let receivers coach John McNulty interview with Tampa Bay for the Bucs' offensive coordinator position: "McNulty is under contract, so the Cardinals can prevent him from interviewing for any job other than a head coaching position. That doesn't seem fair, as many of you have pointed out, but it's common in the NFL. A year ago, the Cardinals requested permission to interview Steelers' linebackers coach Keith Butler for a coordinator's position. They were denied."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times revisits the Seahawks' apparent aversion to selecting quarterbacks in first rounds of drafts over the last nearly two decades. O'Neil: "There have been 208 quarterbacks drafted into the NFL since then, 44 of them chosen in the first round of the draft. Washington has picked three quarterbacks in the first round in that time. So have the Oilers-turned-Titans. But the Seahawks are one of four teams who have not chosen a quarterback in the first round of any draft since 1993. The Cowboys, Saints and the Patriots -- who picked Drew Bledsoe in the slot before Seattle took Rick Mirer -- are the other three."
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Red Bryant wants to become a better all-around player. Henderson: "Along with emerging as a dominant run defender, Bryant has blocked four kicks and intercepted two passes, including one he returned for a score. Of course, defensive ends are supposed to rush the passer, and Bryant hasn't done much of that since moving over from defensive tackle following the 2009 season." Noted: The Seahawks value Bryant for his strength against the run. Rushing the passer has not been a priority for him.
Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times updates where St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke stands among other bidders to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers. Leo Hindery and Tom Barrack have put together an offer. Shaikin: "Hindery and fellow New York financier Marc Utay lead one of at least eight groups that survived Friday's first cut among the bidders. That group had been one of the two prospective buyers known to remain in the bidding without a significant tie to Los Angeles. The other, St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke, has a residence in Malibu and could move the Rams back to Los Angeles as soon as 2015, depending on whether the football team and its St. Louis landlord can agree on stadium renovations." Noted: Whether or not Kroenke succeeds in purchasing the Dodgers, his flirtation with Los Angeles remains newsworthy amid the Rams' uncertain future.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers would be more apt to use the franchise tag on Dashon Goldson than Carlos Rogers if the team were unable to strike long-term deals with them. Maiocco: "The franchise tag for safeties is expected to be $6.2 million for one year. The tag for cornerbacks will be around $10.6 million. So it would cost more than $4 million extra for the 49ers to franchise Rogers over Goldson. Plus, the 49ers have nobody behind Goldson to take his spot. The 49ers' third safety this past season was Reggie Smith, who is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent."
Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News makes the case for former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo as a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Purdy: "DeBartolo doesn't belong in the Hall simply because the 49ers won five Super Bowls under his ownership, though that certainly gives him a leg up. DeBartolo also belongs because in the 1980s, he and coach Bill Walsh virtually invented the modern way of doing NFL business in terms of upgrading every aspect of an organization to eliminate excuses and promote winning. In that respect, I've always said, DeBartolo was the perfect fans' owner. The setup was perfect. Walsh would strategize and DeBartolo would authorize -- whether that meant implementing the latest scouting technology, or deciding to charter roomier jumbo jets, or traveling to eastern road games a day earlier for better time-zone adjustment. In exchange, DeBartolo expected victory. Period. It created a magnificent dynamic of creative tension under pressure." Noted: DeBartolo deserves tremendous credit for weathering a rough start as owner, growing into the role and identifying Walsh as the man to lead the franchise. Walsh's success reflects well on DeBartolo to an extent. Walsh was so good, however, that others don't always get as much credit. As for DeBartolo and the Hall, choosing worthy candidates is the easy part. Deciding which finalists to leave off the final ballot is the hard part when reducing to five modern-era candidates on the final vote.
- The Seahawks would rather trade back than up in the first round. Schneider said moving up is easier, however. Not having a third-round choice bothers him. Schneider: "Personally, I would like to move back because I have confidence in our ability in the middle rounds to do a good stuff and we have a coaching staff that has good teachers and they are excited to have these guys."
- Seattle would like to add at least one offensive lineman and one defensive lineman in the draft. The team wants to add at least one quarterback every year as a matter of philosophy. Quarterbacks become valuable commodities even if a team already has a viable starter.
- Schneider wants the team to get younger in the mold of the Green Bay teams he helped put together. He said the Seahawks patched their roster with older players out of necessity last season, producing positive short-term results. Winning a playoff game was hugely helpful for Pete Carroll as a first-year coach in Seattle, but the focus this offseason will be on adding enough young talent to avoid patching so much.
- The wide variety of quarterback styles in the draft will make the position less predictable. Schneider called it a "unique" year that way. He sees nine to 12 teams needing quarterbacks. He noted that Tampa Bay Bucs GM Mark Domenik said as many as six quarterbacks could become first-round choices. Schneider: "Mark is a good friend of mine and if he was sitting right here, I would say, 'He's got a quarterback, so he wants a lot of guys to be taken. He wants the offensive linemen to fall.' "
- Schneider stressed the importance of remaining disciplined and not going after a quarterback just because the team remains unsettled at the position. He said the Packers were not "hellbent" on landing Aaron Rodgers and weren't going to move up for him. Of course, they didn't know just how good Rodgers would become, either.
- Charlie Whitehurst is in the mix to start next season after playing well enough to beat St. Louis in Week 17. Whitehurst is also the only Seattle quarterback with a contract for next season. Schneider said he valued the game against St. Louis in particular because it was the one time Seattle built its game plan for Whitehurst.
- Schneider thought long and hard, choosing his words carefully when I asked him to what extent Carroll, as a defensive head coach, has a vision for what he wants in a quarterback. I wanted to know how that vision might differ from the visions an offensive-minded head coach might have for a quarterback.
- Schneider apparently thought I was asking whether the slow-footed Ryan Mallett would fit in Seattle's offense, but I had no one in mind. Schneider: "From a pure, uh, I'm reading your mind with this, I'm going to be really careful how I answer this. Pete and (quarterbacks coach) Carl (Smith) coached Drew Bledsoe, who is not a big movement guy, and he had his best season. I don't know if Pete has ever had a guy that is a big-time runner, huge movement guy. I wouldn't slam any of the guys he has had. But everybody likes a guy that can move, but a lot of these guys have compensating factors. So the guy that you're thinking about would be one of those guys that has compensating factors."
- Picking at 25th overall, Seattle can probably pare down a short list to 10 players the team is most likely to select. This year could be less predictable, however, because the absence of free agency could lead teams to favor need a little more strongly. He said Seattle would not take that tack.
Those were a few highlights. I'll be taking a day trip to visit the San Francisco 49ers on Wednesday as they prepare for their first draft with head coach Jim Harbaugh.
- Teams drafted quarterbacks first overall 14 times in the last 24 drafts. The list: Sam Bradford (2010), Matthew Stafford (2009), JaMarcus Russell (2007), Alex Smith (2005), Eli Manning (2004), Carson Palmer (2003), David Carr (2002), Michael Vick (2001), Tim Couch (1999), Peyton Manning (1998), Drew Bledsoe (1993), Jeff George (1990), Troy Aikman (1989) and Vinny Testaverde (1987).
- Teams drafted quarterbacks second overall three times in the last 37 drafts. The list: Donovan McNabb (1999), Ryan Leaf (1998) and Rick Mirer (1993).
When teams sense an elite quarterback is available in a draft, that quarterback often doesn't make it past the first overall choice. Further evidence: All three quarterbacks taken second overall were the second quarterbacks taken in their draft classes.
Would you rather pull those names out of a hat at random, knowing you would get those players' careers as they played out, or would you rather use one of the top two choices -- or even one of the top seven, given where NFC West teams select -- to select a quarterback in the 2011 draft?
The division-rival San Francisco 49ers are still trying to recoup their investment in 2005 first overall choice Alex Smith.
The Rams probably will not change offensive coordinators every year for the next five seasons, as the 49ers improbably did in Smith's first five, but they still need to be careful with rookie No. 1 overall choice Sam Bradford.
Early indications suggest the Rams would like to follow the plan Philadelphia took with Donovan McNabb back in 1999, when Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was coaching the Eagles' tight ends. Doug Pederson opened as the Eagles starter that season, allowing McNabb to ease into the starting role. McNabb got some reps off the bench before taking over as the starter in November.
In setting expectations for Bradford, I looked at production by rookie quarterbacks since 1970. The list featured several older players, some with experience in the CFL or USFL. I filtered out those players by focusing only on quarterbacks who were 25 or younger as NFL rookies. A quick look at them by games started:
There were only five, in part because the NFL season spanned only 14 games until 1978.
Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Rick Mirer and David Carr pulled it off. All but Flacco, chosen 18th overall by Baltimore in 2008, were drafted among the top three overall choices in their class.
The ones who took the most sacks as rookies -- Carr (76) and Mirer (47) were the only ones to absorb more than 32 -- had the poorest careers. That might suggest the players had a hard time recovering from the beatings they took early in their careers. It also might reveal something about the quarterbacks' ability to process information quickly enough to get rid of the football before trouble arrives.
Offensive lines tend to take disproportionate blame for sacks, in my view. Quarterbacks are often responsible for them as well.
11- to 15-game starters
None in this group threw even 20 touchdown passes in a season (Manning and Dan Marino are the only rookie quarterbacks since 1970 to reach that barrier as rookies).
We should expect modest production from Bradford even if he starts most of the Rams' games.
Ben Roethlisberger was a rarity among this group by completing at least 60 percent of his passes, but rookie completion percentage wasn't a reliable indicator for career success overall.
Some quarterbacks ranking lower played when teams ran higher-risk offenses and rules made it tougher to complete passes.
6- to 10-game starters
Hall of Famers Marino, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw and Dan Fouts fell into this group.
This group featured a solid middle class headed by McNabb, Eli Manning, Bernie Kosar, Jim McMahon, Neil Lomax, Steve Beuerlein, Pat Haden, Doug Williams and Rodney Peete.
There were a few disappointments -- Ryan Leaf, Cade McNown, Kyle Boller and the 49ers' Smith, who still has a shot at redemption -- but this seems like a reasonable number of starts for a quarterback drafted early.
Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman fell into this category last season.
3- to 5-game starters
Some high picks fell into this category, including Bert Jones, Vinny Testaverde, David Klingler, Tony Eason, Rex Grossman, Akili Smith, Jay Cutler, Tommy Maddox, Jim Everett and 1984 supplemental choice Steve Young.
This group produced relatively few true stars, however. Young was an obvious exception. Boomer Esiason was a good value.
In looking at the list, though, my sense is that a really good quarterback -- particularly one chosen early -- will start more than five games if he gets a chance to start at all in his first season.
2 or fewer starts
Hundreds of rookie quarterbacks failed to start a game and 69 did not attempt a pass. The latter group featured Tony Romo and in-the-news quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Charlie Whitehurst, but Daunte Culpepper, the 11th player chosen in 1999, stood out as a rare high draft choice among the group.
Unlike Carson Palmer, who sat out his rookie season as a high choice in Cincinnati, Bradford is going to play as a rookie unless he gets hurt.
It's reasonable to expect Bradford to start at least half the games, putting up modest numbers. He'll probably struggle some, and that is OK, but it's a bad sign if the Alex Smith comparisons apply by season's end. Smith tossed one touchdown pass with 11 interceptions as a rookie. He wasn't ready and his supporting cast gave him little chance. That's a bad combination.
It was that good.
"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."
The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.
No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.
Not that making the cut was good enough for some.
"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.
The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.
The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project . The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:
- Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
- MVP awards (8)
- Player of the year awards (6)
- All-Pro first-team awards (4)
- All-Pro second-team awards (3)
- Super Bowl victories (3)
- Pro Bowls (2)
- Rookie of the year awards (2)
- Super Bowl defeats (1)
I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.
From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.
I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.
Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.
The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.
"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."
Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.
A few key variables changed along the way.
Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.
NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.
My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.
The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?
Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.
Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.
Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)
Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)
Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).
Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.
Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.
"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."
Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.
"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."
Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.
Hall of Famers: none yet.
Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.
Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).
Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).
Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.
Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.
"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."
Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.
"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."
Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.
Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).
Hall of Fame finalists: none.
Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).
Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.
Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.
"You are going to Seattle?"
"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.
Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.
"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."
The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.
"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."
Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.
Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).
Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).
Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).
Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.
Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.
"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."
Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.
"You never really trained for it back then," he said.
Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.
Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).
Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).
Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).
Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.
Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.
Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.
The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.
Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.
Also from Somers: Anquan Boldin appears likely to test his injured ankle in pregame warm-ups before the team decides whether he can play.
More from Somers: a look at key stats and variables in the Packers-Cardinals game. The Packers are plus-24 in turnovers this season. Somers: "It's an astounding number, keyed by 30 interceptions. The Packers don't commit many turnovers themselves, just eight fumbles and eight interceptions. The running backs have carried 374 times without losing a fumble. The Packers don't beat themselves much, in other words, so the Cardinals can't afford to be careless with the ball. If so, the Packers offensive will capitalize and this game could turn ugly."
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic raises questions about how long Kurt Warner will continue playing. Bickley: "As kickoff nears, Cardinals fans will become jittery, nervous. There's a lot on the line, maybe even a window of opportunity. But most will take great comfort in their quarterback and wouldn't trade him for anybody in the NFC. Warner has the experience. He has proven himself over and over in pressure situations. He has been to three Super Bowls, and delivered each time. He rates a big edge over the blossoming Aaron Rodgers, who never has participated in a playoff game."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com suggests injuries were bound to strike the Cardinals at some point.
Brian Jennings of the 49ers picks the Packers to beat the Cardinals in a game that could be a blowout, he thinks, if Green Bay can force a couple of turnovers. Jennings: "If the Cardinals can win the turnover battle, they could win this game. Another thing I can’t overlook is Ken Whisenhunt and his coaching staff. They do a great job of preparing their team for the playoffs. But in the end, I’m going to go with Green Bay. I like the Packers to win 27-23. The game is being played indoors, so I think both teams will probably be able to score a lot of points. If the Packers get a couple of turnovers, it could be a blowout. I think the Packers are really the only team out of the wild-card round that can play in the Super Bowl this year."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers and Browns talked about a potential Josh Cribbs deal before the trading deadline, but the sides could not agree on compensation. Maiocco: "Would the 49ers be interested if Cribbs hit the trade market? I'm sure they would. But at what price, I do not know. But let's not get too carried away with disgruntled Cribbs' trade demands. Heck, the trade period does not open until March."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers have spoken with Larry MacDuff about their opening for special-teams coach. MacDuff coached for the 49ers from 2003 to 2006. Bobby April could be another candidate to coach the 49ers' special teams after Al Everest's firing.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks have indicated "president" is not one of the titles "in play" for Pete Carroll. O'Neil: "Carroll will not have final say over all football decisions as it relates to personnel. The Seahawks have told the Fritz Pollard Alliance that -- if Carroll is hired -- he's not the ultimate authority on draft choices and trades. Carroll is going to serve as final authority on the 53-man roster. The Seahawks specified this to the Fritz Pollard Alliance as well."
Also from O'Neil: Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy and Lawrence Jackson vouch for Carroll. Bledsoe: "I can't speak highly enough of Pete as a coach and as a person. I really would have loved to have played for the guy for a bunch of my career."
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune isn't convinced Carroll would be the right person for the job in Seattle. Boling: "If a deal comes together as reported, five years for as high as $35 million, with possible dual titles of head coach and franchise president, Carroll has two immediate requisites: 1) Put together an all-star staff of assistants, most with NFL experience, and 2) hire an indefatigable GM with a track record of personnel success in the NFL."
Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times says the Seahawks could promote pro personnel director Will Lewis to be their general manager.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' special teams showed progress under Tom McMahon. Thomas: "The Rams' league-wide rankings in net punting (second), punt coverage (fourth) and kickoff coverage (22nd) were the highest for the team in the decade. (That's right, a No. 22 ranking on kickoff coverage was a single-season best for the Rams from 2000 through 2009.) The Rams' ranking in kickoff returns (11th) was their second-highest ranking of the decade; gross punting (fourth) was third-best; and punt returns (eighth) was fourth-best."
Also from Thomas: Rams cornerback Ron Bartell says he knew the Rams were not going to succeed right away. Bartell: "I got into it for the long haul. So I knew it was going to take time. ... We still have the right people in place. I totally, firmly believe that. I think I made the best decision for me. I still think we can get this thing turned around."
The Seahawks' decision Saturday to release starting free safety Brian Russell shows strong faith in Jordan Babineaux's playmaking ability as more than just a situational player.
I would expect Babineaux to project as the starter even if the team signs a veteran such as Lawyer Milloy, who played for Seahawks coach Jim Mora in Atlanta. That is my take pending official word from the team. If the team replaces Russell with another older player, what's the point? Babineaux's young legs seem to demand playing time with Russell out.
The move to Babineaux would be exciting for Seattle because his athletic ability offers the potential for more interceptions. The big question, in my view, is whether Babineaux can transfer his playmaking ability from a situational role to a full-time one. Some defensive players -- ex-Seahawk Michael Boulware comes to mind -- made plays in a limited role before failing to show consistency as an every-down player.
Babineaux earned the nickname "Big Play Babs" after making several heads-up plays in critical situations, all off the bench. He tackled Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo following Romo's infamous botched field-goal hold in the playoffs a few years ago, preserving a Seattle victory. Babineaux also picked off former Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the final seconds of a regular-season game, returning the ball far enough to set up the winning field goal. Those were among the examples of his big-play ability.
Russell provided what the Seahawks asked him to provide when they signed him two years ago: assignment-correct football designed to prevent big plays by the opposition. Switching to Babineaux suggests the Seahawks might be more concerned with making their own big plays than simply preventing their opponents from making them.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle compares 49ers coach Mike Nolan to a guy "being given a wedgie by a crane operator." Left unsaid: Ratto is operating the crane, and quite ably, too. This is a rollicking read. The way Ratto sees things, Nolan can't win unless 2005 No. 1 overall draft choice Alex Smith wins the starting QB job and plays well. Almost any other scenario could make Nolan vulnerable. As noted here previously, and again in the chart below, every QB drafted first overall since at least 1967 has started in his fourth NFL season. Smith is looking to avoid becoming an exception to the rule.
Meanwhile, Tom FitzGerald of the Chronicle notes that 49ers owner John York huddled with Nolan following practice. York was predictably vague when reporters stopped him afterward. They asked about Nolan's job security. York wasn't going to go there.
Also from FitzGerald: a story on J.T. O'Sullivan's reemergence as a candidate for the 49ers' starting job. This is turning into theater. I'm half-expecting Jim Plunkett, Steve Spurrier and Norm Snead to take reps with the 49ers in the coming days.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals think rookie tackle Brandon Keith could one day become a starter on their offensive line (see last note in story). Keith is a seventh-round choice from Northern Iowa. The Cardinals have drafted eight offensive linemen this decade and all eight remain in the league. Reggie Wells is probably the best among those who remain with the team. Leonard Davis seems to be better in Dallas. I'll throw in a bonus chart below showing summary information for the Cards' OL picks this decade.
The Associated Press describes Glenn Dorsey's injury in Chiefs camp. Some thought the Rams should have taken Dorsey second overall instead of Chris Long. Others wondered if Dorsey's injury history might make him a risky choice. Every NFL player gets hurt, so we shouldn't read too much into Dorsey's sprained knee. Yet.
Aaron Fentress of the Oregonian describes the Seahawks' pecking order at receiver. After the top three -- Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson and Deion Branch, in no particular order -- Fentress lists Courtney Taylor and Ben Obomanu. He then places Jordan Kent, Logan Payne and undrafted free agent Michael Bumpus as candidates for the sixth spot. I could see Engram, Burleson, Branch, Taylor, Obomanu and Payne if Seattle keeps six. The team has kept between four and seven receivers on its last five opening-day rosters, an average of 5.2 per season. Keeping six would make sense depending on Branch's health.
Jose Romero of the Seattle Times, making a rare appearance on the Belleville News-Democrat's site, says the Seahawks' young receivers generally stepped up during the scrimmage. Coach Mike Holmgren is putting pressure on them to emerge as the fourth, fifth and possibly sixth receivers.