First-Round Failures: 2008-2012
In spite of all the hours of breaking down tape, crunching the numbers from the combine and pro days, and giving players the eye-ball test at regular season and postseason all-star games, sometimes NFL teams just get it wrong in the first round of the draft and things don’t pan out for them. With the new CBA coming in midway through the PFF era some draft misses don’t cost as much as they used to, but getting it wrong early is still a missed opportunity to add to the strength of your roster.
We’re never ones to just praise those that do it right, and this time we’re going to take an opportunity to highlight and discuss the 10 most spectacular first-round misses in the past five years. Will your team feature prominently, or has it done a good enough job on draft weekend to be spared a mention on this list? Read on to find out.
1. Vernon Gholston, New York Jets: No. 6 overall, 2008
Misses don’t get much further wide of the mark than this one from the New York Jets, surely one of the worst draft picks of all time. Gholston came in with with a blend of speed and power to make him an elite pass rusher in Eric Mangini’s 3-4 defense, and a reputation as the man who showed Jake Long was only ever going to be a right tackle in the NFL. A new head coach and 602 snaps later and Gholston was out of the NFL with nothing but a whimper. In three seasons he recorded only two quarterback hits (to go with 15 hurries) with the Jets, and precisely zero quarterback sacks. Gholston has been on two different NFL rosters in the past two years but has never made it out of August without being cut — can he make it three straight seasons this summer?
Here’s who you could have drafted: Joe Flacco
2. Aaron Maybin, Buffalo Bills: No. 11 overall, 2009
Maybin is perhaps only spared the top rank thanks to the five spots lower that he was drafted just a year after the Jets’ abortive selection of Gholston in 2008. Maybin had more impact in his career than Gholston, but perhaps less for the team that drafted him than even Gholston managed — he was jettisoned after only two seasons ( and only 329 snaps) at Orchard Park. Like Gholston, Maybin recorded only two career hits and zero sacks with the team that drafted him before having his best season as a pro as Gholston’s de facto replacement in New York. Many questions were raised about Maybin’s credentials coming out of Penn State with only two seasons under his belt, and he didn’t answer any of those questions in the positive for the Bills.
Here’s who you could have drafted: Brian Orakpo
3. Kentwan Balmer, San Francisco 49ers: No. 29 overall, 2008
Rounding out the Top 3 is another player who contributed absolutely nothing to the team that drafted him and was cut before he even played 400 snaps. Between them, Gholston, Maybin, and Balmer combined to play only 1,296 snaps for their original teams, and Balmer, in spite of playing marginally more snaps than Maybin managed in Buffalo, may just be the most anonymous player on our list. Balmer never got close to pushing aside the likes of Ray McDonald (a third-round pick the previous season) and Isaac Sopoaga, whilE managing to earn a -8.3 grade across his two seasons by the bay. A detour to division rival Seattle proved even more disastrous in 2010 (-18.6 season grade) and the 27 snaps he played for the Redskins in 2011 were the final installment of an NFL career that was closed when he left Redskins’ camp without a word early in August last year.
Here’s who you could have drafted: Jordy Nelson
4. Larry English, San Diego Chargers: No. 16 overall, 2009
Blown draft picks are all the more galling when they’re quickly followed by a far more successful selection. Nowhere is that more true than with the Chargers’ selection of Larry English in 2009, which was followed 10 picks later by the Green Bay Packers’ selection of Clay Matthews. Rather than getting one of the league’s elite 3-4 outside linebackers to add to a corps that at the time boasted a declining Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips struggling to fill that void, the Chargers added a player who was so bad in his rookie season (-24.7) that he has never been trusted to play 200 snaps in his three years with the Chargers.
Here’s who you could have drafted: Clay Matthews
5. Derrick Harvey, Jacksonville Jaguars: No. 8 overall, 2008
Look away now Jacksonville fans, the end of this segment on your team’s pick of Derrick Harvey really isn’t pretty. At the time the Jaguars were coming off a road playoff victory and they felt they needed to add a difference-making defensive end. They thought they found a bargain giving up some mid-round picks to move up 18 spots to select Derrick Harvey as the Ravens re-positioned to grab Joe Flacco. Harvey was a local product as well, so when he was a hit surely the local fan base would be even prouder to have a Florida Gator alum leading their defensive line into the next decade. The plan was flawless on paper, but games aren’t played on paper and Harvey never produced for the Jaguars. After a solid debut (+1.6, 3 hurries) things tailed off quickly and the best part of his stay in Jacksonville was his run defense (at times) in his second season there in 2009. For a team so devoid of talent right now there was a real core of a team available for them, including a pass rusher, if they had stood firm at 26 and left the Ravens to take Flacco at No. 8.
Here’s who you could have drafted at No.8: Ryan Clady
Staying put could have meant: Duane Brown (No. 26), Cliff Avril (No. 71), Tyvon Branch (No. 89) and Josh Sitton (No. 125)
6. Aaron Curry, Seattle Seahawks: No. 4 overall, 2009
That fabled ‘safe pick’, next in the line of Robert Gallery for players that were never going to be a bust, and did just that. At least part of that 2009 pre-draft hype was right — there were some really risky picks to be made at the top end of the first round. However, the talk was completely wrong about Curry who flamed out in Seattle at an alarming rate. Two-and-a-half years later Curry was traded to Oakland for a seventh-round selection, and just over a year later, having spent much of this season on the PUP list, he was cut adrift by the Raiders. Some fall from grace for the safest pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. Curry simply never did enough to impress in run defense, or coverage, with the Seahawks.
Here’s who you could have drafted: Brian Cushing
7. Chris Williams, Chicago Bears: No. 14 overall, 2008
When offensive tackles flame out in the NFL they are always in danger of falling victim to the double ignominy of failing at two positions, and that is precisely the fate that befell Chris Williams with the Chicago Bears. Only the Bears’ complete lack of talent on the offensive line in the past five years kept Williams around this long. He got off to a bad start with the Bears in his rookie season, failing to unseat John St. Clair in 2008 and, after showing promise in the second half of 2009 (+10.1 from Week 11), things unraveled for him in 2010. In spite of that fine finish to the 2009 season the Bears got trigger happy at left tackle after one bad start and an injury. Williams was unseated at left tackle by Frank Omiyale and never settled at left guard, unable in particular to cut it as a run blocker on the interior.
Here’s who you could have drafted: Branden Albert
8. Lawrence Jackson, Seattle Seahawks: N0. 28 overall, 2008
Sometimes you draft a solid player and things just don’t work out at that first stop. Such was the case with Jackson and the Seattle Seahawks. His subsequent seasons in Detroit show the Seahawks’ scouts were right to see something in Jackson, but on the field the fit with Seattle was quite spectacularly wrong. You won’t see many seasons graded worse than Jackson’s -24.1 in 2008, and though his 2009 season was better (-7.7) it still wasn’t good enough to keep him around when his college coach Pete Carroll rocked up to the pacific northwest. In two seasons in Seattle he earned a pass rush grade of -24.4, while his next two seasons in Detroit saw him earn a pass rush grade of +9.4. Sometimes the player and the team just don’t fit, even if they can subsequently have success apart.
Here’s who you could have drafted: Matt Forte
9. Chris “Beanie” Wells, Arizona Cardinals: No. 31 overall, 2009
What happens when you add a one-dimensional power back to an extremely pass heavy team? You get Beanie Wells’ career in Arizona, a tenure blighted by fumbles and a lack of trust from an offensive staff that limited his ability to get on the field. Wells was never blessed with running behind good offensive lines, and he didn’t grade positively as a ballcarrier after his rookie season, although he did earn a +2.0 grade on 195 carries as he played his role in getting the Cardinals back to the playoffs. In his final season with the Cardinals, Wells averaged only 1.4 yards per carry after contact and broke only six tackles on 88 carries.
Here’s who you could have drafted: Max Unger
10. Jerry Hughes, Indianapolis Colts: No. 31 overall, 2010
Rounding out our Top 10 is the leap of faith into the 2010 NFL Draft for a player who simply never looked like coming close to being worth a first-round pick, even a selection at the tail end of the round. Hughes was joining a crowded pass rushing corps when he joined the Colts, but even so getting less than 250 snaps from a first-round pick in his first two seasons is either poor returns, poor planning or a combination of both. With a new regime installed for the 2012 season Hughes finally saw more snaps (628), but he didn’t deliver, grading only just above average as a pass rusher (+1.4) while proving to be a weak point in run defense (-4.9) and committing seven penalties (jumping offsides six times). However, with the Colts’ somewhat dubious addition of Erik Walden, and barring a draft pick adding competition, Hughes’ story in Indianapolis may not yet have written its final entry.
Here’s who you could have drafted: T.J. Ward
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben