PFF's Top 10 Third-Round Picks, 2008-2012
The third round may be the most intriguing of the NFL draft. It’s the point where casual fans stop seeing names they recognize, and general managers start seeing bargains their colleagues have overlooked. A third-round pick is low enough that the player selected usually has a red flag attached to him, whether it be size, production, or off-field issues. However, it’s high enough that he will almost always make it through training camp with a roster spot. If that red flag turns out to be a non-factor, the team may well have placed a Pro Bowler on their roster. With that in mind, let’s review the most fruitful third-round picks of the past five years.
1. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: No. 75 overall, 2012
While Wilson does not have the track-record of the other players on this list, few rookies in NFL history have so quickly shifted the outlook of an entire franchise like he has in the past year. The Seattle Seahawks, coming off four losing seasons, were searching every avenue for a franchise quarterback when they decided to take Wilson with their third-round pick. Since then, he’s merely made every other NFL team look foolish for passing on him. With a +39.4 grade that tied for fifth-best among quarterbacks, he was much-deserving of our Rookie of the Year award. Even in defeat, his +7.2 grade versus the Atlanta Falcons was the third-highest we’ve ever given a quarterback in a playoff game. The Seahawks are making a lot of noise lately with their offseason acquisitions, but they wouldn’t be able to be so aggressive if they didn’t have the foundation that Wilson established in the past 12 months.
2. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: No. 73 overall, 2008
Coming out of the University of Texas, Charles was never projected to be a feature running back, but he’s proven over the past five years that a bulkload of carries is no requirement for making a big impact in the NFL. His 5.3 average yards per attempt in sporadic duty as a rookie hinted at his potential, and in 2009 the Chiefs stopped muddling around with Larry Johnson early enough for Charles to rush for 1,120 yards on just 190 carries, for a league-leading 5.9 average. Firmly entrenched as the lead halfback in Kansas City, Charles’ +19.6 PFF grade in the 2010 season was the highest we’d ever given a running back up to that point. Lost in the fever over Peterson’s miraculous recovery from knee surgery was that Charles had his own comeback this season. After missing almost all of the 2011 season with an ACL tear, he set a career-high with 1,509 rushing yards and a 42.3 Breakaway Percentage that was third in the NFL. At only 26, he is firmly entrenched in the NFL’s top running back tier.
3. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: No. 95 overall, 2010
For an athletic basketball player trying to transition to tight end in the NFL, there may not be a better place to land than with Drew Brees and Sean Payton. Since the New Orleans Saints staff decided to feature Graham in their offense, the University of Miami product has vaulted into the upper echelon of receiving tight ends. His +21.2 pass play grade in 2011 was second at his position only to Rob Gronkowski, and he led all tight ends with 13 receptions, 388 yards, and four touchdowns on deep passes. Like the rest of the Saints’ roster, Graham had a notable drop in production in 2012, but he improved his run blocking and still led all tight ends with 718 yards from the slot. As he continues to develop under the tutelage of Brees and Payton, Graham will be a force in the passing game for years to come.
4. Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers: No. 84 overall, 2009
Speed was what attracted scouts to Wallace at Ole Miss, and that’s certainly what the wideout has carried over into the NFL. Initially expected to contribute as a returner, Wallace instead collected 756 receiving yards in his rookie season while establishing himself as the NFL’s premier deep threat. Over the next two seasons, Wallace led the NFL with 1,049 yards on deep passes, and his 12 touchdowns on those throws were bested by only Calvin Johnson. With 20 missed tackles in that span, Wallace also proved to be one of the more elusive wideouts in the league. Injuries at the quarterback position killed Wallace’s value in 2012, as he set career lows with just six receptions for 263 yards and four touchdowns on deep targets. However, considering Ryan Tannehill finished ninth among quarterbacks with a 43.1% accuracy on deep passes in 2012, Wallace will certainly have the chance to replicate his former success with the Miami Dolphins.
5. Navorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers: No. 91 overall, 2010
Incidents involving assault and drug use got Bowman into hot water at Penn State and depressed his stock come draft time, leaving him available to the San Francisco 49ers later than expected. Many penciled him in as a backup to the great Patrick Willis, and in Bowman’s rookie season that’s exactly what he was. But once he was given a starting role in 2011, it quickly became tough to tell who was the team’s best inside linebacker. Bowman’s +25.3 grade that season led all ILBs, and his 16.2 Pass Rushing Productivity was the second-best at his position (min. 200 pass rushes). He didn’t slow down much in 2012, when his 61 defensive stops were second only to Derrick Johnson. The 49ers often asked Bowman to drop into coverage, and his 0.59 yards allowed per coverage snap were the lowest rate for any ILB (min. 200 coverage snaps). Bowman has so far left his off-field issues behind, and together he and Willis give the 49ers the NFL’s best inside linebacker tandem.
6. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs: No. 70 overall, 2011
After a successful career at the University of Georgia littered with accolades and awards, Houston was considered a first-round talent heading into the 2011 draft. However, after reports surfaced of a failed drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine, he fell down the boards before the Kansas City Chiefs finally took a chance on him. At first it seemed like the reward wasn’t worth the risk, as Houston tallied just two quarterback hits and three hurries in his first 11 NFL games. But he broke out with three-sacks in Week 13 against the Chicago Bears, and he hasn’t looked back. In his 20 games since then, Houston has 13 sacks and 57 quarterback pressures, and he was third among 3-4 outside linebackers with 28 run stops in 2012. Most importantly for the Chiefs, this budding star has stayed squeaky clean off the field.
7. Lardarius Webb, Baltimore Ravens: No. 88 overall, 2009
Webb had to patiently wait for his opportunity in the NFL, as he came off the bench as a nickel cornerback for his first two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. But a +7.9 grade in four career starts, and a +11.9 grade overall, foreshadowed his future excellence. When he was finally made a starter, he proved to be one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks of the 2011 season. He finished fourth at his position in the regular season with a +16.0 grade, and then added a brilliant effort against the Houston Texans in the playoffs, when he grabbed two interceptions and allowed just one completion for 19 yards on seven targets. Including the playoffs, the 42.0 QB Rating on throws into his coverage was the lowest allowed by any cornerback in the NFL. His 2012 season was cut short with a knee injury, but the healthy return of one of the league’s best cornerbacks could make all of the Ravens’ drama this offseason seem like a distant memory.
8. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans: No. 77 overall, 2011
Casey may not be a household name outside of Nashville, but he’s been one of the league’s best interior run defenders since he stepped onto an NFL field. He immediately grabbed a starting role for the Tennessee Titans, playing 71.6% of his team’s snaps in his NFL debut, and finished second on the team with 35 defensive stops in his rookie season. He then upped his game in his sophomore campaign, when his 29 run stops led all NFL defensive tackles. He has yet to develop a pass rush, but getting an elite run-stopper for a third-round pick is a deal any general manager would be happy to take.
9. Jared Veldheer, Oakland Raiders: No. 69 overall, 2010
The Oakland Raiders’ left tackle spot was a black hole (yes, pun intended) when the franchise made Veldheer the first player drafted out of Hillside College since 1980. However, after the small-school standout surrendered eight sacks and earned a -18.5 grade as a rookie, Veldheer has evolved into Oakland’s best lineman and one of the better left tackles in the league. His +38.7 grade over the past two seasons ranks him eighth among tackles, and he’s proved himself against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL. His most admirable performance of 2012 came in Week 14 against the Denver Broncos, when he excelled in the running game and held Elvis Dumervil to a blank stat sheet.
10. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions: No. 92 overall, 2008
Despite a pedigree in Purdue’s “Den of Defensive Ends,” many scouts considered Avril too small to be a full-time DE in the NFL. He rebuffed the doubters by seizing a starting role in his rookie season with the Detroit Lions, and then realized his full potential in 2010 when his +17.4 grade and 12.5 Pass Rushing Productivity ranked among the best marks at his position. A big step back in 2012, when he labored with a back injury and plummeted to a -11.6 grade, robbed him of a big payday this offseason. However, in landing on a strong defensive unit with the Seattle Seahawks, Avril has a prime opportunity to return to the upper tier of pass rushers.
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