Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Apr 2005

1999 NFL Draft: Six Years Later

by Michael David Smith

"I think Cade McNown's going to be good. Really good."

-- Peter King, April 18, 1999

"I think Tim Couch will be the most successful QB in the next few years because he'll have the best coaching."

-- Paul Zimmerman, April 20, 1999

I include these quotes not to pick on King or Zimmerman, but merely to point out that it's next to impossible to determine which college players will have NFL success. There's not an expert in the entire football reporting world who can consistently spot the best picks.

To judge a draft with any degree of accuracy, you need half a dozen years of on-field performance to assess. And that's what we're doing here with our second annual draft review, this time of the 1999 selection meeting. (You can also read The 1998 Draft, Six Years Later, written in 2004.)

It was one of the most exciting first rounds in memory, and it was the year of the quarterback. Like the great class of 1983, the class of 1999 was supposed to provide numerous teams with stars at the position for years to come. And like the class of 1983, the 1999 quarterback class had a couple of future Hall of Famers as well as some serious busts.

What's so fun about the '99 draft is all the debates that went with it. The big question was which of the quarterbacks would be the best: Tim Couch of Kentucky (selected first by the Browns), Donovan McNabb of Syracuse (selected second by the Eagles), Akili Smith of Oregon (selected third by the Bengals), Daunte Culpepper of Central Florida (selected 11th by the Vikings), or Cade McNown of UCLA (selected 12th by the Bears)?

But don't forget the hot dispute about the top running back: Edgerrin James of Miami (selected fourth by the Colts) or Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams of Texas (selected fifth by the Saints)? And who was the best defensive player in an offense-heavy draft: Cornerback Champ Bailey of Georgia (selected seventh by the Redskins), linebacker Chris Claiborne of USC (selected ninth by the Lions), or cornerback Chris McAlister of Arizona (selected 10th by the Ravens)?

We'll answer those questions and more as we pass out some awards from the 1999 draft. All the picks are listed here.

Worst picks that looked good at the time: Andy Katzenmoyer of Ohio State was a great athlete but not a very smart football player. In college everyone seemed willing to overlook his mental lapses and how often he took himself out of position because he showed such great strength and quickness. But in the pros he never amounted to anything. The Patriots took him 28th overall.

Aaron Gibson, the behemoth offensive lineman from Wisconsin, seemed like a natural in Bobby Ross's offense. But injuries constantly hounded him, Ross didn't stay in Detroit long, and Gibson became a journeyman.

James Johnson was a pretty lousy running back out of Mississippi State and was a bizarre choice at No. 39 for the Dolphins. Obviously, this means no team should take an SEC running back.

Best picks that looked bad at the time: Most observers thought the Colts erred by taking Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams. Even if Williams hadn't retired, no one now could dispute that James has been the better player.

Ditto with the Rams taking Torry Holt of North Carolina State over David Boston of Ohio State. Both have great talent, but Holt has become a great receiver while Boston has become a steroid-fueled troublemaker.

Not many draft observers had North Dakota tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser going in the high second round, but the Vikings took him at pick No. 44 and he's become the perfect H-back for the Vikings' attack.

Worst pick that everyone knew was a bad pick: What was Dennis Green thinking when Minnesota chose Dimitrius Underwood 29th overall? And why did Mike Holmgren think Lamar King had so much talent that he could go from Saginaw Valley State to the NFL and was worth the 22nd pick overall?

Best draft: No team really stands out, but I'll go with the Bills, who took Antoine Winfield in the first round, Peerless Price in the second, Shawn Bryson in the third, Keith Newman in the fourth, Jay Foreman in the fifth, and Bryce Fisher in the seventh. So that means the Bills win our award for best draft and our award for worst job of hanging on to their players, seeing as every single one of these guys now plays elsewhere.

Worst draft: It has to be the Browns v2.0, who in their first draft were given the first pick in every round plus a bunch of extra selections and got next to nothing. Couch was a major disappointment, second-round pick Kevin Johnson was just OK, and despite all those extra picks they didn't give their roster any depth.

Best second-day picks: Rosevelt Colvin of Purdue, a defensive end taken in the middle of the fourth round, No. 111 overall, by the Bears.

Olandis Gary of Georgia, taken at the end of the fourth round, No. 127 overall, by the Broncos, had a good enough rookie season that he deserves mention here, even though hasn't done anything since.

Virginia quarterback Aaron Brooks, taken at the end of the fourth round, No. 131 overall, by the Packers, has turned into a solid (although occasionally overrated) starter in New Orleans.

Desmond Clark, a tight end from Wake Forest, was well worth the 179th overall pick that the Broncos spent on him. Donald Driver of Alcorn State was a nice pick by the Packers at No. 213 overall. So were Jermaine Haley, a defensive tackle out of Butte Junior College, taken at No. 232 overall by Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins, and center Todd McClure of LSU, taken by the Falcons at No. 237 overall.

Biggest disappointments: Let me confess that I thought Cecil Collins, taken by Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins with the first pick of the fifth round, would be a stud. Even before Collins went to jail he was nothing better than mediocre. I also really liked John Tait when I saw him as a pass blocker at BYU. He's turned into a good pass blocker in the NFL, but suffice to say he didn't learn much run blocking at BYU.

Best change of position: Jerry Azumah of New Hampshire was a running back who the Bears chose No. 147 overall with the plans to turn him into a defensive back. He hasn't been great on defense, but he's turned into quite a return man.

Worst second-day assessment: Many people, including Dr. Z, thought California-Davis quarterback Kevin Daft, taken 151st overall by the Titans, was going to be one of the steals of the draft. He was a steal if you define "steal" as "guy who has had some good games in NFL Europe."

Worst trade: Dan Reeves' decision to send a 2000 first-round pick to Baltimore in exchange for a 1999 second-round pick. The player Reeves wanted with that 1999 second rounder? Reggie Kelly, a tight end from Mississippi State who after six years doesn't even have 1,000 receiving yards for his career.

Trade that benefited the team you wouldn't expect: The main beneficiary of Mike Ditka's obsession with Ricky Williams was not the Redskins, who made the initial deal with the Saints. It turned out to be the Bears, who in a subsequent deal with the Redskins acquired many of the Saints' picks. For all the picks they got, the Redskins didn't have a great draft. Champ Bailey was a good first pick overall and Jon Jansen, the second pick, is a solid tackle. But their other four picks were disappointments: Nate Stimson, Derek Smith, Jeff Hall, and Tim Alexander.

The Bears, on the other hand, had a lousy draft at the top, using their first choice on McNown and their second pick on defensive tackle Russell Davis. But thanks in part to their former coach Mr. Ditka, the Bears were able to snag a number of good players in the middle rounds who would end up playing important roles on their 13-3 team in 2001, including OT Rex Tucker, WR Marty Booker, LB Warrick Holdman and Rosevelt Colvin, and CB/return ace Jerry Azumah.

Player that I am contractually obligated to mention when writing for Football Outsiders: Sean Morey, the only player in the NFL who went to Brown University with Aaron, Al, Benjy, and Jason, was taken No. 241 by the New England Patriots and is still in the league as a special teamer six years later.

If you buy a jersey with the first round draft pick's name on the back, you may want to keep the receipt: Only ten players from the first round of the 1999 draft are still with the teams that drafted them -- McNabb, James, Holt, McAlister, Culpepper, Booger McFarland, Luke Petitgout, L.J. Shelton, Patrick Kerney, and Al Wilson.

Final strange 1999 draft fact: This year's Denver Broncos will start three players from the first round of this draft on their defense -- Wilson (31st, Denver), Bailey (7th, Washington), and Ebenezer Ekuban (20th, Dallas).

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 12 Apr 2005

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