Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
19 Mar 2010
by Sean McCormick
In 2004, Football Outsiders published its first "Six Years Later" review of a past NFL draft. That article reviewed the pick of the elder Manning brother as the NFL world prepared for the arrival of the younger Manning brother. Now it's 2010, and we're finally in position to look back on Manning vs. Rivers and the other debates of the first draft we actually got to discuss here at FO.
The top of every draft class is hyped to the moon in the run-up to draft day, but nearly everyone agreed that the 2004 class was something special. It had a Manning and a Winslow. It had the "U." It had top quarterbacks, elite cornerbacks, and explosive wide receivers by the bushel. Yep, by all accounts, this draft class was going to take the NFL by storm. But did it? Let's go back and look at the good picks, the bad picks, and the things every general manager knows now and wishes he knew then. (And if you want to see what reporters and draft analysts thought they knew then -- even though now we know that they didn't know what they thought they knew -- check out the first-ever version of another annual FO tradition, the FO Draft Report Card Report.)
Conventional wisdom: There were three elite prospects in this draft class, with each one providing a little something different. Did you want a guy with impeccable bloodlines? All you had to do was select Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning, the son of former No. 2 overall pick Archie Manning and the younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick Peyton Manning. Did you want a four-year starter whose intelligence and character reminded scouts of a young Tom Brady? North Carolina State's Philip Rivers was your guy. Did you want a 6-foot-5 specimen with an unpronounceable name and the best physical tools of the bunch? There was one of those, too, thanks to Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger.
Highest pick: Eli Manning, Ole Miss, first overall to the Chargers
Best player: The big cliche with picking from the top group of prospects is that you can't go wrong with any of these guys, and while it almost never works out that way, it did in 2004. No quarterback class, not even the famous class of 1983, can outshine the performance of Rivers, Roethlisberger, and Manning, who have combined for three Super Bowl championships, a bevy of playoff appearances and oodles and oodles of yards. Rivers has been the most prolific, Roethlisberger the most iconic, and Manning the most controversial, but it's safe to say that all three players are the centerpieces of their respective franchises. Reporters and draftniks were fairly split over whether or not the Chargers made the right move when they swapped Manning for Rivers and picks. Ron Borges made himself look like, well, Ron Borges when he wrote, "It's not easy to have the first pick in the draft and still blow it, but the Chargers managed to do so." He slapped San Diego with a "D" grade. Pete Prisco and Dan Pompeii, in contrast, loved the trade and approved of what the Chargers did with their extra picks. Midway through the 2006 season, when the Giants were struggling and the Chargers were pounding everyone in sight, this was looking like one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory, but with the precipitous decline of Shawne Merriman, the scales have evened out a bit.
Biggest bust: J.P. Losman, Tulane, 22nd overall to the Bills. After missing out on the studs at the top of the draft, the Bills traded back up into the first round to take the Tulane gunslinger. Losman was small, but had a cannon arm and a reputation for great athleticism. As it turns out, a cannon arm and great athleticism are overrated if you can't make quick decisions with the ball and take sacks like the second coming of Rob Johnson. Losman put together some highlight-reel deep throws to Lee Evans, but he never developed into a dependable field general.
Best value: Matt Schaub, Virginia, 90th overall to the Falcons. Schaub was the best quarterback in Atlanta from the moment he was drafted, but he was doomed to ride the pine behind Michael Vick for the foreseeable future. (How ironic that one looks in hindsight.) The Texans were shopping for a quarterback after deciding they'd had enough of the David Carr experience, and they sent a 2007 second-round pick to Atlanta for Schaub. Many touchdown throws to Andre Johnson later, that move looks pretty good; last year, Schaub even kicked the injury bug and started all 16 games for the first time.
Conventional wisdom: The consensus top back in the class was Oregon State's Steven Jackson, who was considered a franchise back and worthy of a high first-round pick. The only question was if there was a team at the top of the draft whose needs matched up with Jackson's talents. Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones was an intriguing player who had the potential to slip into the back end of the first round, and both Michigan's Chris Perry and Florida State's Greg Jones each had their fans among NFL scouting departments.
Highest pick: Steven Jackson, Oregon State, 24th overall to the Rams.
Best player: Jackson. Once Jackson started to slip, most people assumed the Cowboys would take advantage at pick 23, but Bill Parcells opted to trade down and select Julius Jones in the second round. Oops. The Rams scooped up Jackson with the next pick. Sometimes top backs are lucky to slide a bit in the draft. The position has a short shelf-life, and the backs get to go straight to competitive teams rather than waste their best years getting obliterated behind bad offensive lines while they wait for the team to improve. Jackson no doubt had visions of being the feature back that carried the Greatest Show on Turf through the end of the decade. Instead, the Rams promptly fell off a cliff, and Jackson was left to get obliterated behind a bad offensive line for five years, and without the comfort of a top-five contract to soothe the aches and pains. We're rooting for Steve Spagnuolo to get the Rams turned around quickly, if only to reward Jackson for his thankless service.
Biggest bust: Chris Perry, Michigan, 26th overall to the Bengals. This pick looked fishy at the time, as the Bengals had effective power runner Rudi Johnson already on the roster. Perry was supposed to add a reliable receiving threat out of the backfield for Carson Palmer, but he only appeared in 35 of 80 games due to injuries, and he put up DVOA ratings of -20.8% and -55.2% during the two seasons when he actually caught passes.
Best value: Michael Turner, Northern Illinois, 154th overall to the Chargers. Turner was drafted to provide quality depth behind Ladanian Tomlinson, but he flashed such ability during his limited touches that it was only a matter of time until a team decided to make Turner a feature back. The Falcons made the investment, giving Turner a contract commensurate with a star rather than a rotational player, and in his first season in Atlanta, Turner rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. If Turner can steer clear of future overuse, he figures to throw up impressive stats for several more years.
Conventional wisdom: This was considered to be the deepest position in the entire draft, as evidenced by the NFL-record seven receivers who were selected in the first round. Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald was the jewel of the group, a physically dominating talent capable of playing in any offense. Outside of the top five, there were still plenty of options. Wisconsin's Lee Evans and LSU's Devery Henderson were speed receivers capable of getting behind NFL defenders. Texas' Roy Williams and LSU's Michael Clayton big, physical frames to block out defensive backs. Rashaun Woods was a dominant receiver at the college level, but while some scouts marveled at his production, others were concerned that he was a system player who would struggle to transition to the pros.
Highest pick: Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh, third overall to the Cardinals.
Best player: Fitzgerald. With the inevitable aging of Randy Moss, Fitzgerald has emerged as one of the two most physically dominant receivers in the NFL (the other being Andre Johnson). Fitzgerald doesn't have the pure raw speed of other elite receivers, but he has good football speed, as evidenced by his 63-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII. More importantly, he has the best set of hands and the best body control of any receiver in recent memory. He can catch the ball despite a defender having perfect position on him.
Biggest bust: Rashaun Woods, Oklahoma State, 31st overall to the 49ers. Woods looked the part of a big-time wide receiver at OSU, setting Big 12 records in receptions, yardage and touchdowns, but his professional career went off the rails almost immediately and never recovered. In his first mini-camp, there were whispers that Woods wasn't smart enough to pick up the offense. He finished his rookie season with only seven receptions for 160 yards and spent his sophomore year on injured reserve with torn ligaments. The 49ers decided they'd seen enough and traded Woods in 2006 to San Diego for cornerback Sammy Davis, but Woods didn't even make it out of the Chargers' training camp.
Best value: Bernard Berrian, Fresno State, 78th overall to the Bears and Jerricho Cotchery, North Carolina State, 108th overall to the Jets. Berrian's ability as a deep threat was somewhat obscured by the poor quality of his quarterbacks, but he had a breakout season during Chicago's 2006 Super Bowl run and was able to parlay that into a six-year, $42 million contract with the Vikings. Cotchery doesn't make that kind of coin, but he's been a steady performer since assuming a starting role in 2006.
Conventional wisdom: With the emergence of the pass-catching tight end who could split wide or play on the line and attack the seam of a two-deep zone, teams started to place a higher premium on the position. That higher premium meant that teams were willing to consider drafting tight ends in the rarified air of the top five or six picks in the draft -- a place traditionally reserved for quarterbacks, left tackles, defensive ends, and whatever receiver Matt Millen happened to covet that year. The test case for how high a tight end could go was University of Miami star Kellen Winslow, who was the son of a Hall of Famer and a better talent than fellow-Hurricane Jeremy Shockey ever was. Herm Edwards declared Winslow to be the best player in the entire draft. While no other tight end prospect was close to getting a green room invitation, there were several highly regarded prospects, including Florida's Ben Troupe, Ohio State's Ben Hartsock and Georgia's Benjamin Watson.
Highest pick: Kellen Winslow Jr., Miami, 6th overall to the Browns
Best player: Chris Cooley, Utah State, 81st overall to the Redskins. One could make an argument for Winslow, who has been dynamic when he's been healthy and paired with a competent quarterback, but you could count the times that has happened on one hand (and still have four fingers left over). Instead of the star-crossed "soldier" with his broken fibulas and staph infections (not to mention motorcycle accidents), we'll go with Cooley, a two-time Pro Bowler and blogosphere all-star. Cooley first emerged as a quality receiving threat out of the H-back position midway through his rookie season, and he maintained his production until last season when he was sidelined by a broken ankle.
Biggest bust: Ben Troupe, University of Florida, 40th overall to the Titans. Troupe was considered a poor man's version of Winslow when he came out of Florida, but he was never able to climb above second-string on the Tennessee depth chart, and after brief and undistinguished stints with Tampa Bay and Oakland, Troupe washed out of the league altogether.
Best values: It sure isn't Winslow, who cost the Browns first- and second-round picks and then gave them only two full seasons and two near-total injury washouts. Cooley, clearly.
Conventional wisdom: Iowa's Robert Gallery was the next great tackle prospect, a superb technician who would make a seamless transition to the pros and add his name to the list of highly drafted success stories like Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace. After Gallery, there was a major drop-off, as there were question marks with every other tackle prospect and a paucity of interior line talent. Arkansas' Shawn Andrews was a giant road-grader with nimble feet, but his weight issues were a major red flag for interested parties. Miami's Vernon Carey was a solid player on an elite offensive unit who didn't project clearly to a position. It was thought that he might be a left tackle, might be a right tackle, or might fit best at guard.
Highest pick: Robert Gallery, Iowa, second overall to the Raiders.
Best player: Chris Snee, Boston College, 34th overall to the Giants. Snee was engaged to coach Tom Coughlin's daughter at the time the Giants opted to select him at the top of the second round (then general manager Ernie Accorsi said he would not have made the selection if Coughlin was uncomfortable with it), and it would be easy to criticize Coughlin for showing signs of nepotism if the pick didn't pan out. But the pick did pan out, as Snee grabbed hold of the right guard job as a rookie and has shown no signs of relinquishing it. Snee was named All-Pro in 2008 and 2009, and he helped the Giants post the best ALY between the tackles in 2008.
Biggest bust: Robert Gallery. Draft experts used names like Anthony Muñoz and Tony Boselli to show that that left tackle was the safest position in the draft and to justify taking Gallery with a top pick, but they conveniently left out the name Tony Mandarich'. But Mandarich is the player whose pro career has most closely resembled Gallery's. Gallery's technical skill and the relative dearth of quality pass rushers in the Big Ten camouflaged the fact that he simply wasn't quick enough out of his stance to take away the outside edge from NFL defensive ends. The Raiders flipped Gallery back and forth between left and right tackle, desperately trying to find a position for him. In the end, they accepted reality and shifted him inside to guard, where his slow feet would be less of an impediment. Like Mandarich, Gallery has developed into an acceptable interior player, but that's not exactly what you're looking for from the second pick in the draft.
Best values: Jake Scott and Jacob Bell have both been consistent and productive interior players in the AFC South, and both players were selected after the fourth round. Both players were in demand in last year's free agent crop, with Bell moving from Tennessee to St. Louis, and Scott sliding into Bell's old spot with the Titans.
Conventional wisdom: This was not one of the stronger defensive line crops in recent memory, and despite the high demand for pass rushers, there was no lineman who was expected to go anywhere near the top of the draft. The best prospect was probably Oklahoma's Tommie Harris, a lightning quick three-technique defensive tackle with a propensity for showing up on the injury report. Miami's Vince Wilfork was a mountain of a man with the build to play the nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. USC's Kenechi Udeze and Ohio State's Will Smith were both well-rounded defensive ends who didn't have the pure pass-rushing skills to be taken in the top half of the round. Jason Babin did have those skills, but he was considered a wild card because of the low level of competition he faced at Western Michigan.
Highest pick: Tommie Harris, Oklahoma, 14th overall to the Bears.
Best player: Vince Wilfork, University of Miami, 21st overall to the Patriots. The Belichick-era Patriots have a well-deserved reputation for trotting out aging veterans on defense, but that's only true of linebackers and defensive backs. Wilfork completed New England's starting trio of young first-round linemen, sliding immediately into Ted Washington's spot and proved every bit as stout at the point of attack. The Patriots just committed $40 million dollars, including $18 million guaranteed, to make sure that Wilfork will continue to man the center of their defense for another five years.
Biggest bust: Kenechi Udeze, Southern California, 20th overall to the Vikings. Udeze went one pick before Wilfork, and at the time, he seemed like a perfect fit for the pass-rush starved Vikings. Udeze played well as a rookie, notching 36 tackles and five sacks, but a knee injury cut short his sophomore season after only three games. Udeze started for another two seasons, but he was never able to improve on his rookie sack total. In 2008, Udeze was diagnosed with leukemia, a development which forced his retirement from football.
Best value: Darnell Dockett, Florida State, 64th overall to the Cardinals and Corey Williams, Arkansas State, 179th overall to the Packers. The Cardinals made it three-for-three in the 2004 draft when they selected Dockett at the top of the third round. The Florida State defensive tackle was undersized but proved to be extremely disruptive, as he proved to a national audience during an MVP-caliber performance in Super Bowl XLIII. Corey Williams played well enough in his first few seasons in Green Bay to convince Cleveland that he was a blossoming star and worth trading a second-round pick for, but he proved to be a bad fit as a 3-4 end in Cleveland's system, so they traded him to Detroit this offseason for nickels on the dollar . Jim Schwartz's scheme should be a lot friendlier for Williams, who could easily rebound to the form he showed as a Packer (sticking Ndamokung Suh next to him wouldn't hurt).
(Ed. Note: Yes, as noted below in the comments, the original article completely forgot Jared Allen. Sorry about that.)
Conventional wisdom: The top two linebackers on the board were a pair of Hurricanes, each with a distinctly different skills. Jonathan Vilma was a fast but undersized middle linebacker whose instincts reminded draft analysts of Ray Lewis. D.J. Williams had prototype size to go along with his blazing speed and was devastating in run support, but there were some questions about how instinctive he was. Georgia Tech's Daryl Smith, Oklahoma's Teddy Lehman, and Auburn's Karlos Dansby were considered second-round prospects.
Highest pick: Jonathan Vilma, Miami, 12th overall to the Jets.
Best player: Karlos Dansby, Auburn, 33rd overall to the Cardinals. Dansby proved to be a tremendously versatile linebacker who rarely needed to come off the field. He is equally adept at run support and pass coverage and is a willing and capable blitzer. After being franchised by the Cardinals for two consecutive years, Dansby entered this offseason as the second-most attractive player on the free agent market behind Julius Peppers. Miami quickly rewarded Dansby with a five-year, $43 million contract, and they'll play him on the inside of their 3-4 next to Channing Crowder.
Biggest bust: Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma, 37th overall to the Lions. Lehman was a star for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, winning the Dick Butkus award as the nation's top linebacker his senior season, but he simply could not hold up to the pounding of the NFL game. After starting all 16 games his rookie season, Lehman's career degenerated into a long string of injuries and ineffective seasons. He bounced around from Detroit to Tampa Bay, back to Detroit, to Buffalo, and finally to the UFL.
Best value: Dansby.
Conventional wisdom: This was considered to be a very strong group of cornerbacks, with both top-end talent and depth. Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall, South Carolina's Dunta Robinson and Ohio State's Chris Gamble were the headliners. Players like USC's Will Poole, Oklahoma's Derrick Strait, Montana State's Joey Thomas and Arkansas' Ahmad Carroll added depth to the group and convinced teams that they could find potential starters at any point during the first day. The crown jewel among the secondary players, however, was Miami's Sean Taylor. Taylor was the mirror image of his teammate Kellen Winslow Jr. -- a big, fast, rangy safety who had the ability to lock up the new breed of tight ends with close man coverage or to drop back and play centerfield in a Cover-1 look. Many scouts thought Taylor to be the most talented player in the draft. Georgia's Sean Jones and Iowa's Bob Sanders were also quality safety prospects, likely second-round picks.
Highest pick: Sean Taylor, University of Miami, fifth overall to the Redskins.
Best player: Bob Sanders, Iowa, 44th overall to the Colts. Taylor never did revolutionize the position, but he did turn out to be an excellent player -- until he was tragically murdered in his Miami home during the course of a robbery. Otherwise, he might have had a longer career and more value than Sanders, the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year. The knock on him at Iowa was that he was undersized and potentially too fragile to hold up in the NFL. He has done nothing to disprove that notion.
Biggest bust: Ahmad Carroll, Arkansas, 25th overall to the Packers. Carroll's nickname coming out of college was Batman, but he should have been called Robin considering the way he constantly had yellow flags tossed in his direction. Carroll was a walking pass interference call during his stay in Green Bay. He's currently the fifth corner in New York behind such luminary talents as Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman.
Best value: Gibril Wilson, Tennessee, 136th overall to the Giants. Wilson looked like a pretty sweet pickup for the Giants early on, a second-day selection who came on and became a competent starter for four seasons, chipped 11 interceptions and a half-dozen sacks along the way. Good value, right? Needless to say, this convinced Al Davis to make him the third-highest paid safety in the NFL. He spent a year cleaning up the mess left by the rest of the Raiders' poor run defense, then got cut. The Dolphins snapped Wilson up, gave him a spin for a year, then decided they'd seen enough and cut him as well, which just goes to show that once you go through the Al Davis vortex, you may never fully recover.
Conventional wisdom: Not a banner year. The reigning award-winners were Jon Nichols of Ole Miss (Lou Groza Award) and B.J. Sander of Ohio State (Ray Guy Award).
Highest pick: Nate Kaeding, University of Iowa, 65th overall to the Chargers.
Best player: Chosen with one of the picks acquired in the Manning-Rivers trade, Kaeding ranked among the league's top placekickers but inexplicably melted down during this year's playoff game against the Jets. Don't take specialists in the third round, people.
Biggest bust: B.J. Sander, Ohio State, 87th overall to the Packers. Green Bay inexplicably traded a fifth-rounder to Miami to move up and grab Sander, who despite winning the Ray Guy Award had only started for one year in college. It was the only time since 1985 that a team has traded up in order to select a punter. Sander spent his whole rookie year inactive, was the worst punter in the league in this second season, and never played in the league again. Don't take specialists in the third round, people.
Best value: Josh Scobee, Louisiana Tech, 137th overall to the Jaguars. Scobee's field-goal performance has been up and down, but he's been one of the top kickoff men in the league for six years. Scobee's been about 98 percent of the player that Kaeding has been, and all the Jaguars needed was the patience to wait two and a half rounds. Don't take specialists in the third round, people.