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.
03 Apr 2012
by Tom Gower
It's time, once again, to step in the Football Outsiders Wayback Machine and look at the draft that happened six years ago. The customary "report card" report indicates that in those days of yore, the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns were praised for their drafting savvy, while the Houston Texans' decision to draft a defensive end rather than a running back with the first overall pick was deemed deeply controversial.
Many of the headlines surrounding that draft involved the running back the Texans passed on, Reggie Bush, and his Southern California teammates on The Greatest Team of All Time (until they inconveniently lost to Texas). You had Bush's backfield mate LenDale White plus fullback David Kirtman, his quarterback Matt Leinart, his tight end Dominique Byrd, and his offensive linemen Winston Justice, Deuce Lutui, and Fred Matua. On defense, you had safety Darnell Bing, defensive end Frostee Rucker, and defensive tackle LaJuan Ramsey. In all, eleven Trojans would be selected before the draft ended. On the other hand, you could instead have the quarterback USC lost to, Texas' Vince Young.
Longtime FO readers may remember it as The Babatunde Oshinowo Draft. The post-draft series of Four Downs included a list of the best players available when each team drafted. As Oshinowo, a Stanford teammate of current FO staffer Ben Muth, was the biggest faller on several of the draft boards used for the comparison, the best player analysis indicated every team in the NFL should have at least considered drafting him before the Browns eventually took him 181st overall. He ended up playing one game for the Browns in 2006 and one game for the Bears in 2007, and his last NFL appearance was spending a week in 49ers training camp in 2009. Keep this in mind when, later this month, players fall. It's generally for a reason. Oshinowo is now a web developer, and you can follow him on Twitter if you so desire.
Conventional wisdom: The general consensus was that Leinart and Young were the top-two quarterbacks in the draft, though not everybody liked Leinart’s arm strength or trusted in Young’s ability to become a dropback passer in an NFL scheme. Some people thought Jay Cutler was just as good as, if not better than, Leinart or Young, while not everybody liked the mediocre statistics that he put up in Vanderbilt’s offense or his inability to lead the Commodores to postseason play.
Beyond the top three, a small school shotgun spread quarterback who was a favored sleeper candidate was Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green. As a reminder of the occasional huge misses by even generally very good, diligent, and thorough draft evaluators, Corey Chavous liked Reggie McNeal of Texas A&M more than any other player in the draft.
At Football Outsiders, 2006 saw the introduction of the Lewin Career Forecast (LCF), first as an article on the website, and then as a chapter in Pro Football Prospectus 2006. The LCF liked Leinart best, followed by Cutler, then Young, but noted Young had upside based on what college statistics indicated was elite running ability. Nearly as good was Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens, described in PFP06 as a better prospect than recent Ducks Joey Harrington and Akili Smith. We said he might be "a solid but unspectacular NFL starter with passing ability similar to Donovan McNabb and Drew Brees." Well, I guess Corey Chavous is not the only person who's ever made a mistake.
Highest pick: Young, Texas, third overall to the Titans.
Best player: Credit Mike Mayock for liking Cutler the best of the top-three quarterbacks. While he may be petulant, and Denver traded him for a reason, the 11th overall pick has been the draft's top signal-caller. There wasn't actually a ton of competition for this spot, as only Young, Cutler, and second-round pick Tarvaris Jackson have started more than 20 games in the NFL.
Biggest bust: I spent a lot of time thinking about how the top quarterbacks would fare in 2006, and thought Vince Young had the biggest bust potential, while Matt Leinart was a safer choice but one with a lower ceiling. Well, Leinart did end up having the lower ceiling, as he struggled to make throws against man coverage and didn't have the arm strength to threaten defenses vertically despite playing with Larry Fitzgerald. Thankfully for Cardinals fans, they signed Kurt Warner and made it to the Super Bowl. Honorable mention to Kellen Clemens, 49th overall to the Jets, who now has 12 career starts after losing the Rams' final three games in 2011.
Best value: 2006 was not a good draft for late-round quarterbacks, as only two players taken after third round ever did anything. One of them was Brad Smith, Missouri, with the 103rd overall pick. The Jets quickly converted him to wide receiver/gimmick. The only late-round passer to play often was Bruce Gradkowski, Toledo, who went 194th overall to the Buccaneers. He survived a rookie season playing for Jon Gruden to scratch out a decent career as a journeyman backup.
Conventional wisdom: Reggie Bush was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Beyond him, there were a number of quality running backs. My personal favorite was DeAngelo Williams, but others liked LenDale White or Laurence Maroney. If you wanted a bowling ball, there was also Maurice Jones-Drew. Joseph Addai was one of the few highly-regarded backs to come out of college that was probably more accomplished as a pass protector and receiver than as a rusher.
Highest pick: Reggie Bush, USC, second overall to the Saints.
Best player: Maurice Jones-Drew, UCLA, 60th overall to the Jaguars. Somehow, Reggie Bush ended up far short of the greatness of sliced bread, though he was still a very good return man and versatile chess piece for Sean Payton's offense. Jones-Drew has more receiving yards than Bush, though, in addition to over 1,800 more rush yards than second-place DeAngelo Williams.
Biggest bust: As revealed in Michael Holley's War Room, the Patriots scouts clearly regret the fact that Ben McDaniels' experience with Maroney in Minnesota was allowed to overrule their concerns. LenDale White is almost certainly the worst running back in NFL history with an 1,100 yard season and 15 rushing touchdowns in another season. Still, the biggest bust comes to us courtesy of Matt Millen, who took Brian Calhoun in the third round, 74th overall. Calhoun could never stay healthy in the NFL and totaled 54 rushing yards and 55 receiving yards before the Lions released him after three seasons. For a good example of how dysfunctional the Lions were under Millen, see this story about the process of how the Lions ended up selecting Calhoun.
Best value: Jones-Drew. We like to say at Football Outsiders that you can generally find a running back who can be just as effective a rusher later in the draft. Unfortunately that was not true in 2006, as Jones-Drew at the end of the second-round was the last running back draft who's started a full season. Leon Washington, Florida State, selected 117th overall by the Jets, has been the most effective player otherwise. Perennial "top FO prospect" Jerious Norwood and Jerome Harrison had their moments, but never became consistent producers.
Conventional wisdom: A down year after three wide receivers went in the top-ten picks of the 2005 draft. Santonio Holmes was the only first-round lock of the bunch. Most of the other top wideouts fell into the category of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," but Chad Jackson was the consensus number-two and a borderline first-round pick.
Highest pick: Holmes, Ohio State, 25th overall to the Steelers.
Best player: The three most prolific receivers from the 2006 draft are all within 76 receiving yards of each other. Brandon Marshall, Central Florida, 119th overall to the Broncos, is in the lead, with 6,247 yards. Seventh-round pick Marques Colston, Hofstra, 252nd overall to the Saints, is in second with 6,240 yards. Finally, Greg Jennings, Western Michigan, 52nd overall to the Packers, has 6,171 yards. Marshall and Jennings are actually closer in yards than they are in receptions, as Marshall has 494, 105 more. By touchdowns, Jennings is in the lead, with 49, one ahead of Colston and 14 ahead of Marshall. By career receiving DYAR, Colston is clearly on top with 1,669, well ahead of Jennings at 1,283 and Marshall at 804. Though he has benefited from playing with Drew Brees, I will still give the honors to Colston.
Biggest bust: Once again, Michael Holley's War Room provides context for a Patriots draft failure. In this case, it was Chad Jackson with the 36th overall pick, and Belichick chose to listen to his friend, then-Florida coach Urban Meyer, and overrule his own scouts. A friendly reminder: it's probably not a good idea to draft a college receiver who barely averages 10 yards per reception his final year. Jackson was far from the only wide receiver to flame out, though, as the Giants took Sinorice Moss eight picks later and got career production worse than older brother Santana Moss’s worst season. Third-round picks Travis Wilson, Oklahoma, 78th overall to the Browns, Brandon Williams, Wisconsin, 84th overall to the 49ers, and Willie Reed, Florida State, 95th overall to the Steelers, combined for six catches.
Best value: Colston. Jason Avant, Michigan, 109th overall to the Eagles, has been the fifth-most productive receiver after the big three and Holmes.
Conventional wisdom: Vernon Davis was a serious candidate to be the highest-drafted tight end ever after running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the Combine despite weighing in at a chiseled 254 pounds. As with the wide receivers, you had a consensus second-best prospect, this one Marcedes Lewis, but which of Lewis, Leonard Pope, Joe Klopfenstein, Dominique Byrd, or Anthony Fasano you preferred depended on what you were looking for.
Highest pick: Davis, Maryland, sixth overall to the 49ers.
Best player: While he hasn't always been the sort of difference-maker he was in this year's postseason, Davis has been the most prolific receiver in the class and is also well-regarded as a blocker.
Biggest bust: There were nine tight ends drafted in the first four rounds, and seven of them had at least decent careers. The other two were both drafted by the Rams. First up was 46th overall pick Klopfenstein out of Colorado and then came Byrd at 93rd overall. It seemed like a near-ideal pairing, as Klopfenstein was a traditional in-line player and Byrd more of a move tight end. Together they combined for 40 catches and 480 yards receiving. Klopfenstein last played in 2009, while Byrd's career was resurrected by his college coach Pete Carroll in 2011 after he spent the previous three seasons out of the NFL.
Best value: The Texans took a chance on former Illinois state championship quarterback Owen Daniels' reconstructed knees with the 98th overall pick, and the former Wisconsin Badger has been the draft’s second-most productive receiving tight end.
Conventional wisdom: D’Brickashaw Ferguson was a consensus top-five overall pick. Beyond him, there were no offensive tackles everybody loved. Winston Justice, Marcus McNeill, Eric Winston, and Jonathan Scott were among the players vying to be the second tackle drafted, though they all had various concerns. If you were a team that was fine with taking an interior lineman in the first round, you had some good choices like center Nick Mangold and guard Davin Joseph.
Highest pick: Ferguson, Virginia, fourth overall to the Jets.
Best player: Jahri Evans, Bloomsburg, 108th overall to the Saints. Honorable mention goes to the Jets' other first-round offensive lineman, Mangold, Ohio State, 29th overall, and not just because he became the first player to give a thank-you speech for winning an FO end-of-season award.
Biggest bust: None really. Every offensive lineman drafted in the first two rounds is still in the NFL. The worst of that bunch is a pair of former Southern Cal Trojans: Winston Justice, 39th overall to the Eagles, who still started for two seasons and spent the rest of the time as a backup swing tackle, and Deuce Lutui, 41st overall to the Cardinals, who has 72 NFL starts. The closest thing to a bust is the first pick in the third round, Charles Spencer, who suffered a nasty broken leg in his second game that more or less wrecked his career.
Best value: Evans. Beyond him, the Texans found right tackle Eric Winston 66th overall, one pick after Spencer. A trio of sixth-round selections, Kevin Boothe, Cornell, 176th overall to the Raiders); Jeromey Clary, Kansas State, 187th overall to the Chargers; and Charlie Johnson, Oklahoma State, 199th overall to the Colts, all exceeded expectations.
Conventional wisdom: While the Texans' decision to pass on Bush was unexpected, nobody expected Mario Williams to fall outside the top five if they passed on him. Fellow early entry junior (and man-mountain) Haloti Ngata was considered the top defensive tackle, though teams looking for more of an interior penetrator may have had their eye on Brodrick Bunkley instead. Most people thought the depth was better at defensive end than at defensive tackle.
Highest pick: Williams, North Carolina State, first overall to the Texans.
Best player: Ngata, Oregon, 12th overall to the Ravens, who's been voted first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press the past two seasons. Williams has probably been the best defensive end in the class, but the leading sacker in the class is Tamba Hali, Penn State, 20th overall to the Chiefs, whose sack numbers did not take off until the Chiefs switched to a 3-4 defense and he started playing outside linebacker.
Biggest bust: Playing on the same collegiate line with Williams and Manny Lawson, taken 22nd overall by the 49ers, John McCargo was widely viewed as a reach when the Bills took him with their second first-round selection at 26th overall. As it happened, everybody else was right and the Bills were wrong. The Buccaneers picked him up off the street after putting a couple defensive tackles on injured reserve in 2011, but he's still sitting on one career start.
Best value: The Broncos took a chance on an undersized defensive end who had a disappointing week at the Senior Bowl when they grabbed Elvis Dumervil with the 126th overall pick. Dumervil was tremendously productive at Louisville and immediately carried that over to the NFL with 8.5 sacks as a rookie. He's third in the class in sacks, 0.5 behind Williams and 1.0 behind Hali, but would have the lead had he not missed the entire 2010 season. Despite whiffing on McCargo, the Bills hit in the late rounds with Kyle Williams, LSU, 134th overall.
Conventional wisdom: Everybody thought A.J. Hawk was the top linebacker available and an elite playmaker. Hawk was far from the only good linebacker in the draft, as Ernie Sims, Chad Greenway, and DeMeco Ryans were also considered likely first-round picks, while Hawk’s teammate Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, and Kamerion Wimbley were among the players who might make the transition to pass rushing 3-4 outside linebacker.
Highest pick: Hawk, Ohio State, fifth overall to the Packers.
Best player: A fairly uninspiring class with no clear standouts, really. By Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value method, it's Hawk, followed by Wimbley, Florida State, 13th overall to the Browns. Wimbley was a college defensive end who started his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker, then played 4-3 strongside linebacker and defensive end, and will now be playing full-time defensive end. The only player from 2006 who started his NFL career at linebacker to make the Pro Bowl is Ryans, Alabama, 33rd overall to the Texans. Greenway, Iowa, 17th overall to the Vikings, is up there as well, as is D’Qwell Jackson, Maryland, 34th overall to the Browns, when he’s actually on the field.
Biggest bust: Sims, Florida State, ninth overall to the Lions. While not quite as succinct as the fabled "Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" scouting report, an evaluation of Sims' career is about as straightforward: "Should be able to play in space, but can't."
Best value: Only four linebackers drafted after the third round are still in the league. The only one of those who is now a starter is another member of the vaunted North Carolina State Wolfpack defense, Stephen Tulloch, 116th overall to the Titans.
Conventional wisdom: Some people thought he was a safety, others a corner, but either way Michael Huff was going in the top fifteen and probably the top ten. Cornerbacks with speed to burn who were likely go in the first-round included Jimmy Williams, Kelly Jennings, Tye Hill, Johnathan Joseph, and Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie was perhaps the most intriguing player in the entire draft, as he only started one game at Florida State and declared after missing the entire 2005 season with an ACL injury. Still, his combination of size and speed, plus the Seminoles pedigree, produced the inevitable Deion Sanders comparisons.
Beyond Huff, the top safeties included Jason Allen, another player who could end up as either a corner or a free safety in the NFL. The aforementioned Darnell Bing, Donte Whitner, Ko Simpson, Roman Harper, Bernard Pollard, and Daniel Bullocks were among the safeties expected to go somewhere between the end of the first round and the third round.
Highest pick: Huff, Texas, seventh overall to the Raiders.
Best player: Take your pick of two of the biggest cornerback prizes from the past two offseasons: Johnathan Joseph, South Carolina, 24th overall to the Bengals, or Cortland Finnegan, Samford, 215th overall to the Titans. The players who’ve drawn the most headlines, though, are Devin Hester, Miami, 57th overall to the Bears, and Cromartie, who went 19th overall to the Chargers.
Biggest bust: 2006 was really the first year Senior Bowl practices were televised on NFL Network, and one of the biggest stars of that week was Clemson cornerback Tye Hill, who had a spectacular interception on Monday. The Rams ultimately drafted him with the 15th overall pick, and found out he was not really good enough to play in the NFL.
Best value: Finnegan was a steal in the seventh round. Beyond him, the Colts found Antoine Bethea, Howard, with the 207th overall pick in the sixth round, and the Ravens drafted a good complement to Ed Reed in the fifth round, 146th overall, in Dawan Landry out of Georgia Tech.
Conventional wisdom: After Mike Nugent's mediocre rookie season, absolutely nobody was going to take a kicker or a punter in the second round.
Highest pick: Stephen Gostkowski, Memphis, 118th overall to the Patriots.
Best player: Gostkowski has been a fine kicker. About as fine a kicker as he's been, the Ravens found about as fine a punter in Sam Koch, Nebraska, with the 203rd overall pick.
Biggest bust: Two years after taking Nate Kaeding in the third round, A.J. Smith went to the kicker well again, drafting Kurt Smith out of Virginia with a sixth-round pick, 188th overall. Smith was only a kickoff specialist for the Cavaliers, so Kaeding's job was never in jeopardy. Unfortunately for the Chargers, Smith proved much less proficient kicking off the shorter NFL tee and ultimately never played in an NFL game.
Best value: Koch. Only four specialists were drafted, with the fourth being punter Ryan Plackemeier, Wake Forest, 239th overall to the Seahawks.
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