The 1998 Draft, Six Years Later
by Michael David Smith
This year's NFL draft takes place on April 24 and 25, which means that on April 26 half the sports writers in the country will have a report card grading each team's performance. But the truth is, no one knows how well a team did the day after the draft. Every team thinks it drafted well because every team picked the guys who were graded highest by the personnel department. The average NFL personnel man knows a hell of a lot more about the relative merits of players in the draft than the average sports writer. I'll start trusting sports writers as the arbiters of which teams drafted well the day I start trusting defensive coordinators to pick the Pulitzer Prizes.
But let's be frank and acknowledge that just as members of the media don't know which of last year's college stars will turn into future All-Pros, the guys in the NFL front offices make plenty of bad decisions, too.
The most obvious example is the 1998 draft, which pitted Ryan Leaf against Peyton Manning. The Colts obviously made the right choice by taking Manning with the first overall pick, and the Chargers obviously made the wrong choice by trading up to the second overall pick to take Leaf. I don't feel the need to jump onto the enormous pile of people who bash Leaf. Opinion was divided about whether Manning or Leaf would be the better pro, but no one expected Leaf to be as bad as he was. Let's just acknowledge that everyone was spectacularly wrong about Leaf and move on.
Among the oddities of the 1998 draft is that only two players from the Miami Hurricanes were selected (wide receiver Jammi German and cornerback Duane Starks), which matches the number of players chosen from such football schools as Alabama-Birmingham and Stephen F. Austin. In the drafts since then Miami has had three, five, seven, 11 and eight players selected. Washington, with 10 players selected, had the most draft picks of any school in 1998, followed by Florida State with nine, Tennessee with eight and North Carolina with seven. The 1998 draft also had only 20 underclassmen selected, which is the fewest since 1990.
Those players from the 1998 draft are now in their primes, so it seems like a good time to analyze that year's draft at each position, examining who the conventional wisdom before the draft held as the best player, the first player selected, who turned out to be the best player, the biggest bust and the best value.
Conventional Wisdom: Peyton Manning of Tennessee was regarded by most personnel men as the best of the bunch, although many fans and media members said Ryan Leaf of Washington State had the better upside. The Chargers' front office said immediately after the draft that they had taken the better player, although now they'll all swear they were disappointed when the Colts took Manning. Quarterback guru Bill Walsh said before the draft the the Colts should take a defensive player with the first pick and select Michigan's Brian Griese in the second round.
Highest Pick: Manning, first overall, to the Colts. There aren't many drafts when the first player taken turns out to be the best, but this is clearly one time when the team with the first pick was right.
Best Player: Manning.
Biggest Bust: Leaf.
Best Value: Green Bay took Boston College's Matt Hasselbeck in the sixth round with the 187th overall pick. Although he played behind Brett Favre and never cracked the lineup, he has performed well since being reunited with coach Mike Holmgren in Seattle.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Eastern Michigan's Charlie Batch to the Lions in the second round, No. 60 overall; Michigan's Brian Griese to the Broncos in the third round, No. 91 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: Everyone thought Penn State's Curtis Enis was a sure thing. Football Digest insisted that Enis was "no troublemaker like Lawrence Phillips," adding that he "compares better with Terrell Davis, except Enis was a much better college player." Here's how Football Digest ranked the running backs: 1. Enis; 2. Robert Edwards, Georgia; 3. Skip Hicks, UCLA; 4. Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Utah; 5. Tavian Banks, Iowa; sleeper: Michael Pittman, Fresno State.
Highest Pick: Enis, fifth overall, to the Bears.
Best Player: Too close to call between Fred Taylor of Florida and Ahman Green of Nebraska. Jacksonville took Taylor (who oddly wasn't even mentioned by Football Digest) with the ninth overall pick, and he's been one of the league's best backs since. Seattle drafted Green (who also wasn't mentioned by Football Digest) in the third round with the 76th pick overall. He didn't do much with the Seahawks (Holmgren hated his propensity to fumble), but he's become one of the best players in the league in Green Bay. Edwards had a good rookie year with the Patriots before wrecking his knee in a beach football game in Hawaii during the league's Pro Bowl festivities.
Biggest Bust: Enis, who never played well in Chicago, averaging 3.3 yards a carry in his three seasons with the Bears.
Best Value: Green.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Mississippi's John Avery to the Dolphins in the first round, No. 29 overall; Fresno State's Michael Pittman to the Cardinals in the fourth round, No. 95 overall; Hicks to the Redskins in the third round, No. 69 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: Everyone was sure that Marshall's Randy Moss had once-in-a-lifetime size and speed. But in the days leading up to the draft a meme began to spread through the league that Moss's off-field problems and attitude would hamper his career. Other heavily hyped receiver prospects included Florida's Jacquez Green and Georgia's Hines Ward.
Highest Pick: Kevin Dyson, Utah, 16th overall, to the Titans. Dyson has played well, but not well enough to justify going ahead of Moss and Ward.
Best Player: Moss. Even though scouts were, to some extent, correct that Moss's attitude was ill-suited to being a team player, no one can dispute that he's been a game-changing player from day one.
Biggest Bust: Marcus Nash, Tennessee. Denver took Nash in the first round, with the 30th overall pick. He had only four catches as a rookie and never became the complement to Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey that the Broncos thought he would.
Best Value: The Steelers were able to snag Ward with the 92nd overall pick. He's become one of the league's most complete receivers.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Penn State's Joe Jurevicius to the Giants in the second round, No. 55 overall; Cal's Bobby Shaw to the Seahawks in the sixth round, No. 169 overall; San Diego State's Az-Zahir Hakim to the Rams in the fourth round, No. 96 overall; Washington's Jerome Pathon to the Colts in the second round, No. 32 overall; Wisconsin's Tony Simmons to the Patriots in the second round, No. 52 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: Football Digest called Oklahoma State's Alonzo Mayes "far and away the best at the position, and the only potential first-rounder." But, like Moss, scouts shied away from Mayes because of off-field concerns. Unlike Moss, Mayes never amounted to anything on the field.
Highest Pick: Cam Cleeland, Washington, 40th overall, to the Saints.
Best Player: Stephen Alexander of Oklahoma, became a solid player for the Redskins, who took him in the second round with the 48th pick overall. Alabama's Rod Rutledge was seen strictly as an extra blocker and not as a pass catcher as the Patriots' second-round pick, No. 54 overall. He performed well in the Patriots' run-blocking scheme.
Biggest Bust: There really weren't any. All the tight ends taken in the first three rounds performed capably.
Best Value: Roland Williams, Syracuse, was the Rams' choice in the fourth round with the 98th pick overall.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Southern Mississippi's Terry Hardy to the Cardinals in the fifth round, No. 125 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: San Diego State's Kyle Turley and Florida State's Tra Thomas were generally recognized as the top two linemen in the draft, although Michigan State's Flozell Adams had his supporters.
Highest Pick: Turley, No. 7 overall, to the Saints.
Best Player: Turley. Despite losing his head in some well-publicized incidents, he's been a solid player, first in New Orleans and now in St. Louis.
Biggest Bust: All the highly picked tackles -- Turley, Thomas, Florida's Mo Collins, Auburn's Victory Riley -- played well.
Best Value: The Cincinnati Bearcats' Jason Fabini was a good pick for the Jets in the fourth round, but Turley's San Diego State teammate, Ephraim Salaam, was perhaps the draft's biggest steal for the Falcons in the seventh round with the 199th overall pick. San Diego State finished unranked in 1997, which leads me to ask: How could a college team that had the NFL's two best rookie linemen in 1998 not finish in the Top 25 in 1997?
Other Noteworthy Picks: Southwestern Louisiana's Anthony Clement to the Cardinals in the second round, No. 36 overall; Kansas State's Todd Weiner to the Seahawks in the second round, No. 47 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: LSU's Alan Faneca was seen as an extremely talented player who could have become a Top 10 selection if he had returned to LSU for his senior year.
Highest Pick: Faneca, No. 26 overall, to the Steelers.
Best Player: Faneca, who has been an All-Pro performer with the Steelers.
Biggest Bust: Iowa's Mike Goff, No. 78 overall to the Bengals.
Best Value: Steve McKinney of Texas A&M became a good player for the Colts after being selected in the fourth round, No. 93 overall by the Colts. But there's no question who the biggest steal was: Benji Olson surprised most observers by dropping all the way down to the fifth round, and the Titans got a great pick when they took him there, No. 139 overall.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Virginia Tech's Gennaro DiNapoli to the Raiders in the fourth round, No. 109 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: Football Digest called Nebraska's Outland Trophy winner Aaron Taylor the best of the bunch, but scouts weren't impressed with his inexperience as a pass blocker. He went to the Colts in the seventh round.
Highest Pick: Kent State's Bob Hallen, No. 53 overall to the Falcons.
Best Player: The Washington Huskies' Olin Kreutz went to the Bears in the third round with the 64th pick overall. Many scouts thought Kreutz made a mistake by leaving Washington after his junior year, but he's become one of the league's best centers.
Biggest Bust: Hallen. He actually did become an occasional starter for the Falcons, but he didn't live up to what they hoped for when they took him in the second round.
Best Value: Kreutz, although the Titans' seventh rounder, Kevin Long of Florida State, had a good rookie year.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Virginia Tech's Todd Washington to the Buccaneers in the fourth round, No. 104 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: Scouts and commentators were unanimous that Florida State's Andre Wadsworth was the best defensive end prospect in years. Nebraska's Grant Wistrom and North Carolina's Greg Ellis also were recognized as top-flight talents.
Highest Pick: Wadsworth, No. 3 overall, to the Cardinals.
Best Player: Wistrom. He's played well for the Rams and earned a big payday with the Seahawks.
Biggest Bust: Wadsworth. Although he played fairly well as a rookie, injuries severely limited his career, and if it weren't for Leaf, Wadsworth would be remembered as the 1998 draft's biggest bust.
Best Value: Kenny Mixon, one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the league, went No. 49 overall to the Dolphins.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Arizona State's Jeremy Staat to the Steelers in the second round, No. 41 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: Despite off-field problems for his brother Christian, most people saw Nebraska's Jason Peter as the best of the bunch.
Highest Pick: Peter, No. 12 overall, to the Panthers.
Best Player: It turned out not to be much of a draft for defensive tackles. The best defensive tackle from the 1998 draft turned out to be North Carolina's Vonnie Holiday, the Packers' first-round choice, but he has played end for almost all of his career.
Biggest Bust: Leon Bender, who went No. 31 overall to the Raiders.
Best Value: Cal's Brandon Whiting, who went No. 112 overall in the fourth round to the Eagles. He made the all-rookie team and has had a solid career in Philly.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Alabama's Michael Myers to the Cowboys in the fourth round, No. 100 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: It was seen as a strong draft for linebackers, with Georgia Tech's Keith Brooking, Auburn's Takeo Spikes, Tennessee's Leonard Little, Clemson's Anthony Simmons and North Carolina's Brian Simmons.
Highest Pick: Brooking, No. 12 overall to the Falcons.
Best Player: Brooking has played well for the Falcons. Ditto for Spikes, formerly of the Bengals and now of the Bills, who was taken one spot behind Brooking. And Florida State's Sam Cowart was a good choice for the Bills.
Biggest Bust: The Dolphins selected Brad Jackson from the University of Cincinnati with the 79th overall pick. He never played.
Best Value: Stephen F. Austin's Jeremiah Trotter was a great pick for the Eagles with the No. 72 selection overall in round three.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Vanderbilt's Jamie Duncan to the Buccaneers in the third round, No. 84 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: Michigan's Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, was seen as a sure-thing. Duane Starks of the Miami Hurricanes had blazing speed but some scouts feared that at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds he wasn't big enough.
Highest Pick: Woodson, No. 4 overall, to the Raiders.
Best Player: Woodson.
Biggest Bust: Oklahoma State's R.W. McQuarters wasn't a bad player, but the 49ers took him in the first round and expected major contributions. McQuarters was an OK player but nothing more. Tennessee's Terry Fair led the league as a kickoff returner as a rookie, but he never contributed after that and was a wasted pick for the Lions at No. 20 overall. Cordell Taylor of Hampton was a surprising pick for the Jags at No. 57 overall; he never contributed.
Best Value: Florida State's Samari Rolle never should have lasted into the middle of the second round, where the Titans drafted him. Same for Southern Mississippi's Patrick Surtain, who went to the Dolphins just ahead of Rolle.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Vanderbilt's Corey Chavous to the Cardinals in the second round, No. 33 overall; Alabama-Birmingham's Dainon Sidney to the Oilers in the third round, No. 77 overall.
Conventional Wisdom: UCLA's Shaun Williams was generally recognized as the premier safety talent, which is why it was such a surprise when New England grabbed Syracuse's Tebucky Jones as the first safety off the board.
Highest Pick:Jones, No. 22 overall, to the Patriots.
Best Player: Williams. Although Jones' Syracuse teammate Donovin Darius (picked by the Jaguars one spot behind Williams) and Washington's Tony Parrish (picked 35th overall by the Bears) had better rookie years, Williams has had a standout career for the Giants.
Biggest Bust: It's hard to call a fifth-round pick a bust, but when the Ravens grabbed Ryan Sutter of Colorado in the fifth round, many people labeled him a steal. So it doesn't seem unreasonable to call him a bust now that we know he didn't pan out.
Best Value: Lance Schulters, a fourth-round pick of the 49ers from Hofstra, was a good value. But the best was probably Pat Tillman of Arizona State. The Cardinals got Tillman in the seventh round with the 226th pick overall, and although Tillman is now serving in the military and no longer in the NFL, he became one of the league's best safeties with the Cardinals.
Other Noteworthy Picks: Mississippi State's Eric Brown to the Broncos in the second round, No. 61 overall; Nebraska's Scott Frost to the Jets in the third round, No. 67 overall.