2003 NFL Draft: Six Years Later
by Sean McCormick
The 2003 draft was instructive in many ways. We learned that it was possible for the Bengals to draft a quarterback who wasn't terrible. We learned that calling a defensive tackle "Baby Sapp" in no way guaranteed that he would play like Warren Sapp. Perhaps most importantly, we learned for the first time that Matt Millen really, really liked drafting wide receivers. If you want to go back to a time when everything old was new again, let us introduce you to the 2003 draft. Once again, Football Outsiders continues its annual tradition of looking back six years with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Our draft review looks at the good picks, the bad picks, and the things every general manager knows now and wishes he had known then.
Conventional wisdom: While most experts agreed that USC's Carson Palmer was the best quarterback prospect to come along since Peyton Manning, there were some who were concerned that Palmer had not been consistently dominant before his senior season. Marshall's Byron Leftwich was considered a top 10 talent, but after playing his final season with a metal rod in his leg, there were concerns that he was damaged goods. Cal's Kyle Boller, Florida's Rex Grossman, Texas' Chris Simms and Louisville's Dave Ragone were all looked at as possible first- or early second-round picks.
Highest pick: Carson Palmer, Southern California, first overall to the Bengals.
Best player: Carson Palmer, Southern California, first overall selection. It's always a pleasant surprise when the scouts are absolutely right. Palmer had the chance to sit for a year and learn behind Jon Kitna, and because he took over for an offense that had talented wideouts and a solid offensive line, he was able to produce almost immediately. If the draft was held over again, Palmer would easily be the first player taken.
Biggest bust: Kyle Boller, California, 19th overall to the Ravens. Boller's big claim to fame during the run-up to the draft was throwing a football through the goalposts while kneeling at midfield. He quickly became yet another cautionary tale about the dangers of putting too much stock in Pro Days and individual workouts. Boller was too mechanical was his decision making, and he never had the necessary accuracy to go along with his physical gifts. This shouldn't have surprised anyone, seeing as Boller finished his four seasons at Cal with a 49.1% career completion percentage.
Best value: Chris Simms, Texas, 97th overall to the Bucs. Simms had first-round ability, but his failure to come up big in big games, particularly against Oklahoma, led some to question his toughness. Simms quarterbacked the Bucs to an 11-5 record in 2005, and the following season he finished a game against Carolina despite rupturing his spleen midway through. Is that tough enough for you?
Other notable picks: Rex Grossman went to the Bears with the 22nd pick overall and he would eventually "lead" the team to the Super Bowl. Drew Henson, who spent his career at Michigan splitting time with Tom Brady (and being touted as the true pro prospect of the two) before opting to play baseball for the Yankees, was drafted by the Texans in the sixth round on the chance that he would decide to give up baseball. He did, but never was able to make up for the time he missed on the gridiron, and is currently number three on the depth chart in Detroit.
Conventional wisdom: The running back crop was considered to be the weakest in years, with only Penn State's Larry Johnson carrying a first-round grade. Miami's Willis McGahee had been a surefire top ten pick, but he suffered a gruesome knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl and was seen as a major injury risk.
Highest pick: Willis McGahee, Miami, 23rd overall to the Bills. Buffalo decided that a healthy McGahee was worth waiting for, so they went ahead and spent a first-round pick on him. McGahee rewarded the club by spouting off to a reporter about how terrible it was living in Buffalo and how the team needed to move to Toronto. Whatever the merits of his argument, management didn't appreciate it, and after a couple years they shipped McGahee off to Baltimore for fifty cents on the dollar.
Best player: Larry Johnson, Penn State, 27th overall to the Chiefs. Kansas City was set with Priest Holmes as the starter, but they opted to take a best player available and it paid off handsomely, as Johnson blossomed into one of the top backs in the league. (He might still be the best back in football today had someone informed Herm Edwards of the Curse of 370.)
Biggest bust: Musa Smith, Georgia, 77th overall to the Ravens. Smith was supposed to be a big, bruising back, but he was the one who spent most of the time bruised. Smith could never stay healthy, and his production was pedestrian at best, as he only gained 496 yards during his five-year career.
Best value: Larry Johnson. Johnson would have been good value had he gone in the top five of this draft; at 27, he was a steal.
Other notable picks: Chris Brown had some good success as part of a rotation system in Tennessee, first with Eddie George and later with LenDale White. Justin Fargas came out of USC with the kind of track-star speed that Al Davis loves, and he has managed to put together several solid seasons behind a poor offensive line. Onterrio Smith is notable primarily for bringing "The Whizzinator" to the attention of America.
Conventional wisdom: This was a top-heavy group, with Michigan State's Charles Rogers and Miami's Andre Johnson each considered worthy of a top-five pick. Penn State's Bryant Johnson, Florida's Taylor Jacobs, and Tennessee's Kelley Washington were seen as guys with the potential to sneak into the latter portion of the first round, while Middle Tennessee State's Tyrone Calico was a late-rising dark horse expected to go early in the second round.
Highest pick: Charles Rogers, Michigan State, second overall to the Lions.
Best player: Andre Johnson, Miami, third overall to the Texans. This is what the Peyton Manning-Ryan Leaf debate looks like on Bizarro World. Johnson was almost universally considered to be just a notch below Rogers, as there were concerns that he was not as fluid or sure-handed. Needless to say, those concerns proved to be unfounded, as Johnson developed into one of the most physically dominating receivers in the NFL. Meanwhile...
Biggest bust: Charles Rogers, Michigan State. Rogers most assuredly did not develop into one of the most physically dominating receivers in the NFL. Instead, he was brittle, had a poor work ethic, some off-the-field problems, and was simply not very good. Everybody loved Rogers, and as it turned out, everybody was 100 percent wrong. Rogers was last seen being invited to compete for a spot on the Montreal Alouettes. Oh dear.
Best value: Arnaz Battle, Notre Dame, 197th overall to the 49ers. Battle was a converted quarterback who made the transition to wide receiver and filled a jack-of-all-trades role with the Fighting Irish. He started off slowly with San Francisco, but developed into a capable starter.
Other notable picks: The first step in Arizona's ascent from perennial doormat to Super Bowl participant took place in this draft when the Cardinals landed Florida State's Anquan Boldin in the second round. (One of this draft's two important lessons on why strong college production generally trumps a bad combine or Pro Day.) Nate Burleson and Kevin Curtis went within three picks of each other in the third round, and both players have gone on to be productive starters. The Giants selected David Tyree in the seventh round, little suspecting that he would go on to make one of the most memorable catches in Super Bowl history.
Conventional wisdom: There were no elite prospects who were considered worthy of top-ten selection, but there was tremendous depth at the position, with seven or eight players considered likely to go in the first day. Headliners included Tennessee's Jason Witten, Iowa's Dallas Clark, and Michigan's Benny Joppru.
Highest pick: Dallas Clark, Iowa, 24th overall to the Colts.
Best player: Jason Witten, Tennessee. Witten was the top tight end on most boards leading up to the draft, but he was not considered to be either a dominant receiver or an overwhelming blocker and so he ended up being selected behind Clark, Bennie Joppru, and L.J. Smith. Witten quickly blossomed into the best Dallas tight end since Jay Novacek left town.
Biggest bust: Teyo Johnson, Stanford, 63rd overall to the Raiders. Johnson was a wide receiver at Stanford, but at 6-foot-5 and nearly 260 pounds, he projected to tight end in the pros. His combination of size and speed fascinated scouts (and, needless to say, set Al Davis a-drooling), but Johnson never showed the work ethic to go along with his natural gifts. Instead of becoming the next Kellen Winslow, he washed out of the league and is now playing in the CFL.
Best value: Witten. When you can draft a Pro Bowl-caliber player in the third round, you're doing something right.
Other notable picks: The Eagles selected Rutgers' L.J. Smith in the second round and got several years of productivity, all wrapped up in a soft-as-vanilla-ice-cream package. Donald Lee was good value for Miami with the 156th selection overall.
Special Will Carroll "Health is a Skill" Award: Joppru went 41st overall to Houston and then suffered season-ending injuries in three straight preseasons. He didn't see the field until 2006.
Conventional wisdom: There was plenty of projection going on with the top of this group. Utah's Jordan Gross was considered the top lineman available, but there were concerns that he was better suited to play on the right side or even at guard. Stanford's Kwame Harris had been a right tackle in college, but scouts thought he had the quick feet to slide over and handle the left side. Everyone thought Iowa's Eric Steinbach was an elite player, but they weren't sure if he would stay at guard or move to tackle. Georgia's George Foster was a mountain of a man at 6-5 and 338 pounds, but no one was sure if he could actually play.
Highest pick: Jordan Gross, eighth overall to the Panthers.
Best player: Jordan Gross. Gross stepped in immediately as a rookie and took every snap at right tackle for the Panthers. He has flipped back and forth between the left and right tackle spots depending on Carolina's need, but he has been better on the right side. Gross was set to be one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason, but the Panthers slapped the franchise tag on him while they worked out the parameters for a new six-year deal.
Biggest bust: Kwame Harris, Stanford, 26th overall to the 49ers. It's not often when an offensive linemen has a Youtube montage dedicated exclusively to his false starts. (Unfortunately, it looks like the video has been pulled from Youtube.)
Best value: David Diehl, Illinois, 160th overall to the Giants. Diehl is one of only two offensive linemen in this draft class to start every game since his rookie season. He broke into the league as a right guard, but he also started at right tackle and left guard before settling in at the prized left tackle spot.
Other notable picks: George Foster seemed like a strange fit for Denver's zone blocking scheme, and while he did start for the Broncos during their run to the 2005 AFC Championship game, he was then traded to Detroit. Eric Steinbach was the first interior linemen taken when Cincinnati selected him at the top of the second round, and he put in four excellent seasons before bolting north to Cleveland for a big free agent contract. Derrick Dockery was a massive guard who was a serviceable starter in Washington, but after cashing in on a big contract with Buffalo, he regressed and was released.
Conventional wisdom: This was considered to be a great defensive line draft, particularly at the tackle position, where Kentucky's Dewayne Robertson and Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy were at the top of the class, but Georgia's Jonathan Sullivan, Oklahoma State's Kevin Williams, and Texas A&M's Ty Warren were not far behind. The premiere defensive end was Arizona State's Terrell Suggs, but his awful Pro Day workout threw draft boards into flux all over the league as teams had to decide whether to trust the tape or Suggs' pedestrian workout numbers.
Highest pick: Dewayne Robertson, Kentucky, fourth overall to the Jets.
Best player: Kevin Williams, Oklahoma State, ninth overall to the Vikings. Minnesota started off with the seventh pick in the draft, but they failed to pick a player before time expired, allowing both Jacksonville (who picked Byron Leftwich) and Carolina (Jordan Gross) to sneak ahead of them. It looked like a major botch at the time, but the Vikings still ended up with Williams, the player they were targeting from the beginning. Williams has been a key component in what is consistently one of the top run defenses in the league.
Biggest bust: Jonathan Sullivan, Georgia sixth overall to the Saints. There were a great many disappointments in this class -- both Dewayne Robertson and Jimmy Kennedy badly underperformed -- but Sullivan showed absolutely nothing beyond a propensity for eating hamburgers during his three-year stay in New Orleans. He went on to spend one season in New England before washing out of the league.
Best value: Tully Banta-Cain, California, 239th overall to the Patriots. Banta-Cain was productive enough as a situational player to land a big contract with San Francisco. The 49ers quickly realized that Banta-Cain was not a difference maker and released him after one season, so now he's back in New England.
Other notable picks: Suggs slipped out of the top five, but Baltimore swooped him up with the tenth pick. He immediately put concerns about his physical skills to rest, as he compiled 12 sacks and an interception on his way to winning defensive rookie of the year. The Giants tabbed the little-known Osi Umenyiora at the bottom of the second round and he rewarded them with two Pro Bowl selections in his first four seasons.
Conventional wisdom: This was looked at as one of the weakest position groups in the draft. Maryland's E.J. Henderson had the size and production of a top middle linebacker, but he lacked speed and was looked at as a situational player. Georgia's Boss Bailey (Champ's younger brother) was the premiere athlete at the position, but concerns about his toughness and durability threatened his status as a first-rounder. Oregon State's Nick Barnett was an undersized player whose stock rose late.
Highest pick: Nick Barnett, Oregon State, 29th overall to the Packers.
Best player: Barnett. Many people were surprised when the Packers took Barnett ahead of Bailey, but he proved to be a good fit as an undersized Mike backer in their 4-3 look. Barnett has been a Pro Bowl alternate in each of the past six seasons.
Biggest bust: Eddie Moore, Tennessee, 49th overall to the Dolphins. Rick Spielman and the rest of Miami's war room were united in the assumption that the team would take Anquan Boldin with the 49th pick, but they were overruled by Dave Wannstedt, who selected Moore because... well, because Miami needed a linebacker. Moore recorded 18 tackles during his two seasons with Miami. Score another one for drafting for need.
Best value: Cato June, Michigan, 198th overall to the Colts. June fit the profile for what Bill Polian looks for in a linebacker; he was undersized at 6-0, 227 pounds, but he was fast and instinctive. June played for four years in Indy before moving on to Tampa Bay and then to Houston.
Other notable picks: The Bears scored when they took Arizona's Lance Briggs in the third round. Vanderbilt's Hunter Hillenmeyer didn't make Green Bay's final roster after being drafted by the Packers in the fifth round, but he signed on with Chicago and would end up starting alongside Briggs.
Conventional wisdom: There were two elite corner prospects in Terence Newman and Marcus Trufant, while USC's Troy Polamalu was looked at as being a difference maker at safety. Newman was a shutdown corner and a special teams star at Kansas State and was considered a possible first overall selection. Trufant had some lapses in coverage at Washington State, but he had a strong Senior Bowl and good workouts. Oklahoma's Andre Woolfolk was a raw but intriguing prospect who had a chance to slip into the bottom of the first round.
Highest pick: Terence Newman, fifth overall to the Cowboys.
Best player: Nnamdi Asomugha, 31st overall to the Raiders. With all due respect to Polamalu, who is a superlative player, a corner who can't be thrown on is worth more than a safety. Asomugha was considered something of a reach when the Raiders took him, but now he's arguably the best defensive player in the league.
Biggest bust: Andre Woolfolk, Oklahoma, 28th overall to the Titans. Woolfolk was not a finished product, but the Titans took a chance on the upside of a 6-2 corner with speed and athleticism. But Woolfolk never developed, intercepting only three passes during his four seasons in Tennessee.
Best value: Asante Samuel, Central Florida, 120th overall to the Patriots. Samuel was perhaps underappreciated during the period when it seemed like Bill Belichick could plug in just about anyone in the secondary and get a good performance. As it turns out, he was simply the last cornerback the team hit on during the draft. Samuel took his Pro Bowl game to Philadelphia last offseason, and he took New England's pass defense with him.
Other notable picks: This was a very good draft class, and there were a lot of excellent players, starting with Polamalu, who has been the most identifiable defender on Pittsburgh's two championship defenses. The Bills found Terrence McGee in the fourth round and have gotten solid production out of him both as a return man and as a number two corner. Miami drafted Eastern Kentukcy's Yeremiah Bell in the sixth round and were happy to reward him with a sizeable new contract this offseason. Seattle landed two immediate starters when they selected Marcus Trufant in the first and Arkansas safety Ken Hamlin in the second round.
Conventional wisdom: There were no elite prospects considered worthy of even mid-round selections.
Highest pick: Mike Scifres, Western Illinois, 149th overall to the Chargers.
Best player: It's rare for a kicker or punter to dominate a game, but that's what Scifres did in last year's first-round playoff win over Indianapolis, with 51.7 yards per punt and four punts inside the 10 (with the other two inside the 20).
Biggest bust: Eddie Johnson, Idaho State, 180th overall to the Vikings. We're grasping at straws here, as Johnson was a sixth-round selection. Still, Johnson was so erratic during his single season in Minnesota that he was benched after 14 games. He hasn't played in a regular season game since.
Best value: Josh Brown, Nebraska, 222nd overall to the Seahawks. Brown has connected on 81.2 percent of his field goal attempts since coming into the league. He kicked for Seattle for his first five years and now plies his trade in St. Louis with the Rams.
Other notable picks: None.