by Tom Gower
One of our annual traditions at Football Outsiders come the time leading up to the draft is to look back at the draft that was. Not last year, as is the custom, but six years ago. That gives us sufficient time to form a reasonably decent evaluation of most players selected.
The 2009 NFL draft was notable for a few things. There were three consensus first-round quarterbacks, and virtually no passers behind them outside of gimmicks and late-round picks. There were speedy edge rushers galore, plus offensive tackles to prevent them from turning the corner. There were a couple non-rush linebackers, but this was maybe not the year to find a cornerback to cover all the receivers who would go in the first round.
Conventional Wisdom: There was a consensus top two, both of whom were considered likely to be very high picks. Matt Stafford had a phenomenal arm, but did not always display pinpoint accuracy and his team was not outstandingly successful given its overall talent. The other high pick was a minority quarterback who was arrested, but never charged on a sexual assault allegation. Mark Sanchez did not have Stafford's arm and only had 16 starts in college, but he was coming out of Southern California with a high degree of polish and fresh off a dominating performance against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The consensus third quarterback, though possibly a distant third, was Kansas State's Josh Freeman, another big, strong-armed passer who came out early and needed further polishing to become a successful NFL quarterback.
Here at Football Outsiders, our Lewin Career Forecast projection system did not love any of the quarterbacks. Despite being the top overall pick, Stafford had an underwhelming 57 percent completion rate in three years at Georgia. Freeman's completion rate was a little higher, at 59 percent. And the LCF was extremely skeptical of Mark Sanchez because he only started 16 games. Dave Lewin himself was somewhat optimistic about Sanchez if he could sit on the bench and learn, but believed if Sanchez had to play right away, there was a strong chance he would fail.
Highest pick: Stafford, Georgia, first overall to the Lions.
Best player: If you believe in the absolute supremacy of postseason wins as a determinant of player quality, Sanchez (fifth to the Jets). Otherwise, Stafford by a significant margin. His 2,882 career DYAR to date is 2,613 more than any other quarterback in the class.
The more interesting question is whether Freeman (16th to the Buccaneers) or Sanchez is second-best. Freeman has 269 DYAR, far ahead of Sanchez's minus-585 DYAR total. Freeman's 2010 is the best non-Stafford season of the class. His overall conventional statistics are better -- higher completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown rate, plus lower sack rate and lower interception rate. On the other hand, Freeman was unceremoniously jettisoned by his team in 2013 and was out of the NFL until the Dolphins recently signed him. On the other other hand, Sanchez might not have made it with the Jets until 2013 had he not gotten a financial apology after their failed pursuit of Peyton Manning. My heart says Freeman, and if he is in the right space, this will not even be a question if we do a 12-year retrospective.
Biggest bust: Back in the 2005 draft retrospective, I covered the amazing NFL career of David Greene, a Seahawks third-round pick who was never allowed to attempt an NFL pass. The 2009 draft brought us another amazing example -- a player chosen even higher than Greene who never completed an NFL pass. The previous season, the Miami Dolphins had introduced the Wildcat formation to the NFL and maximized how far a team with an extraordinarily limited passing game could go. Perhaps with the Wildcat in mind, the Dolphins spent their second-round pick, 44th overall, on Pat White out of West Virginia. White and the Mountaineers nearly made the BCS championship game running Rich Rodriguez's spread-and-shred in a topsy-turvy 2007 season, and White's mobility and apparently his team's 2008 success caused the Dolphins to overlook his conventional size and arm-strength limitations. Then, they found those limitations, and learned that White was not a supreme athlete, which meant he did not help them win. Miami cut him before 2010, and though he resurfaced with Washington in 2013, he seems poised to end his career as the highest-drafted quarterback with no NFL completions since the Bills spent the 37th pick in 1980 on Gene Bradley.
Best value: Quarterbacks selected after Freeman to start an NFL game:
- Curtis Painter, 201st, eight starts for the 2-14 2011 Colts;
- Keith Null, 196th overall, four starts for the 1-15 2009 Rams;
- Stephen McGee, 101st, one start for the 2010 Cowboys.
McGee won more games as a starter than Null and Painter combined. If you needed a quarterback and did not have the first pick, you were not going to be happy. Even at No. 1 overall, Matt Stafford was the best value at quarterback in the draft.
Conventional Wisdom: Like at quarterback, there was a top class of two. Knowshon Moreno did not have top-end speed but showed tremendous lateral agility and was a highly productive runner in the same backfield as Stafford. Chris "Beanie" Wells out of Ohio State was a power back, but one with a good burst to and through the hole. The next tier included Donald Brown, a very patient runner, and LeSean McCoy, a naturally elusive runner who lacked ideal bulk.
Here at Football Outsiders, Speed Score was much less impressed by the running back class of 2009 than it was by the exceptional class of 2008, and particularly by Moreno's pedestrian 4.6 40, while it like North Carolina State's Andre Brown and Virginia's Cedric Peerman best.
Highest pick: Moreno, Georgia, 12th overall to the Broncos.
Best player: The Eagles made Shady McCoy the 53rd pick and got one of the league's most dynamic space players. He has more than 4,000 more yards from scrimmage than any other back in the class. Lurking in the shadows of the undrafted free agents is Arian Foster.
Biggest bust: Brown (27th, Colts), Moreno, and Wells (31st, Cardinals) were all disappointments to their drafting teams, but each was at least moderately productive. To get a true bust, you have to go to the San Francisco 49ers using the 74th pick on Glen Coffee out of Alabama.
Best value: He was never more than a backup for the Jaguars team that drafted him, but Rashad Jennings has done about as much over his career as Donald Brown has, and Jennings went 250th out of Liberty, just 223 slots after Brown.
Conventional Wisdom: Texas Tech stud Michael Crabtree was pretty much everybody's favorite wideout, even if a foot injury prevented him from going through offseason workouts. If you were looking for more of a burner and an explosive returner, Mizzou's Jeremy Maclin was probably more to your liking, or Percy Harvin if you were open to potential character and injury issues and a receiver who played in an unconventional offense. If you wanted even more pure speed and were less concerned about ability to catch the ball and route-running, Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey was more to your liking.
Here at Football Outsiders, we had just introduced Playmaker Score, v. 1.0. As outlined in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, like everyone else it liked Michael Crabtree an awful lot. He had the highest score of anyone in the draft by a significant margin. The next tier of receivers, which consisted of Maclin, Nicks, Kenny Britt, and Brian Robiskie, had a middling projection. By Vince Verhei's own admission in the essay that introduced the metric, Playmaker Score was better at identifying likely busts than it was at picking out superstars. The players Playmaker Score pegged at least likely to live up to their status as high picks included Harvin, Heyward-Bey, and Mohamed Massaquoi.
Highest pick: Heyward-Bey, seventh overall to the Raiders.
Best player: By receptions and receiving yards, it is Mike Wallace (Ole Miss, 84th, Steelers), followed by Nicks (North Carolina, 29th, Giants). Judging by this offseason's free agency activity, the NFL says it is Maclin (19th, Eagles), perhaps followed by Britt (30th, Titans), Harvin (22nd, Vikings), and Brian Hartline (Ohio State, 108th, Dolphins), with Crabtree (10th, 49ers) and Nicks still waiting in limbo, and judgment of Wallace being an exercise for the eye of the beholder.
By receiving DYAR, Wallace is the clear No. 1, and it is not very close. He has 1,270 DYAR (non-weighted). Maclin is second with 947 DYAR, with Nicks third at 880. Wallace has had four seasons with at least 200 DYAR. No other receiver in the class has more than two. His 2010 season, when he ranked first in DYAR and DVOA, is the best by any receiver in the class. His 2011 season is the second best by any receiver. The third best is actually Crabtree's 2012 when he had 334 DYAR.
Specifying receiving DYAR was an important caveat, because Percy Harvin has added significant rushing value to his work as a receiver. Even with his significantly limited work the past two seasons, for reasons injury-related and otherwise, he has 1,142 total career DYAR. His 627 receiving DYAR ranks sixth in the class, just behind Crabtree's 630, but he adds 515 rushing DYAR to boost his total past Maclin.
My guess is the consensus would be Maclin is the best receiver. Even if you prorate his per-season work to account for his lost 2013, he is still behind Wallace by DYAR and, unlike Harvin, adding in rushing DYAR hurts rather than helps him. Outside 2013, though, he has been consistently productive. Given this class's cast of players with yo-yo production (Britt, Crabtree, Nicks, Wallace), that sets him apart.
Biggest bust: Heyward-Bey was a serious overdraft and has been an extreme disappointment for where he was picked, but he is at least currently on an NFL team and has been each of the past six seasons. The Browns went local and familial with the 36th pick. They reached for Brian Robiskie, who played collegiately at Ohio State and was the son of receivers coach Terry Robiskie. He caught 39 passes in three seasons before he was released and has bounced around the fringes of the NFL since then.
Best value: The Patriots took a chance on a collegiate quarterback making a position change in the seventh round, and all Julian Edelman (Kent State, 232nd) did was catch the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIX.
Conventional Wisdom: Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew was the best tight end in the class by a significant margin. He was not a field-stretcher, but instead a complete player who was a quality blocker as well as a reliable receiver. The next rough tier was a quartet of field-stretchers: Wisconsin's Travis Beckum, South Carolina's Jared Cook, Florida's Cornelius Ingram, and Shawn Nelson from Southern Miss.
Highest pick: Pettigrew, 20th overall to the Lions.
Best player: Pettigrew leads in catches (by 60), while Cook (89th, Titans) leads in receiving yards (by 124). They are tied in touchdowns. By DYAR, it is Cook, 189 to minus-195 (Pettigrew has had negative DYAR in five of six career seasons). By contract and role going forward, Cook.
Biggest bust: With no Matt Millen to kick around this time, Six Years Later needs a new draft whipping boy. Enter Josh McDaniels, then-brand new head coach of the Denver Broncos. A full recounting of McDaniels' follies in draft management would take a whole separate column. For right now, though, we will look solely at Denver's pick at the end of the second round. Denver traded a pair of third-round picks to the Steelers for their second- and fourth-round picks. They then used that second rounder, 64th overall, on tight end Richard Quinn, a blocking tight end whose character McDaniels praised at the draft. It took until August to learn he was not a good blocker, September for him to get arrested on domestic violence charges, and the 2011 preseason for him to get waived. The Steelers got Mike Wallace with one of those two picks they acquired from the Broncos.
Best value: It was not a great year for tight ends. Beyond Cook and Pettigrew, Oakland sixth-rounder Brandon Myers (Iowa, 202nd) has 180 catches, followed by Houston fifth-rounder James Casey (Rice, 152nd) with 72, and Jacksonville's The Other Zach Miller (Nebraska-Omaha, 180th) with 45. Myers is an easy choice.
Conventional Wisdom: For perhaps the only time in modern NFL history, the most famous player in the draft was an offensive tackle. The movie The Blind Side would not come out until November, but by draft day the tale of Michael Oher's journey from the streets of Memphis to the groves of Ole Miss and eventually to the first round was known even by people who only occasionally watched the Super Bowl.
Beyond Oher, the football cognoscenti loved the athleticism of Baylor's Jason Smith, who had the physical potential to turn into an elite left tackle. Consensus No. 2 was Virginia's Eugene Monroe, perhaps a more polished player than Smith but one who did not have the same theoretical ceiling. If you could overlook some obvious body flabbiness, Andre Smith had been a standout run blocker for Alabama.
Going to the interior of the line, the top three players by most estimates were all centers -- Cal's Alex Mack, Oregon's Max Unger, and Louisville's Eric Wood. No guard was expected to be chosen in the first round; the top two prospects were tackle conversion project Andy Levitre from Oregon State and Oklahoma mauler Duke Robinson.
Highest pick: Smith, second overall to the Rams.
Best player: An interesting question, with again no clear answer. All three centers chosen in the first two rounds (Mack 21st to the Browns, Wood 28th to the Bills, and Unger 49th to the Seahawks) are quality players. At guard, Levitre earned a rich free-agent contract from Tennessee, where he has been a disappointment. Louis Vasquez (Texas Tech, 78th, Chargers) has been a better player at least the last two seasons. There has been no standout tackle. Monroe would be my pick for his consistent production. If you like right tackles, you have your pick of Phil Loadholt (54th, Vikings) or Sebastian Vollmer (58th, Patriots). Loadholt has 22 more starts over six seasons and is 18 months younger, if you want two indicators of where my thinking goes.
Biggest bust: Jason Smith, easily. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to Joe Posnanski's lack of recognition, or perhaps it is a lesson that certain traits beyond the physical are needed to be a quality starter in the NFL and some players, despite being fine people, do not necessarily have them.
Best value: It was not a good year to find an offensive lineman late in the draft. The best of the bunch has been fourth-round pick T.J. Lang (Eastern Michigan, 109th, Packers), who found his way to the field in his fourth season as a tackle and has since kicked inside to right guard. The other late-round pick who seems set to start in 2015 is sixth-round selection Matt Slauson (Nebraska, 193rd, Jets).
Of course, at Football Outsiders we know the best value of this draft (to our website, anyway) was San Diego practice-squad tackle Ben Muth (Stanford, undrafted).
Conventional Wisdom: A player for most every flavor. LSU's Tyson Jackson might have had limited pass rush chops, but he was an elite run-stuffer and ideal 5-tech end who could be great for the right team. Boston College's B.J. Raji was that rare specimen, the quality two-gap nose tackle who could also have an impact on passing downs. If you wanted a one-gap penetrator, Ole Miss' Peria Jerry could be more to your liking.
With the 3-4 trend starting to sweep across the league, edge rushers were starting to be mixed between 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends. Without splitting front-seven players into defensive linemen, edge rushers, and off-the-ball linebackers, I stuck to my past practice and considered players based on their initial NFL position. Thus, among, say, Scouts Inc.'s list (ESPN Insider) of best players by position, Jackson, Aaron Maybin and Everette Brown are considered defensive ends, while Robert Ayers and Brian Orakpo are considered outside linebackers. Brown and Maybin both had the first step and closing burst to be elite NFL rushers.
Highest pick: Jackson, third overall to the Chiefs.
Best player: Looking at the non-edge rushers, a mostly underwhelming class. Second-round pick Sen'Derrick Marks (Auburn, 62nd, Titans) had perhaps the best 2014, but was only a minor contributor for the Titans team that drafted him.
Among the edge rushers who began their career as defensive linemen, Connor Barwin (Cincinnati, 46th, Texans) has the most sacks at 38.5. He got 4.5 of those as a rookie defensive end, while the rest came as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Among full-time defensive ends, Michael Johnson (Georgia Tech, 70th, Bengals) has been the most impactful rusher by a sizable margin. He has 30.5 sacks, and among players who never primarily stood up, Ziggy Hood (Mizzou, 32nd, Steelers) is second with 12.5. (Raji, who went ninth to the Packers, is a fine player, but he only has 10.5 career sacks.)
Biggest bust: Jackson was a disappointment, but he is still around. The Bills chose Maybin with the 11th pick, and he had 6.0 career sacks, or three fewer than Jackson has.
Best value: There were some productive players picked later. The seventh round produced Ricky Jean-Francois (LSU, 244th, 49ers); Clinton McDonald (Memphis, 249th), who found a home in Seattle after the Bengals chose him; and Vance Walker (Georgia Tech, 210th), mostly a solid rotational player with the Falcons, Raiders, and Chiefs who joined the Broncos this offseason. The best defensive lineman in the fourth round or later, though, was fourth-rounder Henry Melton (Texas, 105th, Bears).
Conventional Wisdom: Aaron Curry was the greatest thing since sliced bread and everything you could want in a linebacker, a playmaking machine with great instincts whose highlight reels mostly consisted of unblocked sacks. He was a lock to have a long career, though if you were a cynical jerk you might add "just like Aundray Bruce" to any such statement. Among off-the-ball linebackers, USC's Brian Cushing was the consensus second-best prospect as a powerful player who could cover tight ends and be a force in the run game. Among pure inside/middle linebackers, Cushing's teammate Rey Maualuga and Ohio State's James Laurinaitis were the consensus top two picks.
Among edge rushers who began their career as 3-4 outside linebackers, everybody liked Texas' Brian Orakpo for his combination of speed off the edge and ability to play the run. Yet another USC player, Clay Matthews was widely regarded as worthy of a late first-round pick. Tennessee's Robert Ayers was not a pure speed rusher, but had more bulk and power than most of the top edge rushers.
Highest pick: Curry, Wake Forest, fourth overall to the Seahawks.
Best player: Among the edge rushers, the answer is obvious: Clay Matthews (26th) has 61.0 sacks, more than 20 ahead of every other player in the class, and has been an impact player every season for the Green Bay Packers. When healthy, Brian Orakpo (11th, Redskins) has been nearly his equal, but Orakpo has missed 24 games over the past three seasons.
Looking solely at off-the-ball linebackers, the best 2014 clearly belonged to DeAndre Levy (Wisconsin, 76th), who drew some All-Pro consideration for his work in the Lions defense. In the past, when healthy, it has been Cushing (15th, Texans). In 2014, though, he looked like a shell of the player he was before injuries robbed him of most of both 2012 and 2013. The impact he has made when healthy tells me I should pick him as the best player at his position in the class over the last six seasons. In another four years, though, Levy may pass him.
Biggest bust: Curry, whose instincts never adapted to the NFL game. Seattle traded him to Oakland at midseason 2011, and he retired before the 2013 season began.
Best value: For seventh-round picks, Brad Jones (Colorado, 218th, Packers) and Moise Fokou (Maryland, 230th, Eagles) both had solid careers. Ditto Jasper Brinkley (South Carolina, 150th), chosen by Minnesota in the fifth round. If you want to say Levy, for his third-round selection, or even Matthews for going 26th and outperforming higher-selected players, well, I will not disagree with you too strongly.
Conventional Wisdom: There was no safety worthy of being selected in the first round, unless you felt the consensus top corner in the draft, Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, would be a better fit away from the boundary due to his questionable long speed. Vontae Davis from Illinois flashed dominance as a cover corner, but inconsistency and a habit of underachieving pushed him out of the top ten toward the bottom of the first round.
The consensus top safeties in the draft, all expected to go off the board between the late-first and early-third rounds, included Western Michigan's Louis Delmas, Oregon's Patrick Chung, and Mizzou's William Moore.
Highest pick: Jenkins, Ohio State, 14th overall to the Saints.
Best player: Defensive backs with highly productive seasons include Davis (25th, Dolphins), Delmas (33rd, Lions), Jairus Byrd (Oregon, 42nd, Bills), Jenkins, Moore (Missouri, 55th, Falcons), Sean Smith (Utah, 61st, Dolphins), Lardarius Webb (Nicholls St., 88th, Ravens), and Glover Quin (New Mexico, 112th, Texans). Picking the best six-year career to date is virtually impossible. Davis and Webb have probably had the best single seasons in coverage; Delmas, the biggest in-the-box impact. Quin became the free safety the Texans needed and has continued his solid play in Detroit, Byrd has the big interception total, and Smith may have been the most consistent player among the group. I'm open to argument in any direction, or at least I like to think I am.
Biggest bust: Of the 12 defensive backs chosen in the first two rounds, ten of them played in the NFL in 2014. The other two were chosen by the Matt Millen of the 2009 draft, boy genius Josh McDaniels. He traded a 2010 first-round selection to the Seattle Seahawks for the 37th overall pick and used it on undersized cover corner Alphonso Smith. The Broncos used the 48th pick on free safety Darcel McBath. McBath stuck around in Denver twice as long as Smith did, an entire two seasons instead of just one. His flameout left the Broncos with a need at free safety. The Broncos could have filled that hole by spending the 2010 first-round pick they shipped to Seattle on the player the Seahawks actually chose: Earl Thomas.
Best value: Some teams find value throughout the draft. Some teams are more like the Tennessee Titans and treat picks in the fifth round of the draft or later as virtual afterthoughts. The one exception for Tennessee from 2007 to 2013 came in this draft. As a rookie, sixth-round pick Jason McCourty was part of the group lost and confused on the field in Foxborough as the Patriots annihilated the Titans 59-0. He steadily improved, though, and eventually earned a five-year, $40 million contract as a hometown success, and if you doubt how good he is, just look at the contract.
Conventional Wisdom: Football Outsiders writers wrote about the folly of spending draft picks on kickers and punters, since they mostly go undrafted, and if you choose a long snapper at all, well, I guess there is really not that much difference between the late sixth and seventh rounds and undrafted free agency. USC's strong-legged David Buehler was the consensus top kicker, but there was no Mike Nugent-esque standout.
Highest pick: Punter Kevin Huber, Cincinnati, 142nd overall to the Bengals.
Best player: Colts seventh-rounder Pat McAfee (West Virginia, 222nd) has been a fine punter, and like New Orleans fifth-rounder Thomas Morstead (SMU, 164th), he has also been a good kickoff man who allows his team to employ a broader range of potential placekickers. (The Colts, unlike the Saints, actually use this freedom to employ a good placekicker.)
Biggest bust: Shockingly, all six of the specialists drafted actually contributed to their teams, and four of them are still in the NFL. As far as exceptionally productive drafts go, this is up there with the 2004 quarterback class, with the top three passing prospects of that year all still productive players a decade after they were drafted. The shortest-lived of the sextet were Patriots long-snapper Jake Ingram (Hawaii, 198th), a sixth-round pick, and Buehler (172nd, Cowboys), a fine kickoff specialist whose struggles on place kicks led to his departure from the NFL. Don't draft kickoff specialists in the fifth round.
Best value: McAfee.
(Ed. Note: I wanted to share some thoughts about the entire 2009 draft as a whole, rather than position by position. There's a sense of disappointment about Matthew Stafford, who has never established himself as a top-ten NFL quarterback despite his prestigious physical gifts. But 2009 is one of the worst drafts in NFL history, especially at the top, and it's clear that Detroit absolutely made the correct pick. As you may have noticed, two of the top four picks in the entire draft (Jason Smith and Aaron Curry) aren't even in the league anymore. Brian Orakpo is the only player out of the top 20 who has been chosen for the Pro Bowl more than once. By P-F-R's Career Approximate Value, Stafford is actually the No. 3 player in the entire draft, trailing only Clay Matthews and LeSean McCoy. And there weren't really great late-draft breakout stars other than Edelman and McCourty. Other than special teams, no player chosen after the fourth round of this draft has made a Pro Bowl. It was just a terrible draft year. -- Aaron Schatz)
Previous articles in this series:
- 2008 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2007 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2006 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2005 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2004 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2003 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2002 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2001 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2000 Draft: Six Years Later
- 1999 Draft: Six Years Later
- 1998 Draft: Six Years Later