by Rivers McCown
As what amounts to our "lead prospect writer" on staff, I think it is important to look at what has and hasn't worked in the past so we can inform our evaluations of the future. Every year, we make a list of the top 25 prospects in the NFL who have not been drafted in the first two rounds and have not hit a certain figure of starts or snaps. (This definition has changed as snap counts became more readily available.) This will be the second in a series of articles looking at our old lists. (The first one is here.) What would we change now? What context do we have now that we didn't have then? The information we have had available has changed a lot just in the years since I joined the FO staff in 2011, let alone from the start of this in 2007.
In Pro Football Prospectus 2008 (yes, the book started as a Prospectus venture), we looked at the top 25 prospects prior to 2008. This second list was written by Aaron Schatz, who I am going to assume you all are familiar with because he runs the website. The criteria for the list looked like this:
- Drafted or signed between 2005 and 2007.
- Drafted in rounds three through seven, or undrafted.
- Less than five career games started.
- Still on an undrafted free agent contract or their original rookie contract.
The fourth notch there was the new rule, and it was enacted because it was easy to see that two of the players who would have been very high on this list were big-time players who did not technically start. Justin Tuck had 10 sacks in 2007 but "started" twice, and Marion Barber made the Pro Bowl despite zero starts. Ultimately, trying to find the correct balance between what is a "prospect" and what isn't has been a running debate throughout the history of this list.
Alright, with those caveats out of the way. Let's look back at what happened to these players.
1. Jerious Norwood, RB, Atlanta Falcons
"Norwood put up a 6.0 yards per carry average in 2007 behind the NFL's worst run-blocking line. He has now led all running backs with at least 99 carries in DVOA for two straight seasons."
We already covered Norwood when we did the top prospects for 2007, when he was also the No. 1 overall prospect. Check out that write-up here. We built this city on Jerious Norwood.
2. Jason Hatcher, DE, Dallas Cowboys
"In a part-time role, Hatcher had seven quarterback hurries and four quarterback hits. Starters Chris Canty and Marcus Spears had six hurries and three hits combined."
Hatcher had an awkward career. He did not start for the entire course of his rookie deal -- this was written heading into 2008, and for the next three years after this he started just one game. After re-signing with the team in 2011, he won his first starting job under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, beating out incumbent Marcus Spears. Hatcher's first year as a starter was not an instant success, with just six hurries and seven hits to go along with 4.5 sacks. But in 2012, we credited him with 20.5 hurries and 11 hits, and he would move inside to a 4-3 five-technique in 2013 and have a career season: 11 sacks, 19.5 hurries, and 24 defeats. Of course, by that time he was 32, and only an idiotic team would give a player that old a big contract. So he went to Washington on a four-year, $27.5 million deal, of which he would only see two years.
Hatcher doesn't really fit the current list archetype because he was not at all undersized. Hatcher went to the combine and measured 6-foot-6, 284 pounds, with a 4.82 40-yard dash. This was a more power-focused football player than we usually get to zoom in on, and he made it to the third round only because he went to Grambling State.
I would be intensely skeptical of a player like this on a list today -- he had no clear path to playing time and had only showed skill as a pass rusher in a small sample size. It turned out that Hatcher was good enough to justify the placement, but I'd put a player like this well out of the first sphere of picks if he were dropped into consideration in 2019. A similar player might be someone like Buffalo's Harrison Phillips, who was an honorable mention on the 2019 list.
3. Brandon McDonald, CB, Cleveland Browns
"McDonald's 67 percent success rate and 5.8 adjusted yards allowed per pass both led the Browns last year. In fact, among players with at least 20 charted passes, only eight allowed fewer yards per pass and only two, Brian McFadden of Pittsburgh and Joselio Hanson of Philadelphia, had a higher Success Rate."
Now, I wasn't around for this one, but I think it goes squarely into the small-sample size (SSS) hole. McDonald was taking over for Leigh Bodden, which I guess was considered a big deal at the time?
McDonald was a fifth-round pick from Memphis. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at 181 pounds at the combine, which makes him both small and not all that fast. Here is a hilarious pre-actual film piece looking at some of his snaps for the Browns in 2007:
To me, this seems very focused on the idea that he had a small-sample size success rate of 67 percent. McDonald did start all of 2008 for the Browns, picking off five passes and returning one for a touchdown. Unfortunately, to quote Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, "The Browns' dead-last ranking against No. 2 receivers can be laid at the feet of Brandon McDonald, who was relentlessly abused by opposing quarterbacks. He allowed six touchdowns, 39 first downs/touchdowns, and 1,219 passing yards." He lost his starting spot in 2009 and bounced around between the Cardinals, Lions, and Bucs before finishing his career in Canada. This would be someone who would only be in play for lower spots in the list if I were ranking a player like him today, and that's if I had people I trusted pounding on the table or great charting stats to back up the idea that he was any good.
4. Tarell Brown, CB, San Francisco 49ers
"Brown is very athletic, with speed and good ball skills. He has the strength to jam receivers at the line and to make an open-field tackle in run support. Brown fell in the draft because of a broken foot that hobbled him during his senior year at Texas, and because of character concerns -- he was suspended for the Ohio State game because of a handgun incident at the beginning of the season. The 49ers definitely think they got a steal."
Brown barely played in 2007, so this was almost purely a scouting call. It was a good one. Walt Harris couldn't keep playing forever, and Brown stepped into the lineup in a nickel role in 2009. Interestingly, like Hatcher, Brown was another player who got to develop for quite some time before becoming a full-time starter.
Brown, like Hatcher, was extended after a long spell on the bench and wound up starting for the 49ers from 2011 to 2013, with another year with the Raiders in 2014. Brown finished 31st in success rate among starting corners in 2011, 52nd in 2012, and 59th in 2013. So he wasn't a star, but he was a steady starting cornerback.
Not having been around for his upbringing, I have a hard time giving you a scouting context, but I'd probably rank a player with these raw attributes and opportunity somewhere closer to top-10 than top-5.
5. Aaron Rouse, SS, Green Bay Packers
"Rouse has the size to really hit guys up in the box -- he started out as an outside linebacker at Virginia Tech -- and he has reasonably good coverage ability despite the kind of height (6-foot-4) that usually creates problems with defensive backs moving their hips and changing directions."
As elaborated, Rouse was indeed one of the biggest safeties in the NFL: 6-foot-4, 223 pounds with a 4.58 40-yard dash is a combination that puts him with solid NFL speed for a safety and 95th-plus percentile results in pure size. You often see NCAA safeties become NFL linebackers today, but this was the reverse. It was a move aimed at an era where the box safety was a run-stuffer first. Rouse struggled in his senior season, and people who were scouting his pure physical traits saw him fall into the third round despite quite a few first-round projections.
Rouse was promoted by PFP 2008 as being a real answer to Atari Bigby, but both of them got hurt in 2008. When they came back, the Packers actually moved Charles Woodson to safety rather than play either of them. To Rouse's credit, he produced good run numbers, with a 57 percent stop rate in 2008. Unfortunately, he was put in an era where safety run stuffs weren't particularly valuable at the NFL level.
Rouse was released in 2009, finishing the year with the Giants, and played in the UFL in 2010 and 2011, winning the 2011 UFL Championship and being named championship game MVP after picking off three passes.
6. Jerome Harrison, RB, Cleveland Browns
"Harrison gained just 60 yards in 20 carries as a rookie, but last year he made the most of the few touches he got when Cleveland gave the resurgent Jamal Lewis a breather. He had 145 yards on 23 carries for 45 DYAR and a 74 percent Success Rate, plus a couple of catches."
At 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, Harrison was a big-play back who surprisingly struggled as a receiver. In his only extended sample, in 2009, Harrison finished 45th of 52 backs in receiving DVOA and 48th in receiving DYAR. If you're wondering if he would have done better with an Andy Reid-type scheme, the answer was: yes, temporarily. Harrison did have a 20.1% receiving DVOA in 13 passes with the Eagles in 2010.
Unfortunately for Harrison, by the time he was able to get free of Jamal Lewis' shadow, he began dealing with a brain tumor. The Eagles attempted to trade for him again after he signed with Detroit, but the trade was voided once the tumor was discovered.
On a pure talent perspective, Harrison certainly had a lot of experience in college after leading the Pac-12 in rushing in Reggie Bush's final season at USC. He definitely had the speed and the power to be a stellar NFL back. But, as is the theme of this list so far, circumstances didn't work out for him.
7. Marques Harris, LB, San Diego Chargers
"Last year, Harris had an 82 percent Stop Rate, plus 1.5 sacks and two hurries in limited action. The year before, he had a 74 percent Stop Rate and three sacks, and became a bit of a folk hero in San Diego when he did a back flip on the field after a sack that forced a Damon Huard fumble."
I want to be clear before I show this video that I would normally have a higher standard for showing a highlight than this, but it appears to come from Mr. Harris' own YouTube channel. So, if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me:
Harris fared well in the explosion metrics at the NFL combine in 2005. I don't have enough to paint you a picture of his overall SackSEER numbers, but he had some things going his way. He transferred from Colorado to Southern Utah in his senior season, finishing with 11 sacks.
The big thing for the purposes of this list is that he was kind of old at this point -- he already had three seasons of backup performance without being elevated to a starter, and while he pinch-hit for Shaun Phillips admirably, he wasn't going to get a starting role over Phillips. Shawne Merriman's suspension seemed to create a gap, but the Chargers went with more Jyles Tucker, then drafted Larry English in 2009.
Harris, by his own words, had major back surgery and retired after five years with the Chargers and an offseason with the 49ers. Harris probably would have had a hard time making a list today because of snap counts, but even if he'd been eligible, I would likely have steered clear.
8. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, New York Giants
"He still needs to work on his pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield, and he may very well be easily breakable if given a larger workload. For 100 carries, though, Bradshaw could be a top-ten DVOA guy."
Top-10 wasn't meant to be, but Bradshaw cracked the top 21 in DVOA among qualifying backs in each of the next four years after this comment. Bradshaw wasn't a speed score guy, with a 4.55 40-yard dash and only 198 pounds of him coming at you. But he was a productive third-down back for the entirety of his rookie contract and then some. If you weren't around for this point in NFL history, think of him as Giovani Bernard before Giovani Bernard.
Bradshaw got to a second contract with the Giants, was cut after two seasons, and wound up with the Colts. While he wasn't as big of a factor for the Colts working behind Trent Richardson, he caught six touchdowns in 2014 and had a ridiculous pace going on DVOA and DYAR before wrist surgery cost him.
Bradshaw's value appreciated greatly later in his career due to the context of his era, and a player like him today would probably be an easy contender for a top-10 spot on this list. He was shifty, fast, got to space, and made plays in it.
9. Josh Beekman, G, Chicago Bears
10. Tank Tyler, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
11. Andy Alleman, G, New Orleans Saints
12. Dusty Dvoracek, DT, Chicago Bears
- Josh Beekman started 16 games in 2008, was a backup in 2009, and was out of the league afterwards. Because of the demands of the list, we get a piddly amount of offensive linemen that actually qualify, and opportunity often qualifies someone. I don't have much info on Beekman.
- One of the rationales for putting Tyler on this list was that Glenn Dorsey would demand double-teams. Whoops! Tyler started 16 games in 2008, then was out of the league after 2009. "He's a physical beast who shows good upfield rush for a big guy, though he can sometimes be pushed around on runs." Well, he had only five sacks in college so I would argue that was some wishful thinking in retrospect.
- Alleman was a physical traits guy, but someone who switched from defensive line to the offensive line. Remember Kristjan Sokoli? Yeah, don't feel bad if you don't. Players like that don't make it very often. Alleman started seven games in two years and never learned the technique he needed to be a starter.
- "Dvoracek would be ranked higher based on talent, but as our man Will Carroll always says, 'Health is a skill.'" Dvoracek started 12 games and had seven tackles for loss, but also finished every season of his NFL career on IR. Dvoracek's depth chart when he was coming up at Oklahoma? Behind Tommie Harris, ahead of Jack Swagger. He had 13.5 TFLs for OU in his senior season, but I'd have a hard time picking him for a list today just based on injury history and a lack of pass rush.
13. Brent Celek, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
"Celek is a smart route-runner with outstanding hands who really opened eyes at the 2007 East-West Shrine Game. When blocking, he makes up for his lack of natural talent with competitiveness. The Eagles put the franchise tag on L.J. Smith because this year's free-agent class was low on tight ends, but he's not exactly wowing everyone with that -24.2% DVOA and 50 percent catch rate."
Boy, L.J. Smith got the franchise tag once. That's almost as bad as kicker franchise tag. Anyway...
One of the safest positions at which to pick a player for a list like this is tight end. As long as a tight end hits at all, he'll continue to find work for years after he's washed up. Luke Stocker was a fourth-round pick in 2011 and is still clinging to NFL relevance despite never finding more than 27 targets in a season. Celek was far from a physical marvel -- he was about average across the board as far as percentiles among drafted tight ends. Where Celek made his bread-and-butter was with his ability to run the seam. Despite a few cool hurdles, if he broke a tackle, that was generally on your defense. But he was excellent adjusting to the ball in the air and at the catch point. Even if he did sometimes drop a few balls.
Like most players on this list, Celek had to regroup before he made his big debut on the scene. 2008 was another year of low targets behind Smith -- he wound up with 298 yards on 64 targets and a -15.9% DVOA. Celek broke through the door in the 2008 playoffs, catching 10 balls against the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game. From 2009 to 2012, Celek was the primary Eagles tight end, and his big 2009 (968 yards, eight touchdowns, 169 DYAR on 112 targets) was an indicator of the peak of his talent. If the Eagles hadn't drafted Zach Ertz, Celek probably gets a few more years of solid statistical output. As it is, he ended up a Philly folk hero.
A player in the line of Celek probably wouldn't have the raw top-tier talent to get me excited about putting him at the top of a prospects list today, but he'd be such a safe bet that he'd be an easy bottom-15 placement.
14. Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints
"He became the first Saints player to gain 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game in the season finale against Chicago, and his 87 DYAR ranked second in the NFL among running backs with less than 100 carries."
Sometimes we put backs on this list with a small sample size of carries with good empirical production and they flop. This was not one of those times.
Thomas went to Illinois and played ahead of Rashard Mendenhall, who would later become a first-round pick. Despite a solid Pro Day, he went undrafted. He climbed his way onto the Saints by beating out the back they drafted in the fourth round, Antonio PIttman. (He picked New Orleans in the first place because one of their assistant coaches, Gregg McMahon, had previously beenthe special teams coach at Illinois.) As Reggie Bush's franchise back fraudulentness became more and more evident, and injuries mounted for him, Thomas continued to steal carries.
Thomas was never "the guy" in New Orleans' backfields, but he was a terrific committee back who probably counted his balance through contact as his best skill. He was decent enough with shiftiness and speed, but he wasn't juking people to the turf. It was the balance that Thomas kept that made him what he was in the NFL. Man, it was disheartening being a fan of a team with a bad offense and watching the Saints pull players like Thomas and Lance Moore out of nowhere.
I would again probably consider a player like Thomas today somewhere near the last 15 picks. Running backs as a whole aren't very safe, but I think there's something about a late-round/UDFA back playing his way onto the roster spot and into plans where, barring a complete absence of talent on the roster, they have to have shown a lot to be taken seriously to begin with. Chris Carson is probably the most recent example of someone like that.
15. Ben Patrick, TE, Cardinals
16. H.B. Blades, LB, Redskins
17. Kevin Boss, TE, New York Giants
- "Some people considered Patrick the most well-rounded tight end in the class of 2007," we said, and today I look for those people and wonder what that was about. Patrick was popped for Adderall abuse in 2009, and was yet another throwaway Cardinals tight end. To his credit, he is someone whose name got burned into my soul when I thought it was cool that I could play Madden with Josh McCown and hear them pronounce my last name.
- Our comment for H.B. Blades identified him as a potential steal based on his height, and how short linebackers had been an underutilized field, but went on to question Blades' athleticism. Blades started seven games in four years and Washington paid him an extra $40,000 on release on accident
- Boss stepped into Jeremy Shockey's role for the Giants and did not replace Jeremy Shockey's production. By betting on Boss' talent over Shockey's contract demands, the Giants probably came out ahead. Boss, however, was always more of a complementary receiving weapon. He did parlay his rookie success into a four-year contract from Oakland, of which he saw just one year. Boss barely made it to 2,000 receiving yards because he retired early on account of accumulated concussions. In a world where he stayed healthy, he's probably held up alongside Celek as one of the success stories of this list.
18. Troy Smith, QB, Ravens
"The former Heisman Trophy winner saw action in four games at the end of the year, including starts against Seattle and Pittsburgh, and while he didn't set the world on fire, he was the only Baltimore quarterback to post a positive DVOA on the season. ... [He] might hang onto the starting job all year, which could set him up for a chance with another team or at least a long NFL career as a Charlie Batch-level backup."
Reader, Smith did not hang onto that job. He did get a six-start cameo with the 2010 49ers, a team that fell apart under Mike Singletary despite mostly being filled with players who would be part of their success with Jim Harbaugh: Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, and Delanie Walker. Smith was sacked three times per start and completed 50 percent of his passes.
In trying to jog my memory about Smith's NFL career for this list, I didn't think he looked notably terrible. He certainly wasn't a great quarterback -- even his college throws tended to look a little softer than they needed to be. However, he was made to look bad by the fact that his entire tenure with the 49ers came under 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, who would go on to be OC at UCLA the very next season and then never coordinate an offense again in his life.
Smith's career at Ohio State was very efficient, but it appeared tied to the running game in a way that I think could have been interesting if those final five games had been coached by Harbaugh. When Smith got to the advanced passing game, the deeper looks, it was essentially play-action or nothing. He believed in himself a bit too much under pressure against NFL teams. And, for someone that Ohio State let return kicks and run early in his career to get his feet wet, he was a fairly unremarkable runner.
Instead, Smith bounced around the AFL and CFL for the rest of his football career. A great college football player for his time, but probably not an NFL quarterback in any era before the '70s.
19. Kevin Payne, SS Bears
At 230 pounds, Payne was a safety for the 1990s. He had an unremarkable combine with a 4.6 40-yard dash. FOA 2008 correctly figured he'd get the starting safety spot for the Bears. Shoulder surgery in the 2009 offseason continued a trend of injuries. The Bears drafted Major Wright and shipped Payne off to the Rams, and Payne didn't play an NFL down after the 2009 season.
20. Jared Gaither, OT, Ravens
"According to Maryland coaches, he didn't allow a single sack. However, he was inconsistent as a sophomore and then had academic issues. If he had stuck around and had a strong junior year, he would have been a first- or second-round pick. Instead, with Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen threatening to suspend him for 2007, Gaither declared for the NFL supplemental draft, and Baltimore traded in a fifth-round pick to grab him."
This is one of the weirdest careers on this list. Gaither somehow established himself as both a franchise left tackle and, at the same time, only barely out-started his 2008 total (15) over the rest of his career (20). Gaither was one of the biggest tackles in NFL history at 6-foot-9, 340 pounds. He was impressive right off the bat as a freshman in college.
But he just could never stay healthy. He suffered a devastating head injury against the Patriots in 2009 that sent him to the hospital. He didn't play at all in 2010. The Chiefs signed him late in camp in 2011, then waived him. The Chargers, who in the early 2010s were making offensive lines for Philip Rivers out of whatever flotsam they could find, claimed him. Then, after just five starts, they gave Gaither a four-year contract in free agency, only to release him the next March after not believing Gaither had back pain. (Any 6-foot-9 person has back pain, right?) This after Gaither suffered from back spasms in 2012's training camp.
Boy, they really went in on him. "The Big Lazy?" "Dean Spanos believes he was robbed by Jared Gaither?"
Gaither is only 33 -- he could still be playing if he was up for it. But one thing that a lifetime of sports has taught me is that the real size outliers just have a terrible time staying healthy. Take it from a Yao Ming fan. It's not easy for the truly huge, and it's actually quite impressive that Gaither was able to be as good as he was for so long despite playing a position based on leverage.
I think this was a fine pick for the list and would happily run with it again. I might have put a player like Gaither even higher than this.
21. James Marten, OT, Cowboys
22. Courtney Taylor, WR, Seahawks
23. David Thomas, TE, Patriots
24. Aundrae Allison, WR, Vikings
25. Mansfield Wrotto, G, Seahawks
- We make some bad picks sometimes. Most of them don't turn out as bad as Marten did. Marten was released by the Cowboys before he even played a game in 2008. Supposedly one of the most athletic linemen in the 2007 draft, the Raiders signed him and he appeared in one game -- the only game of his NFL career. I wish I could give you more color about why he was bad, but I don't even have that game to watch it.
- Taylor started four games in 2008, catching nine of 25 balls for 98 yards. That sounds a lot more impressive when you realize that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in secret before that season. Taylor attempted a comeback and didn't catch NFL interest, though he did catch on for a five-year career with the BC Lions in the CFL.
- Thomas came into his first real targets in 2008, and forged on for another five years after being traded to the Saints in 2009. (It turns out the Welker-Moss Patriots didn't need many tight end targets for some reason.) Thomas was mostly a supporting tight end for Jeremy Shockey and, later, Jimmy Graham.
- Allison repeated his 2007 season in catching just 47.6 percent of his targets -- it's hard to harp on about the speed he showed on kick returns when he never caught the ball. Only on offseason rosters from 2009 on, he did make some magic with Marty Schottenheimer in the UFL. Allison created a luxury fashion brand called "Wealthy War Intentions" with former Eastern Carolina teammate Chris Johnson, which, as of my rudimentary web skills, appears to be offline now.
- Mansfield Wrotto was described in the Almanac as "Andy Alleman Lite" for also being a defensive line-to-offensive line conversion project. I can't decide which of them should be more insulted by that comparison. Wrotto did actually start 12 NFL games between the Seahawks and Bills, which is more than most conversion projects get. I also can't tell you how many times I typed out "Mansfield Grotto" in the production of this piece, because I think that just sounds like a fun place to be.
Michael Bush, RB, Raiders
Dashon Goldson, S, 49ers
Martrez Milner, TE, Falcons
Dante Rosario, TE, Panthers
Lyle Sendlein, C, Cardinals
Chansi Stuckey, WR, Jets
Tyler Thigpen, QB, Chiefs
Guy Whimper, OT, Giants
- The longest and best career of this bunch belongs to Dashon Goldson, who was first-team All-Pro in 2012 and made two Pro Bowls, and then immediately turned into a lowlight reel on the 2013 Darrelle Revis joint Adventures in Schianoland.
- Martrez Milner is another guy who never played an NFL snap after being put on this list -- the Falcons released him after he was passed by Justin Peelle on the depth chart, and he bounced around practice squads and offseason deals for a bit.
- I'd say the second-best career here probably belonged to Bush, who was looking like a potential first-round pick before his knee was destroyed by Wesley Woodyard in college. Bush rebounded to become a long-time committee back, leading the Raiders in carries in 2011.
These are the best players who didn't get mentioned on the list, who were technically eligible (in parentheses is their career Approximate Value from Pro Football Reference):
Cameron Wake (93 and counting)
Ryan Fitzpatrick (86 and counting)
Darren Sproles (79 and counting)
Jermon Bushrod (73)
Brent Grimes (68)
Zach Strief -- on 2007 list (62)
Rob Ninkovich (60)
Stephen Tulloch -- on 2007 list (59)
Doug Free (57)
Charles Johnson (57)
Sione Pouha (54)
Brian Robinson (53)
Frostee Rucker (51 and counting)
Matt Cassel (51 and counting)
William Gay (50)
Robbie Gould (47 and counting)
Stephen Gostkowski (47 and counting)
Lorenzo Alexander (46 and counting)
Miles Austin -- on 2007 Honorable Mention (44)
Corey Graham (43 and counting)
The 2007 UDFA class was pretty uninspiring. The best player was probably either Nick Roach (37 AV) or Mike DeVito (33) -- maybe Matt Moore if you want to give him credit for backup years where he could have been a starter somewhere.
Of the new names on this list, Charles Johnson jumps out to me as someone who would have squarely been on my radar as a third-rounder mostly seen as a steal. Again, we get a lot of linemen. Johnson will appear on the list when we review 2009.