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 were not 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 third in a series of articles looking at our old lists.
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 Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, we looked at the top 25 prospects prior to that season. This list was written by Bill Barnwell, who used to edit and write for this website before going on to grander things at Grantland and ESPN. The criteria for the list looked like this:
- Drafted or signed between 2006 and 2008.
- 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.
No new rules here, but there was a ton of turnover because A) a lot of names on the 2008 list didn't keep their eligibility and B) I think Bill had a different selection process.
Alright, with those caveats out of the way. Let's look back at what happened to these players.
1. Miles Austin, WR, Dallas Cowboys
"There's some boom-or-bust here, but there are few players on this list who could potentially become one of the best players in football at their position. Austin's not there yet, but he has that sort of ability."
Barnwell wasn't the first on staff to get on the Austin train, but Austin slipped from our honorable mentions in 2007 to not being on the list at all in 2008. So Barnwell reached right back to pluck him and move him up 25 spots, and deserves some credit for that. Of course, the fact that Austin had a 48.7% DVOA in 2008 didn't hurt as far as grabbing our collective attention.
Austin went on to be a Pro Bowler in 2009, leading the NFC with 11 touchdowns and 1,320 yards. The best receiver in the NFL that year was probably either Vincent Jackson or Sidney Rice by stats or Randy Moss by reputation, but Austin was definitely in the conversation. The Cowboys immediately signed him to a huge extension and, in doing so, bent the spirit of the salary cap in what was officially an uncapped year. The NFL penalized the Cowboys for this in 2013 because that's how the Goodell wheel of justice spun that day.
While Barnwell was right about Austin's peak, the peak came and went quite quickly. Nagging hamstring injuries limited Austin from 2011 to the rest of his career, and he was never able to match his 2009 season's 65.3 percent catch rate. He accumulated 964 DYAR from 2009 to 2012, had a solid possession-receiver season with Cleveland, and retired after 2015. He currently is an assistant coach for the 49ers.
2. Jacob Ford, DE, Tennessee Titans
"Ford picked up seven sacks despite starting only three times. He was also stout against the run, putting up the best Stop Rate of any Titans end."
So this was an interesting miss. Ford was coming off an Achilles injury in 2007, so you'd have expected injuries to be what made him miss. But instead he just never got this promised real shot at playing time. He was a heck of a situational rusher for the Jim Washburn-era Titans, with 15.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits. When Washburn took the Eagles line coach job, Ford got stuck under a new administration and released at final cuts in 2011. He did try out for the Eagles in-season, but never got a reunion with Washburn. That was essentially the end of Ford's career.
Ford was very graceful for his size, but that stop rate accounted him as perhaps more of a complete player than he actually was. FOA 2010 mentioned how one-dimensional he was, and he was listed at only 249 pounds.
I'd be curious about a player like this today -- it's kind of hard to say exactly where I'd place someone in this vein without seeing more of his 2008 performance. But Ford would definitely be in contention for a top-10 spot with this level of production.
3. Jerious Norwood, RB, Atlanta Falcons
"Norwood was our No. 1 prospect in both 2007 and 2008, but he falls off the top of this list in his final year of eligibility because of a 2008 that didn't meet the standards of his first two seasons."
We built this city on Jerious Norwood. I wrote up his career on the 2007 list linked above.
4. Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions
"The increase in opposition pass attempts and the arrival of Jim Schwartz gives us high hopes for Avril next year -- he could really be something special."
Avril's bust-out year was not 2009, but 2010, when he finished with 8.5 sacks and began a run where he got eight or more sacks in six of seven seasons. Though we didn't have SackSEER at the time, Avril would have crushed it. He had high passes defensed numbers at Purdue and was excellent in the 3-cone drill at the NFL combine. While he was never in the "best edge rusher in the NFL" conversation, and in fact never made a Pro Bowl until 2016, Avril was a very strong No. 1 edge at his peak, with the speed and bend to threaten the edge. His 74 career sacks are 79th all-time, placing him near players like Aaron Schoebel, Chad Brown, and Jevon Kearse.
Avril was surprisingly allowed to walk to the Seahawks in the 2013 offseason after a franchise tag in 2012, getting only a two-year, $15 million contract. It was one of the building blocks of Seattle's mini-dynasty, along with Russell Wilson's rookie contract. Avril retired in 2017 after a neck injury ended his career.
A player with the kind of traits Avril had would be another strong bet to make the top five of a list I made today. The production took some time in coming, but when it did, Avril became one of the best ends in the NFL.
5. William Gay, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
"The Steelers' dime back was pushed into service by injuries to Bryant McFadden and DeShea Townsend, but he didn't look like a fill-in; he led the league in Adjusted Yards per Pass and had the fourth-best Success Rate among corners that were targeted more than 40 times."
It's weird to imagine Gay as a young, promising player, because in my mind he has been the fifth cornerback for the Steelers for every year from 2015 to 2023.
Gay came out of Louisville at 5-foot-10, 187 pounds, after being drafted in the fifth round. While he did get plenty of playing time in 2009, he was not quite up to being the main outside cornerback. This became the theme of his career. He joined up with the Cardinals in 2012, started outside next to Patrick Peterson, got roasted, and was right back in Pittsbugh the next year. When Gay was placed in the slot, he acquitted himself pretty well. When he was placed outside, things got a little sketchy when opposing receivers got deep in the route.
Overall, I think this pick went well for Barnwell. Because we've been burned so many times by slot cornerbacks, I would have hesitated to put Gay quite this high. Definitely worth a spot on the list, probably not a top-five guy unless I had someone I trusted telling me a lot of context I couldn't get from watching him.
6. Jerome Harrison, RB, Cleveland Browns
"Truthfully, it's ridiculous that Harrison's a 'prospect' and not the Browns starting running back ... [Over the last two years] Harrison's averaged an eye-popping 6.8 yards each time he's been handed the ball."
This was actually a repeat ranking -- Harrison was also sixth on the 2008 list, where we wrote up his past and what became of him. Check that out in the above links to old lists.
7. Orlando Scandrick, CB, Dallas Cowboys
"Scandrick often looked like the best corner the Cowboys had last year, which was impressive when you consider that he was playing behind three first-round picks and Anthony Henry. ... He finished in the top 20 for both Success Rate and Adjusted Yards Per Pass."
Our first still-active player in the series! (Well, Brandon Marshall hasn't caught on anywhere that I've heard of anyway.) Scandrick came out of Boise State as an undersized guy, but he could fly. He ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and that is something that would probably catch more eyes in 2019 than it did in 2009. Scouts wrote him off as undersized at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds.
Scandrick is a long-time Cowboys slot cornerback fixture. He was never a star, but, like Gay, he had the speed to stick around and make throws over the middle as difficult as they could possibly be. He was a good enough pass-rusher to be a plus in zone blitz schemes, and actually wound up with more sacks than interceptions with the Cowboys.
I'm actually coming away from this article very impressed with Barnwell's cornerback selections. Normally cornerbacks in this mold are very hit-or-miss after one season. Barnwell found two who played a whole ton of NFL downs. Again, for me, a player like this would be closer to the middle of the list today because we've seen how miss they can be. However, because the list was based on starts rather than snaps at this point, it makes sense that the cornerbacks who showed this much wouldn't be available for me to pick today.
Scandrick was released at Eagles' last cuts.
8. Josh Sitton, G, Green Bay Packers
"Sitton actually won a starting job in training camp last year, but sprained his knee and was never 100 percent the rest of the way. ...Sitton's 320-pound frame makes him the favorite to win the job at right guard."
This was a huge hit for Barnwell; Sitton is probably the best NFL player on this entire list. He made four Pro Bowls and was named a second-team AP all-pro three times during his 2013-to-2015 peak. A right tackle at Central Florida, Sitton wasn't invited to the combine but showed off good size and speed at his pro day. There are good tackles who don't have a three-cone drill time of 7.55. Moved inside by the Packers, he went on to start 16 games in six of the next seven years after this list -- he missed two games in 2011.
Sitton was probably just shy of Hall of Fame consideration. The Aaron Rodgers-era Packers only won a single Super Bowl, and Sitton was hardly the only long-time contributor on the line helping out. But the Packers won fewer than 10 games just once from 2009 to 2015. Green Bay cut bait a year early, but they were right that Sitton was fading. A rotator cuff tear helped end his 2018 season before it began, and he retired this offseason.
A player with as many tools as Sitton did who had starter buzz would definitely get my attention on a list today. I think this was a great placement and it's hard to argue about how well Sitton turned out.
9. Tashard Choice, RB, Dallas Cowboys
"Choice only got his opportunity after Marion Barber and Felix Jones both went down with injuries, but he showed off a skill set similar to Barber's with, arguably, superior receiving skills out of the backfield."
Choice finished second among all running backs without enough carries to qualify for the main list of running backs in 2008 with 146 DYAR. Unfortunately, his career wound up as more of a What Could Have Been, because he never got a real chance to be a lead back. I would argue that the Tony Romo Cowboys were one of the first teams to really utilize draws in a modern sense, and that heavily impacted Choice's DVOA as you'll see in the below highlights:
Coming out of Georgia Tech at 215 pounds with a 4.48 40-yard dash, Choice was extremely comparable to Lamar Miller on a size-speed level.
Choice would wind up running back his 2008 season in 2009, more or less, with a great running DVOA and a solid, high-volume receiving DVOA. In 2010, a poor start and Wade Phillips' firing would create one of the worst scenarios for a player: one where the new head coach isn't sticking up for you. The Cowboys drafted DeMarco Murray in 2011 and waived Choice at midseason, and he became roster churn until he retired. Choice is now a running backs coach for his alma mater, Georgia Tech.
I would be hesitant to put anyone this low on the depth chart this high on the list. I think this placement definitely bought into the high DVOA numbers. Still, Choice wasn't a bad little player for a bit.
10. Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina Panthers
"Johnson is another one of those players who was an absolute monster in limited time, accruing six sacks and a 90 percent Stop Rate subbing in for Tyler Brayton. He'll suffer some if Julius Peppers doesn't return."
Johnson came out in the 2007 draft class -- we talked about him briefly in 2008's best unpicked players -- and his combine numbers showed his obvious strength advantage. He bench pressed 33 reps at the combine, which is in the 94th percentile for defensive linemen. At 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, NFL teams dinged him for his size. Over his last two seasons at Georgia, he had 13.5 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss. He somehow defended -- per Sports Reference, because I am befuddled by how large the number is -- 10 passes in 2006. SackSEER woulda loved that.
Johnson wasn't the prettiest edge bender, but the strength was so uncommon that he could overpower a lot of tackles, and his agility made him a hard matchup to hold down for an entire game.
Contrary to what the comment predicted, Peppers heading to Chicago would be the thing that eventually opened up playing time for Johnson in 2010. Over a five-season stretch from 2010 to 2014, Johnson notched 52.5 sacks and 62 tackles for loss. He's the power version of Cliff Avril -- not a superstar, but a clear No. 1 edge guy for most NFL teams.
Johnson's last three years ended with him accumulating just five more sacks, but the tools that he'd use to be a good edge rusher were evident and I'd probably have juiced him even higher on this list if we had a player like that in our minds today.
11. Harry Douglas, WR, Atlanta Falcons
12. Stephen Nicholas, LB, Atlanta Falcons
- Did you remember Harry Douglas had a 1,067-yard season? I sure didn't when I was making this list. It was in 2012, when Julio Jones only played five games and the Falcons went 4-12 despite an entire season of Matt Ryan. Finishing 29th in defensive DVOA may have been a factor. Douglas finished with a little more than 300 career DYAR, most of it in 2013. Outside of that season, Douglas was a prototypical slot receiver.
- Nicholas started for about four seasons, give or take injury woes and missed games. Nicholas was actually the steady option here compared to Falcons first-rounder Sean Weatherspoon, who had just one season with 16 starts in his entire career. While it's hard to state that Nicholas was some kind of superstar, he was a steady run-stuffing linebacker and the Falcons did suffer when they moved on to Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu in 2013.
13. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
"We were sanguine on Charles' chances of succeeding in the NFL thanks to his 108.7 Speed Score coming out of Texas, but concerned about his chances behind a rebuilding Kansas City offensive line and with Larry Johnson in front of him. Instead, Charles put up a 12.5 percent rushing DVOA for a team that didn't have another back put up anything better than a minus-12.7 percent DVOA."
If Sitton isn't the best player on this list, Charles is.
Charles immediately became fantasy football royalty in 2009 and was elected to four Pro Bowls and given two first-team All-Pro nods at running back over the next five seasons. He played a little last year, and hasn't found a new team yet, but still has a 5.4 yards per carry average that leads all active players and is fourth in NFL history. He's got the highest yards per carry of any NFL running back unless you count Marion Motley.
The end came quickly for Charles, and I have a feeling he'll be left out of the Hall of Fame on account of his short peak and lack of playoff success. Terrell Davis had essentially a whole 'nother season of dominance to fall back on in those discussions, all of it on the biggest stage in the NFL. Charles averaged 8.3 yards per carry in the playoffs, but he only got 12 carries as the Ravens ran Kansas City into passing situations early and he took a concussion early in their 45-44 loss to the Colts in the 2014 wild-card game.
It doesn't take much to explain how exciting Charles was -- he had breakaway speed, he was shifty, he had the heft to handle a full workload. If he had never torn his ACL, he might have gone down as one of the best running backs in NFL history. He's certainly one of the most talented. I would have juiced him even higher than I would be able to if I were considering him for a list today, but I also might not get to use him on account of his 106 targets + rushes and our more restrictive snap count threshold for running backs.
14. Josh Morgan, WR, San Francisco 49ers
15. Chansi Stuckey, WR, New York Jets
16. David Clowney, WR, New York Jets
17. Pierre Woods, LB, New England Patriots
- Morgan was pointed out as an athletic marvel who could get on head coach Mike Singletary's good side. Unfortunately, his career wound up being fairly unremarkable. Morgan had a habit for getting on the bad side of coaching staffs, but he had a great body, was a plus-blocker, and could flash enough speed to be interesting. "You try to say what's up, you try to go to him as a man and talk to him and really get an understanding of what's going on," Morgan said about former head coach Mike Shanahan. "But at the end of the day, you're not gonna piss on me and tell me it's raining."
- We were incredibly right to single out the New York Jets here as a team that had targets to offer in the slot. Laveranues Coles had hit free agency and wasn't brought back. But instead of Mark Sanchez expanding things for the Jets, Gang Green threw 100 less times in 2009 without Brett Favre. Stuckey was traded to Cleveland, where he was a passable fourth receiver for another season before winding it down in the CFL. Clowney got a career-high 22 targets for the 2009 Jets and, after a stint for the Virginia Destroyers, also wound up in the CFL. No, they did not share the same team again.
- "After the Patriots chose to pass on Jason Taylor and Greg Ellis in free agency, Woods will need to beat out only 2008 third-round pick Shawn Crable for a starting gig as right outside linebacker." Instead, this was the year that Tully Banta-Cain came out of nowhere and scored 10 sacks for the Patriots. Woods continued to play special teams and came back off the street in 2010 before he officially left the Patriots cocoon.
18. Pierre Garcon, WR, Indianapolis Colts
"We were high on Garcon coming out of Division III Mount Union as a great blocker with NFL-caliber hands, and the Colts share our enthusiasm. ... He even looked good in Week 17 against the Titans. From D-III to an injury away from starting in one of the league's best offenses in two years? Not bad."
Garcon had a bit of an interesting career. I know this is kind of a weird cross-body comparison, but bear with me: Garcon was Davante Adams before Davante Adams.
Garcon started 43 games for the Colts between 2009 and 2011. In a hyper-efficient offense, he somehow managed to never do better than a 0.1% DVOA. With Peyton Manning for two of those years! Without Peyton, Garcon tumbled to -48 DYAR for a dud offense. Despite this, he was still a coveted free agent for his speed and bulk combo that meant he could be an outside receiver. He signed with Washington and never caught less than 62 percent of his passes in a season for the Skins. He never had a catch rate above 56 percent for the Colts! It's pretty rare that a receiver just blossoms with more and more time in the starting lineup -- usually when a guy is bad, the coach is out on him, and he finds someone else who can do the job.
Anyway, Garcon was a big hit for Barnwell down the line. He was a pretty credible starting outside receiver for quite a few years on a list that normally generates players that have more slot skills. I'd be tempted to pick him for a list today too, especially given the offense, but I would have second-guessed myself on that one as I watched the 2009 Colts.
19. Martin Rucker, TE, Cleveland Browns
20. Michael Bush, RB, Oakland Raiders
21. Chauncey Washington, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Rucker round up as a career practice-squadder. He had two catches for 17 yards, all of which happened before this list was published. After tearing his ACL with Kansas City in 2012, he retired. His NFL career was mostly a product of early spread systems at Missouri, and he was not much of a blocker. He later ran for the Missouri house of representatives and lost.
- Bush made the 2008 list as an honorable mention. Bush was a committee back for a number of years in Oakland, and eventually got a year as the main back in 2011.
- Washington never saw another down with the Jaguars after this list was published. He was waived and bounced around as a practice squad guy for a few years, mostly with the Cowboys. He got one rush with Dallas in 2011, going for -1 yard. He also caught two passes for 13 yards. Most of the buzz about him was that he was overweight and more of a goal-line guy.
22. Quintin Demps, S, Philadelphia Eagles
"He'll need to beat out Sean Jones for a starting job, but even if he loses the race, Jones' propensity for injury makes Demps the favorite to be the starter by the end of 2009."
I find Demps' career fascinating. He didn't start a game until the 2013 season, but he played until 2017. He had six interceptions and actually got Pro Bowl votes in 2016, then in 2017 he started three games and never played an NFL down again thereafter.
The Eagles drafted Nate Allen in the first round in 2010 after Demps couldn't really stake a claim to the job in 2009. Jones did get hurt, as the comment predicted, but instead of Demps playing, Macho Harris started eight games as a fifth-round rookie. Harris would go on to play in three more games in his entire NFL career thereafter. If you look hard enough at Demps' career, you start to believe the moon landing actually is fake and that the Illuminati prevented him from seeing more playing time. In actuality, it was because he just wasn't a very instinctive safety. He needed a dime role so that he could play closer to the line of scrimmage for most of his career.
Safeties are pretty rare additions to the list, and I'd say this one counts as a hit for Barnwell just because of the length of Demps' career, even if that career was just really odd. Demps was rangy -- he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL combine -- he just needed a little direction from time to time. I would be intrigued enough to consider a player like this for the bottom of the list today.
23. Tavares Gooden, LB, Baltimore Ravens
24. Dan Federkeil, G, Indianapolis Colts
25. Colt Brennan, QB, Washington
- The Ravens decided to start Gooden in Bart Scott's old spot next to Ray Lewis. Gooden simply couldn't stay healthy enough to keep the job. He was ridiculously athletic, but once Baltimore decided they couldn't count on him to stay healthy, it was all over. Gooden was part of the 7th Floor Crew, if you just wanted to remember where you were in 2006.
- I don't remember anything about Dan Federkeil, but there's a reason for that: he retired after the 2009 season due to a series of concussions. He would later become a long-time starter for the Calgary Stampeders, his hometown team. He kind of reminds me of someone I put on a few lists who stepped in and has played well when given a chance, but was stuck on a pretty good team with a pretty good line: B.J. Finney.
- There's an anecdote that Mark Schofield told on a recent Matt Waldman RSP podcast about how one coach who worked with Brennan figured that he just couldn't read the field, that he needed everything simplified. Brennan certainly had a prolific college career as compared to his professional stats, so he has become almost as big of a "what happened?" case as Brian Brohm. That appears to account for a lot of it.
- The one thing I took from Barnwell's list-making that I think makes a lot of sense is that he appeared to really focus on players who had a chance to play rather than just pure talent. A lot of my lists just look at the talent, so the players may be percolating on the list for a while. The NFL isn't really a league where a lot of percolating happens after the first two seasons.
Zackary Bowman, CB/S, Chicago Bears
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, New York Giants
Shawn Crable, LB, New England Patriots
Mike DeVito, DE/DT, New York Jets
Early Doucett, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Justin Forsett, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Jason Shirley, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Jonathan Wilhite, CB, New England Patriots
- Bradshaw was undoubtedly the best player of this bunch -- he was actually on the 2008 list. Mike DeVito was mentioned in the 2008 In Retrospect list. He's probably an easy number two.
- After starting 12 toasty games (read: 41 percent success rate) for the Bears in 2009, Bowman was replaced by Tim Jennings and went back to his best role: ace special-teamer.
- The next-longest career on this list belonged to Forsett. Forsett was a competent third-down back for a number of years, bouncing between Seattle, Houston, and Baltimore. In Baltimore in 2014, he made the Pro Bowl in his only season with more than 151 carries. It was a beautiful fluke, but he was still a really interesting passing-downs guy with some slither.
These are the best players who didn't get mentioned on the list who were technically eligible. New players to the list are bolded (in parentheses is their career Approximate Value from Pro Football Reference):
Jermon Bushrod (73)
John Sullivan (67)
Zach Strief -- on 2007 list (62)
Rob Ninkovich (60)
Ahtyba Rubin (59)
Doug Free (57)
Brian Robinson (53)
Frostee Rucker (51 and counting)
Stephen Gostkowski (47 and counting)
Erik Walden (46)
Danny Woodhead (43)
Danny Amendola (42 and counting)
David Hawthorne (42)
John Sullivan is the highest-profile name here. It's especially interesting Barnwell didn't consider him to me because he actually wrote the Vikings chapter for the book that year and knew Sullivan would be replacing Matt Birk. I can imagine there may have been some negative reports. That Bushrod snuck up on everyone was a little more forgivable because he only started after Jammal Brown, an All-Pro tackle for the Saints, tore his ACL.
Our two forever Patriots just sneak onto the bottom of this list. Amendola and Woodhead were both short, undrafted free agents who were ready to shred the middle of the field in a league of big linebackers and unprepared nickelbacks.
Erik Walden is best remembered for being one of Ryan Grigson's biggest follies, but he had so much longevity that he still found himself with a rather high AV.
That so few players actually added on to the list this year is an amazing job by Barnwell. He found, by AV, four of the top six players in the class and put them all on the list.
We'll continue with these reviews of top prospects lists next offseason, starting with the list from Football Outsiders Almanac 2010.