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 first 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 Pro Football Prospectus 2007 (yes, the book started as a Prospectus venture ), we looked at the top 25 prospects prior to 2007. This inaugural list was written by Michael David Smith, now with ProFootballTalk. The criteria for the list when we first started looked like this:
- Drafted or signed between 2004 and 2006
- Drafted in rounds three through seven, or undrafted
- Less than five career games started
Alright, with those caveats out of the way. Let's look back at what happened to these players.
1. Jerious Norwood, RB, Falcons
Relevant quotes: "[He] averaged 6.4 yards per carry, and that's not the result of just one or two big runs. ... He can run, he can catch, he can block, and he's eight years younger than Warrick Dunn. Norwood is a significantly better player than Dunn right now and should carry the load in Bobby Petrino's offense."
Norwood gained 633 yards in just 99 carries. In 2007, Norwood would lead all NFL backs with more than 100 carries with a 27.6% DVOA. Ironically, he never got the full load of carries in Atlanta because the player behind him on this list would wind up as Atlanta's full-time back. The Falcons would use Norwood in the passing game often and he was generally effective, if not quite as efficient as he was on the ground. The regime change from the Bobby Petrino Falcons to the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith Falcons left Norwood as more of a bit player to Jason Snelling in 2009. Norwood had 321 rushing yards after his first three seasons, finishing his career in a brief backup role with the Rams in 2011. Norwood caught on with the CFL for a bit, but 2011 was the end of his NFL career. A knee injury limited Norwood to just two runs in 2010 and likely hastened the end.
Norwood's 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine is the sort of thing that caught eyes even though he didn't really have the size of a full-time back. His top comparable per MockDraftable's similarity scores was Ryan Mathews. The other four of his top five comps were Bernard Pierce, Antonio Pittman, Joe McKnight, and Mike Goodson -- not exactly a murderer's row of star backs.
We don't exactly have reliable video on all these guys -- NFL Game Pass goes back to 2009, and highlight videos were made for some of these players like Norwood if they happen to play a skill position, but we're missing a lot of the snaps that made a player like this valuable.
I think if I were evaluating a player like Norwood for the list today, I would be skeptical enough of his size creating a No. 1 back to keep him from the No. 1 spot, but he definitely belonged near the top of this list with his home-run speed and his ability to cut on the run and quickly re-accelerate. It's wildly impressive that he was able to maintain his yards per carry even as Michael Vick was replaced with less mobile quarterbacks. He just never got a real chance to be a No. 1 back.
2. Michael Turner, RB, Chargers
"In all three of his NFL seasons, Turner has had a higher DVOA than LaDainian Tomlinson. ... In terms of straight-line speed, Turner is one of the fastest backs in the NFL."
Turner finally hit free agency just as the Atlanta Falcons were looking for a replacement for Warrick Dunn. Despite a horrific small-sample size DVOA in 2007, Turner reeled off a 1,699-yard, 17-touchdown season for a rejuvenated Atlanta team under Mike Smith. He then immediately became part of the conversation around "The Curse of 370," making the cover of PFP 2008. Despite being curse-afflicted in 2008, Turner's four-year run as unquestioned Atlanta lead back got him to two Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro selection. However, the tread on the tires wore out quickly after nearly 1,200 carries in four seasons -- and that was with only 178 in his post-Curse year. The one dent on Turner was that he contributed almost nothing in the passing game. Turner caught 70 balls his entire career, and never more than 19 in a season. He was quite lucky to be borne into an era where that didn't quite matter as much as it would 10 years later. After the 2012 NFC Championship Game, Turner was released and never appeared in another NFL contest. Turner got a six-year, $34.5 million deal from the Falcons, with $15 million in guarantees. That's pretty solid for a player who had started one game in four years.
This list actually pre-dated the invention of speed score by Bill Barnwell in 2008, but Turner would have been one of the original speed score guys had he been around for it. Running a 4.49 40-yard dash at 237 pounds, he was incredibly similar to Leonard Fournette at the combine. Fournette ran a 4.51 at 240 pounds, but was a first-round pick as compared to Turner's fifth-round selection because LSU is not Northern Illinois.
Making this article has already made me so, so happy with the state of YouTube highlights of the late 2000s. Let the bodies hit the floor!
If such a player were to pop up on our radar today, I'd probably want to spot them closer to the 3-to-10 range because of their inability to catch the ball. That changes a lot in the modern NFL. But at the time, I think this ranking holds up quite well and it was a spot-on pick in this class.
3. Mark Anderson, DE, Bears
"As long as Chicago has Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye, Anderson will be a backup, but he's a phenomenal talent and a very smart player for a rookie. Watch the tape of any of his 12 professional sacks and you'll see that he uses his brains as well as his speed."
Weird career here. Huge blowup rookie season in 2006, even getting some extra postseason sacks in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. Anderson had 14 starts in the 2007 season, as the Bears actually benched Brown to give him a starting role. Then, Anderson had only 10 additional starts throughout the remainder of his career. The 14-start season led to only five sacks, but Anderson chipped in a 10-sack season with the Patriots in 2011, then was out of the NFL in 2013.
While Anderson was not around for the days of SackSEER and I don't have a line-by-line listing of all the ratings, I'm pretty sure SackSEER would have loved his athletic profile. He was in the 95th percentile in the broad jump and the 99th percentile in vertical jump, as well as posting a sub-7.0 three-cone drill at the combine and running a 4.62 40-yard dash at 254 pounds. That's the sort of explosion that most of today's best systems love. However, he had zero passes defensed as a senior for the Crimson Tide, and only 6.5 sacks. This was back in the Mike Shula days of Alabama, by the way, so he wasn't buried behind a bunch of five-star studs.
Anderson could get the hell out of an edge, too. A lot of the highlights I watched and/or remembered of him were about getting past a tackle on the outside. Stopping the run was a problem, and he didn't have a whole lot of weight to hold up in run support. "You can say teams started scheming against me, but I blame myself," Anderson was quoted as telling Matt Trowbridge. "Knowing teams were going to do a lot of chip blocking, I should have been prepared."
I still don't feel like I really know why Anderson failed as a full-time player. He had some versatility. He had some smart pass-rush moves. But for whatever reason (maybe conditioning?) it just didn't come together for him on a full-time basis. It tells me a lot that Bill Belichick was able to drag some extra sacks out of him. I don't think MDS has to feel too bothered about this ranking -- I would also aggressively rank a similar player today, and maybe even have them headline the entire list.
4. Matt Schaub, QB, Texans
"When he does get on the field, he looks like a classic dropback passer and a marvelous fit for Gary Kubiak's offense, which is similar to what Schaub ran both at Virginia and with the Falcons."
Schaub mostly made the list on the virtue of his 47.3% DVOA with the Falcons in 2006 and 12.7% DVOA in 2005. It was a small sample size of plays, but Schaub was thought of highly enough that the Falcons were able to land 2007 and 2008 second-round picks from the Texans, as well as a pick swap in the first round of 2007 from eight to 10. The Falcons took Jamaal Anderson at 8, and the Texans took Amobi Okoye at 10. The second-round picks wound up being Justin Blalock and Fred Davis -- the Falcons traded the 2008 pick to Washington in a move up for Sam Baker.
As a Texans fan, I was Logged On for this result. Schaub was what I'd call a credible quarterback for most of his tenure in Houston. He didn't have a great arm, but the Texans were able to manufacture long passing plays with play-action schemes and Andre Johnson. Schaub even led the league in passing yards in 2009. Schaub was a loft passer, and lacked the physicality to really play quarterback at an aesthetically pleasing level. (In fact, I can remember him going down on sacks where he was essentially just shoved by a pass rusher.) Schaub missed the end of the 2011 season with an injury, killing one of Houston's windows to make a play for the Super Bowl. Then, in 2012, he completely shriveled up after a memorable Thanksgiving shootout against the Lions. The Texans were easily dispatched by the Patriots, and Schaub's 2013 season was a tale of pick-sixes and laughing at pick-sixes as the team lost 14 straight games and got Kubiak fired.
I would be a little more hesitant about a prospect like this today. Schaub clearly lacked arm strength and had limitations. However, this was an ideal situation for him and he was able to mostly overcome his flaws. Hard to argue with the ranking at the time with the context of the trade -- as much as I like to pump up the little things, nothing says "this player is thought of highly " quite as much as a trade. (Kevin Kolb agrees that this may not be the best way to evaluate a quarterback, but there was much less data available in 2007.)
5. Elvis Dumervil, DE, Broncos
"Last year, the 23-year-old Dumervil led the Broncos with 8.5 sacks despite never starting a game. ... Jim Bates is likely to give him more playing time, and Dumervil is likely to respond with more sacks."
Unlike Anderson, Dumervil was able to build off his initial first season and make a huge leap. In 2007, Dumervil jumped up to 12.5 sacks. Initially falling to the fourth round because of his 5-foot-11 frame, Dumervil's peak was as good as many of the best edge rushers of his era. The 8.5-sack year was one of seven seasons with that many sacks or more, including four separate 10-sack seasons. Despite missing 2010 with a torn pectoral muscle, Dumervil finished his career with 105.5 career sacks, currently 26th on the all-time list, mainly by relying on a vicious first step. This wasn't quite a Hall of Fame career, but it came damn close and you would probably see the push for that if he had made deeper playoff runs and could have generated a real media narrative. Instead, Dumervil will be remembered most for failing to fax in the proper papers that would have had him re-signed with the Broncos. His prime was spent with Denver before Peyton Manning and Baltimore after Joe Flacco's run in 2012.
I think the lesson you have with Dumervil is one that we have seen repeated again and again: the hard height-size outliers who still play well may be degraded by NFL scouts enough to make it into the third round or later and be eligible for this list. Dumervil legitimately had 20 sacks in his senior season at Louisville, but he didn't look like the pass-rusher scouts had built and envisioned because he wasn't tall. This is a well I have gone to over and over again with our prospect lists. It's something that has shown up when one of the elite players in the sport, Aaron Donald, didn't go in the top 10 in 2014.
A similar prospect these days would be near the top of the list for sure, though I'm not positive that these players with high sack counts and low start numbers would actually qualify today because of the snap counts. The early portion of this list is MDS just slaying, so far, in my opinion.
6. Ronnie Prude, CB, Ravens
"Prude is one of those guys who makes you scratch your head and question how in the world all the NFL scouts overlooked him. ... He had a limited sample of 16 passes in our game charting, but allowed just 4.2 yards per pass with a success rate of 83 percent."
So, full disclosure. I was more of a casual NFL fan in these days. I knew the stars, I knew the people FO focused on. I had never heard of Ronnie Prude before I wrote this piece.
An LSU corner who was signed as a UDFA in 2006, Prude only had three passes defensed in 2007, and never appeared in another NFL game after that season. Released at last cuts in 2008, Prude was briefly with the Falcons in the 2009 offseason, and also played in the UFL and the CFL.
This pick was obviously a huge bust for the list, and I think the big reason is the over-reliance on the small sample size of yards per pass and success rate. Today I would look at a player like this and be incredibly skeptical because, picking cornerbacks for a list like this for a long time, a lot of the stats we have generated I would call more "output" than "input." A cornerback on the Ravens -- a defense that has been incredibly good for as long as I can remember -- is more likely to have a good statistics in these fields because of his teammates. Mix that with a small sample size and I think many, many cornerbacks could have done what Prude did in this season.
As I have done more lists, I have shifted to a belief that college football scouting is more important than what players have done in the NFL for projecting future performance. You get a broader sample size of snaps, and a better idea of what a player will play like. Body type matters, what kind of coverage they're best at matters (especially when paired with the right defensive coordinator), and the quality of the coverage matters. At the same time, a cornerback can play something perfectly and still give up a completion.
Prude became a real-estate agent.
7. Wesley Britt, OT, Patriots
"Britt was waived, and then spent the year on the Patriots' practice squad. ... He backs up Nick Kaczur and Matt Light, so he'll have a hard time winning a job in a training camp battle, but he sure looked like a phenomenal talent in his one start last year."
Britt would start one more game in his career, and appear in only six more. The praise for Britt came after he helped roll the Bengals to the tune of 236 rushing yards, something that might sound a little more impressive given that the Carson Palmer-Chad Ochocinco Bengals were actually good, but that Bengals team finished 18th in rushing defense DVOA.
In general, offensive linemen are a tough category for the list because if you're good enough to get on the field, they can't keep you off of it this early, particularly if you're a tackle -- young tackles getting crushed by NFL edge rushers is something that happens on at least half the squads in the league every season. This was especially bad when FO used a start limit because linemen rack themselves out of list consideration in five weeks. I have tended to look at linemen I put on the list rather skeptically as I have kept doing this because if they are actually good, why haven't they played 500 snaps yet? So unless I get raving reports and it's a clear-cut injury situation, you'll see them more towards the bottom of the list.
Anyway, I don't have much for you on Britt, yet another Alabama player on this list. The Patriots released him at last cuts in 2009. There is no highlight reel because forgotten offensive linemen of the 2000s typically won't have one.
8. Marion Barber, RB, Cowboys
"Barber has started just three games in his career, but there's no doubt that he's one of the league's elite young runners. Last year, Barber ranked second in rushing DVOA and 30th in success rate."
Barber actually made this list only because of start counts. With our new limit on running back snaps, he would have easily been disqualified with 320 touches (not snaps) in 2005 and 2006. It was not exactly a hard conclusion to come to that he was the best running back in the Cowboys backfield, but the Wade Phillips Cowboys were trying so hard to make Julius Jones a thing. Barber ran for 14 touchdowns in 2006, and Jones was demoted and later shipped to Seattle.
Barber made the Pro Bowl in 2007, when he scored 10 more touchdowns and dominated snaps for a 13-3 Dallas team in Tony Romo's first year as a full-time starter. I'll always remember him as the guy who took those look-away draws from Romo. Well, that and the guy who ran out of bounds to keep TebowMania alive. The Cowboys drafted DeMarco Murray in 2011 and jettisoned Barber, after year three of a "seven-year, $45 million" contract. Barber played only one more season with the Bears.
Today a similar player would be devalued, much like Turner, because of his lack of impact in the passing game. Marion the Barbarian caught way more balls than Turner, but had just one season as a major plus in DVOA, in 2006 when he had a 29.3% DVOA. Barber definitely belonged on the list, and I'm actually surprised he wasn't higher up given how bad Jones had been. Today, though, I would probably slot a player like this right about here, as far as ceiling goes.
9. Brandon Jacobs, RB, Giants
"He still hasn't started a game in his NFL career, but that will change now that Tiki Barber is spending his mornings chatting with Matt Lauer. ... Jacobs should get at least half the carries for the Giants, and we already know that Tom Coughlin loves giving Jacobs the ball in goal-to-go situations."
Wow, PFP2007, way to name-drop people no one wants to think about anymore. Jacobs scored nine touchdowns in 96 rushes in 2006, and was the head of the Giants committee for three years, peaking in 2008 with a 15-touchdown, 1,089-yard season. Jacobs had a four-year stretch with finishes of fifth, third, and third in rushing DVOA (and 40th in the other year!). Again, we didn't have speed score for this, but Jacobs ran a 4.56 40-yard dash ... at 267 pounds.
When I think of Jacobs, I think about what would have happened to Jerome Bettis if he was born 15 years later. Terrific at what he did, and clearly it worked out really well for the Giants to platoon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, but a very hard player to value in today's environment. Jacobs was a run-only, run-you-over, between-the-tackles grinder with some underrated horizontal agility and functional skill. Jacobs started out at Auburn, but transferred to Southern Illinois because he was behind Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, who both would go in the top five picks of the 2005 draft. In a sign of how things have changed, Jacobs was actually franchise tagged by the Giants in 2009. He played out three years of a four-year, $25 million deal before being released.
This is another player who'd be right around this area if I was sure of his opportunity in 2019. Jacobs was going to require a caddy, but was so good at what he did that he was worth finding the passing-down back to pair with him.
10. Stacy Andrews, OT, Bengals
"Guys who are 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds like Andrews are simply not supposed to be as agile as he is. So why did he last until the fourth round of the draft? Because his senior season at Ole Miss was the first year in his life that he played organized football."
Andrews quickly grew into a trusted spot on the Bengals line, moving to right tackle and getting franchise tagged before committing the cardinal sin of becoming too valuable to be a Bengal. He signed a six-year deal with the Eagles in free agency and was a complete bust, getting benched after just a few weeks for Max Jean-Gilles. Andrews got traded to the Seahawks, where he played one successful year, then finished his career with the Giants.
Andrews was a very interesting pick for this list and highlights something I think is clear about how MDS was weighting things: he preferred physical specimens on the offensive line. Andrews was kind of a rare case because NFL players who do absolutely nothing in their first three seasons are often either career backups or wash out of the league quickly. Andrews had a very impressive NFL combine, running the 40-yard dash in 5.06 seconds at his weight and bench pressing 34 reps of 250 pounds, something that puts him in the 96th percentile of all NFL linemen.
I would argue that Andrews was a particular case of the Bengals being the Bengals. This team has always been slow to hand starting roles to rookies. We saw that recently with how the transition from Andrew Whitworth to Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher played out. I would argue we will see it again next year if Christian Westerman gets a fair chance instead of the schlubs that the Bengals have started at guard over him the last couple of seasons.
Finding a starting tackle on a list like this when faced with the restrictions is very impressive, but if I were faced with ranking a player like this today I'd feel more comfortable putting him in the 17-to-25 section just because of the history he would be overcoming -- even if we should look at the Bengals history a little more skeptically.
11. Brad Smith, WR, Jets
"A converted quarterback from Missouri, Smith had 18 rushes for 103 yards and nine catches for 61 yards as a rookie in 2006. ... Smith, who passed for more than 8,000 yards and ran for more than 4,000 in college, has such a unique set of skills that it's hard to envision a scenario in which he doesn't develop into a very good player."
Smith lasted nine years in the NFL despite not ever doing anything appreciably good as a receiver. Smith had a positive DVOA on more than two catches just once in his career, with the Bills in 2012. He was able to generate some big gadget plays as a runner out wide, but it's hard to be a change-up player when you have no fastball.
We've talked about players belonging in their right eras, and I think Smith qualifies as someone born a bit too early. He wasn't a dominant passer coming out of Mizzou, but he did have consistently solid touchdown-to-interception ratios and completion percentages for someone who was in the early rounds of the spread. He's taller than Kyler Murray. I could see a player like this at least becoming a Tyrod Taylor-esque player in the pros today. Smith had a 4.46 40-yard dash at the combine and all sorts of hops. Even if he was a limited passer, he would've been an interesting full-time quarterback.
The recent history of college quarterbacks converting to receiver hasn't exactly been filled with success. Matt Jones. Braxton Miller. Terrelle Pryor is probably the greatest 2010s success and every NFL player seems to hate his guts. But Antwaan Randle El wasn't bad. Certainly Smith had a wide array of traits. His ability to stick as a special teamer also helped.
I wouldn't put this player on my list today, or at least not until I got to the 20s or so. But I would definitely have considered that player as a quarterback.
12. Freddy Keiaho, LB, Colts
"Although Keiaho was an inside linebacker in college who only started one season with the Aztecs, he seems like an ideal fit in Tony Dungy's defense. ... Keiaho got increased playing time in the playoffs and was one reason (though obviously a less-important reason than Bob Sanders) that the Colts' defense got better in January."
Keiaho is one of two different Colts who got thrust into the spotlight on a Super Bowl run and showed well. Keiaho did ... not really capitalize quite as well as the other one. Keiaho made it two years as a starter, not getting to 16 games in either year, and by his contract season he was a bench and special teams player. Keiaho didn't do much at the NFL combine, but the key reasons for him falling to the third round were his 5-foot-11 frame and 224-pound weight. He basically had a safety or running back body, but put it in the front seven.
The lack of weight has typically been a pretty good indicator of success lately. Players like Eric Kendricks or Telvin Smith have come into the pros without much weight and have flown around the front seven. Of course, you had to actually show linebacker play worthy of a top pick first, and that may be where Keiaho didn't hold up his end of the bargain. Bill Polian's picks around this era started to get a little shaky, and Keiaho was not exactly a superstar defender for San Diego State, who allowed 27 points per game. Keiaho did finish fifth in his conference in tackles for loss in his senior season, but showed little on the stat sheet as a pass defender.
The Colts were so thrilled with Keiaho's play that they spent a third-round pick on Philip Wheeler in 2008, and Keiaho lost playing time to 2007 fifth-rounder Clint Session as well.
It would be an interesting call with a player like this in today's environment and I think one that would come down to just how well I thought he had played in college. Like I said, the lack of height doesn't scare me in projecting a player -- there's almost a survivorship bias involved in being thought of highly enough to be drafted this early despite the size. But clearly Keiaho was not the player the Colts thought he was.
13. Brandon Marshall, WR, Broncos
"Marshall only looked so-so as a rookie, but so-so in last year's Denver passing game was actually fairly good. ... He played defensive back at Central Florida until switching to receiver in his senior season."
Now this pick looks downright prophetic. It was easy to understand Marshall's path to relevance: he was 6-foot-5 and 229 pounds, still ran a 4.5-second 40-yard-dash, and the reason he fell to the third round was all about experience.
Marshall actually has never been all that terrific in the eyes of DVOA. He has finished with a DVOA above 30th among qualified receivers just one time. Where Marshall wins is DYAR -- he's a volume receiver, and he was targeted 140 or more times for essentially every season of his prime except his final year in Chicago. Even his most impressive record is about volume:
Anyway, Marshall's antics and personality were perhaps not the most conducive to a long career, and helped make him a star wideout-for-hire whom bad teams could talk themselves into. But if you wanted a short-area target who had the body to make even the most inaccurate of quarterbacks viable, this was your kind of receiver. Marshall is still playing, but is clearly at the end of his shelf life.
A player like this today would definitely be in my periscope for the list. With Darrell Jackson as the only legitimate outside competition in 2007, the opportunity was certainly there for him to play. Then when you factor in the skill set, it's obvious that Marshall had the talent to do things that most NFL receivers couldn't.
14. Cortland Finnegan, CB, Titans
"Based on his rookie year, he looks like he has the talent to [develop into a high-quality corner]. ... A division I-AA All-American at Samford, Finnegan was the Titans' seventh-round pick last year and played in all 16 games. ... Finnegan ranked third out of 86 cornerbacks in success rate and 15th in yards allowed per pass."
A season like Finnegan's would never make the list today because of the snap count-to-starter difference. Finnegan was able to just barely qualify for the actual cornerback leaderboard despite starting just two games. So look at this with a grain of salt, but Finnegan was definitely a great pick and I think overperformed his slot on the list. He started for what amounts to six seasons with the Titans and Rams, along with 12 more starts for the Dolphins in 2014. He was named first-team All-Pro in 2008 and picked 10 passes in 2008 and 2009 combined. Pretty much every cornerback from 2009 on lived in Darrelle Revis' shadow, but Finnegan was clearly in the top tier for his prime. He signed a five-year, $50 million deal with the Rams, following Jeff Fisher. He made it two seasons.
Finnegan fell to the seventh round because, hey, you guessed it, he was small! 5-foot-9 and 177 pounds listed coming out of Samford. This was not the profile of someone who was supposed to be able to check NFL receivers outside. Finnegan was quite tough for his size though, and, as you may remember, he was a bit of an instigator -- the highlight of which wound up being:
Pretty rare that you see a player get under Andre Johnson's skin enough to catch the fists. The Jeff Fisher Titans had a gift for creating these situations. What can they say?
So, here's the actual highlight vid:
Finnegan had great instincts. He had a knack for reading quarterbacks' eyes, and he was not going to let a receiver get a free run over the middle of the field. Or anywhere, really.
Nowadays, I'd bump a player like this way up the list if he somehow qualified. It wasn't just that the numbers were impressive, it's that his play walked the walk and that there was a larger sample size of it.
15. David Anderson, WR, Texans
"Yes, he had just one catch his rookie year, and, yes, he was a little-known seventh-round pick out of Colorado State in 2006. ... Gary Kubiak will try to turn the Houston attack into something similar to the one he ran in Denver, and Anderson should get a chance to show what he can do."
So this one is hard to unpack in retrospect. Anderson was not an athletic marvel or a high draft pick. He was a solid possession receiver, but not somebody who had a major role established with the Texans in 2007. Andre Johnson was outside, and Owen Daniels had established himself as a promising young receiver at tight end. Anderson fell behind Kevin Walter as an outside receiver because of size and blocking, and my only guess based on where MDS put Anderson is that he thought Anderson would win the battle with Walter.
Sometimes a player like this will far exceed what you think he can do. Adam Thielen comes to mind. Adam Humphries has had a much better career than I would have imagined. But for the most part, the class of small slot receivers who get talked up as "the next Wes Welker" don't have a high hit rate of actually being focal points of an offense.
I would likely have not had Anderson on this list if I had been writing it. Occasionally I'd get burned, but nothing about the traits was special and they instead pointed to him being a solid possession receiver than a real difference-maker, which is exactly what happened.
16. Charlie Johnson, OT, Colts
"A sixth-round rookie from Oklahoma State, Johnson hardly played last year, but when he was forced to enter the lineup in the middle of the Super Bowl, he stepped right in and played very well against the ferocious Bears defense."
Another stellar pick by MDS, Johnson was not a long-term tackle but did bounce around for nine NFL seasons, starting 114 NFL games after 2006. No fanbase that rooted for Johnson was ever ... proud of him? His tenures with the Colts and Vikings were full of cries to replace him. But there is value in availability and consistency, and Johnson consistently provided replacement level line play for nine seasons.
I'm having a hard time describing how likely I'd be to pick someone like Johnson for the list because he wasn't well-regarded enough as a college player to be the subject of a lot of talk. He didn't go to the combine. He didn't have people on the table for him. He doesn't have highlight clips. What he does have is a tattoo from Ink Masters by contestant "Tatu Baby," which is surely not a fact you'll ever forget.
17. Stephen Tulloch, LB, Titans
"Generously listed as 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, he looks like a safety ... but as a rookie out of North Carolina State, Tulloch played in all 16 games for the Titans, starting three, and he looked like a fast and fierce player who's going to get better every year for the foreseeable future."
Another excellent MDS call here. Tulloch didn't get on the field right away for the Titans in 2007, but he was the starter in 2008, and parlayed three solid years with the Titans into a big free-agent contract in Detroit. Tulloch never made a Pro Bowl, but combined his speed and tackling ability well enough to start for seven years. Ironically, the best defense he played on would be in his first season as a starter. The Titans had the fifth-best defense in the NFL per DVOA, went 13-3, and allowed 13 points to the Ravens in the divisional round. The 2011 Lions would finish just inside the top 10 in defensive DVOA, but allowed 45 points to the Saints in the divisional round. The 2014 Lions made a playoff run as well, but that was with Tulloch sidelined after the play most everyone remembers him for:
Yes, that's him tearing his ACL mid-sack celebration. Woof.
Today, I tend to target linebackers with a little more range and ability in coverage than Tulloch had, but you can definitely see the hidden opportunity here. Teams thought that a player this small couldn't be a good NFL mike linebacker, and they were wrong. Tulloch just was blessed with rare power for his size. Jim Schwartz loved him, pursuing him at three consecutive coaching stops. Good player, and just about the right placement on the list.
18. Jonathan Lewis, DT, Cardinals
"Much like Dumervil, Lewis is a defensive lineman who would have gone a few rounds higher if he were a few inches taller. ... The 6-foot-1, 310-pound Lewis doesn't look big enough to be a disruptive presence in the middle of the line, but in the limited playing time he got with the Cardinals last season, he looked like a good one-gap tackle."
Have we gone back to that "undersized defensive linemen" well enough? MDS was back at the source here. Lewis didn't run a three-cone drill at the combine but looked incredibly athletic otherwise. In fact, the only thing that stood out about Lewis' combine was that his bench press reps (24) were fairly low for a lineman. Lewis actually never played a single game after making this list. He bounced around the NFL fringes for a long time though, making offseason or practice squads for the Raiders, Seahawks, Lions, Jaguars, and Browns before heading to minor-league football in 2011.
Lewis had a fairly good career at Virginia Tech, leaving as a true junior. Lewis picked up nine sacks and 18 tackles for loss in his last two seasons with the Hokies,
Today I would look at a player like this as someone who hits one of the archetypes the list is founded on, but without the production to really back it up. It was a worthy pick for the Cardinals, but I can imagine them watching an undersized penetrator get blown back off the ball on every play he doesn't win and getting frustrated with him. We don't really have a ton of data on his career, so that's just educated guesswork, but that's what I'd imagine was his problem.
19. Ruvell Martin, WR, Packers
"If you're one of the few people who actually watched the Week 17 Bears-Packers game on New Year's Eve, you saw what Martin is capable of. ... Martin's seven catches for 118 yards were impressive. An undrafted rookie out of Saginaw Valley State, Martin was invited to camp by the San Diego Chargers. ... In 2005, he led [NFL Europe] with 679 receiving yards and twelve touchdowns."
Martin hung around on the bottom of the Packers depth chart for a few more years after this, then bounced around the NFL as a special teams/end-of-depth chart receiver until running out of chances in 2013. Martin's career is kind of an interesting lookback because he performed pretty well in both 2006 and 2007, but after a down 2008 never got a real chance as a receiver again, never getting more than 16 targets in a season.
Martin ran into a problem a lot of bubble NFL players run into: the team committed to someone else first. After 2006, the Packers were bringing back Donald Driver and Greg Jennings as offensive focal points, but Martin was one of a few players in line for the third receiver role. Instead, Green Bay drafted James Jones and had much more invested in the rookie receiver.
I can't tell you I have an earnest take on Martin's career being stalled like this, because I wasn't really aware of it at the time. But towards the end of these lists are a lot of players with a nice upside who don't actually get a full take for whatever reason -- we're looking for someone with a trait or a role that is definite in the NFL, not somebody who is OK enough to hang around for years. Martin's special teams work gave him chances, but he never was able to get a team to take him seriously. If there's one thing that's hard to forecast from the outside, it is who will be given the opportunity.
20. Leonard Weaver, FB, Seahawks
"He played in all 16 games as a rookie, demonstrating that he can be a devastating blocker and a good runner when he gets the opportunity. ... He is surprisingly agile for his size (251 pounds), and he should be required to register his stiff-arm as a lethal weapon."
Speaking of how long ago 2007 was, here's a fullback on a top prospects list.
To be fair to MDS, this was a case of understanding the promise. Weaver would go on to be named a first-team all-Pro and got what was, at the time, the most money ever given to a fullback: a three-year, $11 million deal from the Eagles. The only reason he was eligible for a top prospects list to begin with is that he was stuck behind stalwart Mack Strong on the Seattle depth chart and missed the 2006 season with an ankle injury.
On the very first carry of the 2010 season, Weaver had a gruesome torn ACL that led to his release and retirement.
I would, uh, not put a fullback on a top prospects list in 2019. Weaver could have had a role as an actual running back, maybe carved out a career as a Spencer Ware-type, if he were born a few years later. He clearly could run, break tackles, and catch. But I probably wouldn't have put a player like that on this list unless I was very sure about their role.
21. Scott Starks, CB, Jaguars
"He hasn't played a lot yet, but our game charting numbers show that he plays well when he gets on the field. His 63 percent success rate last year was the highest on the team, although we should note that it came on just 16 passes."
Starks utterly laid waste to the combine. He ran a 4.37 40-yard-dash, and his jumps and 20-yard shuttles were 95th percentile or better marks among cornerbacks. So even though Starks was 5-foot-9, he was a third-round pick of the Jaguars.
Starks tore his ACL in 2008, putting his career in jeopardy after a couple of years as a nickelback. Perhaps he never fully recovered from it. Everything I saw of him as a player indicated somebody who looked good enough to belong on a top prospects list, but when you dabble in a list with undersized players, you are going to find that long-term injuries can be knockout blows. His release in 2010 was somewhat unexpected, and no NFL team ever picked him up after the Jaguars let him go at last cuts.
I think this was a good ranking by MDS and would probably put a player like this even higher today because of the increased importance of cornerbacks. It was a career that, unfortunately, just didn't work out.
22. Michael Robinson, RB, 49ers
"Entering the 2006 draft, NFL scouts were lukewarm on Robinson. They knew they wanted him to switch from quarterback, which he played at Penn State, to some other position. ... Robinson didn't help matters much by declining to participate in any workouts at the scouting combine. ... He still hasn't found his niche on offense."
That position was ... fullback! Robinson wound up being the replacement for Weaver in Seattle after playing out his rookie contract in San Francisco and made the Pro Bowl in 2011. Robinson was kind of a square peg looking for a round hole in this era of NFL history. The passing era had begun, and he wasn't a receiver. Perhaps he might have stayed at quarterback had Penn State drilled in some spread techniques instead of playing a regressive passing game, but he completed just 49.1 percent of his college passes. (He did finish fifth in the Heisman voting in 2005 -- mostly because he ran for 11 touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry.)
But this was the kind of guy coaches call "a football player." Robinson could block, he had good speed, he was a plus on special teams.
Robinson caught a touchdown in Seattle's Super Bowl win over Denver and retired afterwards. I tend to be a lot harder on players who I don't think have a defined and important role with their teams, so he probably wouldn't have made a top prospects list I created. But that doesn't make him a bad football player -- lots of people we'd pick for a prospects list based on their ceiling will flame out. Robinson didn't.
23. Zach Strief, OG, Saints
"Strief is a colossal offensive lineman, but not a good athlete. He's a project, for sure, but at Northwestern the 6-foot-7, 349-pounder looked like a guy who could turn into a stud if he had the right coaching."
To call Strief a poor athlete is not an example of MDS exaggerating. Strief had a 21-inch vertical jump at the combine, which, while impressive for someone who weighs as much as he does, is something that you or I could probably do with some practice.
However, this was another nailed pick by MDS. The long-time Saint did not start full-time for his first five seasons, but was a consistent starter in every season after that, retiring after a knee injury in 2017. Strief made it up to a Pro Bowl alternate, but officially didn't receive any honors. Still, it was pretty clear he was at least an average right tackle, and finding that out of someone this low on a list would be a hit in my book.
Again, hard to really tell you how I'd rank a player like this today given a lack of context, but the athleticism of a lineman does tend to be a pretty good predictor of their likelihood of starting and Strief didn't have it. I think if a player like this were to make a list today, it would be down in a spot like this.
24. Junior Glymph, DE/OLB, Cowboys
"Glymph looked absolutely dominant in the 2006 preseason, like a prototypical 6-foot-6, 275-pound pass-rusher. ... It's a bit dangerous to get too excited about preseason warriors such as Glymph ... but he looks like he'd be an excellent fit in the Wade Phillips defense."
Towards the end of the list we do tend to have to dabble more into projection. Glymph actually didn't survive final cuts with the Cowboys in 2007, and his preseason sacks are described by trusted online resource Wikipedia as "fortuitous, because he was aligned in the wrong place." Ouch. The 2007 Cowboys managed 14 sacks from third-year All-Pro DeMarcus Ware, and also found 12.5 more from Greg Ellis. The Cowboys also selected Anthony Spencer in the first round in 2007, negating the need to carry a player like Glymph unless they were sky-high on his potential. They weren't. They tried Glymph as a true linebacker.
Glymph caught on with the Dolphins in 2008 as a Bill Parcells import, not making final cuts again. That was the end of his NFL career.
Out of powerhouse Carson-Newman University, Glymph was pretty much always up against the fringes of a roster. Glymph did a long podcast on this with The Long and Short of It. It's actually kind of a tough story to hear how the system kind of funneled him away from Division I football.
Hard to say what I'd make of a player like this today because I have no real athletic data about him. But I do tend to stay away from the fringe players who get pushed hard by coaching staffs in training camp, because they're just trying to give the players they actually invested in a note about how hard they have to work.
25. Marques Hagans, WR/KR, Rams
"Although he spent the entire 2006 season on the practice squad, his ability and versatility will have him competing for a receiver/return spot this season. Torry Holt is 31 and Isaac Bruce is 34. They won't be around forever, and Hagans is a good bet to pick up some of the slack."
That player that picked up the slack was not Marques Hagans, though it might as well have been. The Rams struggled with Marc Bulger, going 3-13, and instead of Hagans they gave the targets to 29-year-old Drew Bennett. Bennett gave the Rams a 45.2 percent catch rate and 375 yards on 73 targets.
Hagans was waived after 2007, bounced around three teams in 2008, and never appeared in an NFL game after that season. This is another mobile quarterback who might have been looked at differently in 2019, but it's hard to give you an honest take on him because he only had two full years of starting experience behind Matt Schaub at Virginia.
Hagans simply didn't show enough to stick at wideout. I'd probably be really low on a player like this if I were making a list today unless there was a major extenuating factor -- crazy athleticism, or someone pounding the table for them in the draft community, or some other reason to really believe in the player.
You all remember Jerome Harrison's 200-yard game, right? That was fun. We'll talk more about him next time. We'll talk more about Miles Austin more when we get to 2009. Sims was another long-time starter. Wright was a long-time bit player for the Patriots. Bell never played up to his 2006 stat line again.
These are the best players who didn't get mentioned on the list, who were technically eligible (parentheses is their career approximat value from Pro Football Reference):
Wes Welker, WR, Dolphins (110)
Cameron Wake, DE, Giants/B.C. Lions (93, active)
Donald Penn, OT, Buccaneers (88, active)
Darren Sproles, RB, Chargers (79)
Justin Tuck, DE, Giants (74)
Chris Myers, C, Broncos (71)
Brent Grimes, CB, Falcons (68)
Jay Ratliff, DT, Cowboys (64)
Ahmad Brooks, LB, Bengals (62)
Tramon Williams, CB, Packers (61, active)
Delanie Walker, TE, 49ers (45, active)
Willie Colon, G, Steelers (45)
Ryan Grant, RB, Packers (38)
Eugene Amano, C, Titans (35)
Brandon Browner, CB, Broncos/Stampeders (26)
Josh Cribbs, PR, Browns (24)
Welker and Wake have the best Hall of Fame cases. Wake was released by the Giants in June 2006 and latched on in the CFL. I'm surprised he didn't catch any eyes for the 2008 or 2009 lists based on what he was doing in Canada. Welker was undersized and it took a new team to unlock his potential.
Of the players on this list, I think the one I would have personally had the most trouble keeping off is Tuck. Tuck had the athletic profile, he was a third-round pick, and he only failed to make a splash in 2006 because of a Lisfranc fracture.
Sure seems like it's easier to find a good long-term lineman on the scrap heap than it is at any other position, doesn't it? Wonder how that'll hold up as we keep going through these.