Welcome to The Ringer’s 21st-Century NFL Draft Retrospective, where we’re looking back at the past 20 years of drafts to find the biggest hits, misses, and league trends since 2000. Who were the best selections? What lessons can be learned from the top picks that never worked out? What does the track record of no. 1 picks teach us about team-building? And how has the league changed in the past two decades?
Despite NFL teams’ best attempts, the draft is not an exact science. Take Aaron Curry: In 2009, the Wake Forest linebacker was considered to be the “safest pick in the draft” and in the discussion to be the no. 1 pick. He was strong and long-armed, and he had all the tools a team wanted in a linebacker: the ability to shed offensive linemen when rushing the passer, great instincts for defending the run, and strong pass-coverage talents. When he fell to the Seahawks at pick no. 4, it looked like they had a defensive building block for the next decade. Instead, he was off the team within two and a half years, and out of the league by 2013.
The Seahawks did everything they were supposed to with that pick: They took the best available player—one who had the potential to be the best in his class. Although years later Curry said that he lacked the motivation to be great, there were no major red flags at the time. It’s unclear what, if any, lessons there were to glean from his flameout. The NFL draft is rich with players like Curry or Vernon Gholston, the no. 6 pick in 2008, who never became productive. For some, the reasons they never materialized into productive players became clear with years of hindsight. Others were plain to see the moment the pick was made. So while no team will ever draft perfectly, there are a handful of mistakes decision-makers have mostly learned to avoid at the top of the first round.
There have been 20 drafts in the 21st century. Of the 320 players who have been selected in the top half of the first round during that span, here are eight examples of players who missed their mark at the next level—and what lessons can be learned from their example.
JaMarcus Russell, QB
The pick: No. 1 to the Raiders in 2007
The lesson: One great college season doesn’t make a great prospect.
When he was coming out of LSU in 2007, Russell’s physical gifts were compared to John Elway’s; Mel Kiper expected him to mature into one of the league’s top signal-callers in just a few years, while Todd McShay said he couldn’t “remember being in such awe” of a QB prospect in his decade of scouting. Russell had an arm that could put even Brett Favre’s to shame, was agile on his feet, and was named Sugar Bowl MVP that January. What could’ve possibly gone wrong?
Turns out his college career, including his Manning Award–winning final season in Baton Rouge, looked a little less stellar under scrutiny. Russell’s 2005 season was relatively unspectacular, as he threw for less than 3,000 yards and averaged 7.5 adjusted yards per attempt. He spent the 2006 preseason locked in a tough battle with Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux for the starting job. That alone shouldn’t be a red flag; as David Lewin noted for Football Outsiders at the time, Tom Brady split snaps with Drew Henson his final year at Michigan. But Brady went no. 199 in 2000. Russell went no. 1 in 2007. Brady also never had Russell’s decision-making issues: Too often, Russell would throw a ball into double- and triple-coverage and rely on talented receivers like Dwayne Bowe and Early Doucet to make a play. That doesn’t fly in the NFL, where receivers have to run precise routes and get separation.
Those problems followed him into the pros, where he played just three years. Russell started just 25 games, throwing a total of 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions while completing 52.1 percent of his passes. He had other issues—Russell gained weight almost immediately after entering the league and reportedly refused to watch game tape—but if you’re going to pick a player at the top of the draft, you have to make sure his college performance isn’t just smoke and mirrors.
(And lest we draw comparisons to a certain other LSU quarterback slated to go no. 1 after a breakout season, remember that Russell was drafted by one of the league’s most dysfunctional franchises. Joe Burrow appears to be headed to … Cincinnati. Let’s hope it ends up better for both Burrow and the Bengals.)
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR
The pick: No. 7 to the Raiders in 2009
The lesson: Don’t draft a player highly because of one standout attribute.
A high school track star who played football only to make friends, Heyward-Bey ran a 4.30 40 at the 2009 combine. This caught the attention of the famously speed-obsessed Raiders owner Al Davis, who passed on receivers Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree to take Heyward-Bey at no. 7. The move was universally panned at the time. It turned out to be just as bad as expected.
But speed doesn’t equal receiving ability, and it’s unclear whether Heyward-Bey had much of the latter. His coaches at Maryland told him during his redshirt-freshman season that he might want to consider doing something other than play football. While he stuck on and earned a starting job for the Terps, he didn’t do much with the role, as he posted only four games of more than 100 yards in three seasons. He fared even worse at the next level: In 10 seasons with three teams, Heyward-Bey never had more than 975 yards in a season, which came in 2011, when he caught 64 passes on 115 targets. Meanwhile, Maclin and Crabtree both posted multiple 1,000-yard seasons in their careers.
Of course teams want their wide receivers to be among the fastest players on the field—the Chiefs have built the NFL’s most high-powered offensive attack based on speed. But ultimately, pass-catching and route-running skills have more to do with success than the ability to run fast in a straight line.
Trent Richardson, RB
The pick: No. 3 to the Browns in 2012
The lesson: Don’t overpay for a position of questionable value.
The strangest thing about Richardson is there was nothing to suggest he was going to be a bust. In his final year in Alabama, he averaged 5.9 yards per attempt while running for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns and powering the Crimson Tide to a national title. He was great as a receiver, too, catching 29 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns that year. Richardson also finished third in Heisman voting in 2011 behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the first two picks in that April’s draft.
None of that changes the Browns’ faulty logic in the 2012 draft. Cleveland traded its fourth overall pick, a 2012 fourth-round pick (118th overall), a 2012 fifth-round pick (139th overall), and a 2012 seventh-round pick (211th overall) to move up one spot and take Richardson at no. 3, making him the highest-drafted back since Reggie Bush in 2006 at the time. Given what we know about running back value, relinquishing that much capital would’ve been a questionable move even if Richardson had been a transcendent player. Unfortunately for the Browns, he was anything but.
Richardson struggled to adjust to the NFL’s zone-blocking schemes, which asks runners to follow the open holes in the offensive line. “If you don’t have great vision, a kind of feel for where the hole is going to be, you can have all the strength, the power, the measurables, all the things he did in college and you’re going to struggle,” said former Browns CEO Joe Banner. “It’s just [defenders are] too fast, they’re too big, they’re too good at that level to have that weakness.” This shortcoming dogged Richardson in his three-year NFL career, as he rushed for a total of 2,032 yards on 3.3 yards per carry. Midway through his second year, Banner and his staff cut bait, trading him to the Colts for a first-rounder.
The Browns’ issue with the Richardson pick wasn’t talent evaluation—virtually every draft expert pegged him as elite. The problem was investing that much draft capital in a running back. Twelve other future Pro Bowlers went after Richardson in the first round in 2012—including running back Doug Martin, whom the Bucs picked at no. 31. Even Alfred Morris, who went in the sixth round that year, had a more productive career than Richardson. The position is notoriously hard to project, and even when a team hits on a back, as the Rams did with Todd Gurley at no. 10 in 2015, it typically takes only a few years before he hits a wall. This makes even recent early-first-round success stories like Saquon Barkley look questionable in the long term.
Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams, WRs
The picks: No. 2 to the Lions in 2003 (Rogers), no. 7 in 2004 (Roy Williams), and no. 10 in 2005 (Mike Williams)
The lesson: Don’t let past mistakes prevent you from drafting the right guy.
It’s one of the great draft oddities of the past two decades: Lions GM Matt Millen drafted four wide receivers in the top 10 in a five-year stretch. The first three never amounted to much. The last one will go down as one of the most talented receivers to ever play.
Rogers and both Williamses looked like they’d be successes coming into their drafts: All starred in college and were named to All-American teams, and each was considered a high-upside first-rounder. (Of the three, only Mike Williams seems to have been somewhat of a reach—he declared for the draft after spending two years at USC by piggybacking onto a federal judge’s ruling that allowed Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett to enter the NFL draft after what would’ve been his sophomore season.) But the on-field production never matched the hype for these receivers. They combined for a total of 4,773 yards with the Lions—and nearly all of that was accumulated by Roy Williams, who posted one 1,300-yard season in Detroit. By contrast, Andre Johnson, who was taken one pick after Rogers in 2003, had more than 13,000 yards with the Texans.
The moves didn’t work out, but they didn’t deter Millen from picking a receiver again in 2007. This one went a little better: Calvin Johnson, who went no. 2 that year, had more than 11,000 receiving yards in his nine-year career. He set the single-season receiving yards mark in 2012 when he nearly broke the 2,000-yard plane, and he regularly made the types of outstanding catches the Lions expected from their three previous first-round receivers. Given the capital the team had invested in its pass-catching group, the move seemed ridiculous at the time, but the fourth time was a charm.
Quinton Coples, DE
The pick: No. 16 to the Jets in 2012
The lesson: Be wary of tweeners with no clear role.
Coples starred as a defensive tackle at UNC, earning first-team All-ACC honors in 2010 and 2011 and racking up a combined 17.5 sacks over his final two collegiate seasons. But his career fizzled in the NFL, as Coples had just 16.5 sacks over four seasons. By 2016, he was out of football. So what went wrong? His problems may have begun when he was asked to play out of position.
After the Jets drafted DT Sheldon Richardson in 2013, head coach Rex Ryan moved Coples to the outside, where he rarely played in college and didn’t flash much when he did. His NFL.com scouting report noted his lack of lateral movement and inability “to ignite his feet and hips to make quick-twitch plays.” (“He can seem as if he’s moving in slow motion at times,” the report said. That’s a more diplomatic take than the one former Jet Joe Klecko had: “A little bit of the time, he looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.”) As an edge defender, Coples struggled to get around blockers and never made much of an impact in the passing game. In 2014, his last season as a full-time starter, he tied for no. 59 at his position in Pro Football Focus’s grades. That came despite his efforts to lose weight and work on his technique before the year.
When Coples was released in 2015, new head coach Todd Bowles noted that Coples was a better player on the inside than he was on the outside. But by that time, the team had drafted Leonard Williams, another physically imposing interior player, leaving no natural home for Coples on the Jets roster. “As an outside player, I thought he was OK, but we needed a little more speed on the field for the things we’re trying to do,” then–head coach Todd Bowles said. “He [was] just caught up in that tweener status for us.”
Greg Robinson, OT
The pick: No. 2 in 2014 to the Rams
The lesson: Don’t fall in love with a lineman’s attributes if the skills aren’t there.
Robinson entered the league as one of the most hyped offensive tackle prospects in years, drawing comparisons to two-time All-Pro Tyron Smith and Hall of Famer Orlando Pace and leapfrogging ready-made pros Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan on most big boards. His combination of speed and size—the 332-pound Robinson ran a 4.92 40-yard dash, second among tackles that year to the 309-pound Lewan—enticed teams, as did his quick footwork and 35-inch arms. He broke out in his final year at Auburn, when he was named first-team All-SEC, and there seemed to be little reason to think he wouldn’t blossom into an elite blindside protector in the NFL.
Quickly, however, the Rams realized that Robinson’s development was unlikely to materialize. In three years with the team, he never ranked above 64th in Pro Football Focus’s offensive tackle grades. He finished in the top 10 in penalties each of those seasons, including 2016, when he was a healthy scratch on two separate occasions. The following year, the Rams shipped him to Detroit, where he was waived after playing six games. He spent the past two seasons in Cleveland, where his play marginally improved, but the team didn’t try to retain him when his contract expired last month. Robinson, who was arrested after U.S. Border Patrol agents said they found 157 pounds of marijuana in his car in February, remains a free agent.
So how did the Rams and the rest of the league’s talent evaluators miss so badly on Robinson when two Pro Bowl tackles went later in the first round? They valued his physical traits over his actual talents. The knock on Robinson when he was coming into the league was his rawness—he needed to work on his pass-protection skills, something that wasn’t necessary when he lined up for the run-first Tigers. His power and athleticism also allowed him to dominate against lesser defenders in college. In the NFL, however, he was unable to get by on pure physical talent and was exposed often, hence the glut of penalties. A similar fate almost befell former Giants tackle Ereck Flowers—another long-armed, physical offensive line prospect who struggled early in his career—before a switch to guard in Washington last year revived his career.
Corey Coleman, WR
The pick: No. 15 to the Browns in 2016
The lesson: Players from spread offenses are difficult to project.
Coleman certainly had the right pedigree coming out of Baylor. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football and had 74 catches for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns in his final season with the Bears. That didn’t translate to the NFL, where he failed to reproduce those highs on some admittedly terrible Browns teams. But the problems seem to have gone deeper than the personnel surrounding him.
During Coleman’s time at Baylor, the team ran one of the more extreme spread offenses in college football. This created wide-open opportunities for the speedy Coleman, who ran a 4.37 40 at his pro day. It did not, however, teach him a sophisticated route tree. The system limited what it asked its players to do. (A PFF analysis in 2016 showed that all but 13 of his 116 targets in his final season with the Bears came on go routes, hitches, slants, or screens.) Those concerns have thus far turned out to be correct: Despite his natural abilities, he’s caught just 61 passes in three seasons and floated around from the Browns to the Bills to the Patriots to the Giants. He’s hoping to bounce back this year with New York after missing all of 2019 with a torn ACL.
This doesn’t mean that receivers from spread offenses can’t succeed in the NFL: Former Aggie Mike Evans is one of the best receivers in football and Coleman’s fellow Baylor alumnus Kendall Wright had a serviceable career, even if he didn’t quite live up to his first-round draft billing either. But the takeaway from stories like Coleman’s is that it’s impossible to predict how a receiver will perform in a pro offense if their college offense looks nothing like one.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB
The pick: No. 2 in 2017 to the Chicago Bears
The lesson: If Deshaun Watson is available, draft Deshaun Watson.
The Chicago Bears have gotten their share of grief for trading up to draft Trubisky at no. 2 when Watson and Patrick Mahomes were still available. Only part of that is fair: At Texas Tech, Mahomes played in the Air Raid offense, a system that tends to inflate the passing numbers of its quarterbacks and has seen many of its most prolific college practitioners flame out in the pros. Mahomes looks like the most talented quarterback of his generation now, but he went 13-16 as a starter in college, and the experts gave mixed grades to the move at the time.
Watson, meanwhile, prospered on the biggest stage, staring down Alabama’s mighty defense in back-to-back national championship games. The two-time Manning Award winner went 32-3 in his three years as a starter for Clemson, and while football history is littered with college stars whose talents didn’t translate to the NFL and there were questions about Watson’s accuracy and decision-making, his draft profile suggested that he could excel with some small tweaks. “It’s hard to knock his winning ways and what he has done in big games,” one AFC executive said in 2017. “He is a talented kid and he’s athletic enough to make plays with his feet.”
Trubisky, an accurate college passer with solid footwork, was seen at the time as the more polished pro prospect. But his experience and achievements paled in comparison to Watson’s. Trubisky started just one season for the Tar Heels, and while he was exceptional during the campaign (3,748 yards, 30 touchdowns, and six picks), the track record of quarterbacks succeeding in the pros with similar experience has been spotty at best. Since 2000, four other QBs have been selected in the first round after just one year of leading their college team. Two of them, Kyler Murray and Cam Newton, were Heisman Trophy winners. The other two, Mark Sanchez and Dwayne Haskins, were first-team all-conference players. Trubisky was named to the All-ACC third team in 2016, behind Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Watson. As great as Trubisky was in his limited playing time in Chapel Hill, voters still viewed him as the third-best signal-caller in his conference that season. (And while the jury is still out on Murray and Haskins, the sizable gap between Sanchez’s and Newton’s pro careers shows that one great year doesn’t guarantee that success will follow in the NFL.)
Still, the Bears traded their no. 3 pick plus three additional assets to move up one spot for the right to draft Trubisky in 2017, while Watson went to the Texans no. 12. Since then, their careers have played out as one may expect based on their college track records. Watson set the league on fire in his abbreviated rookie campaign in 2017 and looks like he’ll compete for MVP awards for years to come. Trubisky has looked flustered under pressure and is likely the piece holding back a Super Bowl contender. Last month, Chicago traded for Nick Foles, which could signal the end of the Trubisky experiment.
As Mahomes shows, players don’t need to win a national championship to be a star in the NFL. It’s a different game, and sometimes it’s a matter of landing in the right spot in the pros, as Mahomes did in Kansas City. But sometimes teams talk themselves into potential overproduction. Watson was a different case than the Tim Tebows of the world—like Tebow, Watson had boundless drive and leadership tools, but unlike Tebow, he also had the right skills to break out in the pros. Meanwhile, Trubisky at the moment is looking more like Mark Sanchez than Cam Newton. But the Bears did everything they thought they were supposed to in drafting the guy with the most pro-ready attributes. There’s just no accounting for what a player like Watson can bring to a team. Lesson learned, we hope.