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NFL Draft Reality Sometimes Differs From Perception


Donald Driver is among nine Packers draft picks from 1999 or 2000 to start in 2003.

Before we all get excited about the 2004 NFL Draft as the "be all, end all" to building an NFL franchise, it is time to take a look back at the draft results from 1999 and 2000. Players drafted in those years now have four and five years of pro experience. By all rights, they should be the core of the established players in the league.

But as usual, when I look back at the drafts four and five years ago as I do every year, the reality and the perception don't exactly meet.

We all hear that smart teams build through the draft. Well you might want to digest some of these numbers before you buy too much stock in that theory. Don't get me wrong, the draft is important and it is an exciting time of year for NFL fans, but let me review the hopes and dreams of a few years ago.

In 1999 and 2000 there were 507 players drafted. Fast forward to the end of the 2003 season and those two draft classes produced just 104 starters on the teams that drafted them. Twenty percent of those two draft classes were actual starters for their first team -- that averages out to less than four players per team. Another 67 players (11 percent) were still on their original teams as backups.

You may ask what happened to the other 336 draft picks? Forty-one percent of the combined class of 1999 and 2000 are out of the NFL and on with their life's work! I sure hope they got the college degree they were offered back in the late 90s when they were in school, but that's a story for another time.

A more interesting number is the 121 players on other rosters. Twenty-four percent of the selections no longer play for the team that drafted them. Sure, some moved on through the free-agency mechanism, but most were cut by their first team and found work with another team. The team that drafted them didn't think they could play, but the players proved them wrong.

Since the era of free agency began, draft picks making teams shot way up not because club personnel departments got smarter, nor because coaches now control some draft rooms, nor because players are better prepared for the NFL. It shot up because teams need lower-paid players on their rosters to offset the multi-millionaires at the top. So, evaluating a draft class a year or two after the draft isn't realistic -- those picks are on the team for economic reasons. One prominent general manager told me in his office last week that at least 10 minimum-wage rookies have to make his team just to make it under the cap. Back in the days when draft picks had to compete in camp before the salary-cap era, a fourth-round pick barely had a 50-50 chance of making a team.

Nowadays most fourth-rounders make the roster and get replaced by rookies a few years later. Hence a draft should not be evaluated until salary becomes an issue in determining if a player should be on a roster.

Let's look a little closer at some interesting realities from the 1999 and 2000 drafts as they relate to certain teams. Players made teams with four or five years experience last fall -- in the prime of their careers.

I first wondered which teams produced the fewest starters from those two drafts. Thirteen teams with 185 combined draft picks had 24 starters with each team having no more than two draftees starting.

Buffalo and Cincinnati each had only one starter, while Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, New Orleans, Oakland, St Louis, San Diego, Seattle and Tampa Bay all had two starting. Heck, Tampa Bay and Oakland were in the Super Bowl just 14 months ago and were heavy users of free agency to get there. Many of the other teams struggled on a regular basis.

Next, I wanted to know which teams had the most starters from the 1999 and 2000 drafts. Here's what I discovered: Green Bay, 9; Chicago, 7; San Francisco, 6; Philadelphia, 5; and Pittsburgh, 5. All five of these teams made at least one playoff appearance since the 2000 draft.

Which teams picked players who are still in the league but were unable to keep them or let them go thinking they weren't good enough to play in the NFL? There's eight: St. Louis, 8; Buffalo and Chicago, 7; Denver and Detroit, 6; Miami, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, 5.

I spoke with two position coaches who no longer go out on the road to evaluate draft picks, and they are concerned they're not meeting all the talent for the draft. When I pointed out to one coach that 121 players are no longer on their original teams from from those two drafts, he said, "I want to be a coordinator in a few years and the information I could gather now would really help me then. I'm frustrated I'm not out there working out as many draft picks as possible."

I agree. The other coach said, "With less coaches going out to campus workouts, we will make more mistakes and the survival rate with original teams should go down below 30 percent four years from now."

Here are a few quick observations about a couple of teams while I was putting their draft record together. The Lions only have three of their 13 picks still on the roster from four to five years ago, but six more of those 13 picks are playing for other teams. The Rams have four of their 14 picks on the roster, but another eight of the 14 still get a paycheck from another team. In fact, there are seven teams that have more players on other rosters than on their own rosters. The combined record of those seven teams last year was 46-66.

Maybe the correct expression is, "you better draft good players and keep them if you want to win."

The Redskins have five of their 14 picks on the roster, but no other team has any of the nine players they released. It looks like the players they cut don't belong in the NFL and that's harder to recognize than some would imagine. As important as it is picking good players, it is just as important in keeping them or at least having the selections prove they belong in the NFL by making any roster. Some teams can't boast they made good decisions when it came to their selections. For example, nine of the 14 San Diego selections are not even in the NFL any more. Eleven of the 19 picks Arizona had in those two drafts don't make a living playing football. Neither does 10 of Minnesota's 19 draft choices.

As I learned from my deceased friend, Dick Steinberg, who had the most players on an NFL roster whom he drafted, the draft is a crapshoot and you just hope the players and coaches have chemistry with each other from the beginning.

Finally, in order to understand what might happen in this draft, it is a good idea to study what has happened in years past. Can you imagine convincing your owner to give a draft-picked player a five-year contract when you know the survival rate of that player is more like 30 percent, which is not high enough to take the gamble. Late interest in the "safest" pick will drive up the value of an offensive linemen like Robert Gallery, Shawn Andrews, Vernon Carey or Jake Grove.

The numbers may confuse you, but teams are studying every aspect of the selection process and know where players may be available even after they are drafted.

Packers Starters From 1999, 2000 Drafts

Chad Clifton (2000, 2nd)

Na'il Diggs (2000, 4th)

Donald Driver (1999, 7th)

Antuan Edwards (1999, 1st)

Bubba Franks (2000, 1st)

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (2000, 5th)

Cletidus Hunt (1999, 3rd)

Mike McKenzie (1999, 3rd)

Mark Tauscher (2000, 7th)

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