In the NFL, you absolutely have to build a championship team through the draft. Free agency and trades are part of the equation, but if you want to build an elite core under the salary cap, then you better have a good GM and scouting team.
Oh, your team had Matt Millen in the general manager's office? Sorry, Charlie. That explains a lot.
It's not just a matter of nailing your first-round picks when you're terrible — you should be expected to do that. It's a matter of finding excellent value after the top five. The Seahawks were just given odds as co-favorites with the 49ers to win the Super Bowl in 2014. A major part of that equation is third-round pick Russell Wilson and fifth-round pick Richard Sherman. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have done a phenomenal job of finding talent deep in the draft, selecting guys that could definitely one day be considered some of the best picks of this era.
But they won't be on this list. It's too early to start judging picks from 2011 and 2012. Instead, I've looked at every single draft pick from 2000-2009, and based off of draft-pick value, personal success, and team success, I've put together the absolute best draft picks of this century.
After narrowly cutting off
JP Losman someone else at number 11, here are the 10 best NFL draft picks of the 2000s:
10. 2006 - New Orleans Saints select Jahri Evans, G, 108th overall, Bloomsburg
Jahri is a smart young man, but it concerns me that his blocking technique (footwork and hand use) are so raw and undisciplined — Will need to learn better technique in order to play up to his ability in the NFL. He has good instincts and when he plays with bent knees and leverage he can react well to quick moves, but when he gets upright in pass pro he cannot react quickly to fast side to side pass rush moves.
Evans was a small-school prospect (unless you thought Bloomsburg was in the SEC), and that's always a concern for NFL teams. They don't have much tape for that prospect against future NFL players, so how are they supposed to know if he is the real deal? But Evans stood out as a very special left tackle and, believe it or not, a fourth-round pick that went to Bloomsburg is like a top-five pick that went to USC.
It may seem weird to slot a guard on the best draft picks of the century, but take everything into consideration on this list. Such as:
Talent - Evans has made four straight All-Pro teams. No player taken in the top 11 picks of this draft has made an All-Pro roster.
Winning - The Saints won the Super Bowl thanks to the league's top offense and stellar offensive line play, a large part of which was due to the team's guards.
Value - Evans was taken after 107 other players. That includes wide receiver Cory Rodgers, who never played in the NFL. And fellow guard Charles Spencer (Texans, 65th overall) who played in two games. And Brad Smith, a quarterback who was no longer going to be a quarterback.
A right guard is rarely ever going to pop up in your brain as "such a great pick!", but it's true when that player has started 112 out of a possible 112 career games, helped you win a Super Bowl, and cost you a "measly" fourth-round pick. Evans is a fine way to kick off this list, even if he is "only" a guard.
9. 2003 - Chicago Bears select Lance Briggs, LB, 68th overall, U of A
Weakness: Lance Briggs isn't as tall as scouts like their middle linebackers to be.
OK, I couldn't find a good draft day scouting report on Lance Briggs, but he slipped to the third round in 2003 and the Bears found themselves another amazing linebacker. The Texans took linebacker Antwan Peek one pick ahead of Briggs, and Peek's last year in the league was 2007. Briggs has nearly 10 times as many career tackles as Peek (though Peek actually has more sacks.)
There were some other very good picks in 2003 that I considered for this list: Kevin Williams, Troy Polamalu, even Briggs' teammate, Charles Tillman, but Briggs is arguably the best player in the entire draft and he went after 67 others. (Pro Football Reference has Briggs with the highest career value from the 2003 draft)
He has played in 156 of a possible 160 games, scored five touchdowns, gone to a Super Bowl, and made seven Pro Bowls. I admit that when I started doing this list, I did not expect to see Evans and Briggs lead it off — but here we are.
8. 2004 - Kansas City Chiefs select Jared Allen, DE, 126th overall, Idaho State
Again, I'm having a hard time finding a good Jared Allen scouting report, but he came from a small school where he gun-racked up 17.5 sacks as a senior and was considered undersized at defensive end. The Chiefs got him in the fourth round, and we later found out that 17.5 sacks wasn't only possible for him at a small school. He was far from the most desired defensive end in that draft, though.
Defensive ends drafted in the first round in 2004:
Will Smith (67.5 sacks)
Kenechi Udeze (11 sacks)
Jason Babin (55 sacks)
Igor Olshansky (12.5 sacks)
Travis LaBoy (29.5 sacks)
Antwan Odom (23.5 sacks)
Marquise Hill (0 sacks)
Darrion Scott (9.5 sacks)
Anthony Hargrove (19.5 sacks)
Shaun Philips (69.5 sacks)
Bo Schobel (1.5 sacks)
Robert Geathers (33 sacks)
Finally, at pick 126, the 13th defensive end taken is Jared Allen. 117 sacks.
Allen racked up 43 sacks in four years with the Chiefs — not bad at all. But he's been even better in five years with the Vikings: 74 sacks in 80 games and four Pro Bowls. Even though the Chiefs did not get to reap all of the benefits of Jared Allen, it wasn't a complete loss; Kansas City traded Allen to the Vikings in exchange for a first-round pick (turned into Brandon Albert) and two third-round picks (one of which was Jamaal Charles). None of the six players taken just ahead of Allen are still in the NFL, and neither are any of the eight players taken just after Allen.
He's truly a special player and a special draft pick. If it weren't for the fact that Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were in this draft, he'd probably be the best player in this class. Heck, he might be anyway, he just doesn't have two Super Bowl rings. Not bad for 126th overall.
7. 2001 - Carolina Panthers select Steve Smith, WR, 74th overall, Utah
I don't even want to try and remember what the Internet was like in 2001.
Smith ran a 4.41 40-yard dash before the draft, could broad jump, could vertical jump, but was simply considered a special athlete at returning kicks and a project at receiver. That's why he went in the third round, and it's basically what he was as a rookie. That year, he caught 10 catches for 154 yards but went to the Pro Bowl after returning two kickoffs and one punt for a touchdown. He was explosive and, oh man, what if he learned to catch?
He done did that.
Smith has put up seven seasons with over 1,000 yards, had a monster season in 2005 with 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns, and is 23rd all-time in career receiving yards. This is coming from a guy drafted in 2001, when six receivers were drafted in the first round: David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner, Santana Moss, Freddie Mitchell, and Reggie Wayne. Obviously Wayne is special, but that also makes Wayne an excellent pick considering the quartet of failed dreams known as Terrell, Robinson, Gardner, and Mitchell.
The second round saw Quincy Morgan, Chad Johnson, Robert Ferguson, and Chris Chambers. A couple of good finds again in the second.
Smith was the ninth receiver taken but is still one of the most exciting players in the NFL. Who would have thought that he'd last longer than the other Steve Smith?
6. 2008 - Baltimore Ravens select Joe Flacco, QB, 18th overall, Delaware
Flacco has spent five years under a lot of regular season criticism and a lot of question as to where or not he was truly "elite" to the point where he was basically bringing the ridicule onto himself. Even last season, he was no better statistically in 2012 than he was in 2009, and typically you want to see players improve right? Well, if you win ball games, f--- it! Flacco has started for five seasons, he's never missed a game, he's never missed the playoffs, and he's never been one-and-done in the playoffs. Now he's a Super Bowl MVP and champion with a career 9-4 record in the playoffs.
Record contract and elite status? #NailedIt
Flacco was the 18th overall pick in 2008, going one pick after a guy named Gosder Cherilus. Okay, Gosder is a five-year starter at tackle for the Lions, but he's not a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Neither are Glenn Dorsey, Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey, Keith Rivers, Leodis McKelvin, Chris Williams, and a few other players that were all drafted before Flacco, whom the Ravens traded up to get. Two of those players are out of the league, and so is Jeff Otah, the 19th overall pick.
I don't know if Flacco is really "elite," but I know that the Ravens don't give a heck either way. Championship.
5. 2004 - Pittsburgh Steelers select Ben Roethlisberger, QB, 11th overall, Miami (Ohio)
"The Bad: Needs to improve his footwork, release, and does not throw the tightest spirals.
The Skinny: A young signal caller with a tremendous amount of upside potential as he matures both physically and mentally. Great prospect for the future."
Good thing he matured physically, at least.
The Giants aren't hating their acquisition of Eli Manning after winning two Super Bowls, but the Steelers have also won two rings since the 2004 draft, and Roethlisberger only came at the price of the 11th overall pick. Teams that passed on Big Ben: Raiders (Robert Gallery), Cardinals (Larry Fitzgerald), Redskins (Sean Taylor), Browns (Kellen Winslow), Lions (Roy Williams), Falcons (DeAngelo Hall), Jaguars (Reggie Williams), and Texans (Dunta Robinson). The Chargers also got Philip Rivers, and you could argue that if those two players switched places that Rivers would be the successful one in the playoffs, but the Steelers don't have to argue that; they live it.
Roethlisberger's career has been marred by off-field embarrassments and some less-than-stellar seasons, but who cares when you've got two rings? He went 13-0 as a rookie starter, won a Super Bowl in 2005, another in 2008, and has completed 63.1 percent of his career passes with 191 touchdowns and 7.9 yards per attempt.
That's a "last laugh" statement if I know one.
4. 2007 - San Francisco 49ers select Patrick Willis, LB, 11th overall, Mississippi
Patrick Willis will keep making plenty of tackles in the NFL. He may not be quite the ideal size for inside linebackers in the league, but his production speaks for itself. For someone about to become an overnight millionaire, he is the last person I would worry about not being able to handle it. Willis has been through a lot in his life, in his personal life and as the heart of an overmatched and undermanned team. He will stick and be successful as a professional football player.
And then guess what? They got him!
Surprisingly, Willis has sort of faded into the background in San Francisco thanks to the emergence of teammates Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. There's a great chance that Bowman would make this list if he weren't drafted in 2010, but the 91st overall pick has already made the All-Pro team twice in his career. Aldon had 19.5 sacks last season. Sort of makes you forget the facts about Willis.
Like that he has made the Pro Bowl in all six of his seasons and is a five-time first-team All-Pro. And though Willis couldn't do it all on his own, he's still the leader of a 49ers defense that has made it to back-to-back NFC title games, a Super Bowl appearance, and a big reason why SF is looking like they could be among the favorites for awhile.
He didn't fall far in the draft, going 11th overall, but these are the teams that passed on Willis:
- Raiders (JaMarcus Russell)
- Lions (Calvin Johnson)
- Browns (Joe Thomas)
- Buccaneers (Gaines Adams)
- Cardinals (Levi Brown)
- Redskins (LaRon Landry)
- Vikings (Adrian Peterson)
- Falcons (Jamaal Anderson)
- Dolphins (Ted Ginn)
- Texans (Amobi Okoye)
There are a few elite players ahead of him, but only Willis has made the Super Bowl. Oh, and Ginn did too, in no small thanks to Willis.
3. 2001 - San Diego Chargers select Drew Brees, QB, 32nd overall, Purdue
Positives... Touch passer with the ability to read and diagnose defensive coverages...Confident leader who knows how to take command in the huddle...Very tough and mobile moving around in the pocket...Has a quick setup and is very effective throwing on the move...
Negatives... Plays in the spread offense, taking the bulk of his snaps from the shotgun... Tends to side-arm his passes going deep...Lacks accuracy and touch on his long throws... Seems more comfortable in the short/intermediate passing attack...Does not possess the ideal height you look for in a pro passer, though his ability to scan the field helps him compensate in this area...
REMIND ME OF... San Francisco's Jeff Garcia.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL... Despite his "shortcoming" in the size department, Brees has put up impressive enough numbers to generate first round consideration. Pittsburtgh, Kansas City (if they don't pull off the Trent Green trade) or Miami could opt for Brees in the first round, but I am not convinced that he will come anywhere close to matching his lofty collegiate figures at the pro level.
The 2001 draft was something of a marvel for the Chargers. It is almost astounding that they haven't even made a Super Bowl in this century, considering that within the first 32 picks of that draft they picked two of the very best players of the century: LaDainian Tomlinson at fifth overall, and then Brees. They were also right about Michael Vick, making a deal with the Falcons to move down and instead getting the pair.
Unfortunately for San Diego, Brees enjoyed his greatest success in New Orleans, where he has won a Super Bowl and put together some of the most astounding statistical seasons in league history. Brees has thrown 89 touchdowns over the last two years alone. The Chiefs had eight touchdown passes last year.
Thirteen players taken ahead of Brees are still in the league, but most of them (Steve Hutchinson, Todd Heap) are considered to be on their last legs. (Hutch, taken 17th overall by Seattle, is perhaps the best guard in NFL history and was also a hell of a good pick.)
Brees was taken just ahead of receiver Quincy Morgan, and the Browns are still all like, "Man, we need a quarterback!" So close, you guys.
2. 2005 - Green Bay Packers select Aaron Rodgers, QB, 24th overall, Cal
The 49ers reportedly didn't settle on Smith over California's Aaron Rodgers until last weekend, but there's also some sentiment that Auburn's Jason Campbell should rate in the same category. Meanwhile, Adrian McPherson is hailed as a first-round talent paying a price for a check-cashing scandal that got him booted off Florida State's team in 2003.
Smith, who won the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's top passer, was 21-1 as a starter. The nephew of Michigan State coach John L. Smith, he is considered a better athlete than Rodgers.
Rodgers, slated to become the sixth Jeff Tedford-coached quarterback chosen in the first round, set a school record for pass efficiency (161.2) in 2004, when he also fired 24 TD passes and tied an NCAA single-game record with 23 consecutive completions against Southern California.
Well, Alex Smith ended up helping the 49ers get to the NFC Championship game in 2011, and then somewhat helped them get to the Super Bowl in 2012, before bringing back two good draft picks from the Chiefs. So there's that!
Right up until the moment that the 49ers drafted Smith over Rodgers, it was hard to tell which guy would be the No. 1 pick. It was an incredibly close decision, but the guy that didn't go to the 49ers was going to have a tumble past a bunch of teams that didn't think they needed a QB. I wonder how they felt about the decision shortly afterwards, because almost all of the 23 teams that passed on Rodgers have found themselves in dire straits at quarterback.
Ironically, the team that ultimately drafted him already had a Hall of Fame quarterback. Go figure. But the Packers' gain was everybody else's loss: Statistically, Rodgers has put together one of the best careers in NFL history. Non-statistically, the Packers won a Super Bowl and have been nearly unbeatable over the past three seasons. Well, I guess that's kind of a statistic: Wins. The most important stat of all.
Rodgers went after players like Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Erasmus James, and Matt Jones. Yes, Rodgers was drafted after a quarterback that was picked to play receiver. Eleven of the 23 players drafted ahead of Aaron Rodgers are no longer in the league.
1. 2000 - New England Patriots select Tom Brady, QB, 199th overall, Michigan
Positives: Good height to see the field. Very poised and composed. Smart and alert.
Negatives: Poor build. Very skinny and narrow. Ended the ‘99 season weighing 195 pounds and still looks like a rail at 211. Looks a little frail and lacks great physical stature and strength. Can get pushed down more easily than you’d like. Lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush. Lacks a really strong arm. Can’t drive the ball down the field and does not throw a really tight spiral. System-type player who can get exposed if he must ad-lib and do things on his own.
Summary: Is not what you’re looking for in terms of physical stature, strength, arm strength, and mobility but he has the intangibles and production and showed great Griese-like improvement as a senior. Could make it in the right system but is not for everyone.
I could re-visit this list in 10 years and it would still be pretty hard to beat Brady (though I'd like to think that Russell Wilson is going to try!) He started out his career at Michigan buried on the depth chart until finally beating out Drew Henson to start every game over the 1998 and 1999 seasons. Still, few people considered Brady to be a better NFL prospect than Henson and the guy he took over for, Brian Griese. Ultimately, he was just an another afterthought during the 2000 draft, and I guess you could say there's been a little bit of talk about how ridiculous it is in hindsight just how far he fell.
There are only 11 players from that draft technically still active in the league, including Brady, and he just signed a new deal while classmates like Brian Urlacher appear to be on their last legs. (Interesting note: The Raiders drafted kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler that year. They are both still on the team. They were also both taken ahead of Tom Brady.) He was the seventh quarterback drafted that year, after players like Giovanni Carmazzi (never active in the NFL), Tee Martin, and Spergon Wynn. Brady went one pick after defensive back Matt Bowen (out of the league in 2006) and one pick ahead of wide receiver Sherrod Gideon, who also was never active in the pros.
What did Brady go on to do?
Well, you kind of know the answer to that right? Three Super Bowls, two MVPs, 8 Pro Bowls, 2 Super Bowl MVPs, 5 AFC Championships, you get the idea. Possibly the best quarterback to ever play the game. Of course, we can't know what would have happened if Brady didn't go to a team that might have won the Super Bowl in 2001 with Drew Bledsoe, had he not gotten hurt. But we don't have to. 198 selections went by before the Pats took Brady.
They just know that they're happy they did. Nobody else in the league is quite that happy about it.