With the 29th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select (pause for effect): R. Jay Soward, wide receiver out of USC. There are a lot of different ways to describe a pick like Soward to the Jaguars at 29, and they range anywhere from "steal" to "waste." Because as good as he was on the field, there were significant questions on whether or not any of that mattered because of everything that happened off of it.
I began covering R.Jay Soward when he was a sophomore at Eisenhower High School and started for the 14-0 Eagles team that won a CIF-Southern Section large school championship and was ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today.
He was a great open-field runner … just an explosive offensive performer. He could go deep, but he could also turn a 15-yard slant into a 75-yard touchdown. And he was a huge threat on punts and kickoffs, too.
Thinking back, he had more touchdown-scoring potential — at any level — than any player I saw in three decades in the Inland Empire. He commanded a double-team wherever he went, and he often still beat it.
All of which is predictable for any high-profile USC recruit. He became one of the most dangerous and explosive players in the Pac-10 almost immediately, scoring five touchdowns on offense as a true freshman and another two touchdowns on kickoffs with a 31.4-yard average. He was on All-America watch lists and had Heisman hopes, but he never really reached his high aspirations, and even 32 career touchdowns didn't overcome the fact that he fell short.
And his falling short of expectations in college, with a suspension for violating team rules and years later admitting (and not being regretful of) taking payments at USC, was not enough to deter the Jaguars from spending a first-round pick on Soward. The potential of a Soward with his head on straight was too high to pass up, and with Jacksonville coming off of a 14-2 season it seemed like luxury was the name of the game. Mark Brunell was 30, Fred Taylor was 24, Jimmy Smith was 31, Keenan McCardell was 30, and the window for success did not seem like it was closing. Smith and McCardell could help ease the big-headed rookie into the next level. Head coach Tom Coughlin had no idea how wrong that was.
Coughlin reportedly had to have a limousine sent to Soward's house just to be sure that the rookie was not late for practices and meetings, and that still didn't stop him from being suspended in December for tardiness. He caught 14 passes for 154 yards with one touchdown as a rookie, while returning 14 punts and four kickoffs. By the end of his first season, the league had suspended him for two failed marijuana tests, though family says that it was really alcohol that was the problem. He was arrested in Orlando for threatening police officers after being pulled over. Eventually the Jaguars did not want him back, and his suspension from the league was never lifted.
After less than one season, the career of R Jay Soward was over. It's possible that the Jags took a chance on Soward based on their own success, passing over players like Keith Bulluck, Dennis Northcutt, Todd Pinkston, and Darren Howard, all for a player that could be successful in the NFL "if only."
Of course, players have overcome off-field issues before to have successful NFL careers. Being termed a head case in the draft is only one of the many red flags that deter teams from drafting certain players. Some flags are eventually overlooked because of high marks in another area.
"He's a head case, but damn he's fast." "He's got a great head on his shoulders, but his 40! I've seen faster lines at the DMV!" (DMV jokes still killin'? Good.)
But what about when the player himself notes that he was drafted too high?
According to his Wikipedia page, via a source that I can not confirm, Soward was quoted as saying:
"I think the hardest part for me was dealing with all the pressure after getting drafted," he recalls. "I didn’t play well my first year so people were on me a lot. I wish I would have went to New Orleans in the second round. I wish I hadn’t ever been a first round draft pick. I felt that New Orleans had a better staff to suit me at that time. I think being with those guys would have changed my future in the NFL."
Therein lies part of the problem with a player being termed a bust. Like watching a subject in an experiment that knows he is being watched, an NFL player's path immediately changes based on what team drafts him and when they do.
Would Aaron Rodgers have been successful in San Francisco? Would Russell Wilson have been as successful as a rookie in Cleveland with high expectations instead of low expectations as a third-round pick? R. Jay Soward was amazing in high school, and that allowed him to go to USC. When he got to USC, he struggled to adjust, yet still had some on-field success because his talent shone through.
The bigger question is whether or not you can live up to the expectations of NFL fans who are paying hundreds of dollars per season to watch you play when you're the first-round bonus baby instead of the the seventh-round maybe.
Don't f*** this up.
Soward could not live up to that and barely lasted in the NFL. His head and the league were never a match. He wishes that he would have gone later in the draft. He believed that he could have blended into a team and worked his way up from there, but that didn't happen, and so he becomes the lead on this story instead. A story about 10 players, that like R. Jay Soward, have not hacked it in the league.
Here are their own stories, but much shorter.
10. Courtney Brown, DE, Penn State - 1st overall, Cleveland, 2000
Taken 28 picks ahead of Soward, the beginning of this list is a player who was not supposed to have any red flags. Other than this: Judging premier defensive end prospects seems impossible to do. Sure, talent evaluators get it wrong with basically every position, but you don't seem to see as many busts as you do at defensive lineman.
It could have to do with the fact that defensive linemen are widely drafted in the first round and therefore will have more failures, but take a look at some of the names that did not even make this list: Jerome McDougle, Michael Haynes, Aaron Maybin, Tyson Jackson, Derrick Harvey, Johnathan Sullivan and Dewayne Robertson.
Brown finished with a school-record 33 sacks and 70 tackles for a loss, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award and one of the best four-year runs in college football history. At 6'4, 285-pounds he had ideal size. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, had a 37-inch vertical and did 26 reps on the bench. There was no reason to worry about Brown, and there was little reason to think that the Browns were making a mistake by taking him over teammate LaVar Arrington, Chris Samuels, Jamal Lewis, Plaxico Burress and Brian Urlacher.
Aldon Smith had more sacks last season (19.5) than Brown had in his entire career (19).
Injuries may have taken a toll on Brown somewhat, but that would not explain his total lack of production as a pass-rusher and run-stuffer. He had the type of career you would expect, and respect, out of a player drafted in the fifth round but not what you would like to see from the top overall pick. Sometimes when everything is supposed to go right, it just doesn't.
Honorable Mention: Vernon Gholston
9. Gerard Warren, DT, Florida - 3rd overall, Cleveland, 2001
I wonder to myself if there will be some controversy about the inclusion of Warren. After all, he played in the NFL from 2001 to 2011 with the Browns, Broncos, Raiders and Patriots. Courtney Brown's teammate with both the Browns and the Broncos, Warren was supposed to help usher in Cleveland into a new era with energy and vigor thanks to having a top-three pick for three straight season.
With Tim Couch, Brown, and Warren, they would soon forget that the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000. Right? That's so Cleveland.
While Couch and Brown were mostly just bad players, Warren was simply a disappointing player taken over some great players at a time when Cleveland had to finally get one right. They didn't. Warren had a few very good seasons in the middle of the defensive line, putting up 150 total tackles, 16.5 sacks, nine pass deflections and seven forced fumbles in four seasons with the Browns. Good numbers, indeed, but consider the context of the 2001 NFL Draft.
Warren was taken after Michael Vick and Leonard Davis, two players who combined for seven Pro Bowl appearances. (Though Davis has an argument as a bust in his own right.) Then came Warren. Then came four-time Pro Bowl, All-Pro Justin Smith. Then came five-time Pro Bowl, three-time All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Then came seven-time Pro Bowl, three-time All-Pro Richard Seymour. Even the next pick, Andre Carter, made one Pro Bowl and has 78.5 career sacks.
The biggest knock against Warren might be the company he keeps at the top of the draft, but that just goes to show how bad the Browns are at drafting. He is sandwiched between six players that made a Pro Bowl. The only thing that might be worse is that the Browns' next pick, wide receiver Quincy Morgan, is also sandwiched between six players who made a Pro Bowl. (Reggie Wayne, Todd Heap, Drew Brees, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Alge Crumpler, Chad Johnson.)
Brown, Warren, Couch, and Morgan are just a few examples of why the Browns have been so terrible for so long. Terrible talent evaluators that simply took the wrong players. But on the bright side, they did find two players to kick off this list.
Honorable Mention: Here is where we can fit Leonard Davis. Taken a pick ahead of Warren, you don't exactly expect to get a guard, but that's what happened with Arizona and Davis. He played six seasons for the Cardinals, switching around the line from right guard to right tackle to an underwhelming left tackle, before leaving to become a Pro Bowl guard with the Cowboys. Davis gets to have a good career and all, but is just another black eye on the face of the Cardinals draft history.
8. Amobi Okoye, DT, Louisville - 10th overall, Houston, 2007
I want to start off with saying that Okoye has always been a special player. There are certain things that will always stand out to me on draft days, memories that last forever and ensure that I'll follow certain players that I have no actual attachments to, and Okoye will always be one of those guys.
There was a lot made about the fact that Okoye, 19, was going to be the youngest first-round pick ever. He chose Louisville when he was 15, and he turned down Harvard to do so. He played college football when he was 16. He graduated early. He was a second-team All-American at 19. He had a great head on his shoulders and was a supreme athlete for his age and the idea of what Okoye could become was overwhelming. But at a certain point are we over-emphasizing what a player could be instead of what he already is? Would Okoye actually have been a better choice in the third round as a development project to perhaps play on a regular basis when he's 23 or 24, instead of when he's 20?
But the Texans overlooked his age and took him, while also overlooking the next set of players drafted that included Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch, and Darrelle Revis. Can you imagine the Texans today with Willis or Revis?
One might note that the 2007 draft was littered with disappointments, including players drafted ahead of Okoye like Levi Brown, Jamaal Anderson and Ted Ginn Jr, but Okoye seems like the one in that area that stands out the most due to the fact that it was always a major risk to draft a teenager into the NFL that early in the draft. He spent four seasons in Houston and has been a bench player for the Bears over the last two years.
On the bright side there is still time for Okoye to turn it around. After all, he is only 25!
Honorable Mention: Six picks later, the Packers selected defensive tackle Justin Harrell out of Tennessee. He started his career recovering from a torn biceps tendon, then showed up to OTAs overweight, played in seven games as a rookie, started 2008 on the PUP, played in six games that year, missed all of 2009, missed all but one game of 2010, and was out of the league with 14 games played and two starts. That's a Harrell of a lot less than Green Bay expected.
7. Mike Williams, WR, USC - 10th overall, Detroit, 2005
This has to be one of the least-controversial inclusions on this list, right? There are too many factors of "WTF?" to ignore the fact that Williams to the Lions at 10th made absolutely not sense at all.
- The Lions had just drafted Roy Williams at seventh overall the year before.
- The Lions had just drafted Charles Rogers at second overall the year before Roy Williams!
- He had not played football for a year.
- If you're going to load up on a position for three years in a row, and you're the Lions, really you're going with wide receivers?
- Yeah, I guess if you're the Lions and Matt Millen it does make sense.
- He was drafted over DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, and Derrick Johnson. Not to mention Aaron Rodgers, at a time when you really could have written off Joey Harrington without much fight from anyone besides Joey Harrington.
Instead they went with Williams, a player that really unsurprisingly caught 37 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns in two seasons with Detroit, and even Williams himself admits he ate his way out of the league. He certainly takes a big bite out of this list.
Honorable Mention: Troy Williamson went to the Vikings three picks ahead of Williams. The track star ran a 4.32 40-yard dash, which I guess was enough to convince Minnesota to use the pick they received for Randy Moss on his replacement. Unfortunately he more closely resembled the Moss that played for the Vikings at the end of his career, not at the beginning of it.
6. Tim Tebow, QB, Florida - Denver, 25th overall selection, 2010
Josh McDaniels on Tebow: "He has all the traits you look for. It's a good pick."
It's easy to sit here and call Tebow's inclusion on this list a gimmick for page views, but it's a lot easier to note that the Broncos basically used a second, third, and fourth round draft pick on one player as either a gimmick for attention or because they really did not care that much about on-field attributes and skills. When you heard people praise Tim Tebow the quarterback, they used terms like "football player," which in itself only describes about 99.9 percent of the people in the NFL.
The 0.1 pecent, on some level, could be considered guys just like Tebow. Players that do not possess the physical attributes or skills to play in the professional ranks, but are given opportunities based on what they did in college.
When it comes to success in the NFL, it does not matter if you won a Heisman Trophy or a national championship, and players like Jason White and Charlie Ward weren't given extra consideration by the league simply because of what they did in college. At best you have an example like Eric Crouch, who was drafted as a wide receiver by the Rams and belongs somewhere outside the top ten of this list even though he was only a third-round pick but never even made it to his rookie season. How much better is it that Tebow was a first round pick that could not make it to his third season with Denver and is already considered to be a project not worth investing in by most?
Sure, if Tebow wasn't Tebow then we might overlook a team swapping three picks with the Ravens in order to take him 25th overall, but if Tebow wasn't Tebow that probably never would have happen. Denver might have recovered quickly thanks to the acquisition of Peyton Manning after two seasons, and they might have made the playoffs in 2011, but the move was never much of a justifiable one and it won't ever be.
Where is Jason Smith?
Smith was the second overall pick in 2009. For all intents and purposes, he is one of the least valuable second overall picks in NFL history, having had three bad seasons for the Rams followed by a bad year for the Jets, which could possibly be followed by a bad year for the Saints in 2013. But how much better could the Rams have done? You also won't see on this list: Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eugene Monroe, or Aaron Maybin. The top of the 2009 draft is awful, nobody wins.
5. Sebastian Janikowski, K, Florida State - 17th overall, Raiders, 2000
If you could justify Janikowski as the greatest kicker in history, as you of course can not do, it still would not justify taking him with the 17th overall pick. There simply isn't any justification for doing so when the greatest kickers of all-time can quite obviously be picked in the fourth round, even when you know they are that great.
Going back to 1976, the highest drafted kicker was Steve Little, who went 15th overall to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978. He had a short and poor career as a punter and kicker, and hours after he was released in 1980, he was in a car accident that left him as a quadriplegic. He passed away in 1999.
The Cardinals were at it again, taking kicker John Lee with the 32nd overall pick in 1986. He was out of the league by 1986.
The Jets took Mike Nugent 47th overall in 2005. He was a disappointment, hitting just 3-of-9 attempts over 50 yards during his first three seasons, and replaced by Jay Feely in 2008.
Even Janikowski struggled in the early part of his career, and though he has played in 204 career games, all with the Raiders, he's not a magical kicker. If anything, as noted by the examples above, at a position where mental state is everything, you're doing kickers a disservice by drafting them so high. There will always be examples of players like Chris Bahr, Jason Hanson, and Jason Elam, highly-regarded kickers that spent years in the league and were successful, but at the same time, you can get some pretty damn good kickers in the seventh round.
Picking one over Shaun Alexander and Chad Pennington and Chris Hovan is just lunacy.
Honorable Mention: It's only been one year, but drafting a punter in the third round is lunacy too. Believe it or not, Bryan Anger isn't even close to being the highest-drafted punter of all time, but when the Jags take a punter in the third round and then post one of the league's worst records the following year, it's not that surprising.
4. Matt Jones, WR?, Arkansas - 21st overall, Jaguars, 2005
On one hand, you could look at the career of Matt Jones and say he did pretty well as a receiver for a guy that was a quarterback in college. During his fourth season in the league, Jones had 65 catches for 761 yards in twelve games. If it weren't for a four-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy, he could have snagged a 1000-yard season on his resume.
Also, if it weren't for that suspension, he might have played football in the pros again.
The Jaguars released Jones. His off-field issues are one thing, but plenty of teams have been willing to overlook problems with the law if the guy can play. Jones was released by the Bengals before the 2010 season in what was his last real comeback bid, and a player taken three spots ahead of Aaron Rodgers and six spots ahead of Roddy White ended his career with four unremarkable seasons -- all because the Jaguars were enamored with a 4.37 40-yard dash at the Combine by a 6'6 quarterback from Arkansas.
That's one of those instances where a Combine can be the absolutely worst thing for a team to look at.
Honorable Mention: The reason that I don't officially have Charles Rogers, second overall pick in 2003, on this list? He looked like a damn fine pick at the time, he was a stud at Michigan State, he had a good start to his career and if he hadn't been injured so damn much in the beginning of it all who knows what would have happened. The Lions made a lot of draft mistakes in subsequent years, but who could have known that Rogers would have such fragile collarbones? Even if he was taken just ahead of Andre Johnson.
3. Ryan Sims, DT, North Carolina - 6th overall, Chiefs, 2002
It might not seem that bad, a sixth overall pick that lasted in the NFL for nine seasons, but it also isn't very good. Sims was coming out of North Carolina with his buddy Julius Peppers, and it looked like both could become superstars on the defensive line in the pros.
Peppers did. Sims appears to have been helped by being Peppered in college.
The Chiefs were coming off of a 6-10 season, but with Priest Holmes, Trent Green, Tony Gonzalez (who was once only 26 years old!) and Eddie Kennison, the offense just needed a defense to get them to the next level. Sims was supposed to help do that and he never came close to doing that. Sims best season came in 2003 when he made 16 starts, recorded 35 solo tackles and three sacks with an interceptions. He made 18 more starts for the Chiefs in his career, before four forgotten years in Tampa Bay.
The reason he really makes it on this list, though, is that Kansas City could have been a much better contender in the early part of the decade if it had gone another direction with the sixth pick in 2002. Sims was taken over Bryant McKinnie, safety Roy Williams, John Henderson, Dwight Freeney, Donte Stallworth, Jeremy Shockey, and Albert Haynesworth. Even Ed Reed was sitting back with the 24th overall pick. In the second round, the Chiefs took defensive end Eddie Freeman, and he played 20 career games, the fewest of any second-round pick from that draft.
Honorable Mentions: It was once Sims, but then later on it was supposed to be Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey that turned around the Chiefs defense. That didn't really happen, either. Jackson was a bit of a surprise as the third-overall pick, but Dorsey was as exciting a defensive lineman as you will see in college. It's not that Jackson and Dorsey have been terrible, but they have not even been close to great and now Dorsey is in the rotation with the 49ers. Jackson could be out next.
2. Robert Gallery, OT, Iowa - 2nd overall, Raiders, 2004
Once again, we have a case of a player that was not useless throughout his career. Gallery was a highly-regard tackle prospect that at the time of the draft, and I remember thinking to myself "Damn that is the guy I would draft!" But I was a stupid 21-year-old kid, so what did I know? Don't listen to me, Al Davis! The idea that Gallery could be on the level of Walter Jones or Orlando Pace was quickly shot down.
He was not even protecting the quarterbacks' blind side for most of his career, starting out at right tackle, playing below-average left tackle in 2006, then permanently switching to guard by 2007. Drafting a guard with the second overall pick is bad in itself, but it's even worse when you consider that the Raiders, possibly the worst team in the NFL since 2003, took Gallery over:
Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow, DeAngelo Hall, Dunta Robinson, Jonathan Vilma, and Ben Roethlisberger. Heck, it's not like all of those are great players, but they likely all were more valuable than Gallery.
Seven of the top eight draft picks that year have made one Pro Bowl, and you can even include that the Chargers were just looking for a trade partner for anyone that wanted Eli Manning. Who did the Raiders run out for the 2004 season instead of Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger? A 39-year-old Rich Gannon and a 32-year-old Kerry Collins.
In addition to that, the Raiders did not have a second-round pick to use on a player like Karlos Dansby or Chris Snee or Igor Olshansky or Bob Sanders, because they traded it to the Houston Texans the year prior so they could draft a player named Sam Williams.
The 2004 draft was loaded with talent, including other players so far unnamed like Jared Allen, Vince Wilfork, Steven Jackson, Matt Schaub, Darnell Dockett, Tommie Harris and Michael Turner. But the Raiders couldn't find any of it, and they wound up with a guard at a time when they desperately needed to get better or risk being bad for another decade. We know what happened.
Honorable Mention: Mike D. Williams is the other Mike Williams that gets mentioned in this list. Left tackle is highly-regarded as being one of the most important positions and has seen Walter Jones, Pace, and Jonathan Ogden lead the way to Super Bowl appearances and a couple of wins. So when you find someone like Jake Long, Joe Thomas or Ryan Clady, it's a good feeling. It's a lot worse when you find a player like Gallery, Leonard Davis, Jason Smith or Levi Brown. Williams was taken by the Bills with the fourth-overall pick in 2002, going over Quentin Jammer, Sims (not a bad player to pass up), McKinnie and the other guys I mentioned earlier with Sims. Another major bust that year was Wendell Bryant, who went 12th to the Cardinals and played in 29 career games. Williams did about twice as good, though. He played in 59 career games!
1. JaMarcus Russell, QB, LSU - 1st overall, Raiders, 2007
In this league, you need to find your quarterback. That is why in this century alone, 10 of the first-overall picks have been QBs. I guess what you could classify as the "bad news" so far is that the only one of those players to win a Super Bowl has been Eli Manning. Otherwise, it's a mixed bag of "bad," "too soon" and "good, not great" that includes Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. Further down the line, you'll see Joey Harrington, Vince Young, Mark Sanchez and Byron Leftwich as top-10 picks that did not work out.
But Russell is the motherload. (Not a fat joke, really.)
The most frustrating part about Russell is perhaps the idea that it seems like he could have been good if he wanted to be good. He was so physically gifted, noting that he's always been able to play quarterback because of his size and arm strength and the ability to just walk onto a field and be awesome, that if he worked hard at it in the NFL, he could have been something great. That is what greats are made of, a rare combination of physical gifts and mental desire. Instead, Russell held out for his rookie contract until the season had already started (something that will never happen again thanks to the new CBA that may have come too late for Russell) and only played a handful of series as a rookie.
The natural talent still showed, though, and in the last game of the season, Russell started against the Chargers and completed 23-of-31 passes for 224 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and the Raiders hung around a little bit with a good San Diego team before losing.
Russell was the full time starter for the Raiders the next year, and while he wasn't especially good, he finished the year on a high note. Over his last three games, he completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 626 yards, six TDs, tow interceptions and a QB rating of 102.8. A stretch run like that for Russell is only easy to forget because he would play his final NFL game only a year later. The Raiders paid him a six-year, $68 million contract with $31.5 million guaranteed, and he only made it halfway through before they were over him.
And it turns out that the rest of the league agreed, he was not good enough to be worth anyone's trouble, nor did it seem like he was truly committed to taking responsibility for his own actions and failures to make it in the NFL at the highest level.
JaMarcus Russell fills almost all the criteria you would look for at the top of a list like this:
- He was the top pick
- He was bad
- He was bad for a lot of money
- He was taken over five of the very best players in the NFL today: Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis and Darrelle Revis.
- It was never even because of any injury
- Russell was arrested for possession of codeine syrup in 2010 and stated that he tested positive for codeine after being drafted by the Raiders.
After the last few articles I've written, and with three Raiders on this list, people in Oakland are probably going to think I have something against them. I don't really have any feelings toward the Raiders, other than they have been horribly mismanaged for over 10 years, made some terrible decisions and are still in the middle of repairing all of those mistakes.
It just so happens that Russell may have been the biggest mistake of all and heightens the importance of mental evaluation just as much as the physical evaluations.