First-Round Picks, Who Needs 'Em?

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, April 27, 2007

Joe Gibbs, like George Allen long before him, knows a secret. High first-round picks in the NFL draft may be the most overvalued commodity in sports. They promise a hit-the-lottery aphrodisiac -- the chance to pluck a superstar out of thin air. As a result, NFL teams intoxicate themselves with their own obsessive scouting and evaluating. Finally, after months of rumination, they "fall in love" with one college prospect, Gibbs says, often grabbing a player who is more likely to flop than become a star.

"Drafting is one of the hardest things in the world to do. It's what's in here that matters," said Gibbs earlier this week, tapping his chest. "You can't weigh it or time it. How do you tell how motivated a player is? And we know money can change people.

"How do you 'project' [with any certainty]? You got me," Gibbs said. "But we see it over and over. [Teams say], 'We got this thing nailed.' Yet Joe Montana, one of the greatest ever, was a third-round pick."

Right now, the Redskins face a large but delightful dilemma. The only benefit of Washington's miserable 5-11 record last season is that they get the No. 6 overall pick in Saturday's draft. It's a strange world when the NFL's highest-paid team can stumble into such a prize simply by playing worse than almost anyone dreamed possible. Now, they face a new question: Will they be smart enough to do the right thing -- and get rid of that tempting, treacherous sixth-overall pick?

Gibbs won't say it, but his first tenure as Redskins coach demonstrates that he knows what to do. In 12 seasons from 1981 through 1992, he had no first-round pick at all in eight seasons. But it didn't keep him from going to four Super Bowls. Then, he and GMs Bobby Beathard and Charley Casserly preferred to use a flashy first-round pick to trade for a current proven NFL player, as Allen did throughout the 1970s. Or they'd "trade down" to get multiple lower picks. In the NFL, it's standard procedure to turn a sixth-overall pick into three picks: for example, a first-rounder near No. 20 overall, plus a high pick in the second and third rounds. Or to accept a first-round pick even lower in the draft order, if you can acquire an established veteran as well. We'll illustrate the theory later. But, for heaven's sake, Redskins, only use that No. 1 pick yourselves as a last resort.

At the moment, many believe the Redskins are torn between using their pick on either Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, 19, or LSU safety LaRon Landry. Whenever such thoughts arise, let the Redskins remember these scary names from the past: Yazoo Smith, Ray McDonald, Bobby Wilson, Desmond Howard, Tom Carter, Heath Shuler, Michael Westbrook, Andre Johnson, Kenard Lang, Rod Gardner and Patrick Ramsey.

All were No. 1's. All but two were in the top 17 picks -- touted as 10-year starters and potential all-pros. Except, of course, for those like Howard (fourth overall), Shuler (third) and Westbrook (fourth), who were supposed to go straight to the Hall of Fame.

With few exceptions, the Redskins' entire history demonstrates how many top picks are dismal disappointments. And, just as important, how unnecessary a multitude of No. 1 picks are in building a great franchise. The pattern started here in '62, when the Redskins traded the draft rights to the great Ernie Davis of Syracuse for Bobby Mitchell of the Browns. Mitchell integrated the Redskins and has a bust in Canton. Davis died of leukemia and never played in the NFL.

Since then, the Redskins have become the most valuable franchise in American sports. But No. 1 draft picks had little to do with it. Since '64, only two Redskins No. 1 picks have been truly great players, Art Monk and Darrell Green. And they were picked 18th and 28th.

In the last 38 years, the Redskins have done without a first-round draft pick 22 times! Since World War II, the only two Redskins regimes that consistently traded away their No. 1 draft choices -- dealing them for veterans or trading down for multiple draft picks -- were the two that produced Super Bowl teams.

"People say we don't like the draft. We love the draft," Gibbs said. "But we've been very aggressive in the past. To benefit the team, we did make trades."

In his second term, Gibbs has kept his No. 1's -- using high picks for gifted but erratic Sean Taylor (fifth overall) and Carlos Rogers (ninth), as well as quarterback Jason Campbell (25th). The jury is out on all of them. But Taylor and Rogers have a long way to go to justify their elite draft positions.

A perfect illustration of the proper kind of deal is one like the Redskins' proposal to the Chicago Bears that surfaced a month ago. Then, the Redskins offered their first-round pick for established linebacker Lance Briggs and the Bears' first-round pick (31st overall). Such a trade would ensure the acquisition of a known commodity while still offering the opportunity for a high pick who might become a standout.

Earlier this week Gibbs said, "Sometimes [things] catch fire at the end."

What could the Redskins get for their first-round pick? In other sports, there's no exact answer. In the NFL, there is. In the late-1980s, Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson invented a Draft Pick Value Chart. Now, almost every team worships the hallowed Chart. It's even on the NFL Web site. The No. 1 overall pick gets 3,000 points. The last pick in the last round gets less than one point. The Redskins' sixth-overall pick is worth 1,600 points.

Few mock this ludicrous pseudo-precision. Teams, like the Redskins, who work 14-hour days evaluating players just can't bear to admit that there are so many unknowable variables in a decision that's so important. As a result, many NFL teams can be tempted into almost any swap of draft picks if they can justify it by saying they swindled somebody out of 50 Chart points.

What can you get in exchange for 1,600 points? Here's one example: the 21st, 35th and 68th overall picks in the draft are worth 800, 550 and 250 points, respectively. That's a first-round pick and a very high pick in the second and third rounds.

A look at the last six years of NFL drafts shows why it's probably a good idea. Working back from 2006, here are the sixth overall picks: Vernon Dean, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Kellen Winslow, Johnathan Sullivan, Ryan Sims and Richard Seymour.

That list should give both fantasy league geeks and GM's a shiver. That's one superstar (Seymour), one solid starter, one total washout, one player who's banned from the league next season and two guys who've barely played because of injuries.

Now, look at the 21st overalls: Nate Clements, Daniel Graham, Jeff Faine, Vince Wilfork, Matt Jones and Laurence Maroney. Clements just got an $80 million contract, the largest ever for a defensive back. Maroney is a star Patriots running back. Everybody else is a starter, with Graham and Wilfork top-flight at tight end and nose guard for the Broncos and Patriots, respectively.

All in all, the 35th overalls may be just as good: Alge Crumpler, Charles Tillman, Kalimba Edwards, Igor Olshansky, Reggie Brown and Washington's Rocky McIntosh. An all-pro tight end, a Super Bowl defensive back for the Bears, two quality defensive ends, a budding star wide receiver for the Eagles and the Redskins own Linebacker of the Future.

And what can you get way down at 68th? That's where the Bears drafted Lance Briggs. Oh, irony.

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