History says the Pittsburgh Steelers turned around their franchise once they figured out the NFL Draft. They made one magical choice after another from 1969 and through the 1970s, picking a dynasty worth of players starting with Mean Joe Greene, then Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount and Jack Ham.
Then, in 1974, they incredibly chose four Hall of Famers, selecting Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and the late Mike Webster.
To this day, the Steelers remain an elite franchise because they have coolly followed a proven formula — and current general manager Kevin Colbert has an excellent eye for talent. Besides, we all know the Rooneys have never been big spenders in free agency.
In the last decade, there have been some great drafts, but none really as good as that Steelers class of ’74. San Diego was consistently good at the start of the last decade, picking LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees 1-2 in 2001, and both appear to be sure-fire Hall of Famers.
New England saved its 2000 draft with the sixth-round pick of quarterback Tom Brady.
But, to be quite honest, there have been more bad drafts than good ones since 2000. Fortunately for them, free agency has saved many teams from being dreadful through the years.
Here’s a look at the best and worst team drafts since the new millenium:
Top Five Drafts
2004 San Diego Chargers
This was the year they swapped Eli Manning for Philip Rivers. Some may say that talent pendulum has swung in New York’s favor because of Eli’s two Super Bowls. Still, Rivers must be considered a franchise quarterback. Not only did the Chargers choose the most required ingredient for every team, but their next five picks that year have been productive starters as well. Even No. 154, running back Michael Turner, has had a phenomenal career with the Atlanta Falcons.
The picks were Igor Olshansky, a defensive end with 98 starts; current kicker Nick Kaeding; Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick; and pass-rushing linebacker Shaun Phillips. Turner and defensive end Dave Ball, who is now a starter in Tennessee, both were fifth-round picks. Even seventh-round offensive tackle Shane Olivea made 57 starts for the Chargers through the 2007 season.
2005 Dallas Cowboys
This draft was the best thing Bill Parcells did for Jerry Jones. Granted, he wanted Shawne Merriman, but DeMarcus Ware has proved to be a much, much better performer and much more reliable in his first seven seasons. In fact, his next sack will put him over 100 for his career. This draft reeked of toughness and reliable performers.
Defensive linemen Marcus Spears and Chris Canty, as well as nose tackle Jay Ratliff, were in this draft. Ratliff, the 244th pick, has been a Pro Bowl performer. Linebacker Kevin Barnett and running back Marion Barber were in this draft, too, not to mention offensive tackle Rob Petitti. Barber recently retired from the Chicago Bears, but he was a gifted, physical, short-yardage performer in his prime.
2010 New England Patriots
This draft gave Brady the deep middle weapons that put the Pats in the Super Bowl last February. Bill Belichick drafted both of his starting tight ends, Rob Gronkowksi and Aaron Hernandez, and took cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round. McCourty’s been a starter since day one. Gronk and Hernandez combined for 2,237 receiving yards 25 touchdowns last season.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes has started 14 games, while Zoltan Mesko has been the team’s punter the past two seasons. Center Ted Larsen was cut, but he still started 14 games for the Buccaneers the past two seasons. There wasn’t a washout among any of these picks.
2006 Denver Broncos
The only thing bad about this draft is that two of its best picks, quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall, will be starting for the Chicago Bears this season. Marshall was a fourth-round pick in one of Mike Shanahan’s best drafts.
Tight end Tony Scheffler remains a solid performer, while fifth-round pick Chris Kuper has been a starting guard the last five seasons. The club’s most-feared pass rusher, Elvis Dumervil, who had 17 sacks in 2009, was a late fourth-rounder that year. And while wide receiver Domenik Hixon has been released, Giants fans still know him a solid returner and decent reserve who now has two Super Bowl rings.
2004 Arizona Cardinals
This may be the franchise’s most complete draft, even if two of the defensive starters have bolted during free-agency for major contracts this offseason. This has always been the curse of the Cardinals; they can’t always retain their best talent.
With the third overall pick, the Cardinals took Larry Fitzgerald, arguably one of the game’s top three receivers. Linebacker Karlos Dansby (now with Miami) was the second-round pick, and defensive mainstay Darnell Dockett was their third.
Ohio State center Alex Stepanovich was the team’s fourth pick and, when healthy, he’s been able to make 30 starts. Defensive end Antonio Smith ($35 million from the Houston Texans) was the fifth-round pick. Nick Leckey started 32 games at center when Stepanovich was hurting, and even backup quarterback John Navarre lasted two seasons and made some strong starts for the team.
Eight years later, four of these picks are still major performers in the NFL, while Fitzgerald is 385 yards shy of 10,000 receiving yards. Fitz has 73 touchdowns despite not playing consistently with a top-10 quarterback.
Worst Five Drafts
2005 Minnesota Vikings
This franchise really struggled in the middle of the decade, but this sorry draft was compounded by the trading of receiver Randy Moss to the Raiders for a seventh-round pick and Napoleon Harris, a linebacker who lasted two seasons in Minnesota.
Moss may have been inconsistent in Oakland, but he ended up still having three great seasons with the Patriots, and today he’s a 49er. To replace Moss, the Vikings picked Troy Williamson high in the draft and later discovered he had a sight problem. In a five-year career, Williamson had 87 receptions and four touchdown catches. Wisconsin defensive end Erasmus James was the team’s second first-round pick, and he was worse: five sacks in four seasons. Tackle Marcus Johnson was a so-so starter for two seasons before dropping out of the league and he was 49th overall pick.
2004 Green Bay Packers
This draft proved to be the undoing of head coach/general manager Mike Sherman. His top two picks, cornerbacks Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas, were busts in Green Bay, and then he overpaid for Ohio State punter B.J. Sander in the third round. Sander didn’t even punt for the Packers as a rookie. Sherman’s best pick was center Scott Wells, late in the seventh round. Wells did develop into a very good center, but the Packers lost him to the Rams in free-agency this year.
2006 St. Louis Rams
None of the Rams’ 10 picks are currently in the NFL, and seven of them managed only 13 starts in their entire careers.
First-round pick Tye Hill did start 25 games for the Rams at cornerback, but finished his career with the Falcons and Lions. Tight end Joe Klopfenstein, the 48th player in the draft, had 34 career receptions, good for two touchdowns. Third-round pick Claude Wroten was forced out of football by drug problems after two sorry seasons. Some of these guys could end up as trivia answers (Tony Palmer, Tim McGarigle and Jon Alston), because who ever heard of these guys?
2000 Cleveland Browns
Talk about hard-luck stories. Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown was the first overall pick, and he spent almost as much time on injured-reserve (knee, foot and biceps injuries) as he did on the field. In parts of six seasons, Brown did collect 19 sacks, finishing his career in Denver.
The Browns drafted 12 other players this year, and three never played a game, while five others managed a total of 74 starts. There was one solid pick, though — rugged receiver Dennis Northcutt. Taken with the 32nd overall pick, Northcutt played 10 seasons in Cleveland and finished his career with 399 receptions, good for 18 touchdowns.
2006 New England Patriots
Part of my reasoning on this one is the opinion that Belichick and Scott Pioli, his personnel partner back then, should be able to produce better than this. Yes, No. 1 pick Laurence Maroney did have a couple of solid seasons, but he never reached 1,000 rushing yards. He’s out of the game now.
Basically, all New England has to show for this draft is kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Jeremy Mincey was cut a long time ago, but he did play for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Receiver Chad Jackson was a total bust.