Drafting a Winner
A Case Study in the Importance of the NFL Draft
 
June 14, 2006
What really led to the downfall of the San Francisco 49ers? From the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, the 49ers were the model organization in sports. They competed for championships year in and year out, and won a record five Super Bowls. They were a wellspring of talent and innovation, featuring several current and future members of the Hall of Fame and bringing the West Coast Offense to the forefront of football. The usual answers are that the salary cap, whose introduction came at the end of the 49ers’ reign and is credited with bringing parity to the NFL, and the cheap ownership of Denise York (who took over controlling ownership when her brother Eddie DeBartolo was forced out due to a bribery scandal involving the Governor of Louisiana) and her husband, local villain John York. However, theories focusing on spending are fatally flawed. While cheap ownership and poor salary cap management are certainly hindrances, it is the 49ers’ total incompetence in the single most important aspect of a football organization, drafting and otherwise bringing in unproven talent, that has sunk the organization to Warriors-esque lows.  

When the championship champagne was flowing during the glory years and Eddie DeBartolo was acting like a USC football booster, leaving thousand dollar gifts in players’ lockers after good performances, the Niners were winning with homegrown talent. Montana, Rice, Young, Lott, John Taylor, Charles Haley, Ricky Watters, Bryant Young, Roger Craig, and many others were developed by the 49ers and served as the core players for those championship teams. Even in the Mariucci years when the Niners were a playoff team but not a strong Super Bowl contender, they relied mostly on homegrown talent like some of the players above plus Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens. As Redskins owner Dan Snyder showed a few years ago, winning in the NFL is much harder than just throwing money at big name players.  

This article is not really about the 49ers. They are merely a convenient case study, a team that has been on both ends of the NFL spectrum in the last two decades and has had their woes written off to financial reasons, to cheap ownership and trips to “salary cap hell.” There has been too little focus on the importance of the draft in building and maintaining a good team and too much on the easier to immediately gauge wasteful spending and dead cap money (which is simply money that counts against the salary cap but is going to players who are no longer with the team).  

Before into the details, I should note that I will largely be excluding the 2005 draft from my analysis because it’s too soon to judge, especially when throwing players onto a team as bereft of talent as last year’s 49ers.  

First Round Picks 

First round picks are the nexus between young talent infusion and high salary spending. First rounders usually have hefty price tags which include bonus money many veterans can only dream about. Alex Smith didn’t play a single down before signing the largest contract in 49ers franchise history. Thus, a first round draft pick is a commodity that has to be used well and converted into good or great players much of the time. Here are the 49ers’ first round picks since 1995, ignoring the 2005 and 2006 drafts (again, it’s too early to judge those drafts in any meaningful way): 

1995: J. J. Stokes – The first time the 49ers had traded up in a draft since landing Jerry Rice. Let’s just say Stokes was no Rice. Stokes wasn’t even a Wayne Chrebet.  

1996: No selections 

1997: Jim Druckenmiller – The weight room wonder was your man if you happened to get into a bench press competition. He wasn’t quite as useful on a football field. The Niners ignored Bill Walsh’s recommendation of Jake Plummer.  

1998: R. W. McQuarters – Developed into a good cornerback…for the Chicago Bears.  

1999: Reggie McGrew – The Florida fat man McGrew into an enormous bust.  

2000: Julian Peterson and Ahmed Plummer – Peterson became an All-Pro-caliber player and Plummer was a solid corner when healthy. This is what you’re supposed to do with your first round picks. Neither will be with the 49ers next season, which is not what you want from your first round selections only 6 years down the road.  

2001: Andre Carter – Carter had a few good years as a light defensive end. He doesn’t fit in with the 3-4 defensive scheme Mike Nolan brought in and will not be with the team in 2006.  

2002: Mike Rumph – What, you mean not EVERY early 2000s Miami Hurricane was an elite level NFL prospect? Someone forgot to tell the 49ers. Rumph lacks the speed and coverage skills to be a corner and the toughness and tackling ability to be a safety. He’s still with the team, so maybe he can become a mediocre nickel back for a few years.  

2003: Kwame Harris – What, you mean not EVERY early 2000s Stanfurd Cardinal was an elite level NFL prospect? Harris, who couldn’t block an intersection with an 18- wheeler, is working his way down the depth chart and into obscurity. Unfortunately, the 49ers had so little healthy offensive line talent last year that Harris actually started.  

2004: Rashaun Woods – One day Woods will be working in a shoe store in a mall, telling anyone who passes by that he once caught 7 touchdowns in a single game. Do not marry a redhead Rashaun, and stay away from used Dodges.  

In summary, only two of the ten first rounders the 49ers selected from 1995-2004 are still with the team, and both are bad players who wouldn’t make most NFL rosters. Only one, Peterson, grew into an All-Pro-level player, and only two others (Carter and Plummer) became average or better starters for the 49ers at any point in their careers.  

Middle of the Draft 

The middle of the draft, which I will define as rounds two through five, is where you get cheaper young players who you hope will be solid starters or key backups, with occasional All-Pro-level studs. This is where the really bad teams with a few good players (for example, the 1990s Bengals) and the perennial playoff teams differentiate themselves from one another. Here are the 49ers’ second through fifth round choices from 1999 through 2004, the players who should be capable starters filling out much of the San Francisco roster: 

(Note: the 1995-1999 drafts are left out in the interest of maintaining some semblance of brevity. Those drafts were included in the 1st round pick analysis because looking at only four or five selections would not provide enough data to make a strong conclusion) 

1999:

Picks: Chike Okeafor, Anthony Parker, Pierson Prioleau, Terry Jackson, Tyrone Hopson.

Summary: Okeafor averaged fewer than 3 sacks per season for 4 years and left for Seattle. Parker and Prioleau didn’t make it to year 3, while Hopson lasted a whopping four games. Only Jackson is still with the team and he is mainly a special teams player.  

2000:

Picks: John Engelberger, Jason Webster, Giovanni Carmazzi, Jeff Ulbrich, John Keith, Paul Smith, John Milem

Summary: Engelberger played in all but two games his first five years but left for the Broncos after the 2004 season. Webster gave the Niners four decent seasons and followed Jim Mora, Jr. to Atlanta. Keith, Smith, and Milem lasted an average of three years in the NFL and none made a noticeable impact. Carmazzi never played a down. Only Ulbrich is still a 49er.  

2001:

Picks: Jamie Winborn, Kevan Barlow

Summary: Winborn was a solid contributor but got into Mike Nolan’s doghouse and was given away last year. Barlow is still a Niner and has been an underwhelming performer as the starting running back. No total busts though, and along with 1st round pick Andre Carter this might mark a rather pathetic high point in 49er drafting for the last decade.  

2002:

Picks: Saleem Rasheed, Jeff Chandler, Kevin Curtis, Bandon Doman, Josh Shaw

Summary: Rasheed is still a 49er, but has only 26 tackles and 1 sack in his 4 seasons. Curtis and Doman never played a single down between them, and Shaw played three games in his San Francisco career. Chandler, the purported solution to the 49ers’ kicking woes, was booted out of town within two years. All in all, only one of five players remains, and he has done very little in his career.  

2003:

Picks: Anthony Adams, Andrew Williams, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Walker

Summary: Adams is still a 49er and has played in just about every game possible during his rather ordinary career. Lloyd showed flashes of spectacular ability but often disappeared and was traded this off-season. Walker and Williams lasted two years each.  

2004:

Picks: Justin Smiley, Shawntae Spencer, Derrick Hamilton, Isaac Sopoaga, Richard Seigler

Summary: Smiley has played in every game during his two year career, and Spencer has played in all but one while posting solid numbers. Sopoaga missed his rookie year but played every game last season. Hamilton is a wide receiver who has yet to catch a pass. Seigler lasted one year in San Francisco.  

On the whole, the 49ers drafted 29 players in the second, third, fourth, and fifth rounds of the draft from 1999 through 2004. Of those 29, only 9 are still on the team as I write this. Because teams seem to give most players at least two and often three years to prove themselves and because we have not yet hit the dates when most players are released, the 2004 draft may be skewing the numbers. Looking simply at the five year window of 1999 thru 2003, only 5 of the 24 players selected are still with the team, and two of those five don’t do much. This, along with the near total failure in finding quality players in the first round, is the true reason for the 49ers’ downfall. The talent cupboard is bare, and no amount of free agent money can fix that, cap or no cap.  

The Yin to the 49ers’ Yang 

While many in the New England area have hooked up the Belichick Koolaid IVs to themselves to ensure a 24/7 supply and demand the head of anyone who dares imply that their organization is capable of doing any wrong and is not the very best in sports history, nay world history, we will actually examine a franchise that has been more successful over a longer period of time, the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. For years the Steelers have been known for their prowess in drafting and cultivating talent, and subsequently for letting that talent walk when it became too expensive and replacing it with cheaper, recently drafted talent. This legacy stretches back to at least their 1970s championship teams, one of which had the entire roster compromised of homegrown players.  

While today’s Steelers have some players groomed by other organizations, they have still remained true to their philosophy, the best philosophy in the NFL, of growing the top talent from within and then surrounding them with whatever side pieces are necessary. Let’s look at the 2006 Steelers’ leaders on offense, defense, and special teams.  

Pittsburgh’s leading passer is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who the Steelers took 11th overall in his draft. The leading rusher is Willie Parker, who went undrafted but has spent his entire NFL career with the Steelers. The top three in receiving yardage are wide receivers Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, and tight end Heath Miller. All were Steelers draftees, selected in the third, second, and first rounds respectively. Four of the five starting offensive linemen were selected by the Steelers.  

The Steelers’ leader in kick returns was Randle El, who as mentioned above was a Steelers draftee. The punter, Chris Gardocki, was not selected by the Steelers. Kicker Jeff Reed was not drafted by Pittsburgh either, but was signed by them as an undrafted free agent and has spent his entire career in the Steel City.  

A look at the Steelers defense tells a similar story. The top five tacklers were James Farrior, Larry Foote, Chris Hope, Troy Polamalu, and Ike Taylor. All but Farrior were drafted by the Steelers, in the fourth, third, first, and fourth rounds respectively. Hope, who as mentioned above was a third round pick of the Steelers, also led the team in interceptions. Far and away the two leaders in sacks were Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, who were third and fifth round picks of….the Pittsburgh Steelers.  

The bottom line in all of this is that the draft (and the player development that follows) is the single most important aspect of building a football team, and especially of building a successful football franchise. You can consistently miss in free agency, you can make players pay for movies in their hotels and Gatorade in the practice facility, you can refuse to give huge paydays to the talent you develop, and you will still be able to build a good team through strong drafting and development. But if your organization consistently misses in the draft, it is done for, headed for an Arizona Cardinals type existence for the foreseeable future even if it does just about everything else right.


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