Pressure is a hell of a drug.
It makes experienced, well-trained athletes stumble. It makes Donovan McNabb puke. And it makes the Oakland Raiders select JaMarcus Russell first overall.
The game of draft hindsight is addicting and entertaining, but no matter how far back we go and how much we pick apart each individual draft, we inevitably arrive at the same conclusion. Drafting a franchise player–especially a quarterback–is far from an exact science. Every draft class has its home runs, huge whiffs, and average or just slightly above average players taken far too early.
Hidden amongst those hits and misses is a battle to not only win games on the field, but to gain a favourable ruling in the court of public opinion. Think coaches and general managers don’t care what the fan in the upper bowl thinks? Some may not, but the uprising and upheaval over a botched first overall pick puts names into the annals of football history. Casual fans don’t remember the guy who was picked second.
No one wants to live in infamy like the front offices who drafted Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell. For this reason alone, holding the second overall pick in the draft–or even the third–is a much more comfortable position. Especially this year, when no two mock drafts are the same, and that can’t-miss pick to anchor the draft doesn’t exist.
Consider even just several examples within the past five years. In 2008, the Dolphins took Jake Long first overall, a tackle who has already appeared in three Pro Bowls. Sure, that’s impressive, and Long’s career is clearly off to a stellar start. But eventually as a franchise your concern has to shift from who’s protecting the guy throwing the ball for your offence, to the actual guy who’s throwing the ball. Just two picks later, Matt Ryan came off the board, and Miami was left with Chad Henne in the second round, who’s future is still clouded. Henne was replaced as a starter by Chad Pennington at one point last season, albeit briefly.
One year earlier a far more hurtful and infamous decision was made in the Bay Area that ended with a Purple Drank binge. It’s far too easy to throw barbs at the Raiders for drafting Russell now, and the same barbs are permanently lodged in the skin of the Chargers. But it’s not entirely their fault; the hype and spectacle of the first overall selection creates an inherently flawed system. Teams are pressured to cave to the sex appeal of the supermodel pick, letting Calvin Johnson fall to the happily waiting arms of the team picking second, as the Raiders did with their selection of Russell.
There are exceptions, most notably Reggie Bush dropping to second after all of his Southern California hype in 2006, only to fade and make the Texans look pretty smart for taking Mario Williams. And in 2003 Charles Rogers added to the Lions’ list of mistakes when he went No. 2, one spot ahead of Andre Johnson. But those pale in comparison to Alex Smith being the first to smile for the cameras in 2005, ahead of Ronnie Brown and Braylon Edwards.
This is a delicate dance that John Fox knows quite well, and hopefully the new sideline boss in Denver can insert some morsel of draft intelligence into the mind of Elway. The Broncos executive vice president will have either Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton ready and waiting when Denver is on the clock after Carolina. Despite having a developing Tim Tebow on his roster, Elway is still heavily considering this year’s quarterback class. As we’ve written before, there are far more glaring needs defensively, especially in the front seven.
The last time Fox had influence over the selection of a future franchise player in 2002 with the second overall pick, Julius Peppers left the draft wearing a Panthers jersey. Who went first? David Carr.
The darts will fly in the dark room of the draft, but the financial damage and public scorn is much heavier under the bright lights of the draft’s glamour position.