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Friday, 7 October 2011

2009 Draft Revisited - Best and Worst of the 1st

Ok, so we’re only 2.25 seasons removed from these names being called at Radio City Music Hall, and the usual mantra is that you can’t truly evaluate a draft class until at least 3 years post-event. But with the way the 2011 season has begun for certain members of this class, I think it’s worth taking a look at their young careers, and passing judgement on who has fared best, and casting aspersions on those who have flopped worst.


Top 5 First Rounders:

Clay Matthews – Selected 26th overall by the Green Bay Packers

 24.5 sacks in his career so far just about scratches the surface of the impact Matthews has had on the NFL. By year 2 of his career, “Bloodline” was already regarded as one of the best pass rushers in the league, and had it not been for an injury slowing him down last year would have been an almost certainty as defensive MVP, eventually losing to Troy Polamalu (a ridiculous decision) 17 votes to 15. Despite this, Clay and co came out on top of the important competition, winning Superbowl XLV over the Steelers, with Matthews forcing the pivotal fumble on the first play of the 4th quarter that turned the tide in Green Bay’s favour.

Josh Freeman – Selected 17th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After being allowed to sit for the first 6 weeks of his rookie season, Josh Freeman made his NFL debut this side of the pond, coming off the bench in a drubbing at the hands of the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium. Since, Freeman has started all 29 of the Buccaneers games and has quickly established himself as the “next big thing”. In 2010 he took the Buccs from a 3-13 record in 2009 to 10-6 in 2010, the biggest single-season turnaround in franchise history. En route, he threw for 25 TDs and only 6 INTs, with a QB rating of 95.9. Some argue his rise was helped in no small part by the emergence of receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount, but I’d say it’s more accurate to say that the rise of Williams and Blount was thanks to Freeman.

BJ Raji – Selected 9th overall by the Green Bay Packers

Is it any wonder that the Packers won Superbowl XLV? Being able to select Raji and Matthews in the same round of the same draft is a luxury that 31 other teams in the NFL would kill for. The first interior lineman taken in 2009 had a lot of hype entering the draft – for his skill, his endearing personality, and his ability to beat Rich Eisen in a 40 yard dash. For his rookie year, Raji learned from Cullen Jenkins, often regarded as one of the best NTs in the league. When he got his chance to start in 2010, Raji grabbed it with both hands – recording 6.5 sacks, eating up double team blocks all year, and recording an improbable INT return touchdown in the NFC Championship game against the Bears. He and Clay both have a ring, and with the two of them anchoring the D together, there’s few that can argue they won’t win more.

Hakeem Nicks – Selected 29th overall by the New York Giants

 150 receptions, 2189 yards, 19TDs. Not bad for someone being thrown to by Eli Manning. The Giants found a true #1 threat in Nicks, which became all the more important with the indiscretions of Plaxico Burress. The only negative against Nicks so far in his career is health. He missed 3 games in 2010 with Compartment Syndrome in his leg, and left his first ever NFL game on crutches with a foot injury. He has not missed a game yet in 2011, despite having further knee issues. Hopefully this is a sign he’s healthier and can tough it out, and not just the beginning of another plagued year. He has the ability to become the best receiver in the NFL.


Matthew Stafford – Selected 1st overall by the Detroit Lions

Unsurprisingly, the worst team in the NFL selected a quarterback. Stafford was the consensus best QB in the draft, and at 0-16 the Lions had little choice but to select him. Despite some excellent performances in his rookie year (including a 5TD performance against the Browns, coming back on the field against medical advice to record a 38-37 win), the overriding story of his career to date has been injury. Due in no small part to a porous offensive line, Stafford was knocked out of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons before truly showing his real potential. The reason he has made the top 5 here is his start to the 2011 season. The 4-0 Lions. Yes. I know. It feels strange to type it. The highest scoring offense in the NFL. 11 TD passes and 1217 yards thrown already. If he continues at his current rate, Stafford would end the season with 44 TD passes, 4868 yards, and a 16-0 Lions team. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the Lions being horrible for quite some time, as well as the injuries to Stafford may not have been the worst things in the world for the Lions. Since 2007, the Lions have selected Calvin Johnson, Gosder Cherilus, Matt Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley with their 1st picks. With pieces like that fitting together, Stafford is going to have a lot of help on his way to success.


Honourable mention:

Brian Orakpo: 13th to the Redskins – Only 1.5 sacks behind Clay Matthews, and responsible in no small part for the Redskins currently leading the NFL in sacks. He only suffers in reputation from the Redskins being bad for the past few years. Deservedly voted to the Pro-bowl for both his first two years, but only as a reserve.

Alex Mack: 21st to the Browns – A necessary bit of lineman love here. In his rookie year he started 16 games, gave up only 1 penalty, and allowed only 1 sack. He made the 2011 Pro Bowl as a 2nd alternate to Nick Mangold, and in the final minute of the game recorded his first career TD on a lateral pass.

Brian Cushing: 15th to the Texans – The only man to receive NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year twice. After initially having the award rescinded for testing positive for abnormal hCg levels, Cushing won the re-vote to have his title given back. The four game suspension he was given to start the 2010 season accounts for the only games he has not started for the Texans since being drafted, and the 2011 season looks like it’ll present his first opportunity for playoff football.

Worst 5 First Rounders:

Aaron Curry: Selected 4th overall by the Seattle Seahawks

 The most “sure-fire” thing in the 2009 draft class was Aaron Curry. It just goes to show how little that actually means. Curry was the first Demon Deacon to be drafted in the first round since Calvin Pace in 2003, and the highest pick from Wake Forest ever. It’s a school not renowned for producing high-caliber NFL players, and the fact that only 9 of its alums are currently with teams in the NFL is testament to this. This small school negative did not hold the ‘Hawks back and they snapped up Curry. Since then it’s been pretty much all downhill. Curry has been given ample opportunity to show his worth, starting 30 games in his career, but he has consistently disappointed, to the point where the Seahawks reworked his contract to allow them to cut ties with him at the end of 2011 with no financial obligation. Things went from bad to worse for Curry, as 2 weeks ago he was demoted to second string behind rookie KJ Wright, and it’s believed Seattle is open to offers for him. Despite having the physical skill set to succeed in the NFL, Curry has so far been a huge bust. Whether this is due to a lack of commitment, scheme issues, or just that Seattle don’t have a D-line to help him out is unclear, but it seems pretty certain that by 2012 we’ll be seeing him in different colours. From 4th selection to backup is a steep decline.

Donald Brown: Selected 27th overall by the Indianapolis Colts

The running game was the only thing holding the Colts offence back. The O-line was still solid at the point in time, and Peyton was fit and firing on all cylinders. Incumbent Joseph Addai looked to be struggling carrying the whole of the whole of the rushing game himself, so Donald Brown looked to be an excellent pick to split carries in the backfield. In his first two years, he actually got more work than he might have expected, with Addai suffering from various knocks and bumps, meaning Brown carried the ball a total of 207 times over the 2 year span. What became clear over this time, however, is that Donald Brown was nothing special. He found the endzone just 5 times, with a YPC average of just 3.8. He’s recorded 100+ yards in a game only once, against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2010. None of these numbers speak of 1st round pick production. In the 2011 draft, the Colts picked Delone Carter from Syracuse in the 4th round, and he has instantly risen above Brown on the depth chart – carrying the ball 29 times so far in 2011, compared to Browns 0. That’s right. 0. To put a nail in Brown’s coffin, Colts coach Jim Caldwell confirmed after week 1 that Donald Brown is without a role on offense due to "a production issue." Ouch.

Aaron Maybin: Selected 11th overall by the Buffalo Bills

 For a defensive end picked 11, you’d hope to get some pass rush ability, or some stoutness against the run, and certainly some decent production in year 2, if not in year 1. Aaron Maybin gave the Bills none of these things. Since being drafted, Maybin has started 1 career game and recorded 25 combined tackles. If you think he might have done better as a pass rusher, well, you’d be wrong. He has 1 career sack to his name, and that wasn’t even for the team that drafted him. After 2 years of horrible disappointment, the Bills cut ties with Maybin in the off-season. He was picked up by, cut by, and then resigned again by the Jets, and took his first snaps in their week 4 matchup against Baltimore. This is where he recorded his first career sack, in a game that was defined by terrible QB play from both sides. The one slight saving grace for Maybin is that now he has a chance to play in a rotation on a good team. With no disrespect intended on the Bills, the last 2 season in Buffalo have been fairly poor, and in the hands of defensive whizz Rex Ryan, Maybin will have a chance to find a niche in the NFL and begin to recover from what is undoubtedly the worst career start of any of the 1st rounders from 2009.

Andre Smith: Selected 6th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals

His milkshake brings all the boys to the yard...
 The questions were there with Smith before he was drafted. At the 2009 combine he looked overweight (inexplicably choosing to run his 40 yard dash topless...), slow and under powered, and disappeared from the event without telling anyone where he was going. Yet he was still regarded as potentially the best run-blocking OT in the class. The Bengals took him 6th, and the problems continued. Smith sat on a lengthy holdout, missing all of training camp and 3 preseason games, before finally signing a rookie deal. Later that same week he fractured his foot, and didn’t make his first start for the Bengals until December 2009. A foot injury halted him in 2010 too, forcing him to be put on IR after appearing in 7 regular season games, starting 4 of them. For a 6th overall pick, you’d hope for more than 5 starts and 13 appearances in 2 seasons, injury or not. Smith’s attitude, as well as his fitness, are a constant battle in Cincinnati. 2011 has started better for him, however, starting all 4 games to date protecting rookie Andy Dalton. Perhaps now that a new guard is being installed in the Bengal offence, Smith will be able to step up and fulfil his potential.

Larry English: Selected 16th overall by the San Diego Chargers

 Despite being a 4-3 DE in college, the Chargers selected English to play as an OLB in their 3-4 scheme. Whether this transition was difficult for English, or whether he was just projected too highly, who knows. One thing for certain is that learning a new scheme shouldn’t be too difficult for a guy that scored a 34 on the Wonderlic. Of course English has suffered his fair share of injuries too, and in total have allowed him to start 4 games for the Chargers. That said, he has played in 27 – so for those 23 non-starting appearances, he wasn’t top of the depth chart, something you’d expect for a 1st rounder. English has started 2011 in a similar fashion to the rest of his short career: 3 appearances, 0 starts. He does, however, have 2 sacks already this year, both in week 4 against Miami. Maybe this is a sign he’s on the up? Chargers fans are begging for it.

Dishonourable mention:

Michael Crabtree: 10th to the 49ers – Injury plagued and the victim of bad QB play, Crabtree has failed to live up to his billing as the best WR in the 2009 class. A 55 reception, 6 TD performance in 2010 was good, but he will need to continue improving to earn his 10th spot.

Darius Heyward-Bey: 7th to the Raiders – A victim of being reached for rather than his own failings. Had anyone except Al Davis seen DHB as worthy of this #7 pick then he would certainly be in the top 5 bust so far, but no-one did. For that reason, his stats of 44 career receptions and 2TDs can just be put down as a botched experiment rather than a failure on his part.

Jason Smith: 2nd to the Rams – The #2 selection in the draft has had 2 reasonable years when healthy. Before 2011 he started 20 of his 23 appearances for the Rams, initially at LT in his rookie year, and then at RT when he was superseded by 2nd round selection Rodger Saffold in 2010. 2011 has not stared so well, however, franchise QB Sam Bradford has been sacked 19 times in 4 games – the most in the NFL by 4 clear sacks. Part of this has to do with the WRs not getting separation downfield, part is to do with Bradford holding the ball too long, but a large part is the poor performance of the OL. To make matters worse, Smith has earned himself a number of penalties and fines for unnecessary roughness this year, including in key situations; and as the Rams struggled to hold off the Ravens pass rush in week 3, Smith was benched for career backup Adam Goldberg. He’s no bust yet, but he’s a very expensive question mark.

Keep your eyes peeled next week for my look at the rest of the 2009 draft, which later round gems shined, and picks some teams would rather forget.

- Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
- The Pulling Linemen

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