Monday, September 6, 2010

The 2006 NFL Draft and why Matt Leinart is only a face in the crowd...


Generally speaking, it’s typical to evaluate an NFL draft class after five seasons in the league. Yet, like so many things about the NFL draft, there is no bedrock reason for this. It’s just the way that it’s always been done (just like prioritizing the ever-arbitrary 40 yard dash.)

So, without further ado, here’s my best shot at trying to evaluate the 2006 incarnation one of the biggest crap-shoots (for lack of a better term) in professional sports.

There is no better place to start than with the first overall selection himself, Mario Williams. The defensive-end who came from North Carolina State received far less hype than some of his other fellow draftees (who we’ll get to in good time).

As a result of his largely anonymous though successful college career, many (aka EVERYONE) questioned how well he would pan-out in the NFL. Would his work ethic improve? (Supposedly this was a problem at NC State when he would “take plays off” although I’ve never seen video evidence).

Much maligned before he’d even played a down in the pro’s, Williams did himself no favors in year one by recording just 4.5 sacks. Year two was one of the most unexpected breakthrough performances in the history of former number one picks (which should be an oxymoron if you really think about it).

Williams tallied 14.5 sacks in 2007, destroying his draft-day competition hands down. Since then, he’s been an A- defensive-end. The simple fact is that it’s impossible to say honestly that Reggie Bush, Vince Young, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and A.J Hawk have been better than Mario Williams in any season after 2006.

Probably the most interesting part is that one of the least heralded of the group (Ferguson) has the best argument against the previous statement. He was part of a very effective Jets offensive line last year (though, as footballoutsiders.com has shown, Ferguson’s role might not have been that effective).

Obviously though, when we’re talking about the first round of the 2006 NFL draft, USC star Matt Leinart is the most notorious draftee. Labeled as the “next Tom Brady” by more than a couple websites and ESPN anchors, the greatly heralded, Paris Hilton-dating southpaw was touted as a “sure-thing.”

Well, let’s just say that so far, the most enduring image of his starting career in the NFL was his definitive contribution to this hilarious sound-clip. What’s more worrying is that he lost his job to a man who looked completely washed up and was recently released even when his team received no compensation just so they could be rid of him.

That doesn’t exactly sound like a great leader (or even a mediocre teammate for that matter). And while Leinart has been the worst of the three “can’t miss” quarterbacks from that draft (the other two being Jay Cutler and Vince Young), his competition in this category is tough.

Both Cutler and Young (who themselves were labeled as having great “intangibles and leadership”) have seen their character questioned. Young had the infamous meltdown (which, to be fair, was blown out of proportion). Yet even if the incident was blown up by the media, he still held such a weak hold on his starting spot that Kerry Friggin Collins robbed his starting spot for a whole season in 2008 with no problem.

Cutler’s been even more polarizing. Though his talent is clearly discernable and among the NFL’s elite, his character has been that much worse. The debacle following the hiring of Josh McDaniels and their subsequent feud was on par with an episode plot from a daytime soap opera (not that I watch such things…)

While both Cutler and Young have ample opportunity to salvage their careers, let no one say that their draft analysis of any top pick from 2006 was correct (except perhaps D’Brickashaw).

And therein lays the problem. Too often, we build up certain players to be supermen. To be the second coming of Gale Sayers or Tom Brady or whoever NFL legend some 21 year old kid remotely appears to resemble.

Again, it’s a failure of the 24/7 sports coverage that exists now with ESPN’s three hundred channel services or the never-ending internet talk (like this very website).

What’s probably the worst part is that we then overlook certain players who are NFL stars waiting to happen. Take Elvis Dumervil, for example. At Louisville, Dumervil progressed every season to eventually become one of the most prolific pass-rushers in college history.

His 2005 senior season was a site to behold. 20 sacks! He set the single game sack total with six against Kentucky. He even broke Dwight Freeney’s Big East record for college-career sacks.

Yet, despite all his success and the fact that his idol (Dwight Freeeney) was tearing up the NFL as an undersized pass-rusher, teams passed the entire first day of the 2006 draft without taking him. It’s obviously unbelievable to think about now (considering his success with the Broncos), but it seemed unbelievable then too considering his credentials.

They said he had “durability concerns” and the usual jargon that equates to them subtly implying “we think he was good in college but can’t hack it in the pros because he doesn’t look big enough.” All this when Freeney (who Dumervil so perfectly emulated) had averaged nearly 13 sacks a season for the previous four years.

Quite simply, players of that caliber getting drafted on the second day of the draft (Dumervil was picked in the 4th round as the 126 players chosen) are inexplicable for me. NFL GM’s, ESPN analysts and all, don’t let them fool you; they can be as clueless as we can. (And I didn’t even have time to mention the anomaly of Marques Colston and Courtland Finnegan both going in the 7th round.)

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