Every year I religiously watch the NFL draft. Occurring in April, this draft is perfectly placed at a time when the American populace is practically starving for NFL action. Despite my obsession with the draft, I myself even become numb by the time the 6th and 7th rounds roll around. While the NFL has certainly cut down from the good ole days when there were 14 rounds in the draft, the current seven-round system still seems a bit like overkill. This is, of course, until a team finds a player like Tom Brady in the 6th round.
Such periodic gems have convinced teams to try their absolute hardest to draft productive players not early in the early rounds, but also in the doldrum of the draft. While countless reporters and analysts have discussed these late round steals, very little analysis has been done on those late round picks who didn't pan out. As such, I've written an article where we discuss not only the greatest late round steals of all time, but also the players who were chosen directly before these greats. You cannot truly appreciate the greatness of Antonio Brown without realizing that the player taken directly before him was out of the league in two years.
16 Steal - Curtis Martin
If you were to ask most NFL execs, I think that they would tell you that the first three rounds are what they consider to be the "cream of the crop" of the NFL draft. With that being said, it is obvious that even within these three rounds there is quite a change in talent level as the draft progresses. As such, getting a player the caliber of Curtis Martin in the middle of the third round should have set the Patriots of the 1990s up for quite a bit of success. The issue with this is, of course, that the Patriots would quickly trade Martin to their division rival, the New York Jets. Prior to entering the draft, Martin had established himself as a highly reliable running back at the University of Pittsburgh, a perception that he reinforced on his way to becoming one of the NFL's all-time most prolific rushers.
15 Terrible - Brian Williams
Perhaps the worst thing about the Green Bay Packers selection of Brian Williams with the pick directly before the Patriots selected Curtis Martin is that Martin himself would have fulfilled a fairly large need for the team. The Packers were looking to gain more play makers in a stacked NFC division. Instead of selecting the future Hall of Famer, however, they selected a linebacker from USC. While Williams was not as bad as some of the other entries on our list, his NFL career as a role player is certainly dwarfed by Martin's legendary status. Even worse is the fact that many draft analysts applauded the Packers for the pick of Williams, while the selection of Martin went almost completely unheralded.
14 Steal - Marques Colston
Until the recent emergence of Antonio Brown, Marques Colston was typically the name you would hear brought up when people were discussing the importance of drafting late round wide receivers. Coming from the incredibly small school of Hofstra (they no longer even have a football program), Colston wouldn't be drafted until the 252nd pick of the 2006 draft. This means that only four players in the entire draft were selected after Colston. Not only were none of these players even remotely effective, but as you will see neither was the wide receiver taken directly in front of him. Luckily for the New Orleans Saints, they were able to get a player this late in the draft who would later become the favorite target of their prolific quarterback, Drew Brees.
13 Terrible - David Anderson
Do you think the Texans of the late 2000s would have liked to have a wide receiver like Marques Colston on their squad? They certainly had the opportunity, however, they selected another receiver from Colorado State in the pick before Colston was selected. This player, David Anderson, was able to stick around the NFL for a while, but he was never able to make an impact which is even comparable to that which Colston was able to accomplish. During his time in the league Anderson was cut from four separate clubs (including the Texans who drafted him), and he ended up posting less than 1,000 career receiving yards. With their current wealth of receiving talent, the Texans may just now be getting over this crucial drafting mistake.
12 Steal - Andre Reed
Considering the fact that he attended a small school in rural Pennsylvania, it makes some sense that Andre Reed was not drafted by the Buffalo Bills until the 4th round of the 1985 draft. Reed certainly validated the teams' decision to travel to Kutztown, as he would go on to become perhaps the greatest wide receiver in the history of that team. Reed was an important part of the '90s Bills "K-gun" offense, and he is one of the major reasons for the success of fellow Hall of Famer, quarterback Jim Kelly. Football analysts will tell you that the creation of an NFL dynasty requires that some of the teams later round picks succeed. Therefore, later round picks like Reed were critical in allowing the Bills to go to 4 straight Super Bowls in the early 1990's.
11 Terrible - Buster Rhymes
Not only was the next player on our list a huge bust, but he also has perhaps the greatest name in the history of professional football. In fact, this wide receiver who was drafted by the Vikings in 1986 was the inspiration for rapper Busta Rhymes. If Busta was looking to share his name with an NFL player, he probably should have chosen someone who was largely considered a bust by his team. Despite an impressive record as a kick returner (Rhymes actually had the Vikings record until it was recently broken by Cordarrelle Patterson), Buster was so unimpressive as a wide receiver that he was released by the Vikings. All this after only a single year in the NFL.
10 Steal - Shane Lechler
I know what you are going to say; "is getting a punter in the 5th round really that big of a steal?" Well, when this punter is probably the best to ever play his position, I have to answer in the affirmative. When the Raiders drafted Shane Lechler with the 142nd overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, it was with little fanfair. Over the course of his illustrious career, however, number 9 consistently validated this decision and became one of the few weapons on a bad Raiders team. I think it is even fair to say that Lechler's hugely positive influence on the team was one of the main reasons why they made the nonsensical decision to take a kicker with the 17th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.
9 Terrible - Dave Stachelski
It isn't too often that the Patriots, under the guidance of head coach/guru Bill Belichick, make a mistake. But this is exactly what happened in 2000 when they chose Dave Stachelski with the pick before the Raiders drafted Lechler. Stachelski was an athletic tight end out of Boise State, but this athleticism never translated onto the NFL level. Even worse for New England, Stachelski never played a game for the Patriots. He was cut from the team the offseason after he was drafted, and would go on to play 9 uninspiring games for the Saints over two seasons. Stachelski ended his career having caught only one pass for a mere 5 yards. When Rob Gronkowski was drafted by the Patriots, some grumpy reporter tried to draw comparisons between him and Stachelski.
8 Steal - Tom Brady
Considering the fact that in 2000 the Patriots drafted not only the greatest quarterback in NFL history, but perhaps the greatest overall player in the history of the league, i'd say that it should be counted as one heck of a steal regardless of where he was drafted. With that being said, the fact that Tom Brady wasn't taken until the 199th overall pick is simply phenomenal. Since he was taken in the 6th round, this means that all teams had several chances to take the G.O.A.T. and instead, decided on some other player. Brady has been making these teams regret their decision ever since, and his play this season has had some wondering if this great player will ever slow down.
7 Terrible - Matt Bowen
Can you imagine what it is like to be Matt Bowen, the player taken immediately before Tom Brady? While Tom has gone on to redefine the quarterback position, you would be hard pressed to find five people who even remember that Bowen played in the NFL. This strong safety from the University of Iowa was selected by the Rams with the 198th pick in the 2000 draft. While he was able to stay in the league for a respectable six years, within that time, he was cut from three separate teams (including the Rams that drafted him) and never made a significant impact. Luckily, Bowen has gone on to have a fairly successful career as an analyst. So hopefully, people will eventually remember him as something more than the player who was selected immediately before Tom Brady.
6 Steal - Brett Keisel
Though he may not be on the level of some of the other players on this list, the fact that Brett Keisel was selected with the 242nd pick at the end of the 7th round (not to mention the fact that I needed a defensive player for this list), makes him worthy of a spot here. Keisel was a defensive stalwart for the Steelers for a number of years, something I can't think that they imagined when he was one of the teams last picks in 2002. 3-4 defensive ends aren't typically expected to have a lot of "splash" plays, however, as the defense around him began to decline Keisel became one of the Steelers' top playmakers.
5 Terrible - Leonard Henry
The Miami Dolphins perhaps should have drafted Keisel themselves, especially with the fact that the player they selected immediately before them didn't contribute much to their franchise. This player was Leonard Henry, a running back who had just completed an illustrious career at East Carolina University. Henry was no Chris Johnson (I wouldn't even compare him to his cousin, NFL and Pittsburgh Steeler alum Willie Parker), however, and he never managed to make a substantial impact with the Dolphins. In five career games for the Dolphins (over multiple years) he put up a paltry 141 rushing yards. His career low would come in 2005, when he was cut from an Oakland Raiders team which at the time was totally devoid of talent.
4 Steal - Joe Montana
Long before Tom Brady made NFL teams rethink how they approached their 6th round draft picks, Joe Montana was making every single team who didn't draft him regret their decision. Montana was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 82nd overall pick in the third round of the 1979 NFL draft. Montana would reward this decision by leading this squad to four Super Bowl victories in the 1980s (they would win a fifth under Steve Young). The third round isn't super late into an NFL draft, but getting one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time at any point after the first round has to be considered an absolute steal. And I can say this even with my anti-Notre Dame bias.
3 Terrible - Mike Wellman
If there was a team who especially regretted not drafting Montana, it would probably be the Los Angeles Rams. This is because they selected an obscure center from Kansas with the pick directly before the 49ers chose Montana. This player, Mike Wellman, would play two underwhelming seasons for the Packers before he was blackballed by the NFL. Therefore, Los Angeles not only wasted a pick in the third round of the draft, they wasted a pick which very easily could have been Joe Montana. Even their ability to recruit Kurt Warner from his grocery store job can't erase the stain of passing on Montana for a center who would never even start a game. To be fair though, every other team in the league (including the 49ers themselves) also passed on Montana multiple times.
2 Steal - Antonio Brown
I think it is fair to say that wide receiver is the position where you are most likely to find a steal in the latter part of the draft. With that being said, it's still pretty astounding that the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to find a player like Antonio Brown in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Brown was drafted 195th overall, and has quickly established himself as one of the top players, not just from his draft class, but in the entire league. For almost his entire career, Brown has been one of the top five receivers in the league in both catches and receiving yards. Reporters and teammates alike have lauded Brown's work ethic, and his continually improving game all but guarantees him a productive career for years to come.
1 Terrible - Ramon Harewood
The best thing about our next entry is the fact that the player selected immediately before Antonio was not only a bust, but a bust who was picked by the rival Baltimore Ravens. This is the same Antonio Brown who has been a major pain for the Ravens, and who has performed multiple heroic feats against the purple and black (see last season's Week 16 matchup). Instead of drafting Brown, the Ravens selected an offensive tackle from Morehead State named Ramon Harewood. Harewood only played in 6 games for the Ravens because he was on injured reserve for much of his first two years. After those two years he was cut by Baltimore and never again resurfaced in the league.