The NFL Draft is undoubtedly the most influential day on the NFL calendar. It's when the foundations of Super Bowl teams are built and decisions that are made that day impact teams for years and years. One big mistake and you may have just ruined your team's championship aspirations. One draft miss and it can lead to a GM's firing.
While NFL teams seem to think they can put the pieces of a championship team together in free agency, the league's elite teams all built their cores through the draft. The New England Patriots drafted Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Dont'a Hightower. The Seattle Seahawks drafted Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson and Kam Chancellor. The Broncos drafted Von Miller, Demaryius Thomas and Chris Harris was signed as an undrafted free agent. Free agents were merely the final pieces to these recent champions. The point is, draft day could be where all is won and lost.
Since 2000, the draft has been dissected more and more every year and everybody now thinks they're an expert. In the past 15 years or so, we've seen major draft decisions that came back to either help or hurt teams. Decisions made 15 years ago are still affecting teams today. Here we will look at the biggest what ifs of the NFL Draft since 2000 and examine how things could have gone differently.
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15 The Texans Take Khalil Mack Over Clowney
The 2014 NFL Draft was all about pass rushers. The common belief going in was that the Houston Texans were going to take Jadeveon Clowney, who had built himself up as a can't miss prospect following a monstrous sophomore season at South Carolina, where he ammassed 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss. The Texans fell in love with the idea of pairing him with J.J. Watt and so they took him first overall.
However, as the draft got closer and closer, a contingent of pundits grew who began to argue Khalil Mack was the better pass rusher. Mack had totalled 28.5 sacks in four seasons at Buffalo and was all around a dominant force. The knock against him was he went to a small school and he slipped down to fifth, where the Raiders took him.
After two years, Mack has quickly established himself as a top young pass rusher while Clowney has constantly battled injuries and has been inconsistent. It's still early, but you have to wonder how the Texans are feeling for not taking Mack. Just picture him on one side, and Watt on the other.
14 The Rams Don't Go All In On Sam Bradford
Sam Bradford's career will forever be tied to the massive rookie contract he received when the Rams took him first overall back in 2010. Bradford was given a six-year deal, worth $78 million with $50 million guaranteed. Bradford was coming off of shoulder surgery and was set to take over a Rams team completely devoid of talent. Bradford's injury troubles would follow him in St. Louis, as he suffered multiple torn ACLs and continued to have shoulder issues.
The Rams traded him to the Eagles prior to last season, ending an overall disappointing tenure with the team that drafted him.
What if the Rams had waited to get their QB? Well, some great options in the 2010 draft were Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Eric Berry. The Rams could have had a blue chipper on defense and been more patient with getting a QB, as the 2011 and 2012 draft classes had far superior QBs such as Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.
13 The Lions Pick The Right WR In 2003
Wide receiver seemed to be the Lions' favorite position to draft, particularly in the Matt Millen era. Receiver after receiver was taken and receiver after receiver failed in Detroit, until finally they stumbled across Calvin Johnson in 2007. It turns out one of the greatest receivers of this generation was sitting there for them back in 2003.
The top two receiver prospects were Charles Rogers and Andre Johnson. In what would turn out to be one of the biggest blunders of the Matt Millen era, the Lions took Rogers, who proceeded to produce career totals of 36 catches, 440 yards and four touchdowns. His career ended after multiple violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Andre Johnson on the other hand, set countless franchise records in Houston despite subpar quarterback play. He recently retired, finishing his career with 1,062 catches, 14,185 yards and 70 touchdowns.
Drafting Johnson would have given the Lions a no.1 WR. Either this would have made them too good in 2007 to draft Calvin Johnson, or it could have put them in a position to possibly line Megatron and Andre as the greatest WR duo in the league.
12 The Texans Hold Off On QB, Go With Peppers
The Houston Texans were an expansion team going into 2002 and they decided to go get their franchise QB right away. While David Carr was an exciting prospect, it was a lot to ask out of a rookie QB to step in and lead his team to victories. Carr was hammered early and often in his career, getting sacked 76 times in his rookie season. The beating Carr took hindered his development and he never lived up to expectations.
The Texans would have been far better off if they merely took a plug and play type player like Julius Peppers, who went second overall that year. It would have allowed Houston to build up their roster before bringing in a young QB. Peppers still would have put up his high numbers and the longtime QB problem in Houston never would have started.
11 The Colts Take RG3 Over Luck
While it was obvious going into the 2012 draft that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III would be the top two picks, as the draft got closer and closer, some started to argue that RG3 had a higher upside than Luck. The Colts undoubtedly made the right call to go with Luck, but what if they got cold feet on him and chose the Heisman winner out of Baylor?
Well, behind the Colts' horrible o-line, Griffin III would have taken a pounding and he never would have had his exploseive rookie season. For the Redskins, they've fielded a better roster than the Colts have since 2012, having a stud like Trent Williams at left tackle and a better team all around. Andrew Luck and Mike Shanahan in the nation's capital would have been an interesting mix and Washington would have likely taken a commanding hold on the NFC East over teams that had shaky QB situations.
10 The Panthers Balk On Cam Newton, Go Gabbert
Many draft experts were arguing back in 2011 that Blaine Gabbert was a quarterback far more suited for the NFL than Cam Newton. Newton was unlike any QB prospect the NFL had seen before, being so big, fast and powerful. This new breed of QB had teams wondering if his skills would translate to the NFL level.
It turns out the Panthers were bang on to avoid all the noise surrounding Newton, who was a controversial figure, given his transfer from Florida to Auburn prior to his Heisman Trophy season.
Had the Panthers taken Gabbert, they'd still be a bottom feeder in the NFL. While the defense has been spectacular in recent years, we saw just how valuable Newton was last year, leading the best offense in football despite having Ted Ginn Jr. as a no.1 target.
Sometimes, even the experts don't have all the answers.
Oh and just think, what if Newton had slid down to the Titans and Jaguars who also took QBs that year? We could have had both Luck and Newton in the AFC South.
9 The Browns Take Julio Jones, Don't Trade Down
The Browns have had plenty of high picks in recent years, but have made a habit of trading down for more picks. Sometimes that philosophy works, but sometimes all it does is prevent you from landing elite talent. Such was the case in the 2011 draft when the Browns traded their sixth overall pick to Atlanta. While the Browns received five picks in return, including two first rounders, none of them made any impact close to what Julio Jones has done for Atlanta.
Jones is arguably the best wide receiver in football and the Browns are still searching for talent on offense. While Terrell Pryor is an emerging star at wideout, Josh Gordon may never find his way onto the field again. With Jones, the Browns' receiving woes would have been solved a long time ago.
8 The Dolphins Go QB In 2008
The Dolphins were coming off a 1-15 season in 2007 and decided to clean house. Bill Parcells took over as VP of Football Operations and it was supposed to be the beginning of a new era in Miami. Surprisingly, despite having not drafted a QB in the first round since Dan Marino, the Fins took tackle Jake Long first overall rather than Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco.
While Jake Long would be an elite tackle for a few years, before injury problems derailed his career, it truly felt like this should have been the time the Dolphins ushered in a new era by riding the young QB. Instead they took Chad Henne in the second round, and signed Chad Pennington later that year as a free agent. While it was a band-aid solution, it has proven to yield little success for the franchise all these years later.
7 The Titans Listen To The Coaching Staff, Go With Matt Leinart
Vince Young was coming off perhaps the greatest game ever played by a college quarterback, as he led the Texas Longhorns to an upset over the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl. The Titans were looking for a QB in the 2006 draft as Steve McNair was on his way out of Nashville. Jeff Fisher, the former USC Trojan wanted Leinart, while Titans owner Bud Adams, a Houston native, wanted his fellow Texan Vince Young.
Ultimately, the owner won out and while Young's career ultimately didn't pan out, he still had more success than Leinart, going 30-17 as Titans starter. He also won rookie of the year in 2006. Leinart proved to be a very ineffective pro QB and with Leinart, it's unlikely the Titans would have gone on to have a 13-3 season in 2008. The team would have been held back by Leinart and further stumbled into top five picks, unlike the perrenial 8-8 seasons they usually got under Jeff Fisher.
6 Gronk Is The First TE Off The Board
Rob Gronkowski went 42nd overall to the Patriots in the 2010 draft, becoming the third tight end to go off the board that year. While part of Gronk's success has been due to playing with Tom Brady, you have to think the Bengals are kicking themselves over passing on Gronk. They went with Jermaine Gresham, who while a solid TE, has had trouble staying healthy in his career and doesn't impact a game the way Gronkowski does. He also is no longer on the Bengals' roster, having left as a free agent for Arizona. Drafting Gronk could have led to one of the most dominant receiving corps in football, as the Bengals could now have a group consisiting of A.J. Green and Rob Gronkowski.
Would that have been a missing piece for all their playoff failures? Who knows, but all we know is that Gronk should have gone a lot earlier than 42nd.
5 The Raiders Pick Calvin Johnson Over JaMarcus Russell
The best thing that could have happened to the Lions to close their 2006 season was winning their last game. By defeating Dallas 39-31 in Week 17, they improved their record to 2-14, resulting in the Raiders earning the first overall pick. This led to the Raiders taking JaMarcus Russell and Calvin Johnson fell right to the Lions.
While the Raiders couldn't have foreseen they would take the biggest draft bust in NFL history, had they seen the red flags surrounding Russell, and studied game film more extensively, Calvin Johnson would have been their pick. With Detroit having Jon Kitna under center, you have to think JaMarcus would have been a tempting pick for the Lions.
Taking Johnson over Russell might not have solved all of the Raiders' problems, but it surely would have improved the team and we might not be talking about a 14-year playoff drought in Oakland.
4 Chargers Don't Trade No.1 Pick, Take Vick
After the disastrous pick that was Ryan Leaf back in 1998, the Chargers were in no mood to take another risk on a QB so high in the 2001 draft. Michael Vick was the most exciting quarterback to ever come out of college and any team drafting him was going to get a ticket and merchandise seller. The Chargers traded the first overall pick to the Falcons for their fifth overall pick.
The Chargers took LaDainian Tomlinson who proved to be the greatest running back in the franchise's history. They took their QB later, drafting Drew Brees in the second round. Had Vick gone to the Chargers that year, it's very likely the Eli Manning/Philip Rivers saga never happens in 2004 and the Chargers' attendance problems at Qualcomm Stadium are solved. Say what you want about Vick, but he was a must-see player in his prime.
3 Eli Manning Stays In San Diego
Nowadays Eli Mannning claims he can't even remember why he refused to join the Chargers when they drafted him back in 2004. From what we can gather, it was due to the losing culture surrounding the team and feeling his career would dwindle quickly in San Diego. Here's what his father Archie Manning had to say about it 12 years later:
"It was a decision that Eli and Tom Condon kind of made, but Eli ultimately pulled the trigger on that and that's what he, doing his due diligence, decided to do," Archie Manning said. "I can't say it was pleasant from our end. Most people thought I orchestrated it, but I didn't. I don't tell my kids what to do or make their decisions."
The Chargers were in fact on the upswing in 2004 so Eli likely wouldn't have experienced the fears he had.
If Manning goes to the Chargers, I'm positive Philip Rivers would have been a multi-time Super Bowl champion. Rivers has never had the kind of supporting cast Eli Manning has had, from the dominant pass rush that led the Giants to two Super Bowls, to the elite receivers Manning has had. Their careers may be measured by Super Bowl rings, but there's no doubt Rivers has had less to work with.
2 The 49ers Stay Local, Pick Aaron Rodgers
It seemed like a simple solution. The 49ers needed a franchise quarterback and they had the first overall pick. There was one in their backyard, California Bears quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The 49ers instead went with Alex Smith, who has been a solid NFL quarterback, but it nowhere near the difference maker that Rodgers is.
Throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, the 49ers always seemed to be on the cusp of greatness, but could not find elite QB play. While Colin Kaepernick gave them some great years, it's hard to imagine that with a core of Aaron Rodgers, Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Justin Smith that the 49ers would not have won a Super Bowl. Oh and not to mention, Jim Harbaugh as a possible head coach for all of that.
It's very likely the 49ers would have built themselves a mini dynasty in the past decade.
1 The Jets Strike Gold
Back in 2000, the Browns were still essentially starting from scratch, having just returned to the NFL in 1999 as a second incarnation of the franchise. If you were to do a complete re-draft of 2000, yes you would pencil in Brady as the first overall pick to Cleveland. However this simply wasn't possible in 2000. Cleveland had just taken Tim Couch first overall in 1999 and didn't know they had a bust on their hands. They weren't even thinking QB.
A team that was thinking QB in the first round was the New York Jets, who took Chad Pennington 18th overall. While Pennington gave the Jets some great years, let's face it, he's not Tom Brady. Just, what if the Jets had seen that special X-factor in Brady? What if they were able to look beyond the skinny kid that showed up at the combine and taken a chance on him?
It's unfair to point to in hindsight, but when arguably the greatest QB of all time goes 199th overall, you have to ask yourselves how so many teams missed out on him. Why look to the Jets? Well, Brady's caused them the most pain and they were the first team to pick a QB that year. Oh, what could have been...
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