In assessing the viability of a future NFL player, draft position has always been a critical indicator for career success. Early draft picks tend to have longer tenures in the league and have the best production; this is fueled in part by teams’ undertaking elaborate means to get the best college players and scout prospects before other teams can grab them. However, history is full of gems who eluded the scouting report.
Take Richard Sherman, for example. A key component of the Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl win, he is currently third among active players for interceptions and defended passes. Despite this, Sherman was picked in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, based on a sub-par assessment of his athleticism during the scouting combine. Another example is Shannon Sharpe, the NFL Hall of Famer who helped lead the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl wins and the Ravens to one. He was drafted in the seventh round in 1990.
We tallied the late-round draft picks from 1995 to 2015 in an attempt to show where the draft got it wrong. Looking at the most successful of the late picks paints a portrait of the randomness of the draft and reveals that some of the finest diamonds in the NFL truly were found in the rough.
Judging Greatness in NFL’s Late-Round Quarterback Picks
Students of the draft know that Tom Brady bursts the illusion that a top quarterback must be drafted in the first round. Since taking over as starting quarterback for the New England Patriots in 2001 after then–starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe was sidelined for internal bleeding, Brady has been the epitome of the top-tier league quarterback and the face of the NFL. Fifth on the all-time career passing yards list, third for career touchdown passes, and the postseason leader for passing yards and touchdowns, Brady is responsible for the longest winning streak in NFL history, the most consecutive playoff wins, and the only undefeated regular season under the NFL’s 16-games schedule. The 10-time Pro Bowler and four-time Super Bowl champion was also picked 199th in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, and he was only drafted because of intervention from the Patriots’ front office.
Brady, however, is not the only late-draft quarterback to break out, as illustrated in the above graphic. Three-time Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck has thrown 3,197 pass completions for 5,285 attempts as of Week 14 and led the Seattle Seahawks to six playoff appearances and a Super Bowl, where the Seahawks were defeated by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hasselbeck was drafted 187th in the sixth round of the 1998 draft.
Derek Anderson, a one-time Pro Bowler and current reserve quarterback to Cam Newton on the playoff-bound Carolina Panthers, was drafted 213th in the sixth round of the 2005 draft. In his Week 1 start in 2014, Anderson completed 25 of 40 passes for 277 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Another example is Matt Cassel. The only quarterback in NFL history to start a league game without ever starting in college, Cassel started for the Patriots in 2008 after Brady took a season-ending knee injury. Cassel went on to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to their first divisional championship and earned his Pro Bowl berth following this; he was drafted 230th in round seven of the 2005 draft.
When Adalius Thomas was drafted in 2000, no one knew if he was worth the sixth-round pick used to get him. Even though he was part of the 2000-2001 Baltimore Ravens team that won Super Bowl XXXV, he only played four games that year. Competing with Michael McCrary and Peter Boulware for play time at the outside linebacker position, Thomas found success – and a berth in the Pro Bowl – as a special teams player. In 2005, he led the NFL in non-offensive touchdowns. With a career 517 tackles, 53 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, and seven interceptions, Thomas was one of the most productive defensive players in the league. Later in his career, he was selected as both a 2006 Pro Bowler and All-Pro as a first-team outside linebacker.
Thomas’s success emphasizes the fact that quarterback is not the only position that can be successfully harvested from the late draft. Many successful defensive players were drafted in the late rounds, as evidenced in the graphic above. There are several examples of late-round success: The Miami Dolphins’ Yeremiah Bell – despite being drafted 213th in round six in the 2003 draft – amassed 726 career tackles and 13 sacks. Cato June, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts, made the 2005 Pro Bowl and amassed a career tally of 498 tackles. June was drafted 198th in round six of the 2003 draft.
One of the factors that make NFL drafts so exciting is its unpredictability. It is just as likely for a top pick to be a flop as a sixth-round pick to turn out to be the best quarterback in a generation. While scouting is a great resource for determining athleticism and raw skills, it cannot measure how a player will work with his teammates and coaches or how much heart the player will have in his career. As such, draft picks will always have a certain element of chance and blind luck associated with them, allowing hidden gems to be found in the late rounds.
We looked at Pro Football Reference, analyzing all draft picks from 1995 to 2015 and their corresponding career stats. For all of these assets above, we looked at players drafted in rounds five through seven who played in at least one Pro Bowl. We filtered the results only to focus on players drafted by the following teams: Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers. These teams were selected because they have each drafted at least three Pro Bowlers in rounds five through seven since 1995.
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