Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bush League

With a record of 1-12, the Houston Texans are currently the frontrunner for the top pick in next spring's NFL Draft. Conventional wisdom says they should draft Reggie Bush, a running back from Southern Cal, whom many believe to be a once-a-generation talent. Could one player possibly make that much of a difference? In order to answer that question lets first take a look at the #1 picks of the last 10 drafts and the top running back picks of the last 10 drafts, followed by a comparison of the two players with whom Bush is most frequently compared; Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders.

#1 pick: Keyshawn Johnson, Wide Receiver, drafted by the New York Jets
Keyshawn had a solid rookie season catching 63 passes for 844 yards and 8 touchdowns. However, the Jets actually regressed from 3-13 in 1995 to 1-15 in 1996. Keyshawn would prove to be a vital piece of the best Jets team of the last 20 years; the 1998 incarnation. However, that Jets team also had the services of a rejuvenated Vinny Testaverde, the 2nd ranked defense (in terms of points allowed), and a Hall-of-Fame coach. Throughout his career, Keyshawn has been a steady above-average receiver, who has at times clashed with his coaches.
#1 running back: Lawrence Phillips, drafted by the St. Louis Rams 6th overall
The troubled Lawrence Phillips played just one and a half seasons for the Rams and averaged only 3.3 yards per carry in 1996 and 3.5 per carry in 1997. An absolute bust, Phillips played just 3 seasons in the NFL and played no part in the Rams becoming a great team in 1999.

#1 pick: Orlando Pace, Offensive Tackle, drafted by the St. Louis Rams
Pace has played a pivotal role in the Rams rise from doormat to dynamo. However, it didn't happen overnight. In 1997, the Rams finished 5-11, and in 1998 they finished 4-12. It wasn't until they added Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt in 1999 that the offense spiked.
#1 running back: Warrick Dunn, drafted by the Tampa Bay Bucs 12th overall
Dunn's arrival coincided with the Bucs late 90's rise from obscurity. However, although he enjoyed several solid seasons in Tampa, it was the earlier drafts of defensive players
John Lynch, Warren Sapp, and Derrick Brooks that formed the foundation for the Bucs improvement.

#1 pick: Peyton Manning, Quarterback, drafted by the Indianapolis Colts
A definite keeper. Contrary to what some talking heads will have you believe, Peyton is the best quarterback in the league. He struggled some his first year throwing 28 interceptions, but the Colts have been in the top 5 in points scored in 6 of the last 7 seasons. Manning has made 5 (soon to be 6) Pro Bowls in that span.
#1 running back: Curtis Enis, drafted by the Chicago Bears 5th overall
The epitome of a bust. Enis lasted 3 seasons and rushed for only 1497 yards in his career.

#1 pick: Tim Couch, Quarterback, drafted by the Cleveland Browns
Even though all top picks are drafted by bad teams, Couch had the misfortune of being drafted by an expansion team. After seeing the previous 2 expansion franchises take the league by storm in their first seasons, the NFL made sure it wouldn't happen again. Couch was surrounded by poor talent his first few seasons in Cleveland, but in his 4th season the Browns made the playoffs. However, it was Kelly Holcomb who put up better stats and started the teams playoff game. Couch would play one more inconsistent season in Cleveland and is presently out of football.
#1 running back: Edgerrin James, drafted by the Indianapolis Colts 4th overall
James is a bona-fide Hall-of-Fame candidate who along with Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison has made the Colts a dynamic offensive team for the better part of 7 seasons.

#1 pick: Courtney Brown, Defensive End, drafted by the Cleveland Browns
Another Browns draft pick gone awry. Brown accumulated only 17 sacks in his 5 seasons in Cleveland.

#1 running back: Jamal Lewis, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens 5th overall
Lewis rushed for over 1000 yards in his rookie year when the Ravens won the Super Bowl. However, the strength of that Ravens team was its defense which was historically great. This is not to diminish anything Lewis has done, as he would rush for over 2000 yards in 2003, but he is clearly on the downhill slope of his career. Lewis has rushed for only 638 yards with only a 3.1 average per attempt. When running bakcs go, they go quickly. This should serve as a warning to whichever team happens to draft Reggie Bush not to oveuse him. Lewis is only 26 and is likely finished as a productive runner.

#1 pick: Michael Vick, Quarterback, drafted by the Atlanta Falcons
Vick is one of the most controversial players to rate in NFL history. As a starting quarterback, he has a very gaudy winning percentage, and he is a great runner. However, excluding 2002, his passing has been subpar. Still, he is young (25), has a large upside, and his versatility makes him difficult to defend.
#1 running back: LaDainian Tomlinson, drafted by the San Diego Chargers 5th overall
Tomlinson has been widely regarded as one of the league's best backs since he started playing. I'm not going to dispute that claim. However, the Chargers did not start winning consistently until their quarterback situation improved.

#1 pick: David Carr, Quarterback, drafted by the Houston Texans
Much like Tim Couch, Carr was drafted by an expansion team. With no line to protect him, Carr has been hit more often than a bong at a Cheech and Chong double feature. Carr has talent and their is some offensive talent (Andre Johnson and Domanick Davis) around him. With more blocking, Carr could perhaps develop into a solid NFL quarterback.
#1 running back: William Green, drafted by the Cleveland Browns 16th overall
Another Cleveland Brown bust. Green has never topped the 887 yards he rushed for in his rookie campaign, and his career yards per carry average is a feeble 3.7.

#1 pick: Carson Palmer, Quarterback, drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals
It seems as though the Bangals have hit a homerun with this pick. Teaming with 3 members of the Bengals 2001 draft class (Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, and TJ Houshmandzadeh), Palmer is having a Pro Bowl season and helping the Bengals on their march to the playoffs.

#1 running back: Willis McGahee, drafted by the Buffalo Bills 23rd overall
McGahee had a decent rookie campaign rushing for over 1000 yards with a 4.0 yards per carry average. He has regressed somewhat this year to 3.8 yards per carry, but has again gone over 1000 yards. Two solid but unspectacular seasons for a great college back. It should be noted that McGahee did blow out his knee 4 months before he was drafted in the Fiesta Bowl.

#1 pick: Eli Manning, Quarterback, drafted by the San Diego Chargers
Manning had one of the worst rookie years imaginable, but has turned things around somewhat in his 2nd year. Although Eli will get a lion's share of credit for the Giants' improvment this season, it is the defense that has carried the Giants.

#1 running back: Steven Jackson, drafted by the St. Louis Rams 24th overall
Marshall Faulk's replacement has performed admirably this season running for over 900 yards and catching 40 passes. If Marc Bulger had played the entire season, his numbers would probably be better since teams would have to focus more on the passing game.

#1 pick: Alex Smith, Quarterback, drafted by the San Francisco 49ers
Smith has sucked to put it mildly. A big goose egg in the touchdown column, 9 interceptions, and a pathetic 4.8 yards per pass attempt highlight Smith's rookie season.

#1 running back: Ronnie Brown, drafted by the Miami Dolphins 2nd overall
Brown has had a very good rookie campaing. Currently he has 841 rushing yards and a 4.5 yards per carry average. Nick Saban appears to have this team headed in the right direction, and Brown could play an integral role on the next Dolphins' playoff team.

Of all the #1 overall picks, there have been 2 busts (Couch and Brown), 2 potential Hall-of-Famers (Manning and Pace), 1 Pro Bowl caliber player (Johnson), 2 above average players (Vick and Johnson) and 3 who the jury is still out on (Carr, Manning, and Smith). My money is on Carr and Manning being average and Smith being a bust. Of all the top drafted running backs, there have been 3 busts (Phillips, Enis, and Green), 2 potential Hall-of-Famers (James and Tomlinson), 2 Pro Bowl caliber player (Dunn and Lewis), and 3 who the jury is still out on (McGahee, Jackson, and Brown). I think Jackson is the best of the lot. Interpret the numbers as you wish, but realize that there is a very real chance that the top pick or top running back drafted has a substantial chance of being a bust.

Now let's compare Bush to Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders. Sayers was a silky smooth runner who averaged 5 yards per carry over his career for the Chicago Bears. However, his career only last for 5 seasons from 1965-1969. From 1970-1971, he played in only 4 games because of injury. However, in the 5 seasons he did play, he was electrifying. He rushed foe over 1000 yards twice (in 14 game seasons) and averaged over 5 yards per rush in every year but 1967. For all his rushing exploits, his teams were never anything better than mediocre. Here's the year-by-year record for Sayers 5 year peak.

1965: 9-5
1966: 5-7-2
1967: 7-6-1
1968: 7-7
1969: 1-13

The Bears never made the playoffs in Sayers' 5 peak seasons. If you're curious, they didn't make it in the 2 years when he was hurt either.

Barry Sanders was another smooth runner who had the potential of going the distance every time he touched the ball. Sanders rushed for over 1000 yards in each of his 10 seasons and average 5 yards per carry over his career with the Detroit Lions. Here's the Lions record for Sanders' 10 year career.

1989: 7-9
1990: 6-10
1991: 12-4
1992: 5-11
1993: 10-6
1994: 9-7
1995: 10-6
1996: 5-11
1997: 9-7
1998: 5-11

The Lions made the playoffs in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995. However, aside from 1991 when they reached the NFC Championship game, they never won a playoff game.

What does this tell us? Even a player with the talent of Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders does not guarantee success for a team if they are surrounded with second-rate talent.

What then should the Texans do? They should trade down from the #1 spot and acquire more draft picks. The Texans need to improve both offensively and defensively. They are 28th in points per game and 30th in points allowed per game. Additionally, one of their best players is a running back. No matter how talented Reggie Bush is, would he be a substantial upgrade over Domanick Davis? Not in my opinion. If the Texans draft Reggie Bush, it would be like taking a beat up Pinto with $1000 rims and replacing them with $1500 rims. It's still a Pinto. End of story. The Texans should trade down and rebuild their offense in the trenches; along the offensive line.

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