ESPN is in full all-time draft recap mode these days. The Four-Letter Word of Sports has listed its all-time best and worst draft classes and this week they dabbled in who was the biggest draft bust in the history of the NFL’s 32 teams.
When it came to determining the Minnesota Vikings worst draft-day gaffe in the franchise history, wide receiver Troy Williamson was selected. It’s hard to argue against Williamson, but we propose a head-to-head matchup, make the case and let you be the judge as to who was the bigger draft bust – Williamson or Dimitrius Underwood.
THE CASE FOR WILLIAMSON
In many ways, you had to feel a little sorry for Williamson. He was selected with the seventh pick of the 2005 draft – a pick obtained by the Vikings from the Oakland Raiders in exchange for beloved (and yet hated by some) local hero Randy Moss. In seven seasons with Minnesota, Moss had redefined what it was to be a wide receiver in the National Football League.
He was gone and the natural inclination was that the absolute worst thing the Vikings could do was take a wide receiver to be the immediate replacement for Moss. As Vikings fans have learned over the last decade-plus, what Moss did in purple and gold can’t be replaced. At some point, there may come a player who draws comparisons, but Moss’ legacy is set in granite.
Not only was the wide receiver position not the route to go with the pick obtained in the Moss trade – linebacker was also a need and DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman Thomas Davis and Derrick Johnson were all still on the board and reverse historians will claim Aaron Rodgers was the play, despite Daunte Culpepper a year away from his career-altering injury – but Williamson was so incredibly not the player to take with that pick.
There was only one true star college player at wide receiver in the 2005 draft and he was gone before the Vikings were on the clock – Michigan’s Braylon Edwards. He went to the Browns at No. 3. The other consensus top picks that year were Mike Williams of USC, Mark Clayton of Oklahoma, Matt Jones of Arkansas and Williamson of South Carolina.
Minnesota fans were familiar with Lou Holtz, who coached Williamson and ironically announced his retirement during Williamson’s final season with the Gamecocks.
The problem with the scouting report on Williamson was that, at a time when the Vikings were looking for a game-changer, Williamson had speed, but not a well-rounded game.
At the time, Pro Football Weekly published the definitive draft guide and analyst Nolan Nawrocki had this to say about Williamson:
“Has the traits to be an impact player at the next level, but the bust rate on first-round receivers is second only to quarterbacks, and football intelligence is a big part of that equation. Williamson has a long way to go before he is ready. Outstanding vertical speed should still make him a first-round selection.”
The Vikings reached for Williamson at No. 7 and got burned in epic proportions. In three seasons and 39 games with the Vikings, Williamson was targeted 167 times, catching just 79 passes for 1,067 yards and three touchdowns. He was gone from Minnesota after just three seasons and was out of the league two years later after catching eight passes for 64 yards and one TD in 10 games with Jacksonville.
THE CASE FOR UNDERWOOD
Perhaps never has there been a stranger draft saga than that of Underwood, and it was the timing of his drafting that was so critical to the Vikings franchise.
In 1999, the Vikings were coming off a 15-1 season and had all the pieces in place to make a Super Bowl run. The team traded backup QB Brad Johnson to the Redskins for the 11th pick in the draft to go along with their own pick at No. 29. The conventional predraft wisdom was that the Vikings had everything they needed on offense and a couple of impact defensive players would put them over the top and bring the elusive Lombardi Trophy to Minnesota. But Dennis Green had other ideas, using the 11th pick to draft Culpepper and keeping the 29th pick to address defense.
The problem with the Underwood selection was that there were clear warning signs from his coaches at Michigan State stating that Underwood was unstable and that the rigors of the NFL may be too much for him to handle.
Pro Football Weekly’s Joel Buchsbaum summed up Underwood’s predraft status by writing, “Underwood can be an all-workout player and an All-America looker, but, if he wants to realize his potential on the football field, he must learn what it takes to become a big-time player – playing hard, playing through pain, not worrying about how pretty you look, gutting things out and doing what is best for your team.”
The Vikings either were unaware or ignored the issues. Underwood signed a five-year, $5.3 million deal Aug. 1 – in time for the start of training camp. He attended practice one day and was last seen in Minnesota wearing military fatigues and wandering around Mankato.
On Aug. 2 as practice began, Underwood was nowhere to be found. He wouldn’t surface until days later, claiming to have a problem separating his faith and playing NFL football. The Vikings released him later in the month.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Underwood was claimed by the Miami Dolphins, but he attempted suicide in September 1999 by cutting his throat with two steak knives.
He would later sign with Dallas (and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer), but once again attempted suicide – this time running in front of traffic twice on a busy freeway stating he “wanted to go to Jesus.”
He would finish his career playing just 19 games for the Cowboys and recording 21 tackles.
The question as to who was the bigger bust will be the subject of debate. Williamson had big shoes to fill that proved to be too big, yet he was thrown into action and brought adventure to the routine pass play. The Vikings went so far as to have him wear goggles with blinking lights on the periphery of his vision to get him to concentrate on the ball in flight. It failed. Underwood was drafted at a time when the Vikings arguably had the best personnel the franchise had assembled since the late 1960s and early 1970s. One or two key players on defense could have helped make the Vikings a short-term dynasty in the NFL, but Underwood came up empty and the Vikings never reached the same pinnacle as they did in 1998.
So who gets the vote? A case can be made for either Williamson or Underwood and you probably couldn’t go wrong with either one.