They say you can't really interpret how good a draft is until three or more years out. If recent draft history has told anything, perhaps the smartest thing the Vikings have done in recent years was to finalize the trade with the Kansas City Chiefs that brought Jared Allen to Minnesota. Of all the teams in the NFL, there isn't one that isn't looking to add another pass-rushing defensive end. They're around, but they're hard to come by in the first round – a sad fact Vikings fans know all too well.
In 2002, it was a banner year for the NFL, especially as it related to defensive linemen. Six of the top 15 picks in that draft were defensive linemen, including Albert Hayneworth, John Henderson and Ryan Sims, a future bust the Vikings tried to draft before opting for Bryant McKinnie. But two of them were defensive ends – Julius Peppers with the second pick by the Carolina Panthers and Dwight Freeney with the 11th pick by the Colts. Both would dominate for years to come and are still doing it.
But in the last five years in which a player's draft status can be honestly evaluated (2003-07), teams, including the Vikings, have tried to recapture that sort of draft-weekend magic. It hasn't come easily – not by a long shot.
Freeney, who many had ranked as a lower prospect than where the Colts took him, is the exception to the rule. In the five evaluation years since, 19 defensive ends have been taken in the first round – and many don't consider linebacker Terrell Suggs (the 10th pick in the 2003 draft by the Ravens) to be a true defensive end. In that case, there have been 18 defensive ends taken in the first round and, of those, only two have played in the Pro Bowl and one of those is because he was the first overall pick in the draft and had can't-miss talent.
Sadly, the same has been said about a lot of defensive ends and not much has come of it. In 2003, there was a three-pick run on defensive ends in the middle of the first round. New England took Ty Warren at No. 13, Chicago took Michael Haynes at No. 14 and the Eagles took Jerome McDougle at No. 15. It was like the Mt. Rushmore of busts. That only got worse when the Cardinals took Calvin Pace at No. 18 and the Raiders took Tyler Brayton at No. 32. The Raiders were in the Super Bowl only months earlier. That seems like forever.
In 2004, Will Smith, one of the two defensive ends named to a Pro Bowl, was taken with the 18th pick by the Saints. The Vikings, hoping for similar production, took Kenechi Udeze with the 20th pick and Houston hoped Jason Babin at No. 27 would be the answer they needed at pass rusher. Neither team got what they wished.
The next year, 2005, was even worse. Only two defensive ends were taken in the first round. The Vikings were at it again, this time taking Erasmus James with the 18th pick. Dallas quickly followed with Marcus Spears at No. 20. Both have been remembered much or more for off-field incidents than anything they accomplished in their playing careers. A true low point for the position.
Perhaps as a result of Babin being so pedestrian in the 2004 draft, when the Texans had the first pick in 2006, they used it on Mario Williams. After a rocky start, Super Mario has more than lived up to expectations and is one of the most dominant defensive ends in the league. However, three other teams tried and failed to draft a difference-maker – Cleveland taking Kamerion Wimbley with the 13th pick, Kansas City taking Tamba Hali with the 20th pick and the Giants taking Mathias Kiwanuka with the 32nd pick.
Players need three years of experience in the league before general managers contend you can make an accurate career assessment. Of the four DEs taken in 2007, the only one who had a successful start to his career has been Anthony Spencer, but he plays outside linebacker. Fourth overall pick Gaines Adams died after the Bears' season ended and neither of the next two defensive ends taken – Jamaal Anderson by the Falcons at No. 8 and Jarvis Moss of the Broncos at No. 16 – are even with their original teams anymore. They've been cast off.
Those same draft gurus that say it takes three years to fully evaluate a player may have a new crop to add to the list next year. Second overall pick Chris Long hasn't set the world on fire in St. Louis and Vernon Gholston (No. 6, New York Jets) has been called a bust since his first training camp. Derrick Harvey (No. 8, Jacksonville) is the main the reason the Jags signed Aaron Kampman in free agency. The other DE taken – Lawrence Jackson of the Seahawks at No. 28 – has been a disappointment.
As we near the 2010 draft, there will be a lot of talk about the varying can't-miss first-round prospects and, invariably, there will be three or four defensive ends that could go in the first round. Players like Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech, Jason Pierre-Paul of South Florida, Brandon Graham of Michigan and Jerry Hughes of TCU are all expected to have their names mentioned prominently during the first round. When the talk begins, their virtues will be laid out before fans with the accompanying 30 seconds of highlight video. The analysts will say that this could be a huge impact player and the word "upside" is sure to be thrown in for the sake of authenticity.
But, if recent history is any guide, when the bust percentage borders on 80 percent over the last five assessment years, it might be wise for those teams that have first-round picks to look elsewhere. Those percentages are just too frightening – even first-round quarterbacks are about 50-50 to become something.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
DE draft history makes Allen trade better yet
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