Three running backs were selected in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft: One is a borderline Hall of Famer (former All-Pro Eddie George), one is best known for having a deeply announcer-unfriendly name (Tshimanga Biakabutuka) and the third is… Lawrence Phillips. The first of the three selected, Phillips gained much more notoriety for his off-field problems than his on-field performance and after allegedly murdering a cellmate, he allegedly committed suicide in prison early this year.
This is the precariousness of the NFL Draft: You never know whether you’ll get a franchise cornerstone, a guy who starts a total of 31 games before getting into Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits franchising or Lawrence Phillips.
With the 2017 Draft kicking off tomorrow night, here are the questions that spell the difference between glory and unemployment for GMs… with bonus ulcers because the answers shift from player to player. (And yes, problematic 2014 first-rounder Johnny Manziel manages to involve himself in every dilemma.)
1. Do Measurements Matter?
Drew Brees. Russell Wilson. Doug Flutie. All were deemed short for pro quarterbacks, all plummeted in the draft, all won a Super Bowl (or its Canadian equivalent—hey, Flutie went 38-28 in the NFL too!). So this fixation on height is excessive, right? (6-foot Johnny Football sure thinks so.) And can we relax about hand size while we’re at it?
Flipside: What do QBs Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton have in common? They’ve made multiple Pro Bowls and are listed at either 6’4” or 6’5”. That’s right: The NFL has effectively narrowed its ideal QB height down to a two-inch range. (And yes, there have been attempts to go larger: Mark McGwire’s 6’8” “little” brother Dan was a first-rounder who threw a total of two career touchdown passes.) Make sure your children grow accordingly.
2. Are We Being Mamula-ed?
Cited as the prototypical “workout warrior,” Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula’s superb Scouting Combine performance vaulted him from relative obscurity to the no. 7 pick in the 1995 draft. (He even dominated with his brain, allegedly scoring 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test.) When his career lasted only five years while two front-seven defenders drafted later—Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks—made the Hall of Fame, he came to embody the uselessness of workouts as a predictor of future NFL success. Johnny Manziel further embodied this trend when on his Pro Day he successfully outplayed a broom.
Flipside: You know who else had an unexpectedly great NFL combine? Two-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. And the Houston Texans feel pretty good about picking him, because it seems that in the NFL being superhumanly athletic can sometimes be useful.
3. How Hard Can Your Players Party?
As Johnny Football has proved over the past two years, you simply can’t make it in the NFL if you’re not 100 percent committed to football. This is particularly true at quarterback, the most demanding position in the sport.
Flipside: Counting playoffs, Brett Favre managed to start an insane 321 consecutive games while living in his own private Animal House, complete with a drinking problem, a Vicodin addiction, and, oh yes, the surprise cameos by Little Brett. His behavior stopped many teams from drafting him (he dropped to the second round) and the Falcons from sticking with him (they dumped him after a season), but didn’t prevent him from racking up three MVPs and a Super Bowl with Green Bay.
4. Why Is He Falling?
In 2005, Aaron Rodgers unexpectedly dropped all the way to no. 24 in the draft. And with every spot he tumbled it grew easier to buy into scout criticisms he was “robotic” and “a little short” and “flustered easily.” Forced to sit three years behind Favre in Green Bay, he ultimately had his revenge by winning the MVP twice and a Super Bowl (plus dating Olivia Munn and starring in a delightful Key & Peele sketch for good measure). And suddenly the Raiders drafting Fabian Washington didn’t seem so clever.
Flipside: In 2007, another quarterback began to unexpectedly drop, plummeting all the way to Cleveland at no. 22. This young man was named Brady Quinn and he did not win a Super Bowl or MVP (or manage to hold down a starting job for an entire season). Fun fact: The Browns wound up with the no. 22 choice again in 2014, once more picked a big-name quarterback… and so far Johnny Football has worked out pretty much the same, only with more Instagram coverage.
5. Is This Kid Bad or Evil?
Coming in to the NFL, wide receiver Randy Moss had already pled guilty to battery, violated probation for marijuana, and had a domestic battery charge filed against him (subsequently dropped). Once drafted, however, he proved to be a model citizen and led a controversy-free career. (Cough.) OK, there were occasional arrests and general weirdness—remember the Green Bay “mooning”?—but he grew into a moderately law-abiding guy off the field and remained a terrifying one on it, as those eight seasons with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns attest.
Flipside: Running back Lawrence Phillips was involved in horrifying incidents in college (dragging his ex-girlfriend down three flights of stairs), in the NFL (he pled no contest to striking a woman at a nightclub) and after the NFL (more domestic violence, plus he allegedly drove his car into a group of teens) prior to his tragic end. Most depressing bit of trivia? Three different NFL teams gave him a chance.
And suddenly Johnny Manziel seems like a model citizen. Sort of.