Don Banks, SI.com
Earlier this month, when Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth made on-field news of the worst kind, doing serious damage to both his reputation and Andre Gurode's face, you couldn't help but wonder whether he had set off a chain of events that would haunt his NFL career for years to come.
I also couldn't suppress a quick secondary thought: Was this the curse of the NFL's 2002 draft class striking yet again, albeit in a slightly different form?
Haynesworth's act of career self-destruction occurred in a year in which so many of his 2002 first-round draft-mates have seen their football fortunes head in a direction -- for the most part a desultory one -- that wasn't foreseeable on draft day, a scant 4Â½ years ago. Almost half of that draft's first-round selections are either wearing different uniforms (with some players even on their third teams) or out of football altogether.
More so than any recent draft, the class of 2002 has become the NFL's version of the Bermuda Triangle, with the resulting wreckage visible to all.
"It was a bad group of players for the most part,'' said one veteran personnel man for an NFC club. "The talent level wasn't there that year. There were some great picks, but you either hit a home run or you swung and missed. Badly. It was a big boom or bust year.''
The examples of 2002's spotty first-round track record are bountiful. In this year alone, as those players entered their fifth NFL season, trades have relocated Joey Harrington (No. 3 overall pick) from Detroit to Miami, Patrick Ramsey (32nd) from Washington to the Jets, Javon Walker (20th) from Green Bay to Denver, Ashley Lelie (19th) from Denver to Atlanta, Donte' Stallworth (13th) from New Orleans to Philadelphia, T.J. Duckett (18th) from Atlanta to Washington and Mike Rumph (27th) from San Francisco to Washington.
And there's more tales of woe. Plenty more. No. 4 pick Mike Williams, the supposedly immovable object/offensive tackle from the University of Texas, was finally given up on by Buffalo after four years. He signed with Jacksonville after being given his release but went on injured reserve with a bad back during the preseason and will not play in 2006. The Browns this preseason also surrendered their fight to make something of their 2002 first-rounder, running back William Green, who was put on IR and later released with an injury settlement.
Some 2002 first-rounders didn't even make it to 2005 without either changing addresses or having their careers ended. Arizona defensive tackle Wendell Bryant (12th), a repeat offender in the league's substance-abuse program, was released in preseason 2005 and is no longer in the NFL. Chicago's Marc Columbo (29th) and Oakland's Phillip Buchanon (17th) and Napoleon Harris (23rd) were all dealt away last year, as was St. Louis' Robert Thomas (31st). Buchanon (Tampa Bay) and Thomas (Oakland) are both with their third teams already.
When you factor in the trouble that Haynesworth (15th) has brought upon himself in Tennessee and the underachievement of players such as Kansas City defensive tackle Ryan Sims (sixth), who doesn't even start for the Chiefs, and Jets defensive end Bryan Thomas (22nd), whose impact has been modest from Day One, 17 of the first round's 32 players have been mentioned above for less than glittering reasons.
The NFL draft is a crapshoot of sorts every year, but 2002's first round might be in a class by itself.
"I think it's obvious looking back that the first round wasn't graded correctly,'' said a veteran AFC club personnel man. "You can't say that draft was devoid of players, because then you look at the second round and you see guys like Clinton Portis, Sheldon Brown, Antwaan Randle El, Deion Branch, LeCharles Bentley and Ryan Denney.
"Some guys who went in the second should have been first-round picks, and some guys in the first didn't belong there. A lot of it was poor scouting, and just poor decision-making. Cleveland took William Green 16th overall, even though the coach there [Butch Davis] had Clinton Portis at Miami. He could have had his own guy at running back, and he took Green instead. How does that happen?''
"How does that happen?" was what everyone was asking on the first day of the 2002 draft, after No. 6 Minnesota failed to turn its selection in on time and wound up being leap-frogged by No. 7 Kansas City. Remember that embarrassing gaffe? The Vikings sure do, because they intended to take Sims, the North Carolina defensive tackle, at No. 6, but instead had to settle for University of Miami offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie at No. 7 after the Chiefs nabbed Sims.
Ah, but who's sorry now? McKinnie has developed into a stalwart left tackle, and received a seven-year, $48.5 million contract extension from the Vikings late this summer. Sims only once in his career has played in 16 games (2003), and he has five career sacks, with no starts and only eight total tackles this season. He's stuck backing up the immortal Ron Edwards at one of the Chiefs' defensive tackle slots.
"That top 10 really did not live up to expectations,'' said the NFC club personnel man. "It was really disappointing. It's interesting to look at that first round and see how many of those guys got traded before they got their second contract. So you had a lot of guys sitting on their rookie deals bellyaching, getting frustrated and mad.
"But with a kid like Sims, you think he loves football, but you can't measure somebody's heart before the draft. Same with Mike Williams. You just don't know how much some of these guys want to play. You can't really fault the Chiefs with Sims. Everybody had him high on their board. He's had spurts where he's been decent playing the run, but nothing like what people thought he would be.''
Harrington, Williams and Sims represent three pretty big misses in the top six of 2002, and of the entire top 10, only Carolina's Julius Peppers (second), McKinnie, Dallas' Roy Williams (eighth), Jacksonville's John Henderson (ninth) and Cincinnati's Levi Jones (10th) have performed at a fairly high level from the outset of their careers.
As for No. 1 pick David Carr of Houston, the jury is still out on the ex-Fresno State quarterback, although he's in the midst of his finest season. San Diego's No. 5 pick, Quentin Jammer, has definitely improved after early career struggles, but he is far from living up to his lofty pre-draft billing.
"Even in the top five and top 10, there were more questions that year than a lot of years,'' Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said. "Normally, a month before the draft you can pretty much figure out the top 10. You couldn't do that that year, because there weren't many slam dunks. There was a lot of speculation. The draft process is about having a combination of the right feel on players and having some fortune on your side.''
Hurney and the Panthers had that in 2002. They identified Peppers early on as their choice with the second pick, and never wavered. While Carr, Harrington and Mike Williams went off the board around them, at 1, 3 and 4, Carolina got one of the few 2002 picks who immediately made an impact in the NFL. Peppers has played in two Pro Bowls and has been a huge cog in the success of the Panthers' defensive line, one of the best in the NFL.
"We always tell the story, [head coach] John [Fox] and I, about how it was the first major decision we made as a new group in Carolina,'' said Hurney, who joined the Panthers in early 2002, as did Fox. "We felt very strongly about Peppers, and we went around the room and asked for a show of hands. And everyone was on the same page, that he was the guy. For the team we planned to build in John's first year, with the position Julius played, defensive end, it was a combination of having a dominant player who fit our defense and our philosophy well.''
There were other excellent choices made in 2002 other than Carolina taking Peppers. Baltimore selected 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed at No. 24, which was the steal of the first round. "If they did that draft over, he'd probably go No. 2 overall now,'' said the NFC club personnel man.
Roy Williams has made three Pro Bowls, while Henderson and Haynesworth, collegiate teammates at Tennessee, were contributors at defensive tackle early on in their careers. The Colts nabbed pass rusher and three-time Pro Bowl talent Dwight Freeney at No. 11 -- which was a highly debated move at that time, much like the Bengals taking Jones at No. 10 -- and Jeremy Shockey made the Giants look pretty savvy right away at No. 14.
To lesser degrees, Philly's Lito Sheppard (26th, with a Pro Bowl berth to his credit), Pittsburgh's Kendall Simmons (30th), New Orleans' Charles Grant (25th), Seattle's Jerramy Stevens (28th) and New England's Daniel Graham (21st) have been productive pros for the most part, albeit never spectacular.
But only one fourth of the players taken in that first round (eight of 32) have made the Pro Bowl in the past four years, with only four making multiple trips to Hawaii. And the high-profile flameouts of Harrington and Mike Williams serve as well-chronicled reminders of 2002's niche in the Draft Bust Hall of Fame.
"It was one of those drafts where there weren't a lot of surprises, or movement within the first round,'' said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, who found Reed sitting there for the Ravens at No. 24. "Teams stayed put. Everybody did their work and got married to a player. That's the way it played out. Napoleon Harris was the last guy we had rated in our top 15, but he went off the board right before us at No. 23, to Oakland. In the previous six years we had always been fortunate enough to get one of our top 15 guys with our pick. But not that year, and it still worked out.''
The team that arguably did the best in the NFL's roughest draft in recent memory? That would be Tampa Bay, which didn't have a pick until the third round. The Bucs that February had sent their 2002 first- and second-round selections to Oakland -- along with two more future picks and $8 million -- in compensation for the hiring of head coach Jon Gruden away from the Raiders.
The Bucs, of course, won the Super Bowl in Gruden's first season on the job, proving at least one thing. In 2002, the fewer picks you had, the better your chances of success.