Baltimore's football team lacked an identity when it entered the 1996 draft. But it did possess two first-round picks.
Heck, it barely had a name. Ray Lewis often tells the story of asking Ozzie Newsome "what are we called?" when Newsome called to tell him that he was selected with the 26th pick in the draft. The Ravens name had been selected in the final week of March, less than a month before the draft. The former Browns left their franchise history behind in Cleveland when they moved. With one winning season in the previous six years, starting over had its benefits, but this was ridiculous: a non-expansion expansion team named after poetry, with journeymen coaching and quarterbacking and no-names everywhere else.
But they possessed the fourth pick in the draft, plus the 26th as a result of a 1995 trade with the 49ers. The Ravens selected Jonathan Ogden fourth, Lewis 26th. Two of the best players ever at their positions. A pair of Hall of Famers. The Ravens won the Super Bowl five years later. Along the way, Lewis and Ogden gave them a new identity: bruising block-and-tackle rivals to the Steelers, the defense-first team of our generation.
The Browns and Rams are hoping for the same kind of transformation in May. Each team has been skittering along for years, the Browns a laughingstock, the Rams more of a non-entity. Each team has two first-round picks that can turn into two All Pros, two blue chips, two chances to redefine franchise history.
Unfortunately, things don't often work out the way they did for the 1996 Ravens.
A very average average
From the start of the free agency era in 1993 through 2009, 61 teams have selected two or more players in the first round. Those teams won an average of 7.0 games in the season before their double-dip draft. They won 8.0 wins in seasons when their first rounders were rookies, then 7.4, 7.9, 8.0 and 8.0 the next four years. In other words, the average team with two first-round picks is an average team that stays average for the next five years.
All those eight-win results are strong evidence that the 61-team data set is too broad. We are essentially measuring a cross-section of the NFL -- great teams that traded for an extra pick, average teams that leapt back into the end of the first round for a coveted player, perennial doormats, even a first-year expansion team -- so of course we get a .500 result.
So let's look at this problem another way. Of the 61 teams, 18 went on to become a "back-to-back powerhouse" within five years of drafting two first rounders. Back-to-back powerhouse is defined very broadly: two straight 10-win seasons. That's a good basic sign that a team drafted well recently: It stays in the playoff picture two years in a row.
Eighteen out of 61, just below one-third, sounds pretty good. There is only one problem: eight of those teams had won 10 or more games in the year before they drafted the two first rounders. In other words, nearly half of our "powerhouses" were already powerhouses, or close to it, when they double dipped. (Think of the 2004 Patriots drafting Vince Wilfork and Ben Watson in the first round, for example). That leaves just 10 teams that improved markedly within five years after a double first-round draft.
More alarming: 10 other teams went on to become "perennial weaklings," as defined by five or fewer wins in back-to-back seasons. So a bad team is about as likely to stay bad as to rise to the playoffs in the years after making a substantial first-round draft investment. The most likely event of all, however, is for the team to bob back and forth around .500 like any other team would, despite the addition of two collegiate superstars.
That's a long way of saying that for every team that drafts an Ogden-Lewis combination, some other will draft Troy Williamson and Erasmus James, like the 2005 Vikings. Still another team will draft Calvin Pace and Bryant Johnson, like the 2003 Cardinals: a very good player and a semi-serviceable one, but two drops in a bucket for a franchise that needs the kind of help two players cannot provide. Or a team can draft a Hall of Famer and a bust who ushered in our modern era of snippy pre-draft opinion-slinging, like the 1994 Colts (Marshall Faulk and Trev Alberts; modern draft coverage owes a lot to the Mel Kiper-Bill Tobin feud over Alberts 20 years ago.)
All-Time Double Dips
Spring is a time for hope, so let's give Rams and Browns fans something to get excited about. While the percentages are not encouraging, history provides many examples of teams like the 1996 Ravens who grabbed a pair of impact players and ushered in a new era of glory. Let's count down a list of the biggest double first-round success stories, from the birth of the draft through a few years ago. Not all of the 1-2 punchers on the list reached a championship game, but they all made their mark, and they provide hope that one inspired Thursday in May can reshape a decade of Sundays for the better.
Honorable Mention, 2000 New York Jets: Shaun Ellis, John Abraham, Chad Pennington and Anthony Becht
Jets mathematics is like non-Euclidean geometry: normal rules do not apply. Only the Jets can accumulate four first-round picks, acquire four very good NFL players, keep all of them for a significant period of time … yet have nothing measurable to show for it.
Bill Parcells, having left the sidelines for the front office, ran this particular draft. He extracted two first-round picks from the Buccaneers in exchange for Keyshawn Johnson and got another from the Patriots to lubricate Bill Belichick's move from New York to New England. Ellis recorded 72.5 sacks in 11 Jets seasons. John Abraham is coming off a Pro Bowl season for the Cardinals; he played six productive years for the Jets, then got dealt in a trade that brought Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold. Pennington may still have another Comeback Player of the Year award in him. Becht was a productive, reliable tight end; the team considered drafting Laveranues Coles instead of Becht, decided to wait (the war room argument is the stuff of Parcells legend), then got Coles in the third round anyway.
What a great draft. If Pennington had been healthy more often, something besides a few on-and-off 10-6 seasons might have come from it. More likely, though, the team needed leadership, and with Parcells ready to move on after the draft, the leader they needed was the one they had been forced to trade away.
10. Chicago Bears, 1939: Sid Luckman and Bill Osmanski
The argument could be made that this draft belongs in the top five. Luckman, you probably know, is a Hall of Famer and one of the fathers of the modern passing game; he can be called the first true quarterback without much exaggeration. Osmanski was named to the NFL's All Decade Team for the 1940s. He was a two-way player who led the league in rushing as a rookie; World War II probably kept him from the Hall of Fame. Luckman and Osmanski both played important roles on the 1940 and 1941 NFL championship teams.
But the NFL was very young in 1939, and the draft was still younger; the first draft took place in 1936. The Bears were kings of the league, and the draft was designed specifically to keep them from using their wealth and reputation to stack their roster every year with college superstars who had never heard of the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Even after the draft began, George Halas found the weaknesses in its system. First, few teams had anything close to his scouting resources. Second, weak-and-destitute NFL teams often discovered they could not sign their top picks -- NFL gigs were not prestigious or well paying. So the Bears traded their well-known veterans to teams that needed a gate draw in exchange for draft picks.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were always nearly broke, and Eggs Manske was a well-known Bears end famous for long touchdowns and not wearing a helmet (he was one of the last professional players to do so). The Pirates traded the second pick in the draft for Eggs. The Bears drafted Luckman. Eggs played six games for the Pirates, was released, then re-signed with the Bears. The Eggs-for-Luckman trade is one of the worst in professional sports history, but you must understand how lopsided the power structure of the NFL was.
So this great first round was really an example of business as usual in the 1930s NFL, where business looked very unusual to modern eyes.
9. Dallas Cowboys, 1991: Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper and Kelvin Pritchett
The Herschel Walker trade was actually a labyrinth of trades. If you told me the Cowboys had a sixth-round pick this year that was still somehow tied to the team's series of deals 23 years ago, I would double check before I doubted you. The Vikings gave the Cowboys so many players and picks for the enigmatic running back that the Cowboys spent the next two years bundling and shipping their surplus selections this way and that in search of the top items on Jimmy Johnson's wish list.
In 1991, the Cowboys were so flush with extra picks that they could trade first and second-rounders to the Patriots for the No. 1 selection in the entire draft, then pick 12th overall, then play tag with the Redskins for a third first-round pick, then pick a player specifically so they could trade him to the Lions for several more picks.
Confused? The Cowboys were one step ahead of the NFL back then, and it was about to show in the standings. Maryland was the top prospect (and selection) in the draft, and while he reached just one Pro Bowl, he was an indispensable player in the middle of the Cowboys defense. Alvin Harper, taken 12th, was another important cog in the Cowboy machine. A one-dimensional vertical threat, he was useless to teams that later overpaid for him on free agency but produced a big play per game like clockwork for the Cowboys. His stat line is filled with one-catch, 36 yard games; the bomb was punishment for defenses that focused too hard on Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, and the Cowboys rarely needed much more.
Pritchett, a solid defensive end for the Lions and Jaguars for more than a decade, was only on the Cowboys for a few moments. The team had an agreement in place to trade him for three later selections. One of those selections became Dixon Edwards, a starting linebacker for two of the three 1990s Cowboys Super Bowl teams (and a regular sub for the first of the three).
This draft is easy to overlook because the Cowboys blew up the board every year under Johnson. In 1989, they drafted Troy Aikman, Mark Stepnoski, Daryl Johnston, Steve Wisniewski (who starred for the Raiders) and Tony Tolbert: one of the best drafts ever. The 1990 draft brought Emmitt Smith and some role players; when your off year provides a Hall of Famer, your "on" years are pretty special. The 1992 draft brought starters Kevin Smith and Robert Jones in another first-round double dip, then Darren Woodson (a five-time Pro Bowler) and a wide receiver the team had no room for in the second round. The receiver was Jimmy Smith, one of the greatest players in Jaguars history.
The 1991 draft was the tipping point that turned the Cowboys potential into production. The team probably would have won a Super Bowl or two without Maryland, Harper and Edwards, but they would not have won three.
8. San Francisco 49ers, 2007: Patrick Willis and Joe Staley
This is a miniature version of the Lewis-Ogden draft. Like the Ravens, the Niners got a pair of very good players and tone setters for the franchise: The era of running and defense in San Francisco begins with this draft. Like the Ravens, the Niners still had a lot of other work to do, and it took several seasons for the fruits of this draft to appear in a postseason.
The 49ers did not enter the 2007 with two selections. They took Willis with their own pick, the 11th overall, then traded their 2008 first rounder to the Patriots to move up for Staley. The 49ers then traded back into the 2008 first round when the Colts wanted Tony Ugoh in the second round. All the wheeling and dealing paid off in the form of two Pro Bowlers and an eventual rise to the NFL's top tier.
7. Green Bay Packers, 1957: Ron Kramer and Paul Hornung
From 1947 through 1958, the NFL rewarded a bonus pick at the top of the first round to the winner of a pre-draft lottery. This was not an NBA lottery system, mind you: the pick came in addition to the team's regular pick and had nothing to do with the standings. Teams that won the pick were eliminated from future lotteries, but can you imagine the chaos of holding an all-in lottery at the beginning of a modern draft? Sorry, Texans fans, but the Seahawks won a drawing, so they get Jadeveon Clowney.
Some teams treated this windfall with a shockingly cavalier attitude. The Steelers won the lottery in 1956 and selected quarterback Gary Glick of Colorado State, sight unseen, based on some press clippings and a vouch-for by a regional coach. Legend has it they figured a "free money" draft selection was worth a wild gamble. When they finally scrounged up Colorado State game film, they realized what a small-school outpost it was. Dogs ran around the field during timeouts. Glick moved to defensive back and had a pretty good career, but the story illustrates just how primitive the NFL was in 1957.
The Packers won the lottery in 1957 and selected Hornung, the Golden Boy, a Heisman winning Notre Dame quarterback. They then used the fourth pick overall on Kramer, a multi-sport, multi-position superstar at Michigan.
Hornung and Kramer were similar in that they were all-purpose college players who entered the NFL at the dawn of modern specialization. Kramer played two ways, kicked and punted at Michigan (he also played basketball) but became a pro tight end. Hornung was a triple-threat quarterback who became a halfback and kicker. Both were important members of the Vince Lombardi Packers, though they were surrounded by even better teammates.
But Lombardi would arrive later, and the Packers were not THE PACKERS yet when they drafted Kramer and Hornung. Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg came aboard the year before, Ray Nitchke and Jim Taylor a year later, Lombardi in 1959, the first championship in 1961. As with the 1991 Cowboys and many of the teams to come on this list, the double first-round draft was a major component in a team's rise, perhaps even a catalyst, but rarely an end in itself. But for the Packers and Steelers of the late 1950s, the difference between the Team of a Decade and the Team that Waited Another Decade was using a lottery pick on a Heisman winner instead of some kid you hear of via word of mouth.
6. New England Patriots, 1977: Raymond Clayborn and Stanley Morgan
Raymond Clayborn was so good in high school that college recruiters could not find him. His high school coaches would move him from quarterback to running back to receiver to defensive back, wherever there was a need or a chance to exploit an opponent's weakness. A University of Texas scout finally pinned him down and brought him to Austin, where the pattern continued. Clayborn played running back until Earl Campbell arrived, then transferred to receiver for a spring, then settled at cornerback when the Longhorns needed depth at that position against some pass-heavy (for 1975) opponents.
So think of Clayborn as a Richard Sherman-type who arrived in the NFL understandably unpolished. But unlike Sherman, Clayborn was well-known enough to be the 16th player taken in the draft. Clayborn teamed with Michael Haynes, then Ronnie Lippett, to form some of the great cornerback tandems of the 1970s and '80s.
Morgan was also a college running back. He was the first Volunteers rusher ever to have a 200-yard game, and he caught just 48 career passes in an option-heavy offense. The Patriots drafted him 25th overall and moved him directly to wide receiver, where Morgan began a streak of seasons averaging more than 20 yards per catch that began in 1977 and continued through 1982. Morgan is a frequent flyer on all-time underrated player lists, one of many great receivers from the dawn of the modern passing era who missed out on both the myth-making of the 1960s-70s burners and the gaudy stats of receivers from the 1980s to the present.
Morgan and Clayborn helped the Patriots shake the perennial doormat status they held from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s and were veteran leaders on the 1985 AFC Championship team. Not bad for a pair of converted running backs.
5. Los Angeles Rams, 1962: Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen
The Rams selected Roman Gabriel second in the NFL draft, having acquired the pick from the Giants for star receiver/punter Del Shofner; the Giants got the pick the previous year by sending the expansion Vikings quarterback George Shaw. The Oakland Raiders selected Gabriel first overall in the AFL draft. The king-sized college superstar from North Carolina State had to choose between one of the NFL's glamor teams in one of the world's most exciting cities or a barely-solvent unknown team on the wrong side of the bay in an upstart league.
The AFL's Foolish Club knew this just wasn't gonna happen for them, so they sent ultra-rich Dallas Texans owner Lamar Hunt into action to get Gabriel under contract for some AFL team, any AFL team. (In case you are wondering: Al Davis was still a Chargers coach at this point. The Raiders were owned by a consortium of half-interested businessmen and existed simply so West Coast trips to play the Chargers were financially viable). The Rams got word of Hunt's involvement and sequestered Gabriel and his advisor (his college coach) in the Sir Walter Raleigh hotel. Rams executive Elroy Hirsch intercepted Hunt's phone calls and filibustered, never quite relaying to Gabriel that the Texans were offering $100,000. So Gabriel signed for $15,000 per year for three years, with no guarantees.
Olsen also received both AFL and NFL offers, but he played his cards better. A small school (Utah State, smaller then than now) superstar who solidified his pro standing by dominating big-school kids at the college all-star games, Olsen signed with the Rams for $50,000 for two years -- more than the quarterback drafted by the same team one spot ahead of him! The moral of the story is to field your own phone calls.
Gabriel needed a few seasons to crack the starting lineup but became a regular Pro Bowl participant late in the 1960s. Olsen went on to become Father Murphy, finding time in between for 14 Pro Bowls, the Hall of Fame and charter membership in the Fearsome Foursome. The Rams, innovative and thrilling in the 1950s, won just 11 games in four years from 1959 to 1962. By the end of the decade, they were winning 11 games per year under head coach George Allen.
4. Cleveland Browns, 1978: Clay Matthews and Ozzie Newsome
Mike Phipps was the third overall pick in the 1970 draft, the year Terry Bradshaw was selected first overall. He was terrible for seven full seasons with the Browns, gaining and losing starting jobs before a miserable four-touchdown, 19-inteception season in 1975. He barely played for the Browns in 1976, with Brian Sipe taking over and proving that this whole "quarterback" thing wasn't all that hard, but the Bears saw something they liked and traded their first round pick for a 29-year-old who had won seven games in his previous three seasons.
Think of it as the Trent Richardson deal of the disco era.
The Browns then slid down three more slots from the Bears' 20th position because the Rams wanted Elvis Peacock, an Oklahoma star running back who went on to play three middling seasons. The Browns finally selected Newsome 23rd overall. Newsome has been with that incarnation of the Browns franchise ever since, first as a Hall of Fame tight end, then as the Ravens general manager.
With their own pick, the 12th overall, the Browns selected Clay Matthews Jr., who would play for the team for 16 years and spawn various offspring. The Browns had fallen on hard times in the mid-1970s, but Newsome and Matthews joined Sipe to form the spine of the Cardiac Kids, then became part of the nucleus of Marty Schottenheimer's star-crossed 1980s teams. Browns fans should take heart that the last time they received a ludicrous windfall to unload an obvious draft mistake, they came away with a pair of legends.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995: Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks
The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl and grabbed a pair of Hall of Famers by not buying into all of the pre-draft chatter 19 years ago. Sapp was considered one of the best defensive line prospects of the decade, but a New York Times report just weeks before the draft that he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana threw a monkey wrench into the entire draft board. The NFL quickly contradicted the report by removing cocaine from the equation, but doubts certainly lingered for teams who passed on Sapp, including the Eagles, who drafted the legendary Mike Mamula, and Jets, who opted for blocking tight end Kyle Brady. The Buccaneers took Sapp 12th overall, insured themselves by making his signing bonuses contingent on drug tests, and walked away with an immediate starter and future seven-time Pro Bowler.
But the Bucs weren't finished. Brooks was one of the top defenders in the nation as a junior but opted to return to Florida State for his senior season. He got caught in the dragnet of your typical NCAA player-agent scandal, missed two games and did not have a standout season when he returned. Brooks was also considered too small to play linebacker at 6-foot, 235; the Tampa-2 was not invented yet (Brooks helped introduce it), and teams were still adjusting to just how often linebackers would have to cover receivers in space as passing games evolved. When the Bucs saw Brooks available late in the first round, they sent their two second-round picks to the Cowboys to get him. The Buccaneers got a perennial Pro Bowler. The Cowboys got Sherman Williams and Shane Hannah.
2. Baltimore Ravens, 1996: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis
1. Chicago Bears, 1965: Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and Steve DeLong
How did the Bears wind up with the third, fourth and sixth picks in the 1965 NFL draft? First, remember the NFL was a 14-team league; trading up from the second round might mean trading from 16th to sixth, which is not a blockbuster like trading from 34th to sixth. Second, remember the AFL was still a direct competitor, as in the Roman Gabriel saga, and the top of the draft was the AFL's favorite battleground. The NFL had to compete for top college talent, and if a team was low on cash or did not think it could sweet-talk a top prospect (who might well be sequestered in a hotel, handcuffed to the bedpost), it was better off trading the pick to a team with more resources.
The Steelers traded their first-round pick in 1965 for second and fourth rounders in 1964. The Redskins acquired a pair of veterans in exchange for their first rounder. The Bears waited for the Giants and 49ers to draft a pair of fine running backs (Tucker Frederickson and Ken Willard) and then calmly selected two Hall of Famers and icons of football history. After letting the Cowboys select Craig Morton, they added Outland Trophy winner DeLong, the best defensive lineman in the nation.
Keeping these players was much harder than drafting them. Butkus grew up in Chicago and went to University of Illinois, so the Bears were an easy choice for him over the AFL team that drafted him: the scuffling, brown-clad Broncos. Sayers was a harder sell. Lamar Hunt's Chiefs drafted him, and as seen earlier, Hunt could make it rain. Hunt reportedly offered a much better deal than George Halas, but Sayers was wary of the AFL and chose the established Bears instead.
The allure and stability of the Bears did not impress everyone. DeLong chose the Chargers instead. He played seven years for the Chargers and reached the Pro Bowl once. If the Bears kept DeLong, this would have been one of the greatest drafts in professional sports history. (Had Sayers joined the Chiefs, he would have played on two Super Bowl teams and possibly altered the course of history in Super Bowl I).
Even without DeLong, the Bears acquired the best first round one-two punch in pro football history. They did not acquire a time machine, however. The Bears could use their reputation to outbid the AFL, but the 1963 team turned out to be the last great Bears team for two decades. Sayers and Butkus were superstars for a team that kept going .500 behind quarterbacks like Jack Concannon as the 70-something Halas watched the sport he helped create slipped away from him.
It only goes to show that a first-round double dip cannot turn a franchise around all by itself, even if Butkus and Sayers are involved.