As a whole, '02 draft class has underperformed

Top-five picks in 2002, Joey Harrington and Mike Williams have become poster boys for a draft class that hasn't delivered, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: March 19, 2006, 3:28 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In reviewing any draft, the standard waiting period for making a fair and thorough analysis has historically been three seasons. But in the case of the 2002 lottery, even adding an extra year to the normal review period can't camouflage the reality of how abnormally bad that draft looks when evaluated by any measure.

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The substandard quality of the '02 draft was further demonstrated this week when the Detroit Lions signed free-agent quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Josh McCown, two moves that have set the stage for the imminent departure of Joey Harrington, either via trade or attrition. The player selected third overall in the '02 draft, Harrington will join former Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Mike Williams, who was chosen one spot later, as top-five picks from four years ago who went bust with their original franchises.

"There sure were some expensive [mistakes] in that draft," agreed the personnel director from one team whose 2002 first-round selection remains with the club, but has rarely played up to his potential. "A lot of teams threw good money at bad [suspect] players."

That's for sure. Harrington and Williams earned nearly $40 million between them in their four seasons with the Lions and the Bills, respectively, and never made it to a Pro Bowl. After four seasons, they should be cornerstones for the teams that chose them, but will be regrettably recalled as millstones instead. Their failures, though, are indicative of a first round that, in retrospect, was anything but memorable.

And of a draft that generally produced spotty results.

Scouts are quick to remind people (especially after bad drafts) that the process is an inexact science. But the 2002 draft was more like a laboratory experiment gone awry, one that blew up in a lot of teams' faces. And the first round, as the recent demises of Harrington and Williams reflect, was particularly dubious.

Of the 32 players chosen in the first round in 2002, only eight have been to the Pro Bowl, and just four have made the trip to Hawaii more than once. By the time Harrington and Washington quarterback Patrick Ramsey are either traded or released, eight of the 2002 first-rounders will have bombed with their initial franchises. Counting defensive tackle Wendell Bryant, chosen by Arizona and currently out of the game because of a repeat violation of the NFL substance abuse policy, three of the top dozen players can be deemed busts for now.

Four other first-round picks -- cornerback Phillip Buchanon (Oakland), linebackers Robert Thomas (St. Louis) and Napoleon Harris (Oakland), and offensive tackle Marc Colombo (Chicago) -- are now with teams other than the ones that drafted them. Of that group, only Colombo, who suffered a catastrophic leg injury as a rookie that nearly ended his career and required almost two full years of rigorous rehabilitation, can claim mitigating circumstances. The rest simply weren't very good, or, more benignly, perhaps, did not live up to their lofty expectations.

Joey Harrington
APJoey Harrington, like many 2002 first-round picks, has failed to live up to expectations.

Unfortunately, that has been the case for too many of the players taken in the first round in 2002.

"There just seemed to be a lot of uncertainty in that draft," said Jack Bushofsky, a retired personnel director who ran the Carolina draft in 2002, when the Panthers chose defensive end Julius Peppers in the second slot overall. "I mean, it seemed like everyone had the [best] players identified, but there wasn't a consensus as to how they'd come off the board. And there were rumors about [internal] disagreements at some places."

Indeed, the exit of Harrington is certain to dredge up old stories about how the Detroit football brain trust was split between taking the quarterback or cornerback Quentin Jammer. In hindsight, the Lions, it seems, would have been better off making the defensive pick. But not much better off. Despite being billed as one of the top cornerback prospects in years, Jammer, who went to San Diego with the fifth overall selection, has been pretty ordinary. In four seasons, Jammer has just six interceptions, and there are some personnel people who still contend the Chargers should move him to safety.

Certainly it would be unfair to denigrate the entire first round in 2002, because the opening stanza of that draft did produce some excellent players, with Indianapolis defensive end and three-time Pro Bowl player Dwight Freeney arguably the best of them. New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey and Dallas safety Roy Williams, like Freeney, have been to three Pro Bowls, and Peppers has played in two.

Baltimore safety Ed Reed won Defensive Player of the Year honors only two years ago. John Henderson of Jacksonville and Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth are standout defensive tackles. Cincinnati's Levi Jones, for whom the Bengals were ridiculed when they chose him in the No. 10 slot, has become a top pass protector, and fellow left tackle Bryant McKinnie of Minnesota should someday join him in that group. When healthy, Pittsburgh guard Kendall Simmons is a powerful in-line blocker. Lito Sheppard of Philadelphia is a solid cornerback with one Pro Bowl on his résumé. And New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant, when motivated, is one tough defender.

Houston quarterback David Carr, the first overall choice in 2002, still might develop into a franchise-type player. But no one will know unless the Texans surround him with an offensive line that can allow him to stay perpendicular once in a while, and upgrade the skill position players around him.

Surveying the first round as a whole, however, some clever trading card manufacturer could issue an entire series based on players from 2002 who have so far come up short. Call it "Topps Flopps '02" or something.

"Sometimes you have to be in the right place, at the right time, in the right situation," said Williams, who hopes he has found all three of those elements in Jacksonville, where he signed a two-year contract just days after the Bills released him.

True enough. But too many first-round choices in 2002 have turned out wrong.

Defensive tackle Ryan Sims (Kansas City) has missed 21 games in four seasons, first to a holdout as a rookie, then to injuries. Wide receivers Ashley Lelie (Denver) and Donte' Stallworth (New Orleans) have battled injuries and inconsistency. Green Bay wide receiver Javon Walker posted a huge season in 2004, tried to renegotiate his contract, then blew out his knee and missed all of 2005. He's still trying to get the Packers to either upgrade his contract or release him. Cleveland tailback Will Green went through a series of off-field woes. The problems for Atlanta tailback T.J. Duckett have been on the field, where he has been overshadowed by Warrick Dunn and not productive enough with the carries he's gotten. Tight end Jerramy Stevens (Seattle) has fought through alcohol problems and too many dropped passes. Four years into Mike Rumph's career, the 49ers still can't figure out whether he is a cornerback or a safety.

"You never want to paint a first round or a draft with the same broad brush," one AFC college scout said in assessing the suspect class of 2002. "But you look at that draft four years later and kind of cringe now at the results of the thing. The Harrington thing really brought that home this week. And the point will be made again when [the Redskins] get around to dumping Ramsey."

But it wasn't only the first round of the 2002 draft that, in retrospect, has some teams longing for a do-over.

Of the 135 prospects selected in the first four rounds that year, players who should have a pretty reasonable expectation of enjoying prosperous careers, 33 are out of the league altogether right now and another 45 are playing for teams other than the ones that drafted them. The second figure is a bit skewed, since it includes players who departed in free agency. Still, good teams tend to keep good players around. So that's a 57.8 percent failure rate over four years.

Buffalo is left with just two of the 10 players it chose that season. Oakland has only two of the eight that it took that year. Of eight players selected by Tampa Bay, just safety Jermaine Phillips remains. At the other end of the spectrum, the Philadelphia Eagles' first four choices were defensive backs Sheppard, Michael Lewis and Sheldon Brown and tailback Brian Westbrook. All are key starters. Such success stories from the 2002 draft, however, are scarce.

And this week provided another painful reminder of that.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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