Memories of 2005 curbing enthusiasm
Perhaps the best way to put the 2009 NFL draft in perspective is to look back at 2005.
The top of this year's draft has similarities to 2005. You have a two-quarterback debate, but the two quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez -- have holes. Stafford has the arm but didn't get the most out of it at Georgia. Sanchez was a winner and leader at USC, but he has had only 16 starts. The 2005 draft had Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers, quarterbacks who didn't rate as highly as Class of 2004 stalwarts Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
The 2005 draft had three top running backs: Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Cedric Benson. The 2009 draft has three top tackles: Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe and Andre Smith. The 2005 cornerback class lacked elite 40 speed. That's exactly the case this year.
For weeks, you've been hearing about how the 2009 draft lacks star power or franchise players. The same sentiment was prevalent in 2005, when many experts felt few stars would come out of the top 10. Unfortunately for the league, they were 100 percent right.
The only Pro Bowl players selected in the top 10 of the 2005 draft were Braylon Edwards of the Browns and Brown of the Dolphins (one time each). For what it's worth, Edwards is now available in a trade.
Cornerback Pacman Jones, the sixth pick in the 2005 draft, was cut by the Titans and Cowboys. The Bears cut Benson, the No. 4 overall pick. Williamson, who was drafted by the Vikings with the seventh overall pick after they traded Randy Moss, was traded to the Jaguars and is in danger of being cut this summer. Knee problems have Williams' future in Tampa Bay in question. The Cardinals drafted Antrel Rolle (No. 8 overall) to be a corner. Now he's a safety. With the ninth overall pick, the Redskins drafted CB Carlos Rogers, who's in the last year of his contract and needs to prove himself to earn an extension.
Wide receiver Mike Williams, the No. 10 pick in 2005 (Lions), let excess weight and apathy end his career. And then there's Smith, the top pick from 2005.
The 49ers realized the 2005 draft lacked firepower. Mike Nolan was the coach and his expertise was defense. DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman were the perfect fits for his 3-4 defense, but they didn't necessarily rate as top-five picks at the time. Cornerbacks Jones, Rolle and Rogers ended up being the only top-10 defensive choices, so the 49ers selected Smith as the No. 1 pick.
Smith didn't play a down last season. He re-signed with San Francisco, hoping new coach Mike Singletary would allow him to compete with Shaun Hill for the starting job, but Smith's career is at a crossroads.
Those bad memories from 2005 have crept into the draft rooms of teams at the top, but this year's situation is worse. The cost of those top-seven picks has skyrocketed. In 2005, many of the max deals were $6 million a year. This year, it will cost at least $10 million a year for a top-seven pick. Vernon Gholston, the sixth pick of the 2008 draft, cost the Jets a five-year, $50 million max contract. Gholston played 16 percent of the snaps last season for New York.
It's very unlikely that any of the teams in the top six could trade down this year. There hasn't been a trade into the top six since 2004. You can see why. General managers and scouts know there is no guarantee top-10 picks will become Pro Bowlers.
Take Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. He's probably the best player in the draft. He can play outside or middle linebacker. He can play in a 4-3 or 3-4. He's a leader. He's a hard worker. He's everything a team would want.
But he's a linebacker. Top veteran linebackers are just now reaching the $10 million-a-year mark. Even if the Lions pick Curry and sign him for less than Jake Long received a year ago, Curry's still going to get a max contract of $11 million a year.
The team that gets Curry will get a good player, but it might not get a Pro Bowler. If you are taking a linebacker near the top of the draft, you want Lawrence Taylor, a dominating sack artist. Curry will be competing for Pro Bowl trips against linebackers who get 10 to 14 sacks a season. Curry might get six or eight, but he's not considered a pass-rush superstar.
At the other positions, it's hard to project Jason Smith, Monroe and Andre Smith as instant Pro Bowlers. They don't rate as highly as Long and Joe Thomas. Michael Crabtree is the top receiver, but no one knows his 40 time because of his foot fracture. Jeremy Maclin and Darrius Heyward-Bey don't remind teams of Larry Fitzgerald, who was picked third overall in the 2004 draft. Stafford and Sanchez might need a year or two to establish themselves.
In other words, don't expect saviors for franchises at the top of the draft. But there's still plenty of intrigue. Every draft has its successes, and 2005 proved it.
Eighteen Pro Bowlers did come out of that draft. Ware, Merriman and Justin Tuck became stars. The best running backs came in later rounds: Frank Gore (49ers) in the third round and Marion Barber (Cowboys) in the fourth. Roddy White developed into a Pro Bowl receiver for the Falcons. Michael Roos of the Titans and Jammal Brown of the Saints established themselves as top-flight left tackles. Lofa Tatupu became the leader of the Seahawks' defense after Tim Ruskell traded up to get him in the second round.
It's not as though general managers and scouts discount the overall quality of the 2009 draft. They just wish they could start at the 11th pick and work down from there.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2009 NFL Draft