Seven Inductees, Seven Paths to Greatness
The NFL is a star-driven league.
Yes, obscure players and career journeymen can leap to prominence at any time, like Chase Blackburn in SB XLVI. Blackburn, a seven-year NFL journeyman, was about to begin a second career as a math teacher in Ohio in 2011 before the Giants called mid-season to bring him back due to injuries to linebackers Michael Boley and Mark Herzlich.
Two months later, he intercepted Tom Brady 50 yards downfield in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl in a (the?) pivotal play in the Giants’ 21-17 upset win.
But Blackburn’s case is the exception, not the rule. Even the most successful NFL teams are made up mostly of mediocre players – journeymen, developmental young players, backups whose primary contributions come on special teams, and players who general managers and coaches intend to replace as soon as a better option exists.
What makes the most successful teams stand above the others is 1) having a “franchise” quarterback and 2) having elite players – real difference-makers – at as many other positions as possible.
The ultimate measure of “elite” is induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This past weekend, seven new members joined the Hall, swelling its population to 287. Each of these players took a different path to NFL immortality, but each provides a lesson on how a successful NFL General Manager can find cornerstone players to put a top team on the field.
Heart of a Lion
LB Derrick Brooks – R1/28, 1995 NFL Draft. Brooks, though only 6’0”, never missed a game in 14 NFL seasons, and started every game in his career after the first three. He was a tackling machine and an 11-time Pro Bowler. The Bucs’ defense during his heyday had stars at all three levels of the defense, with Warren Sapp at DT, Brooks at MLB, and Jonathan Lynch at safety.
Above all, Brooks was the heart and soul of the Bucs defense and a tremendous asset in the locker room. His non-stop motor set the tone for one of the best defenses in recent decades.
Lesson: Some players have intangible qualities that more than make up for a “deficiency” in some measurable category.
Transforming a Position
P Ray Guy – R1/23, 1973 NFL Draft. Drafting a punter in R1 was previously unheard of… literally; he was the first ever. Guy made All Pro six times, appeared in 22 post-season games and seven AFC Championship Games, and was a three-time Super Bowl champion. He transformed the punter position, and was a game-changer at a position never known for making a great impact.
Lesson: A transformational player at a position not normally thought of as worthy of a high pick can be highly valuable.
DE Michael Strahan – R2/40, 1993 NFL Draft. The son of a U.S. Army major, Strahan played football in obscurity in Germany until dad sent him to Houston to live with his uncle and play football his senior year in high school. His performance earned him a scholarship to I-AA TX Southern, where his play was dominant, landing him on the NFL’s radar.
Not surprisingly, he was a late bloomer in the NFL. He broke out in 1997 with 14 sacks and ended his career with 141.5 career sacks. Known as a pass rusher, he was also solid against the run, and he anchored the Giants’ deep and productive D-line. In Strahan’s last season, he was part of the defense that held the New England’s offense in check and ended their undefeated season.
Lesson: It’s a risky strategy, but a player with high upside but a short resume can be a winning lottery ticket.
Go Get Your Guy
OT Walter Jones – R1/6, 1997 NFL Draft. Jones, a 12-year veteran and six-time All Pro, was a starter from rookie training camp on. Seattle had already traded up to draft CB Shawn Springs third overall, but they were not done. They traded R1/12 and R3/3 to TB to get R1/6 and locked down their starting LT.
Incidentally, the Bucs did a decent enough job with the picks they got from Seattle, choosing RB Warrick Dunn and OG Frank Middleton, who started 92 games in his career.
Lesson: When you have the opportunity to get a player you believe in, you do what it takes.
Small Can be Big
WR Andre Reed – R4/86, 1985 NFL Draft. From tiny Kutztown State, Reed played 16 NFL seasons and owns all meaningful Bills’ receiving records. A low “level of competition” is a common red flag among scouts, and www.Ourlads.com had him projected as a R7 pick back in the days of the 12-round NFL Draft.
Reed blossomed into a tough guy and competitor who made his living over the middle and getting yards after the catch.
Lesson: The big schools get the lion’s share of the attention, but gems can be found at all levels of college football.
The Blue Chip Prospect
DE Claude Humphrey – R1/3, 1968 NFL Draft. Humphrey enjoyed a long and productive career for Falcons and Eagles, accumulating 122 (unofficial) sacks and five All Pro selections.
Lesson: While even top picks can fail in the NFL, investing a high draft choice in a core “plug-and-play” prospect on the offensive or defensive line can yield a key starter for a decade or more.
Bread and Butter
CB Aeneas Williams – R3/59, 1991 NFL Draft. Williams was a seven-time Pro Bowl CB before moving to S later in his career and making the Pro Bowl again. He had five or more INTs six times in his career.
Lesson: Successful drafts don’t just come from hitting on your R1 pick; you need to find talent throughout. Once the top prospects are gone, typically by mid-R2, there’s still plenty of talent to be had… you just need to find it.
Winning football teams have role-players and contributors up and down the roster, but most importantly they have stars.
That same rule that applies in the NFL applies in our realistic NFL General Manager simulation, iGM. If you’re running an iGM team, who on your roster may one day end up in Canton?
My demo team (the Sidewinders, the one you see on the game pages if you’re not logged in) has only two that look like they’re off to a potential Hall of Fame start, and both are serious projections: Lions OG Larry Warford, who excelled as a rookie in 2013, and Seahawks “Legion of Boom” S Earl Thomas. We shall see…
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