As the 2007 NFL draft approached, JaMarcus Russell was essentially guaranteed superstardom by many of the same experts we will listen to Thursday as our planet’s most overhyped sporting event invades our living rooms.
“Nobody has an arm like JaMarcus Russell,” shouted ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. “The skill level he has is certainly John Elway-like.” Elway should sue Kiper for slander.
Lane Kiffin, then the Raiders coach, dived even deeper into the ridiculous.
“He’s like a video game,” Kiffin wrote. “There’s not a throw he can’t make, and there’s some he can make that I’m not sure anyone else can make. That’s exciting.”
No, that’s blindness.
Russell, as you probably remember, led the Raiders to seven victories in 25 starts. He’s the biggest draft bust in NFL history, surpassing even Ryan Leaf.
Looking back at the wildly, comically over-the-top praise of Russell leads me to this question:
Why do we pay such obsessive attention to the NFL draft? Please understand, I’m not placing this question in life’s grand scheme alongside such genuine concerns as hunger, violence and traffic jams on Interstate 25.
I’m talking about sports. The Super Bowl, Final Four, Frozen Four, NBA Finals, World Series, World Cup and Stanley Cup are huge, and justly so.
The NFL draft? We gather together, pretending we’re looking into the future. It all seems so immense, so thrilling.
Only it’s not. The draft is a vapor, just one marathon guessing session.
I talked with Vincent Jackson last month. He’s spent his sports career defeating doubters. During Jackson’s senior season at Widefield, CU’s Gary Barnett and CSU’s Sonny Lubick declined to recruit a tall, fast receiver who doubled as a superb student. Jackson could have enrolled in an Ivy League school.
Instead, he traveled to Greeley to play at Northern Colorado on a partial football scholarship.
Four years later, after a sensational UNC career, he arrived at the 2005 NFL scouting combine. He quickly realized he belonged. He could see what everyone else should have seen.
He was as talented as any receiver at the combine. Too big for defensive backs. Too fast for linebackers. He was destined for stardom.
“I fit in there,” Jackson told me. “I wanted to prove that wherever I came from, I could turn myself into an elite player.”
Notice the ambition of Jackson’s words. Notice the resolve. Notice the desire. Jackson arrived at the combine realizing he had not arrived. Not yet. Not really.
Russell walked into the huddle of his first Raiders game armed with $32 million in guaranteed money. Sure, he was hungry. He was hungry for food, which explains why he ballooned to 325 pounds. This player with “John Elway-like” talent was banished from the NFL after three seasons.
No one can measure determination. No one could have seen Wes Welker, who resembles your next-door neighbor, would become one of the toughest players ever, an undersized receiver who willed himself into an NFL giant. We’ll be granted the privilege of watching Welker work next season with the Broncos.
Welker, by the way, was not invited to the 2003 combine and not selected by any team in the NFL.
Jackson’s story is almost as jolting as Welker’s. Nine receivers were picked before the Chargers selected Jackson at No. 61. If those 10 receivers were selected today, Jackson would be the second pick, trailing only Roddy White of the Falcons. White is most likely on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Jackson caught 72 passes in 2012. Braylon Edwards, Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Matt Jones, Reggie Brown, Mark Bradley, Roscoe Parrish and Terrence Murphy were all selected ahead of Jackson in the 2005 draft. These eight players combined for 18 catches (all by Edwards) in 2012.
Many of us gathered with great excitement to watch the flawed guesswork of 2005.
Why will we be gathering again in 2013 to again watch the guesswork of the most overhyped event in sports?
You tell me.
First round, 6 p.m. Thursday, ESPN