If you want evidence that the talent gap among NFL prospects is extremely small, consider that just 19 years ago there were 12 rounds in the NFL Draft. We’re talking about nearly twice the draft pool than the present day. Some may argue that fewer starters emerge from the late rounds and free agency than those drafted during the first day.
That is only a theory that hasn’t been proven in a pseudo-scientific manner. I have another theory. The talent gap is small, but how an organization handles these early round picks compared to its late round picks artificially induces a wider gap than what should be there. The reason is the heavy financial subsidization of early picks. It exerts an indirect, but strong pressure on coaches to give these high-paid players more opportunities than its late-round picks and free agents.
I’ll touch on this theory in future posts. For now, I just want to list some of these former 12th-round picks. I think some of these players’ have career stories that support my theory:
- Few chances with first teams only to thrive with second teams.
- No production during first few years with sudden spikes when a chance is given.
- Multiple Pro Bowls among the players on this list.
- Two Super Bowl MVPs
- Careers of above average length
Simply put, there are terrific football players beyond the seventh round. All of these players would have been UDFAs in our era.
DB Larry Brown, Cowboys (1991): Brown had a seven-year career with the Cowboys, including an MVP award in the Super Bowl. However, what we don’t remember is that Brown averaged 64 tackles during his first three seasons in the league. He average 15 starts per season during his first 5 years in the league, which tells you Brown was no flash in the pan.
WR Keenan McCardell, Redskins (1991): This 12th-round pick had a 16-year career where he produced 700-yard receiving seasons with four different teams (Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and San Diego) and 1000-yard seasons with all but the Chargers. McCardell also had 8 consecutive seasons with at least 60 receptions. This two-time Pro Bowl selection did not make the team that drafted him and it took him four years with the Browns to earn a large enough role that an expansion team like Jacksonville could get a shot at him.
K Matt Stover, Giants (1990): I’m willing to concede the point that kickers were likely selected later in bigger drafts because during this era of the NFL’s selection process it only made sense to wait for a player at this position. However, Stover managed a 20-year career and 16 career playoff appearances and ranks 8th all-time in extra point percentage.
TE Brian Kinchen, Dolphins (1988): Although his best season as a receiver (by far) was a 55-581-1 season at age 31, Kinchen had enough value to play with five different teams during a career that spanned 13 years.
DE Fred Stokes, Rams (1987): Stokes never made a Pro Bowl but his 10-year career that included a four-year stretch with the Rams and Redskins where he compiled 27 sacks. Much like several of the players on this list, it took Stokes moving to his second team to generate this kind of production. Is it because the light turned on because of the move, the new team had a greater need, or was it the second team lacked the late-round bias of the original team? All three are viable answers, but I can’t think of many teams that wouldn’t have passed over Keenan McCardell or Matt Stover in his prime.
LB Jessie Solomon, Vikings (1987): Solomon’s nine-year career began with a 96-tackle rookie year and five other seasons with at least 119 tackles. Not bad production for a 12th-round pick.
TE Ken Whisenhunt, Falcons (1985): The future Steelers offensive coordinator and Cardinals head coach was one of the first H-Backs in the NFL. He was used mostly as a lead blocker and check-down receiver during his six-year career.
LB Karl Mecklenburg, Broncos (1983): The Broncos’ defensive stalwart was a six-time Pro Bowler during his 12-year career. He had 8 straight seasons with at least 97 tackles and 68.5 sacks in 9 years. However, Mecklenburg didn’t get to start a game until his second season and during that second year he still managed 7 sacks. When the Broncos finally inserted Mecklenburg into the starting lineup for 9 of their 16 games during the linebacker’s third season the former University of Minnesota star managed a season-high 13 sacks.
OT Paul Farren, Browns (1983): His nine-year career as Bernie Kosar’s left tackle wasn’t an all-star tenure, but it was good enough to keep Kosar productive and get the Browns to three AFC Championships.
WR Drew Hill, Rams (1979): The two-time Pro Bowl receiver had a 14-year career with 5 of those years sporting a per catch average of at least 20 yards. As he aged, he developed into more of a possession receiver and had 7 years with at least 60 catches, including a five, 1000-yard seasons with the Houston Oilers of the Warren Moon, run and shoot era. Hill is now the Jets receivers coach and Santonio Holmes credits him for taking his game to another level last year.
QB Bill Kenney, Chiefs (1978): Kenney earned a Pro Bowl berth during his eight-year career with a 4348-yard, 24-TD season in 1983. Kenney never translated that talent into consistent winning seasons, but for a 12th-round pick to generate this kind of season in 1983 is pretty impressive.
LB Rod Martin, Raiders (1977): The former Super Bowl MVP, two-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro played in an era where tackles weren’t counted, but a 11-year career with 147 starts in a possible 165 games with one of the best teams in football should tell you that he was a valuable part of this team.