MEN OF STEAL! Top 20 all-time late-round steals...

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MEN OF STEAL! Top 20 all-time late-round steals...

Postby Loqutis » Mon Apr 25, 2005 7:08 pm


Top 20 all-time late-round steals...

Even with modern, sophisticated scouting systems, national media scrutiny, and events like the Combine, great players often slip through the cracks of the NFL draft. Some, like Terrell Davis, were injured frequently as college players and never accumulated the stats and reputation to become top selections. Others, like Zach Thomas, were productive players in college who were deemed too slow or small by NFL scouts. A few, like Shannon Sharpe, attended tiny institutions and played against inferior competition, scaring away some pro scouts and GMs. As a result, there's a long history of late-round steals: guys picked near the bottom of the draft who succeeded far beyond expectations...

20 Earnest Byner (Browns, 280th overall in 1984)
An underrated runner who compiled nearly 13,000 yards from scrimmage in his career, Byner was the last player selected in that 10th round. He won a Super Bowl with the Redskins in 1992 and posted three 1,000-yard seasons, but is best remembered for a devastating fumble against the Broncos in the AFC title game in 1988 (he also had 187 total yards and two TDs in that game). Without Byner, the 1984 class of running backs is very poor, with Greg Bell at the forefront but bit players like Stanford Jennings (a 3rd round pick and career special teamer) and Herman Heard (another 3rd rounder and career backup) making up most of the class.

19 Keenan McCardell (Redskins, 326th overall in 1991)
McCardell makes this last thanks to his Super Bowl win two years ago and his four 1,000-yard seasons as a complementary receiver to Jimmy Smith and later Keyshawn Johnson. He was the 45th receiver taken in 1991, behind guys with names like Millard Hamilton and Johnny Walker. Everybody had a crack at him: the Redskins held him on injured reserve for a year then released him, the Browns moved him on and off their practice squad about 20 times in three years, and the Bears briefly acquired him. It wasn't until he reached the expansion Jaguars, though, that he became more than a fringe player. He may be the best wideout in league history to be a #2 guy for his entire career.

18 Joe Klecko (Jets, 144th overall in 1977)
Klecko was a charter member of the New York Sack Exchange and, when healthy, was the best defensive lineman in football from 1981-1985. Injuries kept him from reaching Hall of Fame status. That 1977 draft also brought the Jets an All Pro tackle in Marvin Powell, as well as Wesley Walker, one of the best receivers in franchise history, and the immortal Scott "Coke Machine" Dierking (there's a nickname you'll never hear again). Klecko's son Dan is a Temple lineman and may turn out to be a steal in this year's draft.

T-16 Hardy Nickerson (Steelers, 122nd overall in 1987) and Marvcus Patton (Bills, 208th overall in 1990)
Two fine linebackers who played forever and are still kicking around. Nickerson was a Pro Bowler for a decade and seemed to be in the playoffs every year with the Steelers and Buccaneers. Patton played on four AFC championship teams in Buffalo and was a productive starter for years in Washington and Kansas City. Among the linebackers drafted in the first rounds of the 1987 and 1990 draft: Junior Seau (1990, turned out pretty darn good), Cornelius Bennett (1997, another good one), Tony Bennett and Lamar Lathon (1990, not bad), Shane Conlan (1987, above average player), Mike Junkin, Tony Woods, James Francis, Percy Snow, Keith McCants, and Chris Singleton.

15 Jamal Anderson (Falcons, 201st overall, in 1994)
The 1994 draft produced two steals at running back; Dorsey Levens was selected in the 5th round that year. Anderson gets ranked because he was a later pick and a more dominant player in his best years. Still, we may be overrating him a bit. In a few years, his career record may be remembered like those of Craig James (7th round, 1987) and Wilbert Montgomery (6th round, 1977), smart picks and fine players whose careers were cut short by injuries.

14 Jeff Van Note (Falcons, 262nd overall in 1967)
Drafted as a linebacker, Van Note switched to center and starter for Atlanta until 1986. A durable and reliable player, in his best years (1978-82) Van Note was considered the second best center in the league behind Mike Webster.

13 Leon Lett, (Cowboys, 173rd overall in 1991)
Jimmie Johnson took DT Russell Maryland first overall in 1991 and Lett at the end of the draft, and the Cowboys had a stone wall in the middle of their defense for years. Somewhat overrated by analysts of the 1990s, Lett was a gifted run stuffer when personal problems didn't take him off the field.

12 Karl Mecklenburg, (Broncos 310th overall in 1983)
The Albino Rhino helped the Broncos to three AFC titles and was an All Pro from 1985 to 1989. He finished his career with 79 sacks. A total of 38 linebackers were taken ahead of Mecklenburg, including Billy Ray Smith, the fifth pick overall. Only Bills' second rounder Daryl Talley had a noteworthy career, though Trey Junkin (another Bills pick in the fourth round) hung around forever as a deep snapper.

11 Jay Novacek, (Cardinals, 168th overall in 1985)
The Cardinals never knew what they had in Novacek and let him get away after four unproductive, injury-marred seasons. The Cowboys signed him and he caught at least 40 passes in each of the next six seasons, providing Troy Aikman with a reliable target over the middle during three Super Bowl runs.

10 Zach Thomas, (Dolphins, 154th overall in 1996)
Thomas is one of the selections who affirmed Jimmy Johnson's reputation as a draft genius. Thomas flunked every scout's test but plays the game with outstanding intelligence and determination. The 1996 draft produced a bumper crop of fifth rounders, in addition to Thomas: Joe Horn, LaRoi Glover, and Titans tackle Fred Miller were all taken in that round.

9 Dexter Manley, (Redskins, 119th overall in 1981)
Manley finished with over 10 sacks in four straight seasons, including 18.5 in 1986. He finished his career with 97.5 sacks and two Super Bowl rings. It was quite a draft for the Skins in 1981: in addition to Manley, they picked up two Hogs (Mark May in the first round, C Russ Grimm in the third), a Smurf (Charlie Brown in the 8th round) and future starting TE Clint Didier in the 12th.

T-8 Harold Carmichael, (Eagles, 176th overall in 1971)
A 6-foot-8 giant who won every jump ball, Carmichael was one of the best receivers of the 1970s and led the Eagles from the basement at the start of the decade to the Super Bowl at the end. He ended his career with 590 catches and 79 TDs. Also a steal at wideout in 1971: Mel Gray, drafted in the 6th round by the Cardinals, would catch 351 balls in 11 years with the club.

T-8 Richard Dent, (Bears, 203rd overall in 1983)
One of only five players drafted out of Tennessee State that year, defensive end Richard Dent quickly elevated himself among the best in the NFL at his position. One of the anchors of a great defense in Chicago, he was one of the most feared pass-rushers thanks to his quickness and speed despite a 6-5, 265-pound frame. A four-time Pro Bowler, he was Super Bowl XX's Most Valuable Player in the Bears' 46-10 rout of the Patriots. He finally retired in 1997 with 137.5 sacks (tied for fifth on the all-time list at the end of the 2003 season) in 203 career games, including 151 as a starter. Aptly so, Dent is among the preliminary nominees for the Hall-of-Fame class of 2005.

7 Shannon Sharpe, (Broncos, 192nd overall in 1990)
He left college as an oversized wide receiver, but Sharpe went on to become the most prolific pass catching tight end in history and a key performer on three Super Bowl winners. Not bad, considering the careers of some of the tight ends taken before him. While Eric Green (a first round pick by Pittsburgh) had some good years before a weight problem ended his career and Jackie Harris (4th round, Green Bay) was a decent player for a decade, when was the last time you thought about Mike Jones (3rd round, Vikings) or Jesse Anderson (fourth round, Buccaneers)?.

6 Mark Clayton, (Dolphins, 223rd overall in 1983)
You would think that getting Dan Marino with the 27th pick in the draft was enough of a steal, but the Dolphins did it again in 1983, picking one of Marino's favorite targets in the sixth round. Clayton and Marino hooked up for 18 touchdowns in 1984, and Clayton would finish his career with five 1,000-yard receiving seasons and a total of 84 touchdowns, 79 of them from Marino.

5 Herschel Walker, (Cowboys, 114th overall in 1985)
Walker only slipped into the later rounds because he was playing for the New Jersey Generals in the USFL. Tex Schramm alertly gobbled up his NFL rights with this pick, and Herschel would easily surpass the careers of the #1 selections at RB that year (George Adams, Ethan Horton, Steve Sewell, and Lorenzo Hampton). Walker is docked one place in our countdown for not being a "true" late round pick. Of course, his greatest contribution to the Cowboys came in getting traded to Minnesota for the draft picks that would become Emmitt Smith and others. Fun fact: the Cowboys drafted RB Robert Lavette one round before Herschel. Lavette would carry the football 23 times in his career..

4 Lester Hayes, (Raiders, 126th overall all in 1977)
Hayes is best known for his marvelous 1979 and 1980 seasons. He picked off 13 passes in 1980 and tended to ride on his reputation after that, but Hayes was a valuable starter on two Super Bowl winners. The Raiders picked up another bargain in 1977 when they drafted LB Rod Martin in the 12th round. Martin would also start in two Super Bowls and recorded 11 sacks in 1984.

3 Dwight Clark, (49ers, 249th overall in 1979)
He was a big target at 6-goot-4. He was a smart player who worked the middle of the field and made plays in traffic. Long before the term "West Coast Offense" saturated the league, Clark was creating the mold of the perfect receiver for the system. Best known for "The Catch" against Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship game, Clark caught 506 passes in his career, led the league in receptions in strike-shortened 1982 (60) and was Joe Montana's favorite target until a fellow named Rice came along.

2 Terrell Davis, (Broncos, 196th overall in 1995)
Davis was on his way to the top of this list before injuries cut short his career prematurely. To put his two Super Bowls and his 2,000-yard season in perspective, take a look at the running backs drafted in the first round in 1995. Ki-Jana Carter went third overall. Tyrone Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman, and James Stewart went back-to-back-to-back at 17 through 19. And Rashaan Salaam, who looked like the best of the bunch in his rookie year, went 21st. While Stewart has had some fine years and Wheatley and Kaufman were good role players, it's amazing to think that Davis and Curtis Martin were still on the board after those guys were taken. Davis was an oft-injured collegian who didn't post phenomenal workout numbers, so he was forgotten until late in the draft.

1 Mike Webster, (Steelers, 125th overall in 1974)
The Steelers drafted some guys named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, and John Stallworth in the early rounds of that 1974 draft before selecting the center who would anchor their line for over a decade. Webster would play in 177 consecutive games for the Steelers and make every offensive snap for six straight seasons. Of course, he was part of four Super Bowl winning teams, starting in two of them (Super Bowl XIII and XIV). Webster was unanimously considered the best center in football from 1978 to 1982 and was a Pro Bowler in several other seasons.

Honorable Mentions
Some players fall through the system and are never drafted at all. Jim Langer, the Dolphins center of the 1970s who entered the Hall of Fame in 1987, was a walk-on in camp. Ditto for Kurt Warner and John Randle, two of the best players in recent history to rise from rookie free agency to stardom.

Lots of players deserve mention who didn't quite make the list. Gary Fencik (10th round, 1976) and Dwight Hicks (6th round, 1978) were two of the best safeties in the league in the early 1980s. Quarterbacks Brian Sipe (13th round, 1972) and Steve Grogan (5th round, 1975) were quality starters for a decade. Another QB, Mark Rypien (6th round, 1986), won a Super Bowl. Linemen rarely get their due, so guys like Doug Dieken (6th round, 1971), Joe Fields (14th round, 1975), Dave Szott (7th round, 1990) and Tom Nalen (7th round, 1994) deserve mention, as each was a successful starter for many years. Ben Coates (5th round, 1991) and Brent Jones (5th round, 1986) were very good tight ends who finished just off the list; the same can be said of Frank Wycheck (6th round, 1993). Recent players are sometimes overrated on lists like these, so we had to make tough decisions and leave off the likes of Terance Mathis (6th round, 1990), Troy Brown (8th round, 1993) and Jessie Armstead (8th round, 1993). There are others - Tim Krumrie (10th round, 1983), Seth Joyner (8th round, 1986) - but you get the picture.

Finally, Bo Jackson's seventh-round selection in 1987 was ignored, as he had been selected in the first round of an earlier draft.

CRITERIA: To qualify, a player must have been drafted since 1967 (the first combined NFL-AFL draft). He must have been drafted in the fifth round or later, ensuring that the player was a real long shot to make the team. Because kickers are often drafted in the later rounds, they would dominate the list and are therefore excluded, with all apologies to Gary Anderson and others. Finally, no player drafted after 1998 was considered, although Tom Brady, the 199th overall-pick out of Michigan in 2000 -- and a three-time Super Bowl winner -- will be added straight to that list in a very near future.
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