The NFL Player Selection Meeting – The Draft. The off-season gridiron event that keeps fans buzzing about football at a time the NBA is in playoff action and the Boys of Summer take to the fields.
Beyond all the analysis and predictions, there seems to be a particular area of critique – The Great Busts of the Draft. Cautionary reminders for teams and fans both how detrimental a single selection can be for a franchise.
It’s an easy topic because there have been so many players, from college superstars or combine phenoms to talented players out-of-place in a system or injury-plagued — its too easy a topic.
The true beauty of the draft is when a team can make a single pick’s value, the player and other deals, pay-off in a legendary and genius way, And yes, luck and timing help a lot also.
It’s not only a question of “WHO” is the greatest player ever drafted, but for this critique, “WHAT” was the greatest draft pick ever made: A draft pick that’s value carried well beyond a single day in April or the following seasons of pigskin play.
Fundamental logic arrives at a simple and obvious conclusion: The Greatest Draft Pick of All-Time would be The Greatest Professional Football Player of All-Time – Syracuse fullback Jim Brown, selected in November 1956 (The first four rounds were held then, followed in April by the rest of the selection rounds).
The Browns actually “settled” for the versatile college athlete at No. 6 of the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers selected QB Len Dawson at No. 5. The Packers had two picks that off-season, No. 1 and 4, drafting Paul Hornung and Ron Kramer.
Brown retired to Hollywood and the great value of that pick ended in 1965.
Others may cite the 1955 9th round selection of Johnny Unitas, the father of legendary quarterbacks, but that “pick” extinguished its bloodline when he was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers in camp; or the following year (1956), when a 17th round pick of the Green Bay Packers became the modern era’s first superstar quarterback – Bart Starr – thanks to the arrival of a guy named Vince Lombardi three years later.
But let’s keep this to the modern era of the Draft, beginning in 1967 when the merger between the NFL and AFL was well underway, as exemplified by a single, common draft between the two leagues. No longer was there a competition for college talent, thus only one professional football team would have rights to a player.
Ask John Elway and he might well say the Broncos’ sixth round selection in 1995, Georgia running back Terrell Davis (196th overall), who many credit for getting the franchise its two Super Bowl victories.
Today’s football fanatic need not look too far back (2000) to find the 6th Round selection of Michigan quarterback Tom Brady (199th overall) to make their case. Certainly, that pick is still paying dividends for the Boston-area team.
In the 1976 Draft, the Dallas Cowboys had amassed 22 picks in the 17-Round Draft, including two 2nd round and three 3rd round selections. Using their own pick in the third (87th overall), the team selected its second wide receiver of the round, Cal-Riverside’s Michael McColly Johnson.
The Greatest Draft Selection in NFL History – Butch Johnson.
It’s not a flippant remark. Butch Johnson was the team’s star return man on kickoffs his first three years (79 for 1832 yards, 23.2 avg.) until moving permanently to the receiving corps.; he was only the second player to score a touchdown in consecutive Super Bowls (XII and XII) [Jim Kiick was the first in VII and VIII]. But Butch was never the featured receiver with Drew Pearson and Tony Hill on the roster. He had his best year in 1981 with 41 receptions for 552 yards and 5 touchdowns (In 1983, he caught 41 passes for 561 yards).
Before the 1984 season, Butch was traded to the Houston Oilers, but for various reasons was cut and signed with the Denver Broncos for his final two seasons in the league. But Butch’s value was still with the Cowboys, in the form of a 1985 fifth round selection via Houston.
The Oilers’ pick was second overall in the fifth round, and Dallas, having missed the playoffs (1984) for the first time since 1974, rolled the dice, using the 114th pick overall for former Georgia running back and current New Jersey Generals’ and USFL star Herschel Walker.
Ah, now you understand …
The USFL won its court case against the NFL … to the tune of $1 (trebled to $3 because of the legal circumstances), and its victory died a quiet death. Walker joined the NFL and the Cowboys after the legendary verdict, sharing the backfield at times with Tony Dorsett and Timmy Newsome, Herschel had solid seasons in 1986 (12 rushing TDs) and 1987 (891 yards rushing). Dorsett moved on to the Broncos in 1988, and Walker responded with 361 carries for 1514 yards in a miserable 3-13 campaign.
The following season, the Cowboys were in full rebuilding mode with rookie quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh, and chose to reload as well. Vikings’ General Manager Mike Lynn snookered Jerry Jones’ new regime in Dallas by acquiring the missing piece for the Minnesota franchise – Herschel Walker.
One of the most infamous trades in league history was made possible with a 1976 draft selection. Now you know the rest of the story, but let’s lay it out nonetheless.
On October 12, 1989, head coach Jimmy Johnson lost Walker and welcomed five players: RB Darrin Nelson, DE Alex Stewart, DB Isaac Holt, and linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard.
But that wasn’t all. Dallas received conditional 1st and 2nd Round draft picks in 1990 and 1991, and a 1st Round pick (and a conditional 3rd round pick) in 1992. Essentially, an 11-for-1 deal.
Nelson was not happy, and an ugly series of transactions took place before the dust officially settled, and Nelson returned to Minnesota via Dallas via San Diego. The Cowboys wheeled and dealed those players and draft picks for the next three drafts. The 1992 Draft officially ended the bookkeeping-end of the deal, and in May, the Vikings waived Hershel Walker, who had become little more than a special teams players in the Minnesota system.
But the bloodline of that 1976 draft pick was still very much alive on the Cowboys’ roster.
You don’t want to know the gory details of all the transactions following that day in October 1989 (including some wild deals with Bill Parcells’ New England Patriots). Ultimately, the Cowboys’ 1992 roster was comprised of RB Emmitt Smith, DT Russell Maryland, S Darren Woodson and cornerbacks Kevin Smith and Clayton Holmes.
The selection of Butch Johnson in the third round of the 1976 Draft ended with three Super Bowls victories almost 20 years later, and in the form of the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
That’s value. And that’s why Michael McColly Johnson is the greatest draft pick in NFL history.