In NFL draft, 51 not a lucky number

Slot where Ravens pick historically has yielded busts, underachievers

April 23, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

While the Ravens' track record in the second round gives cause for optimism, recent NFL history says their first pick tomorrow will not be worth the wait.

The 51st overall selection in the draft has been riddled with obscure underachievers, career journeymen and colossal busts.

Half of the players taken at that spot over the past decade are out of the league and just four developed into legitimate starters. Instead of becoming household names, former No. 51 picks Dedric Mathis, Greg Jones and Paul Toviessi ended up on the NFL's trash heap.

The only exception came in 2002, when the Denver Broncos selected future Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis with the 51st pick. But the hopes of landing another Portis are grounded by players like Toviessi, a Broncos pass rusher taken in 2001 whose chronic knee injuries ended his career 15 months after he was drafted and before he played a down.

"It's really a 50-50 proposition where we're picking in the middle of the second round in terms of hits and misses," said Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of player personnel. "There have been some terrific players taken there, but there also are a lot of names that people would never remember. When you look at it as a league, if you're batting above that level, you're doing well above average."

If any team is able to end this grim trend, it will be the Ravens.

In their eight-year draft history, they have taken six players in the second round and have hit on all but two of them.

The success in selecting linebacker Jamie Sharper (34th overall pick), safety Kim Herring (58th), cornerback Gary Baxter (62nd) and defensive end Tony Weaver (52nd) outweighs the disappointments of cornerback DeRon Jenkins (55th) and receiver Patrick Johnson (42nd).

Sharper and Herring were instrumental in the Ravens' history-making defense in 2000, and Baxter and Weaver are taking similar roles in elevating the defense back to an elite level.

"Early on, we used to say it's a risky round," Savage said. "I think we have been able to change our perspective and our mentality of it through the years. It's obviously shown with Gary Baxter and Tony Weaver. I think our confidence level in the second round has certainly grown."

That confidence is tempered by daunting statistics.

According to Savage's research on drafts from 1997 to 2002, 33 of the 66 players taken from picks 46 to 56 have turned into quality starters. Just two - Portis and Tennessee Titans cornerback Samari Rolle - have made the Pro Bowl, while 15 have been busts.

The difficulty at this point in the second round is a product of what Savage describes as a "crossover" point.

It's the place in the draft where projected first-round picks fall because of character or injury issues and predicted third- or fourth-rounders surprisingly rise because of outstanding late workouts.

The Ravens' focus has been on prospects who exude toughness and don't take plays off.

"Some of the guys that have been busts in the second round are underachiever types," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "They show glimpses, but the consistency is not there. We try to find guys that may not be the sexiest pick per se, but they are guys that play hard all the time so we know what we're getting."

Where trouble has occurred at No. 51 in the past is teams panicking and reaching for picks.

In 1996, the Indianapolis Colts tried to fill a void at cornerback by taking Mathis, who had an average college career but increased his stock late with fast 40-yard times at his individual workout. In 1999, the Arizona Cardinals needed an outside linebacker after free agent Jamir Miller turned down a pre-draft offer and chose Johnny Rutledge, who was rated a fourth-round pick.

Then, when defensive lineman Kris Jenkins went at No. 44 in 2001, the Broncos moved up seven spots in the second round to draft Toviessi because they feared they would lose another pass rusher they coveted.

"Some teams gamble, taking a boom or bust guy," DeCosta said. "That's never been our philosophy. We always try to find a guy that can come in and start for us if not in his first year but definitely by his second year.

"I think we've been able to do that. Gary Baxter and Tony Weaver epitomize what we're trying to do in terms of drafting guys in the second. We're getting guys that we think have first-round ability level in the second round and that's what you're trying to do to minimize the risk."

The 51st selection

The recent history of the 51st pick in the NFL draft:

Year Player Pos. Drafted by Now with Jamison Hensley's skinny

1994 Allen Aldridge LB Broncos Out of NFL Seven-year starter averaged 66 tackles a season

1995 Terrell Fletcher RB Chargers Out of NFL Third-down back had five seasons of 30-plus catches

1996 Dedric Mathis CB Colts Out of NFL Started 10 games in two seasons before stints in Arena, XFL and CFL

1997 Greg Jones LB Redskins Out of NFL Failed to record more than 21 tackles in five of six seasons

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