What's better than having two first-round picks in the NFL draft?
Actually drafting two good players.
When I was with the Dallas Cowboys, if we had two first-round picks in a given draft, we always tried to make sure we got a superstar with one of the picks; whatever we got out of the other was a bonus. In 1975, we snagged future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White with the second overall pick, then took more of a chance with No. 18, using the selection on linebacker Thomas Henderson, an unbelievable athlete who needed some refinement. He got off to a good start and could have been something special if his career had stayed on track. The year before, we used the first overall pick on future Hall of Fame defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones, who we were sure was really going to be something special, then used the 22nd overall pick on Charley Young, a running back who was probably overdrafted, considering he lasted just three seasons.
Of course, sometimes it makes sense to trade one or both of your first-round picks to another team. But sometimes it's best to just make the picks. As decision time for the Browns and Saints approaches, I thought I'd look back over the teams that have had multiple first-round picks over the past five drafts -- and rank the three best and three worst sets of first-round picks.
1) Seattle Seahawks, 2010: Russell Okung and Earl Thomas
Russell Okung, offensive tackle (No. 6 overall pick): Okung has been integral to the Seahawks' success on offense. The very strong left tackle -- he completed 38 bench reps at the NFL Scouting Combine -- has missed his share of regular-season games over the years with injuries ofvarying severity, but he comes through when the stake are high, as evidenced by his 10 playoff starts. The four-year starter at Oklahoma State was the sixth-ranked player on my final pre-draft rankings that year.
Earl Thomas, safety (No. 14): Thomas was the 10th-ranked player on my final pre-draft list that year -- but the three-time first-team All-Pro would go much higher than 14th or 10th if the 2010 NFL Draft were held again, with the benefit of hindsight. Another very strong player (21 bench reps at the combine), Thomas is, of course, a key member of the Seahawks' feared "Legion of Boom" secondary. The extremely competitive safety has very good coverage ability; he's proven himself to be a standard-bearer at the position.
The impact: These picks -- the first of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider regime in Seattle -- headed up a stellar 2010 class that also included future standouts Golden Tate, Walter Thurmond and Kam Chancellor. They also served as the foundational pieces of what's shaped into a monolithic force in the Pacific Northwest.
2) New England Patriots, 2012: Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower
Chandler Jones, defensive end (No. 21): I had Jones -- a very gifted athlete coming out of Syracuse who nonetheless managed just 10 sacks in three collegiate seasons -- ranked as a first-rounder based on potential. He showed promise as a rookie, then exploded onto the scene in 2013, racking up 11.5 sacks in 16 starts. A hip injurylimited him to 10 games in 2014, but he continued to show himself to be a great pass rusher, putting up six regular-season sacks and chipping in one in Super Bowl XLIX.
Dont'a Hightower, linebacker (No. 25): The excellent run-stopper has proven himself to be the nice complement to Jones in New England's front seven. Hightower can also get into the coverage lanes and makes plays, showing great athleticism for someone as big as he is (6-foot-3, 270 pounds). Consider the key interception he made against Indianapolis in the 2013 playoffs. He also tacked on a career-high six sacks last season.
The impact: Over the past 15 drafts, the Patriots have picked higher than 20th overall just four times: in 2011 (Nate Solder, No. 17), 2008 (Jerod Mayo, No. 10), 2003 (Ty Warren, No. 13) and 2001 (Richard Seymour, No. 6). And yet, in that span, they've reached the playoffs 12 times and won four of six Super Bowl appearances, largely by making the most out of their drafts -- as they seem to have done with Jones and Hightower.
3) St. Louis Rams, 2014: Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald
Greg Robinson, offensive lineman (No. 2): Initially, Robinson failed to live up to his draft status, but as his rookie year wore on, he showed significant improvement. He started the last 12 games of the season, including 11 at left tackle, where he demonstrated great promise. Robinson is very athletic and has very long arms; he is massive (6-foot-5, 332 pounds), with a big, strong punch, and I expect him to keep on rising.
Aaron Donald, defensive tackle (No. 13):The 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year will have a great career. He's a top-line athlete who never slows down and never stops playing hard. I think sometimes he lulls people to sleep. You look across the line and see someone who isn't the tallest guy in the world, but then he uses his incredible first-step quickness to get around his blocker before his blocker even gets into his stance.
The impact: Robinson -- taken with a pick acquired from Washington in the RGIII mega-swap of 2012 -- and Donald project as important building blocks for a Rams team that seems ever on the edge of becoming a true competitor. It's always good to have a left tackle who can protect your quarterback and make your passing game go, along with a defensive tackle who can bring the pressure.
1) Cleveland Browns, 2012: Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden
Trent Richardson, running back (No. 3): I think Richardson was the product of a good system at Alabama, where he ran well against stacked boxes. As a player with less-than-optimal quickness on a bad Browns team, Richardson faltered. After a so-so start to his Cleveland career -- he picked up 950 yards as a rookie, but at a clip of 3.6 yards per carry -- a new Browns regime shipped Richardson to Indy in 2013 for a first-round pick, whereupon he promptly fell off the map. He averaged 2.9 yards per carry the rest of the way in 2013, registered just 159 attempts in 2014, was released by the Colts and subsequently latched on with the Raiders. He's never looked fast in the NFL and he probably never will. It seems Richardson -- who was prevented by knee surgery from running at the combine and posted an unconfirmed 40 time at his pro day -- is another example of how drafting someone without getting the confirmed measurements you need ends up being a mistake.
Brandon Weeden, quarterback (No. 22): There are reaches, and then there's drafting Brandon Weeden with the 22nd overall pick. The former baseball prospect came into the league at an advanced age (28) but with a limited football background and limited mobility. His footwork wasn't very good and his arm was just OK. He had success at Oklahoma State, but played mostly in the shotgun. If you're going to go for a quarterback like Weeden, who I had rated as the 82nd-best player in the draft, get out of the pick, acquire more draft capital and grab him later on. Weeden was released in 2014 after posting a TD-to-INT ratio of 23:26 and compiling a 5-15 record in 20 starts with the Browns, then landed with the Cowboys as a backup.
The impact: These picks were simply disastrous. I thought the Vikings played the Browns like a fiddle, somehow getting them to trade up one spot, from No. 4 to No. 3, to grab Richardson when everyone knew Minnesota was taking offensive lineman Matt Kalil. That's right: Cleveland gave up draft picks for basically no reason. The only thing worse for a franchise's overall health than whiffing on two first-round picks is, well, doing it again two years later ...
2) Cleveland Browns, 2014: Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel
Justin Gilbert, cornerback (No. 8): Gilbert didn't play much as a rookie, but when he did, he played poorly, lacking aggressiveness, making mental errors and struggling against the run. He also had a burn rate of 53.2 percent (giving up 25 receptions on 47 targets); while that's not terrible, it is well above the 48 percent mark you generally don't want to go over. Then there was all the criticism that Gilbert -- who I personally found to be very difficult to communicate with in my efforts to get him to New York for the draft -- took from his teammates as the season drew to a close. He vowed to "work a lot harder" and become "great," but that would seem to be a lot easier said than done.
Johnny Manziel, quarterback (No. 22): I want to see Manziel succeed, but he didn't play well last season, looking overmatched and unready for game action. I suspect he thought he could study the game plan and the opposing defenses with the same amount of effort he used to at Texas A&M. My feeling is that, after he returns from rehab and gets back to work, he'll eventually turn himself into a good quarterback. I still have faith in his football skills. He made all kinds of plays in college with both his arm and his feet, and he has a good feel for throwing the ball.
The impact: Missing the mark on first-round picks is a big reason why the Browns have put together seven straight losing seasons. Instead of finding talent like Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower with their prime first-round opportunities in 2012 and 2014, they landed four guys who, in all probability, are not going to be top-notch NFL players. So will they find a way to buck the trend with the two first-round picks they have this year? Past history suggests not. But they do have some good scouts on staff. The question is, how much do you put into what your scouts tell you?
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2012: Mark Barron and Doug Martin
Mark Barron, defensive back (No. 7): Barron is not a bust, exactly; he's a hitter who has 248 tackles in three seasons. But he was drafted way too high. Though he had 12 interceptions at Alabama, including an SEC-best seven in 2009, he was more of a box player than a pass defender, which probably explains his paltry pick total of three at the NFL level. I think the Bucs were really just trying to fill a positional need here -- and they wound up with a player who lacked the speed and athleticism to merit being taken with a top-10 selection. Now he's no longer on the roster, having been traded to St. Louis last season for a fourth- and sixth-round pick in 2015.
Doug Martin, running back (No. 31): Martin was very strong entering the NFL (28 bench reps at the combine), a complete player who caught the ball very well. He thrived against average competition in college, then broke out with a fantastic, 1,454-yard rookie season, including games of 251 and 142 yards. Since then, however, he hasn't done much at all, missing 10 games in 2013 with a shoulder injury and five last season with knee and ankle issues. At this point, I think he'll be a good, reliable backup player, but he'll probably never get back to that top-starter level.
The impact: Many factors contributed to Tampa Bay's 6-26 record over the past two seasons, but a big one was surely the stark lack of production that came from these two picks. It's no coincidence the Bucs have the No. 1 overall selection this year.