What happened to the top of the 2012 NFL draft? While the 2011 NFL draft is rapidly going down as arguably the best defensive draft in NFL history, the 2013 class was supposed to be mediocre (and it has been) because so much talent left college football during 2012’s draft. That very well might have been the case, but whatever talent and promise shone through at the NCAA level has hardly translated into professional success. The top 10 picks of the 2012 draft, some exceptions aside, have been a mess in the pros. In fact, a couple of those players have seen their stock drop notably this very week.
It’s always easy to judge drafts too early, but for many of the players who were taken with those top 10 picks, there seems to be an enormous, impassable gap between the athlete they were expected to become out of school and the one who’s shown up on Sundays. Let’s run through that top 10, how it got there, and what’s happened since.
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
Obviously, this article is not about Andrew Luck, who has lived up to expectations since arriving in Indy. I mean, how many players get their own week at Grantland?
2. Robert Griffin, QB, Washington (from St. Louis)
Nobody has seen higher highs and lower lows in recent years than RG3. I’ve mentioned this on podcasts, but just for reference, here is the list of players the Rams ultimately got for Robert Griffin: CB Janoris Jenkins, DT Michael Brockers, RB Isaiah Pead, G Rokevious Watkins, LB Alec Ogletree, WR Stedman Bailey, RB Zac Stacy, and T Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in the 2014 draft. I won’t suggest that the Rams optimized their selections and chose the best possible player at each of those slots, but they appear to have come away with four average-or-better starters (Jenkins, Brockers, Ogletree, and Stacy) and Robinson, who is a massive prospect at left tackle.
Griffin, meanwhile, is being run out of Washington by fans and media alike. I’m obviously skeptical of Kirk Cousins, but you can’t argue with how he has played during his first two games this year. Furthermore, even if Cousins struggles and Griffin comes back later this year, the latter’s reputation as an injury risk now precedes any discussion about his talent. Griffin can be a very good quarterback when he’s healthy, but there is no predicting how long he will stick around. After his rookie season, Washington would have laughed at the idea of preferring its haul of picks to Griffin, their franchise quarterback. Now, it would flip that trade in a heartbeat.
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland (from Minnesota)
Even as the league moved on from giving running backs premium contracts and started realizing the value curve for running back draftees is relatively flat,1 Trent Richardson was the safe bet for the team that wanted to draft the next Adrian Peterson, but with better hands. People actually thought this. A lot of people. The Browns were so scared they would miss out on Richardson that they even traded up from the fourth pick to the third pick, even though that meant trading fourth-, fifth-, and seventh-round picks to the Vikings, who actually had Peterson on the roster.2
Meaning that the return on a late-round pick at running back, relative to a back taken early in the draft, is larger than the same return on late-round picks at other positions relative to their counterparts earlier in the draft.
Granted, Peterson was coming off a torn ACL, but the Vikings were financially committed to Peterson and had major holes elsewhere. Another team could have traded up and beaten the Browns to Richardson, but that’s a lot to trade to hedge against that lone possibility. In addition to Matt Kalil, the Vikings ultimately received Jarius Wright, Robert Blanton, Michael Mauti, and A.J. Jefferson from the deal.
Obviously, it hasn’t worked out for Richardson. Since he entered the league, there have been 20 backs who have carried the ball 400 times or more. Of those 20, Richardson is last at 3.4 yards per carry, and the second-worst back — BenJarvus Green-Ellis — is at 3.7 yards per carry. Richardson has also fumbled once every 73.6 touches, which is the fifth-worst rate among those backs. Cleveland gave up on him after one year and dealt him to the Colts for a 2014 first-round pick, which it used (along with a third-rounder) to trade up and acquire Johnny Manziel. Colts fans have Unbreakable Andrew Luck at quarterback and they still might prefer Manziel to Richardson at this point.
4. Matt Kalil, T, Minnesota (from Cleveland)
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Minnesota traded down and still got the player it coveted. Matt Kalil was widely regarded as a safe pick, as the USC left tackle possessed the size, athleticism, and experience to step in at one of the most difficult positions in football on Week 1. He was so good in college that he kept future Cowboys superstar tackle Tyron Smith on the right side of the USC line. And in his rookie season, Kalil impressed. He started all 16 games and looked smooth and comfortable while protecting Christian Ponder and opening holes for Peterson, leading to a rare honor: At the time, Kalil was just the seventh rookie offensive lineman since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to be named to the Pro Bowl.
All looked well, but since then, Kalil has been a disappointment. He was inconsistent last year amid rumors he was struggling with knee and back issues. The expectation was that Kalil would heal up during the offseason and come back strong for 2014, but he has been a mess through the first three weeks. Stats LLC has already credited Kalil with four sacks allowed and two penalties in the season’s first month, and he looks about that bad on tape. He’s getting pushed around and often looks off-balance, even to a layman like me. Whether it’s injuries or some other unknown factor, Kalil doesn’t look like the same franchise left tackle he appeared to be during his rookie campaign.
5. Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville (from Tampa Bay)
The Jaguars gave up a first- and fourth-round pick (which was later used by Tampa Bay to move into the end of the first round and take Doug Martin) to move up two spots and acquire Justin Blackmon, whom they saw as a franchise wide receiver in the mold of Calvin Johnson. As a physically dominant target who won the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football in 2010 and 2011, Blackmon was the elite weapon the Jaguars needed to get the most out of their 2011 first-rounder, Blaine Gabbert.3
Another player whom the Jaguars traded up for. Did you know the Gene Smith era didn’t go very well?
While there was a 2010 arrest for DUI on Blackmon’s record, the Jaguars must have been shocked by what happened next. Blackmon was arrested just two months after the draft and charged with a second DUI, and after breaking out during the second half of his rookie season, Blackmon was suspended for the first four games of the 2013 campaign. He came back and excelled, averaging 103.8 receiving yards over the next four contests, only to fail another substance abuse test and receive an indefinite suspension, from which he has not returned. Blackmon was arrested for smoking marijuana while driving in July, and with Jacksonville drafting Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in the second round of this year’s draft, it’s likely his Jaguars career — if not his NFL career — is over.
6. Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas (from St. Louis)
Originally Washington’s pick, the Cowboys traded up from the 14th selection (where the Rams chose Brockers) by giving up their second-round pick (the 45th pick, which the Bears used on Alshon Jeffery after trading up with the Rams, who eventually took the aforementioned Pead and Watkins). Has this draft convinced you not to trade up? No? Well, hello, NFL general manager! Thanks for joining us here on Grantland today.
I’ll let Jerry Jones handle this one. “Is he what we had hoped for at this point,” Jones said Monday, “when we drafted him with the sixth overall pick, giving up the [second-round] pick to go up to the sixth pick to get him? No.” Jones did say he expected Morris Claiborne would eventually “be a good player,” which leaves the question unanswered of when Claiborne will blossom into that prospect. He has been a fiasco in Dallas, where he has exhibited precious few instincts in coverage, little catch-up speed when he gets beat downfield, and questionable tackling, and those clips are just from the last two weeks. Claiborne was benched Tuesday for Orlando Scandrick (who returned from suspension last week), which inspired Claiborne to leave the facility and skip practice out of spite. If it weren’t for the fact the Cowboys would owe more than $5 million in cap space they don’t have if they dumped Claiborne, I suspect Jones wouldn’t have asked him to come back.
7. Mark Barron, S, Tampa Bay (from Jacksonville)
In comparison with the players who have come before him, it’s actually a positive to see a player who has been merely disappointing as a pro. Mark Barron was taken highly despite playing safety, which the league considers a relatively low-value position. As a result, expectations for his future were extremely high; Mike Mayock noted on draft day that he saw Barron’s floor as a Pro Bowl safety.
Two-plus years later, we’re not only still waiting, it also doesn’t really feel like Barron is close to that floor. He’s a very solid run-stopper as a strong safety, but he hasn’t developed any ability to cover and seems to get lost far too quickly. The Bucs are running a very vanilla scheme under new head coach Lovie Smith, which should limit Barron’s responsibilities while allowing him to rely on his athleticism, but teams are still taking advantage of him. Barron and Dashon Goldson were supposed to be the NFC’s second-best safety tandem after Seattle by now, but with Goldson flailing outside of San Francisco in some misguided attempt to solely be a big hitter, Tampa Bay’s safeties have been a net negative. Barron is not a bad player, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations and might need a change of scenery to emerge as a valuable member of an NFL secondary.
8. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami
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Having seen two uneven seasons from Ryan Tannehill as the starter in Miami, I wrote in August that it was still difficult to get a handle on the player he was going to become. After three weeks, Joe Philbin appears about ready to make the evaluation very clear. With Tannehill posting a brutal combination of a 56.5 percent completion percentage and a terrifyingly low 5.0 yards per attempt, Philbin publicly refused to endorse Tannehill as his starter for Week 4. While Tannehill revealed Wednesday that he will start, that there was even doubt was certainly surprising, if not unwarranted by his poor play this year.
More likely, Tannehill has one week to save his job. The Dolphins play the Raiders in London this week, and if Tannehill can’t move the ball effectively against Oakland’s washout defense (which will be down safety Tyvon Branch, who went on injured reserve this week), it might be time to make a change. Miami has a bye in Week 5, which would allow Philbin the opportunity to switch to Matt Moore and give the former Carolina passer two weeks to prepare as the starter for Miami’s Week 6 game at home against Green Bay. In any case, unless he takes a sudden leap forward, it appears that Tannehill’s time as the starter might be short.
9. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina
A disaster who has done nothing but brought his franchise shame since being draf— oh, wait, I got confused. What is a superstar doing in the middle of this mess? Luke Kuechly fell on draft day because teams aren’t interested in using high draft picks on middle linebackers, so give deposed Panthers general manager Marty Hurney (and head coach Ron Rivera) a ton of credit. Kuechly has turned into a franchise cornerstone, winning defensive player of the year in his second season while quickly becoming football’s best middle linebacker. It’s going to be a joy to watch him play for years to come. Let’s just hope he’s not the next victim of this miserable class.
10. Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo
The top 10 finishes with Stephon Gilmore, who was relatively anonymous during his first two seasons in Buffalo. After starting all 16 games during his rookie season, Gilmore broke his wrist in August and missed the first month and a half of the 2013 campaign, exhibiting inconsistent play when he came back. He followed that up with offseason hip injury and a groin injury that cost him Week 1 this season, and while Gilmore is back, he looked very limited and beatable against the Chargers last week.
Gilmore’s book still has plenty of more pages to go, and it would be unfair to say he’s a bust, but he hasn’t emerged as an above-average starting cornerback yet, which qualifies as disappointing for a 10th overall pick in the middle of his third professional season.
It is true that teams found plenty of talent later in the 2012 NFL draft. I’m using the 10th pick as an arbitrary, round cutoff, but there were a few worthwhile investments waiting right after Gilmore, as the next three picks were Dontari Poe, Fletcher Cox, and Michael Floyd. Then again, the rest of the first round includes busts like Dre Kirkpatrick, Shea McClellin, Brandon Weeden, Nick Perry, and A.J. Jenkins. The draft will instead be remembered for its quarterback class, with Luck joined by third-rounders Russell Wilson and Nick Foles, as well as Cousins, who came off the board early in the fourth round. And every draft is likely to have a bad apple or two among the top 10; it’s the nature of variance and the reality of how imperfect drafting is as a science.
In terms of immediate or expected long-term return, though? It’s truly difficult to match what appears to be a mostly cursed top 10 of football players.