Evaluating The 2009 Draft Class

2012, the Year of our Lord. Another draft season come and gone, and the Kansas City Chiefs’ most recent draft haul was full of those things draftniks like myself love to hate: boom-or-bust projects. The hulking, physically gifted Dontari Poe. The raw, athletic Donald Stephenson. The miniature, wiggly Devon Wylie.

Draftniks like myself hate projects in most cases, because it requires us to have something we hate: an attention span, and patience. We like to know right away how good a draft class is going to be. 2010′s draft class was fantastic for that, 2011 was brilliant. The 2012 draft class, however, is a head scratcher. The truth is, we simply won’t know for years how good, exactly, it was.

The rule of thumb, as I have always asserted, is three years. Give every draft class three years to shake out before you can most accurately assess it. Yet very few people other than myself actually reviewed the 2008 draft class last year, and I have yet to see anybody review the 2009 draft class this year. So let’s hold ourselves accountable by going through all eight draft selections from three years ago.

2009 was a really rough offseason for the Kansas City Chiefs, even for the most ardent supporters of GM Scott Pioli, as I consider myself to be (Big Matt be damned). Pioli’s moves as GM have rarely been anything other than great since 2010. But the fog of 2009 continues to hang over this team, even though it has started to clear.

Longtime Chiefs GM Carl Peterson had just been removed from his post by relatively new team owner Clark Hunt, son of Chiefs patron saint Lamar Hunt. The hunt for a new GM was on, and Hunt managed to snag the biggest fish the pond has had in perhaps a decade: New England Patriots personnel man Scott Pioli, he of the three Super Bowl rings and the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. It was the kind of unqualified success that Clark’s father hadn’t landed in seemingly decades. But in the short term, it ushered in pure chaos.

Pioli arrived in Kansas City in what seemed like a rushed hurry. As the story goes, Pioli apparently darted out of New England with a fistful of Patriots scouting reports, and upon his arrival here, neither he nor former KC scoutmaster Bill Kuharich’s scouts trusted one another. This led to a confused, jumbled process in which numerous questionable personnel calls were made. A month went by before a head coach was actually hired, hot-headed sideline Nazi Todd Haley, then of the Arizona Cardinals. Haley brought with him Clancy Pendergast, an incompetent defensive coordinator. He attempted to work with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, a holdover from the previous regime, but as would become a common theme with Haley, that relationship imploded in the preseason, putting Haley on double-duty for the rest of the year. It took this franchise three years to recover from that cluster of bad personnel moves.

The 2009 draft class, however, this team is still living with. This class was renowned among fans almost immediately as awful and unpopular, both for throwing the #3 overall selection away on a non-impactful 3-4 defensive end, and in trading away the team’s second rounder for New England backup QB Matt Cassel, a high character, highly intense quarterback with great physical limitations: a weak, inaccurate arm; an inability to truly challenge secondaries; a lack of composure in the pocket leading to high sack totals; a beta male locker room presence; zero starting experience outside of his one season filling in for All World QB Tom Brady. (The trade also brought in Mike Vrabel on, essentially, a two-year rental at the end of his career.)  It was particularly controversial because a highly touted, elite QB prospect in USC’s Mark Sanchez was available in 2009, and the Chiefs, for better or worse, hitched their wagon to a 27-year-old backup instead.

1st round: DE Tyson Jackson, LSU

This, of course, freed up the #3 overall pick. Instead of going the direction of Sanchez, the Chiefs had a litter of prospects in that year’s Top 10 to choose from, almost all of them being genuinely awful: Sanchez has been no prize, BJ Raji has been a flashy but streaky defender, Aaron Curry busted, tackles Andre Smith and Eugene Monroe have underperformed, receivers Darius Heyward-Bey and Michael Crabtree have gone on to do roughly nothing.

The Chiefs opted to go with the un-sexiest route possible.  They were transitioning from Herm Edwards’ speed-based Tampa Two defense to the size-and-power based two-gapping 3-4, a radical shift in schemes. 2008′s top 10 pick, Glenn Dorsey, was therefore the only qualified 3-4 defensive end the team actually had, creating a dire need.  That need was partially filled by drafting Jackson, a nonflashy, non-eye-popping lunch pail grunter out of LSU.

Tyson Jackson deserves a little extra conversation, because he is the epitome of the 2009 draft class, and draftnicking in general.  Like the 2012 draft class that is driving us all mad, the 2009 draft class was packed full of projects.  As a result, this is actually the first accurate assessment of the quality of the 2009 draft that the Internet has. (Aren’t you feeling lucky, today?) The 2009 class has been largely panned, and occasionally praised, but until 2012, it’s all been premature. So consider this Jackson’s first proper review.

Jackson was one of the projects of the Chiefs draft haul — any rookie having to learn the two-gap defensive scheme essentially is.  Regardless, Jackson came in as a “sure thing,” and he slowly, but surely, developed into exactly that. Even though the passrush is almost completely absent from his game, he remains an extremely effective two-down run stuffer with a slight push against the pocket.  Jackson has developed expertly through head coach Romeo Crennel’s program, and through his own hard work and dedication he elevated his game from being prematurely decried as “bust” worthy, to becoming an imposing run stuffer.  Teams, with the rarest Tim Tebow exceptions, cannot run on Jackson. He demands double teams and punishes tackles when he isn’t.  He is a rare athlete at the position in run defense, and can seal not only the edge of the line, but can carry offensive linemen with him to the sidelines of the field.

That passrush though… very problematic.  You don’t burn a top ten pick, much less a top three pick, on a defensive lineman who can’t get to the quarterback.  Since Jackson, however, is basically a Top 5 run stuffer at the DE position in the NFL, that mitigates that problem.  But not enough.  He is a very talented player who I wish to be a Chief for a decade, but lousy value where he was selected.  Grade: B-

3rd round: DE Alex Magee, Pittsburgh

Initially, I was 100% behind the decision for this franchise to go with two defensive ends with their first two picks.  As discussed, the only defensive end the team had on the roster at the time was Glenn Dorsey, who was an uncomfortable fit at the position anyway (he was drafted for a totally different scheme!).  The Jackson selection made more sense than not.  Alex Magee, however, was a solid value selection for a guy whose size and strength was a perfect translation to the two-gapping 3-4 defensive scheme.

The problem, as it turns out, is that Magee made much more sense on paper than on the field.  His play was atrocious, he was constantly bowled over in the run game, and he might as well have been digging a ditch when he attempted to rush the passer.  In what might be the fastest trade of a drafted player ever, Pioli dealt Magee away within a year to the Tampa Bay Bucs, for what turned into a 5th round selection in 2010.  The Chiefs used that pick on current free safety starter Kendrick Lewis.

Grading this pick is a matter of philosophy, then.  If you are grading the selection of a player, this is an unqualified failure.  If you are grading it based on what the team got out of it, which was a solid starting free safety on a defense which has the potential to one of the league’s best this year?  It’s a qualified success.  But I am a player evaluator, not a value evaluator.  Grade: F

4th round: CB/S Donald Washington, Ohio State

Washington was another project adopted by Pioli in the 2009 draft.  Washington earned hardly any playing time in the 2008 college season due to academic issues, and in the time he did play, he was particularly iffy.  What he did, however, was flash at the Combine.  His 40 was decent enough, but his verticle and lateral leaps were astronomical.  He had a good NFL body with nice-sized hands.

Washington was immediately targeted by quarterbacks in his extremely limited time as a cornerback the first couple of seasons, as his great athleticism was simply no match for the fact that he proved he couldn’t cover anyone.  At a last stab to retain some sort of value from him, Crennel started him to a safety within a year, and the returns were, again, modest (to be generous).  He logged some serious playing time this year for the first time for injuries to both Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis, and his most notable play was Brandon Lloyd catching a ball in front of his face in 2010 that he didn’t even see.

Pioli’s entire tenure in Kansas City has been littered with mid-round selections spent on secondary players, Washington in ’09, Lewis in ’10, Jalil Brown in ’11, and DeQuan Menzie in ’12.  Of those players, Washington is decidedly the weak link.  His ability to stay on the roster is more of a result of the injures and desperate lack of depth the team has had at safety.  I’m pretty sure the selection of Menzie this year sealed his fate.  Grade: D+

5th round: OT/OG Colin Brown, Missouri

There have been some bad picks in Chiefs history, from the top of the first round (DT Ryan Sims) down to the very last round (TE Michael Allan, of Division III fame).  But it’s possible that the worst pick in Chiefs history could have been a no-name right tackle Colin Brown out of Missouri, a guy who was on nobody’s draft board and ranked by NFL Draftcountdown as the 56th best tackle prospect in the draft class.  (Brown was the 13th selected.)  Pioli bragged shortly after the draft that Brown projected as a future right tackle.

Whatever promise that might have existed lasted about twenty minutes, because the second Brown showed up to camp, he became a guard.  Brown mysteriously vanished to injured reserve by the preseason, and by the time he was an active participant on the roster again in 2010, he played approximately zero games before he ended up getting cut.  He made momentary, forgettable pitstops in Baltimore, Buffalo, and with the Hartford Colonials before languishing out of professional football.  Grade: F

6th round: WR/CB Quentin Lawrence, McNeese State

Boasting nice 4.4 speed out of the middle of freakin’ nowhere, the Chiefs thought Quentin Lawrence could function as a one-dimensional speed threat on offense.  It turns out, Lawrence was a pretty nice speed threat, but not on offense.  Lawrence’s complete lack of ability to separate simply must have come from a profound inability to effectively run routes, even in the preseason.  Quentin was soon taking up space on the practice squad and bench.

Expectations aren’t high this late in the draft.  Lawrence did the best he could, and to his credit he was able to find a niche on special teams, and later on didn’t look too bad covering receivers this past preseason, before the Chiefs decided it was time for the experiment to end.  And let’s face it: when the Chiefs are cutting you in favor of Donald Washington, that’s not a terribly positive sign.  Lawrence is currently a cornerback for the Dolphins.  Grade: D+

7th round: RB Javarris Williams, Tennessee State

Much like Washington and Lawrence, Javarris Williams was selected more for his measurables and his Combine numbers than he was for his play on the field.  Williams was an intriguing selection in the 7th round: at a time when then-starting RB Larry Johnson seemed to have no tread left on his tires, Williams was a 220-pound bruiser with 4.4 speed.  I had never heard of him around the Chiefs selected him, but I remember being incredibly eager to see what he could do on the field — that’s a great size/speed combination you simply don’t see in the NFL, and potentially a great find by Pioli.

But none of it translated to the field.  For all his size, he didn’t have that extraordinary balance that LJ did in his heyday, and often went down on first contact (the cruddy offensive line at the time did him no favors).  What’s worse, is that his speed did not translate to the field.  Classic Combine workout warrior, but that’s what the 7th round is for.  This is a bad grade, but I can’t blame Pioli for rolling the dice here.  Grade: D+

7th round: TE Jake O’Connell, Miami (OH)

I haven’t seen too many trade-ups in the 7th round in my day, but it’s pretty obvious a couple years later why O’Connell inspired the unorthodox move by Pioli in 2009.  O’Connell sported solid size and solid speed, and in the three years he has since served as depth for the Chiefs, he has occasionally flashed as a legit backup tight end, but flashes are all we’ve seen.

Nevertheless, he did serve a big role in Charlie Weis’ three tight end sets in 2010, often blocking very well and taking advantage of his scant opportunities to catch balls downfield.  I have thought he’s exactly the kind of guy you keep around as a third tight end, and apparently the Chiefs agreed, as they brought him back this year despite the fact that they are already three deep at the position with Tony Moeaki (probably starter), Kevin Boss (probably backup), and Steve Maneri (probably the blocking TE).

But the fact remains, that when Moeaki missed all of 2011 with injury, the Chiefs had a humongous chasm at the position, and never saw fit to play O’Connell there.  They brought in then-backup tackle Maneri in at some points in favor of O’Connell, and even signed the ancient Anthony Becht out of retirement to start him over O’Connell.  I continue to see promise in him, however, against all odds.  A decent pick in the 7th.  Grade: B-

7th round: K Ryan Succop, South Carolina

The Chiefs had, for years, seemingly bounced from worthless castoff kicker to worthless castoff kicker.  They couldn’t lure in any premier kickers in free agency, such as Olindo Mare or Josh Brown, and their lone draft pick during the Herm Edwards era, Justin Medlock, was cut in a couple of months.

Selected with the very last pick in the 2009 draft, Succop became Mr. Relevant in Kansas City, signing an extension in 2011 to keep him here for a while.  His kickoffs have improved this past year to reach the end zone occasionally, but his accuracy kicking is invaluable, even if his range disappears past 50 yards.  He is the most successful Mr. Irrelevent in NFL history.  Grade: A

UDFA: ILB Jovan Belcher, Maine

To put a little more lipstick on this pig of a draft, I’m including the team’s greatest steal in undrafted free agency.  The Chiefs always bring in a player or two from UDFA-land, and Belcher proved to be the best talent mined out of it in Kansas City since Brian Waters.

Belcher started almost immediately, and has held down the “Sam” backer position ever since late 2009.  Belcher’s athleticism is limited, and he is undersized for what is traditionally regarded as being a “thumper” role in the middle of the defense.  But he has been a top tackler and defensive quarterback for this team ever since we plucked him out of obscurity.  The Chiefs currently placed a one-year tender on him, and the Chiefs would be wise to turn that into a multi-year extension before the 2013 offseason gets here.  Grade: A

Overall Draft Grade: C

So that’s a good starting DE, a good starting ILB, a good kicker, and iffy depth at tight end and in the secondary.  Following the outstanding 2008 draft (Dorsey, Albert, Flowers, Charles, Carr, Richardson), it’s a dramatic failure by comparison.  But we often forget that this is how teams actually usually do in the draft, and if you include Belcher in it (a cheat, but I’ll allow it!), the draft is actually pretty average in retrospect.

A three-year retrospect, to be precise.  The way it’s supposed to be done.

How do you think the Chiefs did?

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