The Myth of the Third Round Curse

Bill Polian has earned a reputation as one of the best executives in NFL history.  He has created this perception largely due to having unparalleled success each year in the NFL Draft.  No team in the NFL has used the draft and undrafted free agency as successfully as Polian, creating an atmosphere where the Colts system reigns king and where finding players who best function within it is the goal.

http://www.boston.com/sports/football/patriots/extra_points/bill%20polian.jpg

http://www.boston.com/sports/football/patriots/extra_points/bill%20polian.jpg

Generally, players that enter the NFL are no different than future professionals in the business world; once they are trained to play a certain way and are molded physically to fit in that role, they are more difficult to acclimate to an entirely different system.  As a result, the best way for Polian and the Colts to find an endless crop of new talent is to get them early, train them to play the Colts way, and build the strength of the franchise by retaining the best players and not allowing them to leave via free agency.

It is in this light that the Colts have spent a bulk of their team’s salary to retain players like Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Kelvin Hayden, Robert Mathis, and Reggie Wayne.  Other players, traditionally at linebacker, running back, corner back, and special teams contributors have been replaced by new faces who have the opportunity to either develop into stars or get replaced by a new crop of recruits in an upcoming draft.

Traditionally, the only exception the Colts will make in free agency is either to grab a player they believe will have an immediate impact on the team’s success, or players who are still young enough in their NFL careers that they can transition into a new system.  Examples of these kinds of players start with Booger McFarland and Corey Simon and move to players like Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson.

With this backdrop in mind, it is worthwhile to examine the third round of Colts drafts under the management of Bill Polian to consider whether the conventional wisdom, that Polian is “cursed” with these picks, actually holds any weight.

1998 – E.G. Green – Not a bust
1999 – Brandon Burlsworth – Passed away tragically
2000 – David Macklin – Solid contributor
2001 – Cory Bird – Not a bust
2002 – Joseph Jefferson – Bust
2003 – Donald Strickland – Not a bust
2004 – Gilbert Gardner – Not a bust
2005 – Vincent “Sweet Pea” Burns – Bust
2006 – Freddie Keiaho – Solid contributor
2007 – Dante Hughes – Not a bust
2008 – Philip Wheeler – Solid contributor
2009 – Jerraud Powers – Solid contributor
2010 – Kevin Thomas – Too early

For those of you who do not wish to see a detailed breakdown of the contributions, or a defense of the labels for the players above, I will breakdown my estimation of Bill Polian’s third round success since he arrived with the Colts.

There have been 13 third round selections since Polian arrived, one which has not been on the team long enough to responsibly analyze, and one who died tragically shortly after joining the team.  This leaves 11 players who have played long enough with the Colts for an analysis to be made regarding their status as a success or a bust in the NFL.

Of those who should be considered solid contributors, players who made a difference during their time on the team, are David Macklin, Freddie Keiaho, Philip Wheeler, and Jerraud Powers.  All of these players made an impact, or are making an important impact, and should be considered solid picks in the third round.

Another group of players never became stars but should not be considered busts for a variety of reasons.  Some of them were a victim of circumstances with regard to team depth or future acquisitions.  Some of them played a role only on special teams or only as back-ups, or in an emergency role.  Those players include E.G. Green, Cory Bird, Donald Strickland, Gilbert Gardner, and Dante Hughes.

Two players are clear busts in the third round.  Both Joseph Jefferson and Vincent “Sweet Pea” Burns offered almost no value to the Colts franchise on the football field.  Burns never played a single game.  Jefferson played a few games and even showed a tiny glimpse of potential but was so oft-injured that after four years the Colts finally gave up and released him.

Since Polian took over, the Colts have gained a solid team contributor 37-percent of the time, a role-player 45-percent of the time, and a bust 18-percent of the time in the third round of the NFL Draft.

More importantly, three out of the last four third round draft picks have become solid contributors for the Colts, with only Dante Hughes (a solid special teams player) not making regular contributions on defense.  Despite Polian’s relative success in the third, especially recently, some Colts bloggers will trumpet the “THIRD ROUND CURSE” mantra every time they can for effect, or because they are lazy, or for a variety of other potential reasons.  Still, the facts do not support the conclusion.

The fact is, the “third round curse” is a myth circulated by those who have unrealistic expectations of what a player’s impact will be from the third round of the NFL draft.

For a specific analysis of each of the players in the categories above you can scroll down further.  Each player is listed based upon draft year in chronological order, starting in 1998.

E.G. Green

When the Colts drafted E.G. Green in 1998 it is important to consider a number of factors that would lead to the wide receiver’s potential success or failure in the NFL.

First, he was the second wide receiver the Colts selected in 1998, the first being Jerome Pathon, who was a potential starter as a rookie.  Second, he joined a team that already had budding young star Marvin Harrison.  Third, the team often played in two-tight end sets and featured Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger.  Fourth, the Colts used Marshall Faulk as much as a receiver as a running back.  Faulk, alone, had 86 receptions for 908 yards.  Needless to say, there is only so much football to go around.  Finally, it is also worth noting that seventh year veteran Torrance Small was on the roster in 1998, and he took much of what was left from passes to running backs, tight ends, Harrison, and Pathon.

It can be said, then, that E.G. Green was drafted as a developmental prospect.  Polian thought he could be a player that would develop with Peyton Manning and become a primary receiving threat but he did not depend upon Green’s quick transition and success in the NFL for rookie Peyton Manning to have targets around him.

In 1999, Green’s future was placed in more jeopardy when the Colts drafted Edgerrin James and picked up Terrance Wilkins.  Together, the two young players again made it very difficult for Green to crack the roster.  Manning’s stable of potential receivers was still loaded and E.G. Green was not in the mix.

The 2000 season, and what would follow in the 2001 NFL Draft, would end Green’s brief NFL career.  First, Marvin Harrison played his way to a Pro Bowl.  Second, Jerome Pathon saw his role in the offense grow (2nd Round pick in 1998).  Third, in the 2000 playoffs Green made the most important catch of his NFL career, a clutch 33-yard grab that would have kept the Colts offense rolling and could have potentially given Peyton Manning his first playoff win.  Instead, he took a blow that broke his leg, ended his season, and took 15 minutes of wind out of the sails of the Colts offense, which would ultimately fall short and lose to the Titans.

Following the season the Colts selected Reggie Wayne in the first round of the 2001 Draft, there was no longer a reason to keep E.G. Green around and the project ended.

Brandon Burlsworth

The tragic story of 1999 third round selection Brandon Burlsworth cannot and should not be considered a part of any “bust” rhetoric on any blog or from any sports journalist covering the Colts.  The fact is, Bulsworth had a lot of promise as a young player and died just one week after attending his first rookie mini-camp with the Colts.  It’s terrible, was a sad day for his family and for the Colts, and certainly does not belong in any analysis of Bill Polian’s third round draft picks.

David Macklin

In 2000, the Colts selected David Macklin in the third round.  Macklin would start in two games as a rookie and collected two interceptions but played primarily behind starters Tyrone Poole, Jeff Burris and primary nickel corner Tony Blevins (a fifth year NFL veteran).  In 2001 and 2002 Macklin would start 31 of 32 games, contributing 124 tackles, four interceptions, 17 passes defended, and a forced fumble.

In 2003 the Colts signed seven-year veteran Walt Harris as a free agent.  Harris was formerly a first round pick for the Chicago Bears in the 1996 NFL Draft.  The other starter, Nick Harper, was playing in his second season and would become one of the Colts best and most reliable corner backs.  This relegated Macklin to split time with newly drafted Donald Strickland in nickel packages.

In the 2004 NFL Draft the Colts would pick up Jason David and Von Hutchins and Macklin was released.

Cory Bird

Bird was selected as the second safety project for the Colts in the 2001 NFL Draft.  In the second round, the Colts added Idrees Bashir, who would start as a rookie and for the following three seasons.  The other starter for the Colts was Chad Cota, a seven-year veteran who had started the previous two seasons for Indianapolis.  This relegated Bird to a back-up and special teams role.

In that role, Bird would make 32 tackles and defend one pass, as a rookie.  His biggest impact was on special teams where he was one of the team’s leading tacklers.  Over the following three seasons, Bird would start eight games, play in 31 total, and add another 80 tackles.

Bird was released after the Colts drafted Mike Doss (2nd Round) in 2003, Bob Sanders (1st Round) in 2004, and two other prospective safeties in Donald Strickland and Joseph Jefferson.

Joseph Jefferson

After being selected in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft, Jefferson would use his 14 games on the active roster to make only one tackle.  He would miss the entire 2003 season due to injuries.  In 2004, when healthy, he showed some promise, accumulating 19 tackles, an interception, three passes defended, and two forced fumbles in three starts over nine games.  Unfortunately, injuries would again hold him out for much of the season.

Finally, after Jefferson managed only six tackles in two starts over four total games in 2005, his NFL career would end due to further injury.  This pick was never a solid contributor in any phase of the game, suffered multiple injuries that kept him out of the majority of two seasons and the entirety of another.  By all accounts, this pick would qualify as a bust.

Donald Strickland

Donald Strickland joined the Colts in the 2003 NFL Draft.  Strickland joined a team that had Idrees Bashir and young Mike Doss as the starting safeties but had enough potential that the Colts tried to rotate him in during nickel and dime packages.  In this role, as a rookie, Strickland made 33 tackles, two interceptions, three passes defended, and one forced fumble.  Like his predecessor, Joseph Jefferson, Strickland would experience injuries that would keep him out of parts of his rookie season and a majority of his second season.

What ultimately would end Strickland’s career with the Colts is the addition of Bob Sanders in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft.  With Bashir, Doss, Sanders, and former third round pick Cory Bird rounding out the safety depth Strickland was let go.  He has made his way onto three other NFL rosters since he was released though he never developed into a star for any of them.

Gilbert Gardner

Gardner was drafted in 2004, and would play three seasons with the Colts.  He was relegated to a back-up and special teams role in his first two seasons, behind Rob Morris (former 1st Round pick), David Thornton, Cato June, and Gary Brackett.  It was not until Rob Morris went down with an early injury in 2006 that Gardner would move into a starting role, a role he filled for 12 games.

Gardner accumulated 34 tackles and four passes defended in 2006 before Morris returned from injury and helped the franchise earn its first Super Bowl victory in Indianapolis.  While Gardner was widely disgusted by fans during the Colts span of horrid run defense, one thing is certain, Gardner was part of a team that did enough defensively to put the Colts into the playoffs and gave it the opportunity to eventually win the Super Bowl.

While Gardner was certainly not a starting caliber linebacker in the NFL, nor particularly adept as a run defender, his contribution was extremely important.  After the Colts drafted Tyjuan Hagler in 2005 and Freddie Keiaho in 2006, players who developed into potential starters, and drafted Clint Session in 2007, Gardner no longer had a spot on the team and was released.

Vincent “Sweet Pea” Burns

Although Burns was selected in 2005 he would spend the first nine weeks of his NFL career inactive and eventually be placed on injured reserve.  He would not see the field, nor return to the roster in 2006 and belongs squarely in the “bust” category.

Freddie Keiaho

In 2006, Keiaho would accumulate 23 tackles, add two forced fumbles, and finish the season as one of the team’s top special teams performers with 14 special teams tackles.  In 2007 Keiaho moved into a starting role as a weakside linebacker and, although he was inactive due to injury in five of the team’s 16 regular season games, tallied 101 total tackles, an interception, and two passes defended.  In 2008, Keiaho’s production increased to 114 total tackles, including one on special teams, and two fumble recoveries.

Last season, Keiaho started two games at middle linebacker when Gary Brackett missed time due to injury, and lost his starting job to Clint Session.  In his reserve role, Keiaho accumulated 24 defensive tackles, a sack, a pass defended, and a fumble recovery.  His special teams production returned, as he made 14 total special teams tackles as one of the team’s best special teams players.

Dante Hughes

Hughes was drafted in 2007 as as developmental prospect to provide depth behind the Colts starting secondary of Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson.  Former second round selection Tim Jennings would fill the nickel corner role which allowed Hughes to come in only in dime packages or as a back-up and focus on special teams coverage units.

In his two seasons with the squad, Hughes was active for 24 games, was a solid special teams contributor (averaged 12 ST tackles a year), and added 19 tackles, an interception, and two passes defended on defense.

In 2009 the Colts would draft Jerraud Powers and see amazing potential in undrafted rookie free agent Jacob Lacey.  Those players, along with a new head coach, and a defensive coordinator who placed a greater emphasis on speed and man-to-man coverage abilities in the secondary led to Hughes’ eventual release.

Philip Wheeler

Although Wheeler was relegated to a back-up role defensively in 2008, he managed to make three defensive tackles.  Where he shined as a rookie was on special teams, accumulating 14 special teams tackles as one of the teams best special teams coverage contributors.

In only his second year in the league, Wheeler picked up his production dramatically when starting strong-side linebacker Tyjuan Hagler went out for the season due to a torn bicep.  In seven games as a starter Wheeler made 53 tackles, forced a fumble, defended a pass, and gathered one sack.  He also made six special teams tackles in coverage.

He enters his third season a step ahead of his competition for the starting spot at strong-side linebacker.  At the end of the 2009 season he showed development and promise to potentially breakout in 2010.

Jerraud Powers

When the Colts selected Jerraud Powers in the third round of the 2009 draft, many fans (including this one) were left scratching their heads.  All the “experts” had Powers available in the fourth or fifth round and it appeared as though the Colts could have used higher ranked prospects at linebacker or other positions than they could a smallish corner.

Instead, Powers would come into camp, earn a starting spot, start 12 games as a rookie, put up 63 tackles, add an interception, 10 passes defended, force and recover one fumble, and make a special teams tackle.  He will enter his second season as a front runner for one of the two starting spots at corner back and was arguably one of the best defensive rookies in the league in 2009.

Kevin Thomas

Not too dissimilar from Jerraud Powers, Thomas was selected by the Colts in the third round, long before many fans had predicted.  Most fans did not even know who Kevin Thomas was and thought the pick was a sure-fire reach.

Thomas had a history of injuries, including a leg and shoulder injury that kept him out of competition during his career at USC.  Unfortunately, Thomas suffered a knee injury during the Colts mini-camp that may keep him out of the 2010 season .  How he will develop, what value he will bring, is unknown at this point.

Addendum:

I have received feedback on this story and realized I was short-sighted when I failed to include Quinn Pitcock in my analysis of the 2007 NFL Draft third round.  Below I will break down my analysis on Pitcock, who I would not call a “bust” in greater details.

I would also like to use this opportunity to clear up what I believe defines a busted draft selection.  Contrary to how the term is often used, I believe a player who is drafted should only be considered a bust if he not only fails to produce in the NFL, but should have produced in the NFL under the circumstances presented to him during his time with the franchise.  In other words, the circumstances surrounding a player’s stay with the Colts franchise play an important part in making the determination.

As I indicated with E.G. Green, while he failed to produce in the NFL at levels many would have hoped for him when he was drafted, much of his failure to produce was due to a rather crowded Colts offense.  His opportunities were so limited, that to consider him a busted pick would be unrealistic given the circumstances.

Another example is Gilbert Gardner.  Do I think Gilbert Gardner ever contributed a third round value during his time with the Colts?  No.  Does that make him a bust?  I do not think labeling Gardner a “bust” is fair given the importance his role in 2006.  While he did not have a stellar season, his role was so important at the time that without him it is reasonable to believe that the Colts would have been unable to make the playoffs and would not have a Lombardi Trophy.  He may have only displayed fifth or sixth round level ability, but he was not a bust.

With that explanation and caveat in discussing how we determine a player to be a bust, we can move to the analysis of Quinn Pitcock.

Quinn Pitcock – Not a bust

Pitcock joined the team in 2007 when only undrafted free agent Ed Johnson and all-purpose defensive lineman Raheem Brock were functional defensive tackles.  During the season Pitcock saw his role in the Colts defense grow, though he never moved into the starting lineup.

As a back-up defensive tackle, Pitcock accumulated 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks.  That production is extremely pleasing, given the learning curve for most rookies on the defensive line.  All signs indicated that Pitcock would have a strong shot of pushing his way into a starting role for 2008 when something happened that no one could have foreseen.  While Pitcock was driving to Indianapolis to be a part of the team’s training camp he decided that he was done playing football and subsequently retired.

In this case, Pitcock removed himself from any further evaluation as a draft pick.  How someone could judge Polian or the Colts organization for making a pick based upon something so personal and unforeseeable is beyond me.  For one year Pitcock was as solid back-up and displayed starting potential if he chose to return, that’s a relatively solid third round pick.  He would very likely have turned into a “solid contributor” had he chosen to return.  Because he did not he certainly can never reach a higher level.

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