Happy Birthday to the 2016 NFL Draft. You've come a long way in 50 years.
We remember that 1967 draft which first included the upstart American Football League. There were no combines, no public fervor with mock drafts or 24-hour news coverage. The evolution since then has been startling.
We watched with amazement through all the changes while covering all 49 drafts. Before the combines began in the 1980s, player data was gathered mostly at All-Star games.
At the East-West Shrine Game in 1974, then held in the San Francisco Bay Area, we took a tape measure to Tennessee State defensive end, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, in the interest of journalistic accuracy. At 6-feet-8, he was exactly a foot taller than a player we measured the previous year from Washington, defensive back Calvin "Too Small" Jones.
Now players are measured to the eighth of an inch at yet another media event, the Indianapolis Combine, which issues restricted credentials to more than 1,000 media.
In the first two decades of the combined draft, the media was welcomed by scouts and coaches who appreciated the enthusiasm of others in the process. Dallas personnel wizard Gil Brandt was, and is, always good for a chat. At the East-West games, a Cleveland scout named Sarge McKenzie always boiled analysis down to one thing -- "Can this guy play for the Browns?" Of course now the question is, can anybody on the Browns play?
The NFL Draft, originally a little-known event that once handled 17 rounds in one day over long distance phone calls, is now a three-day, nationally-televised extravaganza, complete with Oscar-worthy red carpet treatment.
That show begins Friday at 8 p.m. ET, when the top 2016 draft prospects, in their best designer outfits, walk the red carpet and mug for NFL Network television coverage before they learn who drafts them.
It is all a far cry from that 1967 session when teams quietly, almost privately, opened the session by allocating two Michigan State stars -- No. 1 defensive end Charles "Bubba" Smith to the Baltimore Colts and, No. 2, running back Clint Jones to the Minnesota Vikings. Then there were the first two quarterbacks -- a kid out of Florida named Steve Spurrier (No. 3 to the San Francisco 49ers) and Purdue's Bob Griese (No. 4 to the Miami Dolphins).
And thus ended the first annual draft debate, albeit a quiet one, over which quarterback would be the first one selected.
In the 49 drafts before this one, 746 quarterbacks were selected, including 111 in the first round and 22 of them as the very first player taken (five were supplemental picks that cost the team a first-round spot in the ensuing draft).
That brings us to this 2016, made-for-TV gala, which features the highest possible drama at the top by featuring the great hashtag quarterback debate -- #GoffORWentz. Spurred on by constant media hype, millions of fans weighed in on the debate, although nobody apparently kept track of the results.
At issue is whether the first pick -- acquired by the St. Louis Rams in an expensive trade -- will be Cal's Jared Goff or North Dakota State's Carson Wentz. Adding more drama, the Philadelphia Eagles also invested big to trade into the No. 2 spot, probably to take the quarterback Los Angeles leaves them.
This draft's 1-2 punch at the top is not new. It should be the seventh time quarterbacks were the top two players selected, including twice when they were drafted 1-2-3. Twice these debates included the name Manning, but you may be surprised which Manning.
Like each of the others, this year's QB pairing has its own unique personality. For one thing, it is the first to be featured in a hashtag war. During the first, major 1-2 quarterback debate in 1969, there were no hashtags. There was no internet. But we did manage to keep track. Let's review:
1969: 1. Jim Plunkett (Stanford), 2. Archie Manning (Mississippi), 3. Dan Pastorini (Santa Clara)
1999: 1. Tim Couch (Kentucky), 2. Donovan McNabb (Syracuse), 3. Akili Smith (Oregon)
2012: 1. Andrew Luck (Stanford), 2. Robert Griffin III (Baylor)
2015: 1. Jameis Winston (Florida State), 2. Marcus Mariota (Oregon.
2016: 1. ?, 2. ?
Here are the oft-mentioned details of the #GoffOrWentz debate:
Goff is said to be slim at 6-4, 215, especially compared to Wentz, who is country tough at 6-5, 237. Nice data, but, on balance that puts Goff much bigger than Montana and Wentz in the same physical ballpark as Leaf (6-5, 235), especially if you look at their similarly high caliber arm strength.
That said, Wentz is definitely more emotionally stable than Leaf.
Goff was rated as a No. 1 prospect by most scouts heading into last season. He played in the Pac 12, a conference which changed that number over the years but historically churned out great NFL quarterbacks -- including No. 1 selections Plunkett (Stanford), Steve Bartkowski (Cal), and John Elway (Stanford) since the merged system (Utah was not in Pac-Pick-a-number when Alex Smith was No. 1).
Goff completed almost 1,000 passes in three seasons with 96 touchdowns, only 30 interceptions and a 144 passer rating.
Wentz was not even on the scouting radar last year at this time, with the NFL's major scouting group listing him as a priority free agent. But he was a conspicuous man among second-tier competition, showing NFL-type arm strength along with accuracy, toughness, athletic ability, leadership and topped it off with a lofty 40 on his Wonderlic.
Television's top two quarterback gurus, Steve Mariucci and Jon Gruden say Wentz has a high football IQ. But Mariucci says he honestly couldn't pick one over the other and Gruden recently announced he likes yet another quarterback, Michigan State's Connor Cook. NFLDraftScout.com rates him as the No. 4 quarterback and 44th prospect overall. The No. 3-ranked quarterback is the tall and talented Paxton Lynch from Memphis, rated No. 27th overall.
So, well, thanks for that, Chuckie.
For the record, of the 111 quarterbacks selected in the first round (including supplemental) since the merged 1967 lottery, only four came from small schools. They are Pastorini, Santa Clara, No. 2 overall, 1971; Phil Simms, Moorehead State, No. 7 overall, 1979; Steve McNair, Alcorn State, No. 3 overall, 1995; and Joe Flacco, Delaware, No. 18 overall, 2008).
It might be noted that current Rams coach Jeff Fisher was in charge of the Houston Oilers when they chose McNair from little Alcorn State. While we are at it, Fisher was in charge of the St. Louis Rams when they traded up to the No. 1 spot to take Sam Bradford. So Fisher is a veteran of both the trade up and small school situations. Of course, he isn't saying who the Rams will pick. Fisher did admit to NFLDraftScout.com that the Rams may add to the drama by waiting more than five minutes before submitting their decision.
Meantime, everybody is on the clock -- the Rams, Goff, Wentz, the NFL and all those fans who took part in the great hashtag debate.
The call here at No. 1 is Goff. Despite an arm that scouts say is only average in strength, his consistent ability to put the ball where receivers can get it is amazing. In timing, touch and accuracy he shows the natural passing skills that made other quarterbacks famous despite their average arm strength. Think Ken Stabler, Joe Montana, Drew Brees.
Wentz may be a sensational quarterback, but the step up from North Dakota State to the NFL will take adjustment, especially for a strong-armed quarterback who likes to muscle passes through tight windows. Those windows will be even tighter in the NFL. But he is outstanding and should adjust well.
Not counting the usual quarterback fervor, the most talented positions in this draft are along the defensive line, which is fine with NFL teams that saw Denver and Carolina get to the Super Bowl because of great defense. According to NFLDraftScout.com rankings, teams have a bounty of defensive ends and tackles to select from, with 25 listed among the top 100. Up to 10 more are ranked in the top 100 at outside linebacker, depending on if and where Notre Dame's sensational Jaylon Smith is listed amid too much bad news over the horrific knee injury from the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl.
If it weren't for that injury, there are some who believe Smith would have been the first player taken in the draft and the great hashtag controversy of 2016 would have been taken down a notch. But Smith remains optimistic, hoping for the best and preparing for whatever happens.
"I'm not down, what good would it do?" he told NFLDraftScout.com this week. "I'm working out every day, preparing to play football whenever and wherever I can in the future. I wish the best to everybody, including Goff and Wentz."
Asked if he had an opinion on which one might take that first spot, the one some say could have been his, Smith sighed, then laughed.
"It doesn't really matter where you are picked," he said. "It matters how you play when given the chance."
--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He has covered every draft since 1967.