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Cream of the Crop: 1st Round (1999-2009)

This is a new segment that I talked with Fooch about and decided to roll out this evening. It was inspired from a comment by one of our regulars Eastbayjim... so thank you for the idea Jim, this one's for you.

We are approximately 35 days away until the day of the draft and have roughly five weeks to provide you with the best picks of the last ten years of each round in those years. We will begin with the first round which will be followed by the second round, and so on down the line to until we reach the seventh.

Throughout the years and history of the NFL, there have been great players to come out of each round of the draft. We wanted to narrow it down to the last ten years to consolidate the process.

I would like to preface this article and new segment by stating that these are of course just my opinions, and you certainly are entitled to agree, disagree, or give alternative players as better options if you see fit. If I feel there is too close to the same amount of success between two or three players to be considered as the "cream of the crop" in their respective draft year, I may include a player or two that is worthy of notable mention. This process is mainly just to help us see what type of players were chosen when, where, and who got lucky enough to obtain the services of each of them.

I hope you all enjoy this new piece for the next five weeks. It will be one more thing to help us get through the stretch leading up to the much anticipated draft which begins the eve of April 22nd. Follow me after the jump to see who has made the list.

1999 DRAFT

Donovan McNabb (2nd pick overall, Eagles) Syracuse

I take myself back to the future in Marty McFly's time machine to 1999 and all I can see from this particular draft is the erruption of boo's that commenced once Donovan McNabb's name was announced as the 2nd overall pick for Philadelphia. Little did they know that he would indeed amount to a very successful franchise quarterback and the quarterback who was selected before him (Tim Couch) wouldn't. While some Eagles fans still are discontent with McNabb as their quarterback, I think a bunch of fans from other teams who have struggled in the past decade would have loved to have had McNabb come to their cities to play.

McNabb has led his team to the playoffs several times through the course of his career and from his selection in '99 didn't take but a couple years to become a star. His most notable season was the 2004-05 Season when he led the Eagles in to Superbowl XXXIX, which they fell short by only 3 points. It was a big disappointment to the city of Philadelphia and I don't think they've forgotten it to this day. Whether you like McNabb and think he's still got it, or think his better days are behind him, he sure has had an amazing career. He's been to the NFC Championship game 5 times and leads the Eagles in nearly every single franchise passing record. Currently McNabb is 24th on the all-time list of passing yards and will continue to climb the ladder until he decides to retire. He also ranks 22nd in all-time passing touchdowns just behind Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Notable Mention: Champ Bailey (7th overall pick, Redskins) - Georgia

2000 DRAFT

Brian Urlacher (9th pick overall, Bears) New Mexico

Like him or hate him, Urlacher has been a modern day Dick Butkus. Up until last year, I thought of him as the ultimate team player. When he bad mouthed the new kid in town (Jay Cutler) last year, it really made me think a lot less of him as he sat on the bench with a hand injury all season, pouting. On the field though, his talent has been undeniable. He's been the heart and soul of that defense for a lot of years. Urlacher has gone to the Pro Bowl several years in his career and even if players were not doing the voting, and it was done by alternate, less flawed method, I suspect The Bears Linebacker would have still gone to just as many.

Even though he was the 9th pick overall in this draft, there was doubt as to how his game would translate by many of the pundits due to the conference and school he was coming out of. He proved to a majority of them that he was well worth the pick and the money spent. Urlacher will go down as one of the all-time greats of that franchise and there have been some phenominal talent that has played for the Bears.

Urlacher helped his team reach Superbowl XLI which ended in a disappointing loss 29-17. The Bears defense was not conditioned enough to keep up with the high octane offense of the Colts. The defense kept it close for a few quarters, but the Bears did not have enough fire power to match the Colts heavy arsenal.

Urlacher currently sits with 1000+ Tackles, 37.5 Sacks, 17 Career Interceptions for 271 Return Yards, 8 Fumbles Forced, and 67 Pass Deflections.

Notable Mention: Thomas Jones (7th pick overall, Arizona) *29th All-Time in career rushing yards - Virginia

2001 DRAFT

LaDanian Tomlinson (5th pick overall, Chargers) TCU

People said that LDT could not do it. They said he would never amount to anything. They said he was destine to be a bust when the Chargers spent a first-round pick on him. The disappointment did not last long though. And his biggest critics were silenced quickly. In his rookie year, Tomlinson rushed for 1236 Yards, and scored 10 Touchdowns. From that point on, no one questioned Tomlinson's ability until this offseason when the Chargers released the best Running Back they have ever seen in San Diego. LDT had 8 consecutive season's with 1000+ Yards rushing and has had double-digit touchdowns for the duration of his 9-year career. His best season was the '06-'07 Season when he rushed for 1852 Yards and 28... (yeah, that's not a typo)... 28 Touchdowns. Even though some may consider Tomlinson as a "has-been", he certainly wasn't a "never-will-be" like some people thought initially.

LDT currently is the 8th all-time in career rushing yards (the highest of any active player). He has the 2nd most rushing touchdowns (138) behind only Emmitt Smith (164); 26 short of the record. I think it's safe to say that Tomlinson is one of the all-time greats and should be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame when it's all said and done.

Notable Mention: Steve Hutchinson (17th pick overall, Seattle) Michigan

2002 DRAFT

Julius Peppers (2nd pick overall, Panthers) North Carolina

Peppers was a dream pick for a fairly new franchise in their building process. His tangibles, since entering the league, have been off the charts. He has been an amazing pass rusher since he entered the league. If you could gauge a players talent by the size of their paycheck, I think we would all know with the recent pay day that Peppers received from the Bears that he is an extremely valuable commodity.

The Panthers Defensive End was also on the losing end of a Superbowl in Superbowl XXXVIII against the Patriots. It was one of the more intense Superbowls of the decade and Peppers was a significant contrubitor to the close game. The Panthers ultimately lost by 3 when Adam Vinateri came through with a clutch field goal in the 4th quarter to seal the victory.

Julius Peppers is currently tied with Tim Harris on the all-time sack list at 48th with 81 Career Sacks. He also has 6 Career Interceptions, 30 Fumbles Forced, and 46 Passes Deflected.

Notable Mention: Ed Reed (24th pick overall, Ravens) Miami

2003 DRAFT

Troy Polamalu (16th pick overall, Steelers) USC

We have all grown used to seeing Troy Polamalu make dynamic plays all over the field. He gives opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinator's fits in trying to game plan against him. There is only so much they can do to account for Polamalu. In this decade, I don't think there is another player that brings the same kind of presence to a field as the long-haired, Head and Shoulders commercial filming safety does.

Polamalu has been on the winning side of two Superbowl teams in his career so far. Superbowl XL, in which they beat Seattle 21-10 and Superbowl XLIII, a year ago, in which they beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23.

In just 6 Season's, the gridiron warrior has racked up some heafty stats. But some of what he brings to the table is not going to be measurable on a stat line. People always ask, "what is the it-factor?", well if anyone has "it", it's got to be a player like Troy Polamalu.

Notable Mention: Andre Johnson (3rd pick overall, Texans) Miami -- Dallas Clark (24th pick overall, Colts) Iowa

2004 DRAFT

Larry Fitzgerald (3rd pick overall, Cardinals) Pittsburgh

Who could argue that Fitzgerald was not the best pick in this draft? I am not talking based solely on stats. This guy brings it when he brings it if you can understand that. If you put the ball in the general vicinity of Fitzgerald, nine times out of ten he's going to come up with it somehow. Now, I understand that there could be arguments to this selection here, but if the Arizona Wide Receiver keeps on the same pace he's on now, he's going to be the only guy that comes close to any of Jerry Rice's records. The one thing that sets him apart from guys like Randy Moss is his tremendous work ethic that only a select few possess.

As it stands, Larry Fitzgerald is already extremely close to breaking in to the top 100 in all-time receiving yards in only his sixth season. He also ranks 67th in all-time receiving touchdowns. He is gaining ground fast in nearly every single all-time stat line that has anything to do with receiving. He has broken franchise records left and right and been to the Pro Bowl four times in his career so far.

He won't have a future Hall of Famer throwing him passes anymore, but with the recent departure of ex-teammate Anquan Boldin, Fitzgerald should see a lot more action. On top of it all, he is an upstanding guy and does a ton of stuff in the community. A true humanitarian.

Notable Mention: Eli Manning (1st pick overall, Giants via trade) Ole Miss -- Steven Jackson (24th pick overall, Rams) Oregon State

2005 DRAFT

DeMarcus Ware (11th pick overall, Cowboys) Troy

Jerry Jones just recently paid this guy big bucks to stay in Dallas for a few more years. Ware is that unique type of player that doesn't come around too often. When it's all said and done, and Ware decides to hang up the cleats, I can imagine he could be considered for the Hall of Fame. It's difficult to predict something like that this early in a players career, but if he can stay healthy, I feel it's worth saying.

Ware's rookie year, he came in and played like a veteran racking up 8 Sacks and 58 Tackles. By the end of that Season, Ware had proved to be a dominating force. That was the only year that Ware did not reach double-digits in Sacks. His best year came in the 2008-'09 Season when he accrued 84 Tackles, 20 Sacks, 6 Fumbles Forced, and 2 Passes Deflected. After a season like that, a player is bound to draw the double-teams. And that is exactly what has been happening ever since.

Ware will turn 28 this year and still has a good five years at least in front of him. DeMarcus Ware currently ranks 75th on the all-time leader board for sacks and is 16th on the leader board among active players.

Notable Mention: Shawne Merriman (12th pick overall, Chargers) Maryland -- Logan Mankins (32nd pick overall, Jets) Fresno State

2006 DRAFT

Vernon Davis (6th pick overall) Maryland

This was a bit of an unorthidoxed pick and was questioned quite a bit by the fan base; in the earlier years of Davis' career especially. Since the blowout with Coach Singletary, Vernon Davis went from being an immature-ego-driven young player, to a respectable veteran and team leader. The particular incident where Singletary sent Davis to the showers early made him grow up in a hurry. I think that was the turning point for Vernon Davis. He owes it all to his coach and current mentor.

Davis struggled with blocking in the first few years but has come around as of late and is considered by many folks as the best active tight end in the league. Some may argue that Antonio Gates is better, but there are just some things that Vernon can do that Gates cannot. Both tight ends mentioned there are tied in receiving touchdowns (for tight ends) in a single season with 13. Davis broke the previous 49ers franchise record that was held by Brent Jones.

In the short amount of time that he has been in the league, Davis has showed he belongs. He has 181 Career Receptions, 2097 Yards, and 22 Touchdowns in just four years.

Notable Mention: Mario Williams (1st pick overall, Texans) N.C. State -- D'Brickashaw Furgeson (4th pick overall, Jets) Virginia

2007 DRAFT

Patrick Willis (11th pick overall, 49ers) Ole Miss

This has by and far been the best pick for the 49ers franchise in a very long time. Three season's and three Pro Bowls. Coach Singletary had this to say in regards to Willis just recently: "I've coached two of the greatest linebackers - one that has already proven to be one of the greatest (Ray Lewis), and one who will prove to be". Coach or not, coming from a guy of Singletary's magnitude and being that he played the position himself, that is probably the best honor a young player could ever receive.

It is amazing just how much damage and havoc Willis has inflicted on the opposition. I truly believe Singletary meant what he said about Willis and I don't believe there was any puffing going on there. Willis still has a long way to go, but he entered the league in the pole position (figuratively speaking) and stayed in the lead up to this point. It is going to be very interesting to see where his career numbers end up once it's all said and done.

So far in Willis' three years, the stats speak heavily in his favor; 467 Tackles, 9 Sacks, 4 Interceptions, 2 Touchdowns, 6 Fumbles Forced, and 26 Passes Deflected.

Notable Mention: Adrian Peterson (7th overall pick, Vikings) Oklahoma

2008 DRAFT

Chris Johnson (24th pick overall, Titans) ECU

5'11", 200 Pounds. Too small, right? Wrong. People have criticized some of the smaller backs like DeAngelo Williams, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Jamaal Charles, among others. I think for the most part last year, Chris Johnson put to rest some of the comments of a lot of the folks that were persistant in saying that size is an issue. He ran up the middle, to the outside, wherever he could find a sliver of an opening in the defense. His rookie year he rushed for 1000+ yards and basically took on the starting role to be the primary back in Tennesee. Last year he demolished the competition and made certain players look silly. He broke in to the elite class of 2000+ yard rushers in a single season with 2,006. Only five other players have accomplished that same feat; O.J. Simpson (2,003), Terrell Davis (2,008), Barry Sanders (2,053), Jamal Lewis (2,066) and the leader Eric Dickerson (2,105).

If Johnson has a relatively long career, and stays at an even pace, he will end up destroying many records. The problem in today's NFL is that Running Backs in particular fizzle out a bit faster than they did in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. Defenses are bigger, faster, and stronger, and did I mention bigger and faster, well let me say it again... gotcha.

It will be interesting to see how Johnson's career materializes from this point forward.

Notable Mention: Jake Long (1st pick overall, Dolphins) Michigan

2009 DRAFT

Brian Cushing (15th pick overall, Texans) USC

Earning the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award is the best way a player could start off their career. Patrick Willis did it and he seems to be on the right track. Cushing plays a lot like Brian Urlacher, another cream of the crop player mentioned above. The Texans are doing a lot in trying to put together a solid team. The talent is certainly there and has been for some time. I can imagine that this leaves the fans scratching their heads at the end of each season.

All the pieces are there for the Texans to advance next year, and many think it will be Coach Kubiak's last year to prove he belongs. Having a center piece to a defense like Brian Cushing certainly won't hurt matters in Houston. He's still very young but seemed to have caught on extremely fast which is a rare thing at the pro level.

Cushing finished the year with an astounding 134 Tackles, 5 Sacks, 2 Forced Fumbles, and a Safety. Great way to begin a career in the NFL.

Notable Mention: Clay Mathews Jr. (26th pick overall, Packers) USC

I hope this new segment, and the read was worth your while. Round 2 will be coming soon so stay tuned.