On Saturday, the New York Jets used the sixth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft to select Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston.
By most accounts, Gholston is a talented if somewhat inconsistent prospect who projects as a fine player in the NFL. Nevertheless, this weekend’s draft may ultimately be remembered less for the picks the Jets made than for the one they didn’t: Arkansas running back Darren McFadden. Despite the public-relations spin, the fact remains that the Jets desperately needed McFadden. Chad Pennington needed him. Kellen Clemens needed him. Eric Mangini, too. But above all, their bedraggled, tempest-tossed fans needed him. They needed him both to jump-start a moribund offense and to redefine a staid, faceless and increasingly boring organization. As is their wont, the Jets missed the opportunity, ignoring the overwhelming fan sentiment for McFadden. They knew better.
Thirteen years ago, the Jets faced a similar situation in the 1995 draft. Back then, as was the case this Saturday, they owned a top-10 pick. And as was also the case this Saturday, the draft’s best prospect had seen his stock hurt by character concerns. That player was Warren Sapp. After the Cincinnati Bengals opened that draft by spurning Sapp for future bust Ki-Jana Carter, other teams followed suit. One by one, they passed on him. He fell to number six and to number seven and to number eight. The hopeful speculation grew. Would he fall all the way to the Jets at nine? When the Seattle Seahawks opted for Ohio State receiver Joey Galloway with the eighth pick, the question was answered: Sapp would be there for the Jets, who were suddenly the beneficiaries of a rare stroke of organizational luck. They would have the chance to add the draft’s best player.
The draft gallery, noteworthy for its seemingly inexhaustible collection of mustached, beer-bellied grunts, was overcome. There were hugs and high fives among perfect strangers. Middle-aged men channeled their younger, thinner, less combed-over selves. Nerds made peace with their high-school tormentors. It was something to behold. A Jet official then approached the podium and handed the all-important draft card to then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The room was suddenly silent.
“With the ninth pick in the 1995 NFL draft, the New York Jets select tight end from Penn State, Kyle Brady.”
The boos rained down, but the talking heads were quick to admonish the fans in the gallery. After all, the people in the gallery were dummies, and the people running the Jets were “professional talent evaluators.” How could the gallery, chock-full of dopes, profess to know more than a man like Rich Kotite? (Amazingly, there was once a time when this question was not followed by crippling laughter.) Even WFAN football guru Mike Francesa chimed in, noting that Jets fans would regret their opinions “when Brady’s catching 70 balls a year.”
Thirteen years later, we’re still waiting for those 70 balls. For that matter, so are the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team upon which Brady was unceremoniously dumped after four lackluster seasons in New York. For his part, Sapp went on to notch eight Pro Bowls, six All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl ring and a ticket to Canton. Close!
As it turned out, the dummies in the gallery were right. This weekend, it all came full circle for the Jets. The dummies were back. This time, they were calling for Darren McFadden. And although the situation was somewhat different for the fact that McFadden was selected before the Jets picked, the reality is that McFadden would be a Jet right now had they really wanted him. The team that had sold the farm to trade up for Dewayne Robertson and Darrelle Revis decided against trading up for McFadden. Then, in a fitting homage to the incompetence of 1995, the Jets followed their failure to land McFadden by inexplicably trading up for yet another first-round tight end, 6-foot-2 Dustin Keller, who was not projected as a first-round pick. Once again, the Jets knew better. And once again, the boos rained down in grand fashion.
But maybe there’s no reason to worry. Maybe it’ll all work out. Maybe Darren McFadden is the next Blair Thomas; Golston and Keller, the next Lawrence Taylor and Shannon Sharpe. It could be. After all, these are professional talent evaluators.