Dayton Fliers: Not as easy as it looks

 
Top 2002 NFL Draft prospects (from left to right): Mike Williams, Quentin Jammer, Julius Peppers, David Carr and Bryant McKinnie.


Charlie has been director of communications for the Panthers since 1994 and has worked in the NFL since 1976.

With the NFL Scouting Combine concluding this week, there has been a lot of talk about those players who will be selected at the top of the upcoming draft. The Panthers do not figure in the conversation but were in that position a number of years ago when a pick that looks obvious now was anything but clear at the time. While it looks easy on the surface, selecting in the top five can be precarious.

In 2002, the Panthers were coming off a 1-15 season and would have picked first in the draft if Houston had not been awarded the choice by virtue of its expansion-team status. The No. 2 draft choice was the first major decision of the regime of general manager Marty Hurney and head coach John Fox, who had assumed control of the team's destiny the previous January.

Conventional wisdom came down to a quarterback or defensive end Julius Peppers, and the Panthers chose Peppers.

Skeptics of the choice were not hard to find at the time. One highly respected observer noted that the Panthers needed for Peppers to be "special" considering "the success Joey Harrington will have as an NFL player."

The position was shared. "Only time will tell if passing on Joey Harrington was the right move for this franchise. There are some questions about Peppers' motor and his ability to play hard all the time," penned another evaluator.

Missteps at the top are burned into draft lore...and just in case you are inclined to let them slip your mind, there's always the helpful publication or two that runs their "Top 10 All-Time Busts" list in the weeks approaching decision day.

To the contrary, five Pro Bowls and 81 sacks have made picking Peppers look as natural as riding a bicycle. If so, choosing at the top of the draft can be more like the Tour de France than a Sunday afternoon ride through the neighborhood.

Of the first five players chosen in 2002, two (Peppers and Quentin Jammer - San Diego) were still with the same team last season. Two others were in backup roles, and the fifth was out of the league. The first five picks from the previous year took a similar path. Only LaDainian Tomlinson remained with the same team through the 2009 season, while the first four picks had long left their original team. From the 2003 draft, two of the five top choices are not on NFL rosters today.

Those kinds of results are not unusual. Everybody has an opinion about the top picks, but the team and its fans live with a choice. Even with his exceptional physical abilities, there was far from a consensus about Peppers' future in the league. The resulting profile raised as many questions as answers.

Many of those questions were quickly answered when Peppers played well enough to be named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. With his ensuing success it is understandable why Hurney said the decision not to tender him as a franchise player was "very difficult."

Peppers' performance over eight years in Carolina has made the look selection easy. As in most of these cases, it was far from it.

2001 TOP FIVE DRAFT CHOICES
SELECTION POSITION PLAYER TEAM
1 QB Michael Vick Atlanta
2 G Leonard Davis Arizona
3 DT Gerard Warren Cleveland
4 DE Justin Smith Cincinnati
5 RB LaDainian Tomlinson San Diego
2002 TOP FIVE DRAFT CHOICES
SELECTION POSITION PLAYER TEAM
1 QB David Carr Houston
2 DE Julius Peppers Carolina
3 QB Joey Harrington Detroit
4 T Mike Williams Buffalo
5 CB Quentin Jammer San Diego
2003 TOP FIVEDRAFT CHOICES* *
SELECTION POSITION PLAYER TEAM
1 QB Carson Palmer Cincinnati
2 WR Charles Rogers Detroit
3 WR Andre Johnson Houston
4 DT Dewayne Robertson New York Jets
5 CB Terence Newman Dallas

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