Draft Pick Pay-Offs #4
From Walter Payton to Charles Woodson, the fourth overall pick has represented one of the most prosperous selection spots for college players in the history of the NFL Draft; while the consensus top quarterback may already be off the board and your pass rusher of the future is no longer available, there’s still plenty of value provided by that number four spot. Between 2010 and 2019, a total of nine different NFL teams selected at fourth overall and in keeping with years past, the vast majority of these players ended up being bona fide studs at their respective positions — this article will explore just how justified these 10 picks were and how they contributed towards the improvement of their respective franchises.
2010 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Trent Williams, Offensive Tackle, Oklahoma (Selected By Washington Redskins)
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One of the greatest offensive tackles of the last decade, Trent Williams’ NFL career to date has certainly proven his fourth-overall draft value. A Texas native that chose to play his college years for Oklahoma, Williams’ incredible talent was evident from his very first year. With starter Branndon Braxton going down with a broken leg, the 18-year-old true freshman stepped into the starting line-up and exceeded expectations playing against pass-rushers and run-stuffers three years his senior. By the end of his senior year, Williams’ part in a dominant 2008 Sooners offensive line that allowed only 11 sacks all season as well as his consecutive first-team All-Big 12 honours in 2008 and 2009 — an unanimous All-American team member in the latter year too — had left the lineman near the top of NFL scouts’ and general managers’ boards the league over. And on April 22nd, 2010 they were soon vindicated as Williams’ name was the fourth to be read out by Commissioner Roger Goodell that evening with Bruce Allen bringing the tackle to FedEx Field to stabilize the left side of Washington’s offensive line. From his rookie season onwards, the road grader proved exactly why his college prowess was nothing of a mirage and that he was the real deal at the pro level. Seven Pro Bowl appearances including six in consecutive years with an All-Pro team inclusion in 2015 too, Williams’ exceptional play coupled with immense durability made the star pivotal in protection for Washington quarterbacks including Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins until 2018. And when you realise that the tackle has played the majority of his career with a cancerous tumour — only removed in 2019 once Williams had left Washington where the medical staff claimed it was nothing serious some six years earlier — it makes his accolades all the more impressive. Now playing out his later years in San Francisco, the 32-year-old holds a substantial case for a Hall of Fame induction which certainly confirms his fourth-overall selection as a draft pick pay-off.
2011 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - A. J. Green, Wide Receiver, Georgia (Selected By Cincinnati Bengals)
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If A. J. Green was drafted by Mike Brown in 2011 with expectations of being one of the most productive receivers of the decade, then he has certainly met them. The wideout verbally committed to the University of Georgia in October 2006 and ever since his first reception as a freshman two years later, he proved exactly why he was going to be a top-tier talent heading into the 2011 NFL Draft. Finishing his Bulldogs career with 166 receptions, 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns (the fourth, third, and second-most in school history, respectively), Green’s draft stock at the end of his junior season had never been higher as the receiver had shown exactly what he could bring to any of the league’s 32 rosters — incredible production. Not wishing to pass up on the opportunity to give new quarterback Andy Dalton and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden such an explosive weapon, Cincinnati duly selected Green with the fourth overall pick and made him a Bengal for at least the next four seasons. And they certainly didn’t hesitate to re-sign him after seeing what he was made of at the pro level. By the end of his rookie deal, the wideout had compiled over 5,000 yards and 35 touchdowns, putting up four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in the process, making Pro Bowl appearances every year as well as earning All-Pro honours in both 2012 and 2013. And after inking a new five-year, $70 million contract in 2015, Green continued to show why he was worth every penny with a further 4,104 yards and 29 touchdowns, three more Pro Bowl appearances and an All-Pro inclusion in 2015 that officially cemented the receiver as one of the greatest players in franchise history. Now 32 years of age with his best years behind him, the former-Bulldog finds himself a little lower down the food chain with regards to Burrow’s go-to guys. But with statistics great enough to garner Hall of Fame consideration, this number four pick unequivocally paid off.
2012 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, USC (Selected By Minnesota Vikings)
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After a stellar college career that saw him earn first-team All-Pac-12 and first-team All-American honours in his redshirt junior season as well as the Morris Trophy, Matt Kalil was widely regarded as the best offensive tackle prospect ahead of the 2012 draft. This was only solidified after the lineman’s strong performance at the NFL combine where the Trojan ran a sub-five second 40-yard dash at 306 pounds, catching the attention of every general manager that needed shoring up the left side of their line. The only question remaining was, how far down the draft board would the tackle fall? Well, the projection was that Kalil would be the Vikings’ pick at number three which — after trading down with the Browns to the four spot who were desperate to grab running back Trent Richardson from Alabama — did end up happening, just a pick later. But while the road grader became just the 5th USC offensive lineman selected in the top-5 of an NFL Draft after names including Pro Football Hall of Famers Ron Yary and Anthony Muñoz, this was as memorable as Kalil’s career after college got. Barring a Pro Bowl rookie season spent run-blocking for 2,000-yard rusher and MVP Adrian Peterson, the tackle failed to fully justify why he was worth his salt in the NFL and ended up not seeing any further snaps than those on his rookie contract. Last taking the field on a 2017 Carolina Panthers team, the now-31-year-old finds himself out on the street as a free agent — a shocking reality for such a highly-touted college prospect. Worth the fourth overall pick? I wouldn’t say so.
2013 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Lane Johnson, Offensive Tackle, Oklahoma (Selected By Philadelphia Eagles)
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For a player that started his college career as a quarterback, defensive end and tight end, Lane Johnson’s prowess at the tackle position is unbelievably impressive. The Texas native only switched to the offensive line in his junior season at Oklahoma and some 23 starts later was earning second-team All-Big 12 honours at a position he’d seldom played. With an incredible NFL combine performance to boot — including an astounding 4.72-second 40-yard dash and 9'10" broad jump at over 300 pounds — Johnson soon found himself being ranked the third best offensive tackle prospect by analysts such as Mike Mayock and Josh Norris heading into the 2013 NFL Draft. And after Eric Fisher had been taken first overall by Kansas City with Luke Joeckel Jacksonville-bound at number two, Howie Roseman ensured that the Sooners road grader would fall no further than the number four spot. Throughout an early pro career riddled with injuries and a four-game performance-enhancing drug suspension, Johnson remained solid manning the right side of Philadelphia’s offensive line and performing at an improved level year-on-year — ranking as the 26th best right tackle according to PFF in 2013, the 13th best offensive lineman in 2014 and the 10th right tackle in 2015. This level of play earned Johnson a well-deserved six-year, $63 million extension in January 2016, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history based on per-year average and guarantees, which quickly paid dividends as the best was yet to come from the road grader. Three consecutive Pro Bowls including a Super Bowl ring in 2017 where Johnson earned first-team All-Pro honours for protecting both Carson Wentz and Nick Foles on Philly’s magical run to their first ever Lombardi trophy. A third career contract in November 2019 saw the Sooner once again reclaim his spot atop the yearly salary rankings for offensive linemen. And given his late career resurgence after really coming into his own, it’s hard to deny that he’s earned it.
2014 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Sammy Watkins, Wide Receiver, Clemson (Selected By Buffalo Bills)
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From DeAndre Hopkins to Mike Williams, Clemson has produced their fair share of talented receivers over the course of the last decade — and the case of Sammy Watkins is no different. The wideout compiled nearly 3,400 yards and 27 touchdowns in orange and white including two separate 1,000-yard receiving seasons. In his 2014 season, he also helped the Tigers to a 40-35 Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State with a 16-catch, 227-yard and two-touchdown display in an impressive MVP effort. But Watkins’ achievements at the college level didn’t stop there. The receiver’s incredible first season at the school saw him earn a conference championship, ACC Rookie and Offensive Rookie of the Year honours and be included in both the first-team All-ACC and All-American sides which he would then replicate in his junior season. And after announcing that he would forego his senior season to declare for the NFL Draft, general managers the league over expressed great delight at the fact that they wouldn’t have to wait another year to add such a talent to their roster. None more so than Buffalo GM, Doug Whaley, who traded up five spots to secure Watkins at number four overall, adding him to a wide receiver corps including Robert Woods and Chris Hogan where he soon emerged as the go-to guy. Over 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns receiving in his first two years as a pro, the former-Tiger soon showed why he was deserving of his fourth overall draft value, only to be later moved on to Los Angeles and Kansas City serving as supplementary pieces to Cooper Kupp and Tyreek Hill, respectively. Just 27 years of age and already possessing a Super Bowl ring with the potential to add another one on February 7th, Sammy Watkins’ career to date is certainly a divisive one — but the fact that his NFL production barely manages to surpass that of his college output, despite the tenure of the former being over twice as long as the latter, is certainly questionable.
2015 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Alabama (Selected By Oakland Raiders)
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The greatest receiver in school history before Heisman Trophy-winner DeVonta Smith showed up, Amari Cooper’s college career was a welcome sight to all rosters in desperate need of a stud wideout ahead of the 2015 NFL Draft. After a 1,000-yard, 11-touchdown freshman season winning the National Championship, the Bama baller followed up his incredible first campaign with a further 2,463 yards and 20 touchdowns at Bryant-Denny Stadium to earn first-team All-SEC and unanimous All-American honours as a junior — claiming two conference titles and the Fred Biletnikoff Award along the way. With no need to further prove his worth at the college level, Cooper declared for the 2015 draft with not only high expectations, but an incredibly high draft value. Mock drafts had the player going as high as fourth overall which — failing to see how the Raiders could afford to pass up on Cooper — Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie soon made a reality, pairing him with Michael Crabtree on an offense led by second-year passer Derek Carr. And the decision very quickly paid dividends as the receiver topped 1,000 yards in three of his first four NFL seasons, making corresponding Pro Bowl appearances before enjoying similar success in Dallas on a Dak Prescott-led offense following a mid-season trade in 2018. Now playing his home games at AT&T Stadium, Cooper’s two most recent seasons have seen very much the same in terms of production including a further two 1,000-yard receiving seasons despite the additions of Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb whose ability certainly threatened to reduce the veteran’s share of targets. Having compiled over 6,200 yards before even turning 27 years old, Cooper has continued to assert his dominance at the pro level after record-breaking displays at Alabama. I bet a part of general manager Reggie McKenzie sorely regrets trading away the stud receiver in a move that would contribute to his firing some seven weeks later, because Amari Cooper is undoubtedly a draft pick pay-off.
2016 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back, Ohio State (Selected By Dallas Cowboys)
Another key piece of the Cowboys’ offense in recent years, Ezekiel Elliott declared for the 2016 NFL Draft as the most complete back to enter the league since Adrian Peterson some nine years earlier. After a true freshman year spent as a backup to Carlos Hyde who would go on to the pros the following season, Elliott soon got his chance as the Buckeyes’ number one running back and racked up over 4,100 yards from scrimmage and 41 touchdowns in just 28 games. Such dominance at the college level earned the rusher not only a National Championship ring as the game’s Offensive MVP and James E. Sullivan award-winner in his sophomore season, but also Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year, first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American honours in his junior campaign. Very rarely do college talents end their NCAA careers as decorated as Elliott did, and after an impressive performance at the NFL combine, he was the fourth player off the board to Dallas and instantly became the early favourite for Offensive Rookie of the Year behind the league’s most elite offensive line. With 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns, Zeke's rookie campaign represents one of the all-time great rookie seasons in the Super Bowl era at the position. That production maintained for years to come before being somewhat exposed when the Cowboys offensive line struggled in a 2020 season that saw Dallas’ front five perform as the sixth-worst in all of football. That season saw Elliot struggle, lacking the explosiveness he’d become well-known for as 2019 fourth-round pick Tony Pollard stepped in and debatably looked the better of the two backs. However, three Pro Bowl appearances, two All-Pro team inclusions and two league rushing leader titles before the age of 26 speaks for itself as Elliott remains one of the NFL’s top running backs. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see him breaking records once more in 2021.
2017 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Leonard Fournette, Running Back, LSU (Selected By Jacksonville Jaguars)
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The latest Dave Caldwell draft pick no longer on the team, Leonard Fournette represents the quintessential player whose ability level never fully translated from the college game to the pros — regardless of how statistically-similar both tenures are. The bruising back piled up some 3,830 yards on the ground with a further 526 through the air during his time as a Tiger, displaying a record-breaking sophomore-season effort that earned him not only first-team All-SEC honours, but also an inclusion on the All-American team as a consensus pick. Followed by a second-team All-SEC performance as a junior, the rusher was highly touted as a top-10 pick ahead of the upcoming draft and after announcing that he would forego his senior season, NFL general managers wouldn’t have to wait long before getting the chance to add the LSU star to their roster. With two defensive ends and a quarterback already selected, Fournette became the first running back off the board in a class that would later be remembered for boasting names such as Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Conner, Wayne Gallman, Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones and Chris Carson — all players that in hindsight may well have been a better pick than the college phenom. Nevertheless, a 1040-yard, nine-touchdown rookie rushing effort that contributed to the greatest Jaguars team in a decade coupled with a statistically-superior 2019 season provided Duval solid production at the running back spot, which was a welcome sight for a franchise lacking talent at the position since Maurice Jones-Drew’s departure in 2014. Fournette was waived by the team on August 31st, 2020 which — if not for undrafted rookie James Robinson’s unbelievable debut season in Jacksonville — could’ve spelled disaster for the organization. Now with a chance to win his first Super Bowl ring as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, things just didn’t go to plan for the back on the Jaguars. Given the aforementioned plethora of league-leading talent taken after him in the 2017 draft, this unfortunately doesn’t represent a draft pick pay-off. Sorry, Duval.
2018 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Denzel Ward, Cornerback, Ohio State (Selected By Cleveland Browns)
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Recently emerging as one of the key cogs in the Browns’ defensive machine, Denzel Ward has already shown exactly why general manager John Dorsey selected him at number four overall in 2018. While his college stats don’t jump off the page, year-on-year improved performances led to a junior season producing two interceptions, 15 passes defended, 47 tackles and two tackles for loss, which — when paired with the defensive back’s incredible NFL combine showing running a 4.32-second 40-yard dash and recording a broad jump of 11'4" — gave the Browns all the information they needed. Having secured their quarterback of the future in Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick, Cleveland selected Ward at number four, making him the fourth Ohio State corner drafted in the first round since 2014. But the Buckeye wasn’t just satisfied with having earned first-round pick status, and hit the ground running in the pros with a point to prove. Ward’s exceptional three-interception debut season in Cleveland saw #21 named to both the PFWA All-Rookie Team as well as the 2018 Pro Bowl. The defensive back got his first taste of post-season football this year as Kevin Stefanski’s side enjoyed the franchise’s first playoff berth for 18 years — and if Ward continues to perform at the level he has done so far throughout his career, whether in Cleveland or elsewhere, this almost definitely won’t be his last experience playing January football. So far, so good, for the Browns — this corner is a draft pick pay-off and one worth resigning at the end of his rookie deal.
2019 NFL Draft’s Fourth Overall Pick - Clelin Ferrell, Defensive End, Clemson (Selected By Oakland Raiders)
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One of the most surprising top-five picks in recent years — though not uncharacteristic for the Raiders organization — Clelin Ferrell spent his college days playing a part on an incredibly successful Clemson team. The Tigers won two National Championships in three years with the pass rusher on the edge, who improved year-on-year statistically. Ferrell tallied six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman, 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss as a redshirt sophomore and then 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss as a redshirt junior. That production, coupled with an incredible list of accolades throughout his time at Clemson, was enough to convince Mike Mayock that the defensive end should be the new general manager’s first ever draft pick in Oakland. The Tiger swapped orange for black and headed West to try to fill the Khalil Mack-sized hole that had been left following the four-time All-Pro’s 2018 trade to Chicago — a job much easier said than done. And so far, the result has been underwhelming to say the least as Ferrell has failed to record seven sacks across his two seasons in the league and the consistency he showed during his college career is nowhere to be seen at the NFL level. While the pass rusher has missed six games due to injury so far in the pros which has admittedly hindered his production, he still fails to jump off the screen when shown on film which was a big worry when Oakland used such a high draft pick on him two years ago. For a fourth overall pick, you’re looking for a generational talent which Ferrell has shown no sign of being thus far. Given that the Raiders could’ve had a Devin White, Josh Allen, Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Mecole Hardman or DK Metcalf for the same price, just to name a few, I’m sure Mike Mayock would do things differently if given the chance. Let’s hope the former-Tiger can rediscover his Clemson form in 2021.
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