In 1998, the choice was not nearly as clear-cut as it seems today: Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf?
Leaf ranked ahead of Manning on some draft boards, though it’s unlikely any scout would admit that today.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh said in a pre-draft Sports Illustrated story that year that he wouldn’t take either quarterback with the top pick, instead choosing Michigan quarterback Brian Griese in the second round.
“I don’t see [Brett] Favre or [John] Elway,” Walsh said of Manning and Leaf. “I see those guys on the next level.”
Walsh missed on both counts.
The quarterback-needy Indianapolis Colts, who owned the top pick, went back and forth until the morning of the draft. Colts general manager Bill Polian and owner Jim Irsay finally decided on the more pro-ready Manning. The San Diego Chargers, who selected second, tried to trade up to the top spot and, when that failed, settled for Leaf.
As Manning’s Hall of Fame career heads into a 17th season, Leaf’s career finished 13 years ago after only 21 starts and 14 touchdowns.
What if ...
“The world changes if [the Colts] pick Leaf,” said Polian, an ESPN analyst since leaving the Colts after the 2011 season. “Everything changes.”
Holding the No. 1 overall pick rarely is a blessing. The team with the top choice not only is coming off an awful season but usually in need of a quarterback. And not every team can “Luck” into a blue-chip, guaranteed-Pro Bowl quarterback.
The Colts did that in 2012 with Andrew Luck, but the Oakland Raiders struck out with JaMarcus Russell in 2007, and the San Francisco 49ers made the wrong choice in selecting Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers in 2005.
“I tell you, all you have to do is look at playoffs,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. “Quarterback play is a huge, huge part of winning playoff games. We’re very fortunate and blessed to have Andrew Luck and what he brings to the table. Great quarterbacks don’t come along all that often, and if you don’t have one, you’re going to have to bolster every other facet of your team to be able to get on the level of a team that has a great one.
“A quarterback, a lot of time, can carry a team, and if you have a great quarterback, it just helps in your overall confidence of your team. Sometimes it gets taken for granted as well. You think 12 [Luck] is going to bail you out. It’s a nice luxury to have a talent like Andrew Luck.”
Texans in familiar spot
The Houston Texans own the No. 1 overall pick this year after ending the 2013 season with a 14-game losing streak.
“It’s a unique situation,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said. “It was very painful to get here, but now that we have lived it for a while and prepared this way, it’s a very, very advantageous place to be, because it gives us a chance to really impact our football team.”
If they select the right player.
This marks the third time in 13 drafts the Texans have had the top choice.
They selected Fresno State quarterback David Carr in 2002. He was sacked an NFL-record 76 times as a rookie and lasted only five seasons in Houston, going 22-53 with 59 touchdowns, 65 interceptions and 249 sacks. The Carolina Panthers selected defensive end Julius Peppers second overall that year.
In 2006, the Texans stood in the same spot they are today. They still had Carr but had already figured out, after a 2-14 season, that he wasn’t the answer.
University of Texas fans took out full-page ads in the Houston Chronicle begging the Texans to take hometown hero Vince Young. The night before the draft, the Texans finalized a six-year, $54 million deal with North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams. Young went third overall to the Tennessee Titans.
The Texans suffered in the short run as Young beat them three times his first two seasons and led the Titans to the playoffs in 2007. But, in the long run, the Texans were proved right as Williams, who left for Buffalo and a $100 million contract as a free agent before the 2012 season, has turned into a better pro than either Young or second pick Reggie Bush.
On Thursday, the Texans might take South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney over Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel despite pressure in Houston to take Johnny Football.
“They have to say, ‘Forget the whole local attraction thing,’ ” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “The most important thing is to build for the future and win football games. That will take care of itself as long as you’re winning games.”
The Texans, despite having moved on from Matt Schaub and with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the placeholder at the position, might pass on top quarterbacks Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater. They could take Clowney as the No. 1 overall pick, and use the 33rd overall choice on a quarterback.
Whomever the Texans take, they better be right.
“I can’t tell you that any of those quarterbacks will be great any more that I can tell you Peyton was going to be great,” Polian said. “I think they’re going to be decent quarterbacks. I don’t think they’ll be failures. But Lord, if you have a failure, it’s over.”
The No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft can make or break a franchise. A look at some of the notable decisions made with the top pick over the years:
1998: Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. The Colts wisely chose the future Hall of Famer over Leaf, who played just 25 games and finished with 14 TD passes and 36 INTs.
2007: JaMarcus Russell over Calvin Johnson. The Raiders passed on Johnson, whom many considered the safest pick in the draft, to take Russell, who started only 25 games in his career and finished with a career 65.2 passer rating.
2005: Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers. Smith eventually turned in a few adequate seasons, but the 49ers have to regret passing on Rodgers, who has a 104.9 career rating.
2006: Mario Williams over Vince Young. The Texans’ choice was unpopular at the time, but Williams ultimately proved to be a better pro than Young or No. 2 pick Reggie Bush.
1981: George Rogers over Lawrence Taylor. Rogers wasn’t exactly a bust for the Saints — he did lead the NFL in rushing as a rookie — but his career pales in comparison to LT’s.