Teams whose first-round picks have survived 'honeymoon phase'
METAIRIE, La. — Every NFL team is in love with its first-round pick. For now, anyway. It’s still the “honeymoon phase” as teams gather for rookie minicamps around the NFL.
But how long do the marriages last?
Signing players to second and third contracts is hardly the only measure of draft success. But it certainly is one of them.
“My philosophy has always been: If we can draft, develop, groom and extend our own, that will be the first thing I’ll always try to do in terms of philosophy and how we want to build a team — career-wise and longevity-wise,” said Texans general manager Brian Gaine, who was hired this year after previously serving as a Texans assistant. “I do subscribe to that philosophy.”
The Texans didn’t have a first-round pick this year because they nailed their decision to trade up for instant-star quarterback Deshaun Watson in 2017.
Quarterback was the missing piece on a loaded roster that also includes seven of the Texans’ other former first-round picks (defensive ends J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V, cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus).
That list doesn’t even include offensive tackle Duane Brown and linebacker Brian Cushing, first-round picks who both spent at least nine years with the Texans before they parted ways over the past six months.
The Steelers and Baltimore Ravens lead all NFL teams with nine of their own first-round draft picks still on their rosters. The Texans, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons are tied with eight apiece. The Panthers and New Orleans Saints also have eight if you count defensive end Julius Peppers (Panthers) and cornerback Patrick Robinson (Saints), who left and returned.
But if you’re just counting first-round picks who have been extended beyond their first contract, it’s a three-way tie for first place between the Texans (Jackson, Watt, Mercilus, Hopkins), Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cameron Heyward and David DeCastro) and Packers (Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Bryan Bulaga). Again, the Panthers crack that list if Peppers counts (also Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis).
On the lower end of the spectrum are the Seattle Seahawks, who have only three of their own first-round draft picks on the roster — and only one who is on his second contract (safety Earl Thomas). The Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams have only four of their own first-round draft picks on the roster, and the Bills just acquired two of them this year.
Of course, first-round picks aren’t the only path to success in the NFL. The New England Patriots made a total of only six first-round picks from 2009 to 2017, and the Seahawks made only one during a five-year span from 2013 to 2017. (Having a QB like Tom Brady or Russell Wilson still trumps everything else.)
The Saints are a curious case, because they have a very good track record with first-round draft picks during the general manager Mickey Loomis/coach Sean Payton era (and they were especially good throughout the 2017 draft, when they landed five starters, including the NFL’s offensive and defensive rookies of the year).
But the Saints have signed only two of their first-round picks to second contracts since 2005 (Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram). Over the past 15 months, the Saints have traded away former first-round picks Brandin Cooks and Stephone Anthony and decided to let safety Kenny Vaccaro go in free agency.
The Saints are one of only 10 NFL teams that have signed two or fewer first-round picks to extensions over that span.
“Obviously, you’d like to draft the player and have him play for you for 10 or 12 years at a high level. And yet every case is a little different,” Loomis said. “That’s a good question [as to why it’s worked out that way]. I would have to go back and look at each one of them and analyze the reasons for each one. I couldn’t just make a general statement.”
Chances are the Saints will start turning that trend around with recent successful first-round picks such as guard Andrus Peat, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (not to mention Day 2 picks such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Marcus Williams).
If those marriages last beyond the honeymoon stage, the Saints should have a nucleus that’s able to keep contending even after quarterback Drew Brees is done playing.
— ESPN Texans reporter Sarah Barshop contributed to this story