With the NFL Draft looming, I decided to take a look at some of the top low round draft picks in the NFL over the past 31 years. This is the third-part of a three part series, and will feature the best NFL Draft finds over the past 11 years, as of today. Now, it's possible that somebody picked last year or in 2009 could still break out and become the find of the draft. After all, a lot of players featured in the first two installments didn't take off until their third or fourth years, so keep that in mind. So, without further adieu, here are the top NFL Draft Finds over the past 11 years.
2000: Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England Patriots, Pick #199 (6th Round)
I'm sure by now that every football fan knows the story of Tom Brady. Coming out of Michigan, Brady was mainly considered to be the placeholder until super recruit Drew Henson could take over the Wolverines' quarterbacking duties. So nobody gave it much thought when the Patriots picked Brady late in the 2000 draft. However, in 2001 Drew Bledsoe got hurt, and Brady stepped up and not only succeeded, but led the Patriots to perhaps the most improbable Super Bowl win of all time. From there, Brady only got better, winning two more Super Bowl and becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
2001: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals, Pick #204 (7th Round)
Houshmandzadeh and college teammate Chad Johnson were both drafted by the Bengals in the 2001 Draft, Johnson in the second round and Houshmandzadeh in the seventh. At first, Houshmandzadeh was primarily used on special teams, and after missing most of 2003 with a hamstring injury, not much was expected of him entering the 2004 season. But Houshmandzadeh came back better than ever, catching 73 passes and providing the Bengals with a great possesion receiver to go along with their big-time deep threat in Johnson. Houshmandzadeh kept up the good work, and in 2007 he led the league in receptions with 112. Now with the Baltimore Ravens, Houshmandzadeh has caught 616 passes for 7,091 yards thus far in his career.
2002: Brett Keisel, Defensive End, Pittsburgh Steelers, Pick #242 (7th Round)
A product of Brigham Young University, Keisel spent his first few years as a reverse to starter Kimo Von Oelhofen. When Von Oelhofen left in 2006, Keisel stepped right in and delivered 5.5 sacks in his first year as a starter. Ever since then, Keisel has been a key member of the fierce Pittsburgh defense, playing for AFC Championship teams and one Super Bowl Championship team. Keisel also played in his first Pro Bowl after the 2010 season, and even picked off a pass and ran it 79 yards for a touchdowns against the Bucs last season. Not only that, but Keisel possessed the most fearsome beard in the NFL until he shaved it off for charity last February.
2003: Dan Koppen, Center, New England Patriots, Pick #164 (5th Round)
Like fellow Boston College alum Tom Nalen, Koppen was a second-team All Big-East selection who was thought by scouts to be too small to succeed as an NFL center. Just like Nalen did, Koppen has proven his critics wrong, as his quickness and smarts proved to be quite useful to the Patriots. Koppen wasted no time, as he took over the starting center role after an injury to Damien Woody in week 2 of the 2003 season and never looked back, becoming a Super Bowl winning center in his first two years in the NFL. In 2007, Koppen made the Pro Bowl and helped the Patriots finish the regular season with a 16-0 record. Today, Koppen is still going strong, and should have a few top-notch years left as the Patriots' center in front of Tom Brady.
2004: Jared Allen, Defensive End, Kansas City Chiefs, Pick #126 (4th Round)
It's not everyday that defensive ends from a small school like Idaho State become one of the top pass rushers in football, but then again, there aren't many players like Jared Allen. The outspoken, fun-loving former roadie for Motorhead made his presence immediately felt, putting up 9.5 sacks as a rookie for the Chiefs in 2004. Ever since then, Allen has caused havoc for opposing offenses, and in 2007 he led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time. After the 2007 season, Allen was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, and he's kept up the solid work since then, with 40 sacks and 2 Pro Bowl appearances in his first three seasons for the Vikings. Since Allen entered the league in 2004, he has 83.5 sacks, a mark that is the best in the NFL over the past seven years, and at 29, Allen is nowhere near done, a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks.
2005: Jay Ratliff, Defensive Tackle, Dallas Cowboys, Pick #224 (7th Round)
Ratliff spent only one year as a Defensive Tackle at Auburn when the Cowboys took him late in the 2005 Draft. After spending his first two years coming off the bench, coach Wade Phillips plugged Ratliff in as the starting nose tackle in 2007, and Ratliff stepped right in. Despite being somewhat small for a nose tackle, Ratliff is able to cause chaos in the middle by using his quickness, which is usually too much for opposing lineman to handle. In the last three years, Ratliff has played in the Pro Bowl, and collected a total of 17 sacks over that span, the most of any defensive tackle. Not too bad for a player that originally came to Auburn as a tight end.
2006: Marques Colston, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints, Pick #252 (7th Round)
Much like Shannon Sharpe, Colston was a 'tweener' from a small school whom many NFL teams felt was too small for a tight end and too slow to be a wide receiver. The Saints picked the Hofstra product with the fourth to last pick in the draft, and coach Sean Payton was so impressed by Colston in his first training camp that the Saints traded away starting wideout Donte' Stallworth to open up a spot for Colston in the lineup. Colston made Payton look like a genius as he caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns to help take the Saints to the NFC Championship game. Since then, Colston has continued to be Drew Brees' favorite target at wide receiver, and was a key contributer to the Saints title run in 2009. After five years, Colston has caught 369 passes for 5,067 yards and 40 touchdowns, marks that already put him in third place in each category in Saints history.
2007: Ahmad Bradshaw, Running Back, New York Giants, Pick #250 (7th Round)
Now we have reached the part of the article where it's somewhat murky, as players drafted this late are still quite young and have not yet reached the prime of their careers, so it's hard to say who will truly emerge as the steals of the draft. For now though, Bradshaw looks like a heck of a pick for the Giants. After playing at Marshall, Bradshaw spent most of his first year on the bench, but broke out with an 88 yard touchdown run late in the season against Buffalo, and was quite effective in the playoffs, running for 208 yards in the postseason as the Giants won the Superbowl. Since then, Bradshaw has steadily worked his way up in the lineup, and in 2010 he took over the starting running back duties from Brandon Jacobs. While Bradshaw has talent, as his 1,235 yards last season will attest, he also has shown a tendency to fumble the ball. If Bradshaw can correct his fumbling problem, then there's no doubt that he can become one of the NFL's best backs for the next few years.
2008: Peyton Hillis, Running Back, Denver Broncos, Pick #227 (7th Round)
Hillis was a fullback at Arkansas, blocking for superstar backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. In his first two seasons, Hillis had some success running the ball for the Broncos, but after being traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2010 for Brady Quinn, Hillis flourished. After taking over the starting running back job in week three last year, Hillis flourished, making his presence felt by running for 144 yards against the staunch Ravens' defense. For the year, Hillis finished with 1,177 and 11 touchdowns on 277 carries, and he added 61 catches for 477 yards and two touchdowns. Plus, earlier today, Hills was announced as the cover athlete for Madden '12, a feat that seemed impossible just one short year ago.
2009: Johnny Knox, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears, Pick #154 (5th Round)
Thus far, there aren't really a whole lot of breakout candidates from the lower rounds of this draft, but as we just saw last year with Hillis, a player could develop out of nowhere in their third year next year, providing of course that there is an NFL season next year. For now, my choice is Knox, a fifth round pick who has been a bit inconsistent, but has played pretty well for a fifth round wide receiver from Abilene Christian. In 2009, Knox made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, averaging 29 yards a return. Not only that, but Knox caught 45 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, Knox started all 16 games for the Bears at wide receiver, and provided a much-needed deep threat for Jay Cutler. In 2010, Knox caught 51 passes for 960 yards and five touchdowns. His 18.8 ypc average ranked fifth in the NFL last season. If Knox continues to develop, he could become the best wide receiver the Bears have had since the heyday of Curtis Conway.
2010: Cody Grimm, Safety, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pick #210 (7th Round)
The son of Hall of Famer Russ Grimm, Cody was one of only two seventh rounders in last year's draft to start at least half of their team's games in 2010 (Indianapolis linebacker Kavell Corner being the other). A three-year starter at Virginia Tech, Grimm got his opportunity after Tanard Jackson was suspended for the season, and held up rather well, racking up 38 tackles and two interceptions. He even returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown. A broken fibula ended Grimm's season after 11 games, but he should be in contention for a starting role in the Bucs secondary again in 2011, provided of course that there is football to play in 2011.
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