Hey, did you know the NFL Draft starts this Thursday? Yes, in what is sure to be the last event the NFL puts on until the 2012 Draft, each team is looking to find the next great player that will either bring them to prominence or keep them there. While last year I spotlighted some of the high picks that didn't quite make it (which you can read about here, here, and here), this year I decided to go in the opposite direction and spotlight some of the best low draft picks to make an impact in the NFL over the past 30 years. So, in the first of a three-part series, here are the best draft finds for each NFL draft in the 1980's.
1980: Wayne Smith, Cornerback, Detroit Lions, Pick #278 (11th Round)
With the first pick in the 11th round, the Detroit Lions selected Smith, a cornerback out of Purdue. It's rare that 11th round picks start as rookies, but Smith took over the starting cornerback role in the middle of his rookie season. After spending nearly three seasons in Detroit, Smith went on to St. Louis and was their starting cornerback from 1983-1986. For his career, Smith started 84 games and picked off 10 passes over an eight year career. Sure, Smith wasn't exactly a great player, but he did provide great value for an 11th round pick.
1981: Jim Wilks, Defensive End, New Orleans Saints, Pick #305 (12th Round)
The Saints selected Wilks out of San Diego State as part of a draft class that also included stalwarts such as George Rogers, Rickey Jackson, Hoby Brenner, and Frank Warren. Over the next 13 years, Wilks would become a solid performer along the Saints defensive line as the team climbed to respectability, first as a defensive end, then as a nose tackle. Over his career, Wilks started 154 games for the Saints and racked up 45.5 sacks, with a career high of 8 in 1983.
1982: Steve Jordan, Tight End, Minnesota Vikings, Pick #179 (7th Round)
The greatest football player to come out of Brown since Fritz Pollard, the Vikings took a flyer on Jordan in the seventh round. As it turned out, it was a great move, as Jordan would become one of the NFL's top tight ends for the next decade. Jordan was named to six consecutive Pro Bowls (1986-1991) and from 1985 to 1992, Jordan led all tight ends with 383 catches and 5,074 receiving yards. For his 13 year career, all in Minnesota, Jordan finished with 498 catches (10th all time amongst tight ends), for 6,307 yards (8th) and 28 touchdowns. Interestingly enough, Jordan's son Cameron, a defensive end from Cal, is expected to be a first round pick in this year's draft.
1983: Karl Mecklenburg, Linebacker, Denver Broncos, Pick #310 (12th Round)
A walk-on at the University of Minnesota, Mecklenburg was considered to be too small and too slow to make an impact in the NFL, but the Broncos took a chance on him in the 12th round primarily due to Mecklenburg's performance on the IQ tests at the NFL Combine. As things turns out, it was a stroke of genius for the Broncos, as Mecklenburg became the leader of a defense that went to three Super Bowls in the 1980s. Although Mecklenburg was officially listed as an inside linebacker, he played all over the place along the Broncos' front seven, and was considered to be the most versatile defender of his era. Mecklenburg was named to six Pro Bowl squads and was a first-team All Pro three times (1985, 1986, 1989) during his career. Mecklenburg finished his career with 79 sacks, second in Broncos history, and an unofficial total of 1,104 tackles.
1984: Earnest Byner, Running Back, Cleveland Browns, Pick #280 (10th Round)
Okay, so he did have "The Fumble", but other than that, Byner was heck of a pick for the Browns. With the last pick in the tenth round, the Browns selected the running back from East Carolina, and Byner proved to be a key contributor to the Browns' teams that made the AFC Championship Game in 1986 and 1987. After five years of splitting carries with Kevin Mack, the Browns traded Byner to the Washington Redskins in 1989, and it was there that Byner had his most success, picking up two 1,000 yard seasons and being the leading rusher for the 1991 Super Bowl Champions. For his 14 year career, Byner ran for 8,261 yards and 56 touchdowns, and also caught 512 passes out of the backfield, which ranks 12th all-time among running backs.
1985: Raleigh McKenzie, Offensive Lineman, Washington Redskins, Pick #290 (11th Round)
Like Byner, McKenzie was a starter on the Redskins' 1991 Super Bowl Championship team. Not only that, but McKenzie was also a starter on the Redskins' 1987 Championship squad. An 11th round pick out of Tennessee, McKenzie would go on to play 16 years in the NFL with four different teams, with his first ten years taking place in Washington. A versatile lineman, McKenzie would start at least one game at all five offensive line positions, although he primarily played left guard and center. In 2002, McKenzie was honored for his achievements by being named one of the seventy greatest Redskins of all-time.
1986: Clyde Simmons, Defensive End, Philadelphia Eagles, Pick #233 (9th Round)
A defensive end out of Division 1-AA Western Carolina, the Eagles took a chance on Simmons late in the 1986 draft. The next season, Simmons took over as the starting right defensive end opposite of Reggie White, and the Eagles had the best pair of defensive ends in football for the next six years. Simmons developed into one of the most dangerous pass rushers in football, racking up 15.5 sacks in 1989, 13 in 1991, and a league leading 19 sacks in 1992. After leaving the Eagles in 1993, Simmons played with four different teams, and provided a boost to the pass rush at each stop along the way. Simmons retired in 2000 with 121.5 career sacks, which ranks 14th all time. In 2007, Simmons was voted to the Eagles' 75th Anniversary All-Time team.
1987: Tyrone Braxton, Cornerback, Denver Broncos, Pick #334 (12th Round)
With the next to last pick in the entire draft, the Broncos took a cornerback from Division 1-AA North Dakota State in Tyrone Braxton. By 1989, Braxton was the starting cornerback for the AFC Champion Broncos. After five years in Denver, Braxton spent a year with the Miami Dolphins, then came back as the Broncos' starting strong safety. In 1996, Braxton led the NFL with nine interceptions, while the next year, Braxton picked off a pass in the Super Bowl for the winning Broncos. Braxton retired after the 1999 season with 36 interceptions, 34 of which came in a Denver Broncos uniform, the fourth highest total in Broncos history.
1988: Dwayne Harper, Cornerback, Seattle Seahawks, Pick #299 (11th Round)
Another pick from a Division 1-AA school (South Carolina State), Harper became a starter for the Seahawks in 1989 and held that job for the next seasons. After that, Harper signed with San Diego, and started every game for the 1994 AFC Champions. A solid cornerback, Harper spent 12 years in the NFL, starting 128 games and picking off 24 passes during his career.
1989: Mark Schlereth, Guard, Idaho, Pick #263 (10th Round)
The greatest NFL player to come out of Alaska, Schlereth was picked from the University of Idaho by the Redskins. He started six games during his rookie year, but didn't become a full time starter until 1991. That year, Schlereth made the Pro Bowl and the Redskins won the Superbowl. After the 1994 season, Schlereth signed with the Denver Broncos, where he won another two Super Bowl rings and made the Pro Bowl after the 1998 season. Currently an analyst on ESPN, Schlereth started 140 games during his career despite enduring 29 surgeries, 20 on his knees alone. In 2009, Schlereth was selected to the Denver Broncos 50th Anniversary team.
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