Boom, Bust or ‘Tweener: NFL Top Draft picks in the 1980s, Part 1, 1980-84
While it will be drastically different this year, due to the COVID-19 virus shutting down large gatherings, the NFL Draft will commence as scheduled April 23-25.
One aspect of the draft that hasn’t changed: football prognosticators trying to decipher which players will make an impact. Through the years, players considered highly-valued prospects turned out to be busts, while others lived up to their potential, turning in Hall of Fame careers or, at worst, a few Pro Bowl appearances.
The 1980s had its share of high-selection busts, but also plenty of college stars that lived up to the hype. I went through every draft of the ‘80s, noting all top-ten selections in each first round. Some drafts, such as ’81, ’83 and ’89, produced multiple Hall of Famers in the top ten. Others, such as ’80, ’82 and ’84, had selections that carried more bust than bang.
I divided players into three different pools, labeling them either booms, ‘tweeners, or busts.
Booms are players that either are in the Hall of Fame, will likely be enshrined in Canton in the future, or had a potential HOF career cut short due to injury. Those cases are rare, but there are exceptions. For instance, wide receiver Sterling Sharpe of the Green Bay Packers. Sharpe was selected seventh overall in the ’88 draft. He blossomed into one of the league’s top receivers, but saw his career end prematurely in ’94 due to injury. It’s anyone’s guess as to how Sharpe’s career would have panned out, but assuming he kept his steady pace of All-Pro selections for a few more seasons, he would have been a lock for Canton.
‘Tweeners are players that had decent, solid careers, but are unlikely to get into the Hall of Fame. An example is Mark Haynes, selected eighth overall by the Giants in ’80. Haynes, a defensive back, was a two-time All Pro and three-time Pro Bowl selection. He started for seven seasons and retired after the ’89 season.
Busts were fairly easy to determine. There are the legendary busts: Aundray Bruce, Tony Mandarich; and the more obscure busts: Lam Jones, Kenneth Sims, Dean Steinkuhler. With criteria in place, let’s get down to business.
Anthony Munoz, T, Bengals
Billy Sims, RB, Lions
Bruce Clark, DE, Packers
Junior Miller, TE, Falcons
Mark Haynes, DB, Giants
Doug Martin, DE, Vikings
Jacob Green, DE, Seahawks
Lam Jones, WR, Jets
Curtis Dickey, RB, Colts
Curtis Greer, DE, Cardinals
The top ten in ’80 featured only one Hall of Famer, Munoz, considered one of the best offensive lineman in NFL history. Munoz started for 12 seasons, made 11 Pro Bowl appearances and was a nine-time All Pro selection. The rock of Cincinnati’s O-line throughout the decade, Munoz played in 185 games and even caught 18 passes, scoring four touchdowns as an eligible receiver.
Haynes is probably the best of the in-between players. The Giant DB had a nice, solid career.
For Sims, the No. 1 pick, it’s difficult to think of what could have been. Sims, a legendary running back at Oklahoma, played five seasons, making three Pro Bowl appearances. He rushed for more than 5,000 yards and scored nearly 50 touchdowns. However, his career was cut short following a devastating knee injury in ’84.
Miller, drafted from Nebraska, hauled in 122 receptions, scored 14 touchdowns and was selected to two Pro Bowls. Miller retired with the Saints following the ’84 season.
Clark made one Pro Bowl appearance and was a six-year starter. He played in 113 games and recorded 39.5 sacks, retiring in ’89 with the Chiefs.
Martin posted 50.5 sacks in 126 games. He started for seven seasons and played his entire 10-year career in Minnesota.
Green, a 12-year starter, enjoyed a very productive career. Green had 97.5 sacks in 180 games and was named to the Pro Bowl twice. He was a pass-rushing force on Seattle’s dominant defense in the mid-80s.
Greer was a tough one, bust or ‘tweener? The defensive end had two outstanding seasons in ’83 and ’84, collecting 16 and 14 sacks, respectively. However, he recorded no sacks his first two seasons and finished with 50.5 sacks in 94 games.
Jones started only three seasons (61 games), catching 186 passes and 14 TDs.
Dickey had one solid season with the Colts in ’83, rushing for more than 1,000 yards, his only season in which he played all 16 games. He retired with the Browns in ’86.
Lawrence Taylor, LB, Giants
Kenny Easley, DB, Seahawks
Ronnie Lott, DB, 49ers
George Rogers, RB, Saints
Freeman McNeil, RB, Jets
E.J. Junior, LB, Cardinals
Hugh Green, LB, Bucs
Mel Owens, LB, Rams
Rich Campbell, QB, Packers
David Verser, WR, Bengals
The ’81 draft had a few outstanding defensive selections, highlighted by an impressive group of linebackers. Taylor, prototype for the modern edge rusher, finished with 132.5 sacks in 184 games. In 13 seasons, Taylor was named All Pro eight times and was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection.
Easley had a fairly short career, seven seasons, but made the most of it. He had 32 interceptions in 89 games, making five trips to the Pro Bowl. A three-time All Pro, Easley went in the Hall of Fame in 2017.
Lott, one of the game’s most feared hitters, played 192 games, starting for 14 seasons. Lott had 63 interceptions, returning five for touchdowns. A four-time Super Bowl champion with the 49ers, Lott was a six-time All-Pro selection.
Rogers was a starter for six seasons, making two Pro Bowl appearances and one All-Pro nod. He rushed for 7,176 yards and 54 TDs. Rogers had a sensational rookie season (1,674 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns), earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. He played his final three seasons with Washington, winning a Super Bowl in ’87.
McNeil played in 144 games, rushing for more than 8,000 yards and 38 TDs. His accomplishments likely won’t get him into Canton, but he has three Pro Bowl trips and one All-Pro selection on his resume.
Junior enjoyed a lengthy career, playing in 170 games with four different teams. In ’84, Junior made his lone All-Pro selection off a career-high 9.5 sacks. He followed it with a Pro Bowl appearance in ’85 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Green had two Pro Bowl seasons in ’83 and ’84, but couldn’t match that greatness throughout his career. He played in 136 games, finishing with 34.3 sacks.
Mel Owens, the fourth linebacker picked among the top ten, played all of his nine seasons in L.A. Owens never made a Pro Bowl, but played in 122 games with 26.5 sacks, nine in ’85.
Campbell came to Green Bay with a lot of hype but fizzled from the start. The Packers kept him through ’84, but cut him loose after he made just seven appearances. He started zero games, throwing nine interceptions and three touchdown passes. Campbell’s disastrous rookie season foreshadowed the years ahead. In two games, he completed 15 of 30 passes for 168 yards with 4 interceptions and no touchdowns.
Verser, a Kansas product, ended his career in ’87 with three touchdown receptions. Verser caught 23 passes in 52 games.
Mike Munchak, G, Oilers
Marcus Allen, RB, Raiders
Johnie Cooks, LB, Colts
Chip Banks, LB, Browns
Jim McMahon, QB, Bears
Jeff Bryant, DE, Seahawks
Gerald Riggs, RB, Falcons
Kenneth Sims, DE, Patriots
Art Schlitcher, QB, Colts
Munchak rarely sat. The Hall of Fame guard started 156 of 159 games played with the Oilers. He went to nine Pro Bowls and was a two-time All-Pro. In 2011, Munchak returned to coach his old team, now the Tennessee Titans, through 2013.
Allen, from USC aka, “Tailback U,” played 16 seasons and 222 games – remarkable for a running back. After retiring with the Chiefs in ’97, Allen had been named Offensive Rookie of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year in ’85, ’93 Pro Football Writers’ Association Comeback Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player, two-time All- Pro, six-time Pro Bowler and won a Super Bowl with the Raiders. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2003.
It’s difficult to think of Cooks as a bust. While he never reached the Pro Bowl, the second selection played 10 seasons. In ’84, with the Colts, Cooks had 11.5 sacks. However, he started just 97 of 128 games played and finished with 32 sacks.
Banks, the third pick in ’82, proved to be the better linebacker. Banks played in 146 games, finishing with 46 sacks. Banks missed the entire ’88 season due to a contract dispute. In ’82, he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Banks was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and earned All-Pro honors with the Browns in ’83.
McMahon had an interesting career. “Mad Mac” made just one Pro Bowl appearance, after the Bears’ Super Bowl triumph in ’85. He won two Super Bowls, but his second was as backup to Brett Favre on the ’96 Packers. He threw 100 TD passes, but 90 interceptions. McMahon never started through a full season. He will never get into Canton, but his dare-devil playing style, attitude and moxie left an indelible mark on the game.
Bryant was a top performer on Seattle’s play-making defense in the ‘80s. The 6-foot-5, 276 pound lineman logged 175 games and brought down QBs 63 times. Surprisingly, he never reached the Pro Bowl, but his 14.5 sacks in ’84 stood out.
Nelson played 11 seasons, ending his career with the Chargers in ’92. He totaled 4,442 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Riggs was picked at No. 9, one spot ahead of Allen. While he didn’t enjoy an all-time great career like the 10th pick, Riggs was a three-time Pro Bowler and won a title with the Redskins in ’91. He had 8,188 yards and 69 TDs. Riggs was a workhouse with the Falcons, carrying the ball a league-leading 397 times in ’85. A very good dual-purpose back, Riggs hauled in 48 receptions in ’87, earning his third-straight trip to the Pro Bowl.
Sims never got on the right track in New England. The 6-5, 272-pound DE had 17 sacks in 74 games. The Patriots kept him around through ’89 but his numbers never improved.
John Elway, QB, Colts
Eric Dickerson, RB, Rams
Jimbo Covert, T, Bears
Bruce Matthews, G, Oilers
Chris Hinton, T, Broncos
Curt Warner, RB, Seahawks
Billy Ray Smith, LB, Chargers
Terry Kinard, DB, Giants
Todd Blackledge, QB, Chiefs
Michael Haddix, RB, Eagles
The ’83 draft looks very good 37 years later. Four Hall of Famers were selected in the first 10 picks and Hinton may get a call to Canton soon.
After forcing a trade to Denver, Elway cemented his excellent career with two Super Bowl titles in five appearances. He never received All-Pro status but was voted to the Pro Bowl nine times in 16 seasons. Elway, finishing with 51,475 yards passing and 300 TDs, made it to Canton in 2004.
Dickerson broke the single-season rushing record (2,105 yards) in ’84, one season after totaling more than 1,800 yards. He was voted ’83 Offensive Rookie of the Year, ’86 Offensive Player of the Year, a five-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl selection. Dickerson’s numbers dropped drastically after the ’89 season, but the 6-3, 220-pound slasher finished with 2,996 carries.
For Covert, the wait is over. The former Bears tackle will go into the Hall of Fame this year. Covert was a two-time All-Pro and member of the legendary ’85 Bears. He only played eight seasons, but started 110 of 111 games.
Matthews played a lot longer than Covert, but was just as durable. Matthews spent his entire 18-year career with the Oilers-Titans franchise, starting 293 of 296 games. He played every O-line position and was a 14-time Pro Bowler. Matthews was named All-Pro three times before his 30th birthday and three times after age 36. He made the Pro Bowl as a 40-year-old in 2001. Was Matthews the best offensive lineman drafted in the 80s? Munoz could make an argument against him but Matthews played longer and provided more value.
Hinton, drafted by Denver but traded to the Colts in the Elway deal, hasn’t received the call to Canton, but I think he will. Hinton played in 177 games (starting 172) and went to the Pro Bowl seven times. He only made one All-Pro team, but it was in his 11th season.
Warner’s career didn’t measure up to Dickerson’s but few did. He played 100 games and rushed for almost 8,000 yards with 56 TDs. Warner made three Pro Bowls. He rebounded from a season-ending knee injury in ’84 to have excellent seasons in ’86 and ’87.
Smith was a durable linebacker, playing his entire 10 seasons in San Diego. He never made it to the Pro Bowl, but amassed 15 interceptions and 26.5 sacks. Smith posted 11 sacks in ’86.
Kinard played only eight seasons, but started 115 of 121 games. Kinard finished with five interceptions twice (’85 and ’87) and made the Pro Bowl in ’88. He won a Super Bowl with the Giants in ’86.
It’s crazy to think Blackledge was picked higher than Jim Kelly (14th) and Dan Marino (27th). Blackledge, from Penn State, finished with 29 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions. For comparison, Marino and Kelly combined for 657 TD tosses in their long, Hall of Fame careers. Blackledge started only 29 times and never won more than five games in a season. He spent his final two seasons as a backup in Pittsburgh before retiring at age 28 in ’89.
Haddix, at 6-2, 225 pounds, played fullback most of his eight NFL seasons. It’s strange the Eagles took a fullback so high in the draft. Haddix had 91 carries his rookie season with 220 yards and two TDs. He caught 43 passes in ’85 but didn’t score a touchdown. Haddix left the Eagles in ’88, played two seasons in Green Bay and retired.
Following a historic draft in ’83, NFL teams had less talent to choose from the next year because of their new rivals in the Spring. The USFL held their 2nd annual draft in January of '84 and signed several big name college players before NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had a chance to read their names at his April draft. Players like '83 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, Hall of Famers Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman, and Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champ Gary Clark. As a result, no Hall of Famers were drafted in the top ten or through the first round. Most of the top ten selections turned in dismal careers.
Irving Fryar, WR, Patriots
Carl Banks, LB, Giants
Bill Maas, NT, Chiefs
Rick Bryan, DE, Falcons
Dean Steinkuhler, T, Oilers
Kenny Jackson, WR, Eagles
Mossy Cade, DB, Chargers
Ricky Hunley, LB, Bengals
Leonard Coleman, DB, Colts
Russell Carter, DB, Jets
I considered placing Fryar in the boom category, but it’s unlikely he’ll make the Hall of Fame. Fryar played through 2000, making five Pro Bowls but never reached All-Pro status. Fryar played in 255 games, grabbing 851 receptions for 12,785 yards and 84 touchdowns. His numbers in New England weren’t that impressive, but his career turned around with the Dolphins and Eagles. In ’97, at age 35, Fryar hauled in 86 receptions for 1,316 yards and six TDs.
Banks was a mainstay on a very talented Giants defense, winning two Super Bowls. In ’87, Banks turned in his lone All-Pro and Pro Bowl season, with 101 tackles, nine sacks and two forced fumbles. He also had a solid ’86 campaign (113 tackles, 6.5 sacks). Upon retiring in ’95, Banks totaled 173 games, recorded 826 solo tackles and 39.5 sacks.
Maas, 6-5, 271 pounds, split time at nose tackle and defensive end. Maas was a two-time Pro Bowler and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in ’84. He logged 130 games with 40 sacks. Maas left K.C. following the ’92 season, spent one season with the Packers, and then retired.
Bryan played in 109 games, was a versatile defensive lineman, but had a modest career. In 10 seasons with the Falcons, Bryan lined up at defensive end, nose tackle, defensive tackle and linebacker. He totaled 29 sacks with a high of seven in ’86.
Hoping to continue the trend of selecting Hall of Fame O-linemen, the Oilers picked Steinkuhler second overall in ’84. Taking Munchak in ’82 and Matthews the following season, Houston had planned to build a stout offensive front for the next decade. Steinkuhler’s career was decent, but nowhere near the level of Munchak and Matthews. He played in exactly 100 games through seven seasons, starting only 77. Steinkuhler retired in ’91 at age 30, never reaching the Pro Bowl.
Similar to Steinkuhler, it’s hard to label Jackson a bust, but being selected fourth overall he just didn’t produce. Through eight seasons, Jackson started 53 of 102 games played with 126 receptions and 11 TDs. His best season was ’85 with 40 receptions.
For Cade there is no debate: bust. After a contract dispute with the Chargers, Cade played a season with the USFL’s Memphis Showboats. The Packers signed him in ’85 and he was gone following the ’86 season. The following year, Cade was convicted of allegedly raping his aunt and spent 15 months in prison. The Vikings signed Cade after his release but quickly waived him due to public pressure. He had five interceptions in 20 games.
Hunley played through 1990, but never made an impact. He started 30 of 91 games played, mostly with Denver, and never started all 16 games in a season.
After starting all 16 games and intercepting four passes in ’86 with the Colts, Coleman likely thought his career was looking up. He never started another game in the NFL and retired following the ’89 season. Coleman totaled 49 games and six interceptions.
Carter, along with Cade and Coleman, was one of three DBs picked in the first ten. None made a dent in the NFL. His rookie season was productive: four interceptions, three sacks in 11 games, but he never intercepted another pass. The Jets cut him loose after ’87; Carter signed with the Raiders and retired following the ’89 season.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Damask is an 80sFootballCards.com contributor as well as the Weeklies Editor of Capital Newspapers - North, in Wisconsin.
You can contact Kevin at email@example.com
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