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Lucky Seven: Ranking the #7 Picks, Part 2

Posted Apr 26, 2018

In our ranking of all 48 players picked seventh overall in the NFL Draft since the merger, we hit the middle ground and find our first Pro Bowl performers

There have been 48 college drafts since the AFL and NFL officially merged in 1970, which means there have been 48 players selected with the seventh overall pick. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who made four of those 48 selections – to wildly differing results – are set to add a 49th player to the list on Thursday night, barring a trade.

I have ranked all 48 of those players. Below, are the men in the middle, those falling between #32 and #17. Click here to review the players I ranked 48-33, and click here for the top 16.

Last week, I started the countdown at the bottom and ran through the players ranked 48 to 33. Now we get to the ones in the middle, the number-seven selections who fall between 32 and 17 in the rankings. On Tuesday, I will reveal the top 16.

As I noted last week, my method was a mixture of objective and subjective reasoning. Borrowing from the record-keeping and analysis provided by Pro Football Reference, I've recorded the career "AV" for each of the 48 players. AV stands for "Approximate Value" and it is an attempt to quantify the overall contributions of every player, for the sake of comparison. Like WAR in baseball, it is a cumulative statistic; players compile a certain AV figure each year and those add up from season to season. It's a complicated form of analysis, and by no means the final word on the evaluation of any player, but it's a useful tool for comparison. To read up on the AV methodology, click here. Suffice it to say, higher numbers are better.

I've also noted the average AV each player had per season he played. This is an effort to help distinguish between players who had higher peaks and shorter careers and those who played longer and eventually racked up more AV. There's value in both; the best players had high AV totals and good per-season averages. I've also recorded the number of Pro Bowl invites and first-team Associated Press All-Pro selections for each player. All of those factors were taken into account in what at the end was a subjective ranking.

Obviously, the most recent #7 picks haven't had as much time to pile up statistics and honors. That was taken into account. A young player with a brief track record but much remaining promise might rank higher than an average performer who had a five or six-year career.

Ranking Every Post-Merger #7 Pick, Part 2: Picks 32-17

32. Ricky Hunley, LB, Cincinnati, 1984

Career AV: 20

AV Per Season: 2.86

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 30 starts in seven seasons

Hunley never played for the team that drafted him, as the Bengals failed to get him under contract as a rookie and eventually traded him to Denver. Hunley lasted four seasons with the Broncos but was only a starter in two of them, He finished his career with three years as a reserve for the Cardinals and Raiders.

Hunley would later go into coaching and spend several years as executive vice president of the NFL Players Association. His average AV is higher than only one player above him, and that player is still active with a chance to build on his career.

31. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland, 2009

Career AV: 25

AV Per Season: 2.78

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: One 50-catch season in nine NFL campaigns

The Raiders took Heyward-Bey higher than most expected he would go in 2009, likely because they coveted his speed. However, the former Maryland star has a career average of 14.4 yards per catch that is not indicative of one of the NFL's top deep threats. Heyward-Bey had a line of 64-975-4 in his third season as a Raider but hasn't topped 41 grabs in any other campaign. He has played his last four seasons as a reserve in Pittsburgh, catching a total of 32 passes in that span.

30. Sedrick Ellis, DT, New Orleans, 2008

Career AV: 30

AV Per Season: 6.00

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 12.5 career sacks, including 6.0 in 2010

To be fair to Ellis, he has a higher per-season AV average than 12 players who rank higher on the list, but he chose to retire after just five seasons. He started in the Saints' Super Bowl victory over Indianapolis at the end of his second season, in which he contributed two sacks. Ellis signed with the Bears as a free agent after his fifth and final year in New Orleans but hung up his cleats before the season started.

29. Michael Huff, S, Oakland, 2006

Career AV: 38

AV Per Season: 4.75

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 11 interceptions in nine seasons

Huff had a significantly longer career than Ellis and racked up more career AV but had some pretty significant ups and downs. He had just one interception in his first three seasons with the Raiders and lost his starting job in his third campaign. However, he regained a spot in the starting lineup after moving from strong to free safety and even earned second-team AP All-Pro honors in 2010 with a three-interception, four-sack campaign. At this point in the list, we're starting to transition into players who at least had productive careers, if we're not yet at the star level.

28. Byron Leftwich, QB, Jacksonville, 2003

Career AV: 36

AV Per Season: 4.00

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 24-26 record as an NFL starter

Leftwich finished with a lower AV total and a lower average than Huff, but he places higher on this list because his first three seasons were more impactful than any stretch of Huff's career. Leftwich started 38 games in his first three seasons, producing a 21-17 record and 27 total AV in that span. He won eight of his 11 starts in 2005 to help the Jaguars get back to the playoffs for the first time in six years. However, while he played six more seasons after that fast start he started only 12 more games and did not win a start after 2006. Leftwich is another player on this list who had a stint with the Buccaneers, starting the first three games of 2009.

27. Mark Barron, S, Tampa Bay, 2012

Career AV: 33

AV Per Season: 5.50

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 81 career starts between safety and linebacker

Barron could move steadily up this list in the years to come. Though he never established himself as a star in Tampa before being traded in the middle of his third season to the Rams, Barron has found new life at a new position. The Rams quickly began using him in a hybrid LB/S role and he has since transitioned fully to linebacker and started 30 games over the past two seasons. Barron's totals in 2016-17 include more than 200 tackles along with five interceptions and two sacks.

26. Junior Miller, TE, Atlanta, 1980

Career AV: 15

AV Per Season: 3.00

Pro Bowls: 2

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 12 touchdown receptions in first two seasons

Miller's placement on this list could be questioned a bit, as he has easily the lowest total and per-season average AV among the top 30 players. Still, he is the first one on the list with any Pro Bowl experience, having gone to the all-star game at the end of his first two seasons. In fact, his first two campaigns in Atlanta were very productive, including 78 catches and 12 touchdowns. That's enough to bump him up a couple spots on this list. Miller played only three more seasons after that, however, and scored just two more times.

25. Roy Williams, WR, Detroit, 2004

Career AV: 49

AV Per Season: 5.44

Pro Bowls: 1

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: Career-high 82 catches for 1,310 yards in 2006

Williams had a good NFL career, particularly in terms of finding the end zone. He had 28 touchdown receptions in just his first four seasons, and 44 at the end of his nine-year run. Williams made the Pro Bowl after his 1,310-yard third-year campaign, but otherwise never cracked 900 yards in a season. The Cowboys still thought highly enough of him in 2008 to include first and third-round draft picks in a trade for the Lions' receiver, though he never emerged as a lead receiver for the Cowboys.

24. Ike Hilliard, WR, N.Y. Giants, 1997

Career AV: 53

AV Per Season: 4.42

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 6,397 career receiving yards

One could make an argument for flipping the spots of these two consecutively-ranked receivers. Williams had more touchdowns and a higher per-catch average and he had one Pro Bowl and one 1,000-yard season whereas Hilliard had none. The argument for Hilliard comes down to total production, as his 6,397 career yards are more than Williams' 5,795, and he piled up a bit more AV. Hilliard also had a very nice postseason run for the Giants in 2000.

23. Mike Mamula, DE, Philadelphia, 1995

Career AV: 34

AV Per Season: 6.80

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 95 yards as a rookie in 2017

The Eagles traded up to get Mamula after the former Boston College pass-rusher lit up the NFL Scouting Combine with an incredible workout performance. Mamula subsequently was slapped with the unflattering "workout warrior" tag when his NFL career failed to result in multiple Pro Bowl campaigns. Lost in that narrative is that Mamula was actually a pretty productive player for the Eagles, albeit in a too-short career. He had 31.5 sacks from 1995-2000 (he missed the 1998 season after blowing out his right knee in the preseason), including 8.0 in 1996 and 8.5 in 1999. Further injuries forced Mamula to retire after 2000 or he would probably have climbed significantly higher on this list.

(Though irrelevant to this exercise, the rest of the action stemming from Philly's trade up to #7 has not helped the legacy of the Mamula selection. It was the Buccaneers who gave up that pick, moving down to #12 and picking up a pair of second-round selections in the process. Tampa Bay picked Warren Sapp at #12 then used those extra picks to move back up into the first round and took Derrick Brooks at #28. That's two eventual Hall of Famers.)

22. Aldon Smith, DE, San Francisco, 2011

Career AV: 29

AV Per Season: 5.80

Pro Bowls: 1

All-Pro Selections: 1

Key Stat: 33.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons.

Like Mamula, Smith would surely be higher on this list if his career had lasted longer, but it has been derailed by off-the-field issues. Smith had 18 AV after just his first two seasons, as he debuted with 14.0 sacks in 2011 and then exploded for an NFL-high 19.5 in 2012. He was the fastest player ever to get to 30 sacks, surpassing a mark set by the great Reggie White. However, multiple suspensions and time spent in rehab limited his action over the next three years and his attempts to be reinstated to the NFL have not yet been realized. Smith could conceivably return and rise up this list.

21. Darrin Nelson, RB, Minnesota, 1982

Career AV: 56

AV Per Season: 4.67

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: Six career starts

Nelson didn't hit the peaks of Williams, Mamula or Smith but he played long enough to rack up more AV than all of them, along with nearly 7,000 yards from scrimmage and another 4,000 yards in the return game. He never cracked 1,000 rushing yards in a season but did have three seasons with 1,194 or more yards from scrimmage, all with the Vikings. After seven years in Minnesota he was included in the enormous and infamous trade that brought Herschel Walker to the Vikings from Dallas. Nelson never reported to the Cowboys, however, and was traded to San Diego before eventually working his way back to Minnesota.

20. Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland, 2010

Career AV: 49

AV Per Season: 6.13

Pro Bowls: 2

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 20 interceptions in eight NFL seasons

Haden burst onto the NFL scene with a six-interception rookie season for the Browns and has been a starter for most of his eight campaigns in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. He had another 10 interceptions from 2012-14 and went to the Pro Bowl after the last two of those three seasons. Haden is higher on this list than a few players with more career AV based on the idea that he is likely to add to his career totals in the seasons to come. However, his most recent seasons have been less productive than the first five.

19. DeForest Buckner, DE, San Francisco, 2016

Career AV: 14

AV Per Season: 7.00

Pro Bowls: 0

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: Nine sacks in first two seasons

Buckner is in the top 20 on this list despite a relatively low career AV total based on the idea that his first two seasons look like he is ticketed for stardom. His two-year average of 7.0 AV is better than every player below him and nine of those above him. If he continues at his current pace, he's likely to crack the top 10 on the list. However, I can't assume that will definitely happen, so Buckner can't be placed any higher on the list.

18. Thomas Jones, RB, Arizona, 2000

Career AV: 78

AV Per Season: 6.50

Pro Bowls: 1

All-Pro Selections: 0

Key Stat: 10,591 career rushing yards

After Jones' first three seasons in the NFL, he looked like he was headed for a bust label. Certainly no one would have predicted at that point that he would crack 10,000 rushing yards in his career. However, a trade to the Buccaneers in 2003 turned things around for the former Virginia star. He looked good enough (4.6 yards per carry) in limited playing time in Tampa to earn a big free agent contract in Chicago, where he belatedly started producing like a seventh-overall draft pick. Jones had five 1,000-yard seasons for the Bears and Jets and was never below 896 yards in a seven-year span from 2004-10. He also scored 71 touchdowns.

17. Mike Reid, DT, Cincinnati, 1970

Career AV: 39

AV Per Season: 7.80

Pro Bowls: 2

All-Pro Selections: 1

Key Stat: Started all 64 games in which he played

The first player on our list chronologically makes a pretty good showing thanks to a career that was productive but brief, as he retired after five years to pursue a career as a song-writer. Sacks were not an official statistic during his time in the league and there's no record of how many times he got to the quarterback, but he was considered one of the league's better interior pass-rushers. That was reflected in his All-Pro selection in 1972, which was also the first of his two Pro Bowl seasons. Reid has excelled at his second career, too, winning a Grammy and penning such memorable hits as Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." No AV is awarded for that, however.