Draft time machine: 2003

The foundation of the Vikings defense was built with the 2003 draft, with Kevin Williams and E.J. Henderson both starting their NFL careers that year. John Holler looks back on that draft, seeing how Mel Kiper's rankings and the players selected early held up with seven years of history as our guide.

As we near the 2010 draft, we will take the chance to jump into the Viking Update Wayback Machine and check in on drafts of years past and how they impacted the NFL.

A logical place to start would be 2003. It was perhaps the most embarrassing draft moment in history, as the Vikings thought they had a trade completed and only learned they didn't when Jacksonville and Carolina jumped in front of them to take quarterback Byron Leftwich and offensive tackle Jordan Gross. That combined with Vikings Draft Party host Paul Allen getting the crowd to chant "Suggs! Suggs! Suggs!" so loud it could be heard in the war room as the Vikings took Kevin Williams. The moment was surreal in Vikings folklore. Mike Tice came out to talk about the pick, being loudly booed and telling the crowd to "settle down." It was a rough room – so much so that, as he started to speak, a frail, but angry looking elderly woman walked up as close as she could get to Tice at center stage and flipped him the finger.

For a lot of Vikings fans, that is the lasting memory. It was a disaster. Or was it? Not only did the Vikings come out of the draft well in 2003, but so did almost every team in the league. The draft produced a dozen Pro Bowlers in the first round and one team – the Indianapolis Colts – went a long way to cementing their legacy.

2003 is a long time ago. The Gulf War had just begun and Sadaam Hussein was outed from power. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. SARS was the big scare of the time. The NFL was in labor peace and an extension to the CBA was being discussed and later adopted. It was a great time to be alive and a great time to be a draft prospect. There were stars a'plenty that would get their beginnings on a weekend in late April of that year. Here is their story, highlighted by where some of them were ranked by the Dick Clark of college football – ESPN guru Mel Kiper. There were plenty of misses, but, like "American Bandstand," there were plenty of hits.

At quarterback, it was a pretty good year, but not all of them lived up to their hype. As expected, Carson Palmer went first overall to the Bengals and his time has been something of a hit-or-miss career. But he has been worth the investment, which can't be said for fellow first-rounders Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman. All of them were handed started jobs, but due to injury or ineffectiveness, none of them was able to hold it for long. Perhaps the best QB of this class was one that wasn't even drafted. Tony Romo was rated 10th overall by Kiper and has gone on to be a Pro Bowl QB and has a bright future ahead of him.

The running back position was interesting, to say the least, as the top stars all had big red flags that would follow them into their professional careers. Larry Johnson was the clear-cut No. 1 running back that year, but holdouts and contract squabbles have found him bouncing from team to team over the last year. Kiper listed former Viking Onterrio Smith as the No. 2 running back, ahead of then-injured Willis McGahee. Mel pretty much stood alone on Onterrio, since the Vikings took him in the fourth round with reservations about his penchant for marijuana – something that would follow him into the pros and give the general public an insight into what an Original Whizzinator is and what it does. The RB Class of 2003 was marked by players who teased that they could be as producers, but never reached that status on a consistent basis. Chris Brown, Justin Fargas and Domenik Davis were all players who briefly made a name for themselves.

Perhaps no position proved the fallibility of the draft process than wide receiver. The consensus No. 1 wide receiver on the board was Charles Rogers of Michigan State, who was taken by the Detroit Lions ahead of Andre Johnson, who would become one of the most dominating wide receivers in the game. Another player who was rated low by Kiper and most others was Anquan Boldin. Not only wasn't he the top-rated player on most boards (No. 8 by Kiper), he wasn't even the top pick of the Arizona Cardinals, who took Bryant Johnson (rated No. 4 overall) in the first round. The Vikings got in on the act in 2003, taking Nate Burleson, who was ranked behind such non-factors as Taylor Jacobs, Kelley Washington, Tyrone Calico and Talman Gardner. Another former Viking checked in at No. 18 (Bobby Wade) and he had a much better career than many of the players ranked ahead of him.

As it turned out, it was a banner year for tight ends. The top two TEs – Dallas Clark and Jason Witten – have turned into stars, while L.J. Smith wasn't far behind. However, this draft class was much deeper than even Rockin' Mel anticipated. While there were misfires with guys like George Wrighster and Bennie Joppru at the top, the Class of 2003 included Donald Lee (No. 8 on Kiper's board) and Visanthe Shiancoe (No. 13). A case could be made that this was one of the most dominant positions in terms of players who became stars in their own right.

The offensive tackle position is best remembered by Vikings fans for the Kevin Williams debacle. The Panthers jumped in front of the Vikings to pick Jordan Gross, who became a star in Carolina. But, for the rest of the group, this was a brutal draft class. Kwame Harris, Wayne Hunter, George Foster, Tony Pashos. The list goes on and on of players who never materialized into the foundation blocks they were expected to be. The steal of the draft may have been David Diehl (ranked No. 10 by Kiper), who would become a starter for the Giants. The interior line prospects did little better, with Eric Steinback, Vince Manuai and Derrick Dockery leading the way at guard. Vikings fans will note than starter Antony Herrera was rated 35th – behind a number of players even draftniks don't remember. Jeff Faine of Notre Dame led the center crop and nobody from that group made a huge impact.

The defensive end crop was largely disappointing. Top-rated Terrell Suggs has had numerous big moments, but the next few guys – Michael Haynes, Jerome McDougle, Chris Kelsey, Dwayne White and Taylor Brayton – were more disappointing that inspiring. The most NFL-impressive DE of the group was a guy who was ranked No. 49 – Osi Umenyiora, who has gone on to star with the Giants. At the time, many people, including Kiper on ESPN's coverage of the draft, seemed flabbergasted that the Giants would take such an unknown who may not have been on the radar of too many other teams with the 56th pick late in the second round. The Giants clearly had the right idea.

Kevin Williams became the Vikings' top pick in 2003 and he was rated third among DTs by Kiper – behind Dwayne Robertson and current Vikings teammate Jimmy Kennedy. Robertson was a bust with the Jets and the Saints fared little better when they traded up to take Johnathan Sullivan. The Class of '03 is known much more for futility than success, as guys like Ty Warren, William Joseph and Kenny Patterson never panned out into what they were tabbed when they were drafted. Remember Rien Long? No? You're not alone.

Inside linebacker was considered very weak in 2003, but the Vikings selected Kiper's top-rated player at the position, E.J. Henderson. But the position was much stronger than most thought at the time. Kawika Mitchell (No. 5 by Kiper) and Lance Briggs (No. 6) both went on to be stars for their respective teams and Hunter Hillenmeyer (No. 14) went on to be a longtime starter for the Bears. For what at the time was viewed as the lowest-graded class of the draft produced more quality players than several positions viewed as can't-miss.

The hit-and-miss nature of the draft was no more apparent than at outside linebacker. Among Kiper's top four players were Boss Bailey, former Viking Mike Nattiel, Shawn Price and Chaun Thompson. Bailey has come the closest to being a factor of any of them and injuries have plagued his career. However, the draft had a couple of gold nuggets – one of the green and gold – with Nick Barnett at No. 5 and ‘tweener Robert Mathis at No. 7. Despite being rated fifth among outside linebackers by Kiper and others, the Packers made Barnett the first LB off the board and he made them glad they did. Mathis didn't come off the board until the fifth round with the 138th pick, but it paid off in a big way for the Colts, who had a draft bonanza in 2003 (see below).

Cornerback in 2003 had historical significance. Five corners were taken in the first round. Dallas got top-ranked Terence Newman at No. 5, followed by Marcus Trufant at No. 11 to Seattle. What history will remember is that Tennessee (the same organization that took Kevin Dyson instead of Randy Moss) drafted Andre Woolfolk, followed three picks late by the Chargers taking Sammy Davis. Ouch, babe. The next pick at No. 31? Nnamdi Asomugha by the Raiders. In this instance, Big Al was right. But the cornerback talent wasn't done with the first round. Rashean Mathis, Charles Tillman, Asanti Samuel, Donald Strickland and Leigh Bodden were all gleaned in the middle to late rounds, making this one of the deepest cornerback drafts in recent history.

Safety was just as impressive. Typically an ignored position early, the Steelers took a chance on a wild-haired kid from USC in Troy Polamalu and haven't looked back. His Hall of Fame career speaks for itself. The draft also produced Mike Doss, Ken Hamlin and Cato June (who was moved from safety to linebacker in Tony Dungy's Tampa-2 defense).

In the end, the 2003 draft produced more than its share of stars. Of the 32 picks in the first round, 12 have become Pro Bowl talents – Palmer, Andre Johnson, Newman, Gross, Kevin Williams, Suggs, Trufant, Polamalu, McGahee, Dallas Clark, Larry Johnson and Asomugha. Boldin and Umenyiora were taken among the last 11 picks of the second round. Briggs and Witten went on consecutive picks in the third round. Samuel went in the fourth round with the 120th pick to the Patriots.

How important can a single draft be? Just ask the Colts. The most successful franchise over the last several years, the Colts made their bone with a jackpot draft in 2003. They got Clark in the first round, Doss in the second, Strickland in the third, traded a fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft to Houston to get to the top of the fifth round to take Mathis and took linebacker June in the sixth round. It's one thing to say a draft produced five starters like the Vikings could claim last year, but all of them were multi-year starters and contributors to the unprecedented sustained success the Colts have enjoyed with six straight seasons of 12 or more wins.

For the Vikings, the draft had to be viewed as a success. The team came away with two studs in Williams and Henderson in the first two rounds and a solid starter in Burleson in the third, but the rest of the draft was a big disappointment. Considering how it started, it was a successful draft for the Vikings and, with the benefit of seven years of hindsight, it was a draft that history will remember as one that helped stock a lot of shelves in the NFL.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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