Looking back, there was plenty of offensive talent

Looking back at the trends of the '04 draft, there were plenty of great offensive players in the first round and if you had patience, you could do well, writes Todd McShay.

Updated: April 5, 2007, 3:28 PM ET
By Todd McShay | ESPN.com
Hollywood would have a tough time capturing the real-life drama that occurred atop the 2004 NFL draft. Despite his family's public pre-draft bashing of their organization, the Chargers boldly used the No. 1 overall pick to select QB Eli Manning, son of legendary Saints QB Archie Manning and brother of Colts star QB Peyton Manning.

Shortly thereafter, Eli was spared the impending humiliation when the Giants struck a blockbuster deal to ship QB Philip Rivers (No. 4 overall pick) and multiple draft choices to San Diego for the youngest Manning. While the verdict on that trade is still out, the Chargers are the clear winners at this point.

Some say it takes three years to evaluate a draft. Looking back on it, the 2004 class has provided as much substance as it did draft-day sizzle. Ben Roethlisberger, who slipped to the Steelers at No. 11 overall, is the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl. All four first-round quarterbacks from that class, including J.P. Losman (Bills) are starters today. That's saying a lot considering the overhyped quarterback class of 1999, which had more misses (Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Cade McNown) than hits (Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper).

In addition, half of the top 10 selections in 2004 have already played in a Pro Bowl and 20 of the top 22 picks project as starters next season. Those are remarkable totals in comparison to the past decade of NFL drafts.

Here's a more detailed look at the four biggest trends from the 2004 class:

Trend 1: Wealth of offensive talent
The 2004 draft was unusually top-heavy with offensive players. For starters, 20 of the 32 first-round picks were on offense -- and 17 of those were at offensive skill positions. Even more telling is the three-year average (2004-'06) of players selected by position in the first round. At each of the offensive skill positions and two out of the three offensive line positions (center was the only one that was down), there were as many or more first-rounders in 2004 than the average of the three-year tally.

Wide receiver was the most coveted group of all. In fact, no position had more prospects drafted in Round 1 than the receiver crop, which saw seven come off board in the top 31 picks:
• No. 3 Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals.
• No. 7 Roy Williams, Lions.
• No. 9 Reggie Williams, Jaguars.
• No. 13 Lee Evans, Bills.
• No. 15 Michael Clayton, Buccaneers.
• No. 29 Michael Jenkins, Falcons.
• No. 31 Rashaun Woods, 49ers.

Looking back on it, the group admittedly had more sizzle than substance. However, in all fairness, Woods is the only downright bust. Reggie Williams, Jenkins and Clayton haven't lived up to expectations, but all three are starters for the teams that originally drafted them. Roy Williams and Evans are success stories as premier No. 1 weapons for their respective teams. And while Fitzgerald is overshadowed by 2003 second-round pick Anquan Boldin, he is still a very good starter with 172 catches during the past two seasons.

The other position rich in talent was quarterback. Who can forget the Eli Manning-for-Philip Rivers trade drama? Early on it seemed the Giants would get the upper hand despite surrendering three draft picks to the Chargers in exchange for Manning. The 2006 season told a different story, though. In his first year at the helm, Rivers completed 4 percent more of his passes with nine fewer interceptions than Manning, who was in his third season as a starter. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger (No. 11 overall) led the Steelers to the AFC title game as a rookie and a Super Bowl title the next year, and J.P. Losman (No. 22 overall) has overcome early scrutiny to emerge as the Bills' franchise quarterback.

Trend 2: Patience was the key with 2004 offensive linemen
At the time, OT Robert Gallery was considered the only blue-chipper of the 2004 offensive line class, which made it even easier for the Raiders to take him No. 2 overall. Looking back on it now, nothing could have been further from the truth. Gallery remains a starter but only because he's the lesser of a few evils on a pitiful Raiders offensive line that surrendered 72 sacks in 2006.

Shawn Andrews and Vernon Carey were the only other first-rounders after Gallery and both are considered success stories. Andrews has emerged as a top-tier starter at guard for the Eagles, making him worth the investment at No. 16 overall. The Dolphins selected Carey with the 19th pick as a guard/tackle tweener and he has proved to be a valuable commodity as the unit's most consistent and versatile starter the past couple of seasons.

In fact, of the 11 linemen selected on the first day after Gallery, all but two have emerged as solid starters for their original draft teams. The other seven in addition to Andrews and Carey are OG Chris Snee (Giants, second round), C Jake Grove (Raiders, second round), OG Justin Smiley (49ers, second round), C Nick Hardwick (Chargers, third round), OT Max Starks (Steelers, third round), OT Sean Locklear (Seahawks, third round) and OT Travelle Wharton (Panthers, third round).

Trend 3: Running backs slipped for good reason
Steven Jackson was expected to be a top-15 pick but he slipped all the way to No. 24, where the Rams wisely traded up to get him. Jackson, who ranks among the NFL's elite class at his position, has accounted for 3,247 rushing yards and 1,315 receiving yards during his three-year career.

The two other first-round running backs -- Chris Perry (Bengals) and Kevin Jones (Lions) -- have been disappointments thus far. Perry has settled into a versatile role for the Bengals but he has just 73 carries in three seasons. He also suffered a season-ending ankle injury midway through 2006. Jones has been the Lions' leading rusher since entering the league but he has yet to play in all 16 games during his three-year career. His most recent foot injury has team officials seriously concerned about his future.

It's safe to say the Cowboys wish they didn't pass on Jackson when he was on the board at No. 22. Instead, the Cowboys traded (with the Bills) out of the first round and landed RB Julius Jones with the 43rd overall pick. Jones showed promise as a rookie, but he has had some injury issues and his production tailed off considerably during the second half of the 2006 season.

Tatum Bell (Broncos, second round) was the only other running back selected on the first day of the 2004 draft. While he rushed for 1,025 yards in 2006, Bell's NFL career has hardly been a success story. He struggled to stay healthy during his first two seasons, when he combined for 1,317 yards on 248 carries. Bell has also fumbled nine times (losing six) during his three-year career, including losing all five of his fumbles last season with Denver. It will be interesting to see whether Bell, who was traded to the Lions this offseason, will ever re-emerge as a load carrier outside of the Broncos' running back-friendly system.

Trend 4: Defensive tackles were underappreciated
Tommie Harris (Bears) was the first defensive tackle to come off the board in 2004, but not until the 14th overall pick. Seven more selections would pass before the next defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork, was taken by the Patriots. Since then, Harris and Wilfork have emerged as two of the league's best interior defensive linemen. The Seahawks haven't reaped the same benefits with Marcus Tubbs (No. 23), who was the only other first-rounder from that crop. In his defense, Tubbs showed promises of turning the corner with 5.5 sacks in 2005, but injuries have derailed his progress.

It turns out that several good values were also available in what was considered at the time to be a thin group of interior defensive linemen. The most noticeable of those include Igor Olshansky (Chargers, second round), Tank Johnson (Bears, second round), Darnell Dockett (Cardinals, third round), Randy Starks (Titans, third round), Anthony Maddox (Texans, fourth round), Craig Terrill (Seahawks, sixth round) and Corey Williams (Packers, sixth round).