NFL Draft Diaries – 1999, Let’s Make a Deal

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I would venture that even the most casual of NFL fans can recall when the New Orleans Saints traded every available pick from the 1999 draft (and then some) to the Washington Redskins in order to select Heisman Trophy winning running back Ricky Williams. For me, the images of Mike Ditka wearing fake dreadlocks and the cover of Sports Illustrated with Williams in a wedding dress are fresh in my mind still to this day.

The fact that New Orleans compiled only a 3-13 record in 1999 is significant because, in addition to every available 1999 draft pick they felt compelled to add two more picks from 2000 draft to seal the deal with Washington. These two additional picks were a 1st round that turned to be the # 2 overall pick and a 3rd round pick (# 64 overall).

The Saints couldn’t include their 2nd round pick (# 41 overall) as they had already traded it to the Rams in February for Wide Receiver Eddie Kennison. Kennison lasted only one year in New Orleans and was traded after the 1999 season to the Chicago Bears for a 5th round draft pick in the 2000 draft.

In total, the Saints traded eight draft picks (1999: 1-12, 3-71, 4-107, 5-144, 6-179, 7-218, 2000: 1-2 and 3-64) to the Redskins and one pick (1999: 2-41) to the Rams. In return they got a 1999 1st round pick (# 5 overall) from the Redskins (used for Ricky Williams) and Wide Receiver Eddie Kennison.

In Washington, the Redskins finished the 1998 season with a 6-10-0 record slotting them into the 11th overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Like the Saints, the Redskins also completed a pre-draft trade. In February, they traded their 1999 1st round pick (# 11 overall), their 3rd round pick (# 73 overall) and their 2000 2nd round pick (# 56 overall) to the Minnesota Vikings for Quarterback Brad Johnson. So where did the # 5 overall pick traded to the Saints come from?

The wheels on the Saints/Redskins trade began turning almost seven years earlier. Sean Gilbert was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams with the 3rd overall pick in the 1992 draft. In 1996, he was traded from the Rams to the Redskins for a 1st round pick (# 6 overall) with one year remaining on his contract. In 1997, the Redskins placed the Franchise Tag on Gilbert and he opted to sit out the entire season rather than sign the one-year $3.4M tender. Then, for 1998, the Redskins once again placed the Franchise Tag on Gilbert. Gilbert objected and he and the NFLPA requested an arbitrator hearing claiming the Redskins did not have the right to Franchise Tag Gilbert two years in a row.

As it turned out, the Redskins did, in fact, have the right to Franchise Tag Gilbert in consecutive years. But the 1998 Franchise Tag was of the “Non-Exclusive” variety meaning Gilbert was free to negotiate a new contract with another team and, if he signed an offer sheet from that team, Washington could either match the offer or receive two first round draft picks as compensation. Gilbert signed an offer from the Carolina Panthers and the Redskins opted to let him go and received Carolina’s next two first round picks as compensation. And that is where the 1999 1st round pick (# 5 overall) came from. (The second 1st round pick from Carolina for the 2000 draft was the 12th overall pick. Not surprisingly, it was traded by the Redskins to the San Francisco 49ers who then traded it to the New York Jets).

So, two months after trading their first round pick (and others) to the Vikings for Brad Johnson, the Redskins were now back into the first round with the # 5 overall pick. Setting the stage for what was about to unfold, here are the first four picks of the 1999 draft;

  1. Cleveland Browns: (Their first year back into the NFL) selected QB, Tim Couch.
  2. Philadelphia Eagles: selected QB, Donovan McNabb.
  3. Cincinnati Bengals: selected QB, Akili Smith.
  4. Indianapolis Colts: selected RB, Edgerrin James.
  5. Washington Redskins: . . . . . . . . . on the clock.

And then jaws all across the NFL landscape dropped when the trade was announced. The New Orleans Saints had moved up in the draft from the 12th overall pick to the 5th overall pick and in return, surrendered every one of their remaining 1999 draft picks along with their 2000 draft 1st and 3rd round picks in order to draft Ricky Williams. They were done for the day and spent the remainder of the draft in photo opportunities and press conferences.

Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins who had started the day with a compliment of six draft picks suddenly found themselves with twice that many plus three additional picks in the next year’s draft. There was, however, no dust settling in the Redskins’ war room. In the time it took the (now) St. Louis Rams to select Wide Receiver Torry Holt with the 6th overall pick, the Redskins had crafted a trade with the Chicago Bears.

The Redskins had packaged five picks – the Saints’ 1st round pick (# 12 overall), 3rd round pick (# 71 overall) and 2000 3rd round pick (# 87 overall) along with their own 4th and 5th round picks – to move up five spots to the Bears’ 7th overall pick and then proceeded to select Cornerback Champ Bailey.

The Redskins waited until mid-way through the second round before they dove into the trade pool once again. And again it was with the Chicago Bears. This time they bundled their original 2nd round pick (# 40) with the just obtained Saints’ 5th round pick (# 144) to move up three spots in the second round for the Bear’s 2nd round pick (# 37). With this pick, the Redskins selected Offensive Tackle Jon Jansen.

The Redskins then orchestrated their fourth trade of the draft by dealing the 6th round (# 179) and 7th round (# 218) picks received from the Saints to Denver in order to move back into the 5th round and selected Offensive Tackle Derek Smith from Virginia Tech.

They then finished out the draft using their original picks in the 6th and 7th rounds to select Placekicker Jeff Hall and Wide Receiver Tim Alexander, respectively.

As remarkable as it may seem, considering that the Redskins at one time had twelve picks in the 1999 draft, they ended up using only six of them. And of those six, Champ Bailey and Jon Jansen were the only two players drafted by Washington that actually made the Redskins’ roster in 1999.

They did fair a little better in the carryover picks in the 2000 draft. Using the Saints’ 1st round pick (# 2 overall) they selected LB LaVar Arrington. They then moved up in round 1 using the second Carolina compensation pick (# 12 overall) and their own 1st round pick (# 24 overall) in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers and selected future All-Pro Offensive Tackle Chris Samuels at # 3 overall.

The last remaining pick obtained from the Saints (round 3, pick 64 overall) was used on Cornerback Lloyd Harrison. Harrison lasted one year in Washington, one year in San Diego and finally one year in Miami before disappearing from the NFL.

The Aftermath:

The Saints finished the 1999 season with a record of 3-13-0 and Mike Ditka along with GM Bill Kuharich were shown the door. Ditka would never coach football again. Williams went on to play in 12 games in 1999 for the Saints rushing for a total of 884 yards and two touchdowns. Williams lasted three years in New Orleans and was then traded to the Miami Dolphins for a 1st and 4th round pick in the 2002 draft plus a 1st round pick in the 2003 draft (subsequently traded to the Cardinals).

[In all fairness, the 1999 Saints were forced to use four different starting quarterbacks (Billy Joe Tolliver, Billy Joe Hobert, Jake Delhomme and Danny Wuerfel) which, no doubt, contributed to the 3-13 record]

The 1999 Saints were the first and remain the only team to date to have only a single draft pick.

Not including compensatory picks (which cannot be traded), there were a total of 222 draft picks made in the 1999 NFL draft. Of those 222 picks, 91 (41%) of them were directly involved in a trade.

[I have absolutely no idea how the 41% trade rate compares to other NFL drafts. Going through this draft and mapping each pick has to compare to the act of juggling squirrels and is nothing I would ever care to do again.]

One would think that the Redskins would have ended up with the most draft picks used. They weren’t even close;

  1. Chicago Bears. 13 draft picks used, 12 involving a trade. -> 2000 finish: 5-11, last NFC Central.
  2. Cleveland Browns. 11 draft picks used (includes 4 supplemental picks), 5 involving a trade. -> 2000 finish: 3-13, last AFC Central.
  3. Denver Broncos. 10 draft picks used, 5 involving a trade. -> 2000 finish: 11-5, 2nd AFC West
  4. Pittsburgh Steelers. 9 draft picks used, 5 involving a trade. -> 2000 finish: 9-7, 3rd AFC Central
  5. 9 teams tied with 8 draft picks used.

In terms of “Winners” and “Losers”, clearly the Saints appeared to be the biggest loser in this draft. In the three years that Ricky Williams was with the Saints, he averaged only six touchdowns per season (rushing and receiving combined). Add in the 2000 #2 overall pick that was part of the deal and the Saints missed the opportunity to select their choice of twelve pro-bowl players that were drafted at #2 or later.

One would think that after drafting six players, of which only two actually made the roster, the Redskins would be a close second. Yes, they whiffed in rounds 4 through 7 but, keep in mind, the Redskins won the NFC East in 1999 so they already had some talent on the roster and making the cut on that team would have been difficult for a mid to late round rookie. Then they added two All-Pro players with the picks obtained for the 2000 draft. All things considered, it wasn’t as good as it could have been but it wasn’t all that bad either.

No, the obvious loser in this draft has to be the Chicago Bears. Armed with 13 draft picks, they should have been able to significantly improve their roster. Instead, their 1st and 2nd round picks (Cade McNown and Russell Davis) lasted only three years in the NFL – COMBINED and they still finished in last place in the NFC Central in 1999 and 2000.

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I am a transplanted Connecticut Yankee. My family moved to Northern Ohio in the very early 1950's and plopped me right smack dab in the middle of the Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley era Cleveland Browns and I have been a fan ever since. I'm also an avid history buff so the combination of the NFL and history seems to be a perfect match for me. I hope that I will be successful in sharing some of my research on the history of the NFL and hope you learn something new while reading my articles.
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