Former executives reveal their biggest NFL draft regrets, what-ifs

Bill Polian made 220 draft picks during his Hall of Fame career as an NFL general manager, but the one that “still haunts me, to a certain extent” is a player he didn’t take.

It was 1996 and Polian, then the GM of the Carolina Panthers, had his eye on an undersized linebacker in the middle rounds – someone he viewed as a potential successor to all-pro pass-rusher, Kevin Greene.

Polian said the Panthers tried to keep their interest in the linebacker quiet. They scheduled a private workout with him only at the last minute, and didn’t talk about him in large-group scouting meetings. Polian was confident they’d be able to take him with the second of their third-round picks, No. 88 overall.

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Then, at No. 86, the New England Patriots selected Tedy Bruschi, linebacker, Arizona.

“I was crestfallen,” Polian recalled. “Just as upset as upset could be.”

In the imprecise world of the NFL draft, which starts Thursday night in Las Vegas, every general manager who works long enough is eventually left with a story like this – or two, or five, or 20.

Publicly, each draft runs smoothly and according to plan, and there are no regrets. But privately, of course, there are players they later wish they had or hadn’t picked. Trades that, in hindsight, they should or shouldn’t have made. Regrettable decisions or twists of fate, moments that later leave them wondering “what if?”

For Polian, it was Bruschi – who went on to win three Super Bowls with New England, sometimes at the expense of Polian’s Indianapolis Colts.

For ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, it’s the quarterback who eventually led those Colts teams: Peyton Manning.

In Tannenbaum’s first year with the New York Jets, the team had the No. 1 overall pick and needed a quarterback. Manning was the top quarterback in the class. Instead, he opted to return to Tennessee for his senior season, and the Jets traded down and took linebacker James Farior.

“(Manning) would’ve been our starting quarterback in 1997, instead of Neil O’Donnell,” said Tannenbaum, who later worked as the Jets’ general manager and the executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins. “I’m not sure what would’ve happened (from there), but obviously he went on to have a great career.”

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Former Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, meanwhile, said the “one that will forever irritate me” came in 2015, during Dan Quinn’s first year as head coach. The Falcons were coming off a 6-10 season and were in the process of rebuilding their defense.

“We badly wanted to replicate what was happening in Seattle, as far as the defense,” said Dimitroff, who was fired midway through the 2020 season in conjunction with Quinn. “And we needed a big, long corner who was athletic and could run.”

The Falcons cut Jalen Collins less than three years after drafting him with the 42nd overall pick in 2015.

Dimitroff and his staff believed LSU’s Jalen Collins could be that player – a Richard Sherman-esque corner whom they could build around, despite reports that he had failed multiple drug tests while in college. So they took him in the second round, with the 42nd overall pick.

Collins went on to appear in 27 games for the Falcons over the next two years, including a string of starts in place of Desmond Trufant on the way to Super Bowl 51. But the NFL also suspended him on four separate occasions, including three times for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

The Falcons cut Collins less than three years after drafting him, midway through the 2017 season. Now 29, he has yet to play in another NFL game and has since joined the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

“It ended up being a miss for us on a second-rounder that we definitely needed to capitalize on,” said Dimitroff, who now hosts a podcast called “The GM Journey” where he talks shop with current GMs.

NFL Network analyst Marc Ross cited a similar example, where one of his teams picked an idea over the raw evaluation of a player.

Without disclosing specifics, he recalled a draft in which his team took an offensive lineman in the second round and then passed on their best player available in Round 3, because he was also an offensive lineman. They took a defensive tackle instead.

“It’s not panic,” said Ross, who spent more than two decades in the scouting and personnel departments of the New York Giants, Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles. “You just overvalue a position of need as opposed to the positional value that you had already set.”

Ross said his staffs were constantly analyzing and re-evaluating past draft picks, as well as the process that led to selecting them. They looked for new ways to gauge prospects’ mental aptitude and work ethic, in particular, after identifying those two qualities as common themes in draft busts.

“Rarely are you going to miss on the nuances of the player themselves, their skills,” Dimitroff added. “There are times that he may not fit into a system as well as you thought. He may not have the mental aptitude that you necessarily thought for your system. There’s just so many things that go into the misses. They’re not normally just just some flail at a player.”

Well, unless the owner gets involved.

“I won’t name the team, but an owner actually ended up kind of making a pick – just going against all the preparation and the work we’d done and the board and everything,” Ross said.

“He should’ve been an undrafted guy. We took him in the fourth round. And he ended up maybe not even playing a game in the NFL.”

Some former executives contacted by USA TODAY Sports were reluctant to talk at all about any regrets from previous drafts, or dwell on their long-term impacts.

Polian, for instance, said there was no point in speculating about how Bruschi’s career might have unfolded if the Panthers had taken him in 1996, nor the trickledown effect it might have had on the franchises involved.

When asked if there’s anything he wishes he would’ve done differently that year, Polian just laughed.

“Yeah,” he said, “take him a round earlier.”

Contact Tom Schad at or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Former executives reveal their biggest NFL draft regrets, what-ifs

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