Welcome to the latest installment of NFL Draft History. This time, it’s late-round Draft Steals, 1970-1979.
Same rules apply as from the 21st Century First-Round Draft Steals: No top-ten picks qualify as “steals” here and similar players’ positions are compared within themselves. The only difference is I’m separating safeties, due to the fact several are on this decade’s roster, instead of considering all DBs together as I have in the earlier ones.
1970: (7-159) Miami Dolphins: Jake Scott, S, Georgia. Scott played the first 6 of his 9 total NFL seasons with that Dolphins juggernaut of the early ’70’s. He was quite a ball-hawk with 49 interceptions in those 9 years, when the forward pass was not the commonplace thing as it is today.
1971: (7-161) Philadelphia Eagles: Harold Carmichael, WR, Southern University. The 6-8 Carmichael epitomized the big red-zone target, often covered by people a foot shorter than he was. Harold had played his first 13 of his 14 season in Philly and is an icon in old NFL Films footage of the 1970’s. In a less pass-happy era, he had 9,000 career yards and a very impressive 79 TDs with 3 1,000 yard-plus seasons sprinkled in there.
1972: (13-330) Cleveland Browns: Brian Sipe, QB, San Diego State. Considering the fact he wasn’t drafted until the lucky thirteenth round, Sipe had quite a remarkable career. He had pedestrian numbers overall, with only 5 more TDs than INTs, but consider also Joe Namath had more INTs than TDs. The 1970’s were a run-first and run-second (and often run-third) decade with much more difficult rules for the offense and the forward pass. Sipe spent his first two years on the practice squad and remained a backup until starter Mike Phipps was injured on opening day in 1976. The highlight of his career was with the 1980 invocation of the Browns, dubbed “The Cardiac Kids” due to their penchant for winning close games literally in the last seconds. He was an All-Pro that year and even garnered the 1980 NFL MVP award, throwing north of 4,100 yards and a 30-14 TD-INT ratio. How many NFL MVPs came from the 13th round or beyond, I wonder?
1973: (9-217) Denver Broncos: Lyle Blackwood, S, TCU. Getting a 9th-rounder to have a 14-year productive career is a feat in itself, and Lyle never played a down with the team that drafted him. He began his rookie season with the Bengals, then had stops in Seattle and Baltimore (Colts then, not Ravens) before winding down his career with the Dolphins alongside his brother, Glenn. The two together were known as “The Bruise Brothers” due to their reputation for being a hard-hitting pair of the Dolphins’ “Killer B’s” defense of the early 1980’s. In 1977, he led the NFL with 10 interceptions and was part of the 1985 Dolphin squad that was the only team to beat the Chicago Bears, ironically ensuring the Dolphins’ own unique undefeated legacy.
1974: (15-365) Houston Oilers: Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, WR, Widener. Known as much in the NFL for his knee-waving endzone dances as he was for electrifying punt and kickoff returns, Johnson actually got his nickname in High School when he dyed his shoes white on a dare. Few NFL scouts even knew of the Division III Widener juggernaut’s existence, but the Oilers managed to get a hold of him late in the draft. He played from ’74-’88 with a 1-year stop in the CFL in 1981. In his first four years in the NFL, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson returned 2 kickoffs and 5 punts for TDs. He was named All-Pro 3 times for his return ability and was largely a reserve/backup WR during his career. He was the Devin Hester of the 1970’s.
1975: (11-262) New York Giants: George Martin, DE, Oregon. While the NFL’s official sack records only go back to 1982, Martin is credited with 46 in his last 7 seasons. However, the Giants’ franchise has him with 96 when you take into account he began his rookie season in 1975. He’s in the New Jersey sports Hall of Fame and was one of the game’s premier pass-rushers in his day. In 1985, he became the NFL’s all-time touchdown leader by defensive linemen on a 56-yard interception return against the Cardinals (Jason Taylor has since bested that total by 2). Martin indeed scored 7 as well, although one was from a lateral on a blocked FG and has a TD reception lining up as a tight end. He’s likely today best known for sacking Denver QB John Elway for a safety in Super Bowl XXI. He missed a total of 6 games due to injury in his entire career.
1976: (10-281) Miami Dolphins: Gary Fencik, S, Yale. Fencik played his entire career with the Chicago Bears, being to the Pro Bowl twice. He had good longevity with a 12-year career and was a part of the best single-season defense in NFL history (IMO), the 1985 Chicago Bears. He and fellow safety Doug Plank were dubbed “The Hit Men” in the team’s “Super Bowl Shuffle” music video. He gathered 38 career INTs and 14 fumble recoveries during his opportunistic playing time.
1977: (12-317) Oakland Raiders: Rod Martin, LB, USC. Being a dominant linebacker of his era and lasting until the final round of the draft makes one realize scouting is as much an art as it is a science. He was a very steady player who could do many things – including rushing the passer. He made various publications’ All-Pro teams in the early 1980’s, but is probably best remembered for his performances in the Raiders’ Super Bowl victories in 1980 and 1983. In 1980, he intercepted the heavily-favored Eagles QB Ron Jaworski 3 times and in so doing tied Chuck Howley’s CAREER Super Bowl INT mark as he helped the Raiders become the first Wild-Card team to win a Super Bowl. Later, in Super Bowl XVIII, he defended a 3rd down pass in his own red zone, stuffed Hall of Fame RB John Riggins on a 4th-and-one in a similar situation, and recovered a fumble in the 4th quarter to put an exclamation point on the 38-9 blowout.
1978: (8-215) New England Patriots: Mosi Tatupu, FB, USC. Yes, a FULLBACK! The NFL was still a run-first and run-second league when Tatupu was drafted, and Tatupu was as good a lead-blocker as there was in his era as well as a great special-teams player. Much of what he did never showed up in the stat column, but he did have 2,415 yards for a 3.9 ypc average. Considering fullbacks have never been known as threats to go “house” anyplace on the field other than inside the opponent’s 1-yard line, that’s a pretty healthy average. It is no coincidence that the 1978 Patriot squad was set an NFL record for rushing yards in a season with 3,165 yards(!!) In 11 of those games, the Patriots gathered over 200 teams yards on the ground and the only regular-season game that they failed to reach 100 yards as a team was their final contest, a loss in Miami. Tatupu, now deceased, was an All-Pro in 1986 and his career spanned 14 seasons – all but the final one with the Pats. He’s on – get this – the All-1970’s Patriots team AND the All-1980’s All-Patriots team. He is on the Patriots’ 35th AND 50th Anniversary team as well. Finally, the Mosi Tatupu Award in College is given to the most outstanding special-teams player, demonstrating his prowess there.
1979: (12-328) Los Angeles Rams: Drew Hill, WR, GT. Hill’s 14-year career began with 5 with the Rams, 7 in Houston with the Oilers, and his final 2 as a Falcon. He was named to two Pro-Bowls, had 5 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and 7 consecutive 900-yard seasons – all with the Oilers. Clearly, Houston got production out of the man. His career totals are 634 rec 9,831 yds and 60 TDs for a healthy 15.5 yds/rec career average.
It’s interesting that in every sport and seemingly every year, there are a few standouts that nobody had a clue were about to BECOME standouts or they’d have certainly been taken much earlier. I also found that, during my searching for draft steals, that more often than not, the “steal” was only a “steal” for another team…sometimes, people either aren’t given a fair chance to show what they have. Recall Terrell Davis barely clinging to the end of the depth chart his rookie season in Denver until injuries along with his own good special-teams play got him a roster spot and eventually the starting job to help give John Elway the ground game he never had. In the 70’s we had much longer drafts than the 7 rounds we’re used to currently, which makes some of these late-round steals even that much more amazing.