Around the NFL: Unexpected stars power playoff teams

Steve Doerschuk

Just as a draft bust can break a team, a surprise player can make one.

Safety Bob Sanders was “too short” to be a first-round draft pick in 2004.  “Too bad” for everybody who thought so. He helped the Colts figure out how to finally win a Super Bowl. For an encore, he is NFL Defensive Player the Year.

Linebacker Mike Vrabel was “too slow” to interest the Cleveland Browns — the team of his youth — in 2001 free agency. The Steelers offered him little more than few dollars and a kielbasa to stay.

Vrabel now is a big man on the Foxboro campus, a force on three New England Super Bowl winners. At 32 going into Saturday’s playoff game against Jacksonville, Vrabel was having his best year.

Half the quarterbacks in the final eight entered the league as afterthoughts.

Jacksonville’s David Garrard lasted until the fourth round in 2002. That year’s No. 1 overall pick, David Carr, has crashed. Gararrd’s 2007 passer rating topped that of a more noted former No. 1 overall pick, Peyton Manning.

Guys named Willie Pile, Taco Wallace, Gibran Hamdan and Chance Pearce got picked near the end of the 2003 draft. No one took a chance on Tony Romo, who has become the biggest Texas rock star since ZZ Top.

Patriot Tom Brady obviously isn’t a surprise any more, but he was when he won a Super Bowl in 2001, a year after getting drafted in Round 6 after — he’s the first to tell you — Spergon Wynn.

Another former Round 6 shooter, Matt Hasselbeck, is in his fifth postseason with Seattle.

What is it about sixth-round quarterbacks? Derek Anderson helped Cleveland go 10-6, including 10-5 as the starter.

The Browns would have been laughed out of Manhattan in 1999 had they spent the No. 1 overall pick on wide receiver Donald Driver. Who’s laughing now? Cleveland’s choice, Tim Couch, hasn’t made a team since 2003. Driver, the 213th pick, is flying to a Pro Bowl off a Packers playoff team.

Sack master Aaron Kampman, Bob Sanders’ former Hawkeye teammate, is another reason Green Bay packed a punch felt around the NFC in 2007. The Pro Bowl starter entered the league as a fifth-rounder.

Three guys from the same Ohio college will be AFC Pro Bowl teammates. Oddly, they aren’t from Ohio State. Stranger still, all three were undrafted out of Kent State, which, as football factories go, is a shack.

Linebacker James Harrison was a big reason the Steelers won the AFC North. The Browns would have won that division had they backed up former Golden Flashes QB Joshua Cribbs’ 90- and 100-yard kick returns in a game at Pittsburgh. The Chargers are 46-18 during the four years Antonio Gates made everybody forget he was a basketball-only guy at Kent.

Twenty-three defensive backs were picked before Asante Samuel in the 2003 draft. No way the Patriots should have found a Pro Bowl starter at No. 120 overall.

But that’s what Samuel is. And that’ partly why the Patriots stay where they are.

Extra points

- Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune got this answer from Bears GM Jerry Angelo as to QBs Brian Griese, Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton: “What we haven’t done is gotten it 100 percent stabilized in terms of who is the guy. We’d like to see all three back and determine from there who that guy is.” Even if you think of the trio of a three-headed monster, and not in a good way, it doesn’t sound as if “The Guy” is Anderson, a restricted free-agent.

- Pass rushing whiz Terrell Suggs hopes he’ll get some free agency love from the Cardinals, who could return him to the scene of his collegiate glories at Arizona State. That’s probably not in the cards, given Arizona’s free agency disposition. The likelihood Suggs won’t be back in Baltimore, though, is one more reason Ray Lewis and the old Ravens gang are gone to nevermore land.

- Buddy Ryan was part guru, part curmudgeon. Now his son Rex is an NFL head coach in waiting. Coming off an interview for the Miami job, the younger Ryan told the Baltimore Sun, “(Bill) Parcells was awesome. It was like talking to my father.”

- The popular perception is that Tom Brady has moved past Peyton Manning as the most priceless passer. If Manning and Brady traded teams, that perception would not exist.

- A hidden factor in today’s Giants-Cowboys game: Chris Palmer, who is Eli Manning’s position coach now, was Tony Romo’s tutor last year. Palmer knows what makes Romo tick and, perhaps, implode.

Reach Repository sports writer Steve Doerschuk at (330) 580-8347 or e-mail