March 14, 2015

1967: First AFL/NFL Combined Draft Convenes

A key issue in bringing about the merger of the American and National Football Leagues was the cost involved in competing for talent coming out of college each year. Thus, a major step in the process that would culminate with full merger in 1970 was the first combined AFL/NFL draft that commenced on Tuesday, March 14, 1967. The draft was conducted in New York under the direction of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and a total of 445 players were chosen, with the first seven rounds held on the opening day.

The New Orleans Saints, as a NFL expansion team for 1967, had the first and last selections at the end of each round plus one additional at the end of the second, third, and fourth rounds. However, they had already traded away the first overall pick, which went to the Baltimore Colts in exchange for backup QB Gary Cuozzo. The Colts used the selection to take Michigan State All-American DE Bubba Smith (pictured above).

The first round took four hours and 16 minutes to complete and several trades were part of it, in addition to deals that had already been struck. With a choice obtained from the New York Giants a week earlier in the trade of QB Fran Tarkenton, the Minnesota Vikings, who ended up with three picks in the first round, had the second overall selection and took HB Clint Jones, also an All-American from Michigan State.

Atlanta held the third pick but, disappointed that Bubba Smith was no longer available, dealt it to the San Francisco 49ers for flanker Bernie Casey, G Jim Wilson, and DE Jim Norton. The 49ers chose QB Steve Spurrier, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida, with an eye toward grooming a successor to 31-year-old QB John Brodie.

Future Hall of Fame QB Bob Griese of Purdue (pictured at left) was chosen by Miami, which was also the first AFL team to select, with the fourth overall pick. Other eventual Hall of Famers chosen in the first round were HB Floyd Little of Syracuse by the Denver Broncos (sixth overall), Notre Dame DE Alan Page by the Vikings (15th), and guard Gene Upshaw from Texas A & I by the Raiders (17th).  Those selected in the second round were Jackson State CB Lem Barney by the Detroit Lions (34th overall) and LB Willie Lanier of Morgan State by the Kansas City Chiefs (50th). OT Rayfield Wright of Ft. Valley State was taken by the Dallas Cowboys in the seventh round (182nd overall) and DB Ken Houston from Prairie View was a ninth-round selection of the Houston Oilers (214th).

Among the NFL trades that occurred, the Steelers sent flanker Gary Ballman to Philadelphia for FB Earl Gros, G Bruce Van Dyke, and a third-round draft choice that was used to take C Rockne Freitas of Oregon State. The Los Angeles Rams dealt TE Marlin McKeever and their first draft choice to Minnesota for HB Tom Mason, TE Hal Bedsole, and a second-round draft pick (the Vikings used their draft choice to take Page and the Rams chose HB Willie Ellison from Texas Southern). The Giants traded LB Jerry Hillebrand to St. Louis for HB Bill Triplett. In a significant AFL transaction, Buffalo dealt QB Daryle Lamonica, split end Glenn Bass, and its third and fifth draft picks to Oakland for split end Art Powell and QB Tom Flores.

Another Michigan State player, LB George Webster, was taken by Houston with the fifth overall selection, one of four Spartans to go in the first round. Among other noteworthy selections, the Chiefs helped revamp their corps of linebackers by not only selecting Willie Lanier in the second round, but Jim Lynch of Notre Dame three spots earlier with the 47th pick . In addition to Bubba Smith, who spent five seasons in Baltimore and was twice named to the Pro Bowl, the Colts selected another player who would star on defense in DB Rick Volk from Michigan, also in the second round, who was chosen to his first of three Pro Bowls as a rookie. Baltimore also took a chance on DB Preston Pearson, a basketball player from Illinois who did not play college football, in the 12th round. Used on offense as a halfback, he went on to a 14-season career with the Colts, Steelers, and Cowboys.

Later in the second round, the Saints took WR John Gilliam from South Carolina State, who became the first player in franchise history to score a regular season touchdown on the opening kickoff of the first game. He went on to have his best seasons with the Cardinals and Vikings.

HB Travis Williams of Arizona State was chosen by the NFL Champion Packers in the fourth round and made a significant impact as a kickoff returner during his rookie season, averaging a record 41.1 yards and scoring four touchdowns. Another halfback, the undersized (5’9”, 190) Dickie Post of Houston, was picked by the Chargers right after Williams and led the club in rushing in his first year with 663 yards. He led the entire AFL in 1969.

The Lions did well with UCLA HB Mel Farr in the first round, Lem Barney in the second, and LB Paul Naumoff of Tennessee in the third round, who started six games as a rookie and kept on going for 12 seasons in Detroit.

In addition to Clint Jones and Alan Page, who was shifted inside to defensive tackle, the Vikings picked WR Gene Washington, the fourth Michigan State player chosen in the first round (eighth overall) who was selected to two Pro Bowls in an injury-shortened career (and not to be mistaken for the wide receiver of the same name who was drafted two years later and played with distinction for the 49ers). DB Bobby Bryant of South Carolina was taken in the seventh round and became a stalwart in the defensive backfield.

John Elliott was chosen as a guard out of Texas by the New York Jets in the seventh round and went on to distinguish himself at defensive tackle. Another player who paid dividends for the Jets was G Randy Rasmussen from Kearney State (now Univ. of Nebraska at Kearney), an unheralded pick in the 12th round who remained with the team until 1981.

Kicker Don Cockroft of Adams State, picked by the Browns in the third round, filled a need both for a successor to the great but fading PK Lou Groza and as a punter. After a year on the taxi squad due to injury, he handled the punting and placekicking as one of the last of the straight-ahead kickers through 1980. Cleveland also made a good pickup in the 17th (and last) round (439th overall) with Ben Davis from Defiance College, who proved valuable as a kick returner and cornerback.

Another notable player chosen in the 17th round was WR Dan Abramowicz from Xavier of Ohio (pictured at right) by the Saints (420th overall). He not only made the fledgling club but started at split end and led the team with 50 catches for 721 yards as a rookie. A fine possession receiver, he topped the NFL with 73 receptions in 1969 and put together a 105-consecutive game pass receiving streak that was the league record at the time.

Oddly enough, the last player chosen was Jimmy Walker of Providence, picked as a wide receiver by the Saints, who also ended up being the first overall selection in the NBA draft in May. Not surprisingly, he chose to play pro basketball, and did so for ten years. Another draftee who chose basketball over pro football was Pat Riley, a flanker out of Kentucky taken in the 11th round by the Dallas Cowboys who signed with the San Diego Rockets of the NBA and, following his playing career, became a successful coach and team executive.

Also as a footnote, tackle Richard Sligh from North Carolina College was picked by the Raiders in the tenth round. He failed as a defensive tackle and lasted just a year, but at 7’0” was the tallest player in AFL or NFL history.

The combined draft had the intended effect of ending competition between AFL and NFL teams for top talent coming out of college. It also helped the AFL clubs to improve their rosters as full merger with the NFL neared. Both the Jets and Chiefs, who won Super Bowls in addition to league titles following the 1968 and ’69 seasons, respectively, added players who would be in the starting lineup for those contests. The Dolphins, who went to three Super Bowls from 1971 to ’73 and won the last two not only started the process of assembling the necessary talent by drafting Bob Griese in 1967 but made good use of the 1968 and ‘69 combined drafts as well.