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Making the case for the best sixth round ever

By Jason Feller | NFL.com

The NFL draft is far from an exact science. Even the most gifted talent evaluators are prone to making mistakes in their selections.

Critics are quick to point out when a diamond in the rough slips through the cracks to the second day of the draft, wondering why they weren't selected earlier. While quality late-round picks can make a draft for a franchise, it remains extremely rare that one of the late rounds in any given draft produces a large number of starting-caliber players.

Draft history shows that most starting players are targeted by NFL personnel experts before they fall past the fifth round. But as is the case with any generality, there are exceptions to the rule. The most obvious exception in recent NFL history came in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.

It was perhaps the greatest lower round in the history of the NFL Draft in terms of both star power and depth.

Leading the way is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He is the poster child for late-round picks turned superstars. His presence alone in this sixth-round class would be enough to put it among the great late rounds of all time, but he is far from the only success story from this magical group.

Brady is among ten players from the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft that have gone on to have productive NFL careers. Linebacker Adalius Thomas, kicker Paul Edinger, linebacker Dhani Jones, offensive tackle Jeno James, running back Mike Anderson, safety Matt Bowen, quarterback Marc Bulger, kicker Neil Rackers and defensive end Robaire Smith all played key roles in the league.

Starting with Brady's four Pro Bowl appearances, the group has accounted for nine invites to the NFL's all-star game.

Even the most casual fan knows of Brady's legendary exploits, but it is worth illuminating just how well he has performed throughout his career. He is tied with Troy Aikman for the second-most Super Bowl championships as a starting QB (three) and has several passing records, including the single-season touchdown mark (50). Brady has started every game for the Patriots over the last six years, never throwing for fewer than 3,000 yards or 20 touchdowns over that span.

Still in his prime, Brady has already carved his place among the great quarterbacks ever to grace the gridiron.

While not quite to the same level, Thomas, Bulger and Rackers have also accomplished a significant amount throughout their careers.

Thomas has made the Pro Bowl twice and has 45 career sacks and seven career interceptions, while helping to redefine the linebacker position. His success as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker and ability to play in the 3-4 defense has caused teams to look for players in his mold and prompted the Patriots to sign him to a lucrative deal last year.

Bulger has also earned two Pro Bowl invitations and was named MVP of the 2004 game. He replaced Kurt Warner as the Rams' signal caller in 2002 and has been the team's starter ever since. Bulger has thrown 106 career touchdown passes and had his best year in 2006, completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 4,301 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Rackers has had a standout career in his own right. He set a league record with 40 field goals in 2005 and has made 75 percent of his kicks throughout a successful eight-year career.

While the others have never appeared in Pro Bowl or set any NFL records, each has had a solid NFL career.

Edinger, James, Anderson and Bowen are currently out of the league, but each was a notable player for multiple seasons. Edinger kicked for six years with the Bears and Vikings, James started on the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers, Anderson rushed for 1,000 yards twice in his career and Bowen had 12 career interceptions.

Jones and Smith are still starters in the NFL and playing important roles. Jones had 89 tackles for the Bengals last season, while Smith had 56 tackles and four sacks for the Browns last year.

To see that much production from a sixth round is astounding. To put it in perspective, the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds of the same draft combined to produce only three Pro Bowl players and had fewer impact players overall.

In seven drafts since 2000, the sixth round has produced the same amount of Pro Bowl players (linebacker Cato June, quarterback Derek Anderson, punter Andy Lee and kicker Nick Folk) as the 2000 draft's sixth-round alone. A reasonable argument can be made that if you combine every other sixth round this century, you could not come close to finding as many solid contributors as there were in the 2000 sixth round.

Until another late round provides such a multitude of elite talent, the 2000 draft will go down as having had the strongest sixth round of all time.

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