Since 1936, the first year in which an official pro football draft took place, 481 Ohio State Buckeyes have been selected in the NFL Draft. Two players – Russ Thomas and Bob Meyers – were actually drafted into the NFL twice, in back-to-back (but separate) years. And 14 of those 481 former Buckeyes were also taken in the AFL Draft, including the legendary Hall of Fame wideout Paul Warfield. That makes 497 total draft picks for OSU since Gomer Jones was selected by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals nearly a century ago.
Of the nearly 500 Buckeyes taken, hundreds have enjoyed successful pro careers, while others flamed out and/or never playing a snap after their time in Columbus. The Ohio State football program has produced NFL Hall of Famers, Pro Bowlers, Players and Rookies of the Year, ten-year tackling dummies, one-and-doners, monumental busts, and everything in between.
All of these former OSU football players share one thing in common, which is their affiliation with THE greatest university on the planet. Conversely, one thing that sets them all apart is their varying degrees of success (or lack thereof) in the NFL.
Another way to look at it is in terms of value. Each of these players produced value – positive or negative – for the team which drafted them. And that is what I am going to look at in the weeks leading up to the 2023 NFL Draft. I am going to attempt to identify the seven best Scarlet and Gray values, picking only one player from each round (length of the modern draft, and going in reverse order).
Before we get started, “best” and “most” must be sorted out. Best value is not the same as most valuable. And most valuable is not same as best value. Warfield, Eddie George, Orlando Pace, Jack Tatum, or Jim Parker would inarguably be among the most valuable (former) Buckeyes at the professional level. All became team captains, Pro Bowlers, eventual Hall of Famers, you name it. But they were also taken within the first 20 picks of their respective drafts, whereas Dick LeBeau made the NFL Half of Fame as a fifth-rounder.
I might argue that LeBeau was the better overall value because of where/when he was drafted. But going round by round means I do not have to choose between Pace or LeBeau, which is a good thing because there are already plenty of difficult decisions ahead... Without further ado, let’s go bargain shopping.
Round 3: Mike Vrabel - Defensive end / Linebacker
Similar to his predecessors (Dick LeBeau and Cris Carter) on this particular list, Vrabel became a household name while playing for his second NFL franchise. But unlike LeBeau and Carter (and many Ohio State legends who entered the league before him) Vrabel also became synonymous with winning... a lot.
Vrabel was the first former Buckeye to win three Super Bowls as a player, all with the New England Patriots. And he has since taken quite well to coaching, racking up 50 wins in his first five seasons as the Tennessee Titans’ head coach — A nice run for the former third-rounder, with plenty of presumably fruitful years still ahead of him.
A homegrown Buckeye out of Akron, Ohio, Vrabel played for OSU from 1993-1996 and set a number of TFL and sack-related records. He was a two-time All-American, two-time B1G Defensive Lineman of the Year, and arguably the program’s most consistently dominant DL ever. But because he tested poorly – “slow”, couldn’t jump over a sheet of paper – Vrabel fell to the third round of the 1997 NFL Draft, where the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him with pick No. 91.
During four seasons in the Steel City, Ohio State’s record-setting sack artist was deployed merely as a backup and rotational piece. Vrabel never started a game for the Steelers and totaled just seven sacks in 51 games played. When it came time to test free agency, he sought opportunity elsewhere, and the rest is history.
Vrabel signed with the New England Patriots prior to the 2001 season and became an immediate contributor. Praised for his work ethic, football IQ, and versatility, the former Buckeye was (eventually) utilized in a number of ways, including as a tight end. He started 12 of 16 games as an outside linebacker during that first (‘01) season, establishing himself as a player NE coach Bill Bellichick would come to count on and trust in the not-so-distant future.
As the legend of the 2000s Patriots began to grow, so too did that of Vrabel. No longer a one-trick pony, he continued to excel on the defensive side of the ball while also being used as a secret weapon on offense. Over the next handful of years, Vrabel caught 10 TD passes for the Pats, with two of them coming in back-to-back Super Bowls (both NE wins). His second SB TD made him only the 17th player ever to catch two or more TD in the big game.
Mike Vrabel caught 10 passes in a Patriots uniform. All 10 resulted in touchdowns. @CoachVrabel50 (via @nflthrowback)— NFL (@NFL) November 27, 2021
: #TENvsNE— Sunday 1pm ET on CBS
: NFL apppic.twitter.com/gTMpyIEtN8
And oh by the way, Vrabel became a foundational piece and a leader for Bellichick’s consistently elite defense(s). From 2001-2008, he averaged 76 tackles and 6 sacks per season, in addition to picking off 11 passes. Vrabel’s best season came in 2007, when he racked up 77 total tackles and 12.5 sacks, to go with 4 forced fumbles. He earned his first and only Pro Bowl nod that season, as well as five AP Defensive Player of the Year votes... As a 32 year-old playing his 11th professional season.
Vrabel’s production began to taper off near the end of the decade, during which he was traded to and played for the Kansas City Chiefs. He totaled just two sacks in 2009 and 2010 combined, despite starting all 30 games for which he was available. He was 35 by the end of his KC run and called it a (playing) career after 14 seasons.
Now a successful coach, Vrabel will never be remembered as the greatest Buckeye turned professional baller, but he will go down as one of the winningest. A third-round pick who was forced to wait his turn, Ohio State’s all-time sack leader took the ball and ran with it once given an opportunity. He made a real, tangible impact for three Super Bowl-winning teams, matching the round in which he was drafted. Not too many second and third-day draftees can say the same.