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Value of a Top 10 NFL Draft Pick (Defense)

Synopsis: As detailed in my last post, I was intrigued by Mel Kiper’s pre-draft comment that running backs such as Todd Gurley and Mel Gordon should be avoided in the first round even though they were top prospects. In response, I reviewed previous drafts from 1977-2007 to determine the value of a top ten draft pick by position. In this post, I will evaluate draft picks on the defensive side of the ball to determine which positions are the most worthwhile. As a quick summary:

  • Defensive Linemen: 5% are complete busts / 45% make at least one Pro Bowl / 20% are game changers;
  • Defensive Backs: 10% are complete busts / 60% make at least one Pro Bowl / 15% are game changers; and
  • Linebackers: 5% are complete busts / 50% make at least one Pro Bowl / 15% are game changers.

Based on these numbers, it appears that defensive linemen offer the best risk/return profile with the lowest percentage of busts and highest percentage of game changers. With respect to defensive backs vs. linebackers, the decision is less clear with DBs having more upside as well as more downside.


As before, I have analyzed the careers of various players by using Pro-Football-Reference.com’s proprietary statistic Weighted Average Value (WAV). For this post, I have revisited my earlier analysis to break down each position into groups representing the most productive 25%, 2nd most productive 25%, 2nd least productive 25%, and least productive 25% of all players (i.e. quartiles).

From 1977-2007, 67 defensive linemen were selected with one of the first ten overall picks in the draft, which is significantly more than any other position. With respect to other defensive positions, linemen account for approximately 1/3 of the players on the field but almost 1/2 of the early first round picks. Given the impact that great linemen can have stopping the run and disrupting the pass, teams frequently use a top pick hoping to find such a true game changer.

The following table highlights notable defensive linemen who represent the borderline between each quartile.

TOP 10 NFL DRAFT PICK – DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

(67 Players from 1977-2007)

Quartile Player Draft Pick WAV Sacks Pro Bowls
Bottom 25% Dewayne Robertson 2003 (#4) 34 16 0
Median Sean Gilbert 1992 (#3) 50 43 1
Top 25% Willie McGinest 1994 (#4) 74 86 2
Max Bruce Smith 1985 (#1) 147 200 11

 

Representing the top of the lowest quartile (i.e. better than only 25% of other players in the sample), Dewayne Robertson really wasn’t that bad. As a 6-year starter with a career WAV of 34, his production lagged a typical top 10 pick, but was comparable to a typical  late 1st round pick. As such, he certainly wasn’t a bust. Interestingly, there only have been four busts out of the 67 total early first round picks used to selected defensive linemen.

  • Joe Campbell, the #7 pick in 1977 with a WAV of 11;
  • Reggie Rogers, the #7 pick in 1987 with a WAV of 1
    • Spoiler alert: Skip the following bullet points unless you don’t mind being seriously depressed.
    • Are you sure? I’d recommend skipping them.
    • Okay, for the unfaint of heart
      • Don Rogers (Reggie’s brother), who was a former All-American safety at UCLA and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Cleveland Browns, died of a cocaine overdose on the eve of his wedding after his second season in the league.
      • In the middle of Reggie’s second year in the NFL, he was imprisoned after killing three people while driving drunk
      • After at least five DUI arrests, Reggie died of from a combination of excessive amounts of cocaine and alcohol.
    • Well, you can’t blame me because I warned you.
  • Jamal Reynolds, the #10 pick in 2001 with a WAV of 3 (Top 10 Bust Honorable Mention),
  • Jonathan Sullivan, the #6 pick in 2003 with a WAV of 10 (Top 10 Bust Honorable Mention)

On the opposite extreme, some of the greatest all-time defensive linemen were early draft picks. To start, the all-time greats before my time include:

ALL-TIME GREAT DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: PRE-SACK ERA
Player Draft Pick WAV Pro Bowls
Deacon Jones 14th round in 1961 90 8
Alan Page #15 in 1957 135 9
Joe Greene #4 in 1969 103 10
Merlin Olsen #3 in 1962 111 14

 

Unlike the other three players in the table, Deacon Jones wasn’t a top overall draft pick. In fact, he was selected in the 14th round of the 1961 Draft. Without digressing too much, Jones’ draft status was negatively impacted when he lost his scholarship to South Carolina State University after participating in a civil rights protest. Instead, he finished his college career at Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State, Jerry Rice’s alma mater). I can’t say that NFL teams also punished Jones for his civil rights activism, but it wouldn’t have been surprising. Either way, he was drafted and ended up dominating the league from 1964-72.

With respect to these four all-time greats, I only saw “Mean Joe” play live. Unfortunately, I missed him during his heyday, but he was still worthy of his reputation for a couple more years when I started watching NFL games in the late 1970s. I did see Merlin Olsen on TV back then too, but it was in the role of Mr. Garvey from Little House on the Prairie.

merlin olsen
Olsen looked like he couldn’t even hurt a fly

Olsen portrayed a gentle and sweat-hearted man, so I was incredulous when I heard that he was part of one of the greatest defensive fronts of all-time known as the “Fearsome Foursome.” Well, he was.

fearsome foursome

Interestingly, The Rams’ defensive front line (i.e. the Fearsome Foursome) included two of the greatest defensive linemen from the pre-sack era: Olsen (#74) and Jones (#75). Known for his ability to tackle quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage, Jones coined the term “sack” while playing in the NFL; however it didn’t become an official NFL stat until 1982, eight years after his retirement. Since then, defensive linemen have had a statistic that allows for a reasonable comparison among themselves. Generally, there’s a high correlation between WAV, sacks and Pro Bowls, but sacks seem to be weighted most heavily when measuring modern greatness.

In the last forty years, the most impactful defensive linemen have been:

 

Player Draft Pick WAV Pro Bowls Sacks
Reggie White #4 in 1984* 157 13 198
Bruce Smith #1 in 1985 147 11 200
Randy White #2 in 1975 116 9 52.5 **
Julius Peppers #2 in 2002 121 8 125.5
Chris Doleman #4 in 1985 114 8 150.5
Warren Sapp #12 in 1995 117 7 96.5

.* Supplemental draft (which was more similar to a typical draft that year given that it included players already signed by USFL teams)

** Sack total from 2nd half of career because the statistic was not recognized prior to 1982. Conservatively, his sack total could be doubled.

 

Of note, all of these players were selected with early picks in their respective drafts. In contrast, the next grouping of all-time great defensive linemen were drafted after the first round.

 

Player Draft Pick WAV Pro Bowls Sacks
Michael Strahan 2nd round in 1993 121 7 141.5
John Randle Undrafted in 1990 106 7 137.5
Jarred Allen 4th round in 2004 96 5 134
Richard Dent 8th round in 1983 96 4 137.5
Kevin Greene 5th round in 1985 94 5 160
Jason Taylor 3rd round in 1997 109 6 139.5

 

Of note, these six players all rank in the top ten of career sack leaders. As previously described, sacks have only been recorded for the last 30 years so certain all-time greats are excluded. Not to diminished any of their accomplishments, I consider most of these players to be sack specialists so they rank slightly below the previous players. As a case in point, Kevin Greene still has not made the Hall of Fame (he has been a 4x finalist though) despite being 3rd on on the all-time sack list. Don’t worry Kevin, you’ll make it someday, along with everyone else in the table.

Evaluation of a top 10 overall pick being used on a defensive lineman:

Positives:

  • A great one can make an immediate impact and change a team’s prospects for many years
  • Only 5% are absolute busts

 Negatives:

  • Fewer than 20% are truly game changers
  • Many of the all-time greats are later round picks

TOP 10 NFL DRAFT PICK – DEFENSIVE BACKS

(41 Players from 1977-2007)

Quartile Player Draft Pick WAV INT Pro Bowls
Bottom 25% Keith Simpson 1978 (#9) 30 19 0
Median Eric Turner 1991 (#2) 51 30 2
Top 25% Terry McDaniel 1988 (#9) 69 35 5
Max Rod Woodson 1987 (#10) 141 71 11

 

Historically, teams do a good job selecting productive defensive backs with early first round picks. On one extreme, there only have been four busts out of 41 DBs selected with a top ten overall pick from 1977-2007:

  • Mossy Cade, the #6 overall pick in 1984 with a WAV of 9
    • NFL career limited to two years because he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for sexual assault
  • Leonard Coleman, the #8 overall pick in 1984 with a WAV of 9
    • Four interceptions in one year as a starter / Six career interceptions
    • Otherwise unproductive coming off the bench in four other seasons
  • Bruce Pickens, the #3 overall pick in 1991 with a WAV of 4
    • Only recorded two interceptions in 48-game career spanning four different seasons
  • Rickey Dixon, the #5 overall pick in 1988 with a WAV of 14.
    • Started 32 out of 82 career games
    • Six career interceptions

On the other extreme, approximately 60% of defensive backs taken with a top ten overall pick become Pro Bowl players. In addition, most of the all-time greatest backs were early first round picks. For me, the best DBs have been:

ALL-TIME GREAT DEFENSIVE BACKS
Player Draft Pick WAV Pro Bowls

INT

Deion Sanders

#5 in 1989 115 8

53

Champ Bailey

#7 in 1999 112 12 52
Rod Woodson #10 in 1987 141 11

71

Ed Reed

#24 in 2002 109 9 64
Ronnie Lott #8 in 1981 118 10

63

Charles Woodson

#4 in 1998 109 8 60
Darrell Green #28 in 1983 100 7

54

Aeneas Williams

3rd round in 1991 112 8 55
Darren Sharper 2nd round in 1997 92 5

63

 

Out of the nine players highlighted in the table, more than half were drafted with an early first round pick while only two were drafted outside the first round. Today, the best DBs include:

  • A top ten overall pick: Joe Haden –  the #7 overall pick in 2010 with 16 INTs, 2 Pro Bowl appearances, and a WAV of 35;
  • A mid-1st round pick: Darrelle Revis – the #14 overall pick in 2007 with 23 INTs, 6 Pro Bowl appearances, and a WAV of 82; and
  • A later round pick: Richard Sherman – a 5th round pick in 2011 with 24 INTs, 2 Pro Bowl appearances and a WAV of 55.

Evaluation of a top 10 overall pick being used on a defensive backs:

Positives:

  • A great one can neutralize the other team’s best receivers as well as 1/2 of the field
  • Fewer than 10% are absolute busts

 Negatives:

  • Fewer than 15% are truly game changers

TOP 10 NFL DRAFT PICK – LINEBACKERS

(36 Players from 1977-2007)

Quartile Player Draft Pick WAV Sacks INTs Pro Bowls
Bottom 25% Chris Clairborne 1999 (#9) 36 15.0 8 0
Median LaVar Arrington 2000 (#2) 46 23.5 3 0
Top 25% Duane Bickett 1985 (#5) 63 59.0 9 1
Max Lawrence Taylor 1981 (#2) 137 133.0 8 10

Similar to other defensive positions, linebackers from the top of the draft infrequently turn into busts. Out of 36 linebackers taken with one of the first ten overall picks in the 1977-2007 Drafts, there were only two absolute busts (i.e. worthy of Top 10 Bust status) and two marginal busts.

Absolute busts

  • Trev Alberts – #5 overall pick in 1994 with a WAV of 3 (career limited by injury); and
  • Mike Junkin – #5 overall pick in 1987 with a WAV of 3 (career limited by injury), Rickey Hunley (WAV of 18), Aundray Bruce (WAV of 25 – #1 pick with 32 sacks)

Marginal busts

  • Ricky Hunley  – #7 overall pick in 1984 – 30 starts in 91 career games with a WAV of 18
  • Aundray Bruce – #1 overall in 1988 with 32 sacks and a WAV of 25

At the same time, almost 50% of all linebackers taken with a top ten overall pick are selected to at least one Pro Bowl. In addition, most of the all-time greatest linebackers were early first round picks. For me, the best linebackers in the last 40 years have been:

ALL-TIME GREATEST LINEBACKERS
Player Draft Pick WAV Sacks INTs Pro Bowls
Lawrence Taylor 1981 (#2) 137 133.0 8 10
Dick Butkus 1965 (#3) 78 NA 22 8
Ray Lewis 1996 (#26) 158 41.5 31 13
Jack Lambert 1974 (2nd Rd) 109 8.0* 28 9
Junior Seau 1990 (#5) 127 56.5 18 12
Jack Ham 1971 (2nd Rd) 113 3.0* 32 8
Mike Singletary 1981 (2nd Rd) 123 19.0 7 10
Brian Urlacher 2000 (#9) 119 41.5 22 8
Derrick Thomas 1989 (#4) 105 126.5 1 9

* Sacks only became a recognized statistic at the end of Lambert and Ham’s careers.

For those of you who are interested, the all-time great linebackers from over 40 years ago include Ray Nitschke (a 3rd round pick in 1958) and Chuck Bednarik (the #1 overall pick in 1949).

Evaluation of a top 10 overall pick being used on a linebacker:

Positives:

  • A great one can make an immediate impact and change a team’s prospects for many years.
  • Approximately 5% are busts.

 Negatives:

  • Approximately 15% are truly game changers.
  • It’s possible to get an all-time great after the 1st round.
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