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Is There Such A Thing As A “Safe” Pick In The NFL Draft?

By Joe Lull | 92.3 The Fan
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(Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

JoePic Joe Lull
Joe Lull has been part of the Cleveland sports media scene since 2004,...
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It’s been said countless times that taking a quarterback early in the NFL draft is a risky proposition. In accordance with this theory, scores of Browns fans have made an impassioned case for the team to pass on a quarterback with the fourth overall pick and take a “sure-fire, impact player” at another position.

Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews all appear to fit this description.

This line of thinking would be sound if in fact there were such a thing as a “sure-fire, impact player.” Fans can think that there is. But does history back the theory?

In order to find the truth, I did a study of the top-10 picks in each of the last 20 NFL drafts (1994-2013). At four cornerstone positions – quarterback, offensive tackle, wide receiver and pass rusher – each pick was recorded then categorized as a star player, average player or bust based on the following standards:

For quarterbacks, the standard for “star player” is one with playoff appearances in 50% or more of their seasons as starter and at least one pro-bowl appearance. The standard for “average player” is multiple seasons with more touchdowns than interceptions and/or at least one playoff appearance as a starter with the team that drafted them. “Busts” are self-explanatory.

For wide receivers, the standard for “star player” is multiple 1,000+ yard receiving seasons. These players have been universally recognized as “legitimate number one wide receivers.” The standard for “average player” at wide receiver is multiple seasons as a contributing starter (or a clear demonstration of the ability to do so, see Tavon Austin and Justin Blackmon). Busts, again are self-explanatory.

For pass rushers, the standard for “star player” is one who averaged eight or more sacks per season over the course of their NFL career. “Average player” is a pass rusher who averaged six to eight sacks per season throughout their career. Any player drafted as a pass rusher in the top 10 of the NFL draft who averaged less than six sacks per season is considered a bust.

For offensive tackles – a less statistically-quantifiable position –pro bowl appearances are used as the standard for “star player.” In a league with 64 starting offensive tackles, if a player can crack the top 8 and get into the pro bowl they should be considered one of the best at their position, worthy of a top-10 pick and a “star player”. Offensive tackles with multiple seasons as a starter but no pro bowl appearances are categorized as “average players” while a few who weren’t able to remain consistent contributing starters are categorized as busts.

So, is there such a thing as a “safe” pick in the top-10 of the NFL Draft? Better yet, based on 20 years of historical precedent and 200 draft selections in the top-10, which positions should be considered “safest”?

Quarterbacks Taken Top-10 From 1994-2013 (30 quarterbacks taken)

“Star Players” – Playoffs 50% or more of seasons started, pro bowls – 12 of 30 (40%)

Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Phillip Rivers

“Average Players” – 1+ Playoff season as starter with original team – 9 of 30 (30%)

Tim Couch, Byron Leftwich, Alex Smith, Vince Young, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Ryan Tannehill, Kerry Collins, Trent Dilfer

“Complete Busts” – 9 of 30 (30%)

Akili Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Heath Shuler, Ryan Leaf

Wide Recevers Taken Top-10 From 1994-2013 (27 wide receivers taken)

“Star Players” – Multiple 1,000+ yard seasons – 9 of 27 (33%)

Keyshawn Johnson, Joey Galloway, Plaxico Burress, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Michael Crabtree, AJ Green, Julio Jones

“Average Players” – Multiple seasons as contributing starter – 9 of 27 (33%)

Michael Westbrook, Terry Glenn, Ike Hilliard, Braylon Edwards, Roy Williams, Ted Ginn Jr, Darrius Hayward-Bey, Justin Blackmon, Tavon Austin

“Complete Busts” – 9 of 27 (33%)

JJ Stokes, Peter Warrick, Travis Taylor, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Carlos Rogers, Reggie Williams, Troy Williamson, Mike Williams

Pass Rushers Taken Top-10 From 1994-2013 (29 pass rushers taken)

“Star Player” – Average of 8 or more sacks per season – 8 of 29 (28%)

Simeon Rice, Peter Boulware, Julius Peppers, Terrell Suggs, Mario Williams, Aldon Smith, Von Miller, Ziggy Ansah

“Average Player” – Average of 6-8 sacks per season – 11 of 29 (38%)

Jamir Miller, Kevin Carter, Grant Wistrom, Greg Ellis, Justin Smith, Andre Carter, Kevin Williams, Chris Long, Tyson Jackson, Dion Jordan, Barkevious Mingo

Complete Busts – Less than 6 sacks per season – 10 of 29 (34%)

Mike Mamula, Cedric Jones, Darrell Russell, Andre Wadsworth, Courtney Brown, Jamal Reynolds, Gaines Adams, Jamaal Anderson, Vernon Gholston, Derek Harvey

Offensive Tackles Taken Top-10 From 1994-2013 (25 offensive tackles taken)

“Star Players” – One or more pro bowl appearance – 16 of 25 (64%)

Tony Boselli, Willie Anderson, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Kyle Turley, Chris Samuels, Leonard Davis, Jordan Gross, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Joe Thomas, Jake Long, Russell Okung, Trent Williams, Tyron Smith, Matt Kalil

“Average Players” – Contributing Starter – 5 of 25 (20%)

Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel, Lane Johnson

“Complete Busts” – 4 of 25 (16%)

Mike Williams, Robert Gallery, Levi Brown, Jason Smith

There is admittedly some subjectivity to categorizing players at different positions into three categories – star, average or bust – especially for players only entering their second or third year in the league. Some categorizations may raise eyebrows, especially at quarterback. Some would call Couch, Sanchez and Young “bust” quarterbacks, yet each was good enough to take the team that drafted them to the playoffs at least once. Are they as tragic as Ryan Leaf? No. Yet none could be considered a franchise caliber quarterback. While trying to keep the categorizations as scientific as possible, it is acknowledged that some players simply had to fall into an in-between area.

So while there is admittedly some subjectivity involved in the categorizations, the results of the study do produce a rather clear picture. Is one position “safer” than the next?

Star Players Taken in the Top-10:

64% of offensive tackles
40% of quarterbacks
33% of wide receivers
28% of pass rushers

Star OR Average Players Taken in the Top-10 (if trying to simply avoid a bust):

84% of offensive tackles
70% of quarterbacks
67% of wide receivers
66% of pass rushers

Bust Players Taken in the Top-10 (highest risk of outright failure)

34% of pass rushers
33% of wide receivers
30% of quarterbacks
16% of offensive tackles

So what does it all mean?

If a team is simply looking to avoid a bust with their top-10 pick, offensive tackle is certainly the safest route as only 16% of top-10 offensive tackles end up as busts. If risk-aversion is the guiding philosophy, taking a pass rusher is the wrong way to go as 40% of pass rushers taken in the top-10 end up as busts.

If a team is looking to hit a home run with their selection, again offensive tackle is the safest bet with 64% becoming stars. Contrary to popular opinion, QUARTERBACK is the second safest bet if looking for a high-ceiling, impact player as 40% of quarterbacks taken in the top-10 end up as stars. Wide receiver carries a bit more risk as only 33% of wide receivers taken top-10 turn into “legitimate, number one wide receivers.” Pass rusher carries the worst success rate if looking for a “star” with only 28% of pass rushers taken in the top-10 living up to their potential.

There are many ways to view the data and while scientific in many respects, the evidence used is all anecdotal. Yet if there is one major takeaway from studying 20 years of NFL drafts and the top-10 picks in each it would be that offensive tackle is the “safest” pick and that selecting a quarterback is in fact SLIGHTLY LESS of a risk than wide receiver or pass rusher in the top 10.

“The Self Proclaimed Ombudsman of Cleveland Sports Media” can be heard Saturdays 8-11am on 92.3 The Fan.

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