By Bill Barnwell
Last year’s Patriots-Jaguars game is best remembered by two things; first, the 74-yard Maurice Jones-Drew “He was never down” run, a run actually sprung by Kyle Brady, who “tackled” MJD when Ty Warren blew up the play and pushed Brady into him. The other memorable play of the game was the gorgeous diving catch by David Thomas on a Tom Brady touch pass, the only touchdown pass as of yet in Thomas’ career.
This year’s game will evoke memories of its own, with several key battles to be waged between the stars of the assorted teams. One of the battles you won’t see, though, is the one that we might’ve expected to rage on the interior when the Patriots are on offense, with All-World LG Logan Mankins and the woefully underrated Dan Koppen at center going up against the formidable Jaguars tackle combination of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.
The reasons why? Well, for one, they’re no longer formidable. The Jaguars rush defense, the one thing it seemed like you could count upon for the Jaguars heading into this season, was miserable for the first half of the year and merely adequate once Falcons castoff Grady Jackson arrived, with the Jaguars finishing 22nd overall.
The players haven’t done what was expected, either. Stroud won’t be participating, as he’s out for the year with an ankle injury. That injury came after Stroud spent four games suspended because of a positive steroid test, something Stroud attributed to a tainted substance. Henderson, meanwhile, has struggled through hamstring issues and whispers around the league that he’s been slacking off.
We link Henderson and Stroud together for a couple of reasons. Not only do they line up next to each other on the defensive line when they’re both healthy, not only do they form the core of Jacksonville’s defense, but they were drafted in successive seasons, which is a lot of expenditure to put into your defensive line.
Then again, I thought about Houston and the absurd amount of effort they’ve put into their defensive line the last few years. Four consecutive first-round picks have been spent on defensive linemen by the Texans (albeit with one of the picks, Jason Babin, moving to linebacker as a professional), and yet, the Texans were still 25th in our Adjusted Line Yards stat, measuring a defensive line’s ability to stop the run, and 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate, which measures a defense’s ability to rush the passer. Both take into account situation and distance as opposed to traditional yardage-based metrics.
So, then, does plowing lots of effort into a position improve things? I suppose the simple answer is, well, if you pick the right guys, but I wondered whether an optimal draft strategy was to focus on a specific area(s) with your draft picks or instead to spread the wealth.
The way we’ll measure how teams spend their draft picks is by the draft value chart, which is a chart concocted to quantify the value of draft picks. Simple enough. A sample chart can be found here. For the purposes of this research, we’ll be looking at drafts from 1996-2007, the “DVOA era”, since it’s the seasons which we’ve calculated DVOA for.
We’ll also be looking at draft value two different ways. The first is pure draft value, which is a simple summation of the value each team spent on their picks. The second will be a percentage split, which will measure what percentage of the team’s total draft value over the twelve-draft span was spent on a particular position. With this metric, we’re aiming to find the teams that poured a large percentage of their effort into a particular position, even if they didn’t have particularly high picks (otherwise, the research will just be an exercise in writing about the Raiders).
By pure draft value, the team that’s put the most into quarterbacks over the twelve years is, by a large margin, the San Diego Chargers. Picking Ryan Leaf, Drew Brees and Eli Manning (we’re going strictly on draft selections here, not accounting for trades) illuminates the hidden cost of failing with a draft pick like Leaf: Not only have you wasted a pick on a player who doesn’t help your team, and not only have you wasted part of your salary cap on paying and then getting rid of the player, but you also have to use another draft pick (or spend a sum in free agency) to replace the player with someone suitable to replace him. The Chargers went through that process with Leaf and Brees, and got lucky with the Manning deal to pick up extra draft picks to basically make up for spending three high draft picks within a decade on quarterbacks.
Second was Cincinnati, who failed with Akili Smith and then hit on Carson Palmer. Third was Cleveland, who actually didn’t draft Derek Anderson (another Ravens pick), but spent first-round picks on both Tim Couch and Brady Quinn.
Number four on the list was San Francisco, who underwent the same process — to replace Steve Young, they drafted Jim Druckenmiller, which goes against the Bill Walsh philosophy of finding a quarterback on the cheap and plugging him into a system where quarterbacks find it hard to fail. After Druckenmiller bombed and Jeff Garcia (a perfect example of the Walsh-style quarterback) departed, the 49ers used the first overall pick on Alex Smith, who the jury is very out on at the moment as well. It’s entirely possible they’ll use another high draft pick on a quarterback in the next couple of years, which shows the inherent difficulty in drafting one.
If we use our percentage metric, San Diego is far and above the rest of the league in their quarterback usage. 27.4% of the overall value they had to “spend” went to quarterbacks, horribly inefficient when you consider that they still had 21 starting spots to fill. Second was Cincinnati and then right behind them, Houston, who, of course, used their first pick on David Carr, who bombed. This methodology doesn’t include the picks they traded for Matt Schaub, which would push them into second place. Also high on the list are Tennessee (5th, although almost solely for Vince Young), Philadelphia (6th, for Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb), and Indianapolis (7th, almost solely because of Peyton Manning).
Number one on this list, by a wide margin, would be the New Orleans Saints. Again, this doesn’t take trades into account, but if it did, they’d be ahead by an even wider margin when you consider the cost of acquiring Ricky Williams. As it is, Williams represents the first of three first-round picks the Saints spent on running backs in the era, including Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. With that, they’ve managed to muster, oh, one or two years where they actually had an above-average rushing offense. In other words, this doesn’t appear to be a ticket to success for a running game.
Second are the Miami Dolphins, who have spent an absurd amount of effort on a quantity of running backs. This doesn’t include the trade for Ricky Williams, so keep that in mind when I list the running backs they’ve selected. In chronological order: Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Stanley Pritchett, Jerris McPhail, John Avery, J.J. Johnson, Rob Konrad, Cecil Collins, Deon Dyer, Travis Minor, Leonard Henry, Ronnie Brown, Lorenzo Booker, Reagan Mauia. That’s two first-rounders (including #2 overall), two second-rounders, two third-rounders, two fourth-rounders, two fifth-rounders, and a sixth and seventh rounder. And of those twelve seasons, six of them saw someone besides one of the draftees lead the team in carries (Williams, Sammy Morris, Lamar Smith, and Jesse Chatman).
Third would be the Chicago Bears, whose skill position selections have been mostly tragic. Their Day One running backs over the time period were Curtis Enis, Anthony Thomas, and Cedric Benson, all of whom have been disappointments.
Fourth are the Rams, who were more hit-and-miss. They spent a high pick on Lawrence Phillips, and after he revealed himself to be crazy, they cut him and traded for Marshall Faulk, who was great. To complement Faulk, they spent a first-round pick on Trung Canidate, who was a guy who could run fast, not well. After that, they finally hit on Steven Jackson, but it was their third highly-selected running back of the era.
By percentage, the Dolphins come out on top, using nearly 27% of their overall draft value on backs. The Saints are #2, and Bears #3, while the Buccaneers (who dealt a good chunk of picks to the Raiders for Jon Gruden) are #4 by virtue of their selections of Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, and Cadillac Williams. At least they hit on their picks. Buffalo was behind them, as they spent three first-rounders on backs: Antowain Smith, Willis McGahee, and this year, Marshawn Lynch.
This one should be pretty easy. The Lions have spent 8453.6 points of draft value on wideouts. The next closest are the Jets, who have spent 5172.3 points of draft value. You know about the Lions already. The Jets have been through a few high picks in Keyshawn Johnson, Alex Van Dyke, and Santana Moss. Their current starters, though, are a third-round pick (Laveranues Coles) and a fourth-rounder (Jerricho Cotchery), and their most prolific receiver of the timeframe was undrafted, Hofstra’s Wayne Chrebet.
Arizona is third, with four high picks in David Boston, Bryant Johnson, Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald. Johnson/Boldin/Fitzgerald represent a similar outlay to what we were discussing with Jacksonville, in that they were chosen in successive drafts.
Speaking of the Jaguars, although they spent consecutive first-round picks on Matt Jones and Reggie Williams (and one on tight end Mercedes Lewis the year after, although we’re considering them separately), they’re middle of the pack as far as draft value goes.
Believe it or not, Detroit’s outlay on wideouts is not the largest expenditure, percentage-wise, on a particular position over the timeframe. We’ll list those at the end of the essay. It is #1 for wideouts, though, with, surprisingly, the Steelers second. We don’t think of them as wideout-happy, but they spent first-round picks on Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, and Troy Edwards, a second on Antwaan Randle El, and third-rounders on Willie Reid and Hines Ward.
The Giants and Jets are tied for third. The Giants’ efforts in finding wideouts have been pretty embarassing since the early nineties and the days of Ed McCaffrey being let go to make space for Thomas Lewis. Day one Giants wideouts include Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard (#7 overall), Joe Jurevicius (who did little in a Giants uniform), Brian Alford, Ron Dixon (who is afraid of lightning), Tim Carer, Sinorice Moss, and the other Steve Smith. Only one first-rounder, but a whopping five second-rounders.
Number one by both total outlay and percentage is, as you also might’ve expected, your New England Patriots. Not only were Daniel Graham and Ben Watson #1 picks in 2002 and 2004, respectively, but Rod Rutledge was a second-rounder in 1998.
The tight end selection process has a pretty small sample, so Kansas City gets #2 for picking Tony Gonzalez 13th and Kris Wilson 61st over the timespan. Overall, New England spent exactly 10% of their draft value on tight ends over the time period, while no other team had more than 8.7%.
This is a position where we see huge differences because of the differences in philosophy between teams. The Colts and Broncos, who rely on late-round offensive linemen to build up their team, have spent only 2508 points and 1887.2 points on offensive linemen, respectively, while teams who struggle to find offensive line consistency like the Cardinals and Raiders have spent 6587.9 and 5976.4 points on linemen, respectively. Of course, the latter teams have struggled mightily, while the former have done very well for themselves.
This is a position where illuminating the data using our percentage metric is much more valuable than simply listing sums. Number one over the time period by a large margin is Seattle, who have used five first-round picks over the time frame on linemen: Pete Kendall, Walter Jones, Chris McIntosh, Steve Hutchinson, and Chris Spencer. Three are All-Pros, one is promising but inconsistent, and one was an absolute bust.
Second was New Orleans, who tried to supplement all those running backs with some linemen to block for them. The linemen they chose with their first-round picks were actually pretty good: Chris Naeole has been a very good guard for a long time, Kyle Turley was an All-Pro tackle for a while, Jammal Brown has shown flashes of brilliance, and LeCharles Bentley was one of the best centers in the league before his departure and subsequent injuries. Jonathan Stinchcomb was a bust, but four out of five is another pretty solid ratio.
Next up are Tampa Bay, whose expenditure is much more recent: Namely, first-rounder Davin Joseph in 2006 and second-round tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Arron Sears in 2006 and 2007, respectively. They also used a first-rounder on disappointing Kenyatta Walker and a second on Jerry Wunsch back on the day, neither of whom were particularly good picks.
Fourth were Oakland, who famously chose Robert Gallery, who became the biggest bust of an offensive lineman since Tony Mandarich, but they’ve also spent high picks on Mo Collins, Matt Stinchcomb, and Jake Grove.
Philadelphia is fifth, and while they’re another team not particularly known for their outlay on offensive linemen, they’ve put serious effort into stocking their line. Jermaine Mayberry, Tra Thomas, and Shawn Andrews were all first-rounders, while Bobby Williams and the unfortunate Winston Justice were second rounders.
There is a hidden benefit to drafting offensive tackles, though, that most people don’t consider. Take Arizona, who are sixth. They drafted mammoth LT Leonard Davis with the second overall pick in 2001. Davis, simply put, was not a good tackle. He struggled with speed rushers and his footwork. Eventually, he was moved inside to guard, where, as a Cowboy, he’s been arguably the best guard in football. There’s a safety net on the offensive line for tackles: Guard. It’s also true in the secondary, where corners can become safeties if they struggle in coverage, but unless you’re Kordell Stewart, you can’t go anywhere if you fail out at quarterback. This makes offensive tackles inherently one of the safer picks of the draft.
Here’s where we see our largest outlay by both sum and by percentage. The strange thing is that it’s from two different teams.
By pure most value used, Arizona is #1. They used the #3 pick on Simeon Rice, another #3 on Andre Wadsworth, the #12 on Wendell Bryant, the #18 on Calvin Pace, the #33 on Alan Branch, and the #34 on Kyle Vanden Bosch. You’ll notice these players either busted or enjoyed more success elsewhere than they did in Arizona, which is, as you might be aware, a bad thing. They’re only seventh by percentage spent on defensive linemen, though.
#1 by percentage, though, and the largest percentage outlay of any team at any one position in football, is Houston. Up to this point, a full 35.6% of their draft value has been spent on defensive linemen. That’s almost entirely the foursome of Babin, Mario Williams, Travis Johnson, and Amobi Okoye.
Number two are the Vikings, who have pushed a whopping six first-round picks out at defensive lineman: Duane Clemons, Dimitrus Underwood (arguably the worst first-round pick ever), Chris Hovan, Kevin Williams, Kenichi Udeze, and Erasmus James. Only Williams has proven himself to be an elite player. They also used second-round picks of James Manley, Kailee Wong (who moved to linebacker as a pro), Fred Robbins, Michael Boireau, and Willie Howard. Hovan, Robbins, and Boireau were all from the same draft, while the pairings of both Underwood and Hovan and Udeze and James were back-to-back first-rounders. All in all, it’s been a major disappointment for the Vikings.
Third are the Cowboys, who have been much more successful in their selections: Ebenezer Ekuban (great name), Greg Ellis, DeMarcus Ware (both eventually moved to linebacker), Marcus Spears (same year as Ware), and Anthony Spencer (also moved to linebacker) have all been defensive ends taken in the first-round by the Cowboys.
Defensive line is, in general, where teams seem to spend a lot of their dough. Only five teams have spent more than 30% of their draft value at one position. Three of those teams have spent it on defensive linemen, while the other two were on defensive backs. In addition, on average, 20.2% of the value in each draft goes towards defensive linemen.
By the way: The Jaguars, the team who started this whole study off? They ranked 20th in the percentage of draft value spent on defensive linemen in the league. As for the Patriots, they rank 13th despite using first-round picks on Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork. Of course, they managed to get those picks right, which meant they didn’t need to replace them with new first-round defensive linemen.
Welcome back Detroit! The Lions spent the most draft value on linebackers by sum, bringing in Ernie Sims, Reggie Brown, and Chris Claiborne with first-round picks, and Barrett Green, Boss Bailey, and Teddy Lehman with second-rounders.
Number one by percentage, though, were the Redskins, who drafted LaVar Arrington second-overall and used second-round picks on Rocky McIntosh and the legendary Greg Jones. Second were the Jets, who seemed to have some sort of weird linebacker depth fetish in the late-nineties and early-aughts. They drafted James Farrior eighth overall and barely gave him playing time before letting him become a star in Pittsburgh, while Bryan Thomas and Jonathan Vilma were both first-round picks. They also spent second-rounders on Victor Hobson and David Harris.
Third? The Jaguars! What a coincidence. In the first year of the study, they took Kevin Hardy second overall, who somewhat disappointed for that high of a pick. He was their only first-round linebacker, but they also spent second-rounders on Justin Durant, and Daryl Smith, and third-rounders on James Hamilton, TJ Slaughter, Danny Clark, Eric Westmoreland, Akin Ayodele, Jorge Cordova, and Clint Ingram. Not exactly the greatest bunch ever.
Third were the Lions and fourth was Denver, who have drafted six linebackers in twelve years, but used first or second-round picks on five of them: John Mobley, Al Wilson, Montae Reagor, Terry Pierce, and DJ Williams.
Defensive back represents the other area of huge outlay for teams. There’s a huge gap between the top two and the rest of the pack percentage-wise that I’m going to focus on. First, the Redskins, who pumped four top-ten picks in eight years into defensive backs: Champ Bailey, Sean Taylor, Carlos Rogers, and LaRon Landry. Fred Smoot also went in the second round.
Behind them were the Titans, who drafted Andre Woolfork, Pac-Man Jones, and Michael Griffin in the first round, Andre Dyson and Tank Williams in the second. Ironically, their best defensive back at the moment is Cortland Finnegan, who was selected 215th overall in 2006.
Third has been Seattle, who took Shawn Springs third in 1997, Marcus Trufant, and Kelly Jennings with first-round picks, and Fred Thomas, Ike Charlton, Ken Lucas, Ken Hamlin, and Josh Wilson with second-rounders.
Again, there’s a safety net here for cornerbacks. If they fail, many of them can move to safety and be productive. In a process that exposes teams to huge risks, mitigating some of said risk by taking a cornerback or a offensive tackle cannot be ignored as part of the process.
So, after all that, is there an ideal philosophy?
First, we can do some simple splits to find percentages. 50.2% of all draft value has been spent on offense, 49.3% on defense, and .5% on kickers and punters (hi, Jets!).
The most offensive-minded teams in the draft have been Miami (62.1%), Cleveland (59.5%), New Orleans (59.4%), Indianapolis (58.3%), and Chicago (56.7%).
On the other side of the ball, the top five are Dallas (a staggering 66.9%), Washington (59.8%), Denver (59.3%), Tennessee (57.3%), and Carolina (57.1%). Neither group is particularly more effective than the other.
The teams that have spent the most on skill position players include the Chargers (50.9%), Bears (48.3%) Giants (48.2%), Dolphins (47.7%), and Browns (46.7%). The ironic thing is that, realistically, only the Chargers (and the Browns, this year at least) are known for their playmakers amongst those teams, and one of those playmakers, Antonio Gates, was undrafted.
Amongst the offensive and defensive lines, the big spenders are Dallas (48.8%), Philadelphia (47.8%), Tampa Bay (47.4%), Arizona (46.2%), and Houston (44.0%). The former three are three of the more successful franchises in football, while the latter two certainly are not.
If we just focus on a team’s front seven, then, we see Minnesota (47.3%), Dallas (42.8%), Carolina (38.8%), and Philadelphia (36.8%). The Oilers are also on that list at 41.2%, but it’s only based upon drafts from 1996 to 1999.
What about focusing on teams who spent a lot of effort on one position and very little on another versus teams who were consistent with value across all positions? We’ll check that by looking at the standard deviation of each team’s percentages across all positions, so that teams with a large focus in one spot and little focus in others would have a high standard deviation, while teams who are consistent would be low.
The teams with the five highest standard deviations were Washington, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, and New Orleans — again, a mix of teams who have been both successful and failing.
The flip side sees Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and San Francisco — again, some successes and some failures.
Sadly, not all research finds a clear answer. There doesn’t appear to be any surefire way to build a team through draft picks beyond, simply enough, making sure you draft the right guys.
Oh, and since we haven’t talked about it at all: The lowest percentage of draft value that any team’s spent on any one position in the past twelve years? Patriots. Quarterback.