As we approach the NFL draft and listen to coverage, I’ve heard constantly that drafting a quarterback at the top of the draft was a 50-50 proposition. But is that really true? And what about other positions — what are the chances of picking a lemon at those spots? As I wondered what positions have been the safest in the draft recently and what positions have been the riskiest, I decided to undertake a research project to see exactly that.
Here’s the methodology: We looked at the top 16 picks of every draft this decade. We categorized each player as a positive, a negative, or a neutral. We only allowed neutrals for the past three drafts so that we didn’t straddle the fence over and over. We ranked offensive linemen as a group because at this level in the draft, it’s mostly offensive tackles anyway.
We then counted the positives as completions and negatives as incompletions to create a percentage of sorts. Neutrals did not count as attempts so that they don’t skew the rankings.
So here are the results. Feel free to quibble with the positive/negative/neutral ratings, because that would obviously change percentages. I’ve tried to be fair, and if there is a debate, I leaned toward the positive. (That’s the kind of guy I am.) Even with that, there are some pretty clear distinctions by position. Hopefully you’ll find the results are pretty insightful.
And if you want to check out the defensive results, check out this post (online Friday).
Quarterbacks: 8 of 11 positives (73 percent)
Positives: Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Michael Vick
Negatives: Alex Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington
Neutrals: JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart
Thoughts: This percentage was higher than I expected, but that’s because I held the jury out on Young and Leinart. Were I forced to assign a mark, both would be misses. Russell likewise needs to have a good year to move up. Smith could still turn his rating around, but because I forced a mark on him, it has to be a minus because he compiled only one quality season. Leftwich had four pretty good years in Jacksonville, and could still start in the league, so he’s a positive. Vick had six mostly good years in Atlanta, so his on-field performance was a plus too. It’s remarkable to see Ryan in the plus category so soon, because most QBs take 2-3 years to really start to shine. The strong QB class of ’04 (Manning, Rivers, Roethlisberger) pushes this completion percentage up, but the class of ’05 (Young and Leinart along with Cutler) could yank the percentage right back down.
This year’s candidates: Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez
Running backs: 9 of 12 positives (75 percent)
Positives: Jonathan Stewart, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, LaDanian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones
Neutrals: Darren McFadden
Negatives: Cedric Benson, William Green, Ron Dayne
Thoughts: This is a pretty safe position at the top of the draft. If a running back fits into the top 16, he’ll most likely have some good years as a pro. And most of the time, backs can make an instant impact, which is another plus. We saw that with Stewart this year and Peterson and Lynch the year before. Williams has been hurt a lot, but when he’s played he’s been really good. McFadden is a neutral because he was so banged up as a rookie, but he still averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Dayne had some decent years, but he never notched 800 yards in a season, and so he has to receive a minus. Benson’s in the same boat, but he has a chance (like Thomas Jones) to reinvigorate his career in his second stop this year as a Bengal.
This year’s candidates: Knoshown Moreno, Beanie Wells
Wide receivers: 12 of 20 positives (60 percent)
Positives: Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn Jr., Braylon Edwards, Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Andre Johnson, Donte Stallworth, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress
Negatives: Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner, Peter Warrick, Travis Taylor
Thoughts: There are some legitimate superstars (Calvin and Andre Johnson, Fitzgerald) in this category, but the overall batting average isn’t wonderful. Some of the busts – Williamson, Mike Williams, Rogers, Terrell – have been completely useless as pros. (They almost make me want to have a double-negative category.) Ginn has shown enough potential to be a positive, and while Clayton has only had one dynamic season, the fact that Tampa re-signed him moved him onto the plus side as well. Reggie Williams is another marginal plus. Roy Williams hasn’t lived up to his hype, but he had good years in Detroit. I remember covering Gardner’s Pro Day; he tore it up, especially on his vertical jump, and thus moved from a late first-round pick up to No. 15 overall. A similar workout-phenom jump happened to Williamson. Such overdrafting mistakes based on workouts can kill a team. All in all, this is a position that plays out as more of a risk than others.
This year’s candidates: Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Derrius Heyward-Bey
Tight ends: 3 of 3 positives (100 percent)
Positives: Kellen Winslow II, Jeremy Shockey, Bubba Franks
Neutrals: Vernon Davis
Thoughts: It’s a little weird to look at this list, because none of the guys on the list has been lights-out dominant. But Winslow, Shockey, and Franks have all been productive (if a little tempermental, in the cases of Winslow and Shockey). Still, in our simple plus/minus grading, each of the three gets a plus. Davis would get a minus, but there’s still hope, and he actually started to come around at the end of the season after Mike Singletary went beyond benching and banished him off the sideline in a midseason game. Because there’s still hope for Davis, we’ll leave him neutral for now.
This year’s candidates: Brandon Pettigrew
Offensive line: 14 of 16 positives (88 percent)
Positives: Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Branden Albert, Joe Thomas, Levi Brown, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jamaal Brown, Shawn Andrews, Jordan Gross, Bryant McKinnie, Levi Jones, Leonard Davis, Kenyatta Walker, Chris Samuels
Neutrals: Chris Williams
Negatives: Robert Gallery, Mike Williams
Thoughts: This position was one where the history is striking. If you want a safe pick at the top of the draft, take the offensive tackle. While there are a couple of notable busts, most of the time you get good value out of it. Some of these tackles are superstars, including recent top picks Long, Clady, and Thomas. But even the tackles who haven’t been started for a while, either at tackle or inside at guard. For example, Leonard Davis was not a great tackle, but he’s become a roadgrader at guard. Gallery moved to guard from tackle as well, but he’s a starter who hasn’t proven to be dominant. The numbers here surprised me in this research project, and they make me lean even more to this year’s crop of quality offensive tackles.
This year’s candidates: Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, Michael Oher, Eben Britton