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RP: Drafting NFL superstars – defense

Which positions in the draft give a team the best percentage chance of drafting a superstar? Let’s find out in this post about defense. (For offensive players, check out this post.)

Last year leading up to the draft, we took on the project of analyzing which positions in the draft had the greatest boom and bust percentages in two posts (offense and defense). But as we did that project, we realized that there is another level we need to analyze. In the top 16 of the draft (top half of the first round), teams aren’t merely looking for good players – they’re looking for great players. So we are looking at superstar percentages by position this year.

Here’s the methodology: We looked back over the drafts from 1997 to 2008, analyzing the first 16 picks in each draft. We charted how many players were drafted at each position, and then we picked the guys at each position that have become superstars. We left out the 2009 draft, since it’s too soon to indicate that any of those players are superstars. After we make our calls about who the superstars are and find a percentage, we’ll list guys who we left off the borderline of superstars. We did this so that you can change percentages on your own if you disagree with a call about who’s a superstar and who’s not.

We also refigured the bust percentages from last year’s post on defense and included them below, for the sake of analysis.

Defense ends/Pass rushers
Superstar percentage: 18 percent
Updated bust percentage: 35 percent (7 of 20)
Total picks: 28
Superstars: DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Jevon Kearse
Not-quite-superstars: Mario Williams, Shawne Merriman, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, John Abraham, Greg Ellis, Grant Wistrom, Peter Boulware
What we learned: Defensive end has been a trouble spot in the past, but as more teams move to the 3-4 defense and look for the Ware or Suggs types to serve as designated pass rushers, it seems as though teams are having a little better luck. But this year’s draft crop features more pure 4-3 ends like Derrick Morgan and Jason Pierre-Paul, while the 3-4 pass rushers like Brandon Graham are not as highly rated. Jared Odrick fits as a 3-4 end, which is a need position that led to Tyson Jackson being overdrafted last year. But because there’s no Ware/Suggs/Merriman type, this crop of defensive ends feels a little riskier than the crew in recent years.

Defensive tackles
Superstar percentage:
17 percent
Updated bust percentage: 38 percent (8 of 21)
Total picks: 24
Superstars: Haloti Ngata, Kevin Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Richard Seymour
Not-quite-superstars: Tommie Harris, Ty Warren, John Henderson, Marcus Stroud, Corey Simon, Anthony McFarland
What we’ve learned: Defensive tackle has always been a risky proposition, and only few of the players drafted that high have turned into game-changers. So it’s interesting to think, based on that historical perspective, about how highly Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are rated this year. History says one, if not both, will struggle, but evaluators are in love with both players. We like both players, but the superstar percentage is a question mark we’ll raise. Oklahoma’s Dan Williams, who can play inside in a 4-3 or a 3-4, could also jump into the top 16 in this year’s draft.

Linebackers
Superstar percentage: 11 percent
Updated bust percentage: 0 percent (0 of 12)
Total picks: 18
Superstars: Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher
Not-quite-superstars: Jerod Mayo, Thomas Davis, Jonathan Vilma, Dan Morgan, Lavar Arrington, James Farrior, Julian Peterson, Keith Brooking, Takeo Spikes
What we learned: No position has been a safer bet at the top of the draft than linebacker, which features a bust percentage of 0. But there aren’t many true game-changers in this crew either. It’s hard for a linebacker to go from a highly productive tackling machine to a game-changing impact player unless he’s a pass rusher, which accounts for the difficulty in moving up to the superstar level. So Rolando McClain and Sergio Kindle appear to be very safe picks in the teens, but teams should wonder whether they’ll break through to be impact players. We think Kindle can make that jump because his pass-rush ability, but McClain seems to be more solid than spectacular to us.

Cornerbacks
Superstar percentage:
25 percent
Updated bust percentage: 17 percent (2 of 12)
Total picks: 20
Superstars: Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey, Chris McAlister, Charles Woodson, Shawn Springs
Not-quite-superstars: Dunta Robinson, Terrence Newman, Marcus Trufant, Quentin Jammer
What we learned: The cornerback bust percentage isn’t that daunting, and the reward for taking a player that highly can be huge, as the superstar percentage attests. Unfortunately, there’s not a Bailey/Woodson level talent in this year’s draft. The top cornerback, Joe Haden, is probably closer to the Newman/Trufant/Jammer class. All of those guys have had good careers, but they don’t reach shut-down corner status. Still, the history suggests Haden is a pick with reasonable risk and achievable reward.

Safeties
Superstar percentage:
25 percent
Updated bust percentage: 14 percent (1 of 7)
Total picks: 8
Superstars: Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu
Not-quite-superstars: Antrel Rolle, Roy Williams
What we learned: Safety isn’t often a position that moves into the top 10, with Rolle, the late Taylor and his successor LaRon Landry as notable exceptions. But there have been a couple of superstar hits at the position, which should encourage teams who are enamored with Eric Berry’s potential this year. Positional dynamics could push Earl Thomas out of the top half of the first round, but he too has the change to be an above-average safety for a team. There’s not a lot of history here, but it’s enough to suggest that Berry can be a nice investment, especially if he falls to pick 5 or below.

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Morgan hangs them up

According to agent Drew Rosenhaus’ Twitter account, former Panthers LB Dan Morgan retired Monday. Morgan had battled concussions over the last few years that shortened his career. Here are some thoughts on Morgan’s retirement; you can see how it compares to other offseason retirements in this relativity post.

Dan Morgan was the Panthers’ first-round pick (11th overall) in 2001, and he was part of the core that helped turn the franchise around leading up to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance. Morgan, Kris Jenkins, and Steve Smith were part of a draft class that revitalized the team. But injuries held Morgan back throughout his career, starting in his rookie season when he injured his leg on a Charlotte field so bad that chunks were coming out of it. He made just one Pro Bowl (2004), in large part because injuries and a series of concussions kept him out of action so often. He never played in more than 13 games in a season, and he saw action just four times since 2005. He spent the last two offseasons with the Saints but never saw game action. While his career stats aren’t eyepopping, he does have one unforgettable line on his stat sheet — his Super Bowl performance against the Patriots. He was credited with 18 tackles in the game book, but Panthers coaches tallied 25 stops that Morgan made. He ends up with a good career that could have been truly memorable had injuries and concussions not taken their toll.

More on Morgan: I covered the Panthers in 2001, Morgan’s rookie year. Here are a few of the articles I wrote about him:

2001 Panthers draft preview

Panthers draft Morgan

Morgan season preview

Morgan injured vs. Green Bay

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency, NFL Injuries

FR: 2009 retirements

This offseason, like the last two, has been filled with a Brett Favre will-he-or-won’t-he retirement dance.  But Favre’s retirement (even if it’s temporary) isn’t the only notable one of the offseason. So we thought we’d play relativity with the various NFL retirements of the offseason. We’re comparing them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the ’09 season.

10 – Head coach Tony Dungy, Colts – After an unbelievable run of success in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Dungy decided to leave the coaching ranks. He will be missed, both for his stately presence and for his coaching prowess. Dungy revitalized a Buccaneers franchise that was completely moribund, getting them to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and guiding them to the NFC championship game. He was fired, but the foundation he built eventually won a Super Bowl. Dungy then went to Indianapolis, where he won 10 games his first year and at least 12 games for the next six years,  a remarkable run of success that crescendoed with a Super Bowl title in the 2006 season. Beyond his success, he (along with longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin) is the progenitor of the Tampa-2 defense that spread throughout the league, as well as the root of a significant coaching tree. His departure will hurt the Colts – pretty significantly, we think – but the NFL needs him to stay in the public eye enough to be the conscience of football as well. If this is the end of a coaching career, Dungy did enough to merit Hall of Fame induction.

9 – John Madden – The most iconic NFL analyst of the last two generations finally hung up his headset this offseason. Madden had become a bit of a caricature, but his performance this year (especially in the Super Bowl) was still top notch. He revealed what’s inside the game better than any analyst before had, and his off-kilter (and often off-subject) musings always added humor to the proceedings. His successful second career — remember, he was a Super Bowl winning coach with the Raiders — now comes to a close. But he still has a third career as a video game impressario, and his Madden NFL franchise isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. All in all, Madden is in the Hall of Fame with good reason, and the sum of his career is unlike any we’ve ever seen.

8 – QB Brett Favre, Jets – Favre’s repeated retirement dine-and-dash routine has worn thin, which is why we can’t rate his retirement as the most significant of the offseason. (That, plus the fact that might unretire once more.) Yes, Favre has had a wonderful career, but his 2008 campaign ended ignominiously. His legacy will always be his numbers and his chance-taking, but it won’t be spit-shined and gleaming because he has so little regard for it. Favre is still a Hall of Famer one day, but he’d be better off to go ahead and let the five-year waiting period for Canton start (and stay) ticking. (UPDATE: No surprise: Favre didn’t stay retired.)

7 – Head coach Mike Holmgren, Seahawks – Holmgren spent 17 years as a head coach in Green Bay and Seattle, and his teams were usually among the league’s best. He won a Super Bowl in Green Bay and went to another, then made a third trip to the title game with the Seahawks. More impressively, he won eight division titles (three in Green Bay, five in Seattle) and 12 playoff appearances. That’s a really good batting average. Holmgren was a disciple of Bill Walsh whose first staff in Green Bay included a litany of coaches including Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid, Dick Jauron, and Ray Rhodes, all of whom would become NFL head coaches. That’s another impressive part of his legacy. Holmgren then moved from Green Bay to Seattle for more authority – he served as head coach, general manager, team vice president, and a couple more titles that filled his business card and made me write at PFW that he had gotten every title this side of Miss Seattle. It wasn’t until he lost some of that power that his Seahawks really hit their stride. I don’t know if I can call his coaching career Hall of Fame worthy, but it’s close. Holmgren will likely return to the league in some capacity, perhaps as soon as 2010, but his retirement is worth noting at this point in case it sticks.

7 (con’t) – SS Rodney Harrison, Patriots – Harrison retired after a 15-year career that approached Hall of Fame level despite starting on the practice squad. While most people think of Harrison’s role on New England’s back-to-back championship teams earlier this decade, he actually broke into the NFL as a fifth-round pick out of Western Illinois with the Chargers. On a San Diego team with a horrible offense (do you remember Craig Whelihan at quarterback?), Harrison partnered with Junior Seau to anchor the No. 1 defense in the league in 1998.  (I wrote a feature on Seau and Harrison following that season and learned a lot about Harrison’s story when I interviewed him for that piece.) That was an impressive accomplishment for a player who left college early because his family needed the money (which wasn’t that much) he got as a signing bonus for being a fifth-round pick, only to get cut and have to spend much of his first year on the practice squad. He emerged as a playmaking safety with a nasty, physical edge. He made two Pro Bowls and was first-team All Pro twice in San Diego (’98 and ’01) before moving onto New England in 2003, when he got a higher national profile for bringing his same hard-nosed game to a periennial contender. Harrison ended his career as the only player in league history with at least 30 sacks and 30 interceptions. He notched seven playoff interceptions in his career, a Patriots team record. He also was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player by competitors in 2004 and by league coaches in 2008, and he was fined many times for various hits over his career. Wikipedia even claims that Harrison has the league record for personal-foul penalties, although that is unsubstantiated.  But Harrison’s last four years were injury plagued and also included a suspension for purchasing HGH, and it was probably time for him to hang them up. The fact that he can move straight into the NBC Football Night in America studio made the decision easier. Harrison may not end up as a Hall of Fame player, but his long career as an impact player should at least get him to the finalist level of voting at some point, and that’s a quality resume for a former fifth-round pick.

6 – C Tom Nalen, Broncos – Nalen was the center on Denver’s Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, and he ended up spending 15 seasons in the NFL, all in Denver. The five-time Pro Bowler was never the top center in the league, but he was often among the top 4 or 5, which is quite an accomplishment. Think about how many different running backs had good seasons in Denver, and you’ll think about part of Nalen’s impressive legacy. He wasn’t massive, but he had the quickness to thrive in long-time OL coach Alex Gibbs’ scheme. He’ll get some Hall of Fame consideration eventually, although enshrinement is a long shot. But he will certainly find his name in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame as one of the team’s all-time greats.

6 (con’t) – OT Willie Anderson, Ravens – Anderson never got a wealth of publicity in his career, in large part because he was stuck in Cincinnati for 12 years. But Anderson excelled as a mauling run blocker on the right side for the vast majority of his career. He made four Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro three times (’04-’06). He spent his final season as a starter in Baltimore. In all, he started more than 180 games, which is impressive longevity on the line. Like Nalen, another ’09 retiree, Anderson will get Hall of Fame consideration, but my guess is that he’ll ultimately fall short. But Anderson leaves a legacy as one of the Bengals’ all-time greats.

6 (con’t) – DT La’Roi Glover, Rams – Glover was a 6-time Pro Bowler who developed into the perfect under-tackler in the 4-3 defense. He had a slashing style that allowed him to rush the passer and make big plays, while a bigger tackle played the gaps and provided the stoutness against the run. The crazy thing is that Glover spent his rookie year with the Raiders as a fifth-round pick but was then cut. He landed with the Saints, and there he developed into a Pro Bowl player in 2000 and ’01. He took a big-money deal in Dallas in 2002 and rewarded the Cowboys with four straight Pro Bowl seasons. He then finished his career in St. Louis. Glover’s career arc falls short of Hall of Fame status – John Randle was a similar and better player than Glover – but with 83.5 sacks, he was undoubtedly one of the preeminent pass-rushing defensive tackles of his day.

6 (con’t) – LB Tedy Bruschi, Patriots – Bruschi, who entered the league as a third-round pick and an undersized linebacker from Arizona, became one of the iconic players in New England’s Super Bowl era. He made just two Pro Bowls in his 13-year career, but he was a determined playmaker on all three of New England’s Super Bowl champs. He was also one of the few links between New England’s ’96 Super Bowl appearance and the glory years of the 2000s. Even more, he overcame a stroke in 2005 and returned to the field to play three more seasons. Bruschi will get some Hall of Fame consideration, but in our eyes he’s just below that level, even considering his significant contributions to the best team of the decade. But he still had a wonderful career all in one place, which is a sterling legacy to leave.

5 – Offensive coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, Colts – Mudd had been an NFL assistant for 35 years and Moore for 32 before they both retired this offseason because of a pension-related issue this offseason. (This pension issue is one to watch, and it could force more long-time assistants into retirement or the college ranks.) Mudd, a three-time Pro Bowl lineman himself in the 1960s, spent the last 12 years as a Colts assistant, and his teaming with Moore on Dungy’s staff was hugely successful. Part of Mudd’s legacy will be the strong lines he had with undrafted players (most notably Jeff Saturday) playing major roles. Moore’s recent success was his ability to work with Peyton Manning, but he was also a coordinator in Pittsburgh and Detroit and an assistant head coach in Minnesota. It will be interesting to see if the Colts can continue their offensive success without Moore and Mudd, or with them as consultants and not full-timers. All this continues the upheaval on the Colts’ staff this offseason after years of consistency.

5 (con’t) – QB Trent Green, Rams – Green is the ultimate what-if guy in the last decade of NFL play. What if he hadn’t gotten hurt before the 1999 season? Would the Rams still have become the greatest show on turf? Would Kurt Warner have ever gotten a chance? Or would Green be remembered as one of the better rags-to-riches stories in league history? Entering that ’99 season, Green had started just one year in Washington, and because of Warner’s emergence, Green got a Super Bowl ring but only five more starts before he finally got his chance as a full-time starter in Kansas City in 2001. Green started 5 1/2 years for the Chiefs, leading two playoff runs and putting up big numbers, before a string of concussions forced him out of the starters’ role. He got a handful more starts in Miami and one back in St. Louis, but his inability to stay on the field scuttled his career. Despite his star-crossed journey, Green established himself as an above-average NFL starter who made two Pro Bowls. That’s a pretty good legacy to leave with.

5 (con’t) – OT John Tait, Bears – Tait played 10 years with the Chiefs and Bears and was a starter throughout, but nagging injuries eventually prompted him to retire this offseason. Tait played both left and right tackle during his career, and he was good enough on the left side to make the Pro Bowl as a Chief in ’01 and as a Bear in ’06. Tait was never an elite player, but he was a quality starter throughout his tenure and deserves credit for quite a credible career.

4 – CB Duane Starks, Raiders- Starks was the 10th overall pick in the 1998 draft, and he ended up being a starting corner on the great Ravens defenses for four years. He never quite reached shut-down corner level, as his teammate Chris McAlister did, but he was a solid starter. He had six interceptions during Baltimore’s championship  season and added a pick-6 in Baltimore’s Super Bowl win. Starks left Baltimore for Arizona in 2002, and he bounced to New England and then Oakland after that, with injuries wreaking havoc all along the way. With 25 career interceptions, Starks had a notable career that didn’t reach greatness. But he can be proud of what he accomplished over the last 11 years.

4 (con’t) – LB Dan Morgan, Saints – Morgan was the Panthers’ first-round pick (11th overall) in 2001, and he was part of the core that helped turn the franchise around leading up to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance. Morgan, Kris Jenkins, and Steve Smith were part of a draft class that revitalized the team. But injuries held Morgan back throughout his career, starting in his rookie season when he injured his leg on a Charlotte field so bad that chunks were coming out of it. He made just one Pro Bowl (2004), in large part because injuries and a series of concussions kept him out of action so often. He never played in more than 13 games in a season, and he saw action just four times since 2005. He spent the last two offseasons with the Saints but never saw game action. While his career stats aren’t eyepopping, he does have one unforgettable line on his stat sheet — his Super Bowl performance against the Patriots. He was credited with 18 tackles in the game book, but Panthers coaches tallied 25 stops that Morgan made. He ends up with a good career that could have been truly memorable had injuries and concussions not taken their toll. (More on Morgan’s rookie season in this post.)

4 (con’t) – C Jeremy Newberry, Falcons – Newberry was a long-time 49er who played a total of 10 years in the league. While he never got great acclaim, he earned two Pro Bowl berths and was the centerpiece of the San Francisco O-line for half a decade. He spent a year with the Raiders and Chargers and had signed with the Falcons for ’09 before injuries caused him to call it quits instead. Regardless of what caused him to leave, he goes into his post-football life with a solid on-field legacy.

3 – OT Todd Weiner, Falcons – Weiner played 11 years with the Seahawks and Falcons, remaining a regular starter until getting part-time play this year. The Falcons wanted to keep him, but Weiner decided that 116 starts and more than 150 games was enough for him to call it a satisfying career.

3 (con’t) – CB Fernando Bryant, Steelers – Bryant, a former Jaguars first-round pick, spent five years in Jacksonville and four in Detroit as a starter, but last year he was cut by New England in the preseason and played in just two games with Pittsburgh, none in the postseason. Still, he retires with more than 100 career starts, seven career interceptions, and a Super Bowl ring he won last year. He ended up playing up to his first-round draft status, and that’s something to be proud of.

3 (con’t) – WR Drew Bennett, Ravens – Bennett had one fantastic year in Tennessee back in 2004, and he was productive in the two following years as well. But after signing a mega-deal in St. Louis, Bennett was hamstrung by injuries and ended up with just 34 catches in two years. Had he been healthy, Bennett would have provided the Ravens at least a competent vet who will provide some assurance to an offense that would have otherwise had to rely solely on Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams. But Bennett was not healthy, and after just a day of workouts, he retired. He leaves the league as a solid NFL starter who had some disappointments but some high points as well. That’s not a bad legacy.

3 (con’t) – DE Kenechi Udeze, Vikings – Udeze, a former first-round pick out of USC, played just three full seasons with Minnesota, all as a starter, and had just 11 career sacks. His career was cut short by leukemia, which caused him to sit out in 2008 and then to retire after a comeback attempt just before training camps started in 2009. It’s sad to see a career cut short by cancer like this, but if a football career is all Udeze loses in this battle, that’s still a win in the broad view.

3 (con’t) OT Marvel Smith, 49ers – Smith, who signed with the 49ers in the offseason to try to recover his career, instead had to retire due to a bad back. The long-time Pittsburgh Steeler, who was a Pro Bowl player at left tackle when the Steelers won Super Bowl 40, started 108 games over his nine years in Pittsburgh, but he had to go to the bench last season after the first five games because of his troublesome back. He leaves the game with two Super Bowl rings and a solid tenure as a Steeler.

2 – OT Todd Wade, Jaguars – Wade hardly played last year, but he started 96 games over his career with the Dolphins, Texans, and Redskins. He was never among the best tackles, but he was a solid starter, which is saying something.

1 – TE Chad Mustard, Broncos – Mustard only had 12 career catches over five seasons, but his unique name and even more unique backstory led to this unbelievably good headline and story by Darin Gantt of the Rock Hill Herald.

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RP: Draft boom and bust by position – Defense

This is part two of our research project examining which positions in the NFL draft have yielded the most hits and the most misses this decade. We did the offensive side of the ball yesterday in this post, and now it’s time to start in on the defense.

Here’s the methodology: We looked at the top 16 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 combined defensive ends and outside linebackers because of the proliferation of rush ‘backers in the 3-4 in the draft the last four years.

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.

Defensive tackles: 13 of 20 positives (65 percent)
Positives: Sedrick Ellis, Amobi Okoye, Haloti Ngata, Broderick Bunkley, Tommie Harris, Kevin Williams, Ty Warren, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Richard Seymour, Damione Lewis, Marcus Stroud
Negatives: Travis Johnson, Dewayne Robertson, Johnathan Sullivan, Jimmy Kennedy, Ryan Sims, Wendell Bryant, Gerard Warren
Neutrals: Glenn Dorsey, Justin Harrell
Thoughts: This is one of the positions with the highest bust rates. When a player hits, they often hit big — Haynesworth, Seymour, Williams, and Ngata are (or have been) terrific, while even Harris, Henderson, and Stroud are among those who have been game changers. But there are also some big-time busts here in Robertson and Gerard Warren. Some of the busts (Sims, Kennedy) are still in the league, but they have settled into reserve roles. I’ve put Okoye and Ellis on the positives list based on single good years. For Ellis it was his rookie year; Okoye was good as a rookie but stepped back last year. Dorsey is also leaning positive, based on a solid first season. But Harrell has been so banged up that he’s headed for negative land as well. All in all, this is a dangerous position to draft.
This year’s candidates: B.J. Raji, Peria Jerry

Defensive ends and pass rushers: 13 of 17 positives (76 percent)
Positives: Gaines Adams, Adam Carriker, Mario Williams, Kamerion Wimbley, DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Justin Smith, Greg Ellis, Andre Carter, John Abraham
Negatives: Michael Haynes, Jerome McDougle, Jamal Reynolds, Courtney Brown
Neutrals: Chris Long, Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson
Thoughts: I used to consider pass rusher a premium position (along with quarterback, left tackle, and cornerback), but with the proliferation of 3-4 defenses, the job description has changed. Now guys like Suggs, Ware, and Merriman (and to a lesser extent Wimbley) rush from a standing outside linebacker position. While they pile up huge sack numbers, they don’t strike me as quite as dominating as a more traditional end. I guess that makes me a 4-3 guy. So I would lean toward the more traditional end like Williams who can rush the passer but also can do other things. Peppers is in that camp too, although he wants to move to a 3-4 now. That’s what the Bucs are hoping Adams will do as well. Freeney and Abraham are interesting because they are 3-4 style guys who have fit in beautifully as 4-3 rush ends. There haven’t been a ton of busts, although Brown was the No. 1 overall pick, but the jury is still out on Long, Gholston, and Harvey from last year. Still, this position has a better hit rate than I expected, largely because teams have been able to successfully find guys who can be productive in a 3-4 scheme since Ware and Merriman opened the floodgates in the ’05 draft. This year’s top candidates – Orakpo, Maybin, Ayers, and Brown – all fit that mold as well.
This year’s candidates: Brian Orakpo, Aaron Maybin, Robert Ayers, Everette Brown, Tyson Jackson

Linebackers: 12 of 12 positives (100 percent)
Positives: Keith Rivers, Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, Lawrence Timmons, A.J. Hawk, Ernie Sims, Thomas Davis, Derrick Johnson, Jonathan Vilma, Dan Morgan, LaVar Arrington, Brian Urlacher, Mike Peterson
Negatives: None
Thoughts: Linebacker typically aren’t valued at the very top of the draft, but the research shows that the first-round candidates are usually players. Willis and Mayo have been defensive rookies of the year the last two years, and many of these guys are stalwarts of their teams. The problem is that while these guys are productive, few are game-changers. On this list, only Urlacher and Arrington early in his career truly fit that description. So while linebacker is a safe pick, it’s not always the best pick when you’re trying to build a superstar club. Still, especially around the 10th pick and beyond, it makes a lot of sense to pick a linebacker. It stands to reason that this year’s candidates – Curry and the three USC starters from ’08 – will continue the trend of linebackers being good selections. None of the four has the most upside of any pick on the board, but my guess is that all of them will be productive.
This year’s candidates: Aaron Curry, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, James Laurinaitis

Cornerbacks: 10 of 11 positives (91 percent)
Positives: Leodis McKelvin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Darrelle Revis, Carlos Rogers, DeAngelo Hall, Dunta Robinson, Terrance Newman, Marcus Trufant, Quentin Jammer, Deltha O’Neal
Negatives: Adam “Pacman” Jones
Neutrals: Tye Hill
Thoughts: I traditionally consider cornerback a marquee position and a building block, but this decade the draft hasn’t produced a Champ Bailey/Deion Sanders/Chris McAllister elite guy in the top 10. There are some good players on this list – Revis, Newman, Jammer, and Trufant have probably had the best single seasons of these guys – but none of them are true shut-down guys. Revis is probably closest at the present moment. Maybe those guys don’t exist as much anymore, because the Tampa-2 defense emphasized zone coverage and tackling, while the 3-4 also usually features a zone behind it. Again this year, there is no all-time elite kind of corner. Malcolm Jenkins should be a good player, but he’s Newman-level good instead of Champ Bailey-level good. Still, the new defensive systems have meant that most of these corners have panned out. Even the negative, Jones, showed flashes of great ability, but his off-field issues ruined his career and relegated him to the negative category.
This year’s candidates: Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Darius Butler

Safeties: 6 of 6 positives (100 percent)
Positives: LaRon Landry, Donte Whitner, Antrel Rolle, Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Roy Williams
Negatives: none
Neutrals: Michael Huff, Jason Allen
Thoughts: Not many safeties reach this stratosphere, but the ones that do typically are at least good players. The late Sean Taylor was by far the best of this bunch, while Landry (another Redskin) is the one of the best of these players at this point. The top current safety, of course, is Polamalu, who is a game-changer at a level that most safeties never even think about reaching. Roy Williams was a standout early in his career, but when Dallas switched defensive systems he lost all effectiveness. Allen and to a lesser extent Huff are leaning toward the negative category, but we’ll leave the jury out on them for now. Most of the time (including this year), there aren’t safeties worth this kind of investment. That makes this position like linebacker, only taken to the extreme.
This year’s candidates: Louis Delmas

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