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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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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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