The danger of the NFL draft outlier

Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 5:26 PM

Russell Wilson, as an example, was the exception to the regulation that you don't draft brief quarterbacks. And when the Titans bucked history to get Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair out of Div I-AA with the third overall choose in one thousand nine hundred ninety-fifth, that move worked out, too.

The danger of the NFL draft outlier

Every NFL draft seems to have at minimum one exception to a widely held, famous regulation lurking interior its player pool. Russell Wilson, as an example, was the exception to the regulation that you don't draft brief quarterbacks. And when the Titans bucked history to get Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair out of Div I-AA with the third overall choose in one thousand nine hundred ninety-fifth, that move worked out, too. At a certain point, it seems, all rules should be tested.

This year'south exception to the regulation is Ezekiel Elliott, the athletic, powerful, short-on-weaknesses running back who's drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson -- if not in running style, then in overall excellence at the position. Running backs aren't supposed to be taken at the top of the first round, the current regulation holds, but Elliott'south versatility and supreme talent propose that he'south worth ignoring the rules altogether. That'south why teams love the Cowboys are rumored to be interested in him as a top-five selection.

If Elliott turns out to be the following Peterson or Todd Gurley, the Cowboys -- or whoever takes Elliott -- will consider him to be a worthy return on a high first-round pick. The downside, of course, is that we know Trent Richardson was considered to be every bit as excellent of a prospect as Peterson, and yet he ended up as a colossal misstep for the Browns and Colts. Richardson, thought to be an exception, was the reason the regulation existed in the first place.

Beyond Elliott, Peterson and Richardson, though, the whole idea of treating players at a given position as distant better prospects than their positional brethren got me wondering:

To gain some insight into how those players have turned out, I went back through the past twenty years of drafts and sorted out players by the position they were expected to play when they were drafted. To the best of my ability, I sifted through the player pool to include four-three defensive ends and three-four exterior linebackers as one grouping of edge-rushers while identifying other linebackers as cover/interior linebackers.

After sorting through all the players, I identified the top-drafted player at each positional grouping during those past twenty drafts, and then used the median of those twenty draft slots to identify where the top-ranked player at a given position in a typical draft would likely arrive off the board. As an example, the median draft position for the first middle taken over the past twenty years is the forty-fourth selection. The first middle taken in two thousand-fifteenth was Cameron Erving, who was selected by the Browns with the nineteenth choose in the first round. Erving, then, was twenty-five picks ahead of our expectation of where the top-ranked middle is likely to go in a given draft.

Let'south go position by position, identify the most notable outliers for top selections at each spot over the past twenty years and look how their professional careers turned out in preparation for Elliott and the rest of the class of 2016:


: first overall pick
: (thirteen of the past twenty first overall picks are quarterbacks)

This analysis doesn't proposal much insight into quarterbacks, given that the best passer in a given draft class more frequently than not comes off the board with the first overall pick. That doesn't seem likely to be the case for Carson Wentz or Jared Goff this year, but they're still all-but-assured to discover their new homes during the first half of the first round. Fourteen of the past fifteen drafts have had at minimum one quarterback taken amidst the first three picks, with the two thousand thirteen draft (featuring E. J. Manuel leading off a dreary crop of quarterbacks at sixteenth) as the lone exception. It'south not surprising: Teams selecting at the top of the draft are frequently desperate for a quarterback upgrade, and even if there'south not a grand passer out there, it'south simple to see at a promising college passer as a life preserver.

Running Back

: eighth overall pick
: Ronnie Brown (two thousand five, second overall pick, +six picks vs. expectation); Reggie Bush (two thousand six, second overall pick, +six); Trent Richardson (two thousand twelve, third overall pick, +five)

Well, that'south not promising. It seems surprising that the typical top-ranked running back is still a top-ten selection, but that'south not an artifact of the older drafts in that twenty-year period; even if we just see at the ten most recent drafts, the median top running back came off the board with the tenth selection. The genuine outlier is on the opposite side -- in two thousand-fourteenth, when the first running back to arrive off the board was Bishop Sankey at No. fifty-four, forty-six picks after our expectations of when the top-ranked back would appear. (In a related note, Devonta Freeman aside, the backs from that class haven't precisely lit the world on fire.)

Neither did the three highest-drafted backs of the past twenty years. Ronnie Brown joined Cedric Benson (fourth) and Cadillac Williams (fifth) in what was one of the most expensive running back classes in terms of draft capital in league history, but the best backs from that class weren't taken until much later, when Frank Gore (sixty-fifth) and Darren Sproles (one hundred-thirtieth) went to the 49ers and Chargers, respectively.

It was controversial at the time when the Houston Texans passed on Reggie Bush to get Mario Williams with the first overall pick, but history has shown them to be right, given Bush'south inconsistent professional career. And Richardson has been one of the minimum productive running backs in recent league history. It'south not impossible to think that he might be able to turn around his career in much the same way that former college teammate Label Ingram was able to carve out a role in New Orleans, but time is against the former sure thing.

Wide Receiver

: sixth overall pick
: Keyshawn Johnson (one thousand nine hundred ninety-seven, first overall pick, +five); Charles Rogers (two thousand three, second overall pick, +four); Calvin Johnson (two thousand seven, second overall pick, +four)

An fascinating grouping of wideouts are atop the leaderboard here. Keyshawn Johnson had a solid, eleven-year professional career without ever producing a dominant season; Johnson made three Pro Bowls without ever making an All-Pro team, and had only one season in which he ranked among the top ten receivers in fantasy football, which (in this case) is a useful marker of production. Jets fans still see back and ponder what'd have been if Peyton Manning had arrive out of TN one year earlier, although they did obtain two first-round picks for Johnson when the Jets traded him to Tampa Bay in two thousand.

The two Detroit selections at the top of the draft are more obvious. Charles Rogers was a colossal bust, a physical sample with a terrible custom of landing directly on his collarbone. The Lions took him one choose ahead of Andre Johnson, which should create Detroit fans perceive as if they just landed directly on their collective collarbone. Four years later, Matt Millen made a distant more successful choose when he drafted Calvin Johnson, but even the recently retired Megatron makes Lions fans perceive dreary these days. The two third-overall picks at wideout also sprint in opposite directions: Larry Fitzgerald (two thousand four) and Braylon Edwards (two thousand five).

Tight End

: twenty-third overall selection : Kellen Winslow (two thousand four, sixth overall pick, +seventeen); Vernon Davis (two thousand six, sixth overall pick, +seventeen); Rickey Dudley (one thousand nine hundred ninety-six, ninth overall pick, +fourteen)

Just behind this grouping is two thousand fourteen Lions first-rounder Eric Ebron, also known as the guy ex-GM Martin Mayhew chose ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald. Let'south leave destitute Detroit alone for a while. Here, we've the most dramatic gap between typical choice and top selection, which is useful: We can really look teams going out of their way to target players well ahead of where the league might typically cost the best player at a given position.

And again, truthfully, results are mixed at best. Kellen Winslow'south athleticism was sapped by the fractured fibula he suffered as a rookie and torn ACL he subsequently suffered in a motorcycle accident before what would've been his second season. He ended up making one Pro Bowl while toiling for mostly terrible football teams. Vernon Davis overcame attitude concerns early in his career to emerge as a dominant blocker and above-average ruddy zone weapon, making two Pro Bowls when his touchdown totals spiked to double digits in two thousand-ninth and two thousand thirteen. Davis was never the sort of dominant receiver up and down the field, though, failing to create it to 1.000 receiving yards in even a single professional season. Rickey Dudley was Davis without the dominant blocking.

Offensive Tackle

: fourth overall pick
: Orlando Pace (one thousand nine hundred ninety-seven, first overall pick, +three); Jake Long (two thousand eight, first overall pick, +three); Eric Fisher (two thousand thirteen, first overall pick, +three)

We're still waiting for a position in which the outliers all turned out well. This isn't it. Orlando Pace is a newly inducted and deserving Corridor of Famer, but that'south not the case with the other two tackles. Long had a promising start to his career, making four consecutive Pro Bowls, before myriad injuries reduced him to a shell of his former self. Eric Fisher has been a disappointment for the Chiefs, although he seemed to finally indicate signs of life as the season went along in two thousand-fifteenth. The nicest thing you can declare is that the Chiefs at minimum made the right choice in taking Fisher over Luke Joeckel, who's been even more disappointing for the Jaguars.

Even scarier: The tackles who went off the board with the second overall choose over the past 20 drafts are even worse. There are two failed tackles who only found success after converting to guard (Robert Gallery and Leonard Davis), a failed tackle who converted to a new career (Jason Smith) and a tackle who's committed twenty-four penalties in two seasons ( Greg Robinson). Running away, Laremy Tunsil!


: twenty-second overall pick
: Jonathan Cooper (two thousand thirteen, seventh overall pick, +fifteen); Chris Naeole (one thousand nine hundred ninety-seven, tenth overall pick, +twelve); Branden Albert (two thousand eight, fifteenth overall pick, +seven); Mike Pouncey (two thousand eleven, fifteenth overall pick, +seven)

Branden Albert and Mike Pouncey were both players who mostly lined up at guard in college, although they've made their hay in the pros playing other positions. Albert has been a left tackle for the Chiefs and Dolphins, while Pouncey has spent the vast majority of his professional career at center. Obtain rid of them and you're looking at former Eagles star Shawn Andrews and current Cowboys guard Zack Martin, who was a college offensive tackle.

The two guys remaining weren't dominant players. Chris Naeole was a solid veteran out of CO who enjoyed an 11-year career with the Jaguars and Saints without ever making a Pro Bowl. Jonathan Cooper'south career, meanwhile, has gotten off to a disastrous start, with injuries and disappointing performances, leading the Cardinals to send him to the Patriots in the Chandler Jones trade earlier this offseason.


: forty-fourth overall pick
: Damien Woody (one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine, seventeenth overall pick, +twenty-seven); Maurkice Pouncey (two thousand ten, eighteenth overall pick, +twenty-six); Cameron Erving (two thousand fifteen, nineteenth overall pick, +twenty-five)

This might be the best showing of the outliers at any position so far, which is a small scary. Damien Woody bounced around and started at just about every spot on the offensive line at one point or another, emotional up the traditional positional spectrum and eventually ending up at right tackle for the Jets toward the tail finish of his career. He'd an above-average career. Maurkice Pouncey has been outstanding when healthy, but he missed sixty-three of sixty-four quarters in two thousand-thirteenth after getting damage in the opener and was out injured for all of two thousand fifteen. Cameron Erving was healthy as a rookie and started four games, but there were few players in football who were worse latest season than Erving on a snap-by-snap basis. He'll move into the starting lineup by default after Alex Mack left for Atlanta this offseason.

Edge Rusher

: fourth overall pick
: Courtney Brown (two thousand, first overall pick, +three); Mario Williams (two thousand six, first overall pick, +three); Jadeveon Clowney (two thousand fourteen, first overall choose +three)

A trend appears to be emerging. Courtney Brown wasn't able to stay healthy, failing to complete even a single 16-game season after his rookie campaign and finishing his six-year career with just nineteen sacks. Jadeveon Clowney has already sat out fifteen of thirty-two games as a pro after microfracture surgery on his knee and was mad after being scratched for Houston'south playoff loss to KS City this past season. The best player of the bunch is Mario Williams, who was running out of Buffalo by cap woes and anonymous sources this offseason.

Interior Defensive Linemen

: eighth overall pick
: Darrell Russell (one thousand nine hundred ninety-seven, second overall pick, +six); Ndamukong Suh (two thousand ten, second overall pick, +six); Gerard Warren (two thousand eleven, third overall pick, +five); Tyson Jackson (two thousand nine, third overall pick, +five); Marcell Dareus (two thousand eleven, third overall pick, +five)

This grouping would be better with Gerald McCoy, taken third after Suh in two thousand-tenth. (He'south not included, naturally, because he wasn't the first interior lineman taken in that draft.) Russell was a dominant interior pass-rusher who failed multiple drug tests. Gerard Warren developed the nickname "Huge Money" for his spending habits and never made a Pro Bowl. Tyson Jackson has been inconsistent at best as a five-technique end, disappointing the Chiefs and Falcons. Ndamukong Suh and Marcell Dareus have been very good, although they're each coming off of a disappointing 2015.

Interior Linebackers/Cover Linebackers

: twelfth overall pick
: Aaron Curry (two thousand nine, fourth overall pick, +eight); A. J. Hawk (two thousand six, fifth overall pick, +seven); Rolando McClain (two thousand ten, eighth overall pick, +4)

This is sort of a weird mix of three-4 interior linebackers and 4-3 exterior linebackers, so maybe it'south easier to think of it as linebackers whose primary job isn't rushing the passer. Below any circumstances, it'south another grouping of players who clearly didn't work out the way their teams expected. Aaron Curry was a dynamic playmaker in college, but his skills never translated to an NFL role, and he fell out of favor with the Pete Carroll regime before losing his work to K. J. Wright and being traded to Oakland. His career lasted only four seasons.

A. J. Hawk never lived up to that draft position in Green Bay, even if he ended up as a perfectly acceptable interior linebacker. He's managed a 10-year career without a single Pro Bowl appearance. And Rolando McClain struggled with off-field issues as a member of the Raiders before bouncing around to Baltimore and then Dallas, where he rebuilt his career with an impressive two thousand fourteen season. The most successful first-drafted linebackers were just behind these three at ninth (a grouping including Luke Kuechly and Brian Urlacher) and eleventh (including Patrick Willis).


: eighth overall pick
: Shawn Springs (one thousand nine hundred ninety-seven, third overall pick, +five); Charles Woodson (one thousand nine hundred ninety-eight, fourth overall pick, +4); Quentin Jammer (two thousand two, fifth overall pick, +3); Terence Newman (two thousand three, fifth overall pick, +3); Patrick Peterson (two thousand eleven, fifth overall pick, +3)

There are number total washouts among this five-person group, which makes it the most successful positional outlier we've seen so far. You know how excellent Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson have been. Shawn Springs, Quentin Jammer and Terence Newman weren't quite up to that level, but they each started for more than a decade, with Newman still going for the Vikings at age thirty-eight. Does this imply Jalen Ramsey will latest forever? Probably not, but it at minimum makes me think that a team in the top five would be taking less of a risk by drafting a cornerback high than it might otherwise seem.


: seventeenth overall pick
: Sean Taylor (two thousand four, fifth overall pick, +twelve); Eric Berry (two thousand ten, fifth overall pick, +twelve); LaRon Landry (two thousand seven, sixth overall pick, +11)

It'south incredibly unfair to pass any judgment on Sean Taylor, who was tragically murdered at the age of twenty-four. Even if we don't comprise him, though, our safety list expands to comprise seventh overall picks Michael Huff (two thousand six) and Label Barron (two thousand twelve), both of whom failed to deliver on expectations coming out of school. Eric Berry overcame a torn ACL and Hodgkin'south Lymphoma to emerge as one of the best safeties in football, but Landry never developed as a player beyond an urge to lay out receivers with large hits, many of which he often missed.


: one hundred-nineteenth overall pick
: Sebastian Janikowski (2000, seventeenth overall pick, +one hundred two); Mike Nugent (two thousand five, forty-seventh overall pick, +seventy-two); Nate Kaeding (two thousand four, sixty-fifth overall pick, +fifty-four)

Fans of Roberto Aguayo rejoice! I've to admit that I suspected kickers would see particularly dreary by this sort of analysis, but this is a relatively solid grouping of specialists, given that Sebastian Janikowski is still playing seventeen years later and Nate Kaeding was one of the more accurate kickers in league history. Janikowkski has generated fifty-three points of Adjusted Value, identical to fellow first-rounders Todd Heap, Ike Hilliard and Jason Campbell, which isn't horrible for a kicker. Even Mike Nugent went on to have a solid professional career after failing to be particularly impressive with the Jets.

Kickers! Who knew?


: one hundred forty-second overall pick
: Bryan Annoyance (two thousand twelve, seventieth overall pick, +seventy-two); B. J. Sander (two thousand four, eighty-seventh overall pick, +fifty-five); Brad Maynard (one thousand nine hundred ninety-seven, ninety-fifth overall pick, +forty-seven)

The same success sadly didn't lend itself to punters. Brad Maynard had a long career with the Giants and Bears, so he gets additional credit for wind-related degree of difficulty, but the other two didn't live up to expectations. Bryan Annoyance just moved from Jacksonville to Tampa after four anonymous years with the Jaguars; maybe unfairly, he'south going to be remembered as the player Gene Smith took in the third circular instead of Russell Wilson. And B. J. Sander was the anti-Packers pick; Green Bay traded up to nab him in the third circular and saw him struggle mightily during his lone season with the team before being realized. The only excellent news is that he finished his career with a perfect completion percentage after throwing a four-yard pass as a pro.

The conclusion?

The extent of the proof here is more ancedotal than comprehensive, but it seems to point to an increasingly obvious conclusion: It'south nearly always better to trade down and acquire additional picks than it's to think that you're smarter than the crowd and target a player at the top of the draft at a given position. While the players at the top of drafts are unquestionably talented, they just don't seem to succeed at a disproportionately high rate given their pedigree coming into the league. And while Elliott might see love a perfect prospect as he comes into the league, teams drafting in the top 10 are likely better off remembering what they know about running backs and shop for ball carriers in the later rounds.

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