Draft risk study: Linebackers   

Updated: May 9, 2007, 4:42 AM ET

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They are brought in for different reasons -- to provide a pass rush, to shore up a suspect run defense, or because they are a good "scheme fit." They are linebackers, and while some -- like Brian Bosworth and LaVar Arrington -- have achieved glamour status, most come off the board mid-to-late first round.

Linebackers can rocket up predraft rankings by running fast at pro days and combine workouts, which often are not true indicators of those players' skills on the field. Below, we'll take a look at the stars, the busts, and everything in between.

Success criteria, first-round linebackers

Metric-wise, this is a tough one to gauge. There are many factors -- such as scheme -- that will determine a player's statistics from the linebacker position. Some guys are used more as pass rushers and some are used as run stoppers. That said, we've gone with the baseline of at least 80 games played, or at least one Pro Bowl appearance.

1989
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Chiefs 4 Derrick Thomas, Alabama 169 9 No
Bucs 6 Broderick Thomas, Nebraska 144 0 No
Cardinals 16 Eric Hill, LSU 160 0 No
49ers 28 Keith DeLong, Tennessee 64 0 Yes

Derrick Thomas was an all-time feared pass rusher. Known as "The Sandman," Broderick Thomas was one of a long line of "Next Lawrence Taylors" to not actually achieve such lofty status. Thomas, though, had some fine seasons in Tampa, and should have gone to the Pro Bowl in '91, when he notched 11 sacks. DeLong, drafted by the Niners to play a hybrid LB/DE position, never really panned out.

1990
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Chargers 5 Junior Seau, USC 241 11 No
Patriots 8 Chris Singleton, Arizona 91 0 No
Bengals 12 James Francis, Baylor 143 0 Yes
Chiefs 13 Percy Snow, Michigan State 40 0 Yes
Saints 14 Renaldo Turnbull, West Virginia 14 1 No
Packers 18 Tony Bennett, Mississippi 108 0 No

This was a linebacker-rich class and a class that, for the most part, panned out at the next level. Seau has been a all-time great, while Singleton, Francis, and Bennett were all solid. Snow was a washout, and Turnbull never made the expected impact as a pass rusher, though he had a long career.

1991
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Broncos 4 Mike Croel, Nebraska 101 0 No
Steelers 15 Huey Richardson, Florida 16 0 Yes
Bengals 18 Alfred Williams, Colorado 128 0 No

After a promising rookie year, in which he was named ROY by various publications, Croel tailed a bit, and had an undistinguished career. Richardson was a huge bust, appearing in only 16 career games, and Williams was adequate for the Bengals. Some solid 'backers including Bryan Cox, Corey Miller, and Mark Maddox came out of this draft's later rounds.

1992
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Colts 2 Quentin Coryatt, Texas A&M 82 0 No
Cowboys 24 Robert Jones, East Carolina 151 0 No

Coryatt was drafted on the basis of a Herculean physique, workout, and one hit that he made on a quick slant in which he nearly ended the life of an unfortunate college receiver. Coryatt was decent for the Colts, but never developed into the dominant force they thought they were getting. In fact, he barely snuck over the bust metric, appearing in 82 games.

1993
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Jets 4 Marvin Jones, Florida State 142 0 No
Packers 15 Wayne Simmons, Clemson 90 0 No
49ers 27 Todd Kelly, Tennessee 46 0 Yes

See a trend developing here? The 49ers take a LB/DE tweener from Tennessee, and it quickly becomes apparent that there isn't a place for him at the next level. Simmons was solid, Jones a stalwart for the Jets.

1994
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Patriots 4 Willie McGinest, USC 185 2 No
Colts 5 Trev Alberts, Nebraska 29 0 Yes
Cardinals 10 Jamir Miller, UCLA 121 1 No
Bears 11 John Thierry, Alcorn State 131 0 No
Raiders 22 Rob Frederickson, Michigan State 128 0 No

Again, a treasure trove of LBs quantity-wise, and a pretty good quality as well. McGinest sort of defined the 3-4 OLB/DE during his tenure in New England, while Miller and Frederickson were solid if not spectacular. Alberts, due in some part to a series of injuries, was the only obvious bust in this group.

1995
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Saints 13 Mark Fields, Washington State 137 1 No
Bucs 26 Derrick Brooks, Florida State 192 9 No
Browns 30 Craig Powell, Ohio State 14 0 Yes

This was a great year all-around for linebackers, with Fields and Brooks, a potential Hall of Fame candidate, both starring, and the very productive Johnson going in Round 2. John Holocek and Stephen Boyd -- two more very productive linebackers -- went in Round 5. Powell, however, appeared in only 14 games.

1996
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Jaguars 2 Kevin Hardy, Illinois 134 1 No
Broncos 15 John Mobley, Kutztown 105 1 No
Ravens 26 Ray Lewis, Miami 148 5 No

Hardy and Mobley were both very productive NFL linebackers, and the cream of this crop is, of course, your favorite player, God's own linebacker, Ray Lewis. We're starting to see a trend and that trend is that it is pretty safe to pick a linebacker in the first round.

1997
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Ravens 4 Peter Boulware, Florida State 127 3 No
Jets 8 James Farrior, Virginia 152 1 No
Vikings 20 Dwayne Rudd, Alabama 109 0 No

Another really solid year. Boulware, in spite of injuries, and Farrior have both enjoyed standout careers, and Rudd made the rounds as a solid starter. Jamie Sharper, Derek Smith, Dexter Coakley and Mike Vrabel all came out of this draft as well.

1998
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Falcons 12 Keith Brooking, Georgia Tech 129 4 No
Bengals 13 Takeo Spikes, Auburn 126 2 No
Seahawks 15 Anthony Simmons, Clemson 88 0 No
Bengals 17 Brian Simmons, North Carolina 121 0 No

Four picks -- four extremely solid NFL players. And how about the Bengals drafting two starting LBs in the same first round? A rare stroke of good drafting from a franchise better known for taking Akili Smith, David Klingler and Ki-Jana Carter.

1999
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Lions 9 Chris Claiborne, USC 99 0 No
Patriots 28 Andy Katzenmoyer, Ohio State 24 0 Yes
Broncos 31 Al Wilson, Tennessee 125 4 No

All good things must come to an end. Claiborne has been ordinary at best, and Andy Katzenmoyer was a big-name washout. Count me in among those who thought Katzenmoyer would be a stud at the NFL level. Al Wilson redeems this group. For what it's worth, Mike Peterson and Dat Nguyen went later.

2000
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Redskins 2 LaVar Arrington, Penn State 85 3 No
Bears 9 Brian Urlacher, New Mexico 105 5 No
49ers 16 Julian Peterson, Michigan State 95 3 No
Colts 28 Rob Morris, BYU 97 0 No
Titans 30 Keith Bulluck, Syracuse 111 1 No

A very solid group here, with Urlacher, a future Hall of Famer, leading the pack, followed closely by Bulluck and Peterson. Morris has been a starter most of his career, which considering his draft slot (28th) makes me wary of affixing the bust label. Arrington, like Mike Vick, is a player you give multiple chances to because of his prodigious athletic ability. After a fast start he has disappointed.

2001
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Panthers 11 Dan Morgan, Miami 56 1 No

Morgan and his multiple injuries comprise the entirety of this first-round class. Morgan was a great player -- remember his inspired performance in the Super Bowl a few years ago -- but has been undone by his inability to stay out of the training room. It's hard to call a guy this good a bust.

2002
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Raiders 23 Napoleon Harris, Northwestern 74 0 No
Rams 31 Robert Thomas, UCLA 68 0 Yes

Compared to what we've seen in previous years, these guys are both pretty blah. Harris is preparing to play for his third team, and Thomas hasn't made an impact. The fact that Harris is still considered a viable NFL starter keeps him off the bust list.

2003
Team Pick Player, School Games Pro Bowls Bust?
Packers 29 Nick Barnett, Oregon State 62 0 No

Another quiet year, with only the productive Barnett going off the board. The second round was fruitful, however, producing Boss Bailey, E.J. Henderson and Victor Hobson. Pro Bowler Lance Briggs came in the fourth.

Crunching the Numbers: First-Round LBs, 1989-2003
Number of LBs drafted: 48

Notable busts: Andy Katzenmoyer, Huey Richardson, Percy Snow

Number of busts: 8

Bust percentage: 16 percent

Number of wideouts with at least one Pro Bowl appearance: 19

Pro Bowl percentage: 39 percent

Borderline guys who could be called busts: Quentin Coryatt, Mike Croel

For the sake of comparison
Percentage of first-round RB busts: 45 percent
Percentage of first-round QB busts: 53 percent

Conclusions
Linebacker appears to be a safe position, generating lots of Pro Bowl appearances and very few busts. There are reasons for this, the first possibly being that linebacker is an easier position to project physically, and it is also a fairly "instinctive" position, as opposed to a position like quarterback with a higher learning curve. Another reason is that I could have been too easy on my criteria; however, I think linebackers just panned out more often.

Also, a linebacker generally isn't expected to come in and be the "savior" of a franchise, in the way that many first-round RBs and QBs are. This bodes well for a bad team like Detroit, which might have reached to grab Ernie Sims last season, when it could have had Matt Leinart. Sims might not develop into a big star but is a safe bet to have a long career.

Ted Kluck is not a scientist, rather he is the author of three books, including "Facing Tyson: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories" (Lyons Press 2006) and a full-fledged draft geek. He recently spent a season playing professional football as a member of the Battle Creek Crunch (GLIFL) where he was, without a doubt, a bust.


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