Commentary

Where are the safe picks?

The most durable, successful selections may defy traditional thinking

Originally Published: April 22, 2011
By Dan Riccio and Kimberly Meyer | ESPN Stats & Information

The 2009 Kansas City Chiefs were the second-worst defense in the NFL when pressuring opposing passers with one or more defensive backs, allowing an opposing passer rating of 101.9 with secondary pressure. This deficiency was among the reasons they used a top-five pick on safety Eric Berry in the 2010 draft.

Although defensive backs traditionally do not come off the board that early, Berry was considered the top safety in the draft class. He helped the Chiefs improve their blitz pressure with one or more defensive backs to the best in the NFL.

So the Chiefs ended up looking smart by going against the grain of traditional thinking. Smart for sure, but perhaps the risk in taking Berry was minimal. Maybe adding to a team's secondary is actually one of the safest investments an NFL team can make in the draft.

Using a formula based on longevity and achievement, the risk inherent in certain positions -- and the lack of risk in others -- can be assessed.

Since the 2002 draft, the first with the NFL's current 32-team setup, the lowest risks in the first round have been defensive backs, linebackers and tight ends. Stars at each position -- Troy Polamalu, Clay Matthews and Dallas Clark among them -- have helped their teams to a Super Bowl title since entering the league.

The measurement of durability was based on how often each player made it on the field since entering the league and how many of those players drafted were still in the NFL in 2010. It also considered the percentage of regular-season games they played for their teams. Over that time period, defensive backs, linebackers and tight ends all surpassed the NFL average of 82.2 percent.

Achievement is the other key factor.

Using a weighted formula that assigns value to each position drafted in the first round since 2002, positions are rated by how successful first-round choices were in making Super Bowl appearances and in earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections.

A Pro Bowl selection was given the least value because the numerous roster substitutions, and in recent years the absence of players from the Super Bowl teams has diluted that achievement. All-Pro designation was given the highest value because it is an individual award that compares players with the rest of the league, not just a conference like the Pro Bowl rosters. Super Bowl appearances were ranked in between because the outcome typically is not something that one player can control.

Linebackers

Since 2002, no position has played in a higher percentage of possible team games among first-round draft picks than linebackers. The 27 linebackers drafted in the first round during this stretch have been on the field an average of 88.1 percent of all possible games.

Twenty-four of the 27 linebackers (88.9 percent) were still in the league last season. The only position that had a higher percentage was tight ends (100 percent).

Linebackers represent the highest achievement value among all first-round draftees over the past nine years. Linebackers have combined for Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections as well as Super Bowl appearances at a higher percentage than any other position drafted in the first round during this period. Eight of the 27 linebackers have earned All-Pro honors. That is the highest rate of any group over that span. During the same stretch, six of the nine AP Defensive Rookies of the Year have been linebackers who were selected in the first round.

Tight Ends

Dallas Clark
AP Photo/John RaouxIndianapolis got immediate value when it drafted Dallas Clark, as is often the case with tight ends.
Drafting a tight end in the first round has paid off for many teams, including Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, whose first-round selections, Dallas Clark and Heath Miller, have each won at least one Super Bowl and played in at least one Pro Bowl. The New York Giants saw immediate results after drafting Jeremy Shockey in 2002. In his rookie season, Shockey was selected to the first of his four career Pro Bowls and also earned an All-Pro nod as the NFL's best tight end.

The 13 tight ends drafted in the first round since 2002 have combined for two All-Pro selections, nine Pro Bowls and have reached 10 Super Bowls, winning six. Additionally, tight ends account for the highest percentage of Pro Bowl selections as well as Super Bowl appearances relative to their position among all first-rounders taken over that span. All 13 tight ends were still playing last season. No other position had a 100 percent durability rate as a group in that time frame.

Defensive Backs

No other position has produced more first-round picks than defensive backs during the past nine drafts. They have been selected in the first round 52 times. Offensive linemen are a distant second at 43.

With first-round selections such as Ed Reed (2004 AP Defensive Player of the Year), Troy Polamalu (2010 AP Defensive Player of the Year) and Darrelle Revis, the defensive back position has produced some of the best pure talent in the game lately.

Defensive backs have produced immediate results for some teams. Devin McCourty was a first-round selection by the New England Patriots in 2010 and started all 16 games during his rookie season, earning both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.

Defensive backs as a group have also combined to make the second-highest percentage of Pro Bowls and All-Pro Team selections over the past nine seasons. Combine that success with a Super Bowl value in line with the NFL average, and the position rates very high with the second-best achievement value among all first-round picks since 2002, finishing just behind linebackers.

Although many fans may find themselves fascinated with big-name wide receivers and quarterbacks such as A.J. Green and Cam Newton, NFL front offices must consider the balance between need, functionality and reliability when evaluating potential draftees.

After studying recent statistical draft trends and analyzing how different positions have returned different success rates in the NFL, it appears prospects such as linebacker Von Miller from Texas A&M or cornerback Patrick Peterson of LSU may return more consistent results in the long run.