Friday, 30 January 2009

The safe pick myth

When discussing the draft you'll often hear people refer to the 'safe pick'. It'll appear frequently in mock drafts, on a whole number of blogs and articles and probably when you're just talking with friends. Today we'll look at what exactly constitutes a safe pick and how much of it belongs to myth.

I was speaking to Kyle Rota from College Talent Scout yesterday and he raised an interesting point to me. The position of offensive tackle is largely considered a 'safe pick' at the top of the first round, someone you can plug in for years with big upside and little risk. At the other end of the scale, wide receiver is seen to be a huge risk with a number of high profile busts. For the full analysis, click here.

Kyle broke down the offensive tackles and wide receivers taken in the top five of the NFL draft dating back to 1998 and not including the most recent draft in 2008.

Peter Warrick, WR
Leonard Davis, OT
Chris Samuels, OT

Mike Williams, OT

Charles Rogers, WR
Andre Johnson, WR

Robert Gallery, OT
Larry Fitzgerald, WR

Braylon Edwards, WR

D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OT

Calvin Johnson, WR
Joe Thomas, OT
Levi Brown, OT

Looking at the list, there are some obvious elite talents and some clear busts. There are also a number of players where it is difficult to grade. For example, Leonard Davis has had success at guard but he wasn't drafted in the top five to play guard and he essentially failed as a dominant offensive tackle. Chris Samuels has had a steady consistent career including multiple pro-bowls, but hasn't been considered a player at the top echelon at his position. D'Brickashaw Ferguson was very highly rated coming out of college but has not lived up to the hype. Braylon Edwards had an extremely productive season in 2007 and appeared set to take his place amongst the NFL's elite receivers before regressing heavily in 2008. Levi Brown is yet to completely convince for the Cardinals although he is still in the early stages of his career.

By judging the number of clear busts against obvious elite talents, you could arguably categorise the following:

Stars: Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson (WR) Joe Thomas (OT)

Busts: Peter Warrick, Charles Rogers (WR) Mike Williams, Robert Gallery (OT)

Of course it is but an opinion on all these talents. I decided to include Calvin Johnson amongst the stars due to his exceptional 2008 season where, playing for an 0-16 Lions team with little other receiving threat (the opposition knew where the ball was going) he was a top five receiver in terms of yards (1331) and led the league with Larry Fitzgerald for touchdowns (12). In fact all three of the receivers listed above were amongst the top five at their position in 2008.

The analysis is far from conclusive but what it does show is that perhaps the two 'myths' about offensive tackle being a certified 'safe' pick and wide receiver being a 'high risk' are unjustified. This goes some way to show the 'myths' that exist when discussing the NFL draft. There's not conclusive proof, at least in the last decade, that wide receivers taken in the top five present any more of a risk than offensive tackles. As with every pick, there is no 'sure' thing and certain positions (such as tackle) are no different.

Matt McGuire at has his own take on the 'safest pick' mythology. He looks at what constitutes a true risk (for example, character or injury red flags) as opposed to using previous drafts to suggest what may or may not be a safe pick in 2009. He concludes his argument by suggesting,

"if you have one player on the draft board and he is the "safest" pick, but not the best pick, then you have some serious explaining to do." - - Matt McGuire

Patt Kirwan from also weighs into the debate. He suggests that buying into the latest 'myth' or trend can come back to haunt a franchise.

"Every so often, an apparent new trend pops up in the NFL that gets its legs for some unfounded reason. And it usually involves a concept that teams can get by with inferior players at a certain position.

As one GM said to me at the owners' meetings this week, "I hope the latest myth floating around here lasts until after the draft, because I want a certain position to fall to me." - - Pat Kirwan

One example that could be used - the Super Bowl bound Arizona Cardinals. It seems pretty strange to suggest a team competing to be world champions this weekend could have been particularly 'better'.

Pete Prisco from CBS Sportsline however, looks at the 2007 NFL draft and the direction the Cardinals took. He reports that Arizona came pretty close to drafting Adrian Peterson, arguably the most dynamic running back in the league at the moment. When Joe Thomas (OT, Wisconsin) was selected by Cleveland with the third overall pick, the Cardinals were left to contemplate taking the second best tackle on their board (Levi Brown, Penn State) or take Peterson.

With reported 'fighting' in the war room over the pick, the Cardinals took Brown to help the running game as a mauling right tackle. Their running game is no better for the pick, but would it have been different with such an explosive player in the backfield? There were concerns about Peterson's durability - especially with such an upright running style. Did Arizona take the safe pick instead of the pick with the most talent? Even considering their appearance in Tampa this weekend would they have been even better?

"If Peterson were here, readying to play the Steelers, can you imagine what they would be saying about this Arizona offense? It would be considered one of the greatest ever, no matter who was playing right tackle in place of Brown." - - Pete Prisco

So can anything constitute a 'safe' pick and is the real agenda surrounding the draft not about finding someone who offers simply low risk, but whom has the most talent, can make an impact quickly and tick all the boxes in terms of character and injury?


Anonymous said...

I do not think a "safe pick" is a lable that fits the draft in any way. Maybe a "smart pick" like Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. By smart I mean extensive research into players in the draft pool, players in your locker room, and coaching systems planned for the next year. The teams that can act together in each of these areas seem to get the most from the draft and FA market. AFTER all of that hard work, then you get to make the simple statement of "Best Player Availible".

Big Joe

Rob Staton said...

I agree Joe, and I don't think you can ever lable a particular position any safer than another because every single draft pick is a gamble to some extent - there are no sure things. Whatever happened one year, isn't necessarilly going to happen the next.

Malone said...

I don't think the Top 5 is where WRs are usually considered busts. I think it's when you get between 10-20. Here's a little something I worked on as a Bears fan.

I looked at every receiver drafted between 2002-2006 (a period of 5 years giving at least 2 years in the NFL before passing judgment) who was taken between picks 10-20, which is where the Bears are most likely to Draft (they are 15th now, I believe).

2006 - No WR's taken in this range.
2005 - Mike Williams was the lone pick in this range in 2005, and despite his freakish potential, turned into a massive bust who floated between teams and even tried to be a TE.
2004 - Lee Evans came in this group, which is great because he's arguably the most underrated WR in the NFL. But this Draft also produced Michael Clayton in this group, who despite a 1,000 yard rookie season, has been a massive bust ever since, never again crossing the 400 yard mark.
2003 - This Draft class produced Bryant Johnson, who in his 6 year career, has never crossed 800 yards or 5 TD's.
2002 - Three WR's in this group. Ready? Ashlie Lelie, Donte Stallworth, and Javon Walker. Lelie has been a massive bust everywhere he's been. Stallworth is constantly injured, has never gone over 1,000 yards, has only passed 800 yards receiving once, and has never had 8 TD's in a season. Javon Walker has had one good season in seven, is constantly injured, and while maybe he would've been a good receiver, we'll never know because through seven seasons, he is not. Another bust.

Overall results from our brief study of WR's taken between picks 10-20 in the NFL Draft? Just one out of seven WR's taken in this spot over this 5 year span turned into a quality WR to the level you would expect with a mid 1st round pick (basically, turning into a #1 WR in the NFL), considering the money you have to pay this pick. This means that WR's taken in this range have a less than 15% chance of developing into #1's in the NFL. Now, I heard plenty of criticism of Angelo's ability to draft offensive playmakers, but do you really think he should be using our 1st round pick at a position in the Draft that recent history shows has yielded a 15% success rate?

As for LB, there are three outstanding LB prospects in this Draft in Maualuga, Laurinitis, and Curry, with guys like Spikes being pretty solid, too. The list of LB's taken in the middle of the 1st round, just like the WR's, looks like this (from 2002-2006): Terrell Suggs, Calvin Pace, Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams, DeMarcus Ware, Shawn Merriman, Derrick Johnson, David Pollack, Kameron Wimberly, Chad Greenway, and Bobby Carpenter. This shows that you have a 64% chance of getting an outstanding #1 LB type prospect in this range in the Draft, and an 82% chance of getting a high quality starter at the position (90% chance if you exclude David Pollack who had a freak neck injury ending his career) with Bobby Carpenter being the only true bust so far.

Let's do the same study with DE's, naming the drafted players from 2006-2002 (I keep reversing the order because its the easiest for research purposes): Tamba Hali, Erasmus James, Marcus Spears, Will Smith, Kenechi Udeze, Ty Warren, Michael Haynes, Jerome McDougle, and Dwight Freeney. This research shows that in this time frame, you have a 67% chance of getting a quality starting DE (I'm counting Udeze in this because he was solid before developing cancer, which is a freak thing not related to football). You also appear to have a 33% chance of finding a Pro Bowl caliber DE, which is double the likelihood of finding a #1 WR in the Draft, let alone a Pro Bowl WR.

As for Safeties, we'll do the study one more time, listing all Safeties taken between 2002-2006 in the middle of the 1st round: Troy Palamalu, Thomas Davis. Since this sample size is pretty small, let's broaden it to all Safeties taken in the 1st round during this time: Michael Huff, Donte Whitner, Thomas Davis, Sean Taylor, Troy Palamalu, Roy Williams, and Ed Reed. What should you take from this? Well, first of all, you should realize that Safeties are taken in the 1st round far less than most positions, so the sample size is less. That being said, you should realize that the two best Safeties on this list, Palamalu and Ed Reed, both came when the Bears would be drafting or later. You should also take from this that 86% of 1st round Draft pick Safeties are current starters in the NFL, with Michael Huff being the only exception in Oakland. You also have a 71% chance of landing a Pro Bowl caliber Safety if you take one in the 1st round, or in summary, if a Safety is taken in the 1st round, historically, its because he's likely to be a really good Safety in the NFL.

Now, do what you want with this information, but of all of the positions the Bears can be drafting in this Draft, these facts seem to indicate that taking a WR in the middle of the 1st round is clearly, 100% the worst decision the team could make.

Louis said...

wow...great insight. now if u did the same thing with the top 5 picks to see what the seahawks should do... =D

Louis said...

i think the safest pick here is michael crabtree...he has been the most consistent producer the past 2 years and all the offensive linemen in this draft are not worthy of a top 5 pick. andre smith has maxed out his weight already and has some issues off the field. the others are just simply not worth the 4th pick and all the money involved with it

Rob Staton said...

Malone, thankyou for visiting the blog and providing such detailed analysis - it is very much appreciated.

The purpose of the list I made for the top five was mainly to try and show some of the assumptions made with OT and WR and whether they are relevant. However, I try not to concentrate too much on what's happened in past drafts to make decisions this year. That's essentially the 'myth' part. Two prospects are never the same. It's hard to say you should or shouldn't take a player because in the past, unrelated prospects have been busts. Even if every wide receiver in the first round has been a bust, it doesn't mean Crabtree/Maclin/Nicks/Britt are going to follow suit.

However, it's always interesting to see the history of the draft broken down into a positional format. It's good for debate. One thing looking at the list I made for the top five, it shows that left tackles are no sure thing and that wide receivers are not clinical busts when picked in the top five.

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