NFL Draft: Numbers Show Safeties, Defensive Tackles Good To Target Early
By Rick Camp-
Special to CBSChicago.com
(CBS) 2013 was billed as the year of Marc Trestman and Jay Cutler, with the fan base curious how much the offense could be overhauled and improved in one offseason. In Trestman’s first year, the Bears were second in the NFL with 27.8 points per game, a big improvement from 23.4 points per game, which ranked 16th in 2012.
2014 has the same vibe, with the focus now shifted to the other side of the ball. Everyone knows the record-setting numbers, injuries, and how simply being average would have likely resulted in a division title. The “ifs” and “buts” about what the defense could have been were cast aside by general manager Phil Emery, who put the onus on himself for the roster not being able to overcome the defensive setbacks.
Now the question for Emery, Trestman, and safe-for-at-least-this-year defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is: can you make the Bears’ defense respectable enough in one offseason? That daunting task is compounded by the Bears cap space in relation to how many players need to be brought in, as CBSChicago.com’s NFL writer Dan Durkin explained here.
Regardless of scheme, the point is the Bears need young, impact players on every level of the defense, and the best way to do that is through the draft.
Sure a defensive end like Michael Bennett from Seattle or a safety like T.J. Ward from Cleveland could go a long way to helping the team, but to sustain success on a year-to-year basis, a new young core has to be formed.
Pro Football Focus released their final 2013 regular season grades, so, by their metrics, where did the impact defensive players in 2013 come from in the draft? Here are the top 20 players at each position and the round they were drafted in (click on the image to enlarge):
In terms of top performers at their position, the data shows that safety is the position with the most early-round picks. Of the top 20 safeties on the list, 12 were selected in the first two rounds of the draft, with nine being first-round selections. That number is high as safety is the second-least drafted position in the last five drafts, with only seven total selections. Of course, one season is a small sample size, but when you consider the last three years, safety is still the position with the highest average draft selection (by round) among the top 20 players at that position, with an average of 2.98. In other words, the top safeties in the NFL were drafted earlier than the top players at other positions.
For reference going forward, here is a chart showing the draft trends at each position over the last five years, using Pro Football Focus’ grades to determine the top players (click on the image to enlarge):
Defensive tackle and cornerback are next, with seven first-rounders in the top-20 list. These two positions have been well represented in the first-round over the past five years, with 18 defensive tackles and 15 cornerbacks drafted in the first round, ranking first and second respectively. These positions have always been considered valuable regardless of scheme, and the numbers back it up. On the three-year average, these are the next two highest drafted positions with defensive tackle at 3.05 and then a large jump to cornerback at 3.4.
Bringing up the rear are 4-3 defensive ends and inside linebackers. Both have the least amount of first-rounders in the top-20, with four each. But the reasoning for these low totals is different.
Teams are always looking for pass rushers, so the fifteen that have been drafted in the first-round since 2009 isn’t a surprise. What is surprising is the lack of impact made by these top picks. Using PFF’s grades, nine of the top-20 defensive ends in 2013 were drafted in the third and fourth rounds and, on average over the last three years, the lowest draft position among the top 20 is at defensive end (3.63).
Four first-round inside linebackers isn’t very surprising since teams that use a 4-3 base only have one on the field, so it’s just a numbers game and explains why only four have been drafted in the first round in the last five years. A three year average of 3.43 average draft position accentuates the point as it is second lowest.
While I caution Bears fans to jump to the conclusion that, because free safety Chris Conte had a terrible year, the team needs to draft a safety in the first-round, the data does suggest that safety is a position you should be able to expect impact from if your scouts have the player designated as a first-round talent.
In a passing league increasingly predicated on passing and matchups, the impact at safety has grown. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle have basically erased two of the best tight ends in football the last two weeks in Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis. Meanwhile, rookie Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro showed his versatility all season in the deep middle as well being able to be in the slot in nickel situations.
Elsewhere, Bears fans know first-hand what strong defensive ends can do to an offense. Just think back to the Rams game — Robert Quinn and Chris Long, come on down. Then, at defensive tackle, consider rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who helped turn the Carolina defense into one of the league’s best.
While not valued as much in the draft, inside linebackers have the ability to take over a game, as many in Chicago well know. Six of the top 10 were full-time players in the playoffs and, in the divisional round, there were three on the same field in Carolina with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis of the 49ers and Luke Kuechly of the Panthers.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis was traded for a first-round pick coming off ACL surgery, so the value of a shutdown corner is evident, as always, in the NFL.
And the trust Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has in his secondary with cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner (when not suspended) and Byron Maxwell, along with Chancellor and Thomas at safety, allow him to be very aggressive with the front-seven.
These numbers are not a blueprint for how the Bears should structure their offseason plans, but they do provide food for thought on where impact players have come from in the draft. This offseason is big for the future of Emery and the ability of the Bears to widen their window of success with their new found offense.
Rick Camp is a producer for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @RickCamp670.