NFL Two-Deeps Tell Us Where to Find Talent
By Joe Landers
The Importance of Day One
So you’re Scott McEwen, the Detroit Lions’ Director of College Scouting, and you have a keen eye on the 2008 cornerback prospects. Your past attempts to resolve your issues at corner haven’t borne fruit. The organization has drafted eight corners since 2002 and not one of them has developed into the shutdown corner you so sorely need.
•2007, AJ Davis (4th Round/105th Pick)
•2007, Ramzee Robinson (7/45)
•2006, Dee McCann (6/179)
•2005, Stanley Wilson (3/72)
•2004, Keith Smith (3/73)
•2003, Blue Adams (7/220)
•2002, Andre Goodman (3/68)
•2002, Christopher Cash (6/175)
The failures at corner haven’t been for lack of trying.
Nevertheless, even the most pedestrian receivers around the league lick their chops as they prepare to go up against your corners. (When your top homegrown corners, Wilson and Smith, have started, they’ve been torched repeatedly.) The best corner you’ve had since 2002 (Dre Bly) was signed as a free agent just like your two 2007 starting corners, Fernando Bryant (Jacksonville) and Travis Fisher (St. Louis), and Bly’s already moved along to his next stop as a journeyman corner.
You need a new approach. Free agent corners that have played out their rookie contracts (e.g., Bryant, Fisher, and Bly) are expensive. (Expensive with little value-added in terms of performance.) You need to draft corners that will contribute and start by their second season. People tell you it can’t be done? What about Eric Wright (UNLV/Cleveland), Darrelle Revis (Pitt/NYJets), Aaron Ross (Texas/NYGiants), and Chris Houston (Ark/Atlanta)? All four will have started at least five games in 2007 by the end of the season and each of their squads is better at pass defense than the Lions. Sure, lots of things go into pass defense as a unit, but facts are facts. Teams with rookies playing at corner are more effective than the Lions who are playing with free agent corners and 3rd and 4th year guys who just aren’t developing like the organization needs them to.
You need a new approach.
THE NEW APPROACH
What do Wright, Revis, Ross, and Houston all have in common? All four were drafted in the first two rounds of the 2007 NFL Draft. Facts are facts. If you absolutely need to upgrade your cornerback play, you must look at the first two rounds of the NFL Draft – don’t bargain-shop for corners.
Since 2005, 47% of corners on NFL Two-Deeps were drafted in either the first or second round. (Annual two-deep analysis is based on mid-season data.)
Cornerback Two-Deep Draft Position Propensity
1st Round: 26%
2nd Round: 21%
3rd Round: 13%
4th Round: 12%
61% of corners on NFL Two-Deeps came out of the 1st Round, 2nd Round, or undrafted free agency.
So over 60% of your corners on NFL 2-deeps come out of the 1st round, 2nd round, or undrafted free agency… is it any shocker that three 3rd rounders, a 4th rounder, two 6th rounders, and two seventh rounders haven’t panned out for the Lions in the last six drafts? Mr. McEwen, if you’re envious of the Giants, Jets, Falcons, or Browns for their “luck” in finding Ross, Revis, Houston, and Wright, follow their lead – take a top-flight corner in the first two rounds of the 2008 NFL Draft and bring in a handful of undrafted free agent corners.
[Note: Even if we isolate the “by-round” positional analysis and just look at starters, it’s not much different for corners: in order, 27% are taken in the first round, 19% in the 2nd, 15% in the 3rd, and 14% come from undrafted free agency. It’s important to note that strictly looking at starters often leads to pie-in-the-sky roster thinking. It ignores injuries, it ignores situational downs, and it ignores reality. Therefore, my study focuses on trends visible within two-deeps (not just starters) at each position. Besides, as you can see, even at one of the most vital skill positions (corner), the trend is not that different from two-deep to starters-only analysis.]
ARRIVING AT VALIDATION – THREE YEARS LATER
In a January 2006 article I wrote, I took a look at the eight divisional playoff teams (from the 2005 NFL season) in an attempt to discern the importance of targeting guys like Memphis’ DeAngelo Williams, USC’s Reggie Bush, Ohio State’s A.J. Hawk, Virginia’s “Brick”, and USC’s Matt Leinart. Sure, these were guys that every team in the league optimistically viewed as saviors in February 2006, but it didn’t add up. As I watched Carolina, Chicago, Denver, New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Washington in the playoffs of January 2006, I saw rosters littered with undrafted free agents and Day Two picks – lunch-pale guys that had to earn their keep.
Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Delhomme, Adewale Ogunleye, Jordan Carstens, Rod Smith, Brad Hoover, Matt Lepsis, Nick Ferguson, Steve Neal, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vanderjagt, Jeff Saturday, Nick Harper, Willie Parker, Robbie Tobeck, Mack Strong, Lemar Marshall, and the list goes on and on. We’re not just talking about one or two lucky strikes here, we’re talking about star after star after star coming into the NFL as an undrafted free agent – and beating out first rounders for starting roles! (And no, I didn’t even list any Day Two picks like the infamous Tom Brady.)
Why place so much emphasis on the top talent when the most successful teams of 2005 were built with a foundation of blue-collar low-round hard workers? Why not place more emphasis on the later rounds and undrafted free agency and play the numbers?
During the 2006 NFL season, I did extensive follow-up and trended each position by draft round to see if my 2005 conclusions were simple aberrations. They weren’t. The same data held true. Over the last couple of weeks (Weeks 10-12 of the 2007 NFL season), I’ve run the same analysis on the two-deeps of all 32 NFL teams. Guess what? It’s still true. Check out the following table illustrating where the highest propensity resides (bold green) and the second highest propensity (green). Over the last three years, ten of the fourteen positions have undrafted free agent either as their #1 or #2 source for two-deep talent.
It’s not as simple, using safety as an example, to say that you skip the first round if you need a safety, hold off until the 2nd round to take one, and then wait until undrafted free agency if you miss out on the guy(s) you wanted in the 2nd round. However, the numbers certainly tell us what rounds consistently provide the best talent at each position.
Having already covered corner, let’s take a brief look at each position and provide real examples where the above data rings true.
The #1 source for the league’s two-deep defensive ends is the 1st Round. (22%)
Examples: Haloti Ngata, Tamba Hali, Julius Peppers, Patrick Kerney, Gaines Adams, and Jamaal Anderson.
The #2 source for two-deep defensive ends is Undrafted Free Agency. (19%)
Examples: Tommy Kelly, Paul Spicer, Adewale Ogunleye, Marques Douglas, Juqua Thomas, and Demetric Evans.
#1 DT Source: 1st Round (21%)
Examples: Albert Haynesworth, Casey Hampton, John Henderson, Ryan Sims, Adam Carriker, Chris Hovan, and Kevin Williams.
#2 DT Source: Undrafted free agency (18%)
Examples: Ed Johnson, Pat Williams, Hollis Thomas, Chris Hoke, Spencer Johnson, and Lorenzo Alexander.
#1 FB Source: Undrafted Free Agency (45%)
Examples: Michael Sellers, Cecil Sapp, Brad Hoover, Leonard Weaver, Tony Richardson, Carey Davis, and Oliver Hoyte.
#2 FB Source: 6th Round (13%)
Examples: Lawrence Vickers, Korey Hall, Reagan Mauia, Deon Anderson, Jameel Cook, and Oren O’Neal.
#1 K Source: Undrafted Free Agency (59%)
Examples: Adam Vinatieri, Rob Bironas, Robbie Gould, Ryan Longwell, Olindo Mare, Phil Dawson, and Jeff Reed.
#2 K Source: 6th Round (8%)
Examples: Mason Crosby, Nick Folk, and Neil Rackers.
#1 LB Source: Undrafted Free Agency (20%)
Examples: Bart Scott, James Harrison, Gary Brackett, Stephen Cooper, Antonio Pierce, London Fletcher, and Chase Blackburn.
#2 LB Source: 3rd Round (17%)
Examples: Joey Porter, Angelo Crowell, Mike Vrable, Tedy Bruschi, Lance Briggs, Jeff Ulbrich, and Antwan Peek.
#1 LS Source: Undrafted Free Agency (68%)
Examples: Ryan Neill, Lonie Paxton, Greg Warren, Mike Leach, Joe Zelenka, J.P. Ladoceur, and Jon Dorenbos.
#2 LS Source: 7th Round (13%)
Examples: Brad St. Louis, Kevin Houser, Brian Jennings, and Chris Massey.
#1 OL Source: Undrafted Free Agency (20%)
Examples: Steve Neal, Mike Flynn, Jeff Saturday, Hank Fraley, Matt Lepsis, Artis Hicks, and Jason Peters.
#2 OL Source: 2nd Round (15%)
Examples: Samson Satele, Matt Light, Tony Ugoh, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Mawae, Marcus McNeill, and Marcus Johnson.
#1 P Source: Undrafted Free Agency (54%)
Examples: Brian Moorman, Kyle Larson, Mat McBriar, Chris Kluwe, Michael Koenen, Steve Weatherford, and Jason Baker.
#2 P Source: 4th Round (11%)
Examples: Dave Zastudil, Daniel Sepulveda, Adam Podlesh, Nick Harris, and Josh Bidwell.
#1 QB Source: 1st Round (36%)
Examples: Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger.
#2 QB Source: Undrafted Free Agency (17%)
Examples: Tony Romo, Jon Kitna, Jeff Garcia, Kurt Warner, Damon Huard, and Billy Volek.
#1 RB Source: 1st Round (30%)
Examples: Joseph Addai, Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Ronnie Brown, Marshawn Lynch, Jamal Lewis, and LaDanian Tomlinson.
#2 RB Source: 2nd Round (20%)
Examples: Travis Henry, Clinton Portis, Maurice Jones-Drew, Maurice Morris, LaMont Jordan, LenDale White, and Julius Jones.
#1 S Source: 2nd Round (23.1%)
Examples: Sean Jones, Bob Sanders, Ken Hamlin, Danieal Manning, Roman Harper, Michael Lewis, and Brian Dawkins.
#2 S Source: Undrafted Free Agency (22.9%)
Examples: Sammy Knight, Nick Ferguson, Clinton Hart, Atari Bigby, Jim Leonhard, Brian Russell, and James Butler.
#1 TE Source: 1st Round (21%)
Examples: Ben Watson, Todd Heap, Kellen Winslow, Heath Miller, Dallas Clark, Tony Gonzalez, and Jeremy Shockey.
#2 TE Source: 2nd Round (16%)
Examples: Alge Crumpler, Tony Scheffler, Jim Kleinsasser, Ben Troupe, Anthony Fasano, and Jason Dunn.
#1 WR Source: 1st Round (25%)
Examples: Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Larry Fitzgerald, Joey Galloway, Calvin Johnson, Roy Williams, and Plaxico Burress.
#2 WR Source: 2nd Round (20%)
Examples: Chad Johnson, Chris Chambers, Amani Toomer, Reggie Brown, Greg Jennings, Anquan Boldin, and Sidney Rice.
It’s truly shocking that so much great talent is found in undrafted free agency. A lot of that talent doesn’t walk into rookie camp and take a two-deep spot right away. No, they become good because of coaching, hard-hat determination, and a drive to succeed. Nevertheless, udfas come at a much cheaper price than any pick before the 6th round – they need to be cultivated.
What’s not shocking is the obvious need to find your cornerback, running back, tight end, and wide receiver talent in the first two rounds. For each of those positions, 1st and 2nd round were the rounds with the highest rate of two-deep talent over the last three NFL seasons: 47%, 50%, 37%, and 45% of the two-deep talent at each position, respectively, was acquired in the first two rounds. Those are sizeable numbers not to be ignored. Get talent at CB, RB, TE, and WR early or you’ll be waiting for them to develop into contributors.