Where can NFL teams find quality defensive ends in the draft? This post looks at DEs drafted in the first seven round from 1980-2000. Data comes from the great draft database at Pro-Football-Reference.com. Picks from each round and at each draft order are compared by Pro Bowl selection, sacks per year, and number of years as a primary starter.
Although sacks are obviously not the only contribution a DE makes, and some DEs benefit from certain defensive schemes more than others, I believe that it is still a valid measure. First, sacks are only used as one measure. Overall DE performance can be reflected in Pro Bowl selections and years as primary starter. Additionally, sack rate isn't used to rank individual players, just the aggregate from each round and at each spot in the draft order. Other DE contributions to the pass rush such as QB hits or hurries (or even soaking up a double team) are very difficult to quantify. However, sacks can be used as a proxy measure for the overall contribution to the pass rush. In other words, a player with a lot of sacks very probably also has a lot of hits and hurries. Across so many seasons and with so many players, the effects of scheme and other considerations largely wash out.
Unlike QBs and RBs, players who did not make a roster or make many game appearances did not pose a problem when scoring their contribution. If they didn't have any sacks, they simply got a zero.
Pro Bowl Selection
The graphs below show the likelihood that a drafted DE will be selected to the Pro Bowl. The first graph is broken out by draft round. There is a steady decline from the top rounds to the last.
The second graph is broken out by draft order, that is, which DE was the player taken as in his draft class. This graph is much more erratic.
To me, the erratic nature of the graph suggests that compared to QBs and RBs it is easier for later round picks to shine. My guess is that later pick DEs get far more opportunities than later pick QBs or RBs, partly because a team needs two DEs on the field. Plus, they're more likely to be platooned.
Sacks Per Year
Despite its limitations as a comprehensive measure of DE performance, there is a clear relationship between draft round and order and sacks. First round picks significantly outperform subsequent picks in particular.
Notice the similarity in shape from the sacks graph to the Pro Bowl graph. This suggests that DEs are being picked for the Pro Bowl on the basis of their sacks. No surprise there.
How certain can scouts and GMs be that they're selecting the better DE compared to the next guy down the draft board? The tables below list the likelihood that the higher player selected will turn out to have a better sack rate than the next DE taken in the same draft.
Years as Primary Starter
Each DE's total years as one of their team's primary starter is a good indication of a draft pick's worth. The tables below break out years as primary starter by round and draft order.
|Rnd||Yrs as Primary Starter|
|DE Pick||Yrs as Primary Starter|
It appears that, on average, each draft provides two DEs in the first round who have a high probability of being an above-average player. But compared to QBs and RBs, DEs taken in later rounds may have a better opportunity to excel.