Drafting Linebackers

In some circles, the conventional wisdom is that great linebackers can be found anywhere in the draft, and that teams should think twice before taking a LB in the first round. This post will take a look at whether this is true by looking at LB performance according to draft round and pick order.

We've seen how performance varies by draft position in QBs, RBs, DEs, WRs, and DBs. How do LBs compare? Based on the careers of all LBs taken in the 1980 through 2001 NFL drafts, we'll see how scarce top LBs typically are, and what kind of performance teams can expect from their picks.

I'll start by looking at Pro Bowl selections, and I'll repeat my standard disclaimer. Pro Bowl selection is a very imperfect measure of a player's value for a lot of different reasons, but it does identify the top players at each position which is what much of the draft is about. One other advantage it offers is that player value can be compared across positions. For example, we can compare LB draft picks to QB draft picks using Pro Bowl selections, but using passing yards or tackles wouldn't work to well.

The first graph looks at the rate of Pro Bowl selection by draft round. The blue line illustrates the likelihood a pick from each round will be selected to at least one Pro Bowl at some point in his career. The red line is for two or more Pro Bowls, and the green line is for three or more.


The next graph looks at Pro Bowl selections by draft order within position. The scouts must be doing their job because first linebacker taken really outshines the second, third, etc, at least in terms of going to at least one Pro Bowl.


The third graph is the average number of years a player is a starter for his team, broken out by draft order. The careers of the first LBs taken appear to have more longevity.


The graphs remind me a lot of the ones for wide receivers. There is a relatively large drop off after the very top players taken.

The continuing theme in this series is that the best players really do come from the top of the draft. No surprise there. But the top players have more than just an incrementally higher chance of great success, but double or triple the chance. The scouts and GMs do have an ability to recognize the players with the most potential at every position we've looked at so far. It's interesting to see just how steep the drop off really is after the first few players.

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16 Responses to “Drafting Linebackers”

  1. Phil says:

    You know what would be interesting? to see how having a pro bowl player position at a certain position matches up with team wins,

    so does having a pro bowl QB mean you're more likely to win than having a pro bowl guard?

    there might be some weird biases in the data, like player who play positions w/o tangible stats are more likely to wind up in the pro bowl having played on winning teams,

    got to believe there is a way to do that so it makes sense

    question: where did the years as a starter stat come from (if you start game one and blow out your knee, is that a year as a starter?)

  2. Brian Burke says:

    Phil-Click on the link under "careers" in the article to go to Pro-Football-Reference.com. PFR defines it as "the number of seasons in which the player was his team's primary starter at his position." I don't see how they define that any further, but I would presume it means a player began the season as a starter until injury, or served as a starter for a majority of the season.

    Regarding having Pro Bowler's at certain positions vs. wins, that would be interesting but really complicated. Like you said, lots of biases. A QB who is selected for the PB is probably surrounded by top quality lineman and skill players. The direction of causation is problematic too. But it would be interesting.

  3. Phil Birnbaum says:

    But any draftee who doesn't get playing time isn't going to show what he can do, so he won't have a chance to go to the Pro Bowl. How about a graph of what percentage of starters (at each draft position) eventually make the Pro Bowl?

    That is: the graph of starters shows mostly how teams evaluate the players they draft, because they choose who gets the playing time. It's no surprise that the first rounder gets to start and the 10th rounder doesn't, because the teams think the first rounder is better, so they make him the starter.

    So I'd be interested in a graph of achievement divided by opportunity.

  4. Michael Schuttke says:

    I know that Pro Bowls are a very neat and convenient way of comparing who the elite players are at positions. However, as you have acknowledged in previous writings yourself, I think Pro Bowl selections can often become more about a popularity contest than per say the best performers at certain positions.

    I think some kind of comparison involving number of starts in the first four to six years (the length of most rookie contracts), the teams record over that time (as starts over a longtime for a bad team could be indicative of an inability to recognize talent across the board), and perhaps a stat like DVOA or something that compares the players more on a situational comparison basis.

    I know I spoke some sacrilegious words there as I get the vibe that you are not a big fan of the work of Football Outsiders but...still, I think Pro Bowls (and, more so, NOT being selected to the Pro Bowl) is not neccessarily the best way to compare how certain positions rate in terms of acquiring talent each round.

    I agree though with the general hypothesis, namely that the truly elite talent, more often than not, comes at the top of the draft. I think the key issue trying to be addressed here is where are teams more likely to find the surface appearances lump of coal (i.e. non-elite prospect) that actually turns into a diamond (i.e. consistent, high-level performer), as the more of those you populate a roster with, generally speaking, the better a team will be (see previous posts about Masey-Thaler and surplus value in the NFL draft).

  5. Brian Burke says:

    Phil- I'll see if I can do something like that. I would suggest that even if late-round players aren't automatically granted game 1 starting rights, they do get lots of opportunities at practice and in the 4 pre-season games. The frequency of injuries also allows a good amount of additional opportunities.

  6. Brian Burke says:

    Michael-I largely agree with you.

    I think first 5 years is a good limit to evaluate rookies. But full career totals may be more representative of a player's underlying talent and capabilities. Even if some of his later years are spent on some other team, the player's talent came from a particular place in the draft.

    True, I don't care much for some of what FO puts out. It's a sloppy money-making operation and the research suffers. I think DVOA is fine, but to be clear, DVOA is simply FO's spin on a stat from the book 'Hidden Game of Football.' It's hard to criticize their DVOA. In fact, it's impossible--because they don't care to publish any details about how they calculate it.

    Unfortunately, there is no DVOA or DPAR or whatever they call the player-level version of DVOA for non-offensive skill players, so we're left with things we can measure, such as Pro Bowls or starts.

    In the positions I've analyzed, whenever the position has hard stats to point to, I'll use them (RB YPC or QB YPA, etc.) But linebackers present a problem. They have sacks, tackles, and interceptions, however, those stats can be very misleading for that position. Some LBs are pass-rushing specialists while some are coverage guys and some are run-stuffers. Looking at those stats for LBs would be unfair.

    Let me say that I think some of what FO has done is great. Adjusted Line Yards, for example, is pretty clever.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I assume that your initial hypothesis isn't really that all drafted linebackers are equally good, but that relative to other positions the late-round linebackers are better. Do other positions drop off more or less than linebackers?

  8. Brian Burke says:

    Right. But really I have no single theory here, this is just exploratory--'lets find out...' I guess I am a little surprised by how steep the drop offs are for all the positions. I was expecting shallower curves.

    Other positions tend to drop off a little less. It's hard to say because the data is pretty noisy. You can see the drop offs for some other positions in the links at the top of the article.

  9. TTP says:

    This is a great series of articles, I’ve enjoyed them!

    Unlike some other posters, I think that the number of Pro Bowls is as good as any other measure for evaluating the draft. On an individual level and in a given year, a PB appearance may not be the best measure of a players value. As we all know, there a bunch of guys who don’t deserve to go each year and a bunch who are not selected that do deserve it. However, in aggregation, the number PB appearances is a pretty good way to rank the players (at least the best players). Sure, there is on outlier or two (e.g., John Lynch) and you can argue the order of rankings a bit, but for the most part players with the most PBs are the best players.

    In the past, I’ve used a weighted formula to measure individual players with the hopes of: 1) ranking players and 2) ranking team front offices in terms of their ability to draft. It uses the number of Pro Bowl seasons, the number of seasons as a starter and the number of seasons that a player was on the roster (as a back-up). Basically, each PB season is worth 3 pts, each non-PB starter season is worth 2 pts and every other season is worth 1. Add them all up and I was able to get a pretty good, if crude, measure of a player’s career. Then, I added up the individual players, corrected for draft position and team quality, to get an indication of a given teams ability to draft. [Note: Yes, I know that this is really measuring draft ability + coaching + system + a whole bunch of other variables]

  10. Anonymous says:

    Why not use All-pro's also. It's not biased like the pro bowl and represents more elite players than the pro bowl.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Will you do analysis of the whole draft regardless of player position? Like how many pro bowlers come from the first round on.

  12. Brian Burke says:

    Phil B.- I did what you suggested and will try to post a graph sometime soon. I plotted Pro Bowl Selections per Yrs Starting by Draft Pick #.' I think this is what you're suggesting (achievement/opportunity).

    My hunch is this "over-accounts" for opportunity. because the top players will naturally get more starts and get the recognition. Still, there is a distinct trend that the top picks get more Pro Bowls than their opportunities would suggest.

    Here is the data. Each line is for a group of 5 picks (1-5, 6-10, 11-15,...)

    0.32
    0.24
    0.28
    0.16
    0.11
    0.20
    0.13
    0.13
    0.14
    0.05
    0.05

    I interpret this as suggesting the top picks are "extra good" above what you'd expect from just opportunity.

  13. david says:

    "Pro Bowl selections can often become more about a popularity contest than per say the best performers at certain positions."

    And...

    "I agree though with the general hypothesis, namely that the truly elite talent, more often than not, comes at the top of the draft."

    Those that get drafted high get a head start in that very same popularity contest, due to the millions spent on marketing the draft. So, pro bowl selections as a measurement of draft success is not a great proxy of elite status, as opposed to very good or good+marketable.

    I think the best approach would be like the way that Baseball Prospectus approaches fielding: with multiple measures. Here, that would be starts/game played, pro bowl selections, and a variety of advanced stats that provide a partial picture of individual quality.

  14. Brian Burke says:

    All valid criticisms. But we have our choice between imperfect measures and no measures at all.

    Baseball players perform in isolation, so their stats are direct reflections of individual performance. Football isn't nearly so simple. Besides, how would we compare interceptions by a safety to running yards by a halfback? Or tackles by a defensive lineman (many=good) to tackles by a cornerback (many=bad)?

  15. takeitdown says:

    I think the point is less that there is a steep drop, which is interesting, but to large extent expected; but rather which positions still have a solid chance of having long term starters and probowlers into later rounds. For instance, it appears one is about 1/2 as likely to get a probowl performer at LB deep into the 3rd round as compared to the 1st. I'd think (and will check on your other articles) that at QB and other positions the drop would be far more than 50-60%.

    It also seems that one has a reasonable shot at a "star" LB into the 3rd round. I'd think at guard and center this may be true into the 4th, and at WR, into the 2nd. That's where I think the true meat of these curves lie. It affects draft strategy. We can't choose to be a top 15 pick for all positions, but we can choose which positions can wait to be drafted in rounds 2, 3, and 4 versus which ones must be drafted high in round 1.

  16. takeitdown says:

    And my above post is moot, because it's exactly what you said on the previous article, as I now read it. Good job.

    You can erase these as you like, as I'm not sure how to edit.

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