Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
07 Apr 2014
by Tom Gower
As we do every year around this time at Football Outsiders, it is time to step into the time machine and go back to the April of six years ago. 2008 may not seem like that long ago, but looking at the draft those six years seem even longer. Five running backs that year went in the first 24 picks. In the five drafts combined since then, there have been just four running backs chosen in the first 24 picks of the draft. Beyond the backs, there was a quarterback prospect you could love if you could overlook a 59 percent completion percentage as a senior. If that worried you, there was a rock-solid left tackle. If you wanted pass rushers, you could draft the guy who beat the rock-solid left tackle for a couple sacks in their final regular-season collegiate game, or the interior rusher everybody loved.
Looking at the 2008 Report Card Report, the Chiefs were judged to have enjoyed by far the best draft, receiving an average mark of 4.1. Their draft class included that interior rusher, one of the eight offensive tackles that went in the first round, a cornerback some people really liked, and a running back with the potential to be explosive. Everybody hated San Diego's draft, while the reigning AFC wild cards and division mates Jacksonville and Tennessee had drafts some people loved and others hated.
Conventional Wisdom: Surrounded by a lot of pedestrian talent at Boston College, Matt Ryan put up pedestrian numbers (like that 59.3 percent completion percentage his senior year) but won a lot of games. Was that enough to make him worthy of a high pick? Many people thought so. Brian Brohm was a presumptive high pick entering the season, but his struggles as a senior, under a new coach, would have to factor into your evaluation. Joe Flacco was tall and had a strong arm, if you could overlook that he got beat out by Tyler Palko at Pitt (possible countervailing factor: Dave Wannstedt was their head coach) and had to go to I-AA Delaware. If you were looking for the next Tom Brady at the same school, Chad Henne had a lot of success as a starter at Michigan.
Highest pick: Ryan, third overall to the Atlanta Falcons.
Best player: Flacco, who went 18th overall to the Baltimore Ravens, may have the Super Bowl ring thanks to a postseason run in which he performed at a very high level. By our numbers, though, it is Ryan by a significant margin. How significant? Ryan's worst single season marks by DVOA and DYAR (2009, 701 DYAR, 12.4% DVOA) are better than Flacco's best (574 DYAR in 2011, 9.4% DVOA in 2010). Even if you think that Ryan has had superior talent around him on offense, it is hard to overlook that kind of disparity.
Biggest bust: The Packers chose two quarterbacks in the draft, Brohm out of Louisville with the 56th pick and Matt Flynn from LSU with the 209th pick. By the end of training camp, Flynn had beaten out Brohm for the backup spot behind newly-anointed starter Aaron Rodgers. Brohm would not make the 53-man roster the next season. The Bills picked him up, where he would start two games, one each in 2009 and 2010, both losing efforts.
Best value: Quarterbacks selected after Chad Henne, who went to the Dolphins the pick after Brohm, to attempt a pass in the NFL: Kevin O'Connell (6 ATT), Dennis Dixon (59 ATT), Josh Johnson (177 ATT), and Matt Flynn (341 ATT). While Dixon and Johnson are both still around as backups, Flynn was both a useful backup and provided something of value for his team. To me, that makes him the best value. If you want to argue Ryan was really the best value pick at the position, I will not disagree with you too strongly.
Consensus: Want a back? This was the draft for you. The star was Darren McFadden, who was not just a talented rusher but almost a throwback to a single-wing tailback as the triggerman in Arkansas' Wildcat offense. If you loved Razorbacks but were not picking that high, you could instead have Felix Jones, the speedy complement to McFadden (not that McFadden was not fast, and our newly-introduced Speed Score suggested Jones might not really be that fast). If you wanted a really fast back, Chris Johnson posted the best Speed Score and fastest 40, but was inconsistent between the tackles at East Carolina, and had played wideout in 2006. If sustaining an offense was your thing and you did not mind a little tread on the tires, Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice, and Kevin Smith were all highly productive college backs.
Highest pick: McFadden, fourth overall to the Oakland Raiders.
Best player: This is one you could have an interesting discussion about. By rushing yards, it is the just-released Johnson (24th overall to the Titans), with almost 8000 yards. On the other hand, 2013 was the first season he had a positive DVOA since his 2,006-yard campaign in 2009, and just barely. He also ranks last in career receiving DYAR among the ten backs drafted in the first three rounds.
|Player (pick)||Rushing DYAR||Receiving DYAR||Total DYAR|
|Darren McFadden (4)||-99||214||115|
|Jonathan Stewart (13)||425||170||595|
|Felix Jones (22)||330||279||609|
|Rashard Mendenhall (23)||143||225||368|
|Chris Johnson (24)||513||104||617|
|Matt Forte (44)||300||490||790|
|Ray Rice (55)||505||475||980|
|Kevin Smith (64)||43||236||279|
|Jamaal Charles (73)||928||272||1200|
|Steve Slaton (89)||11||153||164|
By rushing DYAR, the answer is Jamaal Charles by a mile. His 928 career DYAR blows away everybody else (Johnson is second with 513). He also has value as a receiver, was the best player in the group in 2013, and his comparatively light workload to date seems to leave him the best positioned for further career success. On the other hand, he ranks significantly behind the most used backs in terms of total touches.
Charles's competition comes from the two second-round picks, Rice (Rutgers, 55th overall to the Ravens) and Matt Forte (Tulane, 44th overall to the Bears). Even after his disastrous 2013, Rice ranks barely behind Johnson in terms of career rushing DYAR (505 to 513) and narrowly behind Forte as the most productive receiving back in the class by DYAR (475 to 490). Forte ranks second behind Johnson in rush yards and carries, but his 300 rushing DYAR ranks only sixth in the class.
It is a bit of a close call, but I would rank Rice for his contributions over the past six years as the best back in the class, though a 10-year retrospective will likely have Charles as the best back. For those who heavily weight Rice's bad 2013 against him, I remind you Charles missed 14-plus games with a torn ACL, so add that into your calculation.
Biggest bust: All ten backs drafted in the first three rounds helped their teams at least somewhat, so there was no real bust like Chris Henry or Kenny Irons from the 2007 draft. The best answer is McFadden, a good player at times but one who lacks top-level vision and has serious durability issues. With the fourth overall pick, the Raiders needed a superstar. They got a good player who couldn't stay on the field.
Best value: Fourth-rounder Tashard Choice (Cowboys), fifth-rounder Tim Hightower (Cardinals), and seventh-rounder Justin Forsett (Seahawks) were all useful players for their drafting teams.
Conventional wisdom: There was nothing close to a transcendent prospect that met everyone's checklist. What the class lacked in star power, though, it more than made up for in depth and variety. Devin Thomas was a physical marvel, running a 4.32 40 at 215 pounds, but only had one year of production. If you were willing to take a risk on a smaller receiver who may have some off-the-field issues, DeSean Jackson was your pick. If you wanted a bigger receiver who was productive in college, James Hardy, Malcolm Kelly, and Limas Sweed were among your choices. And was Donnie Avery more than just a product of the high-flying offense at the University of Houston?
Highest pick: Avery, 33rd overall to the St. Louis Rams. While no receiver went in the first round, nine more would follow Avery in the second round.
Best player: Jordy Nelson, Kansas State, was a bit of a surprise choice by the Packers when they made him the third receiver off the board with the 36th pick. He has finished second in DYAR two of the past three seasons and has more receiving touchdowns than any player in the class. While Jackson has 54 more receptions and almost 1,500 more receiving yards, I cannot pick the player whose team recently cut him for reasons that went beyond pure value for money.
Biggest bust: Take your pick, as five of the ten receivers chosen in the second round busted pretty hard. The Buccaneers took a big risk on Appalachian State star Dexter Jackson with the 58th overall pick and got precisely zero NFL catches for their troubles. The Steelers took Limas Sweed 53rd, only to see yet another Texas player undone by off-the-field issues. Between Thomas (Michigan State, 34th) and Kelly (Oklahoma, 51st), the Redskins probably thought they had two long-term starters. Instead, they got 71 catches total. Hardy looked like a future star with his work at Indiana, but persistent injuries limited him to only 10 catches in Buffalo after they took him 41st.
Best value: Four receivers in this class have at least 300 catches. Two of those -- Nelson and Jackson -- went in the second round. The other two went in the 200's. The Colts took Pierre Garcon out of Division III powerhouse Mount Union with a sixth-round compensatory pick, 205th overall, while the Bills did even better, finding Kentucky's Stevie Johnson with the 224th pick. Yes, the Bills drafted the best value at a position and one of the biggest busts at the same position. Again. (See 2006, defensive line, John McCargo and Kyle Williams).
Conventional wisdom: Just as there was no standout wide receiver in the class, there was no standout tight end. Dustin Keller was perhaps the best receiving tight end, though many preferred Fred Davis's overall game. John Carlson and Jermichael Finley were productive college receivers with glacial 40 times (over 4.80). Brad Cottam and Craig Stevens were both blocking tight ends who ran better 40 times. Martellus Bennett may have been the best mix of blocker and receiver.
Highest pick: Keller, Purdue, 30th overall to the Jets.
Best player: By conventional receiving stats, Keller has been the most productive player. Unsurprisingly, our advanced stats like Finley, Texas, 91st overall, much better (572 career receiving DYAR v 108). Yes, Mark Sanchez and Aaron Rodgers have something to do with that, as may Green Bay's plethora of pass catchers freeing up space that Keller did not have. I still like Finley better. Bennett did not do enough his first four years in the league to be in the conversation for best career to date.
Biggest bust: While Carlson (Notre Dame, Seahawks, 38th) has never matched the numbers he put up his rookie year, the top four tight ends are all in the league and contributing. Cottam (Tennessee, Chiefs, 76th) only lasted two seasons and 16 catches.
Best value: Without disparaging Kellen Davis' continued existence (Michigan State, Bears, 158th) or Gary Barnidge's continued ability to find an NFL job (Louisville, Panthers, 141st), Jacob Tamme (Kentucky, Colts, 127th) was the last tight end chosen to do anything of note.
Conventional wisdom: If you wanted a tackle, this was your year. If you considered Branden Albert a tackle, at least half a dozen were expected to go in the first round. As noted in the intro, eight were eventually chosen and six of those ended up as left tackles. Jake Long was the clear pick of the litter, but Ryan Clady and Chris Williams both had the athleticism to be top NFL left tackles, while Gosder Cherilus and Jeff Otah may have been better suited to the right side.
Highest pick: Long, Michigan, first overall to the Dolphins.
Best player: Long has been a pretty good player. Clady, Boise State, Broncos, 12th overall, has probably been even better. If you like interior linemen, Carl Nicks, Nebraska, Saints, 164th, was one of the best guards in the league until signing with the Buccaneers last offseason.
Biggest bust: Otah (Pitt, Carolina Panthers, 19th) was a solid starter for a couple seasons before his knees decided he should no longer be an NFL player. The only other lineman drafted in the first three rounds not still in the league is guard Chilo Rachal (USC, 49ers, 39th). The two first-round left tackles chosen after Otah were widely viewed at the time as reaches, but Sam Baker (USC, Falcons, 21st) has been an intermittently acceptable starter, while Duane Brown (Virginia Tech, Texans, 26th) has become a much better player than most analysts expected. Living in the Chicago area, I feel obligated to note Chris Williams never developed into the left tackle the Bears wanted, needed, and expected from the 14th pick and was a guard for the Rams in 2013.
Best value: Nicks, but he was far from the only later-round choice to develop into a good player. The fourth round had Anthony Collins and Josh Sitton, the fifth Breno Giacomini in addition to Nicks, the sixth Barry Richardson and John Sullivan, and the seventh Demetrius Bell, King Dunlap, and Geoff Schwartz. No, those players are not all in Nicks' class or even close to it, but all are or were at least useful starters.
Conventional wisdom: Chris Long had the bloodlines and technique to be a top NFL player and was worthy of a high pick. If you were looking for more athletic upside, Vernon Gholston had beaten Jake Long for a couple sacks, though he looked almost undraftable in other games. Continuing with the Ohio State theme, their nemesis in the 2007 BCS title game Derrick Harvey was the consensus pick to be the third end off the board. Glenn Dorsey was everybody's favorite interior penetrator and a top-five pick.
Highest pick: Long, Virginia, second overall to the Rams.
Best player: Probably Long, notwithstanding his current contract and status as the second-best end on his team. He plays a complete game and has the most sacks, 50.5, among all players in the class. Only Long, Cliff Avril (Purdue, Lions, 92nd), and Calais Campbell (Miami, Cardinals, 50th) have more than 20 sacks. If you like Campbell more than Long going forward, I would not disagree with you too strongly.
Biggest bust: Starts laughing When the Jets starts laughing again took Gholston sixth overall starts laughing again...
Okay, let me start that again. The Jets took Gholston sixth overall. Barring a shocking resurgence, he finishes his career with as many NFL sacks as I do. I never played organized football. On the other hand, he got a lot of guaranteed money to get his 0.0 NFL sacks. I got none.
Honorable mention goes to the Jacksonville Jaguars. After their 2007 season, they decided they were one of the NFL's best teams and close to winning a Super Bowl. That decision led to several misguided moves -- including the decision that with a juiced up pass rush coming from rookies, they could dethrone the Colts in the AFC South. They traded up twice for pass rushers, giving up four picks for one to move up to eighth to select Derrick Harvey, then moving up again in the second round, giving up three picks for one, to 52nd to select Quentin Groves. Combined, Harvey and Groves lasted for five seasons in Jacksonville and totaled 10.5 sacks. The Jaguars went 5-11 in 2008 and finished last in the AFC South.
Best value: 2008 ended up not being a good year to need a defensive lineman. Not only was the top of the draft bad (in a non-Gholston year, Kentwan Balmer, UNC, 49ers, 29th would be a solid call as the biggest bust), but the later rounds are also lacking in notable names. Fourth-round pick Red Bryant did not find a good home until Pete Carroll brought a scheme change to the Seahawks defense, while the Browns found Ahtyba Rubin out of Iowa State in the sixth round.
Conventional wisdom: There were two top players in the class, Keith Rivers on the outside and Jerod Mayo on the inside. Some people liked Dan Connor as much as or more than Mayo. On the whole, though, this was not considered a particularly good linebacker class. If you had a need at the position and did not get one of the top couple guys, you were likely waiting until the middle rounds to find your player.
Highest pick: Rivers, USC, ninth overall to the Bengals.
Best player: Fun with trades: back in the 2007 draft, the 49ers gave up a 2007 fourth-round pick and a 2008 first-rounder to move back into the first round. The 49ers got Joe Staley, so they ended up pretty happy. The Patriots traded that fourth-round pick to the Raiders for Randy Moss, and 2007 happened. That 2008 first-rounder ended up as the seventh overall pick. The Patriots sent that and a fifth-rounder to the Saints for the tenth pick and a third-rounder. The Saints chose Sedrick Ellis (yet another highly drafted defensive lineman who is now out of the league) and the aforementioned Carl Nicks. The Patriots drafted Shawn Crable in the third round (a bust out of Michigan who couldn't stay healthy) and the best linebacker in the draft, Jerod Mayo, Tennessee, with that 10th pick.
Honorable mention to Curtis Lofton, who has more than lived up to the billing he had when the Falcons took him out of Oklahoma with the 37th pick.
Biggest bust: Rivers was a disappointment considering his draft status, but the biggest bust selection brings us to a mainstay of the "biggest bust selection" category, and a person we will no longer have to kick around in future "Six Years Later" draft retrospectives: Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen. Yes, it is nearly 3,000 words into the column and perhaps the worst long-term general manager in recent NFL history has yet to make an appearance. The Lions actually tried to do the right thing. They wanted and needed a middle linebacker for Rod Marinelli's defense. They wanted Curtis Lofton. With Lofton off the board eight picks before their choice, they chose a middle linebacker anyway. That player was Colorado's Jordon Dizon, an undersized, under-talented, try-hard player who may as well have epitomized the problems of the Marinelli-Millen Lions. Is it worth mentioning he was a consensus fourth- to fifth-round pick? He lasted two years, during which he failed to crack the starting lineup for a team that went 2-30. At least he will always have Eric Cartman calling him "the biggest butt-kisser I know."
Just to twist the knife, Ray Rice also apparently once claimed (some NSFW language at link) that Millen promised he would draft him and told his friends and family he would be Detroit's pick when they were on the clock and selecting Dizon. Oh well.
Best value: It ended up not being a good year for linebackers even in the later rounds. Joe Mays and Andy Studebaker turned into useful players, but not for the Eagles team that drafted them in the sixth round. The best of the last four rounds was probably another sixth rounder, as the Bucs drafted Geno Hayes out of Florida State with the 175th pick. (Though P-F-R lists them as playing linebacker in college, I considered Cliff Avril and Kroy Biermann with the defensive linemen.)
Conventional wisdom: It was a bad year if you were looking for a surefire shutdown corner or generally elite prospect. On the other hand, if you just needed a serviceable corner, there were plenty to choose from. The consensus top three prospects at the position were all from smaller programs: Troy, Tennessee State, and South Florida (which has been successful recently but was almost entirely unknown in 2008). If you needed a safety instead of a corner, you were better off looking elsewhere, as not many had the makeup of high picks.
Highest pick: Leodis McKelvin, Troy, 11th overall to the Bills.
Best player: A very muddled picture with no clear winner. The contenders include Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib, Brandon Flowers, and Brandon Carr, plus Thomas DeCoud and maybe Tyvon Branch at safety. I would rate Flowers as the best choice among that grouping, but a good argument could probably get me to go a different direction. The FO game charting stats would probably pick a different guy each year, with DRC as the top guy in 2013.
Biggest bust: Kenny Phillips is the highest-drafted defensive back no longer playing, but he was a good player at times before persistent injury issues knocked him out of the league. Instead, take your pick of a number of second- and third-round picks, including small school (Arkansas State) safety Tyrell Johnson to the Vikings, Packers cornerback Patrick Lee, and Patriots corner Terrence Wheatley in the second round, plus Chevis Jackson to the Falcons, Reggie Smith to the 49ers, and safety DaJuan Morgan to the Chiefs in the third. Personally, I will also have a soft spot for Tom Zbikowski -- not a pure bust but a player who was overhyped from the time he was a five-star high school recruit. While playing, he attributed his two best seasons to out of control drinking.
Best value: Carr in the fifth round to the Chiefs is the clear winner here. Seventh-rounder Cary Williams eventually turned into a player, though not Carr's equal and not for the Titans team that drafted him. Branch was a fourth-rounder for the Raiders.
Conventional wisdom: Taylor Mehlhaff was the top kicker. Durant Brooks was the top punter and the better prospect, though neither was in any danger of being picked close to the second round like Mike Nugent.
Highest pick: Brooks, Georgia Tech, 168th to the Redskins.
Best player: Brooks pretty much by default, at least among the drafted players. He punted for the Redskins for six games in 2008. Mehlhaff lasted five games with the Saints, going 3-for-4 on field goals and 9-for-10 on extra points. The other kicker drafted, Brandon Coutu, saw his only NFL action to date in 2011, missing the only field goal he attempted but making three extra points for the Bills. Going to the undrafted free agents, you see more familiar names like Brett Kern, Steven Hauschka, Connor Barth, Dan Carpenter, and Garrett Hartley.
Biggest bust: Picks in the bottom 100 of the draft almost by definition cannot be busts to my way of thinking. On the other hand, they are still draft picks used on a kicker or punter, none of which worked out. So, none of them or all of them, depending on your preference.
Best value: Tie between the 29 teams other than the Redskins, Saints, and Seahawks that did not draft a kicker or punter.
94 comments, Last at 15 Apr 2014, 10:57pm by ihavechappedlips