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The question is not whether Saquon Barkley is the best running back in this draft class. The question is whether any running back, even one as good as Barkley, warrants a top-five draft selection in the NFL in 2018.

15 Apr 2004

Where Have all the Linebackers Gone?

Plus, the Football Outsiders Draft Contest!

by Michael David Smith

This year's draft has only two linebackers, Miami's Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, who seem likely to go in the first round. Both of them are projected to go late in the first round, so it's likely that the 2004 draft will have no linebackers taken in the first 20 picks.

Zero linebackers in the first 20 picks would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, but if it happens this year it won't be the least bit surprising. Last year the first linebacker selected was Nick Barnett with the 29th overall pick, and the year before the first linebacker taken was Napoleon Harris with the 23rd overall pick.

Here are all the drafts since 1988 (the last time a linebacker went first overall) with the top pick used on a linebacker and how many linebackers were selected in the Top 20:

Year Top LB Pick LB in Top 20 Year Top LB Pick LB in Top 20
2003 29 0 1995 13 1
2002 23 0 1994 5 2
2001 11 1 1993 4 2
2000 2 4 1992 2 1
1999 9 1 1991 4 3
1998 12 4 1990 4 7
1997 8 2 1989 4 3
1996 2 3 1988 1 2

So what has happened since 1990? That year, seven linebackers went in the Top 20, with the best among them, Junior Seau, going at No. 5 overall to the Chargers.

The simple answer is that colleges simply aren't producing enough linebacker talent. And that's a reaction to the offenses being run at the college level.

In recent years many colleges have made four-receiver sets the norm. The Big Ten, which used to be famous for three yards and a cloud of dust, is now a passing league. Oklahoma, which won national championships with quarterbacks who couldn't throw a spiral only 20 years ago, now relies on the pass more than the run. Even Nebraska made a coaching change aimed squarely at increasing the amount of passing on its offense.

And college defenses have had to react. It used to be that a college coach would take his best athletes and make them linebackers. Now those athletes are either told to get faster and move to safety or get bigger and move to the line.

Although Vilma and Williams were good players at Miami, it was their teammate, safety Sean Taylor, who was the best defensive player in college football last year, and every team has Taylor ahead of Vilma and Williams on the draft board. During the run-oriented '80s, when Miami worried about facing the wishbone attack of Oklahoma or Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, Talyor would have been a run-stuffing linebacker. But in this pass-oriented era, when Miami wants to shut down the wide-open attacks of Florida and Florida State, Taylor is more valuable as a safety. So Miami (and the other top football schools) develop defensive backs and pass-rushing linemen, while the linebacker position gets the leftovers.

But if I've persuaded you that the era of the linebackers is gone and won't come back, I haven't meant to. Football strategies are cyclical. It's only a matter of time before one young college coach sees that his opponents are focusing on stoppnig the pass and decides to play a more physical, run-oriented offense. When that happens, the opposing coaches will adjust and a new era of linebackers will begin.

* * * * *

We at Football Outsiders know many of our readers are sure they could do just as good a job as Mel Kiper Jr. if given the opportunity.

Now you have a chance to prove it.

It's the first annual Football Outsiders Draft Contest. The rules are simple: Send us the top 32 players in the order you think they will be selected.
You'll get one point for every player you name who goes in the first round, with a five-point bonus for placing a player in the exact slot in which he is drafted. Just e-mail your selections to mike-@-footballoutsiders.com and don't delay: If we have a tie for the high score, the winner will be the entry received earliest.  The prize will be... um... well... we'll think of something, we promise.

To inspire your forecasting, here are my predictions:

Michael David Smith's Predicted First Round

1. Eli Manning
2. Sean Taylor
3. Larry Fitzgerald
4. Robert Gallery
5. Kellen Winslow
6. Roy Williams
7. DeAngelo Hall
8. Tommie Harris
9. Kenechi Udeze
10. Dunta Robinson
11. Ben Roethlisberger
12. Mike Williams
13. Philip Rivers
14. Will Smith
15. Steven Jackson
16. Reggie Williams
17. Chris Gamble
18. Michael Clayton
19. Vince Wilfork
20. Shawn Andrews
21. Randy Starks
22. D.J. Williams
23. Jonathan Vilma
24. Darnell Dockett
25. Ben Troupe
26. Vernon Carey
27. Donnell Washington
28. Ricardo Colclough
29. Sean Jones
30. Karlos Dansby
31. Lee Evans
32. Kevin Jones


Posted by: Michael David Smith on 15 Apr 2004