Professional football is a game of speed that values talent on the edges of the field. Those are the Cold, Hard Football Facts we uncovered while reviewing the first-round picks of the last 10 drafts, dating back to 1995.
The first-round of the draft is always the most interesting to consider. After all, these are the biggest-name players coming out of, in most cases, the top football schools. These are the players who coaches and GMs expect will make the biggest impact on Sundays. These are the player who will fill what each team sees as its most immediate onfield need. And, of course, these are the players who will take the biggest bite out of the salary-cap pie.
Looking at first-round picks, then, tells us a lot of about the nature of the game. It also tells us a lot about what we can expect Saturday when the 2005 draft gets underway.
The trends of the last 10 years are clear: speed and talent on the edge of the field is needed to win. At the very least, it's highly coveted by NFL management. In fact, this outside talent is so desired that teams sacrifice strength up the middle to obtain it. Edge players are in greater demand than even football's traditional glamour positions of running back and quarterback.
We chronicled all 311 first-round draft picks since 1995, using data from NFL.com. Other services will have slightly different numbers because certain players are listed at different positions by different outlets – for example, Peter Boulware (DE and LB), Jevon Kearse (DE and LB) and Pete Kendall (G and T).
Regardless of the source you use, the trends are unmistakable. The most frequently drafted defensive positions were defensive end (43) and cornerback (39). The most frequently drafted offensive positions are the very same players who will oppose those defenders mano a mano in the NFL: wide receiver (42) and tackle (37).
Similar trends – outside speed over inside strength – are also seen when we break down various positions on the field.
Take linebackers, for example. Of the 30 linebackers drafted in the first round since 1995, 17 were drafted as outside linebackers. Just 11 were listed as middle or inside backers. (Two were listed simply as linebackers on NFL.com).
If you grouped together defensive backs -- who, with wide receivers, are typically the fastest players on the field -- they'd top the positional list, with 51 first rounders taken over the past 10 years. But just 12 of those defensive backs were safeties (six free safeties and six strong safeties, according to NFL.com) and 39 were cornerbacks. Safeties, of course, are typically larger and slower than cornerbacks and more likely to play in the middle of the field.
Larger, slower defensive tackles (27 players) are drafted in the first round much less frequently than defensive ends.
Offensive tackles outnumber guards nearly four to one (37 to 10). Considering our conclusion that teams place a premium on edge players, it's not surprising to find that centers trail the list of positional players taken in the first round. Just two centers (Jeff Faine by Cleveland in 2003 and Jeff Hartings by Detroit in 1996) have been first-round selections over the past 10 years. Neither organization has fared well since.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski is the only specialist taken in the first round since 1995. But the Cold, Hard Football Facts consider this an indictment of Oakland more than it is an indictment of the kicking position.
If the 2005 draft is anything like the drafts of the previous 10 years, look for a run on "edge" players – defensive ends, wide receivers, cornerbacks and tackles – on Saturday.
Here's the breakdown of number of players taken at each position over the past 10 years.
* (1995 Green Bay pick Craig Newsome was listed as a defensive back on NFL.com's draft list, but played corner in the NFL, so we included him among CBs)
** (OLB, 17; MLB, 8; ILB, 3; LB, 2)
*** (including 3 players listed as nose tackles)
**** (6 free safeties, 6 strong safeties)