Go defense early, often in NFL draft
Good QBs important, but teams never go far without great defense
By Ron Borges
Updated: 3:30 a.m. ET April 27, 2006
Although offense sells tickets, defense wins games. That has long been an adage most NFL teams live by, and it's why 14 of the first 22 players “taken” in this year's NBCSports.com final mock draft play on the defensive side. Expect the same to be true when the real draft's first round unfolds Saturday.
History dictates that's the safest and sanest way to go, in part because it's more difficult to find pass rushers and cornerbacks who can flourish in the NFL than any other position players, with the possible exception of quarterback. So if there are edge rushers, run-stuffing nose tackles, shut-down corners or classic linebackers on the board, you had better grab them in a hurry. Why? Because although you can't win consistently in the NFL without at least a serviceable quarterback, you can't win at all without a stingy defense.
Most NFL personnel men will tell you that more than adequate running backs and wide receivers and at least serviceable interior linemen can be found in the later rounds in most drafts. Until this year, Denver coach Mike Shanahan never had taken a running back in the first round, yet the Broncos have an offense that has produced 10 1,000-yard rushers in the past 11 seasons. That seems likely to change this year, but it's only because Shanahan feels Tatum Bell is too small to be a full-time player and Ron Dayne never has done enough when given an opportunity to justify his own No. 1 draft position when the New York Giants selected him a few years back. The latter might seem to be a cautionary reminder to Shanahan to avoid the first-round runner, and he would if he could, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Having said that, if he grabs a defensive back first, don't be shocked.
The facts on drafting wide receivers in the first round are even more daunting, which is why the early projections that the Broncos might expend the draft's 15th pick in the first round on a wideout seem unlikely. They went that route a few years back with Ashley Lelie and have suffered the fate of many of their predecessors: They've been disappointed with their choice.
Over the past decade, 45 wide receivers have been drafted in the first round. Only 11 have produced even a single Pro Bowl season. That is far from the only measuring stick for a receiver, but it's a starting point and not a good one.
As for quarterbacks, some do blossom, but many more don't.
Despite that, in most years, offensive players dominate the early draft slots. That's because the teams picking are so feeble offensively, or so in need of a quarterback in particular, that they overreach.
One of the most astute personnel evaluators in football history, Bobby Beathard, was essentially run out of both San Diego and the game itself for taking Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf with the second pick the year the Colts made Peyton Manning the No. 1 choice. Did Beathard really believe Leaf was the second-best player in the draft?
No, but the Chargers needed a quarterback and Beathard couldn't get Manning, so he passed up far better players at other positions in the vain hope Leaf would be serviceable at the worst. Instead he was just the worst, a bigger bust than Pamela Anderson. That failure hangs around your neck like an albatross for the rest of your days if you're the poor sap who picked him. Not even all of Beathard's many excellent years as a talent evaluator before that selection could help him survive such a colossal mistake.
A year ago, seven of the top 10 players selected were on offense. Of those, only Tampa running back Cadillac Williams made a truly significant impact, and even he faded late in the season. Meanwhile, eight of the next 10 players selected played defense, and at least two of them, Dallas' Demarcus Ware and San Diego's Shawne Merriman, were major contributors, both being disruptive pass rushers.
This year will be the same story: After an initial run at the elite offensive players at the top, you'll see more defensive players coming off the board in runs than offensive ones until late in the first round. That's where the talent is, and that's where the obsession of most head coaches is.
Although there are, for example, at least four running backs with first-round grades, most of them will still be around late in the first round. By the time they finally begin to disappear nearly all of the top five, and possibly as many as seven, defensive linemen will have been taken. Same will be true at linebacker, where at least four and possibly five will go in the first round before the third running back or maybe even first wide receiver is selected. Among defensive backs, as many as five corners and three safeties are likely to be selected.
Although only two defenders, edge rusher Mario Williams and linebacker A.J. Hawk, are expected to be taken in the first half dozen picks, after that as many as 10 of the next dozen players probably will be defense. That's where the value is and, for most teams, that's where they know they need to shore things up if they ever want to become playoff contenders.
Teams must score to win, but that becomes a lot easier if they don't have to score often. To do the latter, they need to find guys such as Williams, Hawk, Michael Huff, Broderick Bunkley, Chad Greenway, Kamerion Wimbley, Manny Lawson, Haloti Ngata, Donte Whitner, Ernie Sims, Jason Allen, Jimmy Willilams, Jonathan Joseph, Tye Hill, Bobby Carpenter, Demeco Ryans and Antonio Cromartie. And if they're looking for guys like that, they had better find them early or they won't find them at all.