Gone are the days when running backs, wide receivers, and to some extent, quarterbacks ruled the first round of the NFL draft.
It has become clear over the past few NFL drafts that the balance of power is shifting to positions that were once deemed for role players.
The draw of picking offensive and defensive linemen has become overwhelming for teams looking to rebuild at the top of the draft and throughout the first round.
It used to be considered the sexy pick to go after the positions that would provide fans with excitement on any given play, and to bring it players that would sell tickets and make highlights.
Now the balance is shifting to building a team in the trenches and hitting on late sleepers in the previously sexy positions.
Consider the following statistics:
- From 2000 to 2005, teams selected (on average) 4.7 players at the positions of QB, RB, or WR in the first ten picks of the draft. During that same time, 10.7 players were taken in the first round at these positions.
- From 2006 to 2008, teams selected (on average) 3.0 players from the same positions in the top 10 and 8.3 players in the first round.
That means that NFL teams are 17 percent less likely to make a selection on one of these skill positions in the top-10, and 24 percent less likely to pick them in the first round when compared to previous years.
The wide receiver pick may have taken the biggest hit in value. In the 2006 draft, the Steelers traded up to take Santonio Holmes as the first wide receiver off the board with the No. 25 pick.
In the 2008 draft, no wide receiver was taken until the second pick in the second round, or No. 33 overall.
This shift in drafting strategy could have many contributing factors, but mainly teams are focusing on player value and how they can help the team immediately.
The sexy picks from previous drafts are now the picks that are seen as high bust potential. If you make a mistake with a top-10 pick, you have doomed your franchise.
Many of the offensive and defensive linemen are now seen as the safe pick, thus resulting in more coaches and general managers keeping their jobs.
This is the exact situation that the Detroit Lions are staring at with the first overall choice in this year's draft. Just ask them how it affects a franchise when you miss on a QB at the top of the draft (*cough* Joey Harrington *cough*).
For a first time GM and head coach, Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz cannot afford to have that pick not pan out. Therefore, history is telling us that they are more likely to lean towards players like Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, or Aaron Curry.
With most front offices recycling the same, "We'll take the best player available," mantra, only few teams are following this philosophy.
Team needs are always figured into a draft pick, no matter how much teams deny it. I think the Pittsburgh Steelers always announce their intentions the way teams should approach the draft.
Going into the 2008 draft, the word out of the front office was, "We'll take the best player available in the first round who is not a quarterback or tight end."
Having used first round picks on players that have panned out recently dictated that they could not use a first round pick on either of these positions, no matter how well the prospect was graded.
I think this is a fair assessment on how most teams should look at their drafts. The trick is having the appropriate values on players, and knowing who will make the biggest impact with your team.
With that in mind, the following is a list of the top players in this year's draft, ranked according to perceived value.
B.J. Raji, DT Boston College
Raji looked like a man amongst boys during parts of his career at BC. He can plug up the middle of a defense in the NFL and, as Albert Haynesworth's deal just proved, those men are valuable.
Detroit should seriously consider him at No. 1 overall because he will instantly upgrade an entire run defense.
Eugene Monroe, OT Virginia
Monroe is probably the most likely prospect to start at left tackle in the NFL for the next decade.
He is more polished and mature than his closest competition, and teams want a guy who will lead on the offensive line and in the weight room.
Michael Crabtree, WR Texas Tech
Foot surgery aside, Crabtree proved to be the game-breaker that teams need to keep defenses off balance.
Even though he didn't run at the combine, game tape is all that's needed to prove his value. Too much stock is placed on combine numbers. Flat out, this guy can play.
He won't be Larry Fitzgerald, but he could be Torry Holt, and that's not too shabby.
Jason Smith, OT Baylor
Smith is a little more unrefined than most teams would like when picking in the top 5, but his value is immense.
A converted tight end, he has the agility and strength needed to protect the blind side. He's slightly below Monroe because he may need a bit of coaching to be trusted against the true NFL pass rushers.
He could learn on the right side for a year or two.
Aaron Curry, LB Wake Forest
Curry could end up being the dominant defender in this draft, and is sure to be a little sexier than a lineman. But, he'll command a big payday for a player who may not be able to influence every play.
The middle linebackers who can truly dominate a game are very few and far between.
That being said, Curry has tremendous value at the top of this year's draft for many teams.
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