Football is a different game than it was 20 years ago, and team-building has changed right along with it.
Coaches and commentators still pay homage to the sacraments of the game like "run and stop the run," and "control the line of scrimmage," but they don't put their money (or draft picks) where their mouth is.
The massive shift toward shotgun-based offenses and multiple-receiver sets pressures decision-makers to find franchise quarterbacks and instant-impact targets. Counterintuitively, it also puts pressure on teams to spend more draft picks on offensive linemen with elite size and athleticism, so they can protect the quarterback without the help of traditional tight ends.
As more and more spread-oriented coaches trickle up from the high school and college ranks to coordinator and head coach positions, scouts and general managers are switching gears to give them the players they need—and they're trying to help their defensive coordinators adapt, too.
A Pass-First League—and Pass Second, Too
Before the 2013 season, I explored how NFL offenses have transformed over the prior decade. Across the NFL, play calls, yardage and touchdowns scored all tilted heavily toward the aerial game:
Pass attempts accounted for a 6.2 percent bigger share of snaps in 2012 than in 2003. The NFL as a whole gained 9.7 percent more of its yards through the air in 2012 than 2003 and 12.4 percent more of its touchdowns.
It shouldn't surprise any football fan that more passes lead to faster offenses, more plays, more yards gained per play and more scoring. But it's not just that offenses are calling plays more often; the way they're passing has changed.
Look at how shotgun use transformed over the same period, thanks to the Football Outsiders' Premium Database (subscription required):
In 2003, eight NFL teams (one quarter of the league!) used shotgun less than five percent of the time. Ten years later, the team that used shotgun the least frequently ran it on 21.6 percent of all snaps. That's a massive shift in league-wide philosophy.
The Golden Age of Wide Receivers
During the 2013 season, I pronounced this era of football the "golden age" of wide receivers.
Look at how many receivers teams have had contribute over the years:
This chart uses Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value, which expresses a player's season-long production in proportion to his team's production. Going back decade by decade, I calculated how many receivers per average team had an AV of at least one, how many had at least that year's average receiver AV and how many were at least one, two or three standard deviations above that mean.
The average 2012 NFL team had five (4.94) receivers that contributed at least a little, far more than in any previous decade. The average 2012 NFL team also had two (2.16) receivers that were at least average, and one (0.94) receiver that was at least one standard deviation above the mean.
The biggest change, though, was in the two-standard-deviation group: There were 10 of these star receivers in 2012, twice as many as in 2002.
No wonder NFL teams are drafting so many more of them.
Let's take a look at draft trends over the past 20 years:
The purple bars at the top represent the number of receivers drafted in the first four rounds of each draft class. We're not looking at fifth- through seventh-round picks, because they're typically "best player available" selections; teams don't really draft for positional need in those rounds.
The black polynomial trendline through the purple bars shows the steady growth of receivers being drafted early. In 1995, just 11 wideouts were taken in the first four rounds; 20 were drafted that high in two of the last three draft classes.
What's that big mess of colors at the bottom? It's another set of bars, this time representing what percentage of the highly drafted receivers went in each of the four rounds.
What's really interesting here is the dark blue trendline representing first-round picks. In the mid-1990s, about 30 percent of highly drafted receivers went in the first round. Recently, that expected portion has dropped to about 20 percent. Teams are drafting more receivers, but spending fewer first-round picks on them.
Second-round picks have made up a relatively flat portion of these receivers, but there was a big jump in third-rounders in the late 1990s and early 2000s as slot receivers became more integral to the game. In 2008, teams started spending a bigger proportion of fourth-round picks on wideouts as they spent fewer first-rounders.
What's going on here?
As teams have moved to fewer multi-receiver sets, there's much more room for specialization. Instead of having a "true No. 1" receiver, a complementary receiver and backups for both, teams are much more likely to use their top five receivers in whatever ways maximize their potential. A flawed third- or fourth-round prospect with one or two strong attributes can step in and contribute, instead of riding the bench while the team tries to coach him up.
There's a poisonous flip side to this: In high school and college, extreme spread offenses were designed to make up for a lack of talent—the potency comes from the system, not the player. That makes lesser players more productive, but it dulls the edge of true impact players.
When a team spends a high first-rounder on a receiver like Sammy Watkins, instead of becoming one of two starters, that player joins a committee of five.
The Great Equalizer
Of course, the lynchpin of a passing offense is the quarterback. An efficient, effective quarterback can make up for all kinds of flaws elsewhere and is a huge advantage on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis.
It only makes sense, then, that teams are drafting a lot more quarterbacks lately, hoping to find the right one:
You'll notice the trendlines in this graph are a lot wilder than the previous one. That's because of the smaller quantities involved in quarterbacks—small enough to warn that the proportion data should be taken with a grain of salt.
There's no denying the overall trend of highly drafted quarterbacks, though. There's a clear pattern of alternating two-to-five-year clusters where quarterbacks are taken more and less frequently in the first four rounds. That said, the current "more" cluster is a lot more.
There have been at least seven highly drafted quarterbacks in each of the last four seasons; that's true for only seven of the 16 seasons before that.
Though, again, we're dealing with percentages of very small numbers, there's an undeniable trend away from third-round quarterbacks in recent years. Teams in the early 2000s tended to draft their quarterbacks in the first round or wait until the third; in the past five years the third-round quarterback has become an endangered species.
Over the last five years, there's been a strong push toward first-rounders (save 2013, whose weak quarterback class wreaked havoc with the trendline), second-rounders and fourth-rounders.
As teams reach for need at the quarterback spot, second-round prospects go in the first, and third-round prospects go in the second. When all the seats on the starting-quarterback carousel are spoken for, third-day quarterbacks get valued appropriately.
There's already a ripple effect going on in this arms race.
Pass-protecting offensive linemen are being drafted much higher. Of the 18 tackles taken with a top-five pick over the last two decades, five were in the last three draft classes (and a sixth, Jake Matthews, just missed the cut).
Tight ends are being drafted almost solely for their receiving ability. Of the seven tight ends taken in the first three rounds of the 2014 draft class, per NFL.com, only one weighed more than 265 pounds.
Defensively, there's a premium being placed on pass rushing, and in the wake of the Seattle Seahawks secondary's success, don't be surprised to see a strong trend toward more (and bigger) defensive backs drafted over the next few seasons. Of the 18 cornerbacks drafted in the first four rounds of the 2014 draft, per NFL.com, just three were shorter than 5'11".
It shouldn't come as any surprise that the position hurting the most from all this is running back. The 2013 draft class was the first in NFL history (dating back to 1936), per Michael Witmer of The Boston Globe, that no running back was taken in the first round—and there weren't any first-round running backs in 2014, either.
That, of all the numbers, is unshakable proof that there's been a seismic shift in the way the game is played—and the way teams build rosters.