Which Positions Are the Safest, Riskiest at the Top of the NFL Draft?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 26, 2015

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is seen on stage at the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City on Thursday, May 8th, 2014 in New York, NY.  (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Are you better off drafting one position over another? 

Based strictly on precedents and trends, we set out to discover which positions have traditionally produced the most pay off compared to those that have come with the most risk early in the NFL draft. 

We studied every first round between 1986 and 2010, using a 25-year sample as well as a 10-year sample that covers just the first decade of the 21st century. Then, based on All-Pros, Pro Bowls and career starts, we determined how often players at each position become successful compared to how often they fail to deliver. 

Entire First Round

25-year trends

Let's begin by looking at how frequently first-round draft picks at each position have become All-Pros. 

All-Pro rates among first-round picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedAll-ProsAll-Pro rate
LB872326.4%
S35925.7%
C12325.0%
G32721.9%
OT841619.0%
DL1702816.5%
RB961515.6%
CB911415.4%
WR991515.2%
TE28414.3%
QB5735.3%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Standing out here are linebackers, safeties and offensive linemen in general, but particularly interior o-linemen. Running backs, cornerbacks and wide receivers don't fare too strongly. 

Quarterbacks will continually fare extremely poorly when it comes to All-Pro representation, and that's because the cream of the crop have always been quite dominant and only one Associated Press first-team All-Pro spot is available to players at that position.

The same general principle applies to tight ends. That's why we're always breaking things down based on how many Pro Bowlers have been drafted at each position. 

Pro Bowl rates among first-round picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedPro BowlersPro Bowl rate
S351851.4%
TE281346.4%
LB873742.5%
QB572442.1%
RB964041.7%
C12541.7%
G321340.6%
CB913538.5%
OT843136.9%
DL1705230.6%
WR993030.3%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

As you can see, tight ends and quarterbacks fare much better here, joining safeties and linebackers at the top of the list. This is probably a more reasonable way to break down draft picks at those positions. 

Running backs and offensive tackles are anomalies that seem to produce disproportionate amounts of Pro Bowlers compared to All-Pros, so there are no conclusions to be drawn there, but defensive linemen and wide receivers once again fare pretty poorly. 

So if you're looking for a star in the first round, precedents from the last quarter-century indicate you're better off going with a safety, linebacker, tight end or interior offensive lineman than a defensive lineman or a wide receiver. 

But what about avoiding the disaster cases? We also tallied up the busts by finding non-Pro Bowl players who started fewer than 50 games in their careers. 

Bust rates among first-round picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedBustsBust rate
RB964546.9%
QB572340.4%
DL1706035.3%
WR993030.3%
CB912426.4%
G32721.9%
LB871921.8%
TE28621.4%
OT841619.0%
S35514.3%
C1218.3%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Now you can begin to see why quarterback is such a boom-or-bust position to draft, while running back, defensive line and wide receiver simply appear to be trouble spots. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, we once again see positive signs for safeties and interior offensive linemen. In fact, the only center we'd consider a bust from the first 32 picks dating back to 1986 is Gregg Rakoczy, who was taken 32nd overall by the Cleveland Browns in 1987. 

Let's juxtapose the boom and the bust by breaking down which positions have typically produced more stars than busts, as well as those that have produced more busts than stars.

Pro Bowl/bust gaps among first-round picks, 25-year sample
PositionPro Bowl rateBust ratePro Bowl/bust difference
S51.4%14.3%37.1%
C41.7%8.3%33.3%
TE46.4%21.4%25.0%
LB42.5%21.8%20.7%
G40.6%21.9%18.8%
OT36.9%19.0%17.9%
CB38.5%26.4%12.1%
QB42.1%40.4%1.8%
WR30.3%30.3%0.0%
DL30.6%35.3%-4.7%
RB41.7%46.9%-5.2%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

So it seems as though if you're really confident in a first-round safety, tight end, interior offensive lineman or linebacker, there's a very good chance that the pick will pan out. 

Meanwhile, running backs, defensive linemen and wide receivers have traditionally been the most risky first-round picks.

10-year trends

The above sample size includes the entirety of the 1990s and nearly half of the 1980s. The game has changed quite a bit over the years, so let's perform the exact same study, while only looking at the first 10 drafts of the 21st century, ending in 2010. 

All-Pro rates among first-round picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedAll-ProsAll-Pro rate
G8450.0%
C6233.3%
S16531.3%
LB29827.6%
OT33618.2%
RB30516.7%
DL731115.1%
WR40615.0%
TE14214.3%
CB41512.2%
QB2827.1%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Once again, interior offensive linemen, safeties and linebackers appear to be the hottest players, while running backs, defensive linemen and wide receivers continue to struggle.

But in this case, cornerbacks also take a beating. Among the 41 corners drafted in the first-round during this period, only Darrelle Revis, Nnamdi Asomugha, Adam Jones, Antonio Cromartie and Lito Sheppard have been first-team All-Pros. 

Pro Bowl rates among first-round picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedPro BowlersPro Bowl rate
G8787.5%
TE14964.3%
S161062.5%
LB291551.7%
C6350.0%
RB301446.7%
QB281242.9%
CB411741.5%
OT331236.4%
WR401435.0%
DL731926.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Looking at Pro Bowlers, quarterbacks and tight ends naturally gain some steam, but pivots still struggle a fair bit.

What's scary is that they'll take an even bigger hit when this sample size eventually reaches a point at which it doesn't include Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, all of whom were drafted between 2001 and 2004. First-round quarterbacks have generally failed to impress in recent years, which means this could soon get worse for that position. 

The winners once again: tight end, safety, interior offensive line and linebacker. 

Bust rates among first-round picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedBustsBust rate
RB301240.0%
DL732939.7%
WR401435.0%
QB28932.1%
CB411126.8%
S16318.8%
LB29517.2%
TE14214.3%
OT3326.1%
G800.0%
C600.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

When it comes to busts, we're dealing with the same four positions above the 30 percent mark as above in the 25-year sample. Backs and receivers are volatile, while the defensive line position continues to produce a lot of busts. Extreme examples in this case include Aaron Maybin, Jarvis Moss, Vernon Gholston and Derrick Harvey. 

On the other end of the spectrum, of the 47 interior offensive linemen drafted in the first round during this 10-year period, only two—Jason Smith and Jeff Otah—qualify as busts based on our criteria. 

Oh, and tight ends, linebackers and safeties again appear to be safe first-round picks. 

Pro Bowl/bust gaps among first-round picks, 10-year sample
PositionPro Bowl rateBust ratePro Bowl/bust difference
G87.5%0.0%87.5%
TE64.3%14.3%50.0%
C50.0%0.0%50.0%
S62.5%18.8%43.8%
LB51.7%17.2%34.5%
OT36.4%6.1%30.3%
CB41.5%26.8%14.6%
QB42.9%32.1%10.7%
RB46.7%40.0%6.7%
WR35.0%35.0%0.0%
DL26.0%39.7%-13.7%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

From the first round as a whole, quarterback and cornerback seem to be the most unpredictable. Both of those positions hang around even when it comes to the ratio between Pro Bowlers and busts, while running back, wide receiver and defensive linemen get killed. 

You can understand why so many teams have shied away from backs in recent years. In 2013, for the first time in NFL history, no team selected a running back in the first round of the draft. In 2014, it happened again. That was proof we weren't witnessing an aberration.

Top 10

25-year trends

So that gives us a pretty good feel for what the precedents indicate when you're on the clock in the first round in general, and it's encouraging that 25-year trends seemed to line up with 10-year trends. 

But let's focus in now on only the top-10 selections, starting with a 25-year sample from—again—1986 to 2010. However, few guards, centers and tight ends are ever drafted that early. And because the study results were fairly similar between sister positions in both cases, we've bunched tackles, guards and centers together (OL), and we've done the same thing with wide receivers and tight ends. 

Also, because the onus is larger, we've changed the criteria a bit. Now, we're only counting players who have been first-team All-Pros at least twice. Same rule applies to the Pro Bowl in a moment. 

All-Pro rates among top-10 picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple All-ProsAll-Pro rate
OL37821.6%
CB23417.4%
RB29517.2%
WR/TE34411.8%
DL55610.9%
LB28310.7%
QB3313.0%
S1100.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Pass-catchers have fared a lot better when drafted early, and we're seeing stronger early returns for cornerbacks and running backs. But with guys such as Jonathan Ogden, Willie Roaf, Walter Jones, Joe Thomas, Orlando Pace and Tony Boselli, offensive linemen really kick ass here. 

Again, quarterbacks don't really count here because it's an uneven playing field. But it's hard to believe that not a single safety drafted in the top 10 during this 25-year stretch has been a two-time first-team All-Pro. Only Roy Williams, Eric Berry and Eric Turner have accomplished that feat once. (Keep in mind that Rod Woodson wasn't drafted as a safety.)

Pro Bowl rates among top-10 picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple Pro BowlsPro Bowl rate
S11654.5%
CB231147.8%
OL371540.5%
QB331339.4%
LB281035.7%
DL551934.5%
WR/TE34926.5%
RB29724.1%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

The safeties somehow go from worst to first now, thanks to guys such as Williams, Berry, Donte Whitner and Sean Taylor. That means we probably can't draw any conclusions there either way. But we can conclude that cornerbacks seem to be much smarter gambles at the elite level than later in the first round.

With guys such as Rod and Charles Woodson, Deion Sanders, Champ Bailey, DeAngelo Hall, Joe Haden and Antrel Rolle coming through after being drafted in the top 10, it's easier to understand how three defensive backs went off the board in the top 10 in 2012. 

There's also a lot of shifting between running backs, wide receivers and tight ends, but defensive linemen remain close to the gutter. 

As for the busts, we've also altered the criteria, mandating that to avoid becoming a bust a player has to earn 75 career starts or at least make a Pro Bowl. 

Bust rates among top-10 picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedBustsBust rate
RB291655.2%
DL552240.0%
WR/TE341338.2%
QB331236.4%
LB28828.6%
OL371027.0%
CB23521.7%
S11218.2%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

We didn't learn from Alonzo Highsmith or Brent Fullwood? Or Ki-Jana Carter or Lawrence Phillips? Or Darren McFadden or Cadillac Williams or Cedric Benson? It seems that once again, the DBs, the offensive linemen and the linebackers are safe picks early, while running backs are toxic and defensive linemen pose huge risks. 

Pro Bowl/bust gaps among top-10 picks, 25-year sample
PositionPro Bowl rateBust ratePro Bowl/bust difference
S54.5%18.2%36.4%
CB47.8%21.7%26.1%
OL40.5%27.0%13.5%
LB35.7%28.6%7.1%
QB39.4%36.4%3.0%
DL34.5%40.0%-5.5%
WR/TE26.5%38.2%-11.8%
RB24.1%55.2%-31.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Precedents suggest that if you draft a defensive back in the top 10, there's about a 50 percent chance he'll become a Pro Bowler and only a 20 percent chance he'll become a bust. Meanwhile, quarterbacks once again skirt that tossup line, and backs and receivers continue to be the riskiest early picks.

 

10-year trends

For the sake of due diligence, we can shift the analysis once again to cover only the last 10 years...

All-Pro rates among top-10 picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple All-ProsAll-Pro rate
RB8225.0%
DL25416.0%
WR/TE16212.5%
OL1516.7%
QB1500.0%
LB700.0%
CB800.0%
S600.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

This isn't enough to draw any major conclusions about running backs. Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson appear to be significant outliers. Same with Calvin and Andre Johnson at the wide receiver position. 

Safety holds true at the bottom, but that's also an aberration which is in line with the 25-year trend. The reality is the Pro Bowl and bust charts are probably more trustworthy here, because—as you're about to see—they line up with 25-year trends. 

Pro Bowl rates among top-10 picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple Pro BowlsPro Bowl rate
S6466.7%
QB15853.3%
CB8450.0%
OL15640.0%
DL25832.0%
LB7228.6%
RB8225.0%
WR/TE16425.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

We again see the defensive backs, quarterbacks and offensive linemen move to the top.

Safeties are rarely drafted early, but when they are, they usually succeed. The problem is just that all of the All-Pro nods have gone to Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Brian Dawkins and Earl Thomas, none of whom qualify here. Same deal at corner, where Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey and Ronde Barber have dominated but weren't top-10 picks within this time frame. 

While they aren't part of the All-Pro tally, Rivers, Manning, Matt Ryan and Michael Vick come up big here at the quarterback position. Problem is, only one of those guys was drafted in the last 10 years. 

On the other end of the spectrum, running backs and wide receivers come back to earth. Unless you have an absolute gem, precedents indicate it ain't worth it. 

Bust rates among top-10 picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedBustsBust rate
RB8450.0%
WR/TE16850.0%
DL251248.0%
LB7342.9%
QB15640.0%
OL15426.7%
CB8112.5%
S600.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

The way we see it, 12 of the 24 backs and receivers drafted in the top 10 between 2001 and 2010 became busts, while only six became Pro Bowlers. That's almost hard to believe. 

Meanwhile, 13 of 14 defensive backs drafted in the same range avoided the bust label (sorry, Adam Jones), while eight have made multiple trips to the Pro Bowl. 

And while they aren't the headliners, the defensive linemen again fare poorly. 

Pro Bowl/bust gaps among top-10 picks, 10-year sample
PositionPro Bowl rateBust ratePro Bowl/bust difference
S66.7%0.0%66.7%
CB50.0%12.5%37.5%
OL40.0%26.7%13.3%
QB53.3%40.0%13.3%
LB28.6%42.9%-14.3%
DL32.0%48.0%-16.0%
RB25.0%50.0%-25.0%
WR25.0%50.0%-25.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

We're beginning to get a pretty good picture of which positions pose the greatest risks and which make the most sense early. And it's also becoming quite clear that quarterback is the biggest mystery position. 

Top Five

25-year trends

Let's conclude this study by focusing in on only only top-five draft picks within those two ranges, starting with the quarter-century between 1986 and 2010. 

All-Pro rates among top-5 picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple All-ProsAll-Pro rate
OL15426.7%
WR/TE9222.2%
CB9222.2%
RB18316.7%
LB15213.3%
DL27311.1%
QB2713.7%
S500.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Forget the safety position here. Sean Taylor was taken from us suddenly, and Eric Berry, who is dealing with his own health issues, should have plenty of success ahead of him. The sample isn't large enough anyway, and quarterbacks don't really count here. The real takeaway is that defensive linemen again struggle, while offensive linemen clearly stand out, thanks to Thomas, Ogden, Pace and Boselli. 

Pro Bowl rates among top-5 picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple Pro BowlsPro Bowl rate
OL15960.0%
S5360.0%
QB271348.1%
WR/TE9444.4%
DL271037.0%
LB15533.3%
RB18527.8%
CB9222.2%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

When looking at Pro Bowls, safeties again shoot up the list, while quarterbacks also recover. Offensive linemen also continue to rock, while it's safe to wonder if linebackers aren't as good of a super-early bet (we already knew that about running backs). 

What's interesting is that receivers really do seem to be better bets in the top five than anywhere else. Calvin, Andre and Keyshawn Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald were all top-five picks during the 25-year study. 

Bust rates among top-5 picks, 25-year sample
PositionDraftedBustsBust rate
RB181055.6%
WR/TE9444.4%
LB15533.3%
QB27829.6%
DL27725.9%
CB9222.2%
OL15320.0%
S5120.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

It seems that if you're going to draft a quarterback, you're better off doing so in the top five than between the No. 6 and No. 10 spots. That's where guys such as Troy Williamson, David Terrell, Mike Williams, Ted Ginn and Reggie Williams were picked. 

The running back bust rate is unsurprisingly high, while the linebacker position fares badly, thanks to busts Mike Junkin, Trev Alberts, Aaron Curry, Aundray Bruce and Anthony Bell. 

It's hard to find busts in the top five at offensive line or defensive backs. The only guys we identified: offensive tackles Jason Smith, Mike Williams and Tony Mandarich and DBs Bruce Pickens and Rickey Dixon. Over a 25-year span that saw 29 players drafted in the top five at those positions, that's pretty impressive. 

Pro Bowl/bust gaps among top-5 picks, 25-year sample
PositionPro Bowl rateBust ratePro Bowl/bust difference
OL60.0%20.0%40.0%
S60.0%20.0%40.0%
QB48.1%29.6%18.5%
DL37.0%25.9%11.1%
WR/TE44.4%44.4%0.0%
LB33.3%33.3%0.0%
CB22.2%22.2%0.0%
RB27.8%55.6%-27.8%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Cornerback becomes a tossup, but safety and offensive line are clearly the most successful positions in the top five. Running backs once again get crushed.

 

10-year trends

If we shift just to the 50 top-five picks between 2001 and 2010, the only position that has a large enough sample size to be significantly problematic at All-Pro is quarterback, which has produced zero among a group of 13. 

All-Pro rates among top-5 picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple All-ProsAll-Pro rate
WR/TE5240.0%
DL11218.2%
RB6116.7%
OL9111.1%
QB1300.0%
LB200.0%
CB200.0%
S200.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

But that has a lot to do with the fact Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Rich Gannon and Kurt Warner weren't top-five picks within the sample. Again, only one first-team All-Pro spot at that position. 

Pro Bowl rates among top-5 picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedMultiple Pro BowlsPro Bowl rate
S22100.0%
QB13861.5%
WR/TE5360.0%
OL9555.6%
CB2150.0%
DL11545.5%
RB6116.7%
LB200.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Quarterbacks fare much better, thanks to Philip Rivers, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan. Meanwhile, the running back and linebacker positions have produced just one multiple Pro Bowler between Aaron Curry, A.J. Hawk, Darren McFadden, Reggie Bush, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson. 

Bust rates among top-5 picks, 10-year sample
PositionDraftedBustsBust rate
RB6350.0%
LB2150.0%
QB13430.8%
OL9222.2%
WR/TE5120.0%
DL11218.2%
CB200.0%
S200.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

There are those running back and linebacker busts. And again, none at the defensive back positions. Eric Berry, Sean Taylor, Terence Newman and Quentin Jammer didn't become stars for a multitude of reasons, but none meet the bust criteria.

Pro Bowl/bust gaps among top-5 picks, 10-year sample
PositionPro Bowl rateBust ratePro Bowl/bust difference
S100.0%0.0%100.0%
CB50.0%0.0%50.0%
WR/TE60.0%20.0%40.0%
OL55.6%22.2%33.3%
QB61.5%30.8%30.8%
DL45.5%18.2%27.3%
RB16.7%50.0%-33.3%
LB0.0%50.0%-50.0%
Pro-Football-Reference.com

It's clear that when we're looking at extremely early picks, precedents suggest linebackers join defensive linemen and running backs in the risky category. 

Grand Conclusions

Safest first-round picks: Safety, linebacker, interior offensive line

At safety, you're three times more likely to draft a Pro Bowler than a bust in the first round. And only the interior offensive line positions have produced All-Pros more frequently.

Riskiest first-round picks: Running back, defensive line, wide receiver 

There are more busts than Pro Bowlers coming out of the first round at running back and defensive line, while it's about even for wide receivers.

Biggest tossups in the first round: Quarterback, cornerback

Quarterback is the only position above 40 percent when it comes to producing both Pro Bowlers and busts over the 25-year sample. It remains above 30 percent in both areas in the 10-year sample.

Safest top-10 picks: Offensive line, defensive back

A little more broad, but we could find only 22 busts out of 100 picks from the two samples at the offensive line and defensive back positions. That's compared to 46 Pro Bowlers.

Riskiest top-10 picks: Running back, wide receiver, defensive line  

Running backs are twice as likely to bust than become Pro Bowlers, while receivers and defensive linemen are in the same range.

Biggest tossups in the top 10: Quarterback, linebacker 

The gap between Pro Bowler and bust is smallest for these two positions within both the 25- and 10-year sample.

Safest top-five picks: Offensive line, defensive back

But wide receivers have also been a solid top-five pick in recent years.

Riskiest top-five picks: Running back, linebacker, defensive line

Linebacker is the only position that goes from safe in the first round to unsafe at the very top. Running backs and defensive linemen are risks across the first-round board.

Biggest toss-ups in the top five: Quarterback 

Wide receivers and defensive linemen also qualify, but it's to a lesser extent. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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