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Cowboys Draft '09: Are Bust Factors Now Conventional Wisdom?

Two years ago, I looked at first-round draft tendencies, on offense and defense, to answer two questions.  First, I wanted to clarify that some positions rise on draft day --quarterbacks,running backs, offensive tackles, wide receivers on offense --  while others, like centers, guards, fullbacks and tight ends, tend to fall.

I also wanted to gauge the relative risks of drafting one of the "high priority" positions over others. I did this for defense and offense, but want to focus on offense, since these results were so dramatic and because current trends suggest NFL teams are reaching similar conclusions -- and acting upon them.

Here's the 2007 chart, which shows hits or misses from 2000 through 2006

Position 1st Rd Top 10 Busts Bust %
Quarterbacks 27 15 8 30%
O-Tackles 27 11 3 11%
Receivers 41 16 21 51%
Running Backs 30 11 7 23%

I have not updated the data to include the '07 and '08 drafts, but I'll provide some newer data to compensate.

First, note that through much of this decade, receiver was the most drafted offensive position -- by a lot. Teams selected receivers at least 25% more often than RBs, QBs and OTs.

Now, look at the awful return on those receiver investments. The "hit" rate for a 1st-round wideout was just under 50%. Look at the hit rate for offensive tackles, by comparison. Now, think back to 2008. Not a single receiver was selected in the first round, though ten were taken in the 2nd. By contrast, eight offensive tackles were picked in the first round.  From Ryan Clady's selection at pick 12 to Sam Baker's selection at the 21st spot, six tackles flew off the board.

And many provided an immediate return on their investments.  Top pick Jake Long stabilized Miami's o-line.  Clady was a big reason Denver allowed the fewest sacks last season.  Carolina's running game exploded in '08 and many big runs were behind Jeff Otah, whom the Panthers picked 19th overall.

Left offensive tackles are now sexy picks, because they're safe picks.  The trend should continue this year.  The NFP's Mike Lombardi today said his sources tell him the top ten will be filled with QBs and LTs.    A source told me a couple of weeks ago that another half dozen left tackles could hear their names in the first round next week.

And the receivers?  Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin will go high, but then?  Percy Harvin has dropped off Dallas' draft board and may be off others.  Darrius Heyward-Bey and Kenny Britt might sneak into the first, but have you noticed the actions of teams in the 20-30 range who need receivers?

Let's start with our own Cowboys, who flipped the 20th overall pick for Roy Williams last year.  The Jets at 17, the Eagles at 21 and 28, the Ravens at 26 and the Giants at 29 are strongly considering swapping those picks for Anquan Boldin or perhaps Braylon Edwards.  The contract for a rookie receiver is much, much less than the $9 to $10 million a year these veterans command, but teams seem willing to pay more to lessen their risks.

Bust factors appear to have become conventional wisdom around the league.  Expect a lot more jockeying for big linemen and a lot less -- at least in the 1st round -- for wideouts.  "Speed kills" is an adage as true in war rooms as it is on the field.  Too many organizations have been burned by too many receiver busts.

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