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Do good teams really build along the lines?

Posted by Jason Lisk on April 24, 2009

If you hang around team message boards or websites or listen to talk radio this time of year, you will hear lots of discussion and debate about who teams should take. Inevitably (at least it seems to me), somebody will make some comment about how good teams build along the lines, or build from the inside out, or how teams that know what they are doing draft the big uglies. The quarterbacks, wide receivers, flashy defensive backs, these guys are risky! Take the offensive lineman, he's a safe pick, someone will call in and say, that's what a good franchise would do.

The problem is, I can't find any substantial evidence to support such a view. Plenty of anecdotal cases come to mind to counter those who point out that the Lions were idiots for spending first round picks on wide receivers. Namely, that same organization also is the last one (and only one I can find since 1978) to draft three offensive tackles in the first round in three straight years, from 1999-2001, and Aaron Gibson, Stockar McDougal and Jeff Backus didn't exactly set the Lions up for success. People also think of the Steelers as doing it the right way. In the last 15 years, they've actually taken more pass catchers than the Lions in the first round, with four wide receivers and two tight ends.

But those are just isolated examples that come to mind. I thought I would sit down and do a study to see how good and bad teams did draft in the first round, and determine if there were any differences in where they focused. I'll start by saying this is far from a perfect study (as with most) as it entails arbitrarily, though I hope logically, defining good and bad teams in a way that can be used to create useful categories with large sample sizes. We also know that while first round picks are important, they do not solely decide who is good and bad over a period of time. As Doug wrote about here, there are generally somewhere between 4 to 5 originally drafted first round picks starting for a team at a given time--which leaves most of the starters coming outside round one. Also, sometimes good teams draft bad players, and bad teams draft good players.

Still, acknowledging all that, I plowed forward.

I focused on three types of teams, which I will call the "Good", the "Bad", and the "Up & Comers". All of these types of teams were determined by looking at five year (or more) periods for each franchise.

I'll start with the UP & COMERS. These were teams that for any given five-year period, must have losing seasons in both years 1 and 2. Then, in years 3-5, must have either (a) 10 or more wins in two different seasons, or (b) a winning season every year. Starting in 1976 (I selected this year so that year 3 for these teams coincided with the start of the 16-game schedule), thirty franchises qualified, and with five seasons each, that adds up to 150 team seasons for my UP & COMERS. Most of these teams would correspond with general conceptions of breakout teams that turned really good, as 19 of the 30 franchises reached a Super Bowl either by the end of the UP & COMER five year period, or soon after with the key players who were drafted in that period.

The next two categories, GOOD and BAD, are roughly mirror opposites. GOOD teams, for any given five year period, must have at least four winning seasons and no more than 10 losses in the fifth, and at least a .500 record in any consecutive two year period within that five years. GOOD teams could extend beyond five years so long as they kept meeting those requirements. For example, San Fransisco, after qualifying as an UP & COMER team from 1979-1983, remained a GOOD team under this classification from 1984-1997. If you'll notice, I didn't include 1998 even though San Fransisco had a winning season. This is because I removed seasons that would otherwise qualify as GOOD at the end that were either right before the team lost 11+ games, or two seasons before the team had consecutive non-winning seasons. This is because I didn't want to include draft picks right before the collapse or drop-off.

As I said, BAD teams are just the opposite--at least 4 of 5 losing seasons, no more than 10 wins in the other, and no better than .500 in any two consecutive seasons. Again, I did not include years at the end, right before teams became good, if it was immediately before an 11+ win season or consecutive non-losing years.

You may notice that my UP & COMERS could overlap with BAD teams, such as Tampa Bay becoming good in the late 1990's after over a decade of futility. My priority rule is that I calculated the UP & COMERS first. Thus, starting in 1995 (when they happened to draft both Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the first round) Tampa Bay was an Up & Comer, even though the first playoff season occurred in 1997. From 1982-1994, though, Tampa was counted as BAD. If there was an overlap with an UP & COMER team, the GOOD/BAD team had to have four other qualifying seasons to be included in the list.

Here's the list of all teams and years for each category:

1976-1980 Philadelphia Eagles
1977-1981 Buffalo Bills
1978-1982 Cincinnati Bengals
1979-1983 San Fransisco 49ers
1981-1985 Chicago Bears
1981-1985 Los Angeles Rams
1982-1986 New York Giants
1983-1987 New York Jets
1984-1988 Minnesota Vikings
1984-1988 New Orleans Saints
1985-1989 Philadelphia Eagles
1985-1989 Houston Oilers
1986-1990 Buffalo Bills
1987-1991 Kansas City Chiefs
1988-1992 Dallas Cowboys
1989-1993 Detroit Lions
1990-1994 Green Bay Packers
1990-1994 San Diego Chargers
1992-1996 New England Patriots
1995-1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1996-2000 Saint Louis Rams
1997-2001 Baltimore Ravens
1997-2001 Indianapolis Colts
1997-2001 Philadelphia Eagles
1998-2002 Pittsburgh Steelers
1999-2003 San Fransisco 49ers
2001-2005 Carolina Panthers
2002-2006 Chicago Bears
2003-2007 New York Giants
2004-2008 Tennessee Titans

1976-1979 Green Bay Packers
1976-1978 Kansas City Chiefs
1976-1983 New Orleans Saints
1976-1980 New York Giants
1977-1980 Saint Louis Cardinals
1978-1985 Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts
1981-1984 Houston Oilers
1982-1985 Buffalo Bills
1982-1994 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1983-1994 Atlanta Falcons
1983-1988 Detroit Lions
1985-2005 Saint Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals
1986-1989 San Diego Chargers
1986-1989 Green Bay Packers
1988-1991 New England Patriots
1989-1992 Cleveland Browns
1990-2001 Cincinnati Bengals
1990-1995 Los Angeles/Saint Louis Rams
1991-1995 Seattle Seahawks
1993-1997 New Orleans Saints
1996-1999 Chicago Bears
1997-2000 Carolina Panthers
1997-2001 San Diego Chargers
2000-2006 Detroit Lions
2000-2003 Jacksonville Jaguars
1999-2006 Cleveland Browns
2002-2005 Houston Texans
2003-2006 Buffalo Bills
2003-2006 Oakland Raiders
2004-2006 San Fransisco 49ers

1976-1984 Dallas Cowboys
1976-1989 Denver Broncos
1976-1979 Houston Oilers
1976-1979 Los Angeles Rams
1976-1980 Minnesota Vikings
1976-1980 New England Patriots
1976-1985 Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders
1976-1983 Pittsburgh Steelers
1977-1986 Miami Dolphins
1977-1981 San Diego Chargers
1981-1991 Washington Redskins
1983-1987 New England Patriots
1983-1988 Seattle Seahawks
1984-1997 San Fransisco 49ers
1985-1988 Cleveland Browns
1986-1990 Chicago Bears
1989-1996 Pittsburgh Steelers
1990-2003 Miami Dolphins
1990-1994 Los Angeles Raiders
1991-1996 Buffalo Bills
1992-1998 Kansas City Chiefs
1992-1999 Minnesota Vikings
1993-1998 Dallas Cowboys
1995-2003 Green Bay Packers
1996-2007 Denver Broncos
1997-2002 New York Jets
1999-2002 Tennessee Titans
2001-2008 New England Patriots
2001-2006 Seattle Seahawks
2002-2008 Indianapolis Colts
2002-2006 Philadelphia Eagles
2004-2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

In total, we have 229 GOOD seasons, 173 BAD seasons, and 150 UP&COMING seasons since 1976. In each group below, I list the number of players drafted in the first round at each position, along with the percent of total first round draft picks for that position. In an effort to distinguish how good the teams were at drafting each position, I also include the number of pro bowlers at each position.


OFFENSE		Drafted	Pro Bowlers	Pct Draft
QB		20	5		0.103
RB		26	12		0.133
WR		22	8		0.113
TE		6	1		0.031
OT		25	8		0.128
OG/C		9	4		0.046
DE		29	8		0.149
DT		14	5		0.072
LB		19	5		0.097
DB		23	9		0.118
K/P		2	0		0.010
TOTAL		195	65		

First lesson, don't use a first round pick on a kicker or punter. Moving on from that, most of those numbers won't mean much until we compare them to the UP & COMERS and the GOOD teams. You might notice that our 173 BAD teams had a total of 195 first round picks, so there was a tendency to actually have multiple first round picks, we'll compare that to the other two types.

Here are the UP & COMERS:

OFFENSE		Drafted	Pro Bowlers	Pct Draft
QB		12	8		0.078
RB		27	11		0.175
WR		17	8		0.110
TE		2	2		0.013
OT		12	7		0.078
OG/C		10	4		0.065
DE		21	5		0.136
DT		14	8		0.091
LB		17	10		0.110
DB		22	6		0.143
K/P		0	0		0.000
TOTAL		154	69		

. . . And the GOOD TEAMS:

OFFENSE		Drafted	Pro Bowlers	Pct Draft
QB		14	8		0.067
RB		28	9		0.133
WR		20	8		0.095
TE		13	4		0.062
OT		18	6		0.086
OG/C		17	8		0.081
DE		23	8		0.110
DT		19	8		0.090
LB		23	6		0.110
DB		35	15		0.167
K/P		0	0		0.000		
TOTAL		210	80		

Now it’s time to put those three categories side by side. My goal was to compare bad teams who continued to stay bad to two different types of teams. The first are bad teams who become really good, and the second are good teams that continue to stay good (like the bad teams stay bad). As I said earlier, it is not perfect. LaDainian Tomlinson shows up in the final year of BAD San Diego, as the Chargers didn't make a leap until 2004. Bruce Smith (1985) and Jim Kelly (1983) are part of Bad Buffalo, as they broke out in year 4 for Smith and 6 years after Kelly was drafted (though only three years after he actually joined the team). For the most part, though, you can see why the UP & COMERS became good. Take the Colts from 1997-2001, who added Tarik Glenn, Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Reggie Wayne during those years. The Chargers first qualified in 1990, the year that they drafted Junior Seau. How about them Cowboys? Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith. The 1989 Lions-Barry Sanders. Here's a complete breakdown of the pro bowler percentage for each position, among the GOOD, the BAD, and the UP & COMERS:

QB		0.571		0.250		0.667
RB		0.321		0.462		0.407
WR		0.400		0.364		0.471
TE		0.308		0.167		1.000
OT		0.333		0.320		0.583
OG/C		0.471		0.444		0.400
DE		0.348		0.276		0.238
DT		0.421		0.357		0.571
LB		0.261		0.263		0.588
DB		0.429		0.391		0.273

Where are the differences? Well, clearly and not surprisingly, at Quarterback, both GOOD and UP & COMERS posted their highest hit rate while the BAD teams struggled. Other than quarterback though, the differences are slight between GOOD and BAD teams when looking at the hit rates at each position. Lots of good running backs have toiled for BAD teams. When comparing the BAD teams with the UP & COMERS who went from bad to good, we see that in addition to QB, the hit rates at WR, OT, DT, and LB are much higher. Additionally, these teams are different in how they accumulate first round picks. This shows the average number of first round picks per team, along with the total number of teams with no first, or multiple firsts.

		Average		No First	Multiple Firsts
GOOD		0.92		38	         13
BAD		1.15		17	         30
UP & COMER	1.03		17	         19

Now lets compare the allocation of draft picks by position for each group.

QB		0.067		0.103		0.078
RB		0.133		0.133		0.175
WR		0.095		0.113		0.110
TE		0.062		0.031		0.013
OT		0.086		0.128		0.078
OG/C		0.081		0.046		0.065
DE		0.110		0.149		0.136
DT		0.090		0.072		0.091
LB		0.110		0.097		0.110
DB		0.167		0.118		0.143
K/P		0.000		0.010		0.000

Bad Teams usually lack a quarterback, and we see that they spent a higher percentage of picks at that position. But it wasn't the position with the largest difference--that distinction goes to offensive tackle. Let's group those positions a little more, into offensive skill, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs, and linemen and others in general.

QB		0.067		0.103		0.078
OFF Skill	0.290		0.277		0.299
OFF Line	0.167		0.174		0.143
DEF Line	0.200		0.221		0.227
Linebacker	0.110		0.097		0.110
DEF Back	0.167		0.118		0.143
Non-line	0.634		0.595		0.630
Linemen	      0.367		0.395		0.370

Now, to be clear, I don’t believe that drafting offensive tackles causes teams to be bad. Teams draft for need, and if you have issues along the lines, particular at the offensive tackle positions, you are going to try to address it. If you don’t have issues on the lines, you are free to look elsewhere. The numbers above are close, but as I’ve defined the GOOD, BAD, and UP & COMERS, the GOOD teams and the UP & COMERS (who are a version of bad teams who became good) actually drafted slightly fewer big guys.

The above was an attempt to look at how different levels of successful teams drafted. But I also tried to look at it other ways. What if we actually look at teams that spent a lot of first round picks on linemen in a short period of time? I found every team starting in 1976 that drafted four linemen (offensive and/or defensive line) in the first round in a span of five years or less. There were actually 32 such occasions, with Houston 2005-2008 being the most recent qualifier. I then looked at how those teams did in the five years following the drafting of the final lineman of the four, figuring if focusing on the big guys is a winning strategy, we should see the effects in the five years after the four first round linemen have all joined the team. So, for example, the Atlanta Falcons drafted DT Mike Pitts in 1983, DE Rick Bryan in 1984, G Bill Fralic in 1985, and DT Tony Casillas in 1986. So we start their five year window in 1986 and go until 1990. I did that for every “draft lots of linemen” team, looking at overall record and how far they advanced in the playoffs over those next five seasons. Now, some of them haven’t finished the five year period yet, but we have 151 team-seasons with our “draft lots of linemen” teams. Here's how they did versus an average randomly selected team:

		win pct		playoffs	ch game	sb app	sb win
Line Heavy	0.516		0.444	      0.106	0.033	0.000
Random		0.500		0.388	      0.136	0.068	0.034

So on the one hand, they won slightly more games than the average team over the next five years, and made more playoff appearances. However, alot of those appearances were by 9-7 or 10-6 teams that entered as wildcards and lost early, so the "linemen heavy" teams underperformed in reaching championship games and the Super Bowl. None of the 151 seasons produced a Super Bowl Champion, with easily the best incarnation of a line heavy team being the recent Patriots teams that drafted four linemen ending in 2005. The five Super Bowl appearances were by 2007 New England, 1996 New England, 1985 New England, 1988 Cincinnati, and 1981 Cincinnati.

Now, I suspect that when most people talk about building a good team, they mean making Super Bowls. There is a little evidence that a line-heavy drafting philosophy in the first round leads to a few more wildcard appearances, but the best teams of the last thirty years, and the turnaround teams, have generally not built heavier than normal along the lines in the first round of the draft. Will good teams actually start building around the lines in the future? I don't know. But I predict the chances of some talking head spouting it as fact over the weekend are high.