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Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and the Right to Choose

Posted by Chase Stuart on April 16, 2010

A couple of years ago, we asked how valuable was owning the right to choose between Matt Ryan and Brian Brohm. This year, it's almost certain that the Rams will select Sam Bradford with the first overall pick. After that, the Lions will choose among the consensus three best non-QBs in the draft: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Gerald McCoy and LT Russell Okung. Many observers, myself included, think Suh and McCoy are the two best players in the draft. A few talent evaluators think McCoy is better than Suh, but the majority view Suh as a transcendental, once-in-a-generation player. The Lions get to choose between Suh and McCoy (and Okung) -- how valuable is owning the right to make that decision? The Bucs, it is believed, desperately want Suh and will have to "settle" for McCoy, since Suh appears to be a better fit for Tampa Bay's system (in addition to being the better player). But how likely is it, independent of system, that Suh (if he goes first) ends up being the better pro? The Lions could certainly trade down with the Bucs, enabling Tampa Bay to grab Suh; how cautious should Detroit be in giving up the right to choose?

I looked at all drafts from 1967 (the first common draft between the AFL and NFL) and 2009, and noted how many times two players at the same position were selected within the first four picks. It's happened twenty-two times:

2005, RB: Ronnie Brown (2); Cedric Benson (4)

This case is probably still too close to call. Along with Cadillac Williams, the 5th pick in the draft, these three RBs were supposed to be the next great generation of runners in the NFL. Instead, all of them suffered with injuries, and Benson completely wore out his welcome with off-the-field issues in Chicago. A year ago, all three looked like busts, with Brown probably being the de facto winner. But last year, Williams had a rebirth (1,040 yards from scrimmage) and is healthy entering 2010. Meanwhile, Benson had a career season, building on a strong second half in 2008 by ranking second in the league last season in rushing yards per game (96.2). Brown has probably still been the best of this trio -- he has the highest career YPC, the most career rushing yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. But he's suffered with injuries his whole career, and at this rate, Benson may surpass him before their careers end.

Edge: Incomplete.

2004, QB: Eli Manning (1); Philip Rivers (4)

Some view Manning as having more successful career to date because of his Super Bowl ring. And, if I were a Giants fan, I'd be happy with how that trade went down. But Rivers has clearly been the better quarterback, and I've got no interest in putting my head in the sand and arguing otherwise. Look at their yearly ANY/A ratios:

         Rivers     Manning
2004      --          --
2005      --          5.6
2006      6.7         5.0
2007      5.7         4.8
2008      8.0         6.0
2009      8.3         6.9

Edge: Lower pick

2003, WR: Charles Rogers (2); Andre Johnson (3)

Uh, yeah.

Edge: Lower pick.

2002, QB: David Carr (1); Joey Harrington (3)

Edge: Carolina, for taking Julius Peppers at #2. Okay, let's just call this a tie: both sport identically putrid 4.4 ANY/A averages for their career, and have similarly ugly statistics in the other categories.

1999, QB: Tim Couch (1); Donovan McNabb (2); Akili Smith (3)

Smith was an enormous bust; for Couch, there were at least some mitigating factors one could cite (injuries, expansion team, decent production at some point, poor coaching). McNabb, for all his faults, has obviously been in a totally different league than Couch and Smith.

Edge: Middle pick.

1998, QB: Peyton Manning (1); Ryan Leaf (2)

As you're starting to see, some debates about who is the better player don't last for long.

Edge: Higher pick.

1993, QB: Drew Bledsoe (1); Rick Mirer (2)

I lead the charge on the "Bledsoe was overrated" bandwagon. But that's not particularly relevant here.

Edge: Higher pick.

1987, RB: Alonzo Highsmith (3); Brent Fullwood (4)

Highsmith came from one of the greatest programs of all time, was an incredibly high pick, and was still a huge bust. Fullwood averaged 8.3 YPC his senior year at Auburn, which was enough to keep him in the top five despite famously bombing his Wonderlic test. Fullwood was not very good, and he curiously made a Pro Bowl in 1989. The bottom line: Fullwood wouldn't beat out most first round running backs, but he draws a favorable matchup here:

Edge: Lower pick.

1985, DE: Bruce Smith (1); Ray Childress (3); Chris Doleman (4)

It's unclear exactly whether or not Childress belongs here; he was a DT-DE tweener. Many listed him as a DT, but Houston drafted him to be a 3-4 defensive end which is just what the Bills did with Smith. Doleman was a pure edge rusher, playing as a 3-4 OLB when Minnesota played that defense in '85 and '86 but moving to DE when the team switched to a 4-3 front. Smith was clearly the best player of the bunch, just like he's clearly the best player among nearly any trio of players in league history. Doleman and Childress were both outstanding players, although Doleman was a much better pass rusher and, as a result, probably a better defensive end overall. Childress was arguably the better defensive lineman, although Doleman did make more Pro Bowls and earn more All-Pro honors.

Edge: Highest pick.

1984, WR: Irving Fryar (1); Kenny Jackson (4)

Fryar became the first receiver in 20 years to get drafted at the top spot. While much of his success came later in his career with the Dolphins and Eagles, he was a productive nine year player for the Patriots. Jackson was a local pick for the Eagles -- he grew up in Neptune, New Jersey and was a two-time All American at Penn State -- but Philadelphia completely whiffed when they took him. The only highlight of Jackson's pro career was a 4th quarter tipped touchdown catch that helped the Eagles defeat the Cowboys in 1985.

Edge: Higher pick.

1983, RB: Eric Dickerson (2); Curt Warner (3)

Curt Warner was a very good running back; three times he ranked in the top 3 in the NFL in rushing yards. All three of those seasons, Dickerson ranked in the top two in rushing yards. Sorry, Curt.

Edge: Higher pick.

1982, LB: Johnie Cooks (2); Chip Banks (3)

Cooks was drafted by the Colts but ended his ten-year career with the Browns. Banks was drafted by the Browns but ended his ten-year career with the Colts. Banks, a 3-4 OLB his entire career, was a four-time Pro Bowler, recorded 46.0 career sacks, and has a career AV of 68; Cooks started at ILB, but played LOLB for some awful Colts teams in the mid-'80s. He never made a Pro Bowl, had a career AV of 40, and registered 32 sacks in his career.

Edge: Lower pick.

1981, RB: George Rogers (1); Freeman McNeil (3)

Another very tough call. McNeil played for 12 seasons, made three Pro Bowls, led the NFL in rushing yards once, was a first-team All-Pro once, and compiled 78 points of career AV. Rogers played for only seven seasons, making two Pro Bowls, leading the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns once each; he was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie and compiled 46 points of career AV. McNeil not only outrushed him by 900 yards, but was a much better receiver, gaining nearly 3,000 receiving yards compared to just 368 for Rogers. While Rogers has the edge in total touchdowns (54 to 50), McNeil has the edge in YPC, with a 4.5 average to Rogers' 4.2 average.

So far, it looks like McNeil has the edge, but that's just because he was able to play for longer. Rogers was run into the ground right away, leading the league with 378 carries as a rookie; McNeil was a more versatile back, and never topped 294 carries. Rogers edges McNeil on my running back rankings because of his higher rushing/touchdown production during his peak seasons; McNeil has better career numbers mostly because of some "junk" seasons. Rogers was the more traditional, bell cow running back, while McNeil was always part of a committee. What would have happened if the Saints tried to run McNeil 378 times? It's very possible that we'd be talking about McNeil's short career. I'll call this one a push.

Edge: Even.

1979, DE: Mike Bell (2); Dan Hampton (4)

The original Mike Bell was born in Wichita, went to Colorado State, and then played his entire 12-year career with the Chiefs. Bell had two 10-sack seasons, but was usually saddled with mediocre teammates (at least outside of the secondary). Hampton played with more elite teammates than just about anyone; still, Hampton stood out on those great Bears teams, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.

Edge: Lower pick.

1977, RB: Ricky Bell (1); Tony Dorsett (2)

Dorsett played in over 100 more games, rushed for 9,000 more yards, appeared in four more Pro Bowls and has one more bust of his likeness in Canton. Other than that, this one is pretty close.

Edge: Lower pick.

1976, RB: Chuck Muncie (3); Joe Washington (4)

If nothing else, Muncie and Washington provide a great example of the right to choose: the Saints called Washington the day of the draft, and told him they were going to select him at #3 after the Seahawks took Muncie at #2. Well, Seattle took Notre Dame defensive lineman Steve Niehaus, and New Orleans made it clear which RB they preferred. Either way, they were two of the most mercurial RBs of their era.

Muncie possessed the perfect running back "personality type", as a big back who scored a bunch of touchdowns but also managed to maintain a high YPC average and kill teams through the air. He was perhaps the finest player to ever wear #46 in the NFL. But most of Muncie's career can be summed up by the words, "what if?"

After the Saints selected Muncie, they took FB Tony Galbreath in the second round, and the two worked well together as "Thunger and Lightning" for the Saints. Muncie's best year in New Orleans came in 1979, when he rushed for 1,198 yards on 5.0 YPC and scored 11 TDs, earning his first of three Pro Bowl nods. But Muncie and New Orleans did not mix well, as questions about drug abuse, racial tension and work ethic eventually led to a mid-season trade in 1980. San Diego only had to give up its 2nd round pick in the upcoming draft. Fortunately for the Saints, that turned about to be Rickey Jackson. With the Chargers, Muncie was a key cog in the Air Coryell offense, and led the league with 19 TDs in 1981. He scored 45 TDs in 51 career games in San Diego.

You might wonder why the Chargers needed to trade for an elite RB from the '76 draft -- weren't they the team that selected Washington? Joe Washington -- like McCoy this year -- was part of an incredible draft class for the Sooners. Oklahoma had the #1 pick, the #4 pick and the 11th pick in the first round, along with two other top-100 picks. Even still, coach Barry Switzer called Joe Washington his greatest player; Chargers fans would not agree.

At Oklahoma, Switzer let Washington wear his trademark silver shoes, a tradition he continued in the pros. But even the special shoes couldn't prevent Washington from tearing his knee in an exhibition game during his rookie season, and questions lingered about whether the 5'10, 179 lb back was big enough to play at the next level. In 1977, Washington had just 62 carries for the Chargers, and averaged only 3.5 yards per carry -- he looked like a bust. In the 1978 pre-season, the Chargers sent Washington and their '79 fifth round pick to the Colts for RB Lydell Mitchell. Mitchell, a star the past four seasons in Baltimore, didn't do much for the Chargers during his two year stay. Washington, meanwhile, resurrected his career. In just his third game as a Colt, he became one of only two players in the last 50 years to return a kickoff and throw a pass for a touchdown in the same game; Washington also caught a touchdown in that Monday Night victory. He made the Pro Bowl in '79 when he led the league in receptions, but was traded to the Redskins for a second round pick in 1981. Even there, he was unique from head to toe: in 1982, he became the only player on the team not to wear the one-year only, tucked-feather version of the Redskin logo on his helmet.

Washington, with 8,252 yards from scrimmage and just 12 rushing touchdowns had arguably the most skewed yardage/touchdown ratio of any running back. If nothing else, that gives Muncie the edge.

Edge: Higher pick

1972, DE: Walt Patulski (1); Sherman White (2)

Neither Patulski nor White ever made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team. The Bengals took White, and he started for Cincinnati each of his first four seasons. Patulski, drafted by the Bills, started for four seasons in Buffalo but did not earn much recognition during his career. Then, a week before the 1976 draft, Buffalo traded Patulski to the Cardinals for the 52nd pick in the draft. The Bills used that pick to take Joe Devlin, an offensive lineman who started 179 games for the franchise. Some have called Patulski the worst #1 pick of all-time (well, at least in the pre-JaMarcus Russell era), but Bills fans got four years out of Patulski and another dozen years of solid play at right tackle from him via trade; all in all, not an awful experience. Patulski tore his knee in 1976, and was never the same, playing just one season in St. Louis.

It took the Bills a couple of months, but they eventually realized that they had a hole at DE without Patulski. In July of '76 (we're still talking about the 20th century) the Bills traded for ... Sherman White. Cincinnati received Buffalo's first round pick in the 1977 draft. The Bengals used that selection, which turned out to be the 3rd overall pick, to take Eddie Edwards, a defensive lineman who had a solid twelve year career in Cincinnati. And White played well for eight seasons in Buffalo, making that trade a win-win. Neither the Bills nor the Bengals took a great DE with their high picks in 1972, but both teams got sixteen years of quality line play out of their selections. When it comes to grading Patulski vs. White, the knee injury makes this a slam dunk win for White, who played in over twice as many games as Patulski.

Edge: Lower pick.

1971, QB: Jim Plunkett (1); Archie Manning (2); Dan Pastorini (3)

Three of the most intriguing QBs in NFL history went back-to-back-to-back in the 1971 draft. The first takeaway is that none of them fulfilled the promise that comes with a top-three QB, all posting average or worse numbers even for their era. At his peak, Manning was the best: when the Saints actually surrounded him with talent, Manning's numbers in '78, '79 and '80 were better than the best season of either of the other two quarterbacks. Pastorini's best season was 1978, when he had the highest Y/A average of his career (6.7) and 16 TDs/17 INTs; he ranked as the 9th best QB in the league in my QB ranking metric that season, the only season of his career when he finished in the top fifteen. Pastorini also had two historically bad years: in 1973, he had 5 TDs, 17 INTs and a whopping 17 fumbles (14 lost) despite throwing fewer than 300 passes. To top it off, he went 0-10 as the Oilers' starter that season. Then, in '81 with the Rams, he had 2 TDs, 14 INTs, and an anemic 4.7 yards per attempt (the worst of his career). Manning ('75) and Plunkett ('72) had their awful seasons, too, but Pastorini comes in as the clear #3 in this trio.

Archie Manning's story has been well documented, although I think people don't realize that his numbers weren't *that* bad for his era. The first three seasons of his career, he was just slightly below average statistically. He declined in '74 and crashed in 1975, but that was it. His biggest contribution to the sport came in 1976, when he missed the entire season due to injury but his son Peyton was born. He had a solid, bounce back season in 1977 before his career took off. In '78, he ranked as my #2 QB; he was in the top 7 in both '79 and '80, too.

Similarly, Plunkett was thrust into an ugly situation with New England. Without much talent around him, he had five mediocre seasons with the Patriots. He then was sent in a blockbuster pre-draft deal to the 49ers for their two 1976 first round picks (Pete Brock and Tim Fox), along with their first (Raymond Clayborn) and second (Horace Ivory) round picks in 1977. This was back during the days when the 49ers would trade as many draft picks as necessary to acquire a big name, and as usual, it didn't work: Plunkett had two mediocre seasons for the 49ers. He was released by San Francisco in the 1978 pre-season and signed by the Raiders. There, at least statistically, he had nine more mediocre seasons. Plunkett never ranked among the top 12 QBs in my QB ranking system in any season of his career. Of course, he played on some great Raiders teams, and Plunkett played very well in the post-season. As a result, he wound up winning two championships for the Raiders, the last two the franchise has won.

So who was better, Plunkett or Manning? Plunkett had slightly better numbers and significantly more team success, but I'd imagine if the situations were flipped, Manning's numbers would have been much better than Plunkett's. Let's call this one a draw.

1970, QB: Terry Bradshaw (1); Mike Phipps (3)

No thorough analysis needed here.

Edge: Higher pick.

1970, DT: Mike McCoy (2); Phil Olsen (4)

McCoy had a solid eleven-year career as a non-descript defensive tackle. The Packers traded him after seven years as a starter; they netted a first round pick, which Green Bay used to select John Anderson, a twelve-year linebacker for the Packers. Olsen played for just six seasons in the NFL.

Edge: Higher pick.

1968, OT: Ron Yary (1); Russ Washington (4)

When teams draft players in the top five, they expect stars. As we've seen, that's not always the case. Here, both teams got their money's worth: Yary was a Hall of Fame right tackle for the Vikings. Washington had an equally long career; he played for 15 seasons for the Chargers and made five Pro Bowls. It's tough to call anyone the loser here, as Washington's one of the best players in franchise history. But, slight edge has to go Yary:

Edge: Higher pick.

1967, QB: Steve Spurrier (3); Bob Griese (4)

The Ol' Ball Coach was the third player selected in the common AFL-NFL draft. Spurrier was the 49ers punter for a few seasons while John Brodie was still the quarterback, but finally became the team's full starter in 1972. From '72 to '75, he actually pt up pretty decent numbers for the 49ers and had a winning record. Spurrier went to the expansion Bucs in 1976, and was predictably horrible. Griese? He got to play with some terrific teammates and a Hall of Fame coach, and had a much more successful career.

Edge: Lower pick.

The conclusion? There were three occasions where three players at the same position went in the top four; once the highest player was best (B. Smith), once the middle player was best (McNabb) and once we had a tie (Manning/Plunkett). There were 19 other cases where exactly two players, at the same position, were among the top four picks in the draft. Eight times the first pick had the better career (P. Manning, Bledsoe, Fryar, Dickerson, Muncie, Bradshaw, McCoy, Yary), eight times the lower pick was better (Rivers, A. Johnson, Fullwood, Banks, Hampton, Dorsett, S. White, Griese), twice there was a tie (Carr/Harrington; McNeil/Rogers) and one battle is incomplete (Brown/Benson). If you include the three occasions with three players in the top four but ignore the third drafted player, that brings the record of "having the right to choose" vs. "taking what's behind door #2" to 9-9-4.

What does that mean for Suh and McCoy? The obvious answer is, "absolutely nothing." Among our relatively small sample, there was significant variation, and the Lions feel strongly that one player is much better than the other, Detroit should take him. What this trip down memory lane provides is protection against overconfidence; twenty-two times, teams saw two elite players at a position of need for them, and they've only gone 9-9-4 when they've taken "their guy." Of course, not many of those teams had the wonderful help of sport science to give them the right answer.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 16th, 2010 at 7:36 am and is filed under NFL Draft. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.