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History Says Cowboys Should Avoid Taking Defensive Backs High In the Draft

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History Says Cowboys Should Avoid Taking Defensive Backs High In the Draft
By Vince Grey

There are certain statements that, when first heard, sound rather profound.  These statements are often picked up by the mainstream media and repeated so often they become an undeniable truth: never, ever to be questioned.

One of these “truisms” is “You are what your record says you are.” Of course, this is utter nonsense when looked at with any clarity. Was Green Bay a 10-6, barely-made-the-playoffs, good-but-not-a-real-Super-Bowl-threat team?  No, the Packers were a well-coached team with outstanding young talent that was besieged by injuries much of the season, but got reasonably healthy at the right time. The more accurate line would be “You are however good or bad you are playing under the conditions of that time.”

Another one is “Always draft the best player available, regardless of position.”

This is patently ridiculous.  There are a wide variety of factors that come into play when determining a draft choice, not the least of which is your current roster.  Remember, not all positions are created equal.  Quarterbacks, left tackles, and pass-rushers are always in high demand, and get paid accordingly, while kickers and punters are not.  Thus, the highest rated kicker of all time would likely fall into the second or third-round no matter how he graded out.

I believe that philosophy–that certain positions are unworthy of consideration early in the draft–should be applied to defensive backs as well.  Even a great defensive back, in my opinion, is simply not worthy of a top ten selection.

It used to be different.  Defensive backs, through great physical play and harsh intimidation, could affect a game even without a great pass rush.  Not anymore.  Rule changes, far greater quarterback accuracy, and much stronger receivers have made it open-season on defensive backfields.  Without pressure, today’s quarterbacks will slice up even the best secondary like it was soft cheese.  On the other hand, strong pressure makes even a below-average secondary look pretty good.

Further, history has shown taking a defensive back high in the draft is losing proposition more times than not.  Since 1990, the Cowboys have tried that play twice, with less than stellar results:

  • 2002: Dallas takes consensus top 10 safety Roy Williams.  With considerable help and guidance from Darren Woodson, Williams has two or three pretty good years, but then Woodson retires and Williams begins to quickly fall apart.  Soon after, he’s sent to Bengals purgatory. Probable Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed drops to the Ravens at No. 24.
  • 2003: Dallas takes Terence Newman No. 5 overall.  Newman is fast and athletic, but doesn’t make many plays.  Good for a second-rounder, not so much for the fifth overall selection.  Consensus All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha is available for the Raiders at pick 31.

However, it’ not just the Cowboy’s who have suffered when taking a defensive back in the top 10 of the draft.  Here are the defensive backs taken that high from 1990-2007:

DATE

NAME DRAFT # PRO BWLS
1990 MARK CARRIER 6 3
1991 ERIC TURNER 2 2
BRUCE PICKENS 3 0
TODD LYGHT 5 1
STANLEY RICHARD 9 0
1992 TERRELL BUCKLEY 5 0
TROY VINCENT 7 5
1993 NA
1994 ANTONIO LANGHAM 9 0
1995 NA
1996 NA
1997 SHAWN SPRINGS 3 1
BRYANT WESTBROOK 5 0
TOMMY KNIGHT 9 0
1998 CHARLES WOODSON 4 7
DUANE STARKS 10 0
1999 CHAMP BAILEY 7 10
CHRIS MCALISTER 10 3
2000 NA
2001 NA
2002 QUENTIN JAMMER 5 0
ROY WILLIAMS 8 5
2003 TERENCE NEWMAN 5 2
2004 SEAN TAYLOR 5 2
DEANGELO HALL 8 3
DUNTA ROBINSON 10 0
2005 PACMAN JONES 6 0
ANTREL ROLLE 8 2
CARLOS ROGERS 9 0
2006 MICHAEL HUFF 7 0
DONTE WHITNER 8 0
2007 LARON LANDRY 6

0

26 selections, and I see two players worthy of being selected that high.  Even with the draft being a gamble, those are terrible odds. Many of these guys were total and complete busts.  Bruce Pickens?  Tommy Knight?  Pacman?  Yikes.  You have maybe two, possibly three other guys who could actually play well (Troy Vincent, Chris McAlister, maybe Newman), but for a top ten pick, kind of a disappointment.  The rest are mostly average players, or worse.

So clearly, it’s a real shot in the dark to take a defensive back that high.  The odds are really against you hitting on a player worthy of that slot.

Remember, it’s all about the pass rush, people.  A good starting defensive lineman or rush linebacker is worth more than an All-Pro defensive back.

The Cowboys need to take the best lineman (preferably defensive lineman) available, wherever they wind up picking in the first-round, and fill in the secondary slots later. It is simply better all-around value.

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22 Responses to History Says Cowboys Should Avoid Taking Defensive Backs High In the Draft

  1. Rick says:

    Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey were the only defensive backs taken in the Top 10 since 1990 worthy of their selection? So, a Top 10 pick has to be a Hall of Famer? That’s pretty ridiculous.

    Whilst Woodson and Bailey are separated from the pack, it’s not fair to call a player who’s been solid for a number of years like Terence Newman or Quentin Jammer a bust.

  2. Vince_Grey says:

    I never said those guy’s were busts. You should re-read my list of guys I said were real busts.

    But, I DO think it’s fair to say that a top 10 pick should be a real difference maker at least. Jammer has been OK, and that’s about it. Newman’s been better, but still not worth a top 10 selection.

  3. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Rick, I gotta say that I agree w/ VG. The top 10 picks of every draft should (in theory) be the ELITE talent entering the NFL. Some drafts are weaker than others (this one this year is certainly weaker as I see about 3-5 ELITE players) but for the most part, the first 10 picks AT LEAST should be your multiple pro bowl players.

    And, the numbers VG put forth don’t lie.

  4. Derek says:

    This is one of the poorest posts I’ve seen on this site. What’s the point of this post? Is it to ward off an ill-conceived pick of Prince Amukamara? That point has already been made, in a rather terrific way, by Jonathan Bales.

    Is it to show that choosing a DB is risky? How can it be when it doesn’t compare the riskiness of choosing a DB to the riskiness of choosing other positions?

    The names on this list-of-subpar-performers, for the most part, have been good players. I agree with Rick, and I think VG hasn’t much to work with here.

    Sure, top ten picks can underperform. But what a team really bets on is that they won’t underperform that much. And most of these picks haven’t. They all seem to have been fairly safe picks to me.

    Even when a poker player has pocket aces, he knows he can lose. It’s just more probable that he won’t.

    Let’s see a nice listed analysis of all the times someone has a winning hand in poker but still loses. What’s the point?

  5. Vince_Grey says:

    Well Derek, (And BTW, thanks so much for your opinion of my article. Made my day.) the point of my post was to show that taking a defensive back in the top 10 is a bad play all around. Not only percentage-wise, but historically for the Cowboys as well. Similar to our success when trading high draft picks for receivers.

    However, you did make a fair point about having nothing to compare and I did consider that, but thought it would make the post too long. I’m not going to do an entire article on it, but a quick look at those `90 – `07 drafts clearly shows that offensive linemen and true defensive linemen are, percentage-wise, the safest picks, while tight ends and pass rushers are not good risks at all. The rest sort of fall into the middle.

    TE didn’t surprise me. It’s really dumb to take a TE that early under the best of circumstances, because you can get quality TE’s in the 2nd, 3rd, even 4th rounds all day long, but all the busts at pass rusher did. My opinion: I think teams are so desperate to rush the passer, they over-draft that position more so than any other save QB.

    On your next point, it’s obviously true that there are no guarantees and that any pick could be a bust, but IMO that’s even more reason to go with the percentages and take the safer pick. Get “risky” later on, but not with a guy you’ll have to pay so much upfront that he becomes uncuttable for several years.

    “The names on this list-of-subpar-performers, for the most part, have been good players.”

    Here, we couldn’t disagree more. If you think Bruce Pickens and Tommy Knight were good players, then we have a far different view of what constitutes a “good player”. I don’t care if those guys were 7th rounders, they couldn’t play worth a crap, period. When I look at that list, I just don’t see much that’s worth a top ten pick.

  6. moses says:

    My only point is that it shows the weakness of the scouting and projections. It could also be a mismatch for the schemes as well. Sometimes scouts and coaches fall in love with the measurables and over look what the tape says.

    The fact that Asomugha was selected well after Newman just shows the weakness of the Cowboy scouting dept. They missed!

    Remember that there was controversy over who was the best QB in the draft between Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning. It is laughable now. Selecting Leaf didn’t help the Chargers much.

    Tom Brady lasted until the 6th round before he was selected. Does that mean that teams should wait on drafting a QB until late? Remember the the Patriots were very successful with Cassel when Brady went down. Does that mean that every team has the coaching staff and scheme to be successful with a QB that did not even play much in college?

    There were a lot of busts at DT, QB and others as well.

  7. Derek says:

    Sorry, VG, for being a jerk about it. Having one of the poorest posts on this site doesn’t necessarily mean the post was bad, just relatively so.

    My main problem with your argument came from this line:

    “Bruce Pickens? Tommy Knight? Pacman? Yikes. You have maybe two, possibly three other guys who could actually play well (Troy Vincent, Chris McAlister, maybe Newman), but for a top ten pick, kind of a disappointment. The rest are mostly average players, or worse”

    First, I think Newman has fully proven his worth at his pick, regardless of what he does in the future.

    Second, there are alot more above average – worthy of high picks – players in that list (and my list-of-subpar-players referred to the entire list, not just Bruce Pickens – that is a great name for a corner, though). Sean Taylor was a stud; Laron Landry can be extremely good; Michael Huff has been good enough for JB to deem him a good free agent target; DeAngelo Hall has shown flashes of greatness; Antrel Rolle has been good, and so has Donte Whitner. Even Pacman and Roy, who are on my list of players I don’t like to watch, had some very good seasons early in their careers. They only faltered after their lives affected their games: Pacman with the law and Roy with his diminishing love for the game.

    I agree with your conclusion, though. And I would prefer the Cowboys to pick a Defensive lineman or an Offensive tackle.

  8. Rick says:

    As a point of reference, how many Hall of Fame (or future Hall of Fame) (or have an outside shot at the Hall of Fame) defensive linemen have been selected in the Top 10 from 1990-2007? According to my numbers, 3: Cortez Kennedy, Simeon Rice, and Julius Peppers. And remember that there have been a lot more defensive linemen drafted in the Top 10 than defensive backs.

    Frankly your expectations for a Top 10 pick are far too high.

  9. willis says:

    lol, I liked it!

  10. I have a couple of opinions on this. First, the ability to live up to a draft spot becomes increasingly difficult as we move to higher picks. Theoretically, the No. 1 overall selection should end up being the top player in the draft. Is that usually the case? Not at all. There’s no room for error if you’re the top pick in the draft. If you are an All-Pro, people will say that’s what you should have done anyway, but if you’re a bust, people take notice.

    For late-round picks, it’s exactly the opposite. No one cares if a seventh-rounder flounders, but when a guy like Marques Colston plays well, people notice.

    Second, drafting is all about percentages. It’s a mistake to use an individual player’s production to justify his draft spot. I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes just because a player doesn’t live up to the hype doesn’t mean he was a bad choice. I love Derek’s poker analogy. Pocket aces is the best starting hand and you’d obviously be foolish to fold them before the flop–but they can be beaten. Just because your pocket aces go down doesn’t mean playing them was a poor decision.

    Similarly, talented players who were the “right” pick at the time aren’t necessarily going to have outstanding careers. Drafting is about maximizing the percentages.

    Having said that, VG’s article still has some value. The abundance of sub-par D-Backs starts to lend credibility to his theory. To go back to the poker analogy–over the course of a hand or two, pocket aces going down isn’t very strange. You might even lose with pocket aces three or four times in a row. Over the course of 1,000 hands, however, the aces will turn out to be the top hand. You can’t consistently beat pocket aces with something lower.

    Likewise, the best teams maximize their percentages and win out over the long-haul. The question regarding Vince’s article is whether the sample size of d-backs is large enough to conclude that there is something inherently problematic about drafting those players so high, or whether we’re simply the victims of too few trials.

    Personally, I think each player needs to be graded on an individual basis. If PP falls to the Cowboys at No. 9, I’m damn sure not passing him up because other players at his position may have underperformed. I know Vince feels differently, but to me that’s like folding pocket aces because you lost with them on the last hand. Past events shouldn’t dictate future decisions when we’re dealing with percentages. If PP, or Amukamara, or whoever is the percentage play at No. 9, pull the trigger. If they aren’t, look elsewhere.

  11. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    By comparison, during that exact same time frame, there were 24 offensive tackles taken in the top 10. From 1990-2007, there were 5 OTs that had more than 5 pro bowl appearances: Richmond Webb had 7, Jonathan Ogden had 11, Orlando Pace had 7, Walter Jones had 9 and Chris Samuel had 6. That’s 5 out of 24 as compared to 2 out of 27 (as VG depicted in his article). Also of those same 24 OTs, only 8 have never been to a pro bowl at least once as compared to 14 of the 27 DBs who haven’t.

    I haven’t checked the #s of other positions, but DB vs OT, VG is right. Yes, there have been some SOLID DBs in the list but if history is one of the determining factors (which it should be), then OT drafting in top 10 generally has produced more success in terms of pro bowl visits.

    Again, the #s don’t lie…

  12. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    JB, did you get my email?

  13. No I did not…Where did you send it? Through the site?

  14. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    I went to the contact us link at the bottom of the website and sent you a message – not sure where it went…

  15. Hmm it should have been forwarded to me. Can you resend it to jonathan@dallascowboystimes.com? Thanks.

  16. Omar says:

    Roy Williams was simply overrated. Overhyped and overrated, his coverage skills were god awful. As far as Newman goes, he’s been a stalwart at Cornerback for the past few seasons. Maybe not an all pro but definitely a very good player. I think this is pretty poor analysis, maybe its poor talent evaluation, not that top ten DBs tend to be busts. Eric Berry had a pretty good year, I doubt the Chiefs are regretting taking him.

  17. Michael Sloan says:

    I have to say I liked the article. It made me rethink my ideas of who I spend that 1st pick on. It isn’t saying never to go after a DB in the first, it’s just letting you see it’s high risk. So if you do pull the trigger, you best make sure you’ve covered all the bases on whoever it is. But then you would think every team does that anyway. Obviously they didn’t and/or were willing to risk it.

    As far as these scouts doing their homework for Dallas, explain Robert Brewster to me. They hid this guy for a year and then when I saw him, I was shocked. Seeing him really made me lose some faith in our drafting capabilities.

  18. Vince_Grey says:

    Derek & Rick – I never stated that anyone we draft high must be a HoFer or he’d be a bust, but I DO say if we take a player in the top 5 of the draft, I’m absolutely expecting a guy who’ll be at least a regular participant in the Pro Bowl. More importantly, I expect him to be a difference maker, which is something Newman is not.

    Newman’s been very solid, but you can get a solid corner in the 3rd round or lower for that matter. Top 5, top 10, I’m expecting something special. No, you’re not going to hit on every pick, but if you don’t think the guy is a difference maker, for God’s sake, trade down and pay less. These day’s, forget about wasting the pick itself, making a mistake that high kills your cap for years.

    As far as D-linemen is the top 10, you left out several guys who were either All Pro or multi time Pro Bowlers, like Eric Swann (Again. I never said they had to be HoFers), Sam Adams, Bryant Young, Darrel Russell, and a few others, and then there’s Richard Seymour, who has only been one of the top 2-3 defensive linemen in the 2000’s.

    But, all of that really misses my main point, which is that defensive lineman as simply more valuable than DB’s.

    As an example, take DE Greg Ellis. We took Ellis at #8 in `98. (BTW, that’s the draft where so many ream Jerry for not taking Randy Moss. Talent or no, I despise Moss, and I’m glad he never came to the Cowboys. The guy we should have taken was Alan Faneca.)

    Anyway, Ellis’ career and Newman’s are very similar. Both were/are good, not great, more steady than anything else, though both did make a couple of Pro Bowls. Still, I’d take Ellis over Newman in a heartbeat, because a DE/pass rushing LB is more valuable than a corner who doesn’t make many turnovers all day long. It’s the nature of the position.

  19. Vince_Grey says:

    Omar – Virtually every scout had Roy Williams as the top-rated safety. At the time, I wanted us to go with Dwight Freeney if we had the chance, because pass rushers make your secondary better, but if we HAD to take a safety, I wanted Ed Reed (It’s documented) mainly because I liked Hurricane players more than Sooners, especially at DB.

    And, credit were it’s due, the first two years, while he had Woodson by his side and had his head on straight, Roy was pretty darn good, even in coverage. Only his tackling was poor (And was his entire time at Dallas) mainly because he went for the kill shot every time, but he hit so hard it made up for it.

    Eric Berry did indeed have a fine rookie season, making the Pro Bowl as a starter. Too bad Newman never managed that.

    But, did Berry make a real, significant difference to that defense? Would the Chiefs have been better off taking a lineman, say, Pouncey or Tyson Alualu?

    Well, the team did jump from 30th to 14th in total defense, so that’s pretty good. However, they managed that jump because they basically doubled their sack totals (From 22 to 38) and forced fumbles (11 to 21). They actually had one less pick in 2010 than in 2009.

    Maybe it’s me, but I can’t see Berry having nearly as much impact on the 2010 KC defense as the improved play of LB Tamba Hali and DE Wallace Gilberry did.

  20. Michael–Yeah, Brewster was poor during the preseason. I think he played A LOT better at RT than LT, but I’d still like to see more of Sam Young.

  21. Pingback: Ranking the 2011 Draft Prospects By Risk | Dallas Cowboys Times

  22. Thomas H.W. :Luke says:

    I think the main problem with the judging of CB’s is that in general they have shorter playing careers. Another point an injury appears to have more effect at this position. If Ronnie Lott had to stay at CB instead of moving to safety he would not have been considered one of greatest of all time. CB’s and Safety’s should be judged separately. Terrel Buckley over 50 interceptions. Troy Vincent a long time starter. We judge by our own experiences, I liked Miami and during Marino’s career every running back we drafted was a bust. Appreciate your honesty.

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