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Draft Priorities through the Ages

The way the league drafts reinforces the idea that today's league is very, very different from the one that many grew up with. Looking at draft classes from 25 and 50 years ago reveals some of the many ways that the NFL has changed.

The fifth pick in the 1961 draft
The fifth pick in the 1961 draft
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has its share of traditionalists and innovators, and while some lament the way the game has changed, others embrace it. Every so often, people even deny it. As a different spin on draft season, I thought it would be fun to look at the changing priorities in the NFL as viewed through the lens of the first round of the draft. Were quarterbacks as valued in previous years? Has the value of a tackle remained constant? I wasn't sure.

In order to get a handle on trends, I looked at the five most recent years of the draft (2011-2015) and compared the drafting patterns to the five years after the Bears won the Super Bowl (1986-1990), and then for fun I went to some of the last years before the merger (1961-1965). These snapshots are 25 years removed from one another, but each also contains five years of information. They should be able to show some kind of trend.

First, a couple of side notes

Obviously, we don't know the length of the careers of picks from this most recent batch of players, but the average length of a career for a first-round pick drafted at the end of the 80s was 7.7 years. Back in the pre-merger days, the average career length of a first-round pick was 8.7 years. I was actually surprised at how close those two numbers were, although I can't actually tell you what I was expecting.

Next, colleges care about getting their players into the NFL, and there is a clear winner in this regard, at least with respect to the first-round samples I collected. In the pre-merger days, only one college contributed more than 5% of the first round draft picks: Ohio State had 5 picks, and a few schools had two or three players go in the first round. Then, twenty-five years later, Miami and Florida both had 8 first-rounders (6% each), trailed by Michigan State with 6. Finally, in the last five years, Alabama has had 14 players go in the first-round (9%), or as many as both of its closest two competitors (Florida and Texas A&M with 7 each) put together. Wow. Say what you might about Alabama, but that's remarkable.

Now, onto the draft itself. Some might disagree with my categories, but I included the two players drafted as nose tackles in with the other DTs, and I also put flankers and split ends in with the wide receivers. However, I did make note of fullbacks distinct from running backs (even while I put half-backs in with running backs). I noted cornerbacks differently from the other defensive backs in the last group.

Most of the time, I will be talking about percentages of the field as opposed to total numbers, because while there were only fourteen first-round picks in 1961, there were thirty-two of them in 2015. Finally, because order matters, I looked at which positions went in the first round, in the top half of the first round, and in the top quarter of the first round.

Holding the line

Guards and centers don't get a lot of love through the generations. Collectively, they make up only a hair more than 7% of the first-round selections, with no more than 2% of first-round picks being spent on centers in any given era and 4-7% of first-rounders being spent on guards. No top-half picks were spent on centers in any of these groups, and the best era for guards to be selected was 1985-1990, but even then only 7% of top-half first-round picks went to their position.

However, offensive tackles have seen an amazing change in fortunes. Only making up 7% of first-rounders in the pre-merger period (and in the same range at the top-half and top-quarter marks), they have now climbed to 14% of all recent first-round picks (claiming 15% of the top half and 18% of the top quarter picks).

Backs of different kinds

For those still bristling at my last article, here's some food for thought. From 1961-1965, 16% of all first-round picks were running backs. Moreover, 23% of top-half picks were running backs and 25% of top-quarter picks were running backs. This was the premier position, dominating all three categories. Even twenty-five years ago, 21% of first-round picks were spent on running backs, with 16% of top picks being spent on the position (the ratio is the same for both top half and top quarter). In the last five years, however, a mere 4% of first-round selections have been running backs, with exactly one pick in top quarter being spent on the position. Once king, the running back is now the eighth-most valued position group, as measured by draft priority.

For fans of a particular style, the demise of the fullback is even more notable. Originally claiming 6% of the first-round picks, the position earned only a single first-round pick from 1985-1990 and no first-rounders in the last five years.
Quarterbacks have garnered a fair amount of high-end interest in all three eras (climbing from 15% of all top-quarter picks in pre-merger days to 20% of all top-quarter picks of the last five years). However, the opposite pattern holds for the position in the first round outside of the top slots. 13% of first-round picks were spent on quarterbacks from 1961-1965; this number fell to 7% in the late 80s and recovered partway to 9% today. Basically, nowadays the quarterbacks go off the board early, whereas once they were spread out across the whole first round (not that we really needed a study to tell us that).

Receivers and Tight Ends

First-round interest in receivers has hovered around 10-13% in all three eras, and the two to three tight ends taken over each stretch (2-4%) shows little adjustment. However, the position is not valued in a steady fashion. For example, it earned 9% of top-half picks in the 60s, only 4% of top-half picks in the 80s, and has now climbed to 14% of top-half picks today. The same pattern holds true at the very top of the draft, with the era markers playing out at 15%, 5%, and then 20%. Maybe this is a sampling issue, but it really seems like the late 80s were a bad time to be a receiver.

Perhaps that's because of the defense.

Defense and the 80s

The late 1980s were a golden age for linebacker drafting. 13% of all first-round selections in the 1980s went to linebackers, and 18-20% of top-half and top-quarter first-round picks were spent on linebackers. Those are the highest numbers for the position in any of the eras, and the Bears fan in me wants to claim it was the echo of the 1985 Bears, prompting a game of "catch the leader" as everyone else scrambled to emulate the best team in football. A similar bump sees defensive backs jump from 5% of all top-quarter, first-round picks picks in the 60s to 16% in the 80s before falling to 10% today. Defense beyond the line of scrimmage was clearly more prioritized in the late 80s drafts than it was in either of the other two eras.

Up front, focus has shifted from the middle of the line (20% of top quarter, first-round picks from 1961-1965 versus 3% today) to the ends (no elite picks in the pre-merger days compared to 13% today).


Currently, quarterbacks (20%), receivers (20%), and offensive tackles (17.5%) dominate the top positions of the first round. A generation ago, it was linebackers (18%), defensive backs (16%), and running backs (16%). A generation before that, it was running backs (25%) and defensive tackles (20%). Whereas I once could have gotten one of top-ten quarterback prospects in five years in the second round, today that player would be chosen halfway through the first. Nearly six running backs a year were selected on average in the first round in the late 80s, but now it would take all five years to see that many go that early.

Smart GMs (and let's hope Pace is a smart GM) know what value will be available later in a round and what positions will be depleted of talent. As the league's priorities shift, so does the availability of talented players at positions of value.

The Bears need a good draft class that fits the needs of the team and the shape of the league.