First Round Rex

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Is Rex Ryan really the driving force behind the NY Jets going defense in the first round of the NFL draft?

Much digital ink has been spilled over Rex Ryan's alleged preference for defensive players early in the draft.  In particular, though the Jets' have chosen 19 offensive players compared to only 9 defensive players in the five drafts since Ryan became head coach of the NY Jets, in four of the five years the Jets have gone defense with their first selection.  Since so much heated debate has taken place regarding this draft history and whether or not Rex should be blamed for crippling the offense in terms of talent, I thought it might be instructive to put this into some broader context and see where the evidence takes us.  This is what I found.

The first thing I took a look at was the history of the last 20 years of the draft and how many offensive players, and  what offensive positions, were drafted in the first round over that time span.

20 Year Draft History

Position

1st Rd. Picks

% of 1st Rd.

QB

48

7.6

RB

57

9.1

WR

77

12.3

TE

22

3.5

C

09

1.4

G

21

3.3

T

67

10.7

As the above chart shows, some 301 offensive players (out of a total of 628) were chosen in the first round over the last 20 years.  That represents 47.9 % of the total first round picks over that time frame.  Thus we can see that over 20 years first round picks in the NFL draft have been fairly evenly split between offensive (47.9%) and defensive (52.1%) players.

The percentage of first round picks who are offensive skill position players (the "playmakers"), excluding the QB position (i.e., running backs, wide receivers and tight ends), over the last 20 years has been 24.8%.

Now let's look at just the last five years of the NFL draft, first round picks.

5 Year Draft History

Position

1st Rd. Picks

% of 1st Rd.

QB

14

8.8

RB

10

6.3

WR

18

11.3

TE

03

1.9

C

04

2.5

G

06

3.8

T

16

10

Some interesting things emerge here.  One can see that, despite the league moving towards a more passing dominated, offense friendly league, in fact the drafting of non-QB playmakers is down over every position.  Wide receivers have declined from 12.3% of first round picks to 11.3%.  Running backs have declined from 9.1% to 6.3%, and tight ends have declined from 3.5% to 1.9%.  Overall non-QB playmakers have gone from 24.8% of the first round over the last 20 years to just 19.4% of the first round over the last 5 years.  That's a fairly substantial decline.  Likewise, offensive players overall have declined from 47.9% of the first round picks over the last 20 years to just 44.4% of the first round picks over the last 5 years. This demonstrates that, despite all the talk about how the NFL has become dominated by offense, actual NFL front offices have moved increasingly towards using their highest draft picks on defensive players.  This should be kept in mind, as it provides vital context, when reviewing the Rex era draft record.

One other observation might shed some light on the situation.  NFL teams have drafted non-QB  offensive playmakers only 19.4% of the time in the first round over the 5 years of the Rex era.  Put another way, a random NFL team had an 80.6% chance of not picking an offensive playmaker with any random first round pick.  The Jets have used their first pick on somebody other than an offensive playmaker each of the last four years, the primary complaint of those who say Rex is the driving force behind the Jets having no offensive playmakers.  The odds of a random NFL team using their first pick in the draft four years in a row on somebody other than an offensive playmaker are .806 raised to the 4th power, or approximately 42.2%.  In other words, what the Jets have done in not drafting offensive playmakers each of the last four years is only slightly less likely than a random flip of the coin.  This is food for thought for anyone believing that the only way to explain the Jets' lack of offensive playmakers is to invoke Rex's undue influence on the Jets draft picks and his overwhelming preference for defensive players.

Of course, the Jets are not just some random team, and the lack of offensive playmakers should have made the Jets significantly more inclined to draft offensive playmakers than some random team, right?  Well, perhaps.  But context here is crucial.  In 2010 through 2012 the Jets had former first round picks Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller, as well as a running back who for a time projected to be something of a force in the NFL in Shonn Greene.  The Jets also had Jerricho Cotchery in 2010, as well as former first round pick Braylon Edwards in 2009 and 2010.  So while the Jets' playmakers were not top of the league by any means, it could certainly be argued that they were not much worse than league average prior to 2012.  Thus the far greater than random need for an offensive playmaker really only applies to the last two drafts, a far too small sample size to derive any meaningful conclusions from.  The best (or worst) that can be said in light of the context provided so far is that the Jets exhibited a somewhat greater preference than league average to using their first round picks on players other than offensive playmakers.   It is, however, not such an overwhelming preference that one has no choice other than to assume Rex and his supposed defensive bias are the only possible explanation for it.

At this point it might be instructive to take a look at the actual first round drafts of the past 4 years and see what offensive alternatives presented themselves to the Jets at the time they made their defensive picks.

Below is a series of charts depicting the Jets' first round selections for each year from 2010 through 2013.  In each case the offensive players selected within 10 picks after the Jets selection are listed, along with their positions and their Weighted Career Approximate Value, as defined by Profootballreference.com  (AV).  The AV is intended to capture the relative values of players across different positions, so that in theory one can compare a defensive back and a tight end with some sort of meaningful numerical measurement.  It should be noted that AV rather grossly overweights QB values, so that even mediocre QBs end up having higher AVs than much better players at other positions.  Consequently QBs are only usefully compared against other QBs.  It should also be noted that AV is not by any means a perfect measure of player value. It is, however, reasonably useful in comparing players of different positions and across eras, and as such it provides a useful, if imperfect, way of judging how good a draft pick was compared to his peers.  AV is a cumulative, career number; as such it cannot be usefully used to compare current players drafted in different years.  It is, however, quite useful in comparing players of a single draft class.  A final note:  AV is computed at the end of every season, so 2013 AV is not yet available.

I have made the somewhat arbitrary choice of limiting alternative selections to only the next 10 players chosen in the draft.  This is an attempt to provide a reasonable selection of available alternative picks to compare to, while simultaneously limiting it to a manageable number of realistic choices.  To wit, while it may be interesting in retrospect that some superstar was chosen 30 picks later, and the Jets could have had him, at the time it was probably not realistic to expect the Jets to reach for a player no other team in the same general drafting vicinity as the Jets considered, and if the Jets had in fact so chosen, nearly every armchair GM would have been screaming that the Jets reached for an unworthy player.  The idea is that although 20/20 hindsight is golden, in the actual context of the draft it is useful to provide some cutoff point beyond which players were not realistic possibilities when the Jets chose.  I've chosen an arbitrary 10 pick cutoff; others might choose differently.

Keeping the above in mind, what do the drafts tell us?  First, let's establish a few parameters.  The Jets during this entire period had a Pro Bowl center and left tackle, each of which had long term contracts involving significant guaranteed money, so they were very unlikely to choose a center or tackle with a first round pick in any of these drafts.  Second, the Jets had chosen Dustin Keller with a first round pick in 2008, so they were unlikely to use a first round pick on a tight end at least through 2010.  Finally, the Jets chose Mark Sanchez in the first round of the 2009 draft, so they were almost certainly not going to use a first round pick on another quarterback through at least 2011, and after the ill-advised extension, 2012 pretty much was off limits as well.  Given all that, what do we find?

Beginning with the most recent draft, 2013, and looking at the Milliner pick, the Jets might have chosen E. J. Manuel instead.  Or they might have gone offensive line, with Warmack, Fluker and Pugh all possibilities.  However, teams ordinarily don't use a first round pick on a right tackle, and with left tackle Ferguson coming off a very good year and the Jets financially tied to him through at least the 2015 season, you can probably take the tackles off the board.  That leaves Warmack and Manuel.  Perhaps the Jets should have chosen Manuel, though it is not at all clear this would have been a wise choice just yet.  Warmack also might have been a better choice, although he has struggled thus far.  At any rate, other than Manuel there were no offensive playmakers as alternatives at #9.  Perhaps criticism is warranted here, but it is hardly a slam dunk.

The Richardson pick is clearer.  There was no other player available that was close to Richardson when the Jets made this pick.  It can certainly be argued that he was a luxury pick at an already stocked position.  But since the only offensive alternatives were Manuel, Pugh, Long and Eifert, it's pretty difficult to argue that this pick represents some sort of bias towards defensive players, rather than simply the best available choice by a wide margin.

2013 Draft

Pick

Player

Position

AV

09 (Jets)

Milliner

CB

10

Warmack

G

11

Fluker

T

13 (Jets)

Richardson

DT

16

Manuel

QB

19

Pugh

T

20

Long

G

21

Eifert

TE

Moving on to the 2012 draft, we see the Jets had the somewhat unappetizing choice of a terrible quarterback in Weeden, a good wide receiver in Kendall Wright, a serviceable tackle in Reiff, and a so far disappointing guard in DeCastro.  Given the Jets situation, the tackle and the quarterback were pretty much not realistic possibilities, leaving the disappointing guard and the good wide receiver.  We can, and probably should, criticize the Jets for choosing Coples here over Wright, who is turning out to be the playmaker the Jets desperately need.  Here may be evidence of Rex's bias.  Or it may just be a determination that Coples represented the best player available.  We can criticize the individual choice, but it is difficult to extend that to a conclusion that Rex is defense biased based on a single pick.  So let's move on to 2011.

2012 Draft

Pick

Player

Position

AV

16 (Jets)

Coples

DE

3

20

Wright

WR

5

22

Weeden

QB

8

23

Reiff

T

4

24

DeCastro

G

1

The 2011 draft is very difficult to criticize in terms of the Jets' first round selection.  Wilkerson represents a potential Hall of Fame talent, an extraordinary value at pick number 30.  It should also be noted that at this time the Jets still had Holmes at what should have been the peak of his career, as well as Keller entering into what should have been his peak years, and Greene who was being counted on to be a bell cow back.  While another playmaker wouldn't have been a bad  move, it was not an overwhelming need. And given that the only non-QB alternatives were Sherrod and Williams, two career nobodies, the selection of Wilkerson was unquestionably the right choice.  Perhaps the Jets should have considered a QB here; however, Sanchez was an improving QB with a still large financial commitment coming off two consecutive AFC Championship games.  Using a first round pick on a QB in the first round in 2011 was simply not an option.  So 2011 shows no bias whatsoever towards defensive players; it merely shows a very shrewd pick of by far the best player available.  Let's move on to the final year of Rex's defensive picks, 2010.

2011 Draft

Pick

Player

Position

AV

30 (Jets)

Wilkerson

DT

18

32

Sherrod

OL

01

35

Dalton

QB

22

36

Kaepernick

QB

09

38

Williams

RB

05

The 2010 draft is one widely criticized for choosing CB Kyle Wilson in the first round, a player widely considered a disappointment if not an outright bust.  Wilson's actual level of play over the last few years largely belies the over the top criticism of him, although he is clearly a flawed player who will never be a shutdown corner.  Let's look at the alternatives available to the Jets when they picked Wilson.  They could have chosen a good offensive tackle in Roger Saffold, but given Ferguson's stature and contract, the Jets realistically were not going to choose a tackle.  Alternatively the Jets could have had a running back in Jahvid Best, who was briefly a productive player before washing out with repeated concussions, a problem that had already manifested itself in college.  Choosing Wilson over Best was no doubt a wise choice.  The only other offensive choices were a pair of wide receivers, Arrelious Benn and Dexter McCluster.  Benn has been a complete bust, and will probably not be in the NFL in 2014.  McCluster is a useful returner/scatback/receiver.  He is a dynamic player who has struggled until this year to find his niche in the NFL.  While choosing McCluster over Wilson might have been the better choice, it's no slam dunk.  And with Joe McKnight chosen in the same draft, the niche McCluster fills was addressed with arguably an equally talented, if somewhat troubled player.  One can certainly second guess the choice of Wilson, but the offensive alternatives contained no superstars and arguably did not represent better value.  I don't think any Rex bias can reasonably be construed from the 2010 draft.

2010 Draft

Pick

Player

Position

AV

29 (Jets)

Wilson

CB

12

30

Best

RB

01

33

Saffold

T

13

36

McCluster

WR

10

39

Benn

WR

07

Given the above review of each individual draft in which the Rex era draft has chosen a defensive player in the first round, only one pick, the 2012 choice of Coples over Wright, can reasonably be construed as a possible example of Rex bias towards defense.  Needless to say, one pick in a 5 year era does not a case for bias make.

As a final check of  Rex's supposed bias, I chose to look at the Jets drafting history over the entire time frame of the scouting department brought in by Bill Parcells in 1997 and not substantially altered until after the 2013 draft.  I included the Jets first pick in each draft from 1997 through 2013, excluding special teams players.  I chose to exclude special teams players because I wanted a pure offense versus defense comparison.  And also because the Nugent pick was such an abomination I can scarcely recall it even now without getting physically ill.


Jets top picks (excluding special teams players) since 1997

Year

Player

Position




2013

Milliner

CB

2012

Coples

DE

2011

Wilkerson

DT

2010

Wilson

CB

2009

Sanchez

QB

2008

Gholston

DE

2007

Revis

CB

2006

Ferguson

T

2005

Miller

CB

2004

Vilma

LB

2003

Robertson

DT

2002

B. Thomas

DE

2001

Moss

WR

2000

Ellis

DE

1999

R. Thomas

G

1998

Boose

DE

1997

Farrior

LB

As you can see from the above chart, the Jets' predilection for choosing defensive players did not start with Rex.  In fact, over the 17 years of the Parcells team reign, the Jets have gone defense with their first pick (excluding the freaking kicker) 13 out of 17 years.  Over the 7 years immediately preceding the Rex era, the Jets chose defense first 6 out of 7 years.

Putting it all together, we have the following picture.  The NFL has moved during the Rex years towards drafting defense first and away from drafting offensive playmakers in the first round.  A random NFL team would have a 42% chance of not using any of its first picks on offensive playmakers over the last 4 years.  In this environment of increasing emphasis on defense first, the Rex era team chose defense first in 4 out of 5 drafts.  However, of those 5 defensive first round picks over the last four years, only one, Quinton Coples, presented the opportunity of obtaining a star offensive playmaker instead.  The overall quality of the Jets first round picks has been better for having chosen the defensive players they chose.  And most telling of all, the pattern of defense first in the first round is one that the Jets front office has been following for the entire Parcells scouting department era.  It was established long before Rex got here, and there is little if any evidence Rex has had any influence increasing the already overwhelming emphasis on defensive players in the first round.

So, while it is certainly not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the overall body of evidence that Rex has in some way caused the Jets to choose defensive players in the first round is, given all of the applicable context, rather underwhelming.  In fact, given the available evidence, it is more likely that Rex has had somewhat minimal, if any, influence in changing the pattern that had already been established long before Rex was a glimmer in the Jets' eye.  With the cleaning out of the front office by John Idzik, one would expect some new patterns to emerge.  Unless and until the Jets continue to go overwhelmingly defense first under the new regime, the most reasonable conclusion is Rex has not unduly influenced the Jets towards using first round picks on defense, and there is scant reason to expect the pattern to continue under the new regime.

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