The NFL draft is an opportunity for every team in the NFL to acquire young talent at an affordable price. Teams that are able to take advantage of the draft are typically among the best in the NFL, while those that draft poorly are usually struggling to make the playoffs.
A successful draft strategy is about more than just identifying the best available players.
Drafting effectively also involves self-evaluation to identify team needs as well as understanding and prioritizing premium positions. Quarterbacks, offensive tackles and EDGE rushers, for example, are at a premium – which is why more players at those positions are drafted in the first round. Linebacker is not as much of a premium position – so if a team uses a first-round pick on a linebacker, it better not miss.
In this study, we examined the success of first-round linebackers vs. linebackers selected after the first round.
We wanted to look into how effective linebackers have been in relation to which round they were selected. We looked back at the NFL drafts from 2010-2019 to see if we could find any discrepancies in how early linebackers were drafted compared and how they performed. We determined performance with the following factors:
ST – Seasons as primary starter
AP – All-Pro seasons
PB – Pro Bowl seasons
AV – Approximate Value: Pro-Football-Reference’s metric to put a value on a player’s season
CarAV – Weighted career Approximate Value
DrAV – Approximate Value for team that drafted the player
Gms – Career Games played
Solo – Career solo tackles
The following chart accounts for all linebackers drafted between 2010-2019, organized by the round in which they were drafted. The following are some things to note before looking at the chart:
- There are players who were classified as “LB” or “ILB” by Pro Football Reference.
- Any player that was missing information, whether it be tackles or games played, was given a “0” for that category, assuming he had accumulated no stats during his career for the specified statistic.
First-round linebackers outperformed, on average, every other linebacker drafted after them from 2010-2019. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but the average first-round linebacker out performed every other linebacker drafted after them in most every category, with a few exceptions. Second-round linebackers, on average, since 2010 have:
- Started .8 more seasons than first round linebackers
- Played in 7.53 more career games
- Had 32.09 more career solo tackles than first-round linebackers
Still, first-round linebackers out-performed the second-round linebackers in two of the most crucial categories—Career AV (CarAV) and Draft AV (DrAV).
Interesting note: The average CarAV and DrAV numbers significantly fall off after the second round over this span.
Looking at a smaller and more recent sample size — from the 2015-2019 drafts – here is what the chart looks like:
Second-round linebackers from 2015-2019 showed significantly better results across the board in the categories measured above. Over this span, there were 11 first-round linebackers selected and 9 second-round linebackers selected.
Recent draft results have favored linebackers drafted in the second round than in the first round. Exceptions to the rule are important to note. It was certainly the right move to use a first-round draft pick on a linebacker like Luke Kuechly. Kuechly was productive throughout college and checked every box throughout the draft process. Still, looking at the data from 2015-2019, it makes more sense to take a linebacker in the second round and use that valuable first-round pick for a more premium position.
References: Pro Football Reference