Using First-Round Picks on Defensive Linemen Pays Dividends

The annual NFL draft is one of the best ways for teams to acquire affordable talent. How teams draft can very much determine their success, both short and long term. The draft itself is not foolproof. Although there is plenty of talent to choose from, finding the right talent is easier said than done. Missing on draft picks can be costly for teams. Missing on first-round draft picks is the worst draft outcome for any NFL team.

When drafting, all positions have a level of risk. It varies from player to player, but some positions seem to have less risk than others. Defensive line might be one of positions with less risk. When looking at teams with a highly ranked run defense, these teams tend to have first-round picks playing on their defensive line. This season, teams like the 49ers, Bears and Rams all have dominant defensive lines against the run and their defensive foundation is through first-round picks. These teams have multiple first-round defensive linemen, acquired through the draft, free agency or trade. Here’s a look at the impact these first-round defensive linemen have had on these defenses:

(Note: For this study, we included outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes, and just the four down linemen in 4-3 schemes.)

When looking at the top 10 run defenses each year since 2017 (based on yards per carry allowed), their foundations have been composed of first-round defensive linemen. Teams within the top 10 not only have one first-round defensive lineman, but multiple first-round linemen. Conventional wisdom supports this: the earlier you draft defensive linemen, the more production they should provide.

Of the top 10 run defenses since 2017, the following ranked:

36 of the 40 teams (90%) had at least one first-round defensive lineman.

27 of the 40 teams (67.5%) had two or more first-round defensive linemen.

These defensive lines had some success in pass defense as well. Looking at QB hits and sacks, here’s how these teams stacked up:

● 23 of the 40 teams (57.50%) ranked top 16 in QB hits

● 20 of the 40 teams (50%) ranked top 16 in sacks

When you look more closely at the teams that ranked top 16 in QB hits and sacks, they had multiple first round linemen.

● Of the 23 teams that ranked top 16 in QB hits, 19 of them had two or more first-round defensive linemen. (82.61%)

● Of the 20 teams that ranked top 16 in sacks, 15 of them had two or more first-round defensive linemen. (75%)

These teams are finding success in both aspects of defense when their defensive line has first-round talent, either talent they drafted or acquired via free agency or trade. First-round defensive linemen have produced results in the run game. Those teams with multiple first-round picks along the front line have also been able to create more pass-rush pressure. Bottom line: Drafting defensive linemen in the first round has been a consistent source of success.

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