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Most Valuable Draft Picks of All Time: Defense

Earlier this week, we looked at who the most valuable offensive players have been, specifically evaluating how much excess value a player created over the first five years of their career over their expected Approximate Value (AV) by Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart. To refresh the concept, here’s an example:

Who has been more valuable to their team so far in their careers: Joey Bosa or Matt Judon? Bosa is clearly the better player, but he cost the third overall pick in the draft while Judon was the 146th overall selection. Bosa has Judon beat in nearly every individual statistic, from sacks (47.5 to 34.5), to tackles (240 to 236), and even TFLs (109 to 103). Looking at AV, Bosa has the lead there as well, with 42 AV to Judon’s 36 AV. However, using Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart, we see that the third overall pick is expected to earn 31.2 AV, while the 146th pick is only expected to earn 6.5 AV. Therefore, Judon has actually created more value with 29.5 Excess AV to Bosa’s 10.8 Excess AV. Again, this isn’t to say that Judon is the better player. Rather, we’re looking at which players have produced the most value over what it cost to get them. A team of the 22 best players in football should win the Super Bowl, unless you’re paying them like that.

Next Five: Damon Harrison, Vern Den Herder, Geno Atkins, Muhammad Wilkerson, Howie Long

While Aaron Donald remains on another planet, he faced well-documented size concerns pre-draft that should be familiar to 2021 UDFA Darius Stills, who is also 6-1 and sits around 285 lbs. However, don’t take Donald as a reasoning to draft IDL early, as it’s not until Muhammad Wilkerson and his 44.5 career sacks in ninth that we find another first-rounder who outperformed his draft spot so significantly. Rather, Charlie Johnson and Michael Carter may be better examples of where to find value at the position. Johnson was a late-round run-stuffer who spent time in the Army and didn’t offer much pass rush, but found a key role anchoring the line as a two-time All-Pro. Sans the military service, Tyler Shelvin is a similar prospect in 2021 and the Bengals will hope that their fourth-round selection has a similar impact. Although two players with the same name joined the NFL this draft with New York, the original Michael Carter was a four-time All-Pro nose tackle for the 49ers and an Olympic athlete in the shot put (winning a silver medal in 1984). Hall of Famer John Randle is up next and would have ranked far higher had the former UDFA not taken two years to become a consistent starter. His questionable size mirrors Aaron Donald as well as new Minnesota UDFA Jordon Scott. The final member of this top five, Otis Sistrunk, has an unparalleled journey that includes skipping college for the marines, joining the semi-pro West Allis Racers and Norfolk Neptunes, and starting a professional wrestling career.

Next Five: Jason Taylor, Richard Dent, Karl Mecklenburg, Derrick Thomas, Trent Cole

Of this group, we see the outsized impact that superstars can have that immediately pushes excess value far above any draft selection. J.J. Watt, Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White were each franchise-defining selections and can’t be considered to have fallen at all in the draft. Cameron Wake, on the contrary, went undrafted as a LB and was out of football for two years before a position change and a pair of seasons dominating the CFL. Originally going undrafted due to his lack of speed for the LB position and a previously-torn MCL, the reasons that caused him to go undrafted are similar to Rashad Weaver’s fall to the fourth round. Jared Allen is remembered more for his time in Minnesota but spent his first few seasons in Kansas City after a standout college career at small-school Idaho State. Chris Garrett out of Concordia-St. Paul is the 2021 comparison here, setting the DII record for career forced fumbles and putting up 36.5 sacks over his three years.

Next Five: Jack Ham, C.J. Mosley, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, Derrick Brooks

Perhaps more than any other position group, this group is skewed towards the early 21st century with each of the top five playing at least one season in that period. This speaks to how integral linebackers can be to a defensive scheme, and the powerful impact that they can have. While Patrick Willis is another of the “simply legendary” group of players that included so many edge defenders, we find Bobby Wagner in a close second, ten spots ahead of close contemporary Luke Kuechly. Wagner was another impressive small-school player, winning Senior Bowl MVP and dominating his Pro Day, but was still only the 5th LB taken due to Utah State’s lower perceived level of competition. In 2021, UDFA Ben Hladik showcased a similar level of insane athleticism at his Pro Day but shares a small-school background, albeit smaller than Wagner’s. Zach Thomas had perhaps the opposite experience, attending Texas Tech but failing to show the size or athleticism at the Combine to warrant an early selection. K.J. Britt of Auburn was also a fifth-round selection and matches Thomas with a slower set of drills than expected. Ray Lewis has been well documented, but Lance Briggs is an interesting inclusion here in that he actually outshines his longtime partner Brian Urlacher (who ranks just outside of the Top 25 at the position). Briggs certainly benefitted from Urlacher’s help, but put together an outstanding career of his own that included seven consecutive Pro Bowl selections even though his toughness was questioned pre-draft. Outside of C.J. Mosley, each of the next five has a decidedly 20th-century tilt but couldn’t quite make it in one of the tightest and most competitive positions.

Next Five: Sam Madison, Ken Ellis, Herm Edwards, Rolland Lawrence, Darrell Revis

After the new school LBs, this group surprisingly turns it right back around. Everson Walls leads the way after going undrafted simply because he was a lowly-recruited corner from a small school. Bryan Mills of North Carolina Central also went undrafted this year but would love to make Walls’ impact. Richard Sherman is one of the most famous draft steals of all time and fittingly beats out the 1970’s and 80’s block to rank second, but his limited experience at the position and injury issues call a very direct comparison to Brandon Stephens, a former UCLA RB who surprised with his third-round selection. Eric Allen is the highest draft selection here, but his legendary eight-interception 1989 season underscored his fantastic career even with his 5-10, 184 build. Zech McPhearson, the 2021 fourth-round selection for the Eagles, likely fell due to a similar build as Allen. Lemar Parrish and Frank Minnifield join that group as shorter corners who fell in the draft but excelled, with Elijah Molden and Avery Williams experiencing that draft-day slide.

Next Five: Deron Cherry, Johnnie Gray, Cliff Harris, Doug Plank, Gary Fencik

The final position group that this study is evaluating also happens to be the one that sees only a single player (1997 UDFA Sammy Knight) who played even one season in the 21st century rank within the top twenty as defenses have moved away from requiring top safeties to produce statistically. As a 1970 draftee out of the CFL, Jake Scott is as far away from the present day as this study can get, and harkens back to a time where finding tape on remote players was far more difficult. Alcorn State UDFA Qwynnterrio Cole may be as close as you can get, but still plays within close proximity to the SEC. Mike Wagner is a similar story out of Western Illinois and was even tried at WR before he earned his four Super Bowl rings at safety. Michael Downs slid entirely through the 1981 NFL Draft due to a pinched nerve that earned him a passive reputation but earned a starting role in training camp and intercepted a pass in the first quarter of the season opener. This echoes of Hamsah Nasirildeen’s fall to the sixth round in 2021 after a non-contact torn ACL in 2019 that also took out most of 2020, but Nasirildeen clearly still has a chance to win the job. Former Ted Thompson roommate and future Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt didn’t hear his name called in 1976, but collected 23 interceptions in his first five seasons and nearly broke Night Train Lane’s single-season record of 14. Little is known on why teams passed on him in the draft, but Dave Elmendorf’s standout pre-draft career that included not one, but two selections in the MLB draft pushed him down the board, especially when paired with underachieving Texas A&M teams. Regardless, he chose the NFL and clearly made it count.