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Inside the draft numbers – Bigger rookie impact: WR or DB?

Unless we get a CJ Spiller-style, out-of-left-field selection, the consensus seems to be that the Bills are either going to pick a wide receiver or defensive back in the first round of the draft. It also seems that they’ll most likely pick whichever position they don’t pick in the first round in the second round.

I’m fine with them going for either at the 10th spot or to at least trade down. Obviously, my hope is whoever the pick ends up being, he becomes a hell of a player. If you want to believe the notion that the Bills are going for it this year, then it would probably behoove them to fill a position that will help them right away.

I’m going to look at what kind of years WRs and DBs selected in the 1st round and 2nd round tend to have. This is not a piece dedicated to what a WR/DB will do long-term, but what they could muster up in a rookie year based on past players. Anomalies can happen, of course, and a DB/WR taken in later rounds might have impact as a rookie, but since debating first or second round picks is cooler, that’s what I am doing.

Timeline for rookie WRs
Growing up in the ’90s, there was always the idea that rookies never really had much of an impact on a football team. Marv Levy basically sat players in their first year. Maybe he’d play them in certain situations. Things changed with the salary cap era, however. Teams couldn’t afford to let first rounders sit for a year or two. Even when that started in the mid-’90s, the one position that always seemed to have the biggest learning curve was WR. The rule of thumb was that it would take a WR at least 3 years to really come into his own. Eric Moulds looked lost during his first two seasons here, but boom, he kicked ass his third year. It seemed to just always take WRs a while to get it.

Nowadays, rookie WRs’ impact is felt almost right away.

  • From 1990-1999: 3 WRs had over 1,000 yards receiving  and 10 had between 800-1,000 yards
  • From 2000-2009: 3 WRs had over 1,000 yards receiving and 9 had between 800-1,000 yards.
  • From 2010-present: 10 WRs had over 1,000 yards receiving and 20 had between 800-1,000 yards.

Yeesh. Talk about a jump. And we still have three more seasons in this decade. Why the increase? I think a lot of it is related to rule changes that led to offenses passing more. Everyone knows DBs can’t grab onto WRs like they did back in the day and teams and rookie WRs are taking advantage of it.

[Editor’s Note: You can also point to the proliferation of spread offenses in the NCAA and the number of receptions receivers acquire prior to entering the NFL as well – Rich]

Timeline for rookie DBs
DBs would probably play more than WRs because you will have 4 DBs on the field at minimum. At times you might even get to 6-7 DBs. It is easier to get them playing time than it is to get WRs playing time. It is a little tougher to put together a snap judgement on DBs based on stats. So this isn’t exactly the best barometer, but I’ll give it a whirl.

Here are the numbers based on INTs:

Hmmmm. Well, we can say that in the ’90s not many DBs started which is what I alluded to in my opening. Still, the numbers kind of feel the same to me in terms of INTs. Don’t get me wrong, some rookie DBs have made an impact. I’m thinking of guys like Richard Sherman, Jairus Byrd, Ronald Darby, Devin McCourty, and a few others. But what you are battling against is the rule changes that are favoring WRs, disfavoring DBs. In my opinion, there are way more dominant WRs than there are CBs, again largely based on the rules favoring them.

1st round vs 2nd round WRs
Now we get to the meat of this dilemma. Where is the better value at? The Bills have always been decent at picking WRs in the first round (Sammy Watkins, Moulds, Lee Evans), but they have been kind of meh in the second round (Peerless Price, James Hardy, Josh Reed, Robert Woods).

But those are the Bills problems. Let’s see where the rest of the league is at.

For this, I decided to look at 2005-present. Why 2005? I kind of remember that during the 2004 playoffs, New England mugged a bunch of the Titans’ WRs and didn’t get flagged. Jeff Fisher, who was on the competition committee, was pissed off after the game and wouldn’t you know it, the league mandated more flags being thrown for illegal contact. So, I think that makes 2005 a good place to start.

  • 1st round WRs from 2005-present: 14 WRs had 50+ catches
  • 2nd round WRs from 2005-present: 11 WRs had 50+ catches
  • 1st round WRs from 2005-present: 11 WRs had 800+ yards
  • 2nd round WRs from 2005-present: 6 WRs had 800+ yards

There has only been one second round WR who hit over 1,000 yards as a rookie (Michael Thomas) while five first rounders hit the 1,000-yard mark. More teams have selected WRs in the 2nd round than the 1st round and while the catch numbers are a respectable difference, the yardage is almost 2 to 1 in favor of first rounders. Rookie impact seems to favor the first rounders.

1st round vs 2nd round DBs
If there is one thing we all know about, it’s Bills rookie DBs. The Bills love DBs. Since 1990, the Bills have drafted a DB in the first round 9 times which is the most in the NFL during that span. Hey, they love drafting their CBs, but they sure as hell don’t like paying them.  The only Bills DBs who played as a starter for most of their rookie year were Donte Whitner and Stephon Gilmore. Sticking with the Bills POV, aside from Darby/Byrd, I don’t remember these first round CBs having a particularly big impact their first year.

But that’s the Bills story, let’s check out the rest of the NFL. Same time frame we used for WRs.

  • 1st round DBs between 2005-present: 20 DBs had 3+ INTs
  • 2nd round DBs between 2005-present: 9 DBs had 3+ INTs
  • 1st round DBs between 2005-present: 13 DBs started 12+ games
  • 2nd round DBs between 2005-present: 9 DBs started 12+ games

Again, numbers do say the bigger impact is from first rounders even though the starts and selection numbers are roughly the same.

Rookie awards
Well, if the stats aren’t diving into it enough, I’m thinking maybe looking at how these rookies fare in awards season might provide some additional information. With the help of Wikipedia, which is never wrong, and has a very thorough list of awards, here’s how it looks from 1998-present:

AP Rookie of the Year Award – 4 WRs and 2 DBs
Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America NFL Rookie of the Year Award – 5 WRs and 3 DBs
Sporting News NFL Rookie of the Year Award – 4 WRs and zero DBs
Pro Bowlers – 6 WRs and 7 CBs

Well, then. These were not helpful.

Final word:
WR vs. DB has always been a riddle trapped in an enigma wrapped around a double-edged sword. Rules are set up to drive up the passing game so does that mean WRs can be found just about anywhere and that’s why their numbers have inflated? Some teams may feel a franchise QB can make just about any WR look better than they are. (See: Tom Brady) I mean, isn’t that why HOF voters are slowing down on admitting WRs? Because everyone is catching the ball? On the other hand, if DBs are dealing with a half deck because of the rules, why waste such a high draft pick on them? Bill Parcells said prior to leaving the Cowboys that he didn’t think drafting a DB high was smart because of the rule changes. I think he may have a point.

For the Bills, I believe they are very thin at DB and WR.  I’d probably be more inclined to say they have more talent at WR because of Sammy Watkins, but if he goes down – and his injury history does frighten me –  then your WR corps moves past DBs for inferiority. Yet when you talk about Sean McDermott, you are talking about a defensive coach who comes from the Jim Johnson coaching tree and they love their DBs.

But predicting where McDermott and the Bills actually go in the draft is for another piece on another day.  If you want someone to be an impact right away, I think you go WR at 10. It is a passing league and I think getting Sammy help on the outside to go along with Clay/Holmes/McCoy would give the Bills a decent bunch of skilled offensive players. Plus it would be nice to give Tyrod as many weapons as possible.