When the 2014 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday, May 8, the most interesting team to watch -- for the second-straight year -- will be the St. Louis Rams. Jeff Fisher and Les Snead sport two first-round picks once again in 2014.
There's a very nice confluence of need and value for St. Louis, as wide receiver and offensive line are two of the deeper positions in this draft, particularly up top.
We can't simply assume they're going to take a combo of WR-OT; too much can happen between the top of the draft and the middle for that to be guaranteed. Also: it's the draft.
It would also be unfair to rule out Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack at No. 2. This is Jeff Fisher we're talking about after all and those pass rushers represent special talent.
But logic dictates the Rams will decide between drafting a wide receiver or an offensive lineman at No. 2. I'm of the opinion that Sammy Watkins -- head and shoulders the top wideout in the draft -- is the second-best player in this draft behind Clowney. Greg Robinson of Auburn, a mauler in the run game, and Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, a more proficient pass-protection technician, are both very good options for St. Louis as well.
But which position is safer to draft that high? Let's examine how well these players have done over the past decade.
Via Pro-Football-Reference's awesome Draft Finder tool, here's a list of all wide receivers taken in the first round of the NFL Draft in the last 10 years.
38 wide receivers gives us an average of 3.8 wideouts per year in the first round over the last decade. That's 8.4 percent of all draft picks, which is a pretty high number.
Just on the "eye test" it looks like teams have gotten better about identifying talented wideouts in the draft. Do the numbers confirm that?
To determine I totaled up the Approximate Career Value for each group of wideouts by year, divided the number of wideouts and then divided again by the years since they were drafted. It's a very rough approximation, obviously. But it gives us an idea of average annual production from these wideouts without giving earlier draft classes a huge edge.
Approximate Career Value Per Year
If you're in any way competent with statistics you should have four or five gigantic red flags that says "SAMPLE SIZE" waving in front of your face right now. (2008's sample is so small it doesn't exist!)
But the evidence at least indicates that first-round wideouts taken in more recent years are making a bigger impact than before. That's good news for teams taking wide receivers.
But look at that list above. Drafting a wideout in the first round is fraught with disaster regardless of when it is. Reggie Williams (ninth overall!) to the Jaguars in 2004 seems absolutely ridiculous in hindsight, but Darrius Heyward-Bey is already on his third team and the Jaguars don't even know if Justin Blackmon can contribute in his third year because of off-field issues.
Busts galore in that list of wideouts. How about the tackle position?
(Quick note: PFR switched to an OL designation instead of T/G/C etc., in 2011. Hence two tables. A bunch of these guys -- the guards and centers -- won't be included in the numbers.)
|1||2013||1||1||Eric Fisher||OL||KAN||0||0||1||7||14||13||Central Michigan|
|2||2013||1||2||Luke Joeckel||OL||JAX||0||0||1||2||5||5||Texas A&M|
|4||2013||1||7||Jonathan Cooper||OL||ARI||0||0||0||0||0||North Carolina|
|17||2011||1||22||Anthony Castonzo||OL||IND||0||0||3||19||44||44||Boston Col.|
|21||2011||1||32||Derek Sherrod||OL||GNB||0||0||0||2||12||0||Mississippi St.|
Just 35 tackles taken in the first round in the last decade and, again, using the eye test it seems a little less "busty" right? Robert Gallery was an outright disaster (especially taken one pick before Larry Fitzgerald) and Levi Brown cost the Cardinals a decade plus of Adrian Peterson.
You could also (easily?) make the case that the wideout group has a lot more home runs than you'd find in the tackle group. Guys like Joe Thomas and Duane Brown are studs, but everything about the tackle group screams "solid" more than anything.
Approximate Career Value Per Year
The data appears to back it up. Again: sample size is small and this is far from a perfect way to evaluate and compare positions.
The reality is tackle production's a lot harder to gauge than wideout. I'm not sure I'd say Eric Fisher had more "value" than DeAndre Hopkins in 2013.
But what you see is a little less variance from the tackles.
The wideouts who bust out tend to have much bigger busts but much bigger breakouts.
Having Julio Jones and A.J. Green in that 2011 class helps. But one thing I noticed in looking at this: top-five wide receivers are a lot more likely to be successful, generally speaking, than guys taken later in the round. Perhaps that's just something that is generally true; more talented players are available at the high end of the draft.
The jury's still out on Justin Blackmon (5th overall, 2012) and Braylon Edwards (3rd, 2005) are the only guys who stand out as top-five picks who haven't been a slam-dunk success and both those guys have seasons with 800-plus receiving yards.
Things are a little more dicey when it comes to top-tier tackles taken in the draft. Though none of Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson set the world on fire their first year, there's data that shows tackles can oftentimes take a big leap in performance in their second year. It's too early to rule on them one way or another as tackles taken in the top five.
Matt Kalil (4th, 2012) established himself early as a potential cornerstone. Trent Williams (4th, 2010) has been very good when he's healthy. Jason Smith (2nd, 2009) was a massive disappointment for the Rams (irony!). Jake Long (1st, 2008) is now with the Rams after the Dolphins let him go. Joe Thomas (3rd, 2007) is one of the best tackles in the game still. Levi Brown (5th, 2007) is not. D'Brickashaw Ferguson (4th, 2006) has been nothing but steady for the Jets. Gallery (2nd, 2006) was an epic bust.
In other words, recent history says there's a little more safety in taking a wide receiver in the top five. The elite talent located at the top of the draft seems to rise. Tackle isn't quite as sure a thing, though the jury's still out on some of the young guys.
There's also a fine line when you talk about top-5 and top-10; plenty of wideouts taken from 5-10 in the last decade have been serious disappointments.
Whether it's Robinson, Matthews or Watkins, the Rams are going to get a good player. And they might end up going in a completely different direction, like a pass rusher or a trade. But Watkins could give them the biggest chance for hitting a home run with the second-overall pick.