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Safer bet for the Rams at No. 2: Wideout or tackle?

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

More NFL offseason: Mock Drafts | Prospect Rankings | Pro days | Top free agents

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.

The first comes at No. 2 courtesy of the Redskins (still paying off that Robert Griffin III trade!) and the second at No. 13.

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.

Misc GamesReceiving
RkYearRndPickPlayerPosTmPBCarAVGGSRecYdsTDCollege/Univ
1201318Tavon AustinWRSTL06133404184West Virginia
22013127DeAndre HopkinsWRHOU051616528022Clemson
32013129Cordarrelle PattersonWRMIN18165454694Tennessee
4201215Justin BlackmonWRJAX0920189312806Oklahoma St.
52012113Michael FloydWRARI011321911016037Notre Dame
62012120Kendall WrightWRTEN014311715817056Baylor
72012130A.J. JenkinsWRSFO0119181300Illinois
8201114A.J. GreenWRCIN3344747260383329Georgia
9201116Julio JonesWRATL1273433174273720Alabama
102011126Jonathan BaldwinWRKAN043311446072Pittsburgh
112010122Demaryius ThomasWRDEN2325339240369830Georgia Tech
122010124Dez BryantWRDAL1365945293410440Oklahoma St.
13200917Darrius Heyward-BeyWROAK0197263169238012Maryland
142009110Michael CrabtreeWRSFO0316361279362922Texas Tech
152009119Jeremy MaclinWRPHI0275957258345326Missouri
162009122Percy HarvinWRMIN1395543281331920Florida
172009129Hakeem NicksWRNYG0367059311462227North Carolina
182009130Kenny BrittWRTEN0215730157245019Rutgers
19200712Calvin JohnsonWRDET465106101572932866Georgia Tech
20200719Ted GinnWRMIA02810440197260411Ohio St.
212007123Dwayne BoweWRKAN14310397472640144LSU
222007127Robert MeachemWRNOR0269233171280027Tennessee
232007130Craig DavisWRSDG07262515582LSU
242007132Anthony GonzalezWRIND01640129913077Ohio St.
252006125Santonio HolmesWRPIT04710389381596336Ohio St.
26200513Braylon EdwardsWRCLE14111293359552240Michigan
27200517Troy WilliamsonWRMIN0849248711314South Carolina
282005110Mike WilliamsWRDET012563012715265USC
292005121Matt JonesWRJAX0225415166215315Arkansas
302005122Mark ClaytonWRBAL0278365260344814Oklahoma
Misc GamesReceiving
RkYearRndPickPlayerPosTmPBCarAVGGSRecYdsTDCollege/Univ
312005127Roddy WhiteWRATL481141119685943655Ala-Birmingham
32200413Larry FitzgeraldWRARI8721561558461136787Pittsburgh
33200417Roy WilliamsWRDET14211594393571544Texas
34200419Reggie WilliamsWRJAX0237953189232218Washington
352004113Lee EvansWRBUF04811795381600843Wisconsin
362004115Michael ClaytonWRTAM0229556223295510LSU
372004129Michael JenkinsWRATL03913079354442725Ohio St.
382004131Rashaun WoodsWRSFO0114071601Oklahoma St.
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/4/2014.

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.

Year
Wideouts Taken
Approximate Career Value Per Year
2004
7
3.5
2005
6
3.5
2006
1
5.9
2007
6
4.4
2008
0
N/A
2009
6
5.8
2010
2
8.5
2011
3
7.2
2012
4
4.4
2013
3
6.3

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.)

Misc Games
RkYearRndPickPlayerPosTmPBStCarAVGGSCollege/Univ
1201014Trent WilliamsTWAS23315655Oklahoma
2201016Russell OkungTSEA14214545Oklahoma St.
32010111Anthony DavisTSFO04296464Rutgers
42010123Bryan BulagaTGNB03203733Iowa
5200912Jason SmithTSTL0194526Baylor
6200916Andre SmithTCIN03265950Alabama
7200918Eugene MonroeTJAX06267673Virginia
82009123Michael OherTBAL05348080Mississippi
9200811Jake LongTMIA46518989Michigan
102008112Ryan CladyTDEN36528282Boise St.
112008114Chris WilliamsTCHI04226954Vanderbilt
122008117Gosder CherilusTDET06389187Boston Col.
132008119Jeff OtahTCAR02132929Pittsburgh
142008121Sam BakerTATL04327061USC
152008126Duane BrownTHOU26509090Virginia Tech
16200713Joe ThomasTCLE7761112112Wisconsin
17200715Levi BrownTARI06338279Penn St.
182007128Joe StaleyTSFO37529898Central Michigan
19200614D'Brickashaw FergusonTNYJ3852128128Virginia
202005113Jammal BrownTNOR26488684Oklahoma
212005119Alex BarronTSTL05278775Florida St.
22200412Robert GalleryTOAK0738104103Iowa
232004119Vernon CareyTMIA0745121107Miami (FL)
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/4/2014.

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.

Year
Tackles Taken
Approximate Career Value Per Year
2004
2
4.2
2005
2
4.2
2006
1
6.5
2007
3
6.9
2008
7
6.1
2009
4
4.8
2010
4
6.3
2011
5
5.9
2012
2
7.8
2013
5
6.4

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.

 
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