When it comes to the NFL draft, there are a lot more theories than hard-and-fast rules. But some theories, when widely implemented, turn into trends. And after a while, those trends can start to look like rules.
In reality, though, most so-called rules of drafting NFL players are more like myths. So we decided to put together our own little version of "MythBusters" and try to sort out fact from fiction. We've focused on 10 common theories you're likely to hear a lot the next few weeks -- essentially, the dos and don'ts of drafting -- and dug into the history books to see which hold up and which get busted.
1. Offensive tackle is the safest position on which to use a high pick
This theory built steam in the late 1990s during a remarkable run of tackles selected in the top 20 overall, including Jonathan Ogden (Ravens) and Willie Anderson (Bengals) in 1996; Orlando Pace (Rams), Walter Jones (Seahawks) and Tarik Glenn (Colts) in 1997; Kyle Turley (Saints) and Tra Thomas (Eagles) in 1998; and John Tait (Chiefs) and Luke Petitgout (Giants) in 1999.
Taking a tackle with a high pick hasn't been as automatic in the new millennium, though. Although there have been several success stories -- Chris Samuels (Redskins, 2000), Jeff Backus (Lions, 2001), Bryant McKinnie (Vikings, 2002), Levi Jones (Bengals, 2002) and Jordan Gross (Panthers, 2003) -- there have been even more disappointments -- Stockar McDougle (Lions, 2000), Leonard Davis (Cardinals, 2001), Kenyatta Walker (Buccaneers, 2001), Mike Williams (Bills, 2002), George Foster (Broncos, 2003) and Robert Gallery (Raiders, 2004).
Since 2004, NFL teams have been more selective. Although it normally takes at least three years to analyze a draft class properly, it's safe to say the three first-round tackles from the past two drafts -- Jammal Brown (Saints, 2005), Alex Barron (Rams, 2005) and D'Brickashaw Ferguson (Jets, 2006) -- are well on their way to promising NFL careers.
There are too many variables (coaching, scheme, supporting cast, etc.) that factor into a player's success or failure in the NFL to paint such a broad stroke on any position. Still, most NFL scouts would agree that it's easier to spot the upper-echelon talent at offensive tackle.
Every year, there are strong-armed quarterbacks, speedy wide receivers, shifty running backs and athletic cover corners. But massive, 300-pound linemen with nimble feet and body control are few and far between. That's why, despite its fair share of disappointments, I still contend offensive tackle is one of the two safest positions (along with linebacker) for a high pick.
2. You can always find a good running back later in the draft
There have been some great NFL running backs found beyond the first three rounds of the draft, including Terrell Davis (Broncos, 6th round, 1995) and Priest Holmes (Ravens, undrafted, 1997). The Broncos' uncanny ability to churn out 1,000-yard rushers also has added fuel to this fire. As far as I'm concerned, though, running backs are no easier to find in later rounds than any other position.
Nearly half of the NFL's starting running backs in 2006 were former first-round picks, and nearly 90 percent of the league's starters came from the first three rounds. Further dispelling the theory is the fact that 17 of the NFL's top 20 rushing leaders in 2006 were former Day 1 draft picks -- and 14 of those 17 were found in the first two rounds. Frank Gore (49ers) has become the recent poster boy for this myth, but he was taken with the first pick of the third round in 2005.
After studying the situation more closely, here's my advice to teams in need of immediate help at running back: Don't reach for a bad value in the first round, but be ready to grab the one you like in Round 2 or early in Round 3.
3. The farther away from the ball a player lines up, the easier his transition from college to the pros will be
Generalizations like this drive me crazy. But I have to admit, there's some credibility to this one. There's no arguing the steep learning curve for quarterbacks entering the NFL. Although most of the first-round quarterbacks from the past three drafts have experienced some early success, it's safe to say the jury is still out on most of them -- including Eli Manning (Giants), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers), J.P. Losman (Bills), Aaron Rodgers (Packers), Jason Campbell (Redskins), Vince Young (Titans), Matt Leinart (Cardinals) and Jay Cutler (Broncos).
Centers, often referred to as the quarterback of the offensive line, also have it tough. In the past five years, there have been more rookie starting quarterbacks than rookie starting centers.
Adding even more credence to this myth is the recent crapshoot of drafting defensive tackles, a position that from 2001 to '04 provided more first-round misses (Gerard Warren, Damione Lewis, Ryan Pickett, Ryan Sims, Wendell Bryant, Johnathan Sullivan, Jimmy Kennedy, William Joseph and Marcus Tubbs) than hits (Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Casey Hampton, Vince Wilfork, Dewayne Robertson, Kevin Williams and Tommie Harris).
Wide receivers have thrown the biggest curveball to this theory in recent years, with an increasingly high number of first-round busts, especially considering the order in which some have come off the board. In 2000, Peter Warrick was taken ahead of Plaxico Burress. In 2001, David Terrell, Koren Robinson and Rod Gardner all came off the board higher than Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne. In 2002, Donte' Stallworth and Ashley Lelie were drafted ahead of Javon Walker. In 2003, Charles Rogers was selected higher than Andre Johnson. And in 2004, Reggie Williams came off the board before Lee Evans.
However, most of the other perimeter positions fall in line. As previously explained, linebacker and offensive tackle are two of the safest positions for a high draft pick. And though there have been a number of disappointing cornerbacks and defensive ends in recent drafts, more often than not, NFL teams at least get specialized production (situational pass rushing and sub-package coverage) from young players at those positions.
4. Don't waste a high pick on a tight end or safety
This myth has become extinct in recent years as NFL offensive coordinators have found their jobs much easier with a dynamic tight end. Motioning a tight end presnap can cause the opposing defense to reveal its coverage (zone or man-to-man).
When the opponent shows zone, tight ends know there will be soft spots, either down the middle (versus Cover 2) or down the seams (versus Cover 3). When the opponent shows man, the quarterback has even more options because he can motion the tight end to the strong safety side to generate an athletic mismatch in the passing game or motion him to the free safety side to generate a blocking advantage for the ground game.
Todd Heap (Ravens), Jeremy Shockey (Giants), Dallas Clark (Colts), Kellen Winslow (Browns), Benjamin Watson (Patriots), Heath Miller (Steelers) and Vernon Davis (49ers) are all examples of difference-making tight ends found in the first round.
This increased importance at tight end also has driven up the value of safeties. Last year, three of the top eight picks were tight ends or safeties. With more teams looking for a matchup advantage from athletic tight ends, defensive coordinators no longer can afford to consider free safety and strong safety as mutually exclusive positions.
Safeties who can do it all (support the run, match up one-on-one in the slot and hold up in deep-middle zone coverage) are worth big bucks. That's why it should be no surprise that after the 49ers took Davis No. 6 last year, the next two players selected were Michael Huff (Raiders, No. 7) and Donte Whitner (Bills, No. 8) -- both 203-pound safeties who hit like linebackers and cover like cornerbacks.
The recent shift in this trend bodes well for LSU safety Laron Landry and Miami TE Greg Olsen, as both could be top-15 selections.
5. Cornerbacks have been devalued with increased emphasis on the hand-chuck rule
The way the NFL is enforcing pass interference rules, elite cover corners can't dominate a game as they once could. As a result, the gap in value between the elite cornerback and the good cornerback has been bridged. Take Champ Bailey, for example. He is arguably the NFL's premier cover corner, yet the Broncos' pass defense ranked 21st in the NFL last season.
Last year's draft class also reflected this theory. During the four-year span between 2002 and 2005, an average of 19.8 cornerbacks were selected in the first four rounds. In 2006, only 12 corners came off the board through Round 4.
6. If you need a franchise quarterback, get him in the first round or forget about it
It's not quite that cut-and-dried, but it's closer than one might think. Quarterbacks are the toughest players to project in terms of pro potential. No position has as many variables (system, supporting cast, level of competition, etc.) or as much of a premium put on intangibles (leadership, mental toughness, competitiveness, etc.). It also doesn't help that quarterbacks typically are drafted higher than their value because of the importance of the position.
The ones taken near the top of the draft often are thrown into the fire prematurely and expected to deliver unreasonable results, especially considering the marginal supporting cast that landed the team a top-10 draft pick in the first place.
Add it all up and it's no wonder the quarterback position has delivered some epic busts -- Heath Shuler (Redskins) in 1994; Jim Druckenmiller (49ers) in 1997; Ryan Leaf (Chargers) in 1998; Akili Smith (Bengals), Cade McNown (Bears) and Tim Couch (Browns) in 1999; Joey Harrington (Lions) in 2002; and Kyle Boller (Ravens) in 2003.
Unfortunately, studies show that the majority of NFL starting quarterbacks are found in Round 1. Of the 32 NFL starters in 2006, nearly 60 percent were first-round draft choices. Sure, an occasional star is born from the later rounds, but for every Tom Brady, Jake Delhomme and Tony Romo, there are a hundred Gibran Hamdans, Tony Grazianis and Kerry Josephs trying to earn a paycheck from NFL Europa, the Arena League and the Canadian Football League.
7. Avoid Heisman-winning quarterbacks
It's hard to imagine anyone in the NFL taking this curse seriously, but it's a remarkable trend, nonetheless. Some of the prime examples of Heisman Trophy winners to bomb out in the NFL include Terry Baker (Rams, No. 1 overall pick in 1962), Pat Sullivan (Falcons, 2nd round in 1971), Andre Ware (Lions, No. 7 overall in 1989), Gino Torretta (Vikings, 7th round in 1992), Danny Wuerffel (Saints, 4th round in 1996), Chris Weinke (Panthers, 4th round in 2000) and Eric Crouch (Rams, 3rd round in 2001).
There is good news to report on this front, though. It seems the spell was lifted in 2003. Former Heisman winner Carson Palmer has enjoyed two Pro Bowls since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Bengals in 2003, and his successor at USC, Matt Leinart, showed promise as a rookie first-round pick of the Cardinals in 2006.
Now it's up to Ohio State QB Troy Smith to keep the positive momentum rolling. Unfortunately, Smith fits more into the mold of past Heisman winners who came up short in the NFL. Although he's an outstanding athlete and competitor, his marginal height and erratic arm likely will cause him to slip to the end of Day 1.
8. Offensive guards aren't worth taking with a first-round pick
One of the first phrases I remember learning from NFL scouts is, "A guard is a guard is a guard." Funny, I haven't heard that much recently. Perhaps it has something to do with the obscene contracts signed by standout guards such as Steve Hutchinson (Vikings), Eric Steinbach (Browns) and Derrick Dockery (Bills) the past few years.
Although NFL-tested guards are cashing in, don't expect a trickle-down effect to the college draft. It doesn't matter if you study tallies from the past three, five or seven years, the round-by-round guard totals do not deviate much. On average, there is one guard selected in each of the first two rounds, two selected in the third round and three in the fourth. Because there are so few high picks at the position, first-round guards are typically can't-miss prospects.
The most recent successes have been Hutchinson (Seahawks, 2001), Kendall Simmons (Steelers, 2002), Shawn Andrews (Eagles, 2004), Logan Mankins (Patriots, 2005) and Davin Joseph (Buccaneers, 2006). The 2007 class could become the first since 1999 (Damien Woody and Matt Stinchcomb) to see two guards (Auburn's Ben Grubbs and Texas' Justin Blalock) selected in the opening round.
9. The best pick is the No. 1 overall pick
The success rate with the No. 1 overall pick is not nearly as high as most would guess. In the 20 drafts held from 1986 to 2005, only six No. 1 picks have been voted to the Pro Bowl three or more times. Even more disturbing, exactly half of those 20 have failed to earn one trip to Hawaii.
It's not fair to close the book yet on QBs Eli Manning and Alex Smith, but there are some notable busts in the group, including LB Aundray Bruce (Falcons, 1988), QB Jeff George (Colts, 1990), DT Steve Emtman (Colts, 1993), RB Ki-Jana Carter (Bengals, 1995), QB Tim Couch (Browns, 1999) and DE Courtney Brown (Browns, 2000).
My theory on this underwhelming trend is threefold. First, as previously mentioned, quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall enter the league with unreasonable expectations and typically aren't afforded the necessary time to mature because of their inflated salary, and 11 of the past 20 No. 1 overall picks have been quarterbacks.
Second, a team picking No. 1 overall usually is doing so for a reason, and in a lot of cases the product on the field is a direct reflection of the quality of the front office. Finally, give any dysfunctional front office enough time to ponder its decision and often the result is paralysis by analysis (see: Texans, 2006).
10. Always choose the best available player, rather than drafting for need
This is more strategy than myth. It can, however, turn into a draft-room tug-of-war. When coaches and scouts reconvene for predraft meetings in April, the primary goal is to "stack the board." A team will process all its scouting information and use it to assign each prospect a grade based solely on value. Come draft weekend, teams use that draft board as a value chart. Unfortunately, teams have a tendency to stray from their board in an effort to fill glaring positional needs, and that's often when mistakes are made.
Take the upcoming draft, for example: The general consensus is that Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson is the most talented prospect in this year's class. There also is a feeling within the league that Johnson could slip to the Buccaneers at pick No. 4 overall. If that happens, it would be a classic case of the top three teams (currently the Raiders, Lions and Browns) doctoring their draft boards to accommodate their needs.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN Insider.