When Lamar Jackson stood up on stage, signifying the end to round one of the 2018 NFL Draft, it also marked the first time since 1999 that five quarterbacks went in the first round. While a lot has changed in the past 20 years, one thing has not. The NFL values defensive backs more than any other position in football.
Quarterbacks get all the glory. The term "franchise" is often attached to only that position. Super Bowl MVPs are consistently handed out to the winning quarterback, even if their play isn't MVP-worthy. NFL front offices will reach and trade in the draft all for the opportunity to find a shiny QB that will — in theory — lead their team to the promised land.
The truth is, as the game continues to evolve into a pass-dominant league, defensive backs are the one key constant in first round draft picks.
We took a sample size of five different draft years within the last 20 years (1999, 2008, 2013, 2017 and 2018). Looked at who was taken in each draft to see what teams valued the most and were willing to use draft capital. The NFL Draft is supposed to be an event where bad teams get better with game-changing athletes, while good teams stay good by filling holes. At the end of the day, however, the NFL Draft is becoming a risk/reward choice on how to stop the pass on the outside.
The 1999 draft stands out because five quarterbacks were taken within the first 12 picks. Even with that outlier, defensive backs were taken 7, 10, 23, 25 and 26. There was also a big need on the defensive line, where seven players were taken.
The best players from that draft, according to Pro Football Reference's weighted career approximate value, Edgerrin James, Champ Bailey, Donovan McNabb and Torry Holt.
Ten years later and the quarterback prospects weren't there at the top of the draft, but rather six out of the first seven picks were linemen. One offensive tackle, three defensive ends or — as they are referred to now — EDGE rushers and two defensive tackles.
This was the height of quarterback-mania. The thought was you needed a QB and someone to protect him, hence, seven tackles went in the first round. Six DBs also went in the first round.
Ten years later, and Aqib Talib is the best defensive back taken from that draft at 20. If there was a redraft with the top 32 players taken in order by Career AV, four DBs would be taken in the first round, just two were actually taken in the first, however.
By 2013, we saw a culture shift. Due to average career-longevity, running backs were no longer as valued as the other positions on the field. That year, no running backs went in the first round. The quarterback position was also thin. EJ Manuel was drafted 16th.
The best quarterback, according to Career AV was — Geno Smith! Despite shifts at quarterback and running back, defensive backs were still taken seven times. Only two DBs would end up within the first 32 picks when using Career AV.
Last year, there was a huge emphasis put on defense. Nineteen of the 32 first round selections were on that side of the ball. No offensive or defensive interior lineman were taken in the first round.
Much like almost every other year, defensive backs dominated the draft. Eight were selected, and seven of those DBs had a significant influence on the team's production.
In this year's draft, defensive backs once again ruled the draft. Six were taken with the first 32 picks. A clear trend has been established within the first 32 picks.
Every other position experiences ups and downs and the randomness that comes from finding elite talent for the NFL. Most people associate risk vs. reward with finding a quarterback in the first round. It seems, however, front office execs are much more vulnerable to the risks and rewards of finding someone in the defensive backfields.