Whether people know it, each and every year the NFL Draft changes. It evolves. The league shifts every single year and teams must adjust to these tendencies. Everyone knows that it has become a pass-first league, but if I told you that the value of interior linemen was increasing for the same general reason that the value middle/inside linebackers was decreasing, then you might not truly know why. Ten years ago running backs were a building block that teams happily spent first round picks on, and it will be explained below through the five changes in drafting & team building below.

The Pass First League


There should be no surprise to some that value of passers has increased as the league has become a pass first league, but the move has an impact on every aspect of the offense and defense as well. The value of running backs is down slightly because there are more passing plays, but the bigger issue with the 'franchise' runners is that rushers have to know how to pass block, but also know how to catch balls themselves. The value of fullbacks has gone up very slightly for the blocking reason too. Receivers have had their receiving responsibilities increased, and so have tight ends, but the tight end value is increasing more because they are required to be able to block more as necessary.

This changes defensively in the same way. Defensive pass rushers/sack artists are more necessary than run stuffers. Interior defensive linemen are required to be pass rushers no matter what the scheme, and the general value of outside linebackers is increasing in terms of pass rushing. Inside/middle linebackers are seeing their value fall some because they are sometimes the last defense to reach or pressure a quarterback. There should also be no surprise that defensive backs are required to be much better than they used to be at pass protection.

The 3-4 Impact


It seems like every year there are more and more teams that move to the 3-4 defense (although by all accounts that was not true in the 2011 offseason as Denver switched back to the 4-3). This changes the league slightly for every reason that pass rushers changes the league. It obviously changes the general need for players in the draft, and we are seeing more and more 3-4 teams drafting 3-4 personnel which hurts 4-3 only players (and vice versa). This is abundantly painful for non-priority positions like middle/inside linebacker or 4-3 outside linebackers because it is abundantly harder for them to get drafted when the few teams that pick them have bigger needs.

Offensive teams are looking for receivers that are able to deal with the personnel better, and they are looking for runners that can either break through the 3-4 wall, or get outside quick enough to get away from the 2nd tier (LB) defenders. The biggest impact however on offense might be with interior linemen. Because 3-4 nosetackles are being adjusted to have a penetrating presence (because of the need for pass rushing), the interior linemen are being overvalued because of their need for pass blocking. It used to be rare to see a lot of interior linemen drafted, but that is changing. Two guards were taken much earlier than their old value would indicate in the 2011 draft, and it might not be a trend.


Careful With QB's... Sort Of

If you look at the past 30 years of the draft, you will see a lot of trends among quarterbacks taken in the first round. There is no major trend in terms on number of quarterbacks, but there are a few trends to look at. It has become a near consensus that a team with a slight need at QB will take a quarterback with the first overall pick essentially no matter how good the prospect. That definitely is a lot different than past years where the team picking first would take the best player.

What's interesting is that the first overall pick at QB definitely gets a bad reputation because of recent failures, and not past failures. Between 1980 and 1998 we saw John Elway (83), Vinny Testaverde (87), Troy Aikman (89), Jeff George (90), Drew Bledsoe (93), Peyton Manning (98).

That's a pretty good list compared to the mix of breeds in the ten years following with: Tim Couch (99), Michael Vick (01), David Carr (02), Carson Palmer (03), Eli Manning (04), Alex Smith (05), JaMarcus Russell (07), Matt Ryan (08).

So if you look at the 1st overall picks as of late, it would look like teams will reach for need in the first round which shouldn't surprise anyone since it has become a passing league. But I do think that the evaluation process has actually gotten better in the last 20 years because of past lessons. Sure it would be nice for teams to take guys early that deserve to be drafted early, but I think more than ever teams know the risks with quarterbacks, and they learn with every bust on how to improve. I don't think that teams will ever look at a guy that compares to David Carr and take him first overall anymore. Teams drafting early want winners, they want potential, and they want measurables, but most of all they want guys that can win. Jimmy Clausen's stock fell because teams didn't want a guy that reportedly didn't lead his team well, but Tim Tebow's stock boomed because at the end of the day he was a winner.

Sure there will always be an athletic freak like Cam Newton that will come through, but the amount of work and evaluation that is put into these players has significantly boomed, and I think teams are starting to evolve. Three years ago NFL teams completely frowned on quarterbacks that played in the spread offense and even that took a lot of snaps in the shotgun. It was a sign of teams not being able to read defenses, and a sign that a player was 'inferior' to others. That theory made sense back in 1998 when Peyton Manning was taken over Ryan Leaf because he was less of a shotgun QB in college. The league average for snaps in the shotgun in 1998 was 7%, and in 2010 it has grown to 38%. In fact, the very same Peyton Manning threw 75% of his passes last year from the shotgun! Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger all were over 62% as well. The fact of the matter is that the shotgun is not a relevant aspect in NFL grading any more. Teams are looking at the spread not as a major flaw, but as a transition to the NFL. The different types of spreads are being evaluated to see how many reads, and how much information was being analyzed. The 'pro style' formations in college are a thing of the past, and they may be a weakness in the future as the NFL adjusts to the new ways.

A Move Back to Versatile

I already alluded to this to earlier, but players have to be very versatile in the current NFL. This is much more than a player that is better off being able to play in both the 4-3 and the 3-4, although that is very important too. In general teams are a little more hesitant to take a player that can play in only one of the two base schemes for two key reasons.

The first reason is that in this day and age there is no certainty that a team will stay in their formation. There are three teams that changed their base formation this year, and some players might lose their jobs because they cannot play in the new scheme.

The second reason is that no team defensively plays only in a strict base system these days. Just about every team incorporates a 3-4, a 4-3, a 5-2, a 4-4, and a 4-2-5 all in the same game, and there are players that need to fit in on just about every play. Offensively the game is changing some too. Just about every team has a wildcat player these days, and even more are looking to incorporate a few new versatile players into their games. There are also more and more players that being created in the league. Guys like Dexter McCluster and Jerrell Jernigan who are athletic, small receiver/rusher types are being picked up and incorporated as a new position.

Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger

Al Davis is either a super genius or a complete idiot with the right idea. Back when the Raiders were a powerhouse teams could win a lot more games by having the best athletes. But in the last ten years that hasn't been the case... sort of. The uber athletes aren't succeeding in the league, and the league started to go into a little bit of a revolution by emphasizing technique. But that might be changing as well... sort of.

Players are getting faster, they are getting stronger, and they are much more athletic breed of players, and that is what the league is becoming. Players will always need to develop their technique no matter what (which is the Al Davis problem), but at the end of the day the players themselves are evolving in the league.