Passing game becomes first-round priority

Old-school football folks may insist that the game is still about blocking and tackling, but on NFL draft day the direction of the first round over the past few years indicates that the game's most important moments apparently happen when the ball is in the air.

In the past five drafts, players who throw the ball, who catch the ball and who try to come between that connection have been chosen high with increasing frequency.


Since 2001, about 49 percent of the players taken in the first round have been quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends or defensive backs. In the 20 drafts before that, only about 35 percent of first-rounders played those positions.

"The rules have had everything to do with what players are picked in the first round," said Joe Theismann, the former Washington Redskins quarterback who will be in ESPN's Monday Night Football broadcast booth this fall.


With a decades-long trend of NFL rules skewing toward promoting offense, including prohibiting defenders from making contact with receivers 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, more teams are lining up with three and four wide receivers, Theismann pointed out.

Obviously, that means more receivers on the offensive side of the roster and, in response, more cornerbacks and safeties.

"And sometimes you have a situation of who you play also dictates who you take in the draft," Theismann said. "Green Bay drafted two cornerbacks [in 2004] because they had Randy Moss in the division [when he played with the Minnesota Vikings]."

The rules changes have had their obvious impact on tactics. In 1980, 17 of 28 teams had more rush attempts than passes. In 1990, it was 13 teams with more rushes than throws. Last season, only eight of 32 teams ran the ball more times than they threw it.

However, while the NFL moves toward more passing, the college game has not produced enough quality quarterbacks, Theismann said. As a result, teams roll the dice on taking any quarterback of promise high in the draft. In the past five years, 15 quarterbacks were picked in the first round - one more than in a 10-year stretch from 1988 to 1997.

With the draft looming this weekend, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. projects three quarterbacks, three wide receivers, a tight end and 10 defensive backs in this year's first round.

"It might seem there's a contradiction in that there's no such thing as a lockdown or shut-down cornerback in the league anymore because the wide receivers have been given so much advantage," Kiper said. "But what teams are saying is, 'Let's get someone who can at least hold up adequately,' and if a cornerback has some talent at all, he's going to jump right up there."

Of course, the talent available at certain positions influences every draft's first round. In 1981, four of the first nine picks were linebackers led by Lawrence Taylor at No. 2. Oddly, the 1986 draft had six guards among the top 23 players. And the 1983 draft is famous for six first-round quarterbacks, including John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.


However, the recent practice of investing high picks and big money in passing-game players, both on offense and defense, has been a constant, even through the second round. From 1981 though 1995, about 37 percent of second-round picks were from those groups. In the past 10 years, it has been more than 46 percent.

"You even have teams picking guys they think will be nickel backs in the second and third round," Kiper said.

The Ravens are in the market for a blue-chip defensive back to replace safety Will Demps, lost in free agency, and the name that comes up frequently is Texas safety Michael Huff, who is 203 pounds and has sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. But Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said that in today's NFL, the need for good pass defenders is chronic.

"Arguably, we have three of the best defensive backs in the league in Ed Reed, Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, but we could use five just like them," DeCosta said.

"It's so hard to stop a passing game that's hitting on all cylinders," he added. "You need a good secondary coach and you need good, athletic backs who can play and run. Then add to the equation the way the tight end has evolved ... you have guys at that position who can take over a game."

Meanwhile, the overarching concern about containing opposing passing attacks can lead to teams straining a bit when they consider defensive backs in the first round.


"You have to be careful because you can overvalue defensive backs just because you need them so badly," DeCosta said. "And sometimes that might make you overlook their warts."