Are Eagles right to avoid drafting linebackers in the early rounds?

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Going against the historical tide, the Eagles 2017 Super Bowl win proved that you do not need to spend on linebackers to win a championship. This is the rhetoric that has been pushed down the throats of whoever would listen for the last three years. It’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of teams with cheap linebacking corps that have experienced regular success. However, is it fair to say that linebackers have gone the way of running backs, wherein any resources spent are relatively wasted?

The premise of saving money at the position hinges on the idea that whatever money or draft picks being saved at the position can be spent elsewhere. Electing to spend money elsewhere, the Eagles had one of the cheapest collections of linebackers in the league in 2019 (24th). Guess what? They made the playoffs. They did the year before too, without any first-round ‘backers or any making premium dollar. On the surface, it seems as if the front office is on to something.

Still, the fact of the matter remains every year they have been sliding further from the ultimate goal of returning to a Superbowl. This year the Eagles spent a third-round and a sixth-round selection on linebackers. While it’s not a first or a second, spending such resources on the position could indicate a change in thinking. While they do have a Superbowl ring to their name, have they done enough to change the historical tide?

Does spending on linebackers really make a difference?

Regular Season Success

Now, the Eagles have gotten one thing right. It seems as if it is not necessary to sink resources into the linebacker position to win regular-season games. The reality is, you need to win regular-season games to make the playoffs. So, on paper, it should follow that you do not need first-round linebackers to make the playoffs.

Spending Draft Picks

In 2019, 22 of 32 teams started first-round linebackers in one capacity or another — that includes 3-4 teams and teams with hybrid LBs. Those teams with first-round linebackers had a record of 166-184-2 (.474 win rate) and teams without had a record of 89-71 (.556 win rate).

There are some curious cases in both categories. There are some teams featuring first-round ‘backers that simply couldn’t make up for the chaos surrounding them. In other cases, they are a part of a young core that has yet to develop. This list includes teams such as the 3-13 Redskins, the 5-11 Dolphins, the 5-10-1 Cardinals, and the 8-8 Bears.

However, it’s the other side of the coin we’re concerned with. The Ravens, Chiefs, Packers, and Saints all finished the season with impressive records (averaging 13-3), but were without first-round linebackers.

The ten teams who did not start first-round LBs are below, playoff teams featured in bold. Because wins do not paint a full picture, I have also included each defense’s yards allowed and point allowed. Outside of the Ravens, it’s unsurprising that as a whole, these defenses were not stellar.

Yds AgainstPts Against
Ravens4th3rd
Eagles10th15th
Saints11th13th
Chiefs17th7th
Packers18th9th
Colts16th18th
Raiders19th24th
Browns22nd20th
Jaguars24th21st
Bengals29th25th

Risk

Herein lies the crux of the matter. Regardless of how much impact a first-round linebacker can be, there is always the worry that they won’t pan out. A first-round selection can’t be taken lightly and are generally more readily spent on other positions. So, how did the first round LB selections pan out over the last 10 years?

Since we’re focused on the immediate impact of these first-rounders I have included their rookie stats. Numbers don’t tell the whole story and the value of some of these players may be under or overrated. Also, it may be too soon to judge some of the names on this list. Still, there is a clear history of immediate success for first-round ‘backers — granted some were moved to DE or were slotted into an OLB role in a 3-4 defense. The players in bold have been selected to a Pro Bowl.

Devin White91 TK, 4 TFL, 2.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 INT
Devin Bush109 TK, 9 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 INT
Rashan Gary 21 TK, 3 TFL, 2.0 SK
Bradley Chubb60 TK, 14 TFL, 12.0 SK, 2 FF
Roquan Smith121 TK, 8 TFL, 5.0 SK, 1 INT
Tremaine Edmunds121 TK, 5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 INT
Leighton Vander Esch140 TK, 2 TFL, 2 INT
Rashaan Evans53 TK, 2 TFL (7 Games Started)
Haason Reddick36 TK, 4 TFL, 2.5 SK, 2 FF (3 GS)
Jarrad Davis96 TK, 4 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT
T.J. Watt54 TK, 10 TFL, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT
Reuben Foster72 TK, 7 TFL
Leonard Floyd33 TK, 6 TFL, 7.0 SK, 1 FF
Darron Lee73 TK, 3 TFL, 1.0 SK
Bud Dupree26 TK, 4 TFL, 4.0 SK (5 GS)
Shaq Thompson50 TK, 4 TFL, 1.0 SK
Stephone Anthony112 TK, 5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 INT
Khalil Mack76 TK, 16 TFL, 4.0 SK, 1 FF
Anthony Barr70 TK, 6 TFL, 4.0 SK, 2 FF
Ryan Shazier36 TK, 2 TFL (5 GS)
C.J. Mosley133 TK, 8 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 INT
Marcus SmithNOTHING. (0 GS)
Jarvis Jones41 TK, 4 TFL, 1.0 SK
Alec Ogletree119 TK, 9 TFL, 1.5 SK, 1 INT
Luke Kuechly164 TK, 12 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT
Melvin Ingram41 TK, 4 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF (2 GS)
Dont’a Hightower60 TK, 10 TFL, 4.0 SK
Nick Perry18 TK, 1 TFL, 2.0 SK (5 GS)
Von Miller50 TK, 19 TFL, 11.5 SK, 3 FF
Aldon Smith37 TK, 13 TFL, 14.0 SK, 2 FF
Rolando McClain85 TK, 6 TFL, 0.5 SK, 1 INT
Jason Pierre-Paul30 TK, 7 TFL, 4.5 SK (0 GS)
Sean Weatherspoon42 TK, 1 TFL, 1.0 SK (5 GS)
AVERAGE59 TK, 6 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 FF

Thirteen of the thirty-three linebackers selected in the first round over the last ten years have been selected to the Pro Bowl. That’s one of the highest rates of any position group. Despite some clunkers (ahem.. Marcus Smith), there’s a ton of talent on this board that had incredible rookie seasons or went on to post incredible numbers in the following years.

59 tackles — skewed by the amount of 3-4 OLBs — would have been just behind Nigel Bradham (61) for fourth among linebackers. 6 TFLs — again offset by the 3-4 ‘backers — would have placed first among Eagles LBs. Considering a number of the players on this list started fewer than 10 games (some none at all), that’s an impressive stat line.

It seems that unless you’re Chip Kelly, it’s fairly common to hit on a first-round linebacker. Even if they aren’t a Pro Bowler, they are likely to be a key contributor to your defense. There’s certainly some risk, but first-round linebackers seem a safer bet than most.

Resources = More Wins?

Now, obviously this breakdown is an oversimplification. There are plenty of other factors and position groups that play a role in a successful defense. Regardless of the success of the defense, five teams that didn’t feature a first-round linebacker still made the playoffs and seven teams didn’t have to spend big to make it there either, (the Packers being the exception). Therefore it seems as if on the outset, spending resources on linebackers does not guarantee any regular-season success. However . . .

Defensive Statistics

Over the last three years, almost all teams that drafted a linebacker in the first round improved in both scoring defense and opposing total yards. Below are team’s defensive rankings before and after drafting a first-round linebacker, the times that a team got worse in either category is in bold.

Opp. YdsOpp. Pnts
2018 Bucs27th31st
2019 Bucs15th29th
2018 Steelers6th16th
2019 Steelers5th6th
2018 Packers18th22nd
2019 Packers18th9th
2017 Broncos3rd23rd
2018 Broncos22nd13th
2017 Bears10th9th
2018 Bears3rd1st
2017 Bills26th18th
2018 Bills2nd18th
2017 Cowboys8th14th
2018 Cowboys7th6th
2017 Titans13th17th
2018 Titans 8th3rd
2016 Cardinals2nd14th
2017 Cardinals6th19th
2016 Lions18th13th
2017 Lions27th21st
2016 Steelers12th10th
2017 Steelers5th7th
2016 49ers32nd32nd
2017 49ers24th25th

Although there are other factors in play — the Bears adding Khalil Mack for example — the results are staggering. In recent years, it seems almost guaranteed that spending a first-round selection on a linebacker will immediately and notably improve your defense, even if it doesn’t manufacture wins. The same can not be said of all positions.

2019-2020 Playoff Teams

It’s all fine and dandy to make it to the playoffs or improve your defense, but if the ultimate goal is hoisting the Lombardi, then it’s a pretty sorry consolation prize. Being the champion comes down to having success in the playoffs. So, how can having a first-round linebacker influence a team’s win rate in the playoffs?

For this article, I have considered Ezekiel Ansah, a LB for the Seahawks as he spent much of his time in the LEO role. While he spent a bulk of his snaps rushing the passer, Seattle also used Shaqueem Griffin in this role, which indicates the versatility the Seahawks necessitated of the position.

It’s also important to note that the Chiefs added Terrell Suggs late in the season, who then played an average of 52% of Kansas City’s defensive snaps. Therefore, although they were without a first-round linebacker during the season, they will be in the opposite category in the playoffs.

Of the five playoff teams that did not have a first-round LB, the Chiefs, Ravens, and Saints were able to achieve regular-season success because they all house top five scoring offenses. Let’s be honest, the Eagles squeaked into the playoffs in Week 17 and were probably not deserving of the opportunity on paper. However, they were able to buckle down in the last few weeks and come out on top of some must-win games.

In this case, it is the Packers that are the real outlier. They finished middle of the pack in almost all categories — except money spent at the linebacker position. In 2020, they will be on the hook for a whopping $44M owed to just their linebackers (5th highest).

Still, simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough — we want to know if spending on linebackers can help you win a Super Bowl. So how did these teams fair?

Well, the regular season favorite Baltimore Ravens were decimated by the Titans ground attack to the tune of 217 rushing yards. Green Bay had a similar experience in San Francisco when Raheem Mostert dumped 220 yards on them. The Saints were in the midst of another controversial loss, but also allowed 136 rushing yards, which didn’t help matters. For how much talk there is about how important the run game is in January, there is little discussion on how important it is to stop it.

We don’t have to discuss the Eagles . . . it still hurts. They actually did an admiral job of containing Seattle’s rushing attack. Still, the inability to contain Russell Wilson has been a thorn in the team’s side for years. Although, they’re not the only ones who’ve met the same fate.

Playoff Teams with 1st Round LBPlayoff WinsPlayoff Teams without 1st Round LB
(Highest Pick)
Playoff Wins
Bills0Ravens (3rd)0
Texans1Saints (2nd)0
Titans2Eagles (4th)0
Patriots0Packers (2nd)1
Vikings1
Seahawks1
49ers2
Chiefs3
Win Rate (10-7).588Win Rate (1-4).200

The Packers were the only team to win a playoff game without a first-round linebacker last season. While the results are not always so dramatic, it seems as if there is some correlation for first-round LBs and playoff success after all. Still, this is only one year.

Recent Playoff Success

Limiting the search to only last season would give an unfair picture of the question at hand. Instead, let’s expand the discussion to the last 10 years. Also, since we’re concerned with winning a Super Bowl, let’s narrow the search to just AFC and NFC title winners.

Since 2010, only two teams have played in a Super Bowl without a first-round linebacker in the starting rotation. Only one of those teams were without a first or second-rounder. On the other hand, some teams even sported a full cast of first-round LBs. The 2015-2016 showdown between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers featured six first-round linebackers.

Teams with multiple first round LBs8
Teams with one first round LB10
Teams with no first but a second round LB
(2017 Eagles)
1
Teams with no first or second round LB
(2013 Broncos)
1

Of the twenty teams that have made the Super Bowl in the last ten years, I took the top ‘backers in terms of snaps played (> 25%). I also included some other names that were key components of their team’s respective playoff runs. Of those 67 linebackers, 34.3% were drafted in the first round and 47.8% were drafted before the third round. Here’s the breakdown by round:

First Round23
Second Round9
Third Round5*
Fourth Round9
Fifth Round5
Sixth Round6
Seventh Round1
UDFA9

Just so that you can do your own research and shout out any of the players I missed, this is the full list of linebackers I used, listed by round:

Mark Barron1st
Vic Beasley1st
Thomas Davis1st
James Farrior1st
Dee Ford1st
A.J. Hawk1st
Dont’a Hightower1st
Bruce Irvin1st
Mathias Kiwanuka1st
Luke Kuechly1st
Ray Lewis1st
Clay Matthews1st
Jerod Mayo1st
Shea McClellin1st
Von Miller1st
Shane Ray1st
Aldon Smith1st
Terrell Suggs1st
Shaq Thompson1st
Lawrence Timmons1st
Bobby Wagner1st
Demarcus Ware1st
Patrick Willis1st
Akeem Ayers2nd
Jamie Collins2nd
Deion Jones2nd
Mychal Kendricks2nd
Paul Kruger2nd
Reggie Ragland2nd
Brandon Spikes2nd
Kyle Van Noy2nd
Lamarr Woodley2nd
Navorro Bowman3rd
Ahmad Brooks3rd*
Jordan Hicks3rd
Fred Warner3rd
Phillip Wheeler3rd
Kwon Alexander4th
Nigel Bradham4th
Devondre Campbell4th
Samson Ebukam4th
Larry Foote4th
Anthony Hitchens4th
Shaun Phillips4th
Damien Wilson4th
K.J. Wright4th
Michael Boley5th
Dre Greenlaw5th
A.J. Klein5th
Brandon Marshall5th
Rob Nincovich5th
Desmond Bishop6th
Greg Jones6th
Marquis Flowers6th
Elandon Roberts6th
Danny Trevathan 6th
Jacquain Williams6th
Malcolm Smith7th
Shaquil BarrettUDFA
Dannell EllerbeUDFA
Gary GuytonUDFA
James HarrisonUDFA
Cory LittletonUDFA
Jameel McClainUDFA
Ben NiemannUDFA
Wesley WoodyardUDFA
Frank ZomboUDFA
*Supplemental Draft

The numbers speak for themselves. 34.4% of all starting linebackers in the last ten Superbowls were drafted in the first round. That does not include those who were featured in multiple (the math on that one was a lot to tackle). The Eagles have been the only team in the last ten years to win a Superbowl without a first-round linebacker and only one other team came close — and then lost 43-8.

Accolades

You’d be right in saying there’s more to winning a Super Bowl than just spending on linebackers. Making the playoffs is also dependent on a plethora of factors. Still, there is no denying that the Eagles are an outlier. They may have broken the mold, but it seems as if they are one of few. The reality is, it is often the most talented team that wins the championship and eschewing a linebacker for another position of need is always a respectable option. It’s always possible to find talent later in the draft. If that’s the case, why bother giving up a first-rounder?

We have looked at how what effects that spending a first-round selection on an LB can have on the win column and on your defense. However, there are many other ways to gauge the success of an individual player. Let’s take Pro Bowls for example. Although voted on by fans, tagging a player as a Pro Bowler is a widely accepted indication that they are a cut above the rest. Here are the Pro Bowl Starters from 2016 – 2020 under the AFC vs. NFC format:

Chandler Jones (x2)1st
Von Miller (x4)1st
T.J. Watt1st
Khalil Mack1st
Ryan Kerrigan (x3)1st
Luke Kuechly (x2)1st
Jadeveon Clowney (x2)1st
C.J. Mosley (x2)1st
Vic Beasley1st
Bobby Wagner1st
Dont’a Hightower1st
Jaylon Smith2nd
Darius Leonard2nd
Shaquil BarrettUDFA
Lorenzo AlexanderUDFA

If you’ve noticed a trend, that’s because there is one. Voters recognize the names of first-round linebackers. This may be more of an indication that Barrett and Alexander did a commendable job breaking that barrier when earning their Pro Bowl nod. However, it extends beyond just the Pro Bowl.

Another universal measure of success is being voted to the Associated Press All-Pro Team. In the last five years, no linebacker drafted after the third round has been selected to the All-Pro First Team. If you added the number of linebackers selected to the team drafted after the first round together, they wouldn’t account for half the votes given to first-rounders.

Below is the collection of ‘backers voted to the First Team from 2015-2019.

Bobby Wagner (x4)1st
Luke Kuechly (x4)1st
Von Miller (x4)1st
Chandler Jones (x2)1st
Khalil Mack (x2)1st
T.J. Watt1st
Thomas Davis1st
Sean Lee2nd
Eric Kendricks2nd
Darius Leonard2nd
Demario Davis3rd
NaVorro Bowman3rd
Justin Houston3rd

Do first round linebackers matter?

Absolutely. It is definitely possible to win a championship without a first-round ‘backer, as the Eagles have proven. Is it likely to happen again in the near future? History says no. Even the current champions, who made it to the playoffs without a star LB added a former first-round pick for their playoff run. It seems as if they had read up on their history books.

While the Birds broke their habit of completely neglecting the linebacker position in the draft, it seems as if a third-round pick may not be the ultimate answer. Perhaps they can again defy the odds; after all, the team has become incredibly comfortable playing under the underdog mantra.

. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

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