All-First Round Team, 2008-2012
It has been five years since we started grading here at Pro Football Focus and in that time we have seen some exceptional talents emerge from the NFL Draft at a host of positions. With that in mind, we’re taking a series of looks at what kind of teams could have been put together from the best players selected in each section of the draft over those five years.
In the coming days you’ll see hypothetical All-Second Day (Rounds 2 and 3) and All-Third Day (Rounds 4-7 plus Undrafted Free Agents) teams, but we’re getting under way with an All-First Round Team.
In the first round you’re expecting to hit a home run and the last five years have brought a plethora of talent into the league, but even in the first there are some positions that have been left short. Here is our All-First Round team covering the 2008-2012 drafts, looking not just at what those players are now but what they have given to the teams that drafted them in the time since their selection.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan (No. 3 overall, 2008)
Best Season: +51.3 overall (2012)
This a position that is polarized by quality classes at either end of the range that we are looking at and our choice to quarterback this group comes from that first draft back in 2008 on his overall body of work. While Joe Flacco might have beaten Matt Ryan to that Super Bowl ring, Ryan’s production and performance level has been mesmeric in its consistency. Only a blip in his 2009 season (-0.8 overall) has stunted his ever-improving overall performance level which finally culminated in that elusive first playoff win.
Ryan may have rivals for this spot with more memorable rookie seasons or that one hot streak to the sport’s greatest prize, but his consistency and full body of work is, at this moment, unparalleled amongst his first-round peers in the last five years.
Honorable Mentions: Joe Flacco (No. 18 overall, 2008), Robert Griffin III (No. 2 overall, 2012)
Running Back: Chris Johnson (No. 24 overall, 2008)
Best Season: +6.4 overall (2009)
With Adrian Peterson missing our criteria for this team by one season, we’re left with a crop of running backs that are both tantalizing and frustrating in equal measure. In the end, we go back in time to 2009 to find our top running back; the artist formerly known as “CJ2K”. Questions were raised about the Titan’s selection of Johnson back in 2008, a speed merchant who had question marks over his ability to stand up to the load of being a full time running back. However, a 2,000-yard season in his second campaign (on the back of an 11-game stretch averaging nearly 143 yards per game) appeared to put those questions to bed and see Johnson ready to become the league’s most devastating runner. Johnson still offers that threat, but his consistency has fallen away and his ability to gain yards after contact has steadily dropped in the three years since the heady heights of 2009.
Were it not for the injury history of Jonathan Stewart and for C.J. Spiller taking so long to find his feet in Buffalo, we might have been looking at a very entertaining discussion here to see someone push Johnson aside.
Honorable Mentions: C.J. Spiller (No. 9 overall, 2010), Jonathan Stewart (No. 13 overall, 2008)
Wide Receiver: Hakeem Nicks (No. 29 overall, 2009), A.J. Green (No. 4 overall, 2011) and Percy Harvin (No. 22 overall, 2009)
Best Seasons: Nicks (+22.2, 2011); Green (+22.0, 2012); Harvin (+16.3, 2012)
From a position long on promise but short on long-term production to a one that — while it took some time to get going — has been one of the most productive in the last five years. Across the 2009, 2010, and 2011 drafts, we really hit a purple patch of talented receivers that left this one of the most hotly contested positions on this team. You only need look at the honorable mentions to see the strength in depth of the WR position in the first round over the last five years.
Each of the three receivers making this team has produced exceptional seasons with Nicks’ contributing to the Giants’ second Super Bowl in five years while A.J. Green has formed a relationship with Andy Dalton that has dragged the Bengals to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in thirty years. Meanwhile, Harvin was one of the few receivers from this set of draft classes that doesn’t fit into the mold of a “prototypical No. 1 wide receiver” but in terms of efficiency, his performance this season was incredible and will bring another dimension to the Seattle Seahawks’ offense in the coming years.
Some might consider wide receiver to be the shiny hood ornament of an NFL roster, but in terms of bang-for-your-buck production, this position certainly pulled its weight since 2008.
Honorable Mentions: Demaryius Thomas (No. 22 overall, 2010), Julio Jones (No. 6 overall, 2011), Michael Crabtree (No. 10 overall, 2009) and Dez Bryant (No. 24 overall, 2010)
Tight End: Dustin Keller (No. 30 overall, 2008)
Best Season: +5.4 (2008)
From feast at the wide receiver position to famine at tight end. Realistically this team could as easily have gone 4-wide and completely disregarded the tight ends taken in the last five years. Strangely, considering the explosion of versatile tight ends in that span, the pickings were slim at tight end and none of the three taken in the first round have lived up to the hype they entered the league with. Keller got off to a solid start as a rookie in New York and hasn’t been as bad in the years since as Brandon Pettigrew (-16.3 over four years) and Jermaine Gresham (-28.5 over three years) have been.
Honorable Mentions: None
Tackle: Duane Brown (No. 26 overall, 2008) and Jake Long (No. 1 overall, 2008)
Best Seasons: Brown (+45.4, 2012); Long (+39.5, 2009)
Bracketing the disappointment of the tight end position is another position that has been replete with players fulfilling their promise over the last five years. That players like Russell Okung, Eugene Monroe, and Trent Williams can’t even get an honorable mention shows you the great quality and strength in depth of this position.
Usually we frown on two left tackles being chosen in all-star teams, but realistically it would have been totally wrong to force Andre Smith in this time, considering the time it took for his career to bear fruit — those early years are blighting his search for a significant second contract this offseason. In Long and Brown you have the two opposite poster boys of what you look for in first-round picks. Long was the first overall pick who came in and immediately performed at an elite level while Brown was the long-term project who started slowly (-14.0 in 2008) but has grown every single season, flourishing with an astonishing effort (+45.4) as a run blocker and pass protector in 2012. You might consider taking a tackle in the first round as conservative drafting, but those who have invested in tackles in the first since 2008 have, for the most part, been richly rewarded.
Honorable Mentions: Ryan Clady (No. 12 overall, 2008), Andre Smith (No. 6 overall, 2009) and Matt Kalil (No. 4 overall, 2012)
Guard: Mike Iupati (No. 17 overall, 2010) and Kevin Zeitler (No. 27 overall, 2012)
Best Seasons: Iupati (+19.0, 2012); Zeitler (+13.8, 2012)
With guard not being a popular first round option in the last five years, there were slim pickings to be had here and only Zeitler’s fine rookie season prevented a rather awkward choice between Danny Watkins and Gabe Carimi to fill the spot at right guard in this team. In twelve months’ time, if the pre-draft hype is to be believed, this might have been a more drawn out decision and discussion. As it is, we are left with Zeitler who looked solid as a pass protector in his rookie season to pair with one of the leagues’ most powerful and dominant interior run blockers. Before he was drafted, there was talk of Iupati being moved out to tackle, but he has made himself a home at guard and is a pivotal cog in the 49ers’ physical running game.
Honorable Mentions: None
Center: Alex Mack (No. 21 overall, 2009)
Best Season: (+21.0, 2009)
The center position brought the ever-contentious Pouncey conversation into the equation, but for his career body of work Maurkice was far outshone by Alex Mack and even outdone by his brother who surpassed him in his second season in the league. Mack hasn’t quite placed himself consistently amongst the league’s elite as his rookie season hinted he might do, but he is another key pillar in a Browns’ offensive line that showed real signs of improvement during the 2012 regular season. As a physical run blocker and an astute and agile pass protector, Mack brings everything you look for to anchor the middle of your offensive line.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Pouncey (No. 15 overall, 2011)
For the All-First Round Defense, read on to Page 2…
Edge Defender: Clay Matthews (No. 26 overall, 2009) and Jason Pierre-Paul (No. 15 overall, 2010)
Best Seasons: Matthews (+23.7, 2012); Pierre-Paul (+29.2, 2011)
Edge defenders are difference makers and a popular pick in the first round, but though plenty in the last five years have shown glimpses in a single season, one trio has separated in terms of consistency. Selecting two from the three in this group was perhaps the toughest choice when shaping this team.
Matthews was the first name chosen as (while his grades may never have reached the gaudy heights of others) the work he does as, largely, the only real threat on Green Bay’s defense is simply astounding. Equally adept defending run and pass — rushing the passer from the left and the right — Matthews is that rare thing of a complete package in a 3-4 outside linebacker. Opposite him in this mongrel hybrid defense is Jason Pierre-Paul who, despite a dip in pass rushing output this season, was still a ferocious run defender. In spite of his relative youth as a football player, Pierre-Paul has quickly developed a devastating all-around game that looks sure to lead the Giants’ defensive line for years to come.
Honorable Mentions: Aldon Smith (No. 7 overall, 2011)
Interior Defender: J.J. Watt (No. 11 overall, 2011) and Ndamukong Suh (No. 2 overall, 2010)
Best Seasons: Watt (+105.6, 2012); Suh (+23.1, 2012)
With players like Glenn Dorsey and Peria Jerry emerging in the first two years of our five-year window, the defensive interior took some time to get going but in the last two to three years it has risen to a deafening crescendo. After his astonishing sophomore season, Watt was an absolute no-brainer, at present there isn’t a more devastating defender in the league as either a run defender or pass rusher.
The second spot was a tougher choice and you couldn’t go wrong with Suh, Wilkerson, or McCoy. However, for finally translating his production into efficiency this season Suh got the nod. If he could only get his run defense under control he would be a more secure selection in this team, but as Wilkerson and McCoy continue to add to their résumés in the coming seasons the conversation at this position should only continue to get more interesting.
Honorable Mentions: Muhammad Wilkerson (No. 30 overall, 2011) and Gerald McCoy (No. 3 overall, 2010)
Linebacker: Von Miller (No. 2 overall, 2011), Brian Cushing (No. 15 overall, 2009) and Luke Kuechly (No. 9 overall, 2012)
Best Seasons: Miller (+84.4, 2012); Cushing (+16.3, 2009); Kuechly (+5.2, 2012)
For the second straight position we feature a player who has all but broken our interpretation of what is possible on the PFF grading scale. Miller has re-defined the three-down role putting his hand in the ground to rush the passer as well as any in the league rather than dropping into coverage on third down.
Along with him in this somewhat unorthodox linebacking corps is Cushing who put in exceptional first and third seasons before having last season derailed by a knee injury. The Texans’ defense last season struggled to perform to the same level in their dime defense without Cushing this season.
The third player in the trio is Kuechly, one of only two representatives from the 2012 draft class in this team. After some real struggles at weakside linebacker to start the season, Kuechly flourished when the Panthers moved him to middle linebacker in Week 5. He still has some struggles in coverage when passes get in behind him, but he is already one of the league’s best linebackers at finding the ball-carrier.
Honorable Mentions: Jerod Mayo (No. 10 overall, 2008) and Sean Weatherspoon (No. 19 overall, 2010)
Cornerback: Joe Haden (No. 7 overall, 2010) and Devin McCourty (No. 27 overall, 2010)
Best Seasons: Haden (+13.4, 2010); McCourty (+22.7, 2012)
Moving onto the secondary, we hit another strong spot on this team, even if the pickings weren’t necessarily the greatest for the body of work of their career. Joe Haden was the absolute lock having played at a high level from his rookie season and showing this year that his trouble with penalties in 2011 (nine) were a one-season blip (two penalties in 2012).
Next to him is Devin McCourty who has been one of Bill Belichick’s rare successes in his search for versatile defensive backs. A quality coverage defender, McCourty showed the rare ability to switch between safety and corner as a full-time starter within the same season. When you include the playoffs, McCourty’s overall grade sees him place 11th amongst both cornerbacks and safeties. Players like McCourty are a rare talent and go some way to explaining just why the Patriots have had so much trouble trying to find more players like him.
Honorable Mentions: Vontae Davis (No. 25 overall, 2009) and Patrick Peterson (No. 5 overall, 2011)
Safety: Kenny Phillips (No. 31 overall, 2008) and Earl Thomas (No. 14 overall, 2010)
Best Seasons: Phillips (+13.6, 2011); Thomas (+10.6, 2011)
Rounding out the team (no kicking specialists have been taken in the first round in the last five years) is a pair of free safeties who, when at their best, are amongst the league’s best coverage safeties. For Phillips, the only problem has been staying on the field, while Thomas has been excellent but prone to being caught out of position when guessing rather than playing on instinct. Phillips issues with staying on the field have been, at times, so severe that for his five-year career he has averaged only 655 snaps per season (including the extra snaps of a four-game Super Bowl run in 2011) compared to the 1,172 snaps that Thomas has averaged in his three years in the league.
If Phillips’ health continues to limit his time on the playing field, more season’s like Harrison Smith’s rookie run might see him push for Phillips’ spot.
Honorable Mentions: Harrison Smith (No. 29 overall, 2012)
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben