The Defensive End vs. Quarterback Bust Battle - Part 1

By John Harris
April 9, 2014

Photo: SC Gamecocks

I’ve studied the NFL Draft for about two decades now.  When I was in college, I took a taxi to downtown Providence’s only sports bar in the early 1990s for Draft Saturday.  I ordered nearly everything on the menu so I could sit there for hours without “getting looks” from the wait staff.  I loved the draft well before it became the No. 1 off-the-field event in all of sports.

As such, there are times when I hear something about the Draft and/or its history and I get that dog head turn.  You know the one: a dog hears something odd, and he gets that little head turn with a quizzical look on his/her face?  Yeah, THAT one.  That happened to me yesterday when a Twitter conversation began boiling down to, essentially, one question:

“Which player is more susceptible to being a bust: a defensive end or a quarterback?”

On the surface, that one is easy, right?  MUST be a QB, right? As the conversation transpired, more and more people struggled to name a bunch of defensive end busts.  For me, though, it was a question worth examining, especially given the fact that the team in my hometown at the top of the draft, the Houston Texans, faces this very question.

“What’s more risky - a DE or a QB?”

Ironically, the Texans faced this question back in 2006 and got it right by selecting former NC State defensive end Mario Williams, instead of any of the three QB that eventually were selected in the first round.

So, I decided to do a little research to test whether that question had merit in any way, shape or form.  Surprisingly it did, and the results were telling.  This question will spawn a number of different articles from this study, but I’ll save those for later parts.

The Setup

To get a semi-accurate picture to answer the question, I examined 10 years of NFL Drafts’ first rounds, from 2002 through 2011.  I wanted a definitive 10-year sample size, and I wanted players to have at least three years in the books; that's how I arrived at a necessary minimum of 10 years.

I reviewed only the first round of each of those drafts because the perceived value inherent in that particular round vs. the other six is much higher.  As such, I placed each player into one of four categories, based on performance, production and my own film watching subjectivity.

  1. Perennial Pro Bowler - one of, if not, the best at a player’s particular position
  2. Infrequent Pro Bowler OR no Pro Bowls but a solid career or long time veteran
  3. Average player at best, below value draft selection
  4. Total bust

To be fair, I attempted to err on the conservative side for both extremes.  It was pretty clear, though, which players went into the first or the last categories, as opposed to the middle two categories.

The Results

For the two positions, Quarterback vs. Defensive End, numbers represent number of players:

Over that 10 year period, a DE's bust rate was a staggering 42.5% vs. a QB’s bust rate of 36.7%.  Not only did DEs bust more than we thought, but we also missed the fact that DEs also busted more often than the QBs over that period.  The DE bust rate of 42.5% was the highest of all the positions during that 10 year period in the first round (WRs were second at 37.8% with QBs nudging out DTs 36.7% to 36.1% for third.)

There were more defensive ends selected (40) over that time frame than any other position as well.  It’s clear teams understood the way the league was transforming into a passing league, and it was imperative to rush the quarterback.  Unfortunately, less than half of that group selected was more of an asset than a liability (only 19 in first two categories).  A team didn’t even have a 50-50 chance of getting it right! More like 47-53.  Again, a team may have found defensive end value later in the draft, but if a team drafted one of those 17 busts over those 10 years, it lost significantly more value than it gained, especially given the first round money it had to pay those underperforming DE.

What to Take from the Numbers

When a quarterback busts, we ALL can see it, and, prior to the institution of the rookie wage scale, it’s often deadly for a franchise.  The Raiders are still trying to recover from the 2007 bust known as Jamarcus Russell.

However, unlike what I surmised on Wednesday, the defensive end busts aren’t as evident, but just as plentiful.  Should the Texans avoid Jadeveon Clowney because the bust rate for DE is this high?  No, but it does mean if they’re going to take the defensive end leap in the first round, they better have done their homework.  Furthermore, if someone says to take Clowney and his/her reasoning includes the fact that DE don’t bust like QB, correct them.  Show them the numbers.

What NOT to Take from the Numbers

The question of why the bust rate is so high for defensive ends versus all other positions (including quarterback), is definitely up for debate. Each bust tells a much different story.  Among those factors:

Injuries

As I went through the list, I was struck by a few of the great college defensive ends that had an injury plagued career (Erasmus James) or a career that never even got started because of injury (David Pollack).  Unfortunately, those are credited as busts in this study.

3-4 and/or 4-3 DE

I differentiated between 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE but didn’t differentiate between 3-4 DE and 4-3 DE.  That said, swinging and completely whiffing 42.5% of the time is awful, no matter the circumstance or the scheme.

Poor Development

Ask every single bust of those 10 years and each one will have a story.  However, each story will presumably include that fact that he wasn’t developed properly by the coaching staff, changed schemes throughout his career or didn’t receive the proper instruction on a daily basis.

Poor Scouting

No scouting department hits 1.000 in the draft and every year a team misses on a pick based solely on a poor evaluation of a player.  Missing isn’t the norm, but it’s definitely not the exception.  As such, it’ll remain a factor at all positions, in all rounds, until the end of time.  It’s just more penal in the first round, especially at such a key position.

Game Evolution

As noted above, over the past 12 to 15 years, the NFL became more of a passing league.  For that time period, teams attempted to keep up with the Joneses, if you will, by perhaps reaching on edge players due to said offensive paradigm shift.  Unfortunately, they missed.  A lot.

Conclusion

I’ve said many times that there are three key players on the field - the one that throws the ball, the one that protects the thrower and the one that puts pressure on the thrower.  Well, we all knew that there was plenty of volatility at the quarterback position, but we now know that there’s just as much at the defensive end position.  Well, what about the last third, left tackle/right tackle, John?  Well, you’ll just have to stay tuned.

Comment