In the comments to yesterday’s post about teams that might be interested in Cam Newton, a discussion developed about teams building along the lines. Now, I have to say that this view generally passes for orthodoxy, and you will probably here many times as we enter January and get ready for draft season that good teams build along the lines. I’ve looked any number of ways I can think of, though, and cannot find any substantial evidence that good teams devote more draft resources to focusing on the big guys, while imbecile teams draft quarterbacks and receivers and prima donna cornerbacks.
I think what most people mean is that good teams have superior line play. This is generally true (as they also generally have superior quarterback play and skill players, and generally have guys that can cover the opponent). The logical leap, though, is that good teams over-invest in the line early in the draft as a means to accomplishing this.
A couple of years ago, I tried to look at whether good teams really build along the lines, by looking at good, bad, and emerging teams and how they drafted, and by also looking at teams that used a high percentage of first round picks over a short period of time. Today, I’ll take a slightly different look at the same question, by examining Super Bowl teams to see what percentage of their starters on the line were first round draft picks by that organization.
Over the last 30 seasons, the Super Bowl champion has averaged 4.5 starters who were drafted by that team in the first round. I’m going to treat the lines as including all offensive line, all defensive linemen, and since some teams ran a 3-4 defense, to keep the math even, I counted a team’s LOLB as a linemen if it was a 3-4 team. Since 9 of the 22 starters are linemen, we would expect 41% of the first rounders to be linemen. The actual number for the Super Bowl teams is just below that at 38% (52 linemen, 84 non-linemen), though that is roughly in line with the breakdown of first round picks.
No Super Bowl team since 1980 has had three offensive line starters who were drafted in the first round by that team. Five of them had two first round starters: 1980 Raiders (Gene Upshaw and Henry Lawrence), 1985 Bears (Jimbo Covert and Keith Van Horne), 1990 Giants (Eric Moore and William Roberts), 1996 Packers (John Michels and Aaron Taylor), and 2005 Steelers (Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons). On the other hand, thirteen of the thirty SB winners had no offensive line starters drafted in the first round. Those 2005 Steelers, along with the 1984 49ers (three 2nd rounders), are the only SB winners to have three offensive line starters drafted in the first two rounds.
Super Bowl teams have had more defensive line starters (30) than offensive line starters (22) from the first round, though this can be mostly explained by the fact that more defensive linemen (199) have been drafted in the first round over the last thirty years than offensive line (156). Last year’s Saints and the last of the three New England Super Bowl winners in 2004 both had three first round defensive linemen. Several others had two first rounders on the defensive line, while 11 of the Super Bowl winners had no first round defensive linemen. Overall, the 1985 Bears and the 1990 Giants, with four each, had the most first round picks starting on both sides of the ball on the line.
It doesn’t look like the Super Bowl winners, as a group, spent undue resources on the linemen. They just did a better job with the picks they made.