Ok, so we didn't draft a DT this year. That doesn't mean that we won't next year. Right now (since free agency has not begun), it appears that Broncos are going to have to draft a DT early in 2012 and fill out the 2011 DT spots with at least two possibly three free agents (Thomas is a RFA). However, the reason I asked the title question was that I wanted to know if there were examples of D lines that were part of top 5 front 7's which weren't composed of high draft picks at DT. It is extremely difficult to separate the play of the DL from the play of the LBs (Football outsiders doesn't, so I wont' even try) - hence I will talk about front 7 instead of just DL. I chose to focus on the teams who had the top 5 (as defined by Football Outsiders) front 7's in 2010 and 2009. I then looked at whether or not they had drafted DTs in 2000-2008 in rounds 1-3 and whether or not those guys were still playing for them. I realize that I am only focusing on the past two season and that examples may exist prior to that. I looked back at those 9 years of drafts due to the normal three year "gestation period" for a draft pick - even a first rounder - to become an effective DT in the NFL.
So here are the top 5 front 7's of 2010 and (where they ranked in 2009)
1. PIT (#6)
2. CHI (#19)
3. SF (#8)
4. OAK (#16)
5. NYJ (#2)
I was a little surprised to NOT see BAL or SD up there. BAL is almost always up there. SD likes to think that they are and tell everyone that they are.
The top five for 2009 were (2008 rank)
1. BAL (#1)
2. NYJ (#9)
3. GB (#27)
4. NYG (#3)
5. HOU (#30)
So we have 9 teams to look at (surprisingly only NYJ showed up in the top 5 both years). Here are the DTs taken by each team in the first 3 rounds from 2000-2008: (pick # for them, round, pick in round, pick # overall)
PIT drafted a DT with their first pick in 2009 (Ziggy Hood). Clancy didn't make the team. Hampton is an All-Pro and is still with the PIT.
Harris is a restricted free agent but has been dominant in his career. Johnson has been a solid contributor, maybe a slight disappointment given his draft position. He played 3 years for the bears and it currently on the Bengals. Dvoracek in his third and final season actually played for the Bears, starting 12 games. In his first two seasons he was only active for 1 game. Harrison is still with the Bears and has been a solid, if unspectacular player for them. He only played in 5 games last year in which he amassed a total of 3 tackles.
|2||2||25||57||Anthony Adams||DT||Penn State|
|1||1||29||29||Kentwan Balmer||DT||North Carolina|
Adams has been a solid DT in the league since he was drafted. He played 4 years for the 49s and currently plays for the Bears. He averages 34 tackles and 1 sack per year. McDonald is currently a backup DT for the 49ers. He was only a starter for part of one season. Balmer was traded to Seahawks after two years as a backup with the 49ers. He was active for all 16 games in 2010 and made 43 tackles.
OAK - none (they did get a DT in the 4th round in 2000, but they only drafted one other DT in those 9 years - a 6th rounder in 2005)
The Jets used their first two picks this year on DTs. Roberston played 5 years for the Jets, putting up good numbers for a DT, before he finished his career playing one sub-par year for the Broncos (22 tackles in 15 games). Pouha is still with the Jets and has been a starter for them the past two seasons. He became a contributor in his 3rd year.
|1||2||19||51||Dwan Edwards||DT||Oregon State|
BAL used it's second round pick on a DT in 2009. Edwards played 5 seasons for the Ravens, only becoming a significant contributor in his 4th season. He currently plays for the Bills where he had a great, albeit injury shortened, season for them in 2010 - 57 tackles, 1 sack in 11 games. Ngata is one of the most dominant DTs in the NFL. He was able to start as a rookie and be an immediate force - which is a rarity for DTs. However, his true potential was not realized until his second year in the league in which he amassed 63 tackles and 3 sacks.
|3||5||12||147||James Lee||DT||Oregon State|
In 2009 and 2010 GB used a 1st and a 2nd round pick, repectively, on DTs. Warren never started a game in the NFL. Lee started only one game in the NFL and only appeared in 9 in two years in the league. Washington never played in an NFL game. Harrell is still with the Packers, but has only started two games and only been active for 14.
|1||1||25||25||William Joseph||DT||Miami (FL)|
|3||3||18||81||Jay Alford||DT||Penn State|
Cofield was a 4th round pick in 2004. The Giants have taken a DT in the second round in the past two years. Griffin played 4 years for the Giants and was a pass rush specialist. He played 10 years in the NFL and had some very good years statistically for a DT. Joseph played 4 below average years for the Giants before moving to the Faiders where he hung on for two more years as a below average back-up DT. Alford played sparingly as a backup for two seasons with the Giants before moving to the Faiders in 2010, where he was cut and picked up by the Seahawks.
|1||1||16||16||Travis Johnson||DT||Florida State|
Houston used a 3rd rounder in 2010 on a DT. Hill had 2 tackles in 2 seasons and never started an NFL game. Johnson played 4 years for the Texans. He was a starter in his second year and has been an average DT for his career. He currently is a back-up for the Chargers. Okoye started as a rookie (32 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and his been an above average starting DT for his career. He is still with the Texans.
So, let's recap, of the 9 teams who have been in the top 5 in "Front 7" production in the past two years, all but the Faiders have used two to four 1st-3rd round draft picks on DTs. Roughly 2 out of 3 of these DTs listed turned into effective NFL players with a handful of these players being All-Pro quality (Hampton, Harris, Robertson (?), Ngata, Griffin, Okoye (?) ). What does this tell us? The Faiders were able to have a top 5 front 7 without using a single high draft pick on a DT, but I'd rather clean all the bathrooms in Grand Central Station with my tongue, than have the Broncos emulate the Faiders.
The Steelers have only used two high draft picks on DTs, but Hampton is one of the best NTs in the game and they have gotten good value from late round DT draft picks. The Ravens, despite all of their defensive success in the past decade, have only used two early round picks on DTs, but, like the Steelers, they drafted that one stud (Ngata) and they have been able to get good value from their late round DT picks. The Giants largely won a super bowl on the strength of their DL and yet they have not been very successful recently at using early round picks on DTs. Coefield was a 4th rounder so you could argue that he is the equivalent of a 3rd rounder particularly if that draft was deep at DT, but their other two DTs have to viewed busts given the return on draft investment from those two.
So let's look at teams that used high draft picks on DTs who were all busts, but they were still able to have a top five front 7. The Packers qualify here. Neal, their 2010 2nd rounder has hardly played at all for them (fairly normal, even for a 1st rounder). Raji, their 2009 first rounder was a starter in 2010, but in 2009 when they had a highly rated front 7 he was a backup (starting one game and amassing 25 tackles and 1 sack while playing in 14). Despite their whiffs on early round DTs in the draft (4 busts) and with their first rounder playing as a backup in 2009, they still were able to field a front 7 that was in the top 5. in 2010 their front 7 was mediocre according to Football Outsiders.
The Bears found two very good NFL DTs in one draft. Their DL (and Urlacher) was the focal point of their vaunted defenses in the early part of the last decade. Those two early round successes allowed them the luxury of drafting two 3rd round busts at DT.
Houston is an anomaly in that their front 7 went from horrible to good and back to horrible in the span of three years (30 - 5 - 28). Without digging more deeply I would have to attribute that to injuries.
So what conclusions can we draw from all of this information:
1. It is possible, though not probably, to have a top 5 front 7 without spending any early draft picks on DTs (OAK)
2. It is possible, though unlikely, to have a top 5 front 7 even if you drafts busts with these picks 80% of the time (GB)
3. It is possible to have a top 5 front 7 without spending many early draft picks on DTs, if you strike gold in late round DTs (PIT, NYJ, BAL)
4. It is possible to have a top 5 front 7 with FA DTs and great LB play (GB, OAK)
So what will the Broncos have in 2011 - FA DTs (essentially) and hopefully improved LB play. I would be elated if the Broncos had a top 5 front 7 in 2011, but realistically, I think the front 7 will improve from dreadful to mediocre. The Broncos could have 3 or 4 rookies start on D in 2011. Even if they are great players, the learning curve is very steep and they will make rookie mistakes that we are going to have to live with. The Orange Crush will return, but it will take at least another year before we can realistically see that level of defensive excellence.