Football is not an exact science. Likewise, the NFL draft cannot be summed up in totality by solely looking at numbers on a spreadsheet. However, there are interesting things that we can learn from studying drafts of years past. As more mock drafts, scouting reports and other forms of this year’s NFL draft content are released, it is important to remember recent history. After all, the best way to predict the future is by looking into the past.
For the purposes of this article, I will be looking at the five most recent drafts, ranging from 2017-2021. Specifically, I will look at the first round results from these past five drafts and identify interesting numbers or trends from that recent span of time. With that being said, here are some statistics you should know ahead of the 2022 NFL draft in Las Vegas.
- Positional breakdown-What positions have been drafted at the highest and/or lowest frequencies in the first round since 2017?
For these numbers, I’ve separated players into 10 draft prospect categories. The offensive labels include quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive line. The defensive labels include edge rushers, interior defensive line, cornerback, safety and linebacker. As you can see, there are five positional categories used for both offense and defense. The system was used in order to better identify each athlete with a specific position group. Some athletes are extremely difficult to pin down to one position, making this system a little more manageable for the time being. There were athletes who could be claimed in multiple of these groups, leaving room for slight fluctuations within the numbers.
1a.) Offensive Line – 26 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (16.25%)
The philosophy of building through the trenches is seen clearly when looking at these statistics. The earliest offensive line selection during this time period was offensive tackle Andrew Thomas, who was drafted by the Giants with the fourth overall pick in 2020.
1b.) Edge Rushers – 26 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (16.25%)
It’s hard to understate the importance of having a great pass rush and depth on the defensive line. An edge player has been selected in the top-five in four of the past five first rounds, including the number one overall selection in 2017, Myles Garrett and the number two overall selection in 2019, Nick Bosa.
2a.) Quarterbacks – 20 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (12.5%)
The NFL is a quarterback league. The numbers support that statement with the position tallying 20 total selections over the past five first rounds. Every number one overall selection has been a quarterback since Myles Garrett went first overall to Cleveland in 2017. In 2021, the draft opened with three straight quarterback selections, Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Zach Wilson (Jets) and Trey Lance (49ers).
2b.) Cornerbacks – 20 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (12.5%)
Drafted at the same rate as quarterbacks, cornerbacks have surely made an impact on the most recent first rounds. In fact, 11 of those 20 selections have occurred during the two most recent first rounds, 2020 saw six corners selected and 2021 featured five corners.
3.) Wide Receivers – 18 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (11.25%)
There were only four receivers selected in the total 64 first round picks between 2018 and 2019. That dip in draft frequency lowered the position group to the middle of the pack.
4.) Linebackers – 15 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (9.375%)
Although the quantity of first round linebackers seems to have shrunk recently, they were drafted at a 2:1 ratio in the first round compared to edge rushers only two years ago in 2020.
5.) Interior Defensive Line – 11 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (6.875%)
With zero selections in the 2021 first round, interior defensive line selections are among the four lowest groups in pick frequency. The position spiked with five of the 11 total first round selections occurring in 2019.
6.) Running Back – 9 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (5.625%)
The position produced two top-five selections between the first rounds of 2017 and 2018. Leonard Fournette went fourth overall to the Jaguars in 2017 and Saquon Barkley went second overall to the Giants in 2018.
7.) Safety – 8 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (5%)
All eight safety first round selections occurred between 2017 and 2019. The highest selected safety during that span was Jamal Adams, who went sixth overall to the Jets in 2017.
8.) Tight End – 7 of 160 first round selections since 2017. (4.375%)
Tight ends sit at the bottom of our list when it comes to first round pick frequency. The position peaked in draft value last year when Kyle Pitts was selected fourth overall by the Falcons. The only other tight end to be selected in the top-10 during that span was T.J. Hockenson, who was selected by the Lions with the eighth overall pick in 2019.
- Offense vs. Defense-What side of the ball is drafted more often?
While one could easily correlate the NFL’s offensive explosion and overall scoring increase to more offensive players being selected, the numbers don’t add up in favor of the offense. In fact, the numbers don’t lean one way or the other. Over the past five first rounds, 80 offensive players and 80 defensive players have been selected of the total 160 first round picks. Quick math allows us to instantly calculate a true 50% split in first round picks between the two sides of the ball.
- The drought of first round safeties-Where did they go?
There hasn’t been a safety drafted in the first round since 2019 when Jonathan Abram was selected 27 overall by the Raiders. Whether or not this trend is a reflection of the safety talent within the recent drafts or a low priority placed on the position, the absence of first round safeties has been evident over the past two drafts. While they have slipped out of the first round in 2019 and 2020, both drafts featured multiple safeties selected in the second round. The trend is a relatively small drought, but it is still crazy to think that the last time a safety was selected in the first round, we were still nearly one year away from the Covid-19 pandemic, Joe Burrow hadn’t led LSU to the national championship yet, and Kevin Durant still played for the Golden State Warriors. This trend is more than likely set to end with this year’s draft as Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton has become one of the most highly regarded prospects throughout the draft process.
- The rising stock of first round receivers-Are the number of receivers selected in the first round increasing?
The short answer to this prompt is an affirmative yes. Between 2020 and 2021, the two most recent first rounds, 11 receivers have been selected. That number accounts for just over 61% of the total amount of receivers drafted in the first round since 2017. It’s been rumored that the number of receivers drafted in the first round of the quickly approaching 2022 NFL draft could rival the number of selections of the past couple of years. Specifically, six receivers were drafted in 2020, the highest total of the five year span. It will be fascinating to see in 2022 can rival that number as receivers first round stock seems to be at a steady climb.
- Offensive Line vs. Defensive Line-Which position group is drafted higher?
While it’s a tie in the total number of first round selections between offensive lineman and edge rushers since 2017, one could easily wonder what group tends to be drafted earlier. This battle tends to favor the defense as an edge rusher has been drafted prior to the first offensive lineman selected in four of the past five drafts. The only first round of the past five years where this trend did not occur was 2021. In the first round of 2021, offensive tackle Penei Sewell was selected seventh overall by the Lions, ahead of all edge rushers and interior defensive lineman that would be later drafted. While the trend had a hiccup last season, it could be back in action in 2022 if the Jaguars select Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Georgia’s Travon Walker or any of the other highly ranked pass rushers with the first overall pick.
- The 2022 Quarterback mystery-How rare would a small first round quarterback class be when considering the past five drafts?
There’s plenty of mock drafts and other content that discusses what quarterbacks should be selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, but nobody seems to have concrete knowledge of the quantity that will be selected. It’s fair to say that many believe that this year could see a small number of quarterbacks drafted within the first round due to various reasons regarding prospects’ projections. If that were the case, it would be rare. Each of the past five first rounds have had at least three quarterbacks selected. The highest frequency came in 2021, when five quarterbacks were selected, all within the first 15 picks. In other words, the recent trend implies that a handful of quarterbacks should be selected in the first round of 2022. If the number of first round quarterbacks falls below three, it would be a historical outlier in comparison to the past five drafts.