If you want an elite wide receiver, be prepared to spend a very early draft pick, like the Lions did with second-overall pick Calvin Johnson. (Getty Images)
For as much research and analysis goes into each year's NFL Draft, the whole process is a very inexact science. How often has a "sure thing" flamed out before reaching an elite level? What causes so many late-round and undrafted players to wind up developing into terrific talents?
To emphasize just how random the whole process can be, we took a look back at the NFL's All-Pro first teams from 2007-11 and where the players on those teams were drafted (players are broken down by position and listed in order of where they were drafted).
The hope was that we'd gain insight into where the league's best at each position get drafted (is a running back a position you can wait on? Are offensive tackles a true premium position?). The moral of the story, based on the findings: There are very few patterns that guarantee successful drafting, and that the adage that you can find good players all throughout the draft -- and sometimes afterward -- holds true.
Peyton Manning (Round 1, No. 1); Aaron Rodgers (Round 1, No. 24); Tom Brady (Round 6, No. 199)
Tom Brady remains one of the poster children for the theory that you can find a superstar anywhere in the draft. Manning's draft position speaks a little more to the belief out there that you have to be willing to go after a quarterback early. The Packers had the benefit of waiting for Rodgers at 24 because of the presence of Brett Favre, who was one of the second-team All-Pro guys during this stretch -- Favre was a second-round pick, No. 33 overall.
Last year was notable for its rush of quarterbacks in the first round -- four in the first 12 picks -- and after the early success of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton (despite not being All-Pro players yet), the trend could be more exaggerated this year. It's possible that we could get another four quarterbacks taken in the first round, with three potentially being taken in the first four picks.
LaDainian Tomlinson (Round 1, No. 5); Adrian Peterson (Round 1, No. 7); Chris Johnson (Round 1, No. 24); LeSean McCoy (Round 2, No. 53); Maurice Jones-Drew (Round 2, No. 60); Brian Westbrook (Round 3, No. 91); Michael Turner (Round 5, No. 154); Arian Foster (Undrafted)
Good luck finding a pattern here ...
Foster is the major outlier, an undrafted free agent, who signed with Houston prior to the 2009 season, battled his way into the lineup and then piled up 1,616 yards in 2010. Every once in a while there are these mystery cases -- like Brady in Round 6 -- where just about every team passes on a guy, yet he turns out to be a superstar.
Teams tend to look for running back contributors in the first three rounds, and while guys like Peterson and Tomlinson definitely have proven themselves worth the investment, it's also been shown that you can find a talented back outside of the very top of the draft. That isn't likely to stop a team from drafting Trent Richardson in the top 15 this year, but there might be better value to be found elsewhere.
Calvin Johnson (Round 1, No. 2); Larry Fitzgerald (Round 1, No. 3); Andre Johnson (Round 1, No. 3); Randy Moss (Round 1, No. 21); Roddy White (Round 1, No. 27); Reggie Wayne (Round 1, No. 30); Terrell Owens (Round 3, No. 89); Wes Welker (Undrafted)
Eight different players sit in this group, and six of them are first-round picks. That sort of statistic can influence future drafts -- Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd are talented wide receivers, but they might go higher than they should in April as teams reach for top-flight talents. Of course, like Foster at running back, there are sleepers like Wes Welker. Is it luck that turns up those gems? Sure, but some of it has to do with players finding the perfect situation. The speedy slot man Welker wasn't a superstar, spending time with the Chargers and Dolphins, until he landed in Tom Brady's offense.
Tony Gonzalez (Round 1, No. 13); Dallas Clark (Round 1, No. 24); Rob Gronkowski (Round 2, No. 42); Jason Witten (Round 3, No. 69 overall)
Could this position follow the wide receiver pattern and see more high draft picks based on recent success? Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham were all taken in the first four rounds in 2010, and all have contributed to an incredible surge in talent level at tight end.
It's a relatively weak draft class for tight ends this year, but Stanford's Coby Fleener is drawing comparisons to those new-breed athletic tight ends mentioned above, and should benefit by getting drafted late in the first round.
Jake Long (Round 1, No. 1); Joe Thomas (Round 1, No. 3 overall); Walter Jones (Round 1, No. 6); Jordan Gross (Round 1, No. 8); Ryan Clady (Round 1, No. 12); Michael Roos (Round 2, No. 41); Matt Light (Round 2, No. 48); Jason Peters (Undrafted)
There's no secret here: If you want a reliable, sometimes dominant tackle, then it's going to cost you a high draft pick. Jason Peters' story stands as the exception to the rule, as he slipped through the cracks at the 2004 draft, only to make the last five Pro Bowls and garner All-Pro nods in four of the last five seasons with Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Tackles are routinely drafted in the top 10 every year. This year we could see two in USC's Matt Kalil and Iowa's Riley Reiff.
Steve Hutchinson (Round 1, No. 17); Alan Faneca (Round 1, No. 26); Logan Mankins (Round 1, No. 32); Chris Snee (Round 2, No. 34); Jahri Evans (Round 4, No. 108); Carl Nicks (Round 5, No. 164 overall)
Somehow, the Saints have found the golden ticket at the guard position. They waited on Jahri Evans in the 2006 draft, then did the same with Carl Nicks in 2008. They were rewarded with matching first-team All-Pro bids from that tandem last season plus a total of five Pro Bowl berths. Otherwise, while these results show that you don't have to take a guard as high as a tackle to get an elite player, you still should be thinking of the position in the draft's first two days.
This is a very good year for guards in the draft, with a handful of players that could get drafted in the first two rounds.
Maurkice Pouncey (Round 1, No. 18); Nick Mangold (Round 1, No. 29); Kevin Mawae (Round 2, No. 36 overall); Jeff Saturday (Undrafted)
Since the 2000 draft, a grand total of six centers have come off the board in the first round. Just two, Pouncey and Mangold have earned All-Pro honors. Last season, Mike Pouncey was a first-round pick at center by the Dolphins, Stefan Wisniewski came off the board to the Raiders in Round 2, then no other center heard his named called until the sixth round. The 2012 center class looks to be much stronger, so we'll have to see how the new blood fares.
Julius Peppers (Round 1, No. 2); Dwight Freeney (Round 1, No. 11); John Abraham (Round 1, No. 13); Jason Pierre-Paul (Round 1, No. 15); Patrick Kerney (Round 1, No. 30 overall); Justin Tuck (Round 3, No. 74); Jared Allen (Round 4, No. 126)
How highly coveted are talented pass-rushers? Well, look no further than the 2011 draft for your answer -- nine first-round picks came from the defensive end position, including some hybrid DE/LB players like Aldon Smith, who stepped into a 3-4 defense and turned in an incredible rookie season. None of those nine jumped right onto the All-Pro team in 2011, but that could change in the near future. Plus, take Jared Allen out of the list of recent DE All-Pros, and it's clear that the better talent comes from higher rounds.
Ndamukong Suh (Round 1, No. 2); Justin Smith (Round 1, No. 4); Kevin Williams (Round 1, No. 9); Haloti Ngata (Round 1, No. 12 overall); Albert Haynesworth (Round 1, No. 15); Jay Ratliff (Round 7, No. 224)
You have to wonder where Jay Ratliff came from -- the rest of the names here not only came off the board in the draft's first round, but within the top 15 picks. Teams running the 3-4 are constantly in search of nose tackles who can stuff the middle, while teams like the Lions (Suh in 2010, Nick Fairley at No. 13 overall in 2011) have decided to build their defenses from the front on out. Ratliff's All-Pro breakthrough came in 2009, but he's made the last four Pro Bowls as well.
The dominance of defensive tackles taken so early bodes well for Memphis' Dontari Poe, Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox and LSU's Michael Brockers, all expected to go within the first 20 picks.
Terrell Suggs (Round 1, No. 10); DeMarcus Ware (Round 1, No. 11 overall); Clay Matthews (Round 1, No. 26); Mike Vrabel (Round 3, No. 91); Elvis Dumervil (Round 4, No. 126); James Harrison (Undrafted)
Another tough position to figure out ... Terrell Suggs was one of the first players off the board in 2003, and the same for DeMarcus Ware in 2005. However, there appears to be something to be said for waiting at OLB. Elvis Dumervil wound up being a steal in Round 4, and there are 31 teams wondering how they let James Harrison slip through their fingers on numerous occasions -- he went undrafted, was signed and then cut by the Steelers and Ravens, spent time in NFL Europe, and finally settled back in Pittsburgh, where he's developed into a premier defensive player.
There is no sure-fire first-round pick at OLB this year. Alabama's Courtney Upshaw was considered a top-15 pick, but his stock is dropping. He, along with players like Illinois' Whitney Mercilus and USC's Nick Perry, might have sit out the draft's first day before hearing their name called.
Jerod Mayo (Round 1, No. 10); Patrick Willis (Round 1, No. 11 overall); Derrick Johnson (Round 1, No. 15); Jon Beason (Round 1, No. 25), Ray Lewis (Round 1, No. 26); Lofa Tatupu (Round 2, No. 45); Navorro Bowman (Round 3, No. 91)
One of last year's All-Pro second-teamers, Washington's London Fletcher, is another from the "undrafted" camp. But it's even rarer to see that type of leap at inside linebacker than at other positions -- as the last five All-Pro teams indicate, the better ILBs fly off the shelves within the first few rounds.
Charles Woodson (Round 1, No. 4); Darrelle Revis (Round 1, No. 14); Antonio Cromartie (Round 1, No. 19); Nnamdi Asomugha (Round 1, No. 31); Asante Samuel (Round 4, No. 120 overall); Cortland Finnegan (Round 7, No. 215)
The sheer number of cornerbacks drafted is overwhelming -- 39 of them in last year's draft alone, though just three (Patrick Peterson, Jimmy Smith and Prince Amukamara) in Round 1. Teams are constantly on the lookout for the next great cornerback, but it's often a fruitless search, as elite talent at the position is hard to find. Because of that, the organizations that can't land a game-changer like Charles Woodson or Darrelle Revis also go with quantity over quality, stockpiling depth at the CB position in hopes of piecing something together.
There's a higher probability that a draft pick will turn out to be a star corner if he's an early-round pick, but Cortland Finnegan and Asante Samuel, among others, show that it's not a set rule. This year, we can expect to see another three or four taken in the first round, with many more to follow after.
Troy Polamalu (Round 1, No. 16 overall); Ed Reed (Round 1, No. 24); Eric Weddle (Round 2, No. 37); Bob Sanders (Round 2, No. 44); Darren Sharper (Round 2, No. 60); Adrian Wilson (Round 3, No. 64)
Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed have been the gold standard at safety for years, and they're the only first-round picks here. In fact, not a single safety came off the board in the first round last season and just three (Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Kenny Phillips) have been Round 1 selections over the past four drafts. It's a position that teams have found value by waiting ... but the first-rounders at safety have often turned into stars.
There's only one safety threatening to be taken in this year's first round -- Alabama's Mark Barron
-- but there could be another nine or 10 taken in the second and third rounds, validating recent history.