Does Being Number One Really Matter?

RB Chris Johnson (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

When compared to their draft class peers, there was no one statistically better at running the ball, intercepting passes, throwing passes or sacking the quarterback than these players. But did it pay off for them on draft weekend? Scout.com's Ed Thompson takes a look.

When it comes to drafting players for the NFL, it's obvious that being the best in specific statistical category doesn't guarantee a player first-round consideration. If it was that easy there'd be no need for team scouts, the Scouting Combine and pro days.

One of the many reasons you can't just pick players based on their statistics is that even if you only look at the top players in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) the level of talent players are competing against can vary significantly from conference to conference.

That said, you'd still think that every player who managed to be at the top of his draft class — and perhaps even in the country — in a category would get a decent amount of respect on draft day. But in some cases, those players were late-round selections or never heard from a team until after the draft had concluded.

Here's who evidently showed scouts that they had the complete package to warrant a high draft pick, and a few whose on-the-field numbers didn't speak loudly enough to be drafted at all. The numbers referenced to determine the player rankings are based on the players' 2007 regular season performances only as reported by the NCAA.

The Tennessee Titans clearly saw the value in East Carolina running back Chris Johnson, who finished his senior year as the leader in all-purpose running. In thirteen games he rushed for 1,423 yards, added another 1,009 yards on kickoff returns, and rolled up an additional 528 receiving yards. His 227.7 yards per game was nearly 20 yards higher per game than the second-place finisher, Ball State junior WR Dante Love. The Titans made Johnson the fifth running back selected in the draft and the 24th player picked overall with their first-round selection.


Lions rookie RB Kevin Smith.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Based on average yards rushing per game in 2007, nobody dominated the field like Central Florida's Kevin Smith. Over the span of 14 games he carried the ball 450 times for 2,567 yards and crossed the opponent's goal line 29 times. He even led the nation in scoring with an average of 12.9 points per game. But Smith wasn't selected until the first pick of the third round after Detroit traded up to snag him. He was the eighth running back selected overall, missing out on being a second-round pick when the Bears opted for Tulane's Matt Forte with the 13th pick and the Ravens selected Rutgers runner Ray Rice with the 24th selection. Ironically, they had posted the next highest yards-per-game rushing averages right behind Smith. Darren McFadden, the first running back selected by the Raiders with the fourth pick overall in the draft, finished fourth with 140.8 yards per game.

Oregon QB Dennis Dixon finished the 2007 season as the third most efficient passer in the NCAA behind a pair of underclassmen — Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Florida's Tim Tebow. But Dixon's 161.2 passer rating was the best in the nation out of the throwers in his draft class. Dixon was the seventh quarterback selected when the Steelers used a fifth-round selection on him. Meanwhile, Boston College's Matt Ryan — the number three pick overall in the draft by the Atlanta Falcons — placed 61st in the nation with a 127.0 rating.

Freshman Michael Crabtree out of Texas Tech led all receivers in 2007 with 134 receptions and 1,962 yards receiving. But Kansas State's Jordy Nelson finished second with 122 catches for an average of 133.8 yards per game, putting him at the top of his draft class in both categories. That success paid off big for Nelson when the Packers used a pick they had obtained from the Jets to make him the fifth pick in the second round. He was the third receiver off the board behind Houston's Donnie Avery who was picked up with the second selection in Round 2 and Michigan State's Devin Thomas who was selected by the Redskins with the third pick in the round. That pair finished 14th and 34th, respectively, in number of receptions and fourth and 15th in average yards per game.

Some analysts were critical of the Detroit Lions when they picked Colorado middle linebacker Jordon Dizon in the second round with the 45th selection overall. But his 12.46 tackles per game was second-best in the country only to Pittsburgh junior linebacker Scott McKillop who is returning for his senior year. So Dizon was the national leader in tackles out of all of the players in his draft class. He'll be a nice fit in Detroit's Cover 2 defense with his high-running motor and his range.

Heading into NFL Draft weekend plenty of people wondered if Troy's Leodis McKelvin would be the first cornerback selected in this year's draft. The Buffalo Bills didn't wait long to answer the question, picking McKelvin with the 11th pick overall before any other player at his position heard his name called. But it was McKelvin's teammate at the other corner position at Troy — Elbert Mack — who grabbed eight interceptions in just 12 game appearances to average .67 picks per game. That was the best mark in the country, but Mack went through the draft relatively unnoticed by comparison and was later signed as an undrafted free agent by Tampa Bay. Ironically, the only other senior who stole eight passes from his opponents during the regular season was Boston College's Jamie Silva. None of the league's 32 teams used a pick on him either. He was signed after the draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

Even though he picked off five passes and ended up leading the nation in passes defended, UCLA's Trey Brown didn't hear his name called during draft weekend either. But the Chicago Bears were impressed enough by his style of play and his 23 passes defended in 2007 to give him a look as an undrafted free agent. Brown's average of 1.77 passes defended per game was better than the average posted by Jim Thorpe Award winner Antoine Cason out of Arizona. A first-round pick by the San Diego Chargers, Cason averaged 1.58 per game, placing him in a tie for sixth place in that category.

While interception numbers and passes defended didn't command as much attention, sack numbers clearly did. The 2008 draft-eligible sack leaders were both off the board early in the first round.


Rams rookie Chris Long battles Jacob Bell.
AP Photo/Tom Gannam

Virginia's Chris Long was picked second overall by the Rams while Vernon Gholston was added to the New York Jets roster with the sixth pick overall. Both men averaged 1.08 sacks per game, posting 14 sacks in 13 game appearances. They actually tied for third place in the nation behind sophomores Greg Middleton (1.23 sacks per game) out of Indiana and George Selvie (1.12 sacks per game) out of  South Florida. While Selvie also led the nation with 2.42 tackles for loss per game in 2007, Michigan's Shawn Crable placed second and was the top performer in the category among his draft-class peers. The linebacker's 2.19 tackles for loss undoubtedly helped him earn a third-round selection by the New England Patriots.

Michigan State produced this draft class' best player at forcing fumbles. But LB Jonal Saint-Dic wasn't drafted by anyone even though he knocked the ball free eight times for an average of .67 times per game. Kansas City added him immediately following the draft as a free agent. By contrast, UNLV's Beau Bell forced five fumbles, averaging .42 per game for a fourth-place finish. He was selected by the Browns in the fourth round where he may be moved inside in the team's 3-4 defensive alignment to take advantage of this tough-nosed, aggressive style of play.

Utah State's Kevin Robinson finished first in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision with a punt-return average of 18.9 yards.  The Chiefs grabbed him in the early stages of the sixth round.  And while three other underclassmen posted better kickoff return averages then Arkansas running back Felix Jones, his 29.6-yard average placed him atop of the 2008 NFL Draft class in that category. Pairing that result with his excellent skills as a runner, Jones was able to boost his stock to become the third running back off the board and the 22nd pick overall by the Dallas Cowboys.

After looking at this draft class' top performers in these various categories, a couple of things are quite clear. Being number one in a performance category won't necessarily translate into being drafted. And you can't even use it as a predictor of how high a player will be selected even if he's fortunate enough to be picked. As a result, the players who were known as the best in their draft class in each of these statistical categories will see wide disparities in the compensation they're offered by their respective NFL teams.

But they do share one common denominator — they all qualified for a chance to play in the NFL. So keep an eye on these "number ones" and see if they distinguish themselves enough as rookies to make it to the final cuts at the end of the summer.  Undoubtedly, some of the undrafted players will survive the cuts and could possibly even become a starter like former Penn State defensive tackle Ed Johnson did last year with the Colts. Others who were drafted will falter.

Until they start mixing it up with NFL veterans, it'll be difficult to tell what kind of future these top performers will have in the NFL. 

Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.

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