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Why It Pays To Draft Defense Early

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

As most of our readers surely know by now, anytime you come to this page, there is probably at least a fifty percent likelihood that, before you get to end of the article, you’ll hear something about the importance of selecting defensive players in the first three rounds of the annual collegiate draft, and the Miami Dolphins’ tendency to prefer offensive players in those rounds over the past few years, other than in 2017. As some of you also know, I have raised holy Hell with various South Florida beat writers who cover the team, for not reporting the disparity between offense and defense in the Dolphins’ war room each April. As probably still fewer of you are aware, I have also emailed team owner Stephen Ross on more than one occasion and implored him to ask Miami’s front office to stop avoiding defensive players like the plague in rounds one through three of the draft.

Alright, so we all know that cranky old Cranehead wants more defensive help in the draft, and I want it earlier than the fifth or sixth round, and certainly not from the pool of undrafted college free agents. In other news, water is still wet. What we haven’t really talked about, though, are the reasons why. Because, believe it or not, there are actually some very good reasons why an NFL team can almost always get more bang for its buck in the first round by going with defense than it can drafting offense, unless they’re lucky enough to hit on a franchise quarterback or offensive tackle.

For starters, all you have to do is take a cursory glance at some of the winning franchises around the league. If we look at teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and Baltimore Ravens and even the AFC East’s own Buffalo Bills and New York Jets -- snicker if you want to, but both the Bills and Jets have given the Dolphins fits in recent years -- will generally draft defense in round one. And of course, the Patriots overwhelmingly prefer to draft defense in the first round. In fact, New England hasn’t selected an offensive player in the first round of the draft since calling offensive tackle Nate Solder’s name seven long years ago, in 2011.

But, why do winning organizations in the NFL generally look to draft defense high? There must be a reason, right? Number one, the law of supply and demand is stacked in favor of offense, to begin with. When guys are settling into their positions in high school and college, it’s much more glamorous to tell all the chicks that you’re a running back or wide receiver than a linebacker, corner or safety. Year in and year out, it never ceases to amaze me just how many NFL teams are suckered into expending a high draft pick on a receiver, when there are, literally, dozens of them coming out of college every year that are playing at a high level. Here’s the main reason, though, in my opinion: you win in the National Football League with well-coached players on offense and blue-chip athletes on defense. It is much more critical that a team be able to line up with stud athletes on defense than on offense. Why? Because it is always, always, always easier to run with the ball or catch the ball than it is to stop someone else from running with the ball or catching the ball. This is why defenders are generally shorter and more compactly built than their offensive counterparts; they have to have a lower center of gravity to be better able to change direction and avoid being juked out of their shoes by a back or receiver. Think you possess the athletic prowess to backpedal for ten or fifteen yards, then turn and run step for step with a 6’2”, sub 4.4 guy who’s intent on burning you for an eighty-yard score? Congratulations; such talent places you in the top one-hundredth of one percent of the billions upon billions of people who walk this earth. The 6’2”, sub 4.4 guy, not so much. Back in 1996, Jimmy Johnson’s first year as Miami’s head coach, a UPS driver showed up at the Dolphins’ facility in Davie, to drop off a package. The driver passed Jimmy in the hallway and boasted that he could run a 4.4 forty yard dash and that Johnson ought to give him a tryout as a wide receiver. Jimmy obligingly told the guy that if he could run a 4.4, he would give him $100.00. Johnson had the training staff issue the driver a pair of shoes and let him stretch and warm up for a few minutes before timing him in the forty. The best the UPS guy could muster was a 4.5, and Johnson kept his money. But you get the idea; big, fast guys who can run are a dime a dozen. Bengals wide receiver John Ross, who ran a 4.22 at the combine, was drafted with the ninth overall pick last year. After one NFL season, the Bengals have one rushing attempt for twelve yards and zero receptions for their investment. Heck, even much-maligned Dolphins number one pick Ted Ginn, also selected ninth overall, back in 2007, at least returned a punt for a touchdown during his rookie year.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Numerous Dolphin fans want to see Notre Dame offensive guard Quenton Nelson selected with Miami’s first-round pick, although not many offensive guards have been drafted in the first round recently. But, if Nelson is that good, could we make a case for drafting him? Maybe. You just cannot understate the importance of having a dominating defense, in terms of what it does for a team’s championship aspirations, however. Indeed, only twice since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger has the team with the top-ranked defense advanced to the Super Bowl and failed to win it, and one of those teams, the 2014 Seattle Seahawks, absolutely should have won a championship. Only an ill-advised pass down on the goal line -- because the coaching staff wanted Russell Wilson, rather than Marshawn Lynch, to win the game’s MVP award -- prevented Seattle from winning.

There has been a lot of #BlameTannehill rhetoric around here lately (when is that ever not the, but what if Tanny had a defense similar to Jacksonville’s young, talented squad? You put a healthy Ryan Tannehill on that Jaguars team at the start of last season, and they are almost certainly playing in the Super Bowl this weekend, while the Patriots are cleaning out their lockers and preparing for another offseason. Just as surely, a suffocating defense would instantly make the Dolphins a championship contender, if only Miami’s front office would get serious about the team’s defense. Last year’s draft, with defenders selected in the first three rounds, was a good start, but the Dolphins need so much more.