Defense Is A Second-Class Citizen In Today's NFL
By TJ Hatter
We've reached that special part of the NFL season where every regular season game has a lingering subtext: where does this leave us during draft time? Some will root for their team to tank, others will stridently root for victory, and each side has its merits in the bar arguments to come this month. But once draft time comes, there is an important question that needs asking: Is picking a defensive player in the first round worth it?
This becomes particularly relevant this year, as many amateur general managers have spent an entire year frothing at the thought of adding Jadeveon Clowney to their team. They've also watched the infamous hit more than Oliver Stone has watched the Zapruder film. This is all despite Clowney having an inconsistent year at South Carolina. But in today's NFL just how high is too high for Clowney or anyone on that side of the ball?
If you look at the top NFL defensive teams this year none of them are overwhelmingly populated by marquee draft picks and, with the exception of JJ Watt, they are absent big names as well. They fit the schemes they've been plugged into and in today's pass happy, offensive focused NFL, that is enough. Even more than individual players, it is the scheme and the coordinator that seems to make the most difference to NFL defenses now as we see Rob Ryan has significantly improved the Saints D with largely the same cast of characters from a unit that was dreadful last season. In his place in Dallas, a group that was solid last year is routinely torched and the biggest change is who is calling the shots.
In yesterday's NFL, Clowney would make perfect sense as a top-five pick. He may still be drafted highly this year. But as a philosophy, that seems out of place in a league where the ability to score points at will is the monster that needs to be fed. The rule changes that defensive players are constantly complaining about have wrought consequences, one of which is that defense as a whole becomes a second-class citizen. Having a perennially stingy defense takes brains and resources away from improving the offense. The offense is what wins games, and sells tickets. So defense is increasingly going to be done on the cheap, with some explosive players making just a few plays each game; enough plays to allow their offense counterparts more time on the field.
Teams are much more likely to swing and miss on an offensive prospect, because settling those positions mean franchise stability. Which brings us back to Clowney. There is no such thing as a can't-miss prospect, for a variety of reasons, but Clowney's star potential certainly exists. Only now, he's going to be dealing with the glass ceiling of what a pass rusher is actually worth in a league where touchdowns flow more freely than the champagne at the 40/40 club.