NFL Draft Positional Value Analysis

As everyone gets settled in to watch the first round of the NFL draft, I’ve decided to finish a project I started a couple weeks ago.  My goal was to look back on the last 5 drafts to try and determine how valuable each position on a football team is.

My Method

I took the first 224 picks of each of the last 5 drafts.  I sorted these 1120 players by position and ordered them from earliest to latest.  I did this specifically for the 3-4, so when sorting defensive ends, I decided to make every end over 280 lbs a DL in the 3-4, and every player under 280 became an OLB.  All big ends and defensive tackles went into a common d-line category, because it would take extensive scouting for each and every player to determine whether he fit better at end or nose in our scheme.  I then matched each pick with its trade point value, according to Jimmy Johnson’s Draft Value Chart.  Next, I sorted the players into tiers.  For the top 20% of the picks for each position, a grade of A assigned, arguing that the top 20% of players coming out of college are expected to be gamechangers, elite stars of the league.  For the next 25%, a B, which are solid starters, good not great, well loved by their own fan bases.  The next 30% got a C, for role-players, subs, effective reserves and superb special-teamers.  The rest got a D, which are camp fodder, replacement level players and long shot projects.  Then I averaged the point value of all the players in each tier, for each position, and converted that average back into a draft pick.  The exceptions are: For wide receivers and corners, the tier breakdown was instead 10%/30%/35%/25%.  For fullbacks, I divided them 40/60 for As and Bs, presuming that Cs and Ds would go undrafted.  For kickers and punters, everyone who got drafted above 224 got an A.  The reasoning behind the receivers’ and corners’ unique distribution comes later.

The results where:











Offensive Tackle





Defensive Line










Edge Linebacker















Inside Linebacker










Interior Line





Tight End





















Some of these results were absolutely expected.  Some were surprising.  Some of the surprising results can be explained, others result from problems with my method.  We’ll get to that at the end. 

1. Quarterbacks go first.  No questions there.  I’m not even surprised by how much of a lead the position has.  By these numbers, if you want to get a quarterback is in the top 20% of prospects, you’ll have to take him, on average, 5th overall.  That’s very,very, high.  In the sample of 5 drafts, three quarterbacks went 1st overall: Sam Bradford, Matt Stafford, and JaMarcus Russell.  The draft pick at the bottom of that 20% range was Tim Tebow at 25th overall.  The bottom line here is, if you want a star QB, you’ll have to draft him in the first round, or get really really lucky.

2. Offensive Tackles were next.  This is also pretty consistent with conventional wisdom.  The Blind Side did a lot to open the eyes of the masses to the rise of this position in the late 80s.  Football games are won and lost by the pass, and after a passer, you need a guy to protect him.  There’s more to it than that though.  Offensive Tackles also have a huge role in the running game.  Power running plays go right up his alley.  The offensive line is very important to the success of an offense, and he actually contributes very heavily (pun intended) in the run game, which the quarterback usually does not.  Specifically, offensive tackles, more specifically on the blind side, have the highest impact of the o-line positions, and also he scarcest skill set.  In the sample, Jake Long was the highest top tier offensive tackle, taken at #1.  The last player in the top 20% was Roger Saffold, last year’s 33rd pick.

3. Defensive Linemen go right behind the offensive tackles.  Note that this analysis was scheme specific by necessity, so this value breakdown goes according to positions in the 3-4.  In this scheme, defensive linemen, both the ends and the nose, are essential to success on defence.  A lot of the teams supposedly running the 3-4 these days don’t have strong personnel up front, and so are forced to run 1-gap hybrid schemes.  These defences can be successful too: Dick LeBeau initially devised his 3-4 because he had a shortage of talented d-linemen at the time, and wanted to put more linebackers on the field.  He now has some great linemen in Pittsburgh, but his scheme still conceptually uses a lot of hybrid concepts.  When you do have elite d linemen, who can truly control two gaps, your base defense runs much more effectively.  Your linebackers are kept free and able to make plays.  Without good linemen, blockers can slip to the second level and take your linebackers out of the play before they have a chance to do their job.   I grouped 3-4 linemen all under one banner in this study because I couldn’t possibly project every 4-3 linemen drafted in the last 5 years to a 3-4 position.  I felt this wouldn’t have a major negative impact on the results, however, because in my eyes nose tackles and ends have similar value.  One could argue that nose tackles are inferior pass-rushers, or that most ends don’t help as much in the run game.  But I believe that a true elite 3-4 linemen at any of the listed positions is a force in the run and the pass because of his sheer strength, size, and determination.  The Richard Seymours, Vince Wilforks, and Haloti Ngatas of the NFL are simply immovable objects in the run game, and unstoppable forces in the pass.  And this makes them the most valuable position on defense.  The highest defensive lineman drafted in the sample was Mario Williams 1st overall, a 4-3 end who at 6’7 290 would make a formidable 3-4 5-tech.  The lowest A prospect was Allan Branch of the Cardinals, 33rd overall.

4. Here’s the first interesting result, Runningback.  As the draft has been discussed in the last few months, a hot topic has been the fall of the running back position.  With the rise of committee running, an individual back simply doesn’t have enough of an impact on the game to justify high draft picks and salaries.  What isn’t discussed as much in the mass media is that the position was probably overvalued even before multi-back running became popular.  It’s always been convenient, but a little lazy, to attribute rushing yards and touchdowns to the success of the runner, but this isn’t really the case.  The offensive line has a lot more to do with it.  Running backs also have fairly replaceable skill sets – good ones are really pretty easy to find.  But there have to be reasons they ended up so high in the draft.  Here’s a few: For starters, a lot of league offices still massively overvalue the position.  Last year, the Bills took CJ Spiller 9th overall, when it was arguably the deepest position on their offense, as an attempt to cure their offensive woes.  It didn’t work.  And for all the talk in draft season about how the position isn’t as valuable and you need linemen to run the ball, the same pundits are going to have Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and Arian Foster (among many many others) at the top of their player rankings.  Not the offensive linemen in front of them.  Another thing causing backs to go high in the draft is their longevity, or lack thereof.  Runningbacks simply don’t live very long in this league, and while committee running is changing that a bit, the faster you use up a running back, the more often you’ll need a new one.  This goes the other way too, because teams would probably hesitate to draft a player in the top 5 they’ll only get 8 years out of, but it needs to be considered.  I’d like to reiterate that this research is for positional value in the draft, not overall.  The highest a back has been taken since 2006 is #2 overall for Reggie Bush.  The last runningback in the top tier was Joe Addai at #30.

5. Next up are outside linebackers.  When converting draftees to 3-4 positions I only included defensive ends less than 280 pounds in this category, and a very small number of specific names that stood out to me (Clay Matthews, Shawn Crable, and Pierre Woods) who were listed as LBs.  All the other LBs on Wikipedia’s draft records were shunted into the ILB category.  I did this because, like defensive linemen, I didn’t fancy scouting every linebacker drafted in the last 5 years.  Also, I think smaller lighter 3-4 backers like Rob Ninkovitch, who would usually end up playing linebacker in a 4-3 (although Nink was drafted as an end by the Saints), are pretty similar in value to inside backers, whereas your elephant backer (Cunningham, McGuinnest) are closer in their role to a 4-3 right defensive end, a pass rusher and contain player who occasionally performs traditional linebacker duties.  As for justifying the ranking! I think the pass rusher is hugely important to winning football games.  In a 4-3, your right end is probably your most important player.  In a 3-4, the defensive line is too important in the running game to be overtaken in the rankings, but the edge rusher is right up there.  These guys are the reason offensive tackles make so much money.  I think they fall behind offensive tackles because the skill set isn’t as rare.  A complete outside linebacker is a rare commodity, but a guy who can just rush the passer (Tully-Banta Cain, for example) is a lot easier to find than a guy who can pass block at a high level.  As a result, while they face each other in the passing game and presumably have equal value there, an OT has a larger role in the running game than the outside backer, and wins out in value.  The highest edge rusher in the last five drafts was Chris Long.  The last guy who fits in the A bracket is Jerry Hughes.  Both are 4-3 ends, but both definitely project to outside linebacker in a 3-4.

6. The 6th most highly drafted position is wide receiver.  Analysis continues in...

7. Corner backs.  Receiver and corner are by far the most highly drafted positions, with 139 corners, 133 receivers, and the next highest being linebackers at 120.  This is because you can use as many as you want.  There’s no other position on the team where the guy who is #5 on the depth chart gets snaps when everyone is healthy.  The top receiver and corner are, respectively, Calvin Johnson at #2 and Darelle Revis at #7.  The bottom players were Craig ‘Buster’ Davis at #30 and Mike Jenkins at #25.   On one hand, having a true, dominant #1 receiver can make a huge positive impact on your team , certainly more than an individual runningback.  In the passing game, the defensive has 11 players against 10 for the offense (passer excluded).  One great receiver can demand two defensive players to cover him.  In the running game, if the back combined with his offensive line is playing well, they can demand one extra player (the 8th) to move down to the box.  The receiver uses up an extra player alone, while the running game as a group uses up one.  When a great receiver is combined with a good QB, his value is also increased, because together the amount of possible throws, and available field, increases, which is a huge edge.  The value of the corner is tied to that of the receiver.  If a great corner can handle a great receiver alone, that’s advantage defense.  But a great corner going against a team without a great receiver sees his talents wasted, whereas a great receiver against an average corner is a huge edge.  The reason these two positions end up so low in the rankings is because while the truly elite players at these positions have a massive impact on the game, the vast majority do not.  While players like Calvin Johnson and Darelle Revis do more than players like Jake Long and even Mario Williams, players like Rogger Saffold do a lot more than players like Jeremy Maclin and Hakeem Nicks.  If I could devise a ranking system that was more accurate but still objective, it would probably just shrink the ‘A’ range for these guys a lot, to only include true gamebreakers and shutdown corners.  I can’t, though, so my receiver/corner rankings will have to be read for what they are.

8. This is getting long, so I’ll try and be brief with the rest.  Inside Linebackers is the category including traditional linebackers: guys who pursue and tackle ball-carriers, drop into shallow coverage zones, cover backs and tight ends in man, and blitz as extra rushers on certain plays.  Sometimes these kinds of players will play outside linebacker for 3-4 teams, but the skill set and the value still ranks as a true linebacker.  Linebackers have a lot of importance in defensive play, and poor play at the position can doom a team.  However, most linebackers (with the exception of the very very best) have pretty replaceable skill sets.  While I’d much rather have Jerod Mayo starting in the middle than an inferior player like Dane Fletcher, the drop off in the performance of your defence would be minor.  The biggest thing a top inside linebackers contributes is consistency.  He’s not going to be dominant, he’s not going to change the defence, he’s just going to do the same job a little more reliably.  Less missed tackles, less YAC for short passes over the middle.  A good linebacker can contribute a few impact plays like interceptions and sacks, but he doesn’t change your defence as much as good players at other positions do, and a lot of his big plays are generated only because his teammates around him did their jobs.  This is not true in some schemes like the Tampa-2, where good linebacker play is absolutely essential to running your scheme, but it is the case in the 3-4 and traditional 4-3 over fronts.  The highest drafted linebacker was Aaron Curry 4th overall.  The lowest player that received an A was David Harris, at 47.

9. Next up was Safety.  Like linebacker, good consistent safety play is a great luxury, and can take a defense from good to great.  But without good play by the corners, a good safety is useless.  In this year’s Superbowl, Troy Polamalu couldn’t do anything.  Part of it is because he had a bad game.  Part of it is because his corners had a bad game, and couldn’t hold down coverage long enough for Troy to get there to help them.  Safeties make a lot of big plays, and as a result are often in the running for DPOY awards.  However, a safety is too dependent upon his teammates to be considered a priority position.  The highest drafted safety in the sample was Eric Berry at #5, the lowest being Danieal Manning at 42.

10. This is the first big drop off in a while.  All the defensive positions are done, and suddenly we go all the way from average draft spot of 20 to 30, for interior offensive linemen.  Guards and Centers have to block defensive tackles, and yet they fall far lower than their counterparts on draft day.  The reason for this is because blocking schemes typically have their interior linemen double teaming opposing defenders.  They also tend to be lesser pass blockers.  If a guard could pass protect like a tackle, he’d be playing tackle for someone, and getting paid like a tackle.  With the spread, interior pressure is becoming more important in stopping the pass, because a good interior rush disrupts the quarterback far sooner than an edge rush, even if they don’t finish the sack as often.  This in turn increases the value of the interior blocking, and I’d expect to see better, and more valuable, players at guard and center in the future.

11. Tight ends.  A lot is asked of this position, and yet no love.  The problem is tight ends aren’t as good as receivers as a wide out, and they aren’t as good at blocking as a lineman.  Like linebackers and safeties, a bad offense will not get much better with a good tight end.  Even an elite tight end doesn’t impact coverage at the same level as a speedy perimeter receiver.  Even if the defense needs to double team him, the nature of the position makes it so that those extra defenders are still near the play if it goes away from the tight end.  In the run game, solid blocking from this position is a great asset, but if the line is doing a poor job, the tight end’s talents are wasted.  In a balanced offense the tight end contributes as much as the backs and receivers, but his absence would hurt the team a lot less.

12.  The rest.  These positions effect the football game.  Every player who steps on the field does.  But the jobs they do are so dependent on their teammates that they really fall in value.  More importantly, these players are on the team to do very specific jobs, specialists if you will, and in other phases of the game contribute nothing.  Fullbacks are an asset in the power run game.  However they have fallen out of favour as ball carriers.  Unless you have a top (read: draftable) fullback, he’s probably ONLY a lead blocker.  And because of that, his role is very minor.  Many teams, such as the Pats, don’t use fullbacks anymore, because a fullback who doesn’t run is like a tight end, without the potential passing game contributions.  Punters and kickers came next.  A punter does a lot in the field position game, but doesn’t actually play offense and defense.  Would you rather have your opponent 5 yards further back, or would you rather have them a little closer, but have a better defensive player who, on any given down, might prevent them from gaining more yards?  Per play, the punter does a lot, but 20 more net yards punting than an inferior player still has less impact than the difference between a drop and a catch on 3rd and 10.  Kickers can be the difference between a win and a loss, and this binary life-or-death job can cause casual fans to overvalue their role.  Our hero Adam Vinatieri is a great example.  While he made some truly inspring kicks, he only had the opportunity to win those games because the rest of the game had played out to a stalemate, and he had the opportunity to be the tie breaker.  Let’s look at the playoff tiebreaker formula.  When the Dolphins made the 08 playoffs over the Pats, they did so because they won the conference record tie breaker.  Would you say that the #1 reason the Patriots missed the playoffs that year was because of their conference record? No.  The two teams were simply close enough in ability that it came down to that.  The best way to get in the playoffs is by winning games, not tie breakers.  The best way to win football games is with good offense and defense.  Good kicking is a cherry on top.

13. Pure kick returners, who were drafted with the position KR, and long snappers didn’t rank.  Only two of each were drafted in the last 5 years, all 193rd overall or later.  While some players (like Devin Hester) had their value increased because of this skill, those players were included in the other positional rankings.  Players like Jake Ingram and Trindon Holliday were simply not worth having an extensive write up.

That analysis only covered the As, which was what I really wanted to look at.  The Bs are pretty evenly distributed through the top positions, with QB through WR and CB all getting drafted around the end of the second round on average.  Linebackers, Safeties, and interior linemen were down around the early third, and tight ends the late 3rd.   The Cs were similar to the Bs, but two rounds later, and QBs and OTs fell a little further.  I think that’s because a back-up tackle really doesn’t bring much to the table, because tackles are valuable because of that pass blocking ability, and a bad tackle is a liability if anything.  A QB who is not drafted to be a starter plays less than anyone on the team, so their value is understandably modest.  The Ds, and B fullbacks, were all about the same, sitting in the late 180s and 190s.  When you’re in the 6th and 7th rounds, you’re drafting strictly BPA.  You aren’t thinking positional value, you just want to grab the guy who has the best chance of making the team.  C full backs and B and C kickers don’t get drafted, and it’s not that surprising.

Well, I apologize for the length.  Some flaws in the metric I used are:

The Value Chart.  I used it because I wanted a player taken high to have more impact on the rankings than a player taken low.  In a hypothetical first round, if position X is taken 1st and 32nd overall, and position Y is taken 16th and 17th, X is the more valuable position.  However, the value chart probably weighs high picks too heavily.  I know it’s not perfect, but there’s just not a better one available.

Players under #224 weren’t included.  They didn’t have values on the chart because I don’t think they had compensatory picks then, which essentially add an 8th round to the draft.  I don’t think this has a big impact because players drafted that low are pretty much replacement level, camp body types.  I’ve already shown that these types of players have similar value across all positions, so the loss of the later picks isn’t a big deal here.

I left out the supplementary draft, mainly out of laziness.  Because of the small sample size it’d have a pretty minor impact, so I’m not too choked about it.

Defining positions.  I mentioned this earlier, but I had to devise a system to assign each player a position so I could rank the positions.  For defensive linemen, I don’t know that this had a huge impact, because I think all the 4-3 DTs I cast as 3-4 DLs probably would have similar values in their systems.  I know 6’ 295 lb 3 tech doesn’t fit the 3-4, but if there was a 3-4 type player there of comparable skill, he’d probably have the same value.  Also, a lot of OTs switch to guard, and a bunch of corners switch to safety.  A few guys were listed as DB, not many, I put these guys with the corners.  This could have had an impact, as a tackle switching to guard could have raised the interior line rankings a bit, but it would have taken a lot of work to research the players who switched.  My bad.

I don’t like how high running back ended up on this, but looking at the actual draft results, it seems like a lot of teams still do treat it as one of the most valuable positions on the team.  Ours doesn’t.  I think most of us are probably happy about it.

The sample size was a little small.  On one hand, only using 5 classes means that top picks in those draft classes would have a big pull on the average results.  We could have a corner go 2nd and a linebacker go 3rd, and that would change these numbers quite a bit.  Mind you, the last five top picks went DL, QB, OT, QB, QB, which is actually pretty much bang on.  On the other hand, using the small sample meant that current league trends (like the spread and running by committee) are better represented.  And it saves me some work.

If I had to rank them myself, using these results and my own discretion, I would go:

1. QB, approx value of 100

2. OT, value 60

3. 55

4. OLB, 45

5. CB, 45

6. WR, 40

7. RB, 35

8. LB, 35

9. TE, 30

10. S, 30

11. FB, 10

12. K,P, 5

Anyone want to present their own? Thanks for reading (if you’re still with me), here’s to a great 2011 draft for the Patriots, and hopefully the beginning of a great 2011 season!

Sources: I used Wikipedia for the draft results, Jimmy Johnson's Value Chart for the points, and Microsoft Excel for the work.  If anyone wants to look at the tables and tables of draft picks for each position (numbers only, no names), I can post it.

The views expressed in these FanPosts are not necessarily those of the writers or SBNation.

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