Next Level: Positional value
Which positions have the most value in the NFL draft?
If history teaches us lessons about the future, then teams have a lot to learn.
Consider the success rate of the wide receiver position. Historically, wide receiver ranks as one of the most targeted positions in the first two rounds of the draft (more than running backs and tight ends combined), and yet they experience the highest attrition rate in the NFL.
Of the 43 wide receivers talented enough to be chosen in the first round in the last 10 NFL drafts, guess how many have been invited to a Pro Bowl? The answer is a mere nine -- not a ringing endorsement for teams that continue to go all-in early. By comparison, 22 of the 47 first-round running backs and tight ends went on to a Pro Bowl.
So, if not wide receiver, which positions would be wiser investments early in the draft?
Before we get our hands dirty, a more advanced measuring stick is needed to evaluate NFL production; a checklist of Pro Bowl selections won't suffice. For that, we call upon Pro-Football-Reference.com's newly launched NFL player metric, Approximate Value (AV). Without delving into the gory mathematical framework, we'll describe AV as a tool that attempts to capture a player's seasonal contributions in a single number, no matter what position he plays. Consider it an NFL version of John Hollinger's NBA Player Efficiency Rating. Offensive linemen, quarterbacks and linebackers are all graded on the same objective scale.
This system allows us to study talent depth across various positions in the draft which offers a guide to help identify value opportunities outside the bank-breaking first round. Teams shouldn't feel obligated to pony up A-plus money for an A-minus prospect if they can wait to spend B-plus money on an A-minus prospect of the same position in a later round. On draft day, evaluating talent depth can be just as vital as evaluating the individual talent itself.
Average yearly AV by position
While good quarterbacks have come almost exclusively from the first round, other positions produce value deeper in the draft.
After studying the talent distributions of the past 10 drafts, several trends rise to the surface. Almost all of the talent in certain positions has typically been stored in the first round, whereas the depth in other positions is more equally dispersed. Two positions that teams would be wise to position themselves early are quarterbacks and linebackers, while two positions where the talent pool is typically deep enough that it rewards patience are defensive end and running back.
Jump the line
Don't wait for a quarterback. In all likelihood, he won't be there. Talent-wise, quarterback is by far the most top-heavy position, with the well drying up even before the second round arrives. Sure, Drew Brees (second round) and Tom Brady (sixth round) were plucked after the opening round, but the crop of quality quarterbacks who follow them hardly deserve a mention in the same breath. Consider that of the past 10 NFL drafts, the third best quarterback, according to career AV, drafted outside of the first round is David Garrard, who was named to his first Pro Bowl this past year only because Peyton Manning had a Super Bowl to play in and three other quarterbacks pulled out because of injury.
Garrard's bronze medal may be unfair to Matt Schaub, who was drafted in the third round in 2004. Schaub held the clipboard behind Michael Vick for three years before a trade to Houston gave him a long-awaited starting gig (a waiting time that probably served him well, as our own Chris Sprow shows). Two promising yet injury-riddled seasons and a Pro Bowl campaign in 2009 has Schaub among the top quarterbacks in the game. But he's an anomaly. As Todd McShay points out in the Feb. 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine, all five of 2009's leaders in quarterback rating were among the first 33 picks.
Looking deeper in the history of the position, we find that quarterbacks have the steepest drop-off in production from the first round to the second round. The average quarterback drafted in the first round posted a yearly 5.7 AV in the NFL, good for fourth highest among the 11 positions tracked by PFR. In the second round though, the average NFL production from a quarterback plummets to 2.0, which ranks by far the lowest of any position in the sport. Who's a 2.0-level quarterback, you ask? Think Quincy Carter.
This is not to say it is impossible to find a quarterback past the first round. But with Garrard, Trent Edwards, Marc Bulger and Schaub headlining the past decade, teams searching for their quarterback of the future would be best served to follow the New York Jets' lead in 2009 and jump to the front of the line.
Behind quarterbacks, the second biggest drop-off in talent historically belongs to the linebacker position. While they are one of the most heavily sought-after positions in the opening rounds of the NFL draft, the abundance of star-quality talent is usually scooped up before hungry teams come back around for seconds.
That's because, from top to bottom, the crop of linebacker talent drafted in the first round has performed better than any other position. The average linebacker posts an AV rating on par with the caliber of five-time Pro Bowler and one-time first-team All-Pro Julian Peterson (6.5 AV). That's just the benchmark.
But in the second round, the norm is cut nearly in half to 3.6 AV, which is someone like Victor Hobson. What's more, just six of the 43 linebacker picks in the second round have been named to a Pro Bowl, which is just a third of the rate in the first round.
Worth the wait
What do Jared Allen, Trent Cole, Jay Ratliff and Aaron Kampman have in common, besides each being named to multiple Pro Bowls? More than 125 picks came and went before they heard their name called on draft day.
How do many of today's elite pass rushers slip to the later rounds? Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah of MoveTheSticks.com believes tenacity, not freak athleticism, is the trait that that all elite pass-rushers share and that teams are quick to overrate combine athleticism and overlook what's upstairs.
"Look at a guy like Kyle Vanden Bosch," Jeremiah says. "You're not talking about a rare athlete; you're talking about a guy who has all-out competitiveness. I'd rather have a good athlete with a great motor than a great athlete with an OK motor."
The difficulty to assess mental motivation, a key characteristic for the game's best pass-rushers, might scare off some teams unwilling to do their psychological homework. But for the savvy teams, it provides the rare opportunity to pick up All-Pro talent from the draft-day scraps.
This is simply a case of supply and demand. With enough supply of high-caliber running backs to last at least two rounds, it's bad business to pony up big money for a first-round prize.
The roll call of elite running backs that slipped past the first round is jarring; Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, Marion Barber, Brandon Jacobs, Ray Rice and Steve Slaton were all selected in the second round or later. Furthermore, of the 20 most valuable running backs the past two seasons according to AV, only nine were first-round picks.
In this year's draft, Seattle might feel pressure to grab a running back with their first pick, but they should hold off. The lesson, as always: History repeats itself.
Tom Haberstroh is a contributor to ESPN Insider. Research provided by Matt Lyon of ESPN Stats & Information.
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