This post is the first of a three part series discussing critical aspects of draft philosophy. Every offseason, draft experts permeate our football consciousness with mountains of information regarding collegiate prospects embarking on their journey to a professional football career. Pundits like Mike Mayock, Todd McShay, and Mel Kiper, Jr. become mainstays on sports programming and websites. Even amateur draft aficionados like Keith and me post mock drafts, videos of prospects, discuss potential draftees, and so on. It is inevitable that fans will disagree on whom they want their favorite team to draft. The disagreement can occur for a number of reasons, but the central reason, in my opinion, is a difference in draft philosophies. There are three critical areas of draft philosophy that drive the differing viewpoints: whether teams should draft based on need or draft the best player available, conflicting views on positional value, and whether or not a player is worth drafting at your particular draft selection. While that is not a complete list, it covers most origins of draft debates.
The logical place to begin this series is with a discussion of positional value. It never fails that NFL teams have a glaring need that fans dwell on in the offseason. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, that need has routinely been a franchise quarterback. But something funny happened on the way to the offseason in 2011. Matt Moore stepped in for an injured Chad Henne and went on a hot streak, winning 6 of the last 9 games for the Dolphins. He put up 2497 yards, 16 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions in 12 starts. He posted an acceptable 87.1 passer rating and was a spark to an otherwise listless Miami offense. He ended up winning the team's MVP award. Some fans began to think that Moore could finally solve the mystery that was the position of franchise quarterback for this team. Some fans disagreed, saying that Miami still needed a quarterback. Hold that thought for a moment.
On another channel, the Dolphins had brought in Dallas castoff Marc Colombo to be the starting right tackle. That move was a disaster, earning Colombo the nickname ‘turnstile'. It was bad enough that many fans believed that he could be upgraded with a tackling dummy. Needless to say, he was not retained that offseason and right tackle became a need. Hold that thought for a moment.
New head coach Joe Philbin was bringing in a new culture that encouraged hard work, high character, and team driven and frowned upon the flamboyant and self-centered. It goes without saying that Philbin and Brandon Marshall would have clashing viewpoints. In a move that can only be rightly explained as one solely for the purpose of ridding the team of questionable character concerns, Marshall was traded to the Chicago Bears. This left the Dolphins without a true go-to receiver, creating a large void at the position. Hold THAT thought for a moment as well.
When Kevin Coyle was brought in as the defensive coordinator, he brought in his 4-3 scheme. That's fine, except Miami had been a 3-4 team. Fortunately, the Dolphins had plenty of scheme diverse players that fit either scheme and the transition was mostly seamless. However, Miami lacked a 4-3 defensive end opposite Wake and was forced to play Jared Odrick out of position there all season.
Let's bring it all back now. Miami needed a quarterback, a right tackle, a go-to receiver, a pass rusher, and was sitting pretty at the eighth draft spot to take their pick of a number of players for any of those positions. Let's assume for a moment that there were four prospects, one for each position of need, and all have equal draft grades. Who would the Dolphins take? Who would YOU take? It is at that point, the views on positional value come into focus. Now that example is working on the unique assumption that four players at positions of need all have exactly equivalent draft grades and are available at Miami's draft slot. But it is not out of the realm of possibility that a number of players with similar draft grades would be sitting there at Miami's draft slot. How a team views positional value becomes highly critical in that event.
So how does one rate the value of each position? First, it needs to be stated that positional VALUE is not equivalent to positional IMPORTANCE. One can argue that every position is important. Kickers are important positions, as are long snappers. Try winning a game without an adequate one. But no one would consider these positions overly valuable. Teams aren't trading up to draft a long snapper. Teams aren't breaking the bank to sign a free agent kicker. All positions are important, but each has differing value.
In this post, I looked at two key factors to determine value: game impact and financial impact. In my estimation, those factors make the most sense. Some positions have a higher in-game impact than others, e.g. those that score touchdowns. Some positions get paid much higher than others, e.g. left tackles vs. right guards. Based on those two factors, I devised a list rating the value of each position. This list is not meant to be a definitive thesis on the topic. I am neither an NFL head coach nor a general manager. But examining financials, draft trends, and using a little common sense, I think this list would give us a relatively close approximation of how the NFL views positional value in general. In the financial aspect of the discussion, I will use the approximate franchise tag numbers for 2013 as well as a few featured contracts at certain positions. The franchise number will help because it's an average amount of high salaries at a given position. For example, if a quarterback tag number is $15M and a tight end tag number is $5M, it would stand to reason that quarterbacks make more money on average ergo their position is more valuable to teams.
Given those factors, here is my listing of positions and their overall value.
The quarterback is without a doubt the position with the highest value. All teams in the NFL either have a franchise quarterback or are looking for a franchise quarterback. There is no gray area. Quarterbacks are the only player on the field, besides the center, that touch the ball on every play (save for Wildcat nonsense). They are charged with not only leading the offense, but being a leader of the team. Quarterback is the most scrutinized position in all of sports. The position requires not just good athletic skills, but also high football intelligence and mental toughness to be successful. How a quarterback fares will determine the success or failure of a team. Hit on a quarterback, a team is set for a long time. Miss on a quarterback and a team is set back at least three years, if not more. Franchise quarterbacks are star players that end up becoming the face of the franchise. Franchise quarterbacks always give a team a chance to win a game. Finding and keeping a franchise caliber quarterback requires using plenty of assets in terms of draft picks and salary. Teams usually utilize their first round draft picks to get a quarterback. It would cost over $14M to franchise tag a quarterback (highest tag number). If you sign a top end quarterback, it will likely cost you over $20M a year, which is roughly 17% of the current cap space.
2) Edge Rusher
Finding a franchise quarterback is priority number one. Getting after the other team's quarterback is priority number two. Because the quarterback is such an important position and they impact the game so much, defenses are always looking for an edge rusher that can disrupt the play of the opposing quarterback. Edge rushers utilize a combination of speed, strength, size, and athleticism to work their way into the backfield and into the pocket. With NFL offenses become more pass oriented and rules changing to favor offenses, edge rushers that can generate pressure by themselves become more of a premium position (as opposed to scheme based pressure a la Rex Ryan). Teams are always looking for more ways to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and use plenty of assets to obtain premier edge rushers. Teams usually look for elite edge rushers in the first round of the draft. If they resort to free agency, they have to offer huge contracts for premier players (Julius Peppers: 6 year, $84M; $42M guaranteed. Mario Williams: 6 year, $96M; $50M guaranteed). They have the second highest tag number at nearly $11M. Edge rushers in a 4-3 defensive front usually warrant more money because that position is slightly more valuable than 3-4 edge rushers. Edge rushers in a 4-3 tend to be bigger and stronger than their 3-4 counterparts. Elite 4-3 rushers are typically harder to find than 3-4 rushers, therefore they are slightly more expensive, hence the higher value. Plus 3-4 edge rushers can be tagged under the linebacker position, lowering the financial value slightly. But in either case, edge rushers are extremely valuable commodities.
3) Left Tackle
In reality, left tackle and edge rusher should be 2 and 2a. However, the left tackle position has seen a drop in value due to more defenses lining an elite edge rusher over the right tackle to try and gain an advantage. But even with that, left tackles are still highly valuable. Since defenses are trying to get after the quarterback, offenses counter with players to neutralize the edge rusher. Good left tackles require athleticism and strength. They must have quick feet, long arms, good balance, and great awareness. Good left tackles rarely give up pressures and sacks and become anchors for the offensive line. Likewise bad left tackles are demoted to the right side of the line or worse, asked to play guard if they want to continue playing. Teams are always looking for a quality left tackle and typically use their first round picks to acquire one. As good left tackles rarely hit free agency, teams usually pay top dollar to keep a good one. If a good left tackle hits the market, teams will have to offer a huge contract to get one. While the franchise tag number is only the fifth highest (for offensive line in general, thus lower valued positions) at over $9.2M, the actual contract value to acquire or keep a good left tackle is much higher (Joe Thomas: 8 year, $92M; $44M guaranteed).
Since the NFL has become more pass oriented, the cornerback position has taken on more importance. Pass coverage and pass rush have a symbiotic relationship. But even the best pass rushers can't always get to the quarterback, which makes the need for quality coverage players a premium. Cornerbacks are the second line of defense against the pass (edge rushers being the first). They are required to line up against some of the fastest humans on earth, mirror their movements, and prevent a football from being caught by said speedy folks. Because the offense already knows where it is supposed to be, corners have to rely on technique, mental toughness, a good comprehension of offensive sets and schemes in order to be in the right position, not to mention physical talent. Thanks to the rookie pay scale, teams are looking higher and higher in the draft to find an elite corner. It takes a great deal of money to obtain or keep a cornerback. The franchise tag number is the third highest at over $10.6M and it would cost about that much or more per annum to sign a top end cornerback. Like edge rushers, corners can be scheme-specific depending if their strengths are man or zone coverage.
5) Wide Receiver
Like with edge rushers and left tackles, corners and receivers should be 3 and 3a. Receivers are usually the fastest players on the team. They have to not only be fast, but exhibit short area quickness, toughness, and great hands to secure the pass. Like quarterbacks, wide receivers can have star power. The main reason the receiver position is lower than cornerback is the financial aspect. Simply put, it is slightly cheaper to get a good receiver than it is to get a good cornerback. The franchise tag number for receivers is over $10M, just slightly less than cornerback and it would cost in the neighborhood of $8M-$10M a year for a top end receiver. Teams look for receivers both in free agency and in the draft. Teams don't always use a first round pick for a starting receiver, but will typically use anywhere from a first rounder to a third rounder to draft a quality receiver. While receivers are less scheme-specific than defenders, certain offensive schemes look for different types of receivers than others. For example, the West Coast Offense traditionally looks for receivers of a certain height and skill set compared to other offenses.
6) Defensive Tackle
Defensive tackles have seen a boon to their value in the pass oriented NFL. Interior defensive linemen now have to add pass rushing to their resume if they want to see a big pay day. More and more teams are looking for tackles that not only stuff the run, but can also generate pressure from the interior. Defensive tackles are no longer just the space-eating, hole-clogging behemoths from the past, but have to be quick and athletic as well as powerful. Interior defenders in a 4-3 have more value than their 3-4 counterparts simply based on scheme; they are asked to do more. However, some 3-4 defenses are becoming more aggressive with the line, requiring more disruptive players in that front, like J.J Watt. Regardless of scheme, defensive tackles are becoming more valuable. In the last few years, interior defensive linemen have gone high in the draft, with 3 defensive tackles going in the top 10 in 2010. The free agent market hasn't risen as high for tackles as some other positions, but it still takes a hefty sum to get or keep one. The market for an average to good defensive tackle will run in the $6M-$8M a year range, with the tag number just slightly over $8M.
7) Middle Linebacker
Middle linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense in the sense that they call the plays and direct traffic. They generally have to be good tacklers, strong at the point of attack, and be decent in coverage. Middle linebackers in a 4-3 have more value than their 3-4 inside equivalents simply because there are less of them on the field. A 3-4 has two linebackers to do the job of a single 4-3 linebacker. Middle linebackers in a 4-3 generally have to be more athletic than 3-4 inside linebackers and they have to cover more ground. Teams don't always use a first round pick to get a middle linebacker, but they can if a top end prospect is available. Free agent middle linebackers aren't typically expensive, though depending on the player, they can be. The tag number for linebackers is just over $9M, although that includes the edge rushing 3-4 linebackers which raises that number.
8) Tight End
Tight ends were formerly the safety valve option for the quarterback. Today, tight ends are becoming go to targets, even supplanting the ‘alpha receiver' role on some teams like New England. Thanks to prolific offenses using tight ends to create mismatches, more and more teams are looking for tight ends as receiving weapons. As more tight ends in the league have become playmakers, their value has risen a good deal. A good tight end must be able to block in-line as before, but now must become a viable target in the offense. They have to have size and speed to generate separation downfield. Tight ends aren't quite the highly drafted commodity that wide receivers are however. Receivers of equivalent situation are considerably more valuable (a number one receiver like Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green will ALWAYS be more valuable than an elite tight end like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski). The positions listed above tight ends still get looked at first in the draft. That usually pushes tight ends down the draft board. Tight ends are not usually very expensive on the open market and their tag number is the lowest of all positions, not including special teams, at slightly over $5M. However, as tight ends become bigger components in offenses, their overall value has gone up.
Safeties are the last line of pass defense. They are required to cover the middle portions of the field. Good safeties can be game changing playmakers. Their value has gone up mutually with that of the tight end. However, safeties aren't a scarce commodity. Safeties aren't a highly paid position and teams can find serviceable safeties at a good price. The cap number for safeties is second cheapest at over $6M, only higher than tight ends (not counting special teams). A good safety has less of an impact on the defense than a equally talented cornerback, since safeties aren't always in direct coverage like corners (which is why CBs get paid MUCH more). Safeties can go high in the draft, but teams can find a quality safety in other rounds besides the first.
10) Right Tackles
Left tackles have seen a slight drop in value thanks to defensive chicanery. On the flip side of that, right tackles have seen a slight increase in value. Right tackles are supposed to be better run blockers than pass protectors. The traditional axiom in relation to that idea is that tackles who can't play the left side; have to play the right side. While it's true that teams want their best tackle to play the left side for pass protection purposes, right tackles now have to be adequate in pass protection also. More right tackles have to be almost as good as left tackles since more and more teams are trying to accumulate pass rushers. However, most good rushers still play the right side defensively squaring up against the left tackle. In financial aspects, it is not a great idea to use the massive franchise tag number for a right tackle. Most teams can find a serviceable right tackle cheaper in free agency at around $6M-$8M a year as opposed to $10M+ of a left tackle. Most teams don't set out to find right tackles in the first round of the draft, though deeper teams can. Usually first round right tackles are left tackle experiments that didn't work.
11) Running Backs
I almost hate to place running back so low on the chart, but the fact is they have lost value (you could MAYBE place them higher than safeties). Once the lynchpin of a great offense, running backs are now complementary pieces within an offense. It is only logical that as the NFL becomes more pass oriented that the running back becomes less valuable. That's not so say that teams are abandoning the running game. It's just that teams are approaching the running game differently than before. More and more teams are looking for a group of running backs to take the place of the artist formerly known as the feature back. Instead of one back that gets 30-40 touches a game, teams want two or more backs that get the same amount. Teams are now incorporating more situational backs which limit touches to other backs. As far as money goes, the franchise tag for a back is just shy of $8M. That's a bargain price for elite backs, but a hefty price to pay for an average back. Most teams can find a decent back in the draft without having to use a first round choice for one. Most teams can find a serviceable back in free agency for a per annum rate less than the tag number.
Centers are the key component of the interior offensive line. Centers are the only player that touches the ball every play. They are responsible for identifying defenses and calling out protection schemes. They have to be good run blockers and serviceable in pass protection. Their value is higher than guards because of their added responsibilities. Teams look for good centers, but they usually don't over pay for them, which almost entirely rules out the franchise tag option. Interior linemen are usually only drafted in the first round if they are blue chip prospects.
13) Outside Linebackers
This is only for 4-3 outside linebackers since 3-4 outside linebackers are considered edge rushers. Outside linebackers have to be solid in run defense as well as solid in pass defense. The weakside linebacker is generally the playmaking linebacker of the group and is more responsible for coverage duties. The strongside linebacker is more of a run stuffer and block absorber than the weakside linebacker. Teams look for quality linebackers, but it isn't a scarce position. Most teams can find serviceable linebackers in free agency without paying too much. Most teams don't draft an outside linebacker in the first round unless they are a blue chip prospect.
Guards represent the lowest value of any full time position. Guards have to be good run blockers and adequate pass protectors. Guards are usually smaller and less athletic than tackles. Left guards tend to be higher in value than right guards due to pass protection responsibilities. As with centers, teams only draft guards high in the draft if they are blue chip prospects. Unless there is an elite guard available in free agency, most teams will sign guards to modest deals.
15) Kickers/Punters/Long Snappers
These positions are lowest value on any team for one main reason: they play very few snaps. A good punter can flip field position. A good kicker can turn a failed drive into points. But these players typically see less than 10 snaps a game. Most teams only sign a kicker or punter to a long term deal if they are elite at the position. Very rarely do teams draft a kicker or punter before later rounds simply because they don't play many snaps or will have the opportunity to play many snaps.
Positional value plays an important part of the drafting process. Teams with a good understanding of positional value make better decisions in the draft and free agency because they won't allocate valuable resources to positions of lower value. Of course, there are teams that draft the best player available regardless of position, but most teams have some form of positional value system like this in order to differentiate between draft prospects and free agents.
Part Two will discuss best-player-available strategy versus drafting for need.