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Analyzing Position Values In the 2014 Drafts

The 2014 NFL Draft is in the books. The three-day event gives us a unique peek behind the NFL curtain; teams can and do say all sorts of ridiculous things, but the way the draft unfolds is the ultimate in what economists refer to as a revealed preference. For example, NFL decision makers might say that running and stopping the run is the key to winning football games (particularly likely if those decision makers reside in Indianapolis), but the NFL draft revealed that no team preferred to spend a top-50 pick on a running back. Only one pure inside linebacker was drafted in the first two rounds (Alabama’s C.J. Mosley), and only two more (Louisville’s Preston Brown and Wisconsin’s Chris Borland) were selected with picks in the top 125.

As regular readers know, I’ve created a draft value chart based on the expected marginal Approximate Value produced by each draftee in his first five seasons to the team that drafted him. By assigning each draft pick a number of expected points, we can then calculate how much draft capital was spent on each position. I went through the 2014 draft (using the position designations from Pro-Football-Reference) and calculated how much value was used on each position; the results are displayed in the table below.1

Wide receiver, offensive tackle, and cornerback were the three positions that teams were most interested in acquiring in the 2014 draft. In fact, 15% of all draft capital was used on wide receivers, a pretty astonishing amount. In fact, it’s the third most in any draft since the merger, narrowly edging out the famous 1996 draft2 and falling just behind the 2000 and 2004 drafts. The hype was justified, at least in the sense that what we heard from draft analysts (that the 2014 class was an incredibly talented wide receiver group) matched what NFL teams actually did (spent a ton of draft capital on wide receivers).

The chart above is interesting, but comparing wide receivers to quarterbacks is not an apples-to-apples comparison. On every play, there are 22 players on the field, but there’s usually just one quarterback compared to anywhere from two to five receivers. So I took the above numbers and then adjusted them for each position on a per-snap basis. I used crude estimates here, but I’m assuming that, on average over the course of each season, there is 1 QB, 1.2 RBs, 2.5 WRs, 1.3 TEs, 2 OTs, 2 OGs, 1 C, 2 DEs, 1.5 DTs, 1.8 OLBs, 1.2 ILBs, 2.4 CBs, 1 SS, and 1.1 FSs on the field per play. Taking the draft capital value from the above chart and dividing those numbers by the numbers in the preceding sentence, and we get the following chart:

Here are some pretty obvious takeaways:

  • Interior offensive linemen are the least-respected non-kickers in football. With very rare exceptions (Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack being two of the more obvious ones), teams just don’t spend premium picks on those players (I’ll note that Zack Martin, the tackle from Notre Dame drafted by Dallas in the first round over Johnny Manziel, is listed as a tackle here, but he may be a guard in the pros.)
  • Inside linebackers and strong safeties were similarly disrespected in the 2014 draft.  I’m not sure if this year was an outlier,3 but the results from 2014 are pretty telling.  If you consider a strong safety as an in-the-box type player4 and inside linebackers as run-stuffers, the data reveal that teams simply aren’t focused on acquiring players whose main priority is stopping the run.  With one exception.
  • Defensive tackles are respected by NFL teams, but I’m not sure if that’s as much about stopping the run as it is eating up blockers on all plays.  The planet theory comes into play here — there are only so many 300 pounders with NFL-level athleticism on the planet — so teams are very eager to draft them.
  • Cornerbacks, outside linebackers, and defensive linemen are the premium positions on defense, and the numbers above reflect that. On the other hand, free safeties were pretty disrespected in the 2014 draft.  Many of the people I follow on Twitter5 argue that the safety position is becoming one of the most valuable in all of football. The money given to Jairus Byrd, Earl Thomas, T.J. Ward, Donte Whitner, Michael Mitchell, and Antoine Bethea seems to jive with that.  There was some chatter that the 2014 draft was not a good one for safeties, so the results here may reveal the preference of how decision makers view the 2014 prospects specifically, and not the position in general.
  • On offense, quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive tackle stick out as the premium positions. Quarterback and left tackle have long been considered the two most valuable positions on offense, but the spectacular 2014 class enabled wide receivers to form a three-headed tier at the top.
  • Compared to recent history, it’s clear wide receivers were valued much higher in 2014 than over the previous ten years.  It may have felt like the running back position took it on the chin to pave the way for the wide receivers, but nine running backs were selected in between picks 54 and 103.  Add it all up, and running back wasn’t that far behind quarterback or wide receiver, and it was pretty clearly ahead of tight end.
  1. I’m excluding fullbacks and specialists from this definition. For purposes of this study, the three fullbacks drafted, Auburn’s Jay Prosch (HOU), Oklahoma’s Trey Millard (SF), and Arkansas’ Kiero Small (SEA), were included as running backs. For those curious two kickers — Arkansas’ Zach Hocker (WAS) and Boston College’s Nate Freese (DET) — and one punter (Miami(FL)’s Pat O’Donnell (CHI) were also drafted. []
  2. Drafted that year: Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Muhsin Muhammad, Keyshawn Johnson, Eric Moulds, Amani Toomer, Terry Glenn, Joe Horn, Eddie Kennison, and Bobby Engram, each of whom topped 7500 receiving yards. []
  3. While we have the data for 2014, our data in most drafts groups all linebackers together and all safeties (or even worse, all defensive backs) together.. []
  4. Frankly, the distinction between free safety and strong safety doesn’t exist for many teams, but I think “run-stuffing” safeties tend to get labeled as strong safeties and “centerfielder types” get labeled as free safeties, regardless of the position they play []
  5. This seems like such a weird thing to say, but frankly, I don’t know how else to say it.  I don’t know how widespread this position is. []
  • Arif

    Regarding footnote 5, when I want to refer to Draft Twitter, I sometimes just say the “draft intelligentsia” or the “seeming consensus” or even the “prevailing amateur draft opinion,” and assume that the twitter crowd matches the enthused/dedicated draft crowd.

  • mrh

    Is Eric Moulders an example of the Cupertino Effect?

    I think high school shortstops are often the best athletes on their teams but might not be suited for SS at a high level. (I don’t have any data to prove this). Could a similar effect be at work – the best o-lineman and d-back on a college team get put at tackle and cornerback but might be better suited for OG/C or safety in the NFL? How often do college tackles get moved inside in the NFL? How often do college CBs get moved to safety in the NFL?

  • Richie

    The WR’s in that 96 draft were impressive. Of the first 12 WR’s drafted, it looks like only 3 would be considered legitimate busts. That’s a 75% success rate. I wonder if any other drafts have had a position with such a high rate of success across the first ~10 players drafted.

    • Richie

      Doubly interesting when you consider that the 96 and 97 drafts combined to produce about 1.5 decent QB’s. (Jake Plummer, Tony Banks)

  • Richie

    I don’t have enough understanding of defensive schemes, and how different body types perform in the trenches of the NFL.

    But, with so many teams seemingly building defenses to stop the pass, would it make any sense for some NFL teams to “zag” a bit and pursue a more run-heavy offense? It almost looks like that’s what Houston might be thinking, drafting a guard, a tight end and a fullback while leaving their QB situation a bit questionable.

  • Nick Bradley

    I’d like to see these graphs in McCoy/Johnson value chart terms, since draft trades and selections are made based on that chart (against better judgment)

  • Nick Bradley

    Richie, the Two best teams in football, SEA and SFO, zagged and run heavy. Seattle took a running back to be a third stringer in the second round last year and the Niners took Carlos Hyde this year and he’s fourth on the depth chart

  • prowrestlingisstrong

    You mentioned that many football people consider safety to be one of the most important positions on the team, and I was in that boat, but seeing some of the insane contracts handed out to corners in that last couple of days (Sherman, Haden) makes me believe that front offices still value corner over safety. Perhaps it a bit of an over reaction to Seattle’s recent success, but it appears that the market on corners may be entering a bubble phase. I would still argue that corner is vastly over valued. Look at the more recent super bowl participants (last five years) excluding Seattle many of those teams fielded average to slightly above average corners. The real talent on their defenses resided in safety and front 7.

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