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Which positions are the safest to draft in the first round?

by Chase Stuart on April 23, 2013

in Draft, Team Building

Are some positions safer than others in the draft? Conventional wisdom tells us that quarterbacks are risky, while offensive linemen are safe. But is that true? Jason Lisk wrote a great article on bust rates three years ago at the old PFR Blog, and I’ve decided to update that article based on more recent data.

I looked at the first rounds of all drafts from 1990 to 2009. Over that time period, 46 quarterbacks were selected in the first round, and those quarterbacks were selected, on average, with the 9th or 10th pick. The table below breaks down each position, the number of players selected in the twenty-year period, and their average draft slot:

Pos
Count
Avg Pk
QB469.6
DE7414.1
OLB5114.6
T7014.9
DT5615
WR7315.9
RB6415.9
ILB1917.7
S2917.9
CB7418
TE2420.5
G1620.8
C922.4

After quarterbacks, defensive ends, outside linebackers, offensive tackles, and defensive tackles have the highest average draft slot (if you include the data from 2010, 2011, and 2012, defensive tackle actually slides into the #2 spot). This reflects the Planet Theory in the NFL: there are only so many people that big with that much athleticism walking the planet, so when NFL scouts find them, they draft them. Early.

We can also see the average AV produced by each position in each of their first four seasons, along with their total AV through four seasons. Inside linebackers and running backs are the most productive players early on in their career, which makes sense if you consider that those positions tend to age very poorly and youth rules the day:

Pos
Count
Avg Pk
1
2
3
4
Total
QB469.63.56.66.8723.9
DE7414.14.65.45.45.521
OLB5114.64.76.46.85.923.8
T7014.94.96.46.16.123.6
DT56153.86.27.16.323.5
WR7315.94.966.96.424.2
RB6415.96.276.96.226.3
ILB1917.76.677.67.228.4
S2917.94.46.96.26.123.6
CB74184.36.15.55.321.2
TE2420.53.95.56.36.622.4
G1620.83.15.86620.9
C922.445.25.76.321.2

But looking at just average AV doesn’t tell us a lot about bust rates. So here’s what I did. I went through and measured how each draft pick performed (in terms of AV) through four years, relative to expectation (i.e., his draft slot). There were just over 600 players in the study: I labeled the top 100 overachievers (relative to expectations) as “Great” and the next 100 as “Good” while I tagged the 100 biggest underachievers as “busts” and the next 100 as “Bad.” Everyone else was labeled average.

Here’s how you can read the table below, based on the defensive end line. There were 74 defensive ends selected in the first rounds of drafts from 1990 to 2009, with the average first round end being selected with the 14th pick. Only 5% of them were huge overachievers, while 18% were good, 36% were average, 20% were bad, and 20% were labeled as busts.

Pos
Count
Avg Pk
Great (%)
Good (%)
Avg (%)
Bad (%)
Bust (%)
QB469.6171133930
DE7414.1518362020
OLB5114.62018271818
T7014.91620341317
DT56152313292016
WR7315.9182234818
RB6415.92814202017
ILB1917.7375321611
S2917.9142138217
CB7418914422214
TE2420.5131750174
G1620.8625381913
C922.411117800

Mingo against Jake Matthews, expected to go in the first round of the 2014 draft.

Mingo against Jake Matthews, expected to go in the first round of the 2014 draft.

Quarterbacks do have high bust rates. This method identified Andre Ware, Dan McGwire, Todd Marinovich, Tommy Maddox, David Klingler, Heath Shuler, Jim Druckenmiller, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Alex Smith, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell, and Brady Quinn as busts (and left Patrick Ramsey, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, and Jeff George in the “bad” category), and it’s hard to argue with any of those labels.

On the other hand, defensive ends and outside linebackers are just as likely to fall into one of the bottom two buckets as quarterbacks. Pass rushers may be in high demand but they’re not any safer than quarterbacks. You shouldn’t be surprised if two out of Dion Jordan, Ziggy Ansah, Barkevious Mingo, Jarvis Jones, and Tank Carradine turn into this generation’s version of Aaron Maybin, Vernon Gholston, Jarvis Moss, Larry English, Derrick Harvey, or Robert Ayers. Just like with quarterbacks, I think teams find themselves all too willing to overlook certain flaws when it comes to scouting pass rushers.

I’m a little surprised to admit it, but offensive lineman do appear to be relatively safe here, coming in as neither particularly high in the great or bust category. In general, though, I’m skeptical that we can infer much from this data — the sample sizes aren’t large, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these trends reverse themselves over the next few years.

What are your thoughts?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Solomon April 23, 2013 at 9:10 am

Great stuff. It’s interesting to group your Bad and Bust percentages together. That changes the dynamic a lot. For example, QBs have far and away the highest pure Bust%, 10 points higher than DE and more than double that of a G or CB. But when it’s Bad&Bust%, QBs finish just behind DE and only a few ticks away from G and CB:

Pos Bad&Bust%
DE 40
QB 39
RB 37
OLB 36
DT 36
CB 36
G 32
T 30
S 28
ILB 27
WR 26
TE 21
C 0

Reply

James April 23, 2013 at 12:05 pm

My thoughts are I’m impressed and jealous of your database and programming/querying skills. To be able to find the the marginal AV of the first four seasons for all the cornerbacks drafted in the first round from 1990-2009 is amazing.

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Chase Stuart April 23, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Well how else am I going to get people to keep coming to the site!

To be clear, I used AV and not marginal AV for this post.

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draftrobot April 23, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I love any analysis on draft theory, but I think measuring bust rates by position as a means to tell you you should or shouldn’t pick certain positions at a certain slot is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t take into account risk/reward. Teams know which positions help them win games and as we all know teams overdraft players who can pass the ball, protect the passer, catch the ball, pressure the passer, and cover pass catchers. Many times analysts can look at a draft class and tell you some guard, tight end, or inside linebacker is the safest pick, but GM’s know that if their team stunk the year before, a new guard, tight end, or inside linebacker in the first round probably isn’t going to change their fortunes. Like it or not, sometimes you have to hit when you draw a 14. Yes, you may bust, but you know you’re not going to win if you stand on 14.

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Chase Stuart April 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Completely agree.

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Jason Lisk April 23, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Your comment reminded me that I had written this a couple of years ago http://www.thebiglead.com/index.php/2011/04/28/2011-draft-analysis-the-difference-between-a-bust-a-boom-and-an-average-pick-at-the-top-of-the-draft/

Getting a boom pick is more valuable than a bust is unvaluable (?) when compared with just drafting a guy who can start.

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draftrobot April 24, 2013 at 10:45 am

I think San Francisco is a really interesting case of value positions versus non-value positions because right now they have one of the most complete rosters we’ve seen the last few years and two of their best players are top 10-15 picks at non-value positions, inside linebacker and tight end. However, it took them a while to realize the fruits of those picks. For the first five years Vernon Davis was on the team, they went 33-47 and for the first fours years Patrick Willis was on the team, they went 26-37. Two coaches and one general manager got fired before a team with those two would be any good.

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