As the clock ticked down on the Carolina Panthers’ eighth overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, many wondered if general manager Scott Fitterer would add another quarterback to the team’s roster after trading for former Jets QB Sam Darnold earlier in the offseason. But Carolina elected to go in another direction. When the pick came in, commissioner Roger Goodell walked on stage and read the name of Jaycee Horn, making the South Carolina cornerback the first defensive player chosen in the draft.
Last week, Rich Eisen asked Panthers head coach Matt Rhule about Carolina’s decision to select Horn over Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields or Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, and his response was interesting. “I think those other young quarterbacks are gonna be fantastic players, but the hit rate on first-round quarterbacks isn’t real, real high,” Rhule said.
Rhule isn’t wrong. Picking the right players is difficult, even for player evaluation experts on NFL teams. It’s also true that pundits are equally mediocre at grading a team’s selections in the immediate aftermath of the draft. The wisdom of the crowd, whether it’s a modest team-sized collective or a larger national media-sized scrum, is just not very wise when it comes to ranking NFL prospects. But is there a way to accurately assess a team’s process on draft day and grade that? Can we say with any certainty whether the Panthers were wrong to pass on Fields? How about the Atlanta Falcons? By looking at how a team’s picks reveal their internal assessment of positional value, there is evidence to suggest that yes, we can.
It all begins with first-round picks. Partially because of the relatively higher hit rate, most draft charts show that high first-round picks are substantially more valuable than picks made later in the same round. Mike Lopez, the NFL’s director of data and analytics, estimates the value of pick 32 at just 41 percent of the first overall pick.1 The Fitzgerald-Spielberger draft chart has pick 32 worth around 41 percent of the 1.01. And the widely discredited2 Jimmy Johnson draft chart puts the value of pick 32 at less than a quarter of the first overall pick.
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But there’s another factor driving the value of first-round picks, beyond the chance to select from a pool of players with a relatively high hit rate: quarterbacks. Quarterback hit rates in the first round aren’t amazing, as Rhule said, but they’re higher than in any other round of the draft. And when they do hit, quarterbacks hit big. We’re talking franchise-changing bigness. What’s that worth to a team, exactly?
To quantify how valuable quarterbacks are relative to other positions, we did something obvious: We looked at what they’re paid. Using data provided by Jason Fitzgerald at Over the Cap, we took the salary information for all non-rookie contracts signed since 2014 and expressed each player’s average salary per year as a share of the NFL salary cap.3 Next we calculated the median contract value at each position, ranked the positions, and finally expressed each as a share of QB value.4
Teams pay up for players that affect passing
NFL positions by total number of non-rookie contracts, median contract value, share of the salary cap and share of quarterback value, 2014-21
|Position||Number of contracts||Median
|Median cap share||share of qb value|
While the list looks reasonable, some of the results are surprising. The median NFL quarterback is worth twice as much as the median left tackle, the second-most-valuable position in football. Edge rushers and wide receivers are about equal in value and are worth around 35 percent as much as a median QB, according to NFL teams. But what is very surprising is just how little the median cornerback is getting paid. In what seems like it could be a mispricing, or perhaps the result of our limited sample, the median CB makes less than the median kicker.
The larger point is clear, though: QBs are king. In fact, quarterbacks are so valuable that if you’re a GM who’s not in a position to draft one in the first round, your job changes dramatically. When all the viable first-round QBs are off the board, your task effectively becomes one of loss minimization. Rather than attempting to pick the right players — which is a largely futile exercise anyway — or focusing on need or best player available, GMs can most effectively increase the expected value of their picks5 by selecting players at the highest value non-QB positions. If you can’t increase your hit rate through better evaluation, it’s best to simply take your shots at the most valuable positions and hope you get lucky.
related: Sorry, But NFL Draft Grades Can’t Tell You Who Had A Good Draft Read more. »
Using this framework, we can tell which first-round picks were the result of a poor process. Using Lopez’s draft slot values, we adjusted each pick’s value by incorporating the positional value derived from the league contracts. In this system, when a team selects a QB, that team receives the full value of its draft slot. But when any position other than a QB is taken, the pick’s value is discounted by that position’s share of QB value. For example, according to Lopez’s pick value chart, the first overall selection is worth 219 points. If a team took a long snapper at 1.01, the system would award the GM 9 points, or just 4 percent of the pick’s value — for a lost value of -210.
We took each NFL GM’s first-round picks since they started with their current teams and graded them to find the selections that squandered the most value over the past decade.
We can tell right away where drafts went wrong
For current NFL GMs since 2010,* first-round picks by amount of draft value below a quarterback taken at that draft slot
|2018||D. Gettleman||Giants||2||S. Barkley||RB||-192|
|2019||J. Licht||Bucs||5||D. White||LB||-184|
|2016||J. Jones||Cowboys||4||E. Elliott||RB||-182|
|2018||C. Ballard||Colts||6||Q. Nelson||LG||-175|
|2012||J. Jones||Cowboys||6||M. Claiborne||CB||-171|
|2013||S. Keim||Cardinals||7||J. Cooper||LG||-170|
|2018||R. Pace||Bears||8||R. Smith||LB||-169|
|2020||S. Keim||Cardinals||8||I. Simmons||LB||-169|
|2021||T. Fontenot||Falcons||4||K. Pitts||TE||-165|
|2014||R. Spielman||Vikings||9||A. Barr||LB||-164|
|2021||S. Fitterer||Panthers||8||J. Horn||CB||-162|
|2019||K. Colbert||Steelers||10||D. Bush Jr.||LB||-159|
|2021||G. Paton||Broncos||9||P. Surtain II||CB||-157|
|2019||B. Beane||Bills||9||E. Oliver||IL||-154|
|2015||L. Snead||Rams||10||T. Gurley||RB||-152|
|2019||B. Gutekunst||Packers||12||R. Gary||LB||-150|
|2021||J. Jones||Cowboys||12||M. Parsons||LB||-150|
|2016||J. Licht||Bucs||11||V. Hargreaves III||CB||-148|
|2017||M. Loomis||Saints||11||M. Lattimore||CB||-148|
|2015||R. Spielman||Vikings||11||T. Waynes||CB||-148|
|2013||H. Roseman||Eagles||4||L. Johnson||RT||-147|
|2017||S. Keim||Cardinals||13||H. Reddick||LB||-146|
|2013||T. Telesco||Chargers||11||D.J. Fluker||RG||-145|
|2015||M. Loomis||Saints||13||A. Peat||LG||-143|
|2012||H. Roseman||Eagles||12||F. Cox||IL||-141|
|2018||J. Licht||Bucs||12||V. Vea||IL||-141|
|2016||M. Loomis||Saints||12||S. Rankins||IL||-141|
|2014||K. Colbert||Steelers||15||R. Shazier||LB||-137|
Dave Gettleman’s selection of Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in 2018 tops the smoldering pile of value destruction. Jerry Jones taking Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016 isn’t far behind, and Les Snead’s 2015 pick of Todd Gurley in the top 10 was pricey for the Rams franchise. Off-ball linebackers like Devin White, Roquan Smith, Isaiah Simmons and Anthony Barr feature prominently as value vacuums, and six cornerbacks and four interior linemen round out the top 30.
What’s notable about this analysis is that it doesn’t matter if the players turn out to be good. White was in the running for Super Bowl LV MVP, but that doesn’t mean choosing him at fifth overall represents a good process. Middle linebackers — even the best of the best — simply aren’t valuable enough to spend that much draft capital to acquire. The median fullback and punter earns more in his second contract than off-ball linebackers, yet teams would likely never spend a fifth overall pick on either position.
Even a celebrated pick of an NFL-ready athlete is probably a mistake when that player isn’t a quarterback. Kyle Pitts may end up being a generational talent at tight end, but the odds are quite poor that he will be able to return more value to the Falcons than if they had selected a QB with the fourth overall pick.
Fitterer’s selection of Horn this year was the 12th most destructive pick of the past decade.6 Regardless of your personal evaluation of Fields as a player, it seems clear that passing on a quarterback — any first-round quarterback — was a massive, value-destroying error for Carolina. And we don’t need three, four or even five years to say that with confidence.
CORRECTION (May 13, 2021, 10:50 a.m.): In an earlier version of this article, a table listing picks made by current NFL GMs that cost draft capital incorrectly included Quinnen Williams. Williams was not drafted by current Jets GM Joe Douglas, but by his predecessor.