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Which Positions Do Teams Obsess Over (And Overlook) On Draft Day?

A strong NFL draft can instantly transform a franchise. But the draft isn’t just about getting great players — it’s about getting great players on the cheap. The league’s rookie wage scale allows teams to employ impact players for far less than what they’re worth on the open market and this surplus value frees teams to spend elsewhere.

But not all positions are of equal value — or at least they aren’t according to the share of money teams allocate to them. So it stands to reason that to maximize the value of first-round picks (and those bargain rookie contracts) in the draft, teams should prioritize the positions that will cost NFL general managers the most amount of money on the open market. At the extremes, this does happen: It’s why 13 of the 19 first overall picks this century have been quarterbacks and why no team has taken a punter or kicker in the first round since 2000.

To look more closely at value per position, we used Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart to assign points to every pick since 2010 and then tallied up all of the points at each position. We then compared the share of total value for each position with the share of total (nonkicking) position salaries for each position group. For example, teams in the 2019 season will spend 11.12 percent on cornerbacks, while in drafts since 2010, teams have allocated 11.23 percent of their first-round capital on the position — very close. But most other positions don’t align so neatly.

How are NFL positions valued?

NFL position groups by 2019 salaries, 2010-18 draft points* and the difference between the shares of each

Share of total…
Position group Salaries Draft points Salaries draft points Difference
Defensive lineman $922.4M 74,520 16.64% 22.38% +5.74
Quarterback 597.2 48,560 10.78 14.58 +3.80
Running back 237.4 18,450 4.28 5.54 +1.26
Cornerback 615.5 37,405 11.12 11.23 +0.11
Safety 402.9 19,380 7.27 5.82 -1.45
Linebacker 644.6 32,530 11.63 9.77 -1.86
Offensive lineman 1,137.6 61,615 20.53 18.50 -2.03
Wide receiver 712.8 34,640 12.86 10.40 -2.46
Tight end 270.4 5,895 4.88 1.77 -3.11

* Draft points are found by adding up the values per pick from FootballPerspective.com.

Sources: pro-football-reference.com. Over the Cap, FootballPerspective.com

Tight ends will get 4.9 percent of the salary pie this year, but teams have spent only 1.8 percent of first-round value on the position. Looking at the past nine drafts, it’s also clear that the running back balance is out of whack: GMs have spent 5.5 percent of their draft capital on the position (led by the game’s fiercest defender of RB value, the Giants’ Dave Gettleman) compared with just 4.3 percent of 2019 salaries.

Wide receivers also seem to be getting short-changed on draft day. But this may have to do more with how difficult it is to assess them. The position has proved exceedingly difficult to scout, judging by first-round bust rate. What’s more, many of the drills that wide receivers endure at the scouting combine don’t seem to predict actual NFL success. So maybe spending more money on proven receivers rather than rolling the dice in the draft than you are willing to spend in the draft is wise. After all, the smartest team in football hasn’t drafted a wide receiver in the first round in 23 years.

But by far the biggest incongruity in absolute value among the positions is on the defensive line, where teams are spending 16.6 percent of their money but 22.4 percent of their first-round draft power. Teams seem to be buying into the belief that, after quarterback, the most valuable player in the league is the person who trying to throw the quarterback to the ground.

The rate at which teams spend first-round picks on pass rushers is likely to climb even higher this year given that defensive linemen are expected to rule this draft like no other. In some mock drafts, as many as five or six defensive linemen are projected to be selected among the first 10 picks. Looking at SBNation’s mock draft database 1 and pairing that with Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart, we can predict that an amazing 37.7 percent of first-round draft capital will be spent on defensive linemen. Yet not one safety is expected to be drafted in the first round, and just two linebackers who aren’t pass-rush specialists, LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush.

The experts who follow the draft most closely are also predicting that general managers will more heavily weight a prospect playing quarterback than his scouting grade. Despite this quarterback draft class being regarded by some experts as subpar, four signal callers are expected to be selected in the first round, including three in the top 10 — something that’s happened just five times since 1970. Any chance to land a good quarterback at the relative bargain-basement price of a rookie contract is apparently too tempting to pass up.

Footnotes

  1. This consensus of mock drafts makes it possible for one player to be “selected” by multiple teams, but it’s used here simply for assessing the predicted position being drafted at each slot, not the specific player.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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