Last week, I looked at whether or not teams really do draft late-round quarterbacks in order to develop them in the modern NFL. One consistent line of questioning in the comments section pointed out that because late round picks are generally so hit-or-miss, was there really that much of a difference? A few WCGers asked if there was a position that was "better" to draft in the later rounds. Those seemed like good questions, so they are the focus of this article.
Before I get to the answers, I need to add some context, though. Obviously, simply drafting a player early does not make him better, and one assumption that goes into most of this analysis is that the drafting is being done by a professional staff after doing normal scouting. However, it is true that because some positions are valued more than others and because there are more players able to play certain positions, the chances of a front office finding a quality player does change from position to position and from round to round.
Like before, I looked at ten years of drafting (from 2004-2013) and tried to find some patterns. In this time, 2544 players were drafted. 1513 played in at least 32 games (60%), 1204 were the primary starter for their team for a year (47%), and 283 (11%) earned pro bowl honors. It's worth noting that I'm mostly using information from Pro Football Reference, and they do not consider punters and kickers to be ‘starters', so that does skew the numbers a bit, because 44 kickers and punters were drafted in the ten years under consideration.
Late round picks (defined here as fourth round and later) represent 1565 of the total. 45% of those men played in at least 32 games, 30% ended up as a primary starter at some point, and only 4% earned Pro Bowl honors. Not surprisingly, it seems that late-rounders are not as likely to make it. However, remember that this conversation began by asking whether any position was actually a better bet than a quarterback.
The answer is that all of them are. Only 11% of quarterbacks selected in that crowd played in at least 32 games, while 14% were the primary starter for a team at some point, and 4% earned pro bowl honors. Every other position group has a better return rate in at least two of those categories than quarterbacks (even late-round punters and kickers, who ‘forfeit' the starter criterion but still own late-round QB's in terms of Pro Bowls and games played). So quarterbacks are definitely not the high probability choice after round three.
Is there a position that tends to be a better investment than the average? Yes, especially if what your team needs is depth on defense or role-players on the lines. Skill positions on offense aren't quite as encouraging.
On offense, tight ends selected late make it to the rosters as starters at an impressive rate of 44%, playing in 32 or more games 53% of the time, but they have only ‘typical' luck in making the pro bowl. Late-round wide receivers disappoint as starters and in terms of playing time, not even hitting the average for their late-round peers. We've already talked about quarterbacks. The 138 running backs saw nearly 7% of their numbers make at least one Pro Bowl, but they trailed in terms of seeing time as starters (23%) and playing in games (43%).
By contrast, over three hundred defensive backs were taken after Round 3 in the ten years under consideration, and those players were ‘average' by late-round standards in terms of pro bowl selections and close enough (32%) in terms of making it as a starter. However, with 53% of them playing in at least 32 games, it's clear that a lot of situational defensive backs (and special-teamers drafted as defensive backs) can be had in the late rounds. Linebackers aren't quite as solid, because they lag behind the average except in terms of games played (52% play at least 32 games). Again, this is likely more situational and special-teams play.
Bears fans might be relieved to know that defensive tackles drafted in the late rounds seem to make it as a starter 36% of the time and they play the equivalent of two full seasons of football at least 53% of the time. Late-round defensive ends aren't quite as reliable (of the 135 of them, only 44% saw at least 32 games), but they do at least make the pro bowl at a 7% clip and they play in at least 32 games at an average rate (around 44% of the time).
While we're talking about the men in the trenches, it's worth a few words on offensive linemen. Centers taken late don't see the pro bowl very often, but a better-than-average 46% of them spend at least some time as a starter for their teams. Only 36% of late-round guards play at least 32 games (that's below average), but 37% spend at least a year as a starter (that's a bit above). Late-round tackles seem to find roster spots. They more or less keep pace with the others in terms of Pro Bowls and playing games, but 44% of them end up as a starters, though some of those men end up moving over to guard in order to earn their roster spots.
For those not satisfied with adding depth on the lines, perhaps the Bears should go looking for a fullback in the later rounds. Only 14 were drafted in the late rounds from 2004-2013, but 57% of those men earned a starting spot on a roster and 71% played in at least 32 games. That's better than the average for all draft picks in this time. Of course, it's also a really small sample size and only 15 fullbacks in all were drafted in this time (the outlier was Jacob Hester, who went in the third round), so it's not like these men faced a lot of competition.
Kickers and punters face a similar situation. Yes, late-round kickers and punters do better than average late-round picks, but it only makes sense that they are the ones who will be earning Pro Bowl recognition and playing time because there are not a lot of early-round kickers and punters competing with them.
All told, late round picks aren't very useful in building an offense. They are, however, just fine to build up special teams and to shore up holes on a defense. They have some potential to find a limited starter on an offensive line.
Maybe Pace does know what he's doing. All of those 6th round picks might give us a few answers, after all.