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Guard vs Receiver in the Draft

With the fan debate over Quenton Nelson and Calvin Ridley (and the specter of Kevin White), it’s worth looking at whether or not guards and receivers are equally rewarding first-round investments.

2015 NFL Draft Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

With the upcoming draft featuring a clear top prospect among the guards (Quenton Nelson) and Bears fans still recovering from the disappointment of Kevin White, there’s some chatter among fans. Is it any more reliable (or riskier) to pick a guard in the first round than it is to pick a wide receiver? Is one of these options more likely to pay dividends if the goal is to find an elite player?

Maybe, at least if you’re an actual NFL GM over the last ten years.

From 2008 to 2017, thirty-six receivers were drafted in the first round. Eleven of those (31%) went on to make the Pro Bowl, and four of those became 1st-team All Pros (11%). On the other hand, a meager thirteen guards were drafted in the first round at the same time. However, six of those (46%) made the Pro Bowl, while three went on to become All Pros (23%). Interestingly, while only 28 (78%) of the receivers went on to become starters for at least a year, all thirteen guards did at least this much.

So, from that perspective, picking a wide receiver in the first round is a less reliable investment of draft capital than picking a guard.

Of course, another way of looking at the same numbers is that the talent pool is actually about equal, but that wide receivers are over-selected. There are only so many All-Pro and Pro Bowl spots to go around, and so because there are more wide receivers taken, they will earn a lesser share of the honors.

However, there’s another way to look at things. If in the last 10 years a GM wanted to get an elite player, did that GM need to take the player early? Where do the Pro Bowlers and All-Pros come from? Again, it varies based on the position.

When it comes to guards, the most distinguished players come from the top of the draft. Only four guards (including Kyle Long) drafted from 2008-2017 have earned All-Pro distinction, and three of them were 1st-rounders (the other was Louis Vasquez, who came in the 3rd at #78). Meanwhile, only 10 guards drafted in the last 10 years have been Pro Bowlers; six of them were 1st-rounders, one was a 2nd-rounder, and the rest came in the 3rd round. Perhaps most importantly, every guard drafted in the last ten years who earned multiple All-Pros or Pro-Bowls was taken in the first round.

Receivers are a very different story. While 2008-2017 saw 9 different All-Pros drafted, just under half of them (4) came from the 1st round. These elite receivers also came from the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th rounds (*cough* Antonio Brown *cough*). Meanwhile, of the 32 Pro Bowlers, 11 were from the 1st round, nine were from the 2nd round, and five were taken in the 3rd. That means that seven were taken after the third round.

In fact, repeat Pro Bowlers were found in the 2nd, 3rd, 5th (Tyreek Hill and Matt Slater say “hi”), and 6th rounds, though to be fair at least a little more than half of the repeat Pro Bowlers were actually first-rounders (8/15). Wait, only a little more than half? Yes.

Obviously, there’s more talent early in the draft. However, over the last ten years the way to get an elite guard (or at least one who would earn multiple Pro Bowls or All-Pros) was to pick him in the first round. From a risk analysis perspective, when an NFL GM considered the guard worthy, the player in question was also able to start. By contrast, elite talent at receiver is found all over, and despite the enormous pressure to play first-round picks (which has to account for some of the perfect record guards enjoy), 8 first-round receivers (22% of the group) did not even make it that far (Kevin White says “hi”).

There’s a lot to consider in this upcoming draft, and it is true that (as the disclaimer goes) past results are not indicative of future success. Still, there should be enough in the recent history of the draft for fans to lay to rest the idea that the risks, challenges, and rewards of picking a guard are about the same as picking a receiver. They aren’t.

Let’s hope Pace keeps that in mind.

All stats came from the wondrous Pro Football Reference.