Each time the draft is held, the phrase positional value is tossed around to refer to whether or not it makes sense to draft a particular type of player early or whether or not that particular position can be filled just as well later in the draft. This article will attempt to explore the very surface of this question — admitting that there are levels to this data that require additional exposition. However, two things need to be addressed immediately.
First, every non-Special Teams position is better served by being drafted in the first round. The numbers overwhelmingly favor the likelihood that a player drafted in the first round will perform better than a player drafted later. Note that there is a black box around causality here. To some extent, the players drafted earliest will be the most promising. Additionally, players in whom teams have invested heavily will be given more chances and more opportunities to play, and eventually, some of those players will improve or live up to their potential. However, as the by-round data showed, first-rounders just have better results. Saying “you’ll get a better x in the first round” or “the best place to find a franchise x is in the first round” is functionally the same as saying “a team wins a football game by scoring more points than the other team.” It is equal parts a valid observation and an unhelpful recommendation.
Second, drafting special teams and specialty players (like fullbacks) is basically about a small number of marginal players drafted to be used situationally, and drawing conclusions about them is difficult because of how many of their counterparts are actually undrafted free agents. For example, only four of the 14 fullbacks drafted had careers lasting five years, and none earned a Pro Bowl or a first-team All-Pro. Starts were negligible, but they played in around 34 games each. Meanwhile, exactly three long snappers were drafted in this time, and they range from playing in all 80 games available to never playing a snap (which seems kind of ironic). Ultimately, it is probably inaccurate to call drafting a specialty player a waste of a draft pick, but it is worth pointing out that only two of forty-two specialty players drafted ever met the minimum qualifications for impact players as defined by this series.
First Round Picks
With those two qualifiers out of the way, here are the results for players drafted in the first round from 2011-to 2017, by position.
While first-round quarterbacks are frequently considered prone to “busting” (itself a highly problematic and subjective term), fully half of all first-round quarterbacks earn at least one Pro Bowl in their first five years even if the position group does have the lowest rate of earning a fifth year. By contrast, roughly as many selections are spent on wide receivers as on quarterbacks and running backs put together — yet as a group they produce the fewest starts and play in fewer games than all but quarterbacks. They are the least likely to become Pro Bowlers, but there’s an asterisk there.
In terms of total numbers, six running backs earned Pro Bowl honors (and four earned first-team All-Pro honors), while seven wide receivers earned Pro Bowl honors (and three were first-team All-Pros). So even though running backs have a far higher “hit rate” than wide receivers, there are roughly as many truly talented players to be found at each position. It’s just that teams seem far more willing to spend picks to speculate on receivers than on running backs.
Additionally, there is a slight bias toward drafting defensive players in the first round (119) compared to drafting offensive players (104). That could be an artifact of the years being sampled, but it is worth noting for later discussion.
After the first round, the success rates of all positions fall, almost regardless of how success is defined. However, certain positions are less likely to fail and more likely to succeed in both absolute terms and also in terms of percentages. This table organizes outcomes for all draft picks in rounds 2-7 by failure rate and then starter rate.
The results for offensive linemen are remarkable. Alone of all positions, they have a roughly equal chance of becoming starters as they do of being cut before their fourth year. There are also as many stars to be found for the offensive line as for any other position, and there are as many impact players. Thus, while teams are more likely to find a truly good offensive lineman in the first round, the most effective use of a pick outside of the first round might very well be to invest in the trenches, and while waiting to draft offensive linemen until later rounds does decrease the likelihood of high-end talent at the position (as it does everywhere), there are relatively ample stars and impact players to be found later.
The tight end position is tied for the lowest failure rate and is next in line for starter rate. It is the best investment for games per pick. Given what was seen in the first-round table with so few tight ends drafted in the first round, it seems clear that in general, the league is content to find its tight ends in later rounds during all seven of the years under consideration.
Also notable is that wide receivers have a very frustrating draft profile in general. As first-rounders, they contribute the fewest starts and have the lowest rate of earning Pro Bowl consideration. Meanwhile, after the first round, they have the highest failure rate and the worst chance of becoming impact players of any offensive position. Moreover, only quarterbacks contribute fewer games per pick after Day One. This, in turn, does much to explain the high value attached to established wide receivers in free agency. The price-controlled contracts of the rookie salary schedule are less valuable when it is unclear whether or not the player will be worth the money. While the draft is oftentimes considered to be “a gamble”, there is a very inconsistent return on investment for wide receivers, despite how many picks are placed there. It’s safer just to spend the money on a proven producer.
It is admittedly hard to get granular with defensive players with how I have grouped them, and that is partly a limitation of my methods of data collection and partly a consequence of how defenses are structured in the NFL. For example, players might be drafted as defensive ends and then play outside linebacker, or they might be drafted as linebackers and line up inside but still primarily be used in a pass-rush capacity (while different systems ask both outside and inside linebackers to drop back into coverage). Additionally, both the draft and the teams themselves classify defensive backs differently.
Even with that disclaimer, however, defenders as a group have a relatively low likelihood of producing impact players and stars after the first round. On offense, 765 picks produced 72 impact players. On defense, 776 picks produced 39 impact players. The NFL as a whole seems to be a moderately efficient market in this way because as noted earlier there is a bias toward drafting defensive players in the first round — at least in this sample.
Drafting wide receivers in any round is a necessity, but it is one that embodies a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Otherwise, defenders and quarterbacks see the greatest falloff in results when they are drafted later. Meanwhile, if a position group must be filled primarily through later-round picks, the offensive line has the least likelihood of failure. Moreover, if there are extra picks to be spent, spending those picks on offensive linemen is a reasonable strategy.
Coming up next: When the draft is put into full context, what are reasonable expectations for each pick in terms of how “should” players produce when drafted at each level?