Where Are The Best Players Drafted By Position & Why Should We Care?

I wanted to look at where the top performers in the NFL were drafted by position. If the majority of great players in a certain position were taken on day 3 then is it a reach to get one of them on day 1? Are UDFAs more likely to become above-average players in particular positions? This isn’t a study into positional value but instead about where the talent in the league comes from within the draft and how teams can use this to their advantage.

Personally, I am on the side of coverage being more important than pass rush but if teams are taking all the best edge prospects on day one then you can’t wait until late day two. Also if teams are really bad at evaluating a particular position in the draft and the best players end up going in day three then why take a shot on one in the first round?

I took the top 50% of performers according to PFF from every regular season since 2011 (2013 for K/Ps) and then added in their draft position to see where they were drafted on average. I have used a 20% qualifier to remove players that only played limited snaps in any season. The schemes I used were those most commonly used in the NFL, 11 personnel (1 RB, 1TE & 3WR) on offense and 4-2-5 on defense with three cornerbacks. Where different positions have different amounts of players on the field this has been reflected in the percentages below.

Top 10%
If 1 player – Top 3 Player
If 2 players – Top 6 Players
If 3 players – Top 10 Players

Top 25%
If 1 player – Top 8 Player
If 2 players – Top 16 Players
If 3 players – Top 24 Players

Top 50%
If 1 player – Top 16 Player
If 2 players – Top 32 Players
If 3 players – Top 48 Players

In terms of the draft position, anyone taken in the top 32 is considered day one, picks 33-100 day two, and 101-256 day three. Some years we have seen forfeited picks (Patriots, we’re looking at you) and I didn’t want this to sway the data. Also, all undrafted free agents have been counted as pick 257 as it is one after the draft.

With the data, I am going to be focusing heavily on the top 25% of performers. The top 10% is hard to attain and due to it being a small sample size is easily thrown off, aka Tom Brady and QBs. This is why I have included the column showing which day each player was drafted, this is because it allows us to clearly see which day the majority are taken.

Looking Position By Position

Below I’m going to look position by position at the data above and get a flavor of where great players (top 25%) come from in the draft. Just because great players come from this area it doesn’t mean you should be using that much draft value on a particular position. NFL roster-building doesn’t allow you to be top 25% at every position, you need to prioritize your resources at the places which matter most.

Over 70% of great quarterbacks are taken in the first round, this means if you’re looking for one you should be making a move on day one of the drafts. There will always be exceptions like Brady but looking for your QB starter at pick 199 isn’t a good plan.

Running Back
If there is a position where you can find talent anywhere in the draft and UDFAs then it is running backs and this is confirmed here. The majority of great performers are taken on day two but day three players and UDFAs still gives you a 39% chance.

Wide Receiver
A massive 80% of top 10 receivers each season are drafted in the first two days of the draft and 50% of that is in round one. This means there is real value for taking a wide receiver on day one. In the last few years, we have seen lots of round two wide receivers hit in the draft and the data says over 75% of the top 24 are taken in the before day three.

Tight End
Day two is the day to grab a tight end, over 50% of the great players are drafted there. You are also more likely to find a top 25% tight end on day three rather than day one. The NFL seems to have issues identifying tight ends in the draft and developing them and that shows here.

It is the only position on the offensive line where we consistently see great performers drafted. Only a third of the players are taken on days two and three combined.

Day Two is the most likely place a great guard will be found, it is why going as high as the Colts did for Nelson is a poor use of draft value because you can find prospects later on.

With 38% of the great centers coming on days three it is certainly a case for waiting at the position and not rushing it on day two unless you need to. This is one where you can take some late fliers and see what works.

Edge Defender
If you want a great edge you need to strike in the first round as over 50% of them are taken in that range. There is no real difference in the numbers between day two and day three so it can be a real wildcard once you get outside that first round.

Interior Defender
Lots of the great interior defenders have been taken in the first round, over 40% of them. Then over 25% on day two. I would have said wait until day two in the past but this is saying if you are searching for great then you might need to pull the trigger on day one.

Day Two is the sweet spot for linebackers with 43% coming in that range. The great linebackers are then 23% for day one and three meaning you should probably be avoiding day one linebackers.

This is a fascinating position, the league seems to be poor when assessing cornerback prospects generally. The flip side is that coverage is a harder stat to track for PFF than say passing and rushing that have fewer moving pieces impacting it. Round one and UDFAs are separated by only 14% meaning you can find quality corners anywhere. The scheme can play an impact here, if you’re looking for a press man then that makes it harder than a team looking for a zone.

There is little point in taking a safety on day one of the draft when searching for great. There is still 35% of great players found on day three and UDFAs so waiting shouldn’t scare teams.

If you’re spending a day one or two picks on a kicker then you should really be fired before you make your next selection. Even a day three pick is wasteful based on the numbers.

Drafting a punter on day two is a waste of a pick but it seems to be 50/50 with day three picks and UDFAs so taking a flier in the 6th and 7th round isn’t crazy when searching for a great play from a punter. Why not bring in a couple of UDFAs and let them battle it out.

What Is The Stability Per Position?

It is worth looking at how stable the different position rooms are over the sample size of 2011-2020 (2013 for K/Ps). Obviously, some of the drop-off will be related to retirements but it gives us an idea to see how often players are constantly performing at a higher level. We are using the top 50% here as we are just looking at above-average starters.

From the table above we can see that the most consistent positions are quarterback, tackle & punter. If you get an above-average talent at one of these players then there is a good chance they will stay on your roster and at least hang around the league to start.

The position which is the least consistent is the running backs, which should be no surprise. This is due to their shorter career arcs and their inconsistent play as they age.

Five Key Findings

Here are the five key findings I have taken from the data I have collected. These aren’t hard and fast rules you should keep too. They are more measures for splitting a tie, if you’re between two positions and you see the league is generally better at identifying a round one edge over a round one corner then maybe taking the edge is a better decision.

Finding One – Day One Priorities Are QB, T & ED
If you are searching for a top 25% of player in the NFL then if you’re looking for a quarterback, tackle, or edge defender then you need to be looking in round one. You might not value the edge position as highly in the coverage vs pass rush debate but if you want a great one you have to balance your plan with the way the majority of the NFL operates.

Finding Two – Day Two Priorities Are TE & WR
The only position where over 50% of the great talent comes on day two is the tight end, this means it is where teams are searching most and likely where you need to keep an eye on if you want to improve your team. The cliff is massive for wide receivers if you haven’t found your great talent on days one or two so you need to strike here if you are looking for a player.

Finding Three – You Can Wait Until Day Three For C, RB
The only starting position where over 25% of the great players come on day three is center, and it clocks in at a massive 38%. This means a first is a massive waste of resources when it comes to finding talent. The running back position can be found anywhere in the draft, there is no need to grab a player earlier.

Finding Four – UDFA Priorities Are CB & RB
If you’re trying to pick up UDFAs to make the roster rather than just for special teams and camp bodies then the ones to target are these. In the top 50% of players in the NFL UDFAs make up a large percentage of the CBs 21% & RBs 18%. This is probably linked to teams having large cornerback rooms as well which creates better opportunities.

Finding Five – Don’t Draft K & P
Wasting draft assets on a specialist isn’t something you should be doing. There are so many great ones available after the draft that you can easily afford to wait.

Any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @JackDuffin. The DMs are open for any salary cap/roster construction questions you have.

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