Finding Value in Positional Drafting in the NFL

One of the best ways to gain financial flexibility in the NFL is to do well in the draft. As we have looked at over the last two weeks, the draft is underpriced compared to the veteran marketplace and gives a team the ability to gain a financial advantage if they do well to either cover up bad mistakes in free agency or go out and make moves in free agency. Draft success is the first real way for teams to use a Moneyball approach to gain a competitive advantage in the NFL. This is something that Seattle has taken advantage of in recent years, gaining millions of extra cap dollars per year on players who made pennies compared to their actual worth as free agents. So how should teams consider potentially exploiting the system and duplicating the Seahawks success as the draft draws near?

Defining Values

The first step in identifying draft strategies should begin by looking at the current players in the NFL (both rookies and veterans) by position and breaking each position up into financial brackets. For this exercise I chose to look at the top 5, 10, 15, and 32 salaried players at each position that we maintain at OTC. Here is the breakdown:

PosTop 5Top 10Top 15Top 32
QB$20,000,000$17,666,667$15,300,000$3,000,000
RB$8,000,000$4,000,000$3,500,000$1,500,000
WR$11,111,111$9,762,500$8,000,000$4,333,333
TE$7,500,000$7,235,000$4,625,000$1,760,000
LT$10,000,000$8,083,000$7,000,000$1,216,295
RT$6,250,000$5,000,000$4,000,000$1,196,067
C$8,400,000$6,250,000$2,000,000$656,065
LG$6,750,000$5,100,000$3,287,500$725,969
RG$5,875,000$4,200,000$2,075,238$737,500
FB$1,542,000$1,050,000$615,146NA
43DE$12,050,000$8,500,000$7,125,000$2,356,600
34DT$3,025,000$2,023,313$1,600,000$599,633
34DE$6,800,000$3,750,000$2,560,300$1,152,361
43DT$10,000,000$5,101,825$4,500,000$2,333,333
34OLB$8,100,000$6,733,333$5,500,000$1,974,100
43OLB$4,800,000$3,600,000$3,000,000$805,096
ILB$8,300,000$7,000,000$5,500,000$2,197,001
CB$10,500,000$9,750,000$8,500,000$5,000,000
S$8,250,000$7,000,000$5,750,000$2,356,000
K$3,214,286$3,000,000$2,450,000$510,000
P$3,400,000$2,900,000$1,833,333$525,000

Just a few notes before we go further. One this is based on OTC’s numbers so there might be (and likely are) some categories, specifically the 32nd paid player, that is a bit off. Secondly it would probably enhance the study to further categorize receivers, corners, and safeties by sub-positions because they are likely being overvalued on the backend of this chart. Third, I may reference it in the text a bit but these values are just based on contract annual values and don’t include guarantees, which should also be a factor in any analysis.

Using this chart we can identify how much financial value the team can receive for a particular position drafted in a certain slot. For example if I project the top pick in the draft to be a top 5 QB over the next 4 years, I know I will receive about $14.4 million per year in cap benefits. This is measured by simply subtracting the projected salary for the 1st pick (approx. $5.6M per year) from the 5th highest QB salary ($20M).

The Breakeven Point

The breakeven point is simply making certain we don’t jump on a position too early. If we do that we have absolutely no cap benefit in selecting the player. Here is where a team first breaks even for each positon in each tier.

PositionTop 5Top 10Top 15Top 32
QB11111
RB17832
WR1116
TE11531
LT11145
RT15746
C1125132
LG14876
RG162371
FB3251159Na
43DE11116
34DT112432180
34DE171346
43DT14616
34OLB11226
43OLB571165
ILB11218
CB1115
S11117
K91114Na
P81130Na

The way you would read this is that if you project the RB to be a top 5 player, you are justified selecting him at pick 1, if projected as the 10th best player than 7th, 15th is 8th and if he projects to be the 32nd best you can take him with the last pick in the first round. Obviously some of these players would never get picked this high (kickers and punters would never be guaranteed like a first rounder even if their annual values might match) but I think it’s a valuable guide nonetheless, specifically for some of the later round selections. If you have a somewhat similar borderline starter projection for a left tackle and a center in round 3, the salary differential would indicate giving more weight to the tackle due to the salary discrepancy.

The $2 Million Benefit

If we want to go the Moneyball route, though, we need to do far better than breaking even in the draft. We need to find big values in the draft and that is done by selecting premier positions. The following chart shows at what point a draft pick will earn his team $2 million in value based on how he actually ranks in the NFL once he starts playing.

PositionTop 5Top 10Top 15Top 32
QB11154
RB12533NA
WR11117
TE2312NA
LT115NA
RT61125NA
C16NANA
LG51041NA
RG718NANA
FBNANANANA
43DE114NA
34DT53NANANA
34DE532NANA
43DT11014NA
34OLB158NA
43OLB123354NA
ILB158NA
CB11112
S157NA
K4554NANA
P3461NANA

Given that top 5 expectations should be quite rare, I’d look strongly at the top 10 and 15 projections to get an idea of a strike slot. I think if you are drafting top 10 you probably want to eliminate any running backs, right tackles, centers, guards, defensive tackles, 34 defensive ends, and 43 outside linebackers from contention. The benefit just isn’t there unless the player become a top 5 player at his position which is difficult to do. Even as we get deeper in the draft teams should be stockpiling expensive positions rather than wasting resources on positions like kicker and fullback.

The $4 Million Benefit

PositionTop 5Top 10Top 15Top 32
QB111NA
RB7NANANA
WR117NA
TE88134NA
LT1711NA
RT1754NANA
C617NANA
LG1249NANA
RG29NANANA
FBNANANANA
43DE1610NA
34DTNANANANA
34DE11NANANA
43DT149NANA
34OLB61232NA
43OLB65NANANA
ILB61133NA
CB117NA
S6113258
KNANANANA
PNANANANA

If we really want to maximize our values we are going to need to get at least one player that brings big savings each year. I set that number at $4 million in value. When we move to that number our value picks in the top 5 significantly drop. Basically the only acceptable picks are quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, left tackle and 43 defensive end, unless you are willing to project the player to be a top 5 player in his first four years in the NFL. Certain positions get hit hard here and this is one of the reasons running back is valued so little in the draft. You simply can’t generate the same kind of savings as other positions.

The Seahawks Success

There are plenty of teams in the NFL who are successful in the draft, but Seattle is the one that has been the most notable the last few seasons. Let’s see how they have fared in terms of room generated by draft picks (if those picks were selected in 2015 dollars) towards their championship, using those who started at least 10 games in 2013.

PlayerPickPositionTierAPYTrue ValueBenefit
Wilson75QBTop 10$729,375$17,666,667$16,937,292
Sherman154CBTop 5$616,685$10,500,000$9,883,315
Chancellor133STop 10$645,146$7,000,000$6,354,854
Thomas14STop 5$2,442,375$8,250,000$5,807,625
Wagner47ILBTop 15$1,138,825$5,500,000$4,361,176
Tate60WRTop 32$907,333$4,333,333$3,426,000
Wright99OLBTop 15$696,504$3,000,000$2,303,496
Irvin15OLBTop 15$2,397,426$3,000,000$602,574
Carpenter25LGTop 32$1,733,001$725,969-$1,007,032

That works out to basically $48 million in salary cap benefits due to rookie contracts. Considering these players were drafted over a 3 year stretch they were coming away with nearly $12 million in value per year. Even taking out Wilson it’s around $10 million per year in benefits. This is Moneyball in the NFL right here.

We commonly talk about dead money compromising a team’s salary cap because it gives them less dollars to spend than everyone else in the NFL. We really should be charting teams like this is seeing the benefits received from strong drafts and early extensions.  The Seahawks benefits in 2013 were essentially the “good” equivalent of the Raiders “dead money” created by cutting the entire roster, yet rarely is that quantified. It is just as important as the dead money, it’s just not as obvious to see.

I’ve always said that the Seahawks model is near impossible to duplicate, and looking at these numbers I would certainly still lean that way, but to get there it’s all about hitting on big pay positions in the draft, not wasting draft capital on positions that can be found for reasonable prices in free agency. This at least gives us a better way to quantify the benefits Seattle received in th.e drafts leading to their Super Bowl

A Player Example

When we use this type of analysis we need to realize the opportunity cost of the pick. For example let’s go back to the Trent Richardson draft where he was selected at number 3 overall. The Browns other options at that point I guess would have been a receiver, corner, and safety, seeing how the draft played out (they would have had no reason to select Matt Kalil). If they projected Richardson to be a top 5 runner in the NFL, here is the value the other picks would have produced compared to Richardson depending on where they ended up ranking in the NFL.

PlayerPositionTop 5Top 10Top 15
ClaiborneCB$2,500,000$1,750,000$500,000
BlackmonWR$3,111,111$1,762,500$0
BarronS$250,000-$1,000,000-$2,250,000

 If all the players ended up ranking in the top 5 at their position, selecting Claiborne or Blackmon would have given the Browns an added $2.5M or $3.1M in cap room. So the real cost in this case or a running back is Richardson plus a $2.5M or $3.1M per year player. If we look at it further with the corner and receiver we still receive added cap benefits if they wind up just as a top 10 or top 15 player compared with Richardson as a top 5 player. To make that selection the Browns had to not only project Richardson as a top NFL player but would need to believe the other two were awful. The safety number basically says it would be ok to draft Richardson.

If we switch the chart around and take a less risky projection Richardson and he ends up a top 10 talent the benefits could have become huge for the other players.

PlayerPositionTop 5Top 10Top 15
ClaiborneCB$6,500,000$5,750,000$4,500,000
BlackmonWR$7,111,111$5,762,500$4,000,000
BarronS$4,250,000$3,000,000$1,750,000

If each player ended up as a top 10 player the cost of Richardson is now the draft pick plus about $5.7M in the case of the corner and receiver and $3M for the safety. So if we play this out the Browns could have selected Claiborne, signed CJ Spiller and had another million left over. That gives Cleveland two top 10 players at the position, plus some added money. Instead they would have selected Richardson, but would have only been able to sign someone like a Brandon Browner with no money left over.

All of the above players busted but the fact was right from the start Richardson provided the least value of any player projected to be selected close to him. The overall team would have been better off trying one of those other players.

Conclusion

Combining cap research and data with scouting projections has the best chance of minimizing risks and maximizing return in a draft. Positional drafting in the NFL should give a team the best opportunity to have the additional resources needed to maximize the talent base through veteran contracts without compromising a team’s salary cap position in the future. As we get closer to the draft try out some of your own draft mocks and projections like this and let’s see how much money might be created with the draft strategy you think is best for your team. Feel free to post in the comments your thoughts on players somewhat similar in draft stature. I’ll try to re-visit this after the draft and see what benefits teams might get for their teams.

Read Drafting Decisions and the Salary Cap Part I and Part II for some other draft related thoughts from OTC!

  • theowl

    This is a great analysis, but the most important thing is hitting on the draft pick. And if you are only crunching numbers, shouldn’t the percentage of making a strong draft selection for each position be added to the formula?

    • Ben Fitzgerald

      Yeah but how do you hit on draft picks more than others consistently? No in history has done that. Jason has provided a method to provide a competitive advantage that is at least possible.

      Jason – one problem I see with this strategy. It could leave u with high quality bench players and no quality players at positions of lower value. I know trading away the unneeded players and using FA to fill the gaps is a possibility, but at times it’s not possible to get fair value for a player via trade. Do u think this misallocation of resources makes this strategy unviable?
      Thanks

      • I do think there are enough positions where you start two players (DE, S, CB, WR) where you can keep picking without forcing players to the bench. I think one of the things is that if you do this successfullly you should be prepared to potentially trade some players when they come to the end of their rookie deals if you have a younger player behind them.

        But in general I think when you encounter such situations like you are describing you can make some of the higher selections on need (for example a guard) even though that cap benefit may not be there, but balance it out by taking a stab at some of those higher pay positions in the backend of the draft. At the very least the outside players will give you a body on specials.

        The main goal should be to assemble as much talent as possible within the confines of the current and future salary cap. If you are fortunate enough to be complete at the big pay positions by all means take guys to fill those added holes. While I though the seahawks giving up picks for Harvin was a miserable move, they had that luxury because of the success in the draft

        • Ben Fitzgerald

          When u add the caveat of picking low value positions in the y rounds if no high value positions are of need then that is standard practice. As for focusing on/exclusively high value positions in the later rounds this could have merit but the later rounds are worth so little idk how high the returns could be.

          • I think this gives an overview of the baseline expectations in terms of salary over MSB (665K) that the average performance of all the draft picks http://overthecap.com/drafting-decisions-and-the-salary-cap-2015-part-ii/

            That doesnt take into account positions, just pick number. While you may not get the best possible performer there should still be a reasonable benefit, but again Id have to break it all down by position to see how much, since not all positions are being played with a MSB player. That might be an interesting thing to look at with the veteran players. The way the tiers actually break down for the lower level guys on a team and positions overpaid and underpaid. Just from running the site I would think the players most overpaid at the low end of the scale versus contribution/use are QBs and DE/OLBs, I think at that point the prime positions like tackle and corner tend to drive towards the minimum.

    • I wouldnt call this a formula, more just a guideline, but yes I think you are absolutely correct. Years ago on jetscap I did a similar type of analysis basically pegging percentage of busts/average/good selections at various positions. I think that should also weigh heavily. LT for example was a far safer bet than wide receiver. Now that may have changed with more teams running spread/pro offenses in college so the WR transition is less difficult while the LT one might be more depending on offensive scheme.

      But going round by round I think can definitely enhance the process. Even if its having two players graded very close but one at a position that whiffs more. It should make the team look much closer at why a group of players was considered great and failed and make sure that such traits dont exist with their guy.

      • Wade8813

        Do you happen to have a link to that article still?

  • McGeorge

    Jason,

    Nice analysis. It reinforces ranking players not just by yer, but by how good you think they will be in the NFL. The top QB of one class may be worse than the #2 or #3 in another.

    But the real take away for me is – be willing to trade out of your first round pick if the top ranked players available play positions of low “value”. If the best players at the # are a 43OLB and a RG, then depending on your draft position, trade down if you can.

    Will trading increase over time in the NFL? If few teams trade, there is a “liquidity premium” and it will be hard to get full value by trading.

    • Absolutely. I do think you can always find a trade partner because there will always be teams that dont pay that much attention to the cap aspect plus successful teams that believe they are competitive will always be willing to move up for the right price as long as it fits a need.

  • icerob

    So, I looked at the spending by position tables here at OVC -just for RBs, mind you, but I got a completely different result. The avg per year of the top 10 RBs is 8 million, not 4 million. What gives? Was it supposed to be the salary of the 10th best player only?

    • Its just displacing that specific salary rather than an average. So in that sense it was an arbitrary number. So the number 10 RB makes $4M. I think in practice you would probably target actual numbers based on where the player lands/projected.

  • Wade8813

    In the $4M benefit chart, I believe it’s a typo – I believe CB should be the only position with any value for top 32, not S

    • I dont have my master chart in front of me but Id say its highly likely you are correct. Ill get that fixed. Thanks.

  • Wade8813

    Something I just thought of – wouldn’t players currently on rookie contracts possibly skew the results a bit? Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are top 5-10 QBs, but aren’t paid anywhere close to that. Which means that a certain number of the top players at each position aren’t (yet) paid like they’re the top, which drags down the prices at every position.