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:

Pos Top 5 Top 10 Top 15 Top 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 $615,146 NA
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.

Position Top 5 Top 10 Top 15 Top 32
QB 1 1 1 11
RB 1 7 8 32
WR 1 1 1 6
TE 1 1 5 31
LT 1 1 1 45
RT 1 5 7 46
C 1 1 25 132
LG 1 4 8 76
RG 1 6 23 71
FB 32 51 159 Na
43DE 1 1 1 16
34DT 11 24 32 180
34DE 1 7 13 46
43DT 1 4 6 16
34OLB 1 1 2 26
43OLB 5 7 11 65
ILB 1 1 2 18
CB 1 1 1 5
S 1 1 1 17
K 9 11 14 Na
P 8 11 30 Na

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.

Position Top 5 Top 10 Top 15 Top 32
QB 1 1 1 54
RB 1 25 33 NA
WR 1 1 1 17
TE 2 3 12 NA
LT 1 1 5 NA
RT 6 11 25 NA
C 1 6 NA NA
LG 5 10 41 NA
RG 7 18 NA NA
FB NA NA NA NA
43DE 1 1 4 NA
34DT 53 NA NA NA
34DE 5 32 NA NA
43DT 1 10 14 NA
34OLB 1 5 8 NA
43OLB 12 33 54 NA
ILB 1 5 8 NA
CB 1 1 1 12
S 1 5 7 NA
K 45 54 NA NA
P 34 61 NA NA

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

Position Top 5 Top 10 Top 15 Top 32
QB 1 1 1 NA
RB 7 NA NA NA
WR 1 1 7 NA
TE 8 8 134 NA
LT 1 7 11 NA
RT 17 54 NA NA
C 6 17 NA NA
LG 12 49 NA NA
RG 29 NA NA NA
FB NA NA NA NA
43DE 1 6 10 NA
34DT NA NA NA NA
34DE 11 NA NA NA
43DT 1 49 NA NA
34OLB 6 12 32 NA
43OLB 65 NA NA NA
ILB 6 11 33 NA
CB 1 1 7 NA
S 6 11 32 58
K NA NA NA NA
P NA NA NA NA

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.

Player Pick Position Tier APY True Value Benefit
Wilson 75 QB Top 10 $729,375 $17,666,667 $16,937,292
Sherman 154 CB Top 5 $616,685 $10,500,000 $9,883,315
Chancellor 133 S Top 10 $645,146 $7,000,000 $6,354,854
Thomas 14 S Top 5 $2,442,375 $8,250,000 $5,807,625
Wagner 47 ILB Top 15 $1,138,825 $5,500,000 $4,361,176
Tate 60 WR Top 32 $907,333 $4,333,333 $3,426,000
Wright 99 OLB Top 15 $696,504 $3,000,000 $2,303,496
Irvin 15 OLB Top 15 $2,397,426 $3,000,000 $602,574
Carpenter 25 LG Top 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.

Player Position Top 5 Top 10 Top 15
Claiborne CB $2,500,000 $1,750,000 $500,000
Blackmon WR $3,111,111 $1,762,500 $0
Barron S $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.

Player Position Top 5 Top 10 Top 15
Claiborne CB $6,500,000 $5,750,000 $4,500,000
Blackmon WR $7,111,111 $5,762,500 $4,000,000
Barron S $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!