Maximizing Roster Construction by Valuing Positions in the NFL Draft

Last year as we headed into the NFL draft I took a look at how we should put premiums on certain positions at the top of the draft by comparing salary cap benefits and free agent availability of players at each position. Last year I took a short term view of the league and wanted to expand on it to include more data by looking at the last six years of free agent data.

The first thing I did was go back to 2017 an for each year look at the top 20 contracts, as ranked by annual contract value, and determined how many of the players were acquired in free agency. This is extremely important when determining how we are going to build a team in the NFL since we have to have access to talent and if we pass on a specific position in the draft we should know if we have an alternative route to acquiring that talent.

The second thing I wanted to look at was what financial benefit exists by drafting a player. To calculate this I used our projection for the four year cost of the 16th pick of the draft and compared it to the cost of the 10th highest paid player at a position. This is important because while the draft always gives a team access to low cost talent, the spread between a free agent value and a draft slot varies greatly position by position. Every dollar saved in the draft gives a team more money to spend on the rest of the roster to better the team. Here are how the numbers worked out since 2017.

The teams in the bottom right quadrant should be the premium positions to draft. Availability is historically low in free agency and the cost to acquire a player at those positions is very high. QB obviously has the highest value and I think I would put wide receiver as the 2nd most valuable. The next three- Edge, left tackles, and interior defensive line- I think you can argue about how to rank. Edge has become more available in free agency in recent years while left tackle sees no movement. Often the interior players can be found in later rounds easier than the edge and left tackle.  At all these positions the players will likely live up to the contract even if they are not a star simply because the cost is so cheap. The only risk is if they are a total bust.

The bottom left quadrant has positions with low availability but limited cost benefits of drafting in the first round. There is no real argument to draft a running back in the first round but if your hope was to find the top line player who is 23, then you have to draft them, but no real reason to do so early. Linebacker has seen more availability and in a first round should only be selected if there is a pretty big gap between that player and the next available of the premium players.

Top top right contains just one position-cornerback. There is a clear financial benefit to drafting a corner but there are many avenues to finding good cornerbacks. I think it makes sense to draft over the LB/RB quadrant in all cases but there probably needs to be a reasonable gap between the best corner available and the best edge/lt/wr, etc… to justify picking the corner.

Finally, the top left quadrant are the positions that there is no need to draft in the first round. Usually, these positions are not drafted too often that high but every now and then we get “unicorn” talk and the players get selected. Rarely does it lead to a real unicorn impact on a team. These positions are tight end, safety, center, right tackle, and guard.

I know as we get wrapped up in BPA we will say that this makes little sense but lets just illustrate how this could work in practice. Last year the Falcons were faced with a decision between drafting tight end Kyle Pitts or wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.  Both had excellent rookie seasons but let’s see the impact on the Falcons.

Draft Cost$8,227,624$8,227,624
FA TE/WR$18,000,000$12,500,000
Total Cost$26,227,624$20,727,624

In the Pitts scenario we have to go into free agency and find a WR. That would be a player like Kenny Golladay/Christian Kirk. Our total cost is $26.2M and that assumes we can sign the WR. Had they drafted Chase they could go and sign a tight end for $12.5M(Hunter Henry) and have a total cost of $20.7 million invested. That would have given Atlanta an extra $5.5 million a year to work with. On top of that the talent pool is somewhat better at tight end and almost every year you can find decent players. Wide receiver you often have to hope to find a player who outplays his contract similar to Robert Woods with the Rams. While it is doubtful that either position would ever have the best player available in free agency the Bengals wound up with the upside of a $21-$24 million per year player while the Falcons have a $15-$16 million a year player within the current market.

I put together a chart that adds a premium for each position based on their salary cap benefit as well as the difficulty in finding a player in a free agency. The adjustment is the premium relative to each position. I added a 6 year and 3 year look at free agency is one wants to focus more on modern trends in free agent decision making.

PositionSalary Cap BenefitCap Benefit over AverageTop 20 Signed in Free Agency (6Y)Free Agent Benefit (6Y)Avg. Adjustment (6Y)Top 20 Signed in Free Agency (3Y)Free Agent Benefit (3Y)Avg. Adjustment (3Y)

It is clear why the NFL values the QB so highly while over the long term wide receiver is a clear 2nd. However if focusing more on recent history teams have been so reluctant to let their tackles walk in free agency you can make a strong argument that left tackle is more valuable in a draft. If trades for veteran receivers also continues to pick up steam I think that also strengthens left tackle a bit but it is certainly close.  The defensive line has dropped in recent years but is strong overall.

I was actually a little surprised to see corner, safety, and linebacker so close with linebacker falling more recently. I think when you get into things like the quality of lower cost free agents and the upside with the top players, corner should get the nod but there certainly could be some arguments that could be made.

Guard, center, and right tackle are the three spots where I’m not sure any case could or should be made to take in the first round unless there is simply nobody else available.