The Case for “Best Player Available” Early in the Draft
When it comes to the draft, I am in the Best Player Available camp, nuanced with certain positions being more valuable than others. Others believe you should just draft the player for the position you need most. Let’s try and answer the question of, does positional value matter in the top half of round 1?
The Past 5 Years
Firstly, I’m going to look at what positions were taken in the last 5 drafts. Of the 80 selections taken, the Quarterback position (15) was most popular. Tackle (11) is the next most popular selection. Wide Receiver (6) also sought after, as they look for protection and weapons for their Quarterback. Then it’s the prime defensive positions with Edge (10), Linebacker (9) Cornerbacks (9), and Defensive Tackles (8).
Then you have Running Back (4). Once a high-value position, now even taking a talent like Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey is dubious. Injuries are making the shelf life of the Running Back short, and there’s plenty of value in later rounds.
The Worth of the 7 Low Value Picks
That leaves us with 7 “low-value position” selections. Safety (4), Tight End (1) and Guard (2). Let’s have a look at them, and see what value teams have got from them. Starting with Safety, Karl Joseph was taken by the Raiders with pick 14 in 2016. A middle-round pick for a good player isn’t a disaster, but injuries have been a problem. After a good year away in Cleveland, Joseph is back with the Raiders in 2021. He’s a good player selected too high.
Next up is Malik Hooker. Taken at a similar stage, pick 15th in 2017 by the Indianapolis Colts. Despite injury concerns leading into the draft, he was projected as a top 16 pick. After a good start, an ACL and MCL injury in week 7 finished his season. After promising seasons in 2018 and 2019, Hooker only played 2 games last year due to another injury. He is currently a free agent. You can never legislate for injury, and you can never know if a draft pick will work out. All the more reason to take the gamble on the most important positions in my opinion.
You can find a star player like the New York Jets did with Jamal Adams, with pick 6 in 2017. That’s high for a safety, but they did get 3 years of all-pro (1x first team), and pro-bowl caliber performance. Before trading him to Seattle in a deal that included 2 first-round picks.
Minkah Fitzpatrick was taken by the Miami Dolphins with pick 11 in 2018. A talented player with a knack for making big plays. After the first game of his second season, Fitzpatrick requested a trade, eventually going to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Dolphins did at least get a first-round pick back. There have been no Safeties taken in the top 16 in the last 2 drafts.
The Guards and Tight End
Every team wants the next Travis Kelce or George Kittle, but not with a top pick. There are always anomalies like Kyle Pitts, who is more of a Reciever masquerading as a Tight End. But a pick like TJ Hockenson at number 8 in 2019 by the Detroit Lions. I don’t see the value at all. Hockenson is a good player, who has had a good start to his career. How much has he helped the Lions become competitive in the NFC North? Not at all. They finished bottom of the division the past 2 seasons. There were far more important positions the Lions could have addressed, with better positional value.
Quenton Nelson went number 6 in 2018, to the Indianapolis Colts. Chris Lindstrom went number 14 in 2019 to the Atlanta Falcons. Protecting the Quarterback is vital, but it’s Tackle that’s seen as the key position. Lindstrom has been a solid starter for the Falcons, though he missed games due to injury year 1. Is that good value for a fairly top pick though?
The player who brings the best argument for the opposing view is Quenton Nelson. Arguably the best Guard in football. As crazy as a top 6 pick is for a Guard. When you get the best player of that position, and he turns into the best in the NFL. Then you can say it was good value.
The Monetary Cost
The other factor is how much you’re going to be paying the rookie player. The contracts of those 1st round rookies are set by which position they are drafted. If you draft a Guard, Safety, Running Back or Tight End at the top of the draft. You are effectively paying them as a top 10 player at their position. Which adds more risk to the pick, and not only pressure for them to be a success. But an instant one.
Value is everything in all walks of life, which is why in my opinion the answer to the question. Does positional value matter in the top half of round 1? Is a resounding, yes! Lower value positions increase the risk, in a gambling situation that already goes wrong more times than it goes right. The draft isn’t just about what’s best for the upcoming season. It’s about what’s best for the next 5+ years.