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Positional Values: How Influential Are They In The Top 40 Picks Of An NFL Draft?.....And In The Rams Drafting Chance Warmack

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As we inch closer and closer to the NFL Draft in April, the number of mock drafts being published has grown exponentially. There is one player who has been mocked to the Rams far more than any other at pick #16: Chance Warmack. Many would be quite happy if the Rams drafted Warmack in the first round. He is a top five talent and fills a position of need for the Rams. Although I would have no complaints if he was indeed drafted by the Rams with the #16 pick, a part of me can't help but feel a little uneasy about that pick. I have never been a huge proponent of selecting a guard in the first round of the draft. I have never seen the value of drafting a guard in the first round, although I have never studied, in depth, my reasons for feeling that way.

When I think of the prospect of the Rams drafting Chance Warmack, another name comes to mind: David DeCastro. DeCastro was a guard who many touted as a top ten talent in last years draft. Many expected him to be selected in the first 15 picks of the draft, yet he fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the 24'th pick in the first round. It also gives cause to wonder why an obvious top-five talent like Chance Warmack could possibly fall to the middle of the first round.

The possibility of the Rams drafting Chance Warmack led me to giving more thought to the concept of positional values. Many questions arose as a result: Are positional values influential in determining picks in the early part of an NFL draft? Should an NFL team consider positional value important when making picks? Are picking the best player available and filling team needs more important than positional value when deciding who to pick in the draft? Is the player you pick more important than the position he plays? This post is an attempt to answer those questions and to help in determining whether the Rams should select Chance Warmack in the upcoming draft, if he is available at the #16 pick.

In attempting to answer these questions I developed a model that gave insight into positional values and their importance. The development of the model consisted of three phases (in order): 1/ Establishing criteria that would determine the value of a position in the NFL relative to other positions. 2/ Categorizing the values (in chart form) from the most valuable position to the least valuable using a tier/level system. 3/ Analyzing the first 40 selections from each of the last five NFL drafts as a means of testing the validity of the value system I created.

In addition, I look at the St. Louis Rams last five years of draft history combined, then look at the Rams 2012 draft by itself, to gain insight into how our team has drafted, bearing in mind positional values.

Criteria used in determining positional values

1. Scarcity of a position

2. Offensive and defensive trends in the NFL

3. Positional value in terms of contracts and money

4. Durability

5. The influence and impact of a position on the outcome of a game

Offensive and defensive trends in the NFL

The NFL (and changes to the rules) have evolved in the last ten years into football contests where the emphasis on the passing game outweighs the emphasis on the rushing game. As a result, certain positions on the playing field have grown in value to reflect this trend. The offensive tackle position has increased in value, as protection of the quarterback (especially his blindside) has become paramount. The quarterback and wide receiver positions have increased in value due to the fact that they are the key positions in the passing game. On the defensive side, the value of defensive ends and 3-4/rush linebackers has increased, as putting pressure on the quarterback is one of the keys to limiting the passing game. The cornerback position has also increased in value, as they are the primary defenders against the football reaching a wide receivers hands. Multiple wide receiver sets have also placed a premium on having more than two quality cornerbacks (for nickel and dime defense packages). The increasing number of mobile quarterbacks (Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin 111 and Russell Wilson, to name a few) and the advent of the read-option and pistol offenses, have increased the (previously very low) value of the safety position to some degree. The emphasis on the passing game (and the increase in the number of athletic, mobile defensive tackles) has increased the(previously very low) value of an offensive guard, again to some degree. Conversely, the value of positions such as running back and SAM linebacker have declined as a result of these trends.

Scarcity

For this criteria I looked at two facets of scarcity: The demand versus supply for a particular position in the first 40 picks of an NFL draft and the availability of certain positions in free agency. I examined the first 40 picks of the last 5 NFL drafts and found that there was far greater demand for certain positions (ex. CB and DE) than there was for other positions (OG and S). I also examined which positions were franchise-tagged the most in the NFL and which positions/players were more frequently re-signed or had their contracts extended by teams before those players could reach free agency. Another facet to scarcity is looking at positions that are more easily transitioned to from other positions. The best example is the guard position. The guard position is less scarce than virtually every other position due to the relative ease (and frequency) that offensive tackles can (and are) moved inside to the guard position.

Durability

I used durability as a criteria for positional value for one reason: A position is more valuable if the average career of a player is longer at a particular position in relation to the career of a player at another position. An example would the running back position, which, due to the nature of the position, has a shorter average career span than that of an offensive lineman. Statistics on the durability of various positions in the NFL were relatively easy to find.

The influence and impact of a position on the outcome of a game

This criteria is perhaps the most important one of the five chosen criteria. While being the most important one, it is also the most subjective one. Some positions influence and impact are blatantly obvious. It was an easy decision to rate the quarterback position as the most important one. Conversely, it was just as easy to rate the placekicker and punter at the opposite end of the spectrum of importance. Given the trends in the NFL established earlier in this post, it was relatively easy to assess the positions most affected by those trends. The rest were not quite so easy. Impact and influence are not easily quantifiable. Overall, in determining influence and impact I went with experience. The experience of having watched 1400+ NFL games in 45 years (43 of them as a Rams fan) and reading/listening to the opinions of others with respect to the value of positions in the NFL.

Positional value in terms of contracts and money

I left this criteria until last for a reason. It is, for all intents and purposes, a reflection of the four previously mentioned criteria. Looking at and analyzing contracts and the money paid to players at various positions is a legitimate way to understand and determine how the NFL front offices value a position. There are few better ways to assess a positions value than how much a team is willing to pay a player at a particular position. For this criteria I used the 2013 estimated (they won't be official until March) franchise tag valuations for each position (in millions rounded off).

QB 14.6
DE 11.1
CB 10.7
WR 10.4
OT 9.8
Rush LB 9.5
DT 8.3
RB 8.1
LB 8.1
G/C 7.9
S 6.8
TE 6.1
K/P 3.1

Franchise tags are somewhat generalized, an example being the franchise tag for the offensive line. The tag amount does not differentiate between positions on the offensive line. I resolved this dilemma by looking at contracts for each position and estimating the franchise tag for each of the positions along the offensive line. I did this for the linebackers as well.

Positional Value Tiers/Levels

The chart below categorizes the positional values, as determined by my criteria, into levels/tiers:

Tier/ Position
Level
1 QB
2 DE
OT
CB
Rush LB
3 WR
DT
4 FS/SS
OG
RB
ILB
5 TE
C
OLB
6 K/P

The reasons for creating a tier/level system for positional values are two-fold: ease of classification and allowing positions of similar value to be grouped together for comparative analysis. The six tiers/levels (and the positions included in each level) are the product of the research done into the criteria that I established for positional values earlier in this post. The most controversial position will likely be placing WR in Tier 3. All appearances suggest that WR's should be in Tier 2. I placed them in Tier 3 for two reasons/criteria: scarcity and durability. In these two areas there was a significant difference between WR and the other positions in Tier 2.

NFL Drafts - Top 40 Picks - 2008-2012 Inclusive

Having established the positional value system, it does leave a question that needs to be answered: How accurate/valid are the positional values/tiers/levels that were established??? Given that a substantial amount of this post to this point has been subjective in nature, it is a fair question to ask. To test the integrity and validity of the positional value system I thought it might be a good idea to look at how NFL GM's value positions through the NFL draft. To observe their draft behaviour I looked at the last five NFL drafts. I charted the various positions on an NFL team and charted the number of picks made at each of these positions in the top 40 selections of each of the last five drafts combined. For the purposes of deeper analysis I broke down the picks into the following levels: 1-10, 11-20, 21-30 and 31-40. I chose the top 40 selections for two reasons: to avoid the stigma of the "first round" only and for ease of classification. The following is the chart I compiled:

1 to 10 11 to 20 21 to 30 31 to 40 Total
QB 10 3 2 2 17
RB 3 3 6 4 16
WR 5 3 7 7 22
TE 1 2 2 5
OT 8 7 8 4 27
C 2 2 4
G 1 3 2 6
DT 7 4 4 4 19
DE 3 11 5 5 24
OLB 6 7 4 4 21
MLB 2 3 5
CB 4 7 6 8 25
S 2 1 1 5 9
Total 50 50 50 50 200

From the draft data I created another chart to show where all 200 picks fit into the positional value tier system that I created. That charts follows below:

Tier 1 to 10 11 to 20 21 to 30 31-40 %
1 10 3 2 2 8.5
2 21 30 22 20 46.5
3 12 7 11 11 20.5
4 7 5 10 14 18
5 0 5 5 3 6.5
6 0 0 0 0 0

Observations, Analysis and Conclusions

1. Positional values do play an important role and are influential in determining which player position will be selected in the top 40 picks of an NFL Draft.

2. The NFL draft history of the last five years confirms, supports and validates the positional value tier system created in this post, as evidenced by the higher number of picks at higher value positions and by the % of picks in the top three tiers.

3. The emphasis on the passing game has had an enormous effect on positional values in the NFL. This clearly is in evidence in the above charts.

4. There can be little doubt that the QB position is the most valuable in the NFL. QB's are the highest paid position in the NFL and were easily the most drafted position in the first ten picks of the last five NFL drafts. The only reason they weren't the most drafted position overall in the last five years was the scarcity/dearth of top 40 QB's available to be drafted.

5. One of the chief arguments (aside from positional value) against drafting a guard in the first round is the notion that you can find great guards later in the draft. Why is that so? Likely because there are so many good guards that don't get drafted in the top 40 picks. Hence, their availability later in the draft. All of the six participants that played in this past Pro Bowl were drafted in the second to fourth round (two of the original starters were injured but were first round picks).

6. The data and charts reveal some interesting facts and trends. The 4 positions that had the most players drafted were: OT - 27, CB - 25, DE - 24, WR - 22. They account for close to 50% of the 200 picks made. This figure is clearly indicative of the effect/emphasis of the passing game in today's NFL, both on the offensive and defensive side of the football. It is interesting to note that both Tier Two and Tier Three picks were spread out fairly evenly throughout the 40 picks in each draft. This is not true of Tier Four and Five. In each of those tiers the picks are weighted towards the 20-40 selections in the draft. This statistic further magnifies the differences, value and impact of the first three tiers versus the lower three tiers. The weighting for the wide receiver position is also towards the 20-40 selections of the drafts, validating their inclusion in Tier Three instead of Tier Two. Although they have less positional value than they once had, RB's are still drafted with regularity in the first forty picks of the draft, indicating that the running game is still an important facet of an offense. 5-10 years ago the guard and safety positions warranted no more than Tier Five consideration. Their importance is increasing (Tier Four on my chart)and will likely continue to increase as offenses become more sophisticated and wide open with their passing attacks. Les Snead agreed with this in comments made during the combine. This will also hold true for wide receivers in the coming years. Again, due to the emphasis on the passing game, close to 50% of the picks made in these drafts were in Tier Two.

7. Picking the best player available, picking a player that makes sense for the team and looking to fill team needs are very important in an NFL draft. This post has proven that positional values are also important when picking a player, particularly in the first forty picks of a draft. Les Snead was recently quoted as saying that he likes to pick a player, not a position. I believe he meant that, at least to some extent, although it is not likely that Snead would give anyone tip-offs on the Rams draft philosophy. Although positional values do not play as integral a role as some other draft philosophies do, it is reasonable to conclude that they are an important part of determining who will get drafted at any point in the selection process.

8. The value of the guard position is increasing, as noted by Les Snead in his comments at the combine regarding the guard position and free agency. However, it is clear that there are many quality guards available after the top 40 picks in a draft. The reason for this is that GM's just don't value the position enough to draft them in the top 40 picks with any frequency, even when the player is worthy of such consideration. And why top ten talents such as David DeCastro and Chance Warmack end up being drafted in the latter half of the first round.

The Rams recent draft history

For the purposes of bringing all of this a little closer to home, I also looked at the top 40 draft picks of the Rams over the previous five drafts. The Rams had 10 picks in the top 40 over the five drafts. They chose: 1 QB, 2 OT, 2 DE, 1 CB, 2 WR, 1 DT and 1 MLB. That is 1 pick in Tier 1, 5 picks in Tier 2, 3 picks in Tier 3 and 1 pick in Tier 4. Which is pretty close to what the league did as a whole in those five drafts with respect to positional values.

In the 2012 draft, the first for Fisher and Snead, the Rams had three picks in the top 40. They selected two players from Tier 3 (Brockers and Quick) and 1 from Tier 2 (Jenkins). These picks were followed by selections in the following tiers: Pead-Tier 4, Johnson-Tier 2, Givens-Tier 3, Watkins-Tier 4, Zuerlein-Tier 6, Brown-Tier 5, Richardson-Tier 4. An obvious pattern can be discerned here, one of picking higher positional value players earlier in the draft and lower positional value players later in the draft.

2013 First Round Draft Strategy

Should the Rams draft Chance Warmack if he is available with the #16 pick?

Given the arguments, data and analysis presented in this post, this would be the draft strategy I would employ (in order of preference)and in conjunction with taking the BPA that fills a need and makes sense:

1. If either Eric Fisher or Lane Johnson is available at #16, the Rams should strongly consider drafting either of them (Fisher being the preferable option).

2. If the tackles are both gone, they should not consider any other option in Tier One or Tier Two (CB, QB, DE, 3-4 rush LB) due to the quality they have at three of those positions and the 4-3 defensive scheme (precluding the drafting of a 3-4 LB). They should then consider the WR and DT positions at #16.

3. If they feel that no WR or DT is worthy of the #16 pick, they should trade it down into the 20's if at all possible.

4. If in fact they do trade down into the 20's and have both first round picks in that area of the draft, the Rams should then consider drafting any of the following four positions- DT (Sylvester Williams?), WR (Tavon Austin?), S (Matt Elam?) and G (Jonathan Cooper? Chance Warmack?). There has only been one guard drafted in the top twenty picks of the NFL draft in the last five years (Mike Iupati at 17 in 2010). That means NONE were drafted in the top 16 picks. Will this year be any different??

As a side note, I went into an interesting discussion with Fishkiller regarding the guard position. He is an incredibly bright, knowledgeable and articulate man here on TST. I value his opinions a lot. He questioned the seeming contradiction of wanting to spend 6 million in free agency on the top free agent guard this off season-G Andy Levitre, yet not wanting to draft a guard in the middle of the first round due to positional value. His argument is a very powerful one and the issue indeed appears to be contradictory in nature. What I discovered by creating this post is that 6 million for a top free agent in today's NFL economy is a relatively LOW amount. Just look back in this post to the franchise tags, where you will find that a guard is at the very low end of the franchise tag scale. 6 million is certainly a lot of money; however, it is relatively cheap in relation to what most other positions cost. I do agree with him on many things. He actually showed me the best and most efficient way to build a championship football team. That is how much I respect his opinions. The world of NFL finance can be a distorted and murky world! I suppose that value is a relative thing, especially in the NFL; and more so when a lower positional value player can command 6 million in free agency and still be thought of as "inexpensive".

Thank you for your patience in taking the time to read this very long article. Your thoughts and comments are always appreciated and welcomed. Please vote in the poll and let us know what you think about seeing Chance Warmack in a Rams uniform.

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