The Varying Cost of Finding Greatness in the NFL Draft

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The Varying Cost of Finding Greatness in the NFL Draft
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Every NFL team has a basic goal of finding good players to help win football games. Some teams have higher expectations than others, but that is the gist of the league.

The draft is still the best method to build a team. It is more cost-effective than free agency, though it comes with more risk and uncertainty.

Teams also have varying degrees of expectations from a draft.

A team in need of a rebuild may be looking for multiple starters and contributors from one draft class, such as last year’s Indianapolis Colts. Other teams much closer to a championship may just need that critical missing piece, such as the Atlanta Falcons and how they aggressively traded to get Julio Jones in 2011.

But every team would probably agree finding greatness in the draft is still a priority.

Whether it is a top-10 pick or a fifth-round steal, you would like to have a face to identify a draft class by. Finding one superstar can make up for an otherwise subpar haul.

Historically, we are led to believe that the higher the round a player was drafted, the better chance he has of becoming a great player. Certain positions (safety, interior linemen and special teams) are not often drafted with premium picks.

Beyond just balancing need with talent, the draft makes teams consider positional value as well. A team must solve the conflict of drafting a player who will likely be decent, but at a non-critical position versus an intriguing boom-or-bust player at a high-value position.

The draft is usually full of surprises, but this 2013 event may be as wild as any.

There is no star quarterback expected to go first overall like in recent years. The first dozen picks could be filled with linemen. Experts seem to be in disagreement more than ever on top prospects. Reporters and beat writers cannot get a good read on how it will go. My mock draft is surely terrible.

Every NFL draft will yield just a few truly great players, but they could be harder than usual to find in 2013.

With outrageous talk of multiple guards being taken in the top half of the first round, let’s review some draft history that teams must remember if they want to maximize the value of their draft.

 

The Top 40 Charts (1967-2012 Drafts)

In the search for greatness through the draft, I collected historic data.

The first common draft was in 1967. Using Pro-Football-Reference (see “By Position” links on right), I looked at the top 40 drafted players for 12 major positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive tackle, guard, center, defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety and cornerback.

Apologies to kickers, punters and fullbacks, but we know you are not draft priorities, especially when Al Davis is no longer with us.

Some players obviously played multiple positions, though I kept it to what Pro-Football-Reference had with a few exceptions:

  • Nose tackles were included with defensive tackles.
  • Defensive backs were split into cornerbacks and safeties, though it is always difficult to tell what the intention was for that player coming into the league.
  • A total of 65 linebackers were included since teams use more of them than the other positions.
  • No differential was made between outside and inside linebacker, as that is even harder to split with accuracy than defensive backs.

Important to note that since this is about finding great players in the draft, undrafted players were excluded. A few would certainly crack the top-40 list for several positions, but that is not the focus here.

The top-40 list is based on Approximate Value (AV). It is the Weighted Career AV, so players who had very long careers are not given too much credit over those with better per-game value. This should help the players from later rounds that may have had to wait longer to see the field. A team generally pushes a high draft pick onto the field quickly.

As always, AV is imperfect. “Approximate” must be stressed, but it at least provides an objective basis to what a top 40 may look like at each position.

Here, AV is based on just the regular season and only for players drafted since 1967. Since players from the last few years are still too unaccomplished, a top 40 would represent an average of roughly one player per draft studied.

The following table shows the average career AV for each position for the top 40 players (65 linebackers). It also has the average round and selection number in the draft for both the top 20 and top 40 (65 linebackers).

By using color you can see three groups of positions with similar qualities.

The first group includes three of the highest-paid positions in the game: quarterback, offensive tackle and cornerback. A bit of a surprise to see running backs sneak in there, though that will likely be swapped for wide receivers moving forward in this passing league.

On average the top 40 players at these positions are drafted high in the second round.

The second group tends to, on average, go late in the second round, though defensive ends are a bit in between these first two groups. Obviously we know edge players are considered more valuable than defensive tackles, and you can see a little bit of that here.

The tight ends have lower AV (average of 63.3) because that is a position that has historically not aged well. What Tony Gonzalez continues to do is incredible and will be an extreme outlier. You can see recent wear-and-tear catch up with Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark and Heath Miller to name a few.

Then the bottom group includes the positions that receive little respect: safety, guard and center. They are drafted in the third or fourth round on average. Their AV is not impressive. They usually do not sign the rich contracts.

The numbers for top 20 safeties versus top 40 safeties have the smallest difference of all 12 positions.

Center is the real oddity here. A top 20 center since 1967 has been drafted in the fifth round with the 130th pick. That’s actually lower than the top 40 center.

The only other position to improve in draft value when expanding to a top 40 is defensive end (1.8). But the difference for center is nearly a whopping 21 picks.

So are we to conclude the lower the resource spent on a center, the better the player? Surely not, but it is worth looking into more.

Had we included undrafted players, centers, safeties and guards would have taken an even bigger plunge. For reference here are the undrafted players at each position who would be in the top 40 for their position (since 1967):

Look at that list of the quality undrafted centers in recent time. This does not even include pre-1967 centers like Jim Otto and Mick Tingelhoff.

The other big change comes with guards. A top 20 guard is drafted with about the 50th pick, but a top 40 guard is near pick 88 (38-pick drop).

Make no mistake about it, this happens by design in the NFL.

 

Safety Last: Dropping Your Guard, Front and Center

Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

When people talk about potentially three guards (Chance Warmack, Jonathan Cooper and D.J. Fluker) going in the top-10 picks of the 2013 draft, you start wondering what kind of bogus draft we are about to experience. Some have mentioned Texas safety Kenny Vacarro as a very high pick as well.

That is not how the NFL operates. There are some hidden truths as to why, so let’s just put them on the table now.

To be as blunt as possible, the reason safeties, guards and centers are neglected high in the draft is because they are the least important starting positions in the NFL.

If the safety was a better athlete, he would play cornerback and cover outside receivers one-on-one. If he could catch, he would play wide receiver. Instead he often lines up deepest of the deep to get a head start in a league that would rather throw short, quick passes anyway.

Elite talents like Troy Polamalu, someone who can play close to the line and make dynamic plays, are very rare. Someone with unbelievable ball skills like Ed Reed is hardly the norm. It is no wonder these two safeties have been considered the best in this century. Both were taken with a mid-to-late first-round pick.

Let’s not sour completely on the position as it does command a little more respect than the interior linemen.

If an interior offensive lineman was a better athlete, he would be playing tackle and blocking the premiere pass-rushers in the league. Instead it is easier to stick him inside to deal with the massive pile-ups that take place in the heart of the trenches.

Taking a guard or center with a top 15 pick is like buying a $180 beach towel to take on your vacation. It’s overkill when you can get by perfectly fine with something much cheaper.

If you are big, strong and nasty, then you already meet most of the requirements needed to play guard or center in the NFL. There is a good reason these are not considered “skill” positions.

Now if you are shaking your head in disgust, hear me out first. I like to think the last couple of seasons I have written mostly fact-driven articles with plenty of statistical support behind them.

That is not changing with this one. The facts are already on my side. Just look at the resources teams historically use on these positions. The financial commitment and allocation of cap space proves these positions are devalued. Only Eric Berry averages $10 million per year according to Spotrac.com. They do not go high in the draft for them either.

No team has used a top-15 pick on a guard since 1997. Chris Naeole was picked 10th by the Saints. He did not earn a second contract with the team. Branden Albert was listed at guard for the No. 15 pick in 2008, but Kansas City quickly moved him to left tackle.

Multiple guards going in the top 15 picks this year would go against the grain for sure. David DeCastro was considered the can’t-miss guard of the 2012 draft. He went No. 24 to Pittsburgh. A preseason injury derailed his rookie season, though in the brief time he played, he already allowed more sacks (2.5) than he did in his entire college career (one).

 

The Misunderstanding of Interior Offensive Linemen

Karl Walter/Getty Images

You may look at the chart from earlier and conclude the reason top-40 centers and guards are often drafted so much lower is due to the lack of first-round picks used on the position.

That is true.

Chase Stuart of Football Perspective looked at first-round draft picks from 1990-2009. Only nine centers and 16 guards were chosen. Compare that to 70 offensive tackles or the two positions tied with the most players: cornerback and defensive end (74 each).

Of the nine centers, seven were considered average, one good and one great. For the 16 guards, the results were mixed: five were good/great, five were bad/bust and six were average.

But we want to figure out why teams use so few premium picks on these positions. As I have already stated, the skill required to play the position is just not that high, making it easier to find a player to fill the role.

Admittedly, the teams I have watched the most over the years have elite quarterback play, while most of the league strives to find that. In that way, my views of the game are slanted. An elite quarterback can make up for many weaknesses, and inferior talent at guard and center is near the top of the list.

But what good is having an elite guard or center if he has no quarterback worth snapping the ball to and protecting? The whole point is these positions could not be any farther apart in importance due to the range of skill required to perform well.

Having a background in motion studies, I rationalize by considering what an interior lineman physically does in a game. Forget where the player was drafted for a second and just look at his actions.

This is one of the biggest plays from Super Bowl XLVII. With Baltimore up 31-29 in the fourth quarter, Joe Flacco called an audible to a pass on a 3rd-and-inches play. The 49ers show a six-man rush, Flacco takes a quick drop, the protection is sound enough (right guard gets pushed back a good bit) and Flacco’s pass is snatched out of the air by Anquan Boldin winning the one-on-one battle. First down and the Ravens go on to add a field goal.

Super Bowl XLVII (NFL.com).

For how quick the ball comes out, there is not much protection that needs to be had here. The onus of difficulty really fell on Boldin making the catch, which he did in spectacular fashion. That is why these are skill players.

Again, being big, strong and nasty goes a long way for a lineman’s success as you out-muscle your opponent.

Otherwise, the player must have good footwork and technique, though playing inside lessens the importance of that with less clean space to operate. He can drop back to pass protect, he can pull, he can go forward a couple of yards, he could go downfield for a screen, but he is mostly going to be confined to that little box of space for a few seconds each play.

That’s the other thing. A player rarely has to hold a block for more than three seconds, especially if playing with a top quarterback. Then with so many screens and quick, short passes that take fewer than two seconds (could easily see a team do this 50 times in a season), there is little for the player to mess up on such a play.

Centers have the added responsibility of snapping the ball, and even the best are prone to a bad snap here or there, but it is a very quick motion that just about any offensive linemen could perform. The center is also likely to be responsible for setting the protection. Centers often do well on intelligence tests like the Wonderlic.

You can find hundreds of linemen who could do all of these tasks. The challenge is finding someone good enough to do these things on a very consistent basis.

Now consider what a quarterback must do to have success.

The best ones do a lot of work before the snap even comes their way in reading the defense and making audibles. The quarterback has more responsibility in signaling what the offensive play will be than any other player on the team. Intelligence is crucial to mastering the position, because that is directly related to decision making.

It helps to be mobile so you can escape pressure and run for some first downs. You have to have a good presence in the pocket to know when to use your legs. Footwork and mechanics are always important to maximize each throw’s potential.

Being a great passer is the meat of the position. Arm strength is not irrelevant, though it is nice to have. More importantly you have to be accurate. Throwing an 18-yard dig route on time and to a place where the receiver can make the catch takes a lot of precision.

It also has a higher chance for error than merely standing up your matchup for a couple of seconds. Isn’t that really the main difference here? The skill players are required to do more things on a given play than an interior lineman. More chance at failure. The route can be run perfectly, but it won’t matter if you drop the pass.

With the huge difference in skill required to excel at the positions, it makes the gap between the best and worst players at these positions much different. For quarterback it is enormous, while at center/guard, the gap is likely not as big as most would care to believe.

Pro Football Focus had Minnesota’s John Sullivan (27.3) as the top center in 2012. Jacksonville’s Brad Meester (-11.4) brought up the rear. Playing almost the same number of snaps, both players had two penalties, Meester surrendered one more sack and hit on the quarterback along with seven more hurries.

The major difference came in run blocking where Sullivan was graded at 20.9 to just -10.3 for Meester. Though you have to believe Adrian Peterson’s dominance is playing a considerable part in that rating.

There’s also the fact that the offensive line is more unit-based while the skill players are more about making individual plays. Any play is going to work best when all 11 do their job, but it is generally easier to overcome a skill-player mistake than it is a line mistake.

If five eligible receivers each go on a pass route, only one has to do his job of running the route and making the catch for the play to become a success.

But if one or multiple offensive linemen blow their assignment on a play, the chance for failure increases significantly. It doesn’t matter if your stud left tackle blocked his man. If the guard and center have a mix-up, the quarterback may be toast.

This is why you need solid unit play more than standout individuals along the offensive line.

An offensive line consisting of Patriots’ great John Hannah and four scabs would never outperform an offensive line filled with five mediocre players.

Ask someone to name the offensive tackles for Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana when they were winning four Super Bowls each. Trust me, they are not household names in NFL history. The best tackles rarely play for the best teams.

Jake Long and Joe Thomas have arguably been the best left tackles in today’s game. Who exactly have they been protecting? How many offenses have thrived under them?

It starts with the quarterback, then you can worry about the offensive line, building from the outside to the inside.

Pro Football Focus recently studied how quarterbacks handle pressure. In the last five seasons (2008-12), quarterbacks struggle more when the pressure is allowed by a tackle as opposed to an interior lineman. Most pressures come this way because the tackles are facing the best pass-rushers.

That’s why tackles are the premium position, and why they and the players they defend are paid the most money.

You would think a center would have more pull, but history says otherwise. It is incredible that in the history of the NFL, practically not a single first-round center can say he is one of the best ever at the position.

There was no draft when Mel Hein entered the league, and you can forget about Bulldog Turner. You cannot trust a center from an era where he is intercepting eight passes in a season as a two-way player. It was a much different ballgame then.

Mike Webster was a fifth-round pick. Dwight Stephenson and Dermontti Dawson were second-round picks. Jim Otto was not drafted while Jim Ringo was a seventh-round pick. The names could go on as no other major position has such a lack of first-round greatness.

Who is the best first-round center? Jeff Hartings? Nick Mangold? Please.

Hopefully in the future people will not say Maurkice Pouncey should he continue to play the way he has. That speaks to the problem with offensive line play: We still do not know how to judge it.

Pouncey was the No. 18 pick in the 2010 draft by Pittsburgh. It is only the third top-20 pick on a center since 1990. So far Pouncey has made three Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro selection.

But where exactly is the impact? Pittsburgh’s offense has not seen an improvement:

In the three seasons before Pouncey arrived, the Steelers actually scored more points per drive (according to Football Outsiders), had a higher yards per carry (handoffs only) and scored touchdowns in the red zone at a higher rate than they have since drafting Pouncey.

The only thing that’s improved has been the sack rate, which has decreased every season. But who cares if offensive production is not getting any better? These old seasons were with Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig at center.

Alan Faneca was still the left guard in 2007, which was the best offensive season. But he was gone in 2008, replaced by a scrub in Chris Kemoeatu, and the Steelers still managed to win the Super Bowl. They even made another one two years later with Jonathan Scott, creator of the ass block, at left tackle. 

When Pouncey has been out, Doug Legursky (undrafted free agent) has often stepped right in at center without any significant drop off.

But Pouncey has the reputation as a Pro Bowl player simply because of the situation in which he entered the league. When you are a first-round pick at center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, people are going to overrate you.

Had Pouncey been a fourth-round pick by the San Diego Chargers, played the exact same way he has, I guarantee he would not have a single Pro Bowl attached to his name.

The voters are the same people who put Jeff Saturday in last year’s Pro Bowl. Saturday was benched by Green Bay late in the season.

At Pro Football Focus, which grades every single play, Pouncey’s true value shows. He was the 21st-ranked center in 2010, 19th in 2011 and 12th in 2012. That shows progress, but it also shows a player who has not been deserving of a Pro Bowl nomination, let alone three in a row.

Also according to Pro Football Focus, Pouncey had his worst game in 2012 as a pass-blocking center against the Ravens in Week 11. It was also his best game of the season as a run blocker.

After watching all 73 snaps in the game, there were about five plays where Pouncey had a negative impact to his offense. One was simply him getting in the way of a running lane on a play that was going nowhere anyway. Another was giving up a hit late to his quarterback. He allowed a bad pressure that forced Byron Leftwich to scramble out of the pocket and throw the ball away. On the final drive, Pouncey had a poor, low snap.

Frankly, there was little that stood out, good or bad, about Pouncey’s performance. That’s the thing about this position. Giving up one big pressure and a bad snap out of 73 plays is supposed to be significant when it’s actually not.

Think of how many mistakes a quarterback or even a running back could make in the course of one game. It will be a lot more than a handful. The better comparison would likely be total offensive line mistakes.

Perhaps if Pouncey’s teammates along the offensive line can play at a level closer to his, his grade may go up, because he is part of a unit that greatly depends on one another.

 

Conclusion: Don’t Fall for the Illusions

The highlight videos going around on tackles like Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M) and Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) show great blocking by both 2013 prospects.

What they practically never show: great blocking by these prospects despite a breakdown by a teammate.

Instead, we get to view a ton of great blocking by the other four linemen too. It’s no wonder Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy last year. His protection was unbelievable. That’s clearly not all Joeckel, which a team like Kansas City must understand.

This video on Alabama’s Chance Warmack from Rosterwatch.com is a perfect example of an offensive line’s highlight reel being showcased as an individual’s highlight:

There is a reason Alabama wins so many games and championships. This is a well-coached team filled with talent.

If you are a franchise like the Cardinals (picking No. 7), you cannot possibly think drafting a guard this year is going to turn around last year’s 58 sacks and pathetic offensive display. It will take much more than just Warmack.

Yet he can probably be the pick there, make a few Pro Bowls largely out of respect for his draft status and have a nice career, but it does not mean the Cardinals are ever going to compete in the Bruce Arians era.

That’s also the beauty of the draft. Teams can play it any way they want. You can be conservative and go with the safe pick that will not change your team, or you could roll the dice and grab someone like Geno Smith, soaring or crashing with him the next few years.

Every team has different needs and methods. Some years, you might just want to swallow the blue pill and take the low-impact position. But if you have that high pick and need to make it count, the red pill of reality will point you to the right positions.

The game will continue to slowly evolve, but as long as the trenches are won the way they have been, you just need a few good men ready to do some dirty work to succeed, especially if you found a quarterback. Whippersnappers need not apply.

For some, greatness is achieved by using a high first-round pick to get a mediocre performance out of a center. Fortunately, greatness is in the eye of the beholder, and there are many ways to find it in the NFL draft.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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