With the entire NFL tightening its belts to squeeze inside a salary cap that isn't expanding, one of the most important things for front offices, coaches and fans to understand is every position's relative value.
Of course, great players can line up anywhere on the field; a perennial Pro Bowler will always make a positive impact. On the flip side, no team can hide a player who just isn't NFL caliber.
That said, some positions have a bigger impact on the game than others. Smart coaches are looking at the trends in the NFL and devising new ways to beat them; smart front offices are working with their coaches to bring in the kinds of players that will give them an advantage in the coming years.
Smart teams are investing their money in the positions that give the most bang per buck; other teams could be putting themselves in dire salary-cap straits with poor-value buys. Smart teams are figuring out where they can safely skimp in order to splurge elsewhere, while other teams are cutting useful players just to get their rookie classes signed.
Is your team shopping smart? Is it investing money and draft picks in positions that will yield dividends?
The Prototype: Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
Not long ago, a tackle-and-cover 4-3 linebacker was one of the most sought-after players in football.
Derrick Brooks, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker, was the heart and soul of the much-copied Tampa 2 defense. Smart, fast and athletic, Brooks was able to cover tight ends and running backs with ease. Yet, Brooks still had enough size and power to be an impact run-defender.
Today, tight ends and running backs are smaller, faster and used much more in the passing game, so 4-3 teams are choosing to take linebackers off the field for nickel and dime cornerbacks more often than not.
Except for the rare few who are gifted pass-rushers (like Von Miller of the Denver Broncos), 4-3 outside linebackers rarely make a big impact in today's NFL.
The Prototypes: Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys; Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
As the NFL evolves from a run-first league to a pass-first league, run-stuffing as a talent is being devalued across the board. Rather than have one blazing pass-rusher attack the quarterback's blind side, defenses want to bring the heat from all over the field.
Big, strong, 280-plus pounders that can shed offensive linemen's blocks but can't speed-rush around them have little value in today's game. On many 4-3 teams, these players (like Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks) are shifted inside on passing downs.
Whether playing as a two-gap 3-4 end or a 4-3 left end, these players don't command much draft-pick value or many free-agent dollars.
The Prototypes: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles; Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens
In each of the past two draft cycles, there's been a much-ballyhooed guard prospect that had draftniks drooling.
David DeCastro of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chance Warmack of the Tennessee Titans got lots of hype as possible top-10—or even top-five—selections. On The Rich Eisen Podcast, NFL Network's Mike Mayock even proclaimed Warmack is the best football player in this class.
Warmack might have been the "best football player," but he slid to the No. 10 pick. DeCastro fell all the way to the No. 24 slot.
Why? Guards aren't worth a big investment.
The difference between a mediocre guard and a very good guard can hardly be felt in any single game. In the salary-cap era, guards have often been skimped on in favor of edge-protecting tackles. When teams have spent big money on guards—as the Minnesota Vikings did on Steve Hutchinson—it's rarely worked out.
This is beginning to change, though. The recent fads of interior pass-rushers and hybrid-front defenses are forcing offenses to adapt.
The Chicago Bears, by drafting versatile lineman Kyle Long in the first round and playing him at guard, are emphasizing "inside-out protection," as Scouts, Inc.'s Gary Horton explained (via ESPN.com).
It's an idea offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer used with the New Orleans Saints. If it finally keeps Jay Cutler upright, the concept could spread—and the value of guards could skyrocket.
The Prototypes: Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers; Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Traditionally, the middle linebacker has been the heart, mind and soul of a defense. Frequently the roughest, toughest player on the field, the middle linebacker was trusted with the most important job: getting to the ball-carrier.
Fending off a fullback or pulling guard and stuffing the running back 10 times a game or more takes a special combination of size, speed, grit, instincts and thirst for violence. Often called the quarterback of the defense, to this day, the middle linebacker usually relays the play calls from the sideline to the huddle.
Now, though, if all a player can do is stop the run between the tackles, he comes off the field in passing situations—and most situations are passing situations.
Today's middle linebacker has to have the size, power and attitude to stop the run when called upon, but it's more important to have the athleticism to cover the middle of the field—whether in man-to-man against running backs or patrolling the middle of the field in zone coverage.
Players that excel at both, like Patrick Willis, are rare and valuable indeed. For most teams, though, inside linebackers who are "good enough" tacklers and very good in coverage are sufficient and plentiful.
The Prototype: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Much has been made of the devaluing of the running-back position.
The workhorse back was once the foundation of most NFL offenses. The starting tailback would be on the field for nearly every snap, rushing between 20 and 30 times every game.
Now, of course, "running back by committee" is the rule rather than the exception; most teams have a stable of two, three or four running backs with niche roles and special skill sets. Since only a handful of teams have a back talented enough to do everything well—or one thing so well he can't come off the field—teams get all the skills they need with multiple players.
This approach also protects a team for when, as will inevitably happen, a running back gets injured or begins to steeply decline.
Running backs are far from worthless; teams still need to be able to run between the tackles to keep defenses honest. The Detroit Lions rolled out a limo for free-agent signee Reggie Bush after defenses blithely ignored their running game in 2012.
Nevertheless, more and more teams are getting away with investing less and less in what used to be one of the most important positions on the field.
The Prototype: Nick Mangold, New York Jets
The center, like the offensive guard, plays in the heart of the trenches—where it's difficult enough to tell who's who, let alone who's winning the battle.
A center is a critical part of run-blocking; guards can't pull and escort running backs to the second level unless the center does his job. To use pass-rushing defensive tackles' explosiveness against them, a center has to work with his guards to take those tackles out of the play with trap and wham blocks. Centers also need to be athletic enough to do their own pulling, and can't be so big they interfere with their quarterback's passing lanes.
In pass protection, centers don't just have to block; they have to understand how the defense is attacking them. They have to watch for blitzers and execute double-teams.
Most importantly, centers don't just read defenses, but often adjust the line's assignments based on those reads. A savvy center can improve the whole line's protection—and, regardless of how well he blocks, a center who can't quarterback the line well is a liability.
The Prototype: Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots
Though defenders who specialize in stopping the run are being devalued, we can't forget the World Theory: There are only so many men big and athletic enough to anchor a defensive line against the run.
Few teams today use a true two-gap 3-4 front, where one man must stop all runs between the guards, like the New England Patriots used to do with Vince Wilfork. Still, many 4-3 teams pair a quick inside pass-rusher with a massive inside run-stopper—as the Patriots currently do with Wilfork.
A nose tackle who commands double-teams and occupies blockers can make a big difference—which is why a rookie like Star Lotulelei has a chance to make a huge difference in the Carolina Panthers' defense.
The Prototype: Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
With all the emphasis on throwing the football, how can wide receivers be ranked so low? Because having many wide receivers on the field means there's less need for great wide receivers.
Football fans of a certain age remember lots of discussion and debate over whether various wideouts were "true No. 1 receivers." Some top receivers, like the New York Giants' Victor Cruz, even work better out of the slot.
New Orleans Saints fans (and fantasy-football fanatics) know this well. In 2011, Drew Brees threw 46 touchdown passes, but no more than eight to any single wide receiver (he threw 11 to tight end Jimmy Graham).
Having a tall, fast, powerful, athletic No. 1 who wins every jump ball and routinely takes quick slants to the house just isn't as important when your quarterback is picking apart defenses with five eligible receivers on every play.
The Prototype: Darrelle Revis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The specter of Deion Sanders looms large in the NFL subconscious. The idea of a shutdown corner, a super-talented cover-man who can erase one side of the field, still holds sway over everyone who watched football in the 1990s.
When there are five targets on the field, though, there's no way one man can wipe out one side. Zone coverage does—and must—play a bigger role in every team's approach to coverage in today's NFL.
The football world got a dramatic illustration when Nnamdi Asomugha transitioned from that man-on-man "eraser" role in Oakland to being a coverage Swiss Army knife in Philadelphia; Asomugha wasn't nearly as effective when asked to do everything a modern corner must do.
Cornerbacks are still vitally important, but it's better to have three good cornerbacks than one great cornerback.
The Prototype: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Tight ends used to be, essentially, offensive linemen with hands. From Ozzie Newsome through Antonio Gates and beyond, a tight end who can make a defense pay with speed and athleticism has grown increasingly dangerous—and increasingly valuable.
In today's NFL, more and more young tight ends are staying lean to keep their speed up, and eschewing in-line blocking entirely.
Having a 6'6", 265-pound athlete like Rob Gronkowski is almost unfair; few linebackers can cover him and few defensive backs can bring him down. Even leaner tight ends like 6'7", 265-pound Jimmy Graham and 6'3", 249-pound Owen Daniels have made defenses pay with their receiving skills.
As premium height/weight/speed combinations for wide receivers are being devalued in favor of route-running and playmaking capabilities, tight ends are trending in the opposite direction—pay for a big, fast, freaky athlete and get him the ball.
The Prototype: Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers
Over the years, safety has rarely been considered a premium position. Free safeties have been the last line of defense, often roaming in deep center field. Strong safeties have traditionally been an "extra linebacker," coming up to make tackles in the run game and trying not to get beat deep otherwise.
As the tight end has evolved, this distinction is disappearing—and safeties are becoming much more valuable.
Against four- and five-receiver sets, or modern "Joker" tight ends, a safety that can't cover is a fatal liability. Safeties that can play man or zone coverage equally well, as well as come up and make open-field tackles, are coming at a premium.
Look at New Orleans Saints rookie Kenny Vaccaro: He's blessed with size and tackling ability, so he can immediately make plays against the run that the Saints' linebackers haven't been able to. Yet, he's so gifted in coverage that he could see time at nickel cornerback.
As teams play more hybrid, flexible defenses up front, adding a two-way impact safety is the fastest way to get better against the run and the pass. That's why safeties like Vaccaro and Eric Weddle will continue to see a steep increase in value.
The Prototype: Duane Brown, Houston Texans
Not long ago, a book titled "The Blind Side" was released. It not only followed the stranger-than-fiction upbringing of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher, but the evolution of the left-tackle position and how seemingly superhuman athletes in monstrous packages came to be the second-most prized position in football.
Not quite seven years later, the NFL seems far removed from the time when "protecting the quarterback" started and ended with a balletic giant like Jonathan Ogden (6'9", 340 pounds).
Smaller, more athletic tackles are being deployed to ward off today's arrays of blitzing linebackers and blazing defensive ends. Smaller, more explosive tackles like Duane Brown (6'4", 320 pounds) are better adapted to today's game. So are Matt Kalil of the Minnesota Vikings and Joe Staley of the San Francisco 49ers; both run in the 6'6", 310-pound range.
These leaner athletes are no less valuable in the running game, either; today's zone-blocking doesn't work with a player who can only dominate "in a phone booth," to borrow a scout's phrase. Every offensive lineman needs to be able to block on the run.
The corollary to all this, though, is that there are a lot more explosive athletes who stand around 6'5" and weigh 300 pounds than those who stand much taller and weigh much more. Further, as pressure comes from all over the line—not just the blind side—teams can't invest huge chunks of their cap in one offensive lineman anymore.
The Prototypes: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions; J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
It's been said many times that the shortest path to the quarterback is a straight line. As anchoring against the inside run becomes less and less of a priority, explosive 300-pounders are being lined up inside and unleashed.
This revolution in approach is forcing offenses to reevaluate everything about how they protect the quarterback. Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer admitted to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune that the Bears were thinking about Ndamukong Suh lining up "over the right guard" when they drafted a right guard in the first round.
Whether they line up over the guard in a 4-3 defense or between the guard and tackle as a 3-4 end like 2012 AP Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, these rare athletes force offenses to account for their disruptive power.
The Prototypes: Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants; Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
The second-most prized position in the NFL is, without a doubt, the edge pass-rusher.
They come in all shapes and sizes, from the Houston Texans' Mario Williams (6'6", 292 pounds) to Chris Clemons of the Seattle Seahawks (6'3", 254 pounds). They may set themselves up on the end of the line with a hand in the dirt, or sneak up from the back seven.
The one thing they all do, though, is get to the quarterback with some combination of speed, power and moves.
A fearsome edge-rusher can short-circuit a modern offense like nothing else. Not only can he easily sack (or better yet, strip-sack) the quarterback, but he can shorten a quarterback's mental timer and—effectively—shorten the field.
If a quarterback knows he doesn't have time to let deep routes develop, it's almost like giving the secondary a day off.
The Prototype: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
There's no doubt what the most important position on the field is: quarterback.
Only the quarterback touches the ball on every offensive snap, and only the quarterback is the triggerman for the passing game. No other player can do more to win—or lose—a professional football game.
A modern quarterback has to have the size, accuracy and arm strength of the greats of old, but also the ability to break down massively complex offensive and defensive systems (and make adjustments) before and after the snap. Additionally, today's great quarterbacks need to have the athleticism to make plays with their legs when called upon.
Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts has all of those things, as well as a precocious knack for coming up big in the biggest moments.