Breaking Down Every NFL Team's Draft Tendencies
When it comes to the draft, certain franchises are synonymous with their tendencies. The Pittsburgh Steelers love aggressive linebackers. The Oakland Raiders love prospects with great measurables. The Detroit Lions never turn down a talented pass-catcher.
Of course, these are generalities, even cliches. For most NFL teams, their current leadership hasn't been in place long enough to really get a feel for their particular likes and dislikes. Yet whether it's ownership, fan influence, tradition or even the local climate, certain factors keep teams building in certain ways.
To assess how teams have invested their draft picks over the years, we need to quantify how much pick value they've spent at each position. We won't use the so-called Jimmy Johnson trade value chart, which does an OK job of describing how general managers tend to value draft picks in trades but isn't tied to any on-field value. Instead, we'll use a model made by Kevin Meers of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective.
Meers used actual production, over decades, by players drafted in each slot. By tying that value to every pick every team has made since the expansion to 32 teams in 2002, we can see how teams really value certain positions. We'll also see how veteran play affects drafting, and bad drafting begets more bad drafting.
For each of the following charts, the horizontal axis is the number of players drafted at each position. The vertical axis is average pick value spent on draftees at that position; whether the team tends to spend higher or lower picks. The size of the bubble is the total pick value invested in that position, where a lot of late-rounders add up (or one first-rounder can tilt the scales!).
The Cardinals love receivers.
With high-drafted stalwarts like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals rank sixth in draft value spent on wide receivers. Until the top pick used for Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals mostly let their secondary languish. A parade of mid-round tailbacks, however, puts them just outside the top 10 in overall value spent on runners.
Even counting No. 7 overall guard Jonathan Cooper, the Cardinals rank in the bottom third of the league (24th) in offensive line investment—and it shows. They may need to keep going against type in 2015 and draft offensive linemen high.
This study doesn't account for pick value given up in a trade—otherwise, the Falcons' investment in wide receiver would look a lot heavier, due to the Julio Jones trade. As it is, the Falcons have a balanced approach to drafting offensive skill positions, and it's served them well.
They, however, don't believe in blocking much, ranking 23rd in offensive line investment and 31st in tight ends. They rank 26th in defensive line investment, and that's hurt them of late. Still, they've gone early and often for defensive backs, and they've hit on quality there.
The Ravens have built their team from the offensive line out, and this chart makes it painfully obvious. Only two other teams have sunk more draft resources into their offensive line than the Ravens, and they're just outside the top 10 at their other main strengths: quarterback, running back and linebacker.
Their pass-catchers don't get nearly as much love, and the defensive back corps is the second-thinnest group in the NFL—and guess whose secondary was ravaged by injuries in 2014? Baltimore must invest heavily to shore up its shaky back seven.
The Bills are one of those teams that seem to have a little extra to spread around. As mediocre on-field results generally lend them strong draft position, the Bills are in the top 10 in pick value invested in quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive linemen and defensive backs.
That said, the Bills are way down at 24th in tight end investment, which is odd—a talented tight end is a young quarterback's best friend. Look for new head coach Rex Ryan to keep adding beef up front, to help both the running and passing games.
The Panthers, outside of taking Cam Newton No. 1 overall in 2011, have barely invested anything at the quarterback position. That's fine, as long as he continues to progress toward being a week-in, week-out difference-maker.
Though the Panthers' perennially-stocked backfield ranks third here, those highly drafted backs are all gone, or quite long in the tooth. They may spend even more picks there in the 2015 lottery. However, even with the 2014 first-round selection of receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers rank 26th in wideout investment.
It's long past time to give Newton more weapons.
The Lovie Smith years have certainly taken their toll on the Bears' drafting. They're ranked 26th or below in quarterback, receiver, tight end and offensive line drafting. The trade for still-starting-quarterback-for-now Jay Cutler doesn't factor in here, but the much-improved offensive line has a lot of ground to make up.
Defensively, the presence of stalwarts Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs left the Bears with little need at that position throughout this study; they rank dead last in pick investment there. Now that Urlacher is gone and Briggs is hanging on by a thread, Chicago is long overdue for a restocking.
However, the Bears rank fifth and 10th in defensive line and defensive backs, respectively; the rest of the defense has a nice mix of young and veteran talent. Now, if only they could play like it...
This chart shouldn't come as much surprise. The Bengals have had one of the deepest, most talented blocking units in football for quite some time, their offensive line and tight-end pick spending are fourth- and third-highest in the NFL, respectively.
Cincinnati's also in the top 10 at quarterback, receiver, linebacker and defensive back—but that's not because the Bengals are consistently picking in the top 10. Look at the chart: The Bengals are drafting inordinate numbers of players at these positions in the middle and lower rounds. It's an interesting strategy that's kept the once-awful Bengals competitive, if not dominant, over the last decade-and-a-half.
You knew we'd get here eventually, and the chart does not disappoint.
The Browns, unlike every other team in the NFL, have consistently picked quarterbacks more highly than other positions. They have spent only twice as much pick value on defensive backs as quarterbacks in this study, despite (obviously) starting four defensive backs and just one quarterback!
The Browns are No. 1 in the NFL in spending lots of quality draft picks on running backs, which is not exactly what you'd call on-trend right now. The good news is, they have two good young ones in Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West.
The bad news: They still don't have a quarterback.
Maybe there's truth to the idea, as reported and followed up by many sites including ESPNDallas.com, that Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is letting his son Stephen make more of the important football decisions.
No matter who's pulling the strings, the shift in focus back to getting quality offensive linemen early has paid off. Then again, whoever's addicted to taking iffy defensive backs had better knock it off; the Cowboys finished second in defensive-back picks but were Pro Football Focus' 11th-worst pass-coverage team.
The Denver Broncos' torrid, short-lived love affairs with what seemed like a hundred post-Terrell Davis tailbacks shows up in this chart, as do more recent investments hoping to give quarterback Peyton Manning a legit ground game. Only one team invested more heavily in running backs over this period than the Broncos, and yet they finished 20th in average yards per attempt last season!
The offensive line may need more investment anyway, especially if the Broncos make a move for another runner.
Joey Harrington, Matthew Stafford, Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. That's what this chart shows: huge investments at quarterback, receiver and defensive line, with very little in the way of success.
After ex-CEO and president Matt Millen drafted offensive linemen (retired left tackle Jeff Backus, and retired center Dominic Raiola) with his first two picks, the Lions have only drafted 11 others in the following 14 seasons, by far the least pick-value investment in any offensive line.
That will likely change very, very soon.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers haven't had a lot of high draft picks to work with in the years being studied here, and they've obsessively spent nearly all of them in the defensive front seven.
The Packers rank in the 20s in pick investment at most positions—but are sixth in defensive linemen, 10th in linebackers and 10th in wide receivers. That's what happens when you have franchise quarterbacks: You spend those picks everywhere trying to get better.
They say everything's bigger in Texas—and when it comes to Houston's defensive line, that's certainly true. From Mario Williams through Jadeveon Clowney, they've been more than willing to spend the draft's rarest, most exclusive picks on freaky-fast pass-rushers.
Other than the defensive line fixation—oh, and scraping by with the 26th-rated running back group—the Texans have otherwise done a good job of balancing their picks and roster. If they can't fix their quarterback woes in this draft, it may finally be time for the Texans to go big time on a tailback.
Through a trick of having great veteran receivers like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne already on the roster in 2002, and a fanatic dedication to getting good tight ends for their quarterbacks, the Colts have a bizarre track record on drafting pass-catchers: They're the second-most prolific drafters of tight ends but dead last in drafting wide receivers.
That extremely high quarterback per-pick value reflects exactly what you think it does: The Colts are totally unwilling to draft a quality backup for either Andrew Luck, or Peyton Manning before him. That won't likely change this year, either.
There's only so many times you can draft and whiff on a top quarterback, and Jacksonville Jaguars fans are hoping and praying they hit the limit before they drafted Blake Bortles No. 3 overall in 2014.
The Jaguars' commitment to acquiring top targets has been impressive. Even the flame-out of Justin Blackmon hasn't left Jacksonville short of talented pass-catchers. The question is, are any of them talented enough to get separation and make plays against NFL defenses?
And for all the quarterback and receiver investment, what about the defense? Head coach Gus Bradley may need to help his own cause by adding some impact defenders on the front line.
Kansas City Chiefs
Ideally, charts would just speak for themselves; in many cases, they do. This one might as well open wide and say, "Welp."
If you're at all familiar with Kansas City Chiefs' on-field product of the last few seasons, the near-total disregard for offensive skill positions—and obsession with stocking up on linemen and linebackers—is reflected quite clearly here. Head coach Andy Reid will have to bite the bullet and add some offensive weapons.
The Dolphins have been stuck in the NFL's doldrums: too poor to attract exciting free agents (or even excited fans), yet too good to get helped out with high draft picks. Their eighth-ranked outlay for running backs is the only thing out of balance here; every other collection of picks is in or near the bottom third of the NFL.
Maybe the Dolphins know something we don't—but the suspension of 2013 No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan, per NFL.com, suggests otherwise. Then again, the surprise addition of All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh could jump-start the roster; with a few well-placed picks in Chicago, the Dolphins could contend for the playoffs.
Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson are the straws stirring the drink in Minnesota, and that much is obvious from this chart.
2014's flame-throwing defensive playmaker, Anthony Barr, is the latest in a parade of relatively high linebacker picks. Minnesota has sunk more pick value into its perennially languid linebacking unit than all but three other teams.
The Vikings have no shortage of places they could use help—but the big question on the first day of the draft will be whether they'll be trying to trade and replace Peterson.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick has never cared much for our sense of propriety. His drafting of seven tight ends, with an average pick value in the low third round, is head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Belichick has doubled down on tight ends at a time when the rest of the league is staying away.
Maybe that should be a clue to the rest of the league.
It looks like the Patriots are barely scraping by elsewhere, and to an extent they are—but that's more a product of them always drafting low than an intentionally miserly approach to the draft.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints ... are not fond of spending picks on skill-position players. Having acquired Drew Brees, the Saints have only drafted three quarterbacks since 2002, all in the last three rounds. That's dead last in the NFL. They're also dead last in spending picks on tight ends.
They've drafted their fair share of running back talent, but it's an extreme boom-or-bust situation; two of the Saints' three drafted backs in this window were first-round picks. Incredibly, going back to Ricky Williams, the Saints have drafted six tailbacks, four in the first round.
Mock drafters, take note: The Saints go big-time on running back, or not at all.
New York Giants
Despite making a few good picks on the offensive line, like Justin Pugh and Chris Snee, the Giants finished 31st in this window when it comes to actually turning in draft cards with offensive linemen names on them.
However, they not only sank the eighth-most of any team into wide receivers, they got much more than what they paid for in players like rookie phenom Odell Beckham Jr. The linebacking corps almost never gets any love from GM Jerry Reese either; look for that issue to either get fixed in this draft, or get worse.
New York Jets
J-E-T-S, defensive line, defensive line and defensive line.
Or at least, that's how it should go. The Jets have put only an 11th-most 2,161 points worth of pick value into their defensive line, but that's spread over just 13 players for an average value of 166—in the top of the second round!
Departing head coach Rex Ryan loved his defensive linemen, almost irrationally so, and new head coach Todd Bowles likes them, too. Will Bowles take Rex's mania to the next level? Or, finally, restock the depleted skill-position groups?
Nobody drafts fast defensive backs quite like the Raiders. In fact, nobody's drafted more defensive backs higher than the Raiders in recent years.
The Raiders have invested their top picks heavily elsewhere, too; they rank in the top 10 at quarterback, tight end and linebacker. Despite consistently picking toward the top of the order, though, the Raiders rank 27th and 24th, respectively, in drafting running backs and defensive linemen.
Expect that to change in this draft.
What third-year head coach Chip Kelly has done with his newfound personnel power is so crazily unpredictable that studying past Eagles trends won't tell us much.
However, it can tell us the underserved areas of the Eagles' roster. Both the offensive and defensive line rank in the top 10 of the NFL in pick value spent, but running back is the only other offensive position group that breaks out of the 20s, at 19th.
Despite a 13th-ranked 2,118 points of pick value flowing into the secondary over the past 14 seasons, the rebuilding project is still in progress. Kelly's next move is anybody's guess.
For a team that pretty regularly picks toward the back of the pack, the Steelers have put together an impressively balanced personnel portfolio.
The success of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has kept the Steelers from having to spend picks there. As mentioned in the intro, it should come as no surprise that the Steelers' linebacking corps is the only NFL-wide top 10 draft-value group they boast. The offensive line, though, isn't far behind—and the production from that unit has never been near the linebackers'.
The big problem: defensive back. Where the Steelers rank at the bottom in ponying up for quality talent.
San Diego Chargers
It seems the Chargers defense has been oddly built; from the secondary featuring safety Eric Weddle forward.
The Chargers rank fifth and seventh in spending pick value on their linebacker and defensive-back corps, but they are in the low 20s at tailback, receiver, defensive line and tight end.
Yes, tight end. Stalwart Antonio Gates predates this study, and Ladarius Green was just a fourth-rounder. Look for San Diego to bring in weapons for the offense and add beef up front to the defense.
The Seahawks' drafting ranks 29th in quarterbacks, 31st in running backs and 30th in wide receivers. If there's anything the offseason trade of Pro Bowl center Max Unger for Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham proves, it's that Seahawks general manager John Schneider has finally realized Russell Wilson can't throw to the open guy if nobody's open.
Beside bolstering an offensive line that's to this point been supplied by just the 21st-most rookie talent in the NFL, look for the Seahawks to finally get serious about adding aerial weapons.
San Francisco 49ers
Of course the San Francisco 49ers have invested heavily in the offensive line over the years; they've put more pick value into that line than any team (save one) in the NFL. They're also in the top 10 on picks spent on quarterbacks, running back, tight end and defensive line.
Interestingly, the linebacker corps is the hypothetical ideal of "measure twice, cut once." They've used the second-lowest number of picks on linebackers over this span of any team in the league, selecting just nine players, but they picked a bevy of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. A rash of surprise retirements in the front seven, though, could force the 49ers to go back to the linebacker well.
St. Louis Rams
Chris Long. Robert Quinn. Aaron Donald. Yes, the Rams have a beastly defensive line, with the fourth-most pick value applied to it of any team in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the Rams rank No. 1 in burning picks on the offensive line, and that unit's nowhere near as good. High-profile busts like Jason Smith, combined with free-agency disappointments like Jake Long, could force the Rams to commit even more picks to their offensive front.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Thanks to unforeseen, unfortunate injuries to promising young runners like Cadillac Williams and Doug Martin, the Bucs have spent a fifth-most 1,053 points of pick value on their running game—and they still don't have a quality halfback.
Assuming they spend the No. 1 overall pick, as widely presumed, on quarterback Jameis Winston, the Bucs will have some hard decisions to make: Pair Winston with another talented young runner, or add beef up front to protect Winston and hope another committee of also-rans will get the job done?
The Titans are another all-or-nothing quarterback team, with just four picks spent in 14 seasons—but two of them were top-10 busts. They have also benefited from picking high, ranking in the top 10 in pick value spent at running back, receiver, offensive line, defensive line and defensive back.
Funnily enough, second-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't have much to work with in a running game or receiving weapons, and the two lines are far from complete.
Will Whisenhunt take another swing at the home-run fix, snagging a top quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick? Or will he try to plug the many holes on his transforming roster?
That quarterback dot is just depressing.
If you're reading this, you likely know the long, lurid tale of failed Washington quarterbacks—but what's even more lurid is how few picks there are. Despite accomplishing relatively little on the field in the last 15 years, Washington has exercised just 87 picks over that span, tied for third-fewest in the NFL.
What's worse, the frequent trading has also cost Washington a lot of its rightful pick value; it ranks in the bottom third of the league in value spent on running backs, receivers, offensive line, defensive line and (nearly) linebacker.
It ranks No. 3 in draft value blown on quarterbacks.