By Joe Landers
The Giants need a leader at safety and they need one bad. The consensus #1 need for Cleveland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco is quarterback. Detroit’s top need is offensive tackle. There’s some draft philosophy and personnel development involved in the approach, but is it better to draft for team need or best player available? I’m sure there’s evidence to prove which is the better approach, but my aim isn’t to solve the BPA-versus-Needs debate. My goal is to show that the Giants, for example, don’t need to draft a safety in the 1st Round just because it’s their top team need. My goal is to show what rounds produce the best talent, by position.
When I first attempted this approach in 2006, I was motivated by watching the playoffs, cross-referencing depth charts (with round data), and noticing that there were a lot of undrafted free agents starting. Lacking a way to measure productivity, I relied on who was listed with the 1st string on team depth charts. The primary source was the 1st round. “53 out of 200 starters on the 8 divisional playoff teams were first rounders.”
The second most common source for starters in the 2006 divisional playoffs was undrafted free agents. 27% were from the 1st round and 20% were UDFAs. After the playoffs, I analyzed all 32 depth charts and noticed that the most common sources for starters were: 1st rounders (26%), 2nd rounders (19%), and UDFAs (16%).
In 2007, I published a two-deep study entitled “The Importance of Day One”. It used three years of data and focused on mid-season two-deeps, but it still relied on depth chart data rather than performance data. Of course, where a player is listed on a depth chart in the playoffs after 18 weeks doesn’t reflect productivity over a full season.
Nine years later, I’m circling back with an improved method of identifying which rounds produce the best talent. Using data cultivated over seven seasons based on on-field productivity (not proficiency suggested by a depth chart), I feel the conclusions are much more solid. The values you see in the below table represent the count of “Starting-caliber” players. Using regular season productivity measures from 2009-2015, I ranked each position from best player to worst player. If a quarterback’s productivity value ranked him in the top-32, he was classified as starting-caliber.
Using Cornerbacks as an example, you’ll see in the below table that the top-3 sources (shaded in grey) for starting-caliber corners are:
- 1st Round (20 players),
- 2nd Round (17 players), and
- 5th Round/UDFA are tied with 7 players each.
The least prominent round for starting-caliber corners is the 6th Round. Based on aggregate data from 2009-2015, only 1 starting-caliber cornerback was drafted in the 6th Round – Jason McCourty.
Confirming what’s visible above, these are the positions where the 1st Round is the most prominent source of starting-caliber talent:
- CB (20) – The next most prominent source of starting-caliber CB talent is the 2nd Rd with 17
- DE (20) – Next most prominent source is the 3rd Rd with 9
- DT (19) – Next most prominent is 3rd Rd with 12
- FS (12) – Next most prominent, 2nd Rd with 6
- LB (37) – Next, 2nd Rd with 30
- OT (26) – Next, 2nd Rd with 13
- QB (20) – Next, 2nd Rd with 4
- RB (12) – Next, UDFA with 7
- TE (11) – Next, 2nd Rd with 7
- WR (23) – Next, 2nd Rd with 12
The following positions all have their primary source of talent beyond the 1st Round:
- Center – The 2nd Round (6), 6th Round (5), and UDFA (5) are all fairly close
- Fullback – UDFA (14) is, by far and away, the primary source
- Kicker – UDFA (21) is the primary source
- Long-Snapper – UDFA (27) is the primary source
- Offensive Guard – The 3rd Round (12), 4th Round (11), and 2nd Round (10) are all close
- Punter – UDFA (15) is the primary source
- Strong Safety – UDFA (8), the 2nd Round (7), and the 3rd Round (5) are all close
If you compare the 2007 study (link above) to the below table, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. Here’s the table from the November 2007 two-deep study.
Consistencies from the 2007 two-deep study to this 2016 productivity study:
- CBs – The 1st and 2nd Round go in 1-2 order with UDFA in 3rd place
- DEs – The 1st Round is consistently the most prominent. UDFA is in the top-3 in both studies
- DTs – The 1st Round is consistently the most prominent. UDFA is in the top-3 in both studies
- QBs – The 1st, 2nd, and 6th Rounds remain in the top-3 for both studies
- RBs – The 1st is the most prominent in both. The 2nd Round is in the top-3 for both
- TEs – The 1st and 2nd Round go 1-2 in both studies
- FB/K/LS/P – All four positions have UDFA as the primary source in both studies
The 1st Round is crucial for many positions, no matter whether two-deep or productivity measurements are used to determine importance. For the positions where the drop-off from 1st Round to the next source is precipitous (DE, OT, QB, WR), the data suggest it’s critical to go 1st Round if the position is a top-priority. For positions where the 1st Round isn’t even in the top-3 for most prominent sources (ST, interior OL, SS, FB), the data suggests, unless the player is deemed by the organization to be one they just can’t pass up, it’s probably better to get that position in a less-expensive round.
I would invite any reader to use any success metric you deem worthy and run the same analysis. If you do so, please contact me at @JLanders0 and share your results.