Schwartz: Most Valuable Positions to Target in the NFL Draft
Y’all, it’s almost here. The NFL draft is one day away, and I’m so pumped for draft season finally to be over. I love a good NFL draft rumor, and it’s wonderful for the media, but it’s getting outrageous.
The most outrageous talk of all is that a team that needs a quarterback might draft a running back instead.
Quarterback is the most valuable position in all of sports. Maybe an ace pitcher on the bump is as important to his team as a starting quarterback is to his, but even then aces start only 30 games.
The value of quarterbacks is demonstrated by their play on the field, but if you like numbers (and I do), here are some good ones. Per Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks have the highest average of the top-10 cap hits by position for 2018, and it’s not even close. Quarterback is currently sitting at $25.5M per season. This offseason, the Minnesota Vikings handed out a fully guaranteed contract to a quarterback on the fringe of the top 10.
Since 2000, there have been four quarterbacks drafted in Round 1 four times. There have never been five quarterbacks selected in Round 1. I believe this draft will change that.
In fact, we could see four quarterbacks drafted with the first four picks. Over the last two years, teams have aggressively traded up to grab quarterbacks because it’s impossible to win in the NFL without a franchise passer. The Browns must take a quarterback with their first pick.
Offensive Tackle and Edge Rusher
There’s a hearty debate on positional value after quarterbacks, but most people consider left tackle and defensive end to be next in line.
The NFL is a passing league now. Teams win by being able to complete passes and create explosive plays at a high clip. Traditionally people think of left tackle as the primary player who protects the quarterback, and maybe that was true once, but with the shotgun being so prevalent in the NFL there isn’t much of a blind side anymore.
Now, the quarterback can see his rushers, even with his back slightly turned away from the left tackle. Quarterbacks also throw the ball so quickly these days that it’s not as urgent for left tackles to sustain their blocks. For a left tackle to surrender pressures and hits consistently now, he has to be pretty bad.
Also, good edge rushers no longer line up exclusively at right end against the left tackle. Now pass rushers move all across the line. Look at the names of the rushers who line up over the right tackle.
- Khalil Mack
- Von Miller
- Joey Bosa
- J.J. Watt
- Cam Wake
- Justin Houston
- Brandon Graham
- Ryan Kerrigan
The list goes on. Good edge rushers line up over the right tackle because NFL teams haven’t adjusted their thinking on left tackles. Defenses are putting their best rushers against the weaker tackles on offensive lines. Additionally, left ends have the advantage of being closer to the quarterback’s throwing landmark. They can more easily knock down the ball.
Quick tangent: Edge rushers aren’t the only players who are important. Lately, a bigger emphasis has been placed on interior pass rushing. With quarterbacks throwing the ball quickly, it’s often easiest to get to the signal-caller by rushing inside. And the importance of interior rushing is reflected in the compensation of disruptive defensive tackles, who have the second-highest average salaries behind quarterbacks.
All of which is to say that I think defensive end is the second-most valuable position in the NFL, just slightly above tackles.
Next is cornerback. Having three excellent defensive backs is currently a necessity since offenses now use 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and so three wide receivers) on 60% of their snaps. For man-coverage teams, having strong corners is all the more necessary.
Being able to guard wide receivers tightly does more than lower the chances that a quarterback will be able to complete a pass. It also increases the odds that he will be sacked. Good coverage helps the pass rush. If the quarterback can’t find anyone open, the defense has a good chance of getting a coverage sack.
After those four positions, I think it’s best to build through the middle of the field.
- Interior offensive and defensive line
- Middle linebacker
Tight ends have become more important as the passing game has evolved, which in turn makes hybrid nickel/safety players more crucial.
As for running back and wide receiver, they have the least value in my humble opinion.
Top Photo: Southern California Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (right) and UCLA Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen (3) shake hands