Draft Talk: Position Groups – Hot or not in round 1?
Does recent NFL Draft history give us any pointers to the position groups teams will be concentrating on when they are on the clock in the first round? Do teams stick to the mantra of drafting the best player available or are certain position groups coveted more than most? Taking the last five drafts as the recent sample size, let’s take a look at where have teams put their resources.
Joint 1st – Offensive Tackle & Cornerback, (20)
After a low of two tackles taken in the 2017 1st round (Garrett Boiles and Ryan Ramczyk) numbers have steadily increased year on year until we hit six in 2020. This correlates with the influx of high profile rookie quarterbacks into the league and the need to keep them protected. There is nothing to suggest this will change for 2021 as greater protection may be drafted in to protect the likes of established younger quarterbacks such as Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert as well as the class of 2021. Look at what an improved offensive line did for the fortunes of the Cleveland Browns (Jedrick Wills pick number 10) and the newly-crowned Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Tristan Wirfs, the 13th pick).
In order to defend against an increasingly pass-first league it is not surprising that teams have loaded up on cornerbacks in order to compete with the demands this places on a defense. Three of the last five years have seen a minimum of five cornerbacks taken in round 1. Success at this position is not always immediate but no side can afford to be short at this skill position
2nd – Linebacker (19)
This number comes in slightly higher than defensive end, just one place below, and is a product of combining two different disciplines at the position (inside and outside). Numbers have been consistently high since 2017 and versatility is the significant advantage here in drafting players who can both cover, sideline-to-sideline, and also stand up at the line and rush. Following the Buccaneers Super Bowl win, teams will continue to be looking at the linebacker position for their Devin White, so expect the trend to continue this year.
Joint 3rd – Quarterback & Defensive End (18)
The coveted position of quarterback has resulted in a consistently high number of round one picks in the draft, although the success of those taken has been varied to say the least: from Pat Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson via Mitch Trubisky and Jared Goff all the way to Paxton Lynch. Twice in the last three years the draft has seen at least three quarterbacks taken in the top 10 picks, cementing the importance of the position.
Chasing those new young quarterbacks down has also been a priority for teams, with an equal numbers of defensive ends taken as teams seek to improve their pass rush. There has been more of an ebb and flow at this position though according to the quality of the draft class, with only one taken in round 1 last year, Chase Young.
4th – Wide Receiver (17)
As mentioned in a previous article which looked specifically at first round wide receivers, this does not always bring you success. However, that did not stop six being taken last year in round one. With a second consecutive deep draft class at this position, will we see this figure remain high or drop back down to only the top two or three taken on day one?
5th – Defensive Tackle (15)
The game is won in the trenches is an oft used phrase in the NFL. That applies to both sides of the ball and stocking up on defensive tackles from round one has remained important throughout recent years, albeit behind the potentially more versatile spots on the edge and at linebacker. However, at least two teams have stocked up on the interior defensive front in four of the last five years so premier players in this position will appear on a number of first round shortlists.
6th – Safety (10)
The position of safety has been limited in recent years in the first round to only one or two teams making this their selection. Last year Xavier McKinney slipped all the way out of the first round and fell to the Giants at #36 which was widely seen as great value after McKinney had often been project a mid-first round pick. The same may happen again in 2021 with top-rated safety Trevon Moehrig, as a first round talent who may slip to day 2 if teams value other position groups more.
Joint 7th – Running Back & Interior Lineman (8)
The debate on the virtues of whether to take a running back in the first round are well rehearsed. Think of the players drafted and opinions on the benefits of that pick are often divided (e.g. Ezekiel Elliott, and Saquon Barkley). Leonard Fournette, taken at #4 by the Jaguars in 2017 was widely seen as a bust, although he almost helped Jacksonville to the Super Bowl in 2017 and now has a ring with the Buccaneers.
It is widely thought that a first round pick is too rich for a position group whose value has diminished somewhat in recent years. The emergence of teams using a committee approach to the running game and a reluctance to pay big bucks on second contracts have been major factors. Christian McCaffrey’s recent 4-year $64M contract extension can be seen both as reward for his early career highlight reel but also, potentially, a millstone around the Panthers’ future cap space. The last two drafts have seen only one running back (2019 – Josh Jacobs, 2020 – Clyde Edwards-Helaire) taken in the first round, and 2021 will most likely see a similar scenario.
Interior Lineman are also less of a priority for first round picks, and certainly appear to be lower down the order than their colleagues to the outside at tackle. This is in some ways similar to the defensive line with concentration on those outer positions. However, apart from in 2017, there has always been at least one top guard or center taken in round one.
8th – Tight End (6)
Bottom of the pile is the tight end position. This may be, in part, a reaction to the group of tight ends taken in 2017 (3 – OJ Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku) and their relative lack of production since then. The Baltimore Ravens took Hayden Hurst in 2018 and he has already moved on to the Atlanta Falcons. Only TJ Hockenson (Detroit) and to a lesser extent Noah Fant (Denver) from the 2019 Draft have shown flashes sufficient to justify the cost of a first-round pick. There are elite tight ends out there with Kelce, Kittle, Waller, and Andrews top of the current pile and the benefits of a mis-match against opposition defenses is tempting. However, there is not a production line of top quality players in this position emerging from the College game, so expect this trend of very few first round tight ends selected to continue for the moment. Kyle Pitts is the obvious, and only, candidate for 2021.
Any clues for 2021?
Taking the five-year average, can we predict the number taken at each position in round 1? Looking at the averages below (to 1 decimal pace to allow us a little wriggle room) how do you think this might pan out – does recent history gives us clues to the number which will be taken at each position in 2021?
Quarterback – 3.6
Running Back – 1.6
Wide Receiver – 3.4
Tight End – 1.2
Offensive Tackle – 4.0
Interior Lineman – 1.6
Defensive End – 3.6
Defensive Tackle – 3.0
Linebacker – 3.8
Cornerback – 4.0
Safety – 2.0
Let us know what you think @NinetynineYards #drafttalk – has the value of position groups changed in recent years or will teams still take the best player off the board regardless of position?