When building a contending football team, positional value is by far the most important evaluating factor. The NFL has become a passing league, and general managers have adapted to certain philosophies, while succeeding as well as failing, to produce winning seasons.
Positional Value In Today’s NFL
There are a multitude of different team-building strategies that exist today. For example, the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles have invested heavily for their future through the spending of multiple first round picks on the offensive and defensive fronts. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Lane Johnson, Derek Barnett, and Andre Dillard are all great examples of former high-upside first-round picks who are either already All-Pros or are on their way to achieving stardom. Stating that this approach has worked for both of these teams is a criminal understatement, as both Philly and Dallas are arguably top three teams in the NFC, with the Eagles winning the Super Bowl 52 as a result of great playcalling and incredible line play assisting a journeyman quarterback to 373 passing yards.
Some teams also spend high first-round picks on developmental quarterbacks, and then utilize draft assets as well as free agency to aid that young talent’s growth. In some cases, a top pick sits on the bench for some time to learn behind an “established veteran”; Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes are the two best examples of this scenario. Mahomes spent an entire season on the sidelines under the tutelage of veteran Alex Smith and quarterback guru Andy Reid as Smith held back an incredibly talented roster in the AFC Wild Card Game against the Titans. Two seasons later, Mahomes is looking like one of the best players in the game, and Mayfield himself is on his journey to stardom in the NFL.
However, while these are the overarching principles that teams follow when building a core, general managers have taken a far different approach when it comes to skill positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, cornerback). Especially with running backs, cornerbacks, and wide receivers, draft value has drastically fluctuated throughout the 2000s.
Most football analysts remember the infamous 2005 NFL Draft, with running backs Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams being selected in the top 5. The trio combined for 1 Pro Bowl, and not much else. For an entire decade, this disastrous running back group frightened general managers to the extent that no running back was even drafted in the first round until 2015, when the St. Louis Rams selected a young runner from Baltimore, Maryland, now known as Todd Gurley II.
After the league witnessed Gurley’s success as a rookie (Second-team All-Pro), one running back was drafted in the top four picks for the next three seasons. Dallas drafted two-time rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016, Jacksonville selected a rising star in Leonard Fournette fourth overall in 2017, and the Giants coveted the transcendent running back talent Saquon Barkley in 2018. While these four represent the crop of the running back position for the last five-six years, most general managers have associated this position with the term “replaceable”, especially while successfully proving the reliability of systems such as “running back by committee”. However, that “replaceable” association may change, as Gurley and Elliott have consequently received extensions that made them the two highest-paid runners in league history.
The 2017 NFL Draft was a perfect example of value at the running back position. Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, James Conner, and Marlon Mack are all backs drafted after the first round who present first-round value to this day. Especially in the case of Kamara, Hunt, and Mixon, the teams who drafted those three runners have All-Pro talent on their hands, as well as rock-solid building blocks for the long-term (pending extensions).
The point is, why spend a top four pick to get Fournette, when Kamara and Hunt present the same potential in the third? That same question can be applied to the wide receiver position. Ever since 2015, only one receiver drafted in all of that and the following classes combined has made the Pro Bowl (take a hint. He’s plays for the Cowboys, an integral piece on one of the most dangerous dark-horse Super Bowl candidates; thanks, Jon Gruden.) Alternatively, there were nearly five times as many productive receivers drafted after Round 1 in the same draft (Tyler Lockett [3rd Round], Jamison Crowder [4th Round], Eli Rogers [undrafted], Tyrell Williams [undrafted], Adam Humphries [undrafted]) as there were drafted in Round 1. Also, the “high-upside” talent drafted at Round 1 included Kevin White to Chicago (never on the field due to injury, inconsistent quarterback play), DeVante Parker to Miami (never on the field due to injury, inconsistent quarterback play), Nelson Agholor to Philly (never developed into a true #1 receiver; overdrafted to an extent), Breshad Perriman to Baltimore (never on the field due to injury, inconsistent quarterback play), and Phillip Dorsett II to Indianapolis (never on the field, injury-riddled quarterback, traded to New England after two seasons).
However, an even starker contrast to this trend in receiver value is the 2016 draft, with the infamous “Bust Quartet” (Corey Coleman in Cleveland, Will Fuller V in Houston, Josh Doctson, and Laquon Treadwell), all selected in Round 1. All of these receivers failed to materialize, and all for different reasons. Coleman showed potential as a rookie but never fully developed into a true #1 because of bad coaching, awful quarterback play, and a lack of motivation (see 2018 Hard Knocks Episode 2), so he was promptly traded to Buffalo for a 7th-round pick the following season. Fuller is a solid deep threat with streaky deep speed, but once again, never materialized due to injury. Doctson was always dealing with hampering injuries, and Treadwell was never able to develop with consistent drop issues to go along with a lack of overall reliability (an undrafted receiver named Adam Thielen and a sixth-round Maryland product named Stefon Diggs didn’t need him to marinate into of the best receiver tandems in the sport).
Compared to that bust-riddled first round, the later rounds presented a lot more value. Some of the receivers stolen after Round 1 were Michael Thomas to New Orleans in Round 2 (2018 First-Team All-Pro/receptions leader, 2017/2018 Pro Bowler, 1,000 receiving yards in first 3 seasons), Tyreek Hill to Kansas City in Round 5 (2016/2018 First-Team All-Pro, 2016/2017/2018 Pro Bowler, 1,000 receiving yards in last two seasons), Tyler Boyd to Cincinnati in Round 2 (1,000 yards in 2018), Sterling Shepard to Big Blue in Round 2 (career-high 872 yards in 2018), and Robby Anderson undrafted to Gang Green (career-high 941 receiving yards in 2017). A slight, maybe not-so-subtle theme should appear here: There is incredible value at the receiver position. Especially with the aforementioned contrast, all five of the receivers drafted after Round 1 were extended past their fifth season, whereas a grand total of zero first-round receivers in the class of 2016 ever reached 1,000 yards in a single season. Most notably, there should be a strong correlation between the receivers you don’t recognize and where they were drafted. Almost every one of the aforementioned productive receivers was drafted after the first round, proving that immense draft value exists among skill positions (outside of quarterback), especially with talents drafted out of the first round.
Position In Question?
The positional value controversy today concerns the future of how that aforementioned position may be evaluated. In the ensemble of skill positions, cornerback is considered the most volatile of the four. One would believe that when defending an opponent’s most viable receiving threat, a position would possess a greater priority. However, that statement is utter nonsense in today’s league. Even with game changers like Tre’Davious White, Xavien Howard, and Byron Jones, cornerback is the most replaceable position in the league.
Why draft a controversial prospect like Justin Gilbert in the top 8 when an undrafted rookie free agent from West Alabama named Malcolm Butler can win a Super Bowl with one play? Why select freak athletes like Trae Waynes, Adoree Jackson, and Kevin King in the top 20, when Bryce Callahan, Desmond King II, and Kenny Moore II dominate the league at slot corner (one of the most difficult positions in an era where more explosive passing offenses mainly utilize their top mismatch receiving threats in the slot)? Why were Vernon Hargreaves III and Artie Burns drafted a whole round higher than future All-Pro Xavien Howard?
The overall talent disparity within the NFL is minuscule, to say the least. With this in mind, why does it make sense to draft cornerbacks in the early rounds, rather than build fronts and acquire blue chip players at positions of rare commodity (tight end, linebacker), when GMs can utilize and develop late-round talent who may meet or even exceed the expectations of their first-round counterparts if coached to full potential?