Which positions hold the most value in the 1st round?

Over the next few weeks you’re bound to hear draft experts across the country claim that certain positions have more “value” than others. Some will claim that if a potential franchise quarterback is on the board you must take him if its a need. Other will say you should always wait until the 2nd round for a wide receiver. Everyone has their own theories.

Well, we set out to set the record straight and determine which positions really do have the most value in the 1st round.

In order to accomplish this task we needed to assign a value to each player selected. Fortunately, the folks at Pro-Football-Reference.com have already done this. PFR has developed a statistic which they call “approximate value.”  It assigns a number to each player based on his value in a given season. Add it all up and you get his “career approximate value.” The formula is complicated so I won’t bother to get into the details, but if you’re curious you can read about it here.

With the hard work out of the way, all we had to do was determine the average value for each position based on draft round. To do this we analyzed every 1st through 3rd round draft pick between 2003 and 2007. This was chosen as the data set for two reasons:

  1. We wanted to use a contemporary set of players. However we also wanted each player to have established himself in the league. Since three years is commonly referred to as the time needed to grade a draft class, we selected 2007 as the most recent year for the data.
  2. The first three years used to be referred to as “first day” draft picks, when all three rounds occurred on Saturday. Teams expect these “first day” picks to eventually develop into starters. Any “second day” draft pick doesn’t come with the same expectations and can’t fairly be compared players selected in the 1st round.

The 490 players in the data set were then broken down by position and the round in which they were selected – 1st, 2nd or 3rd. We then found the average career value for each position in each round.

Based on the data, there appears to be two different ways to analyze the data:

  1. Comparing the average value of the 1st-round picks to the average value of the 2nd round picks
  2. Comparing the average value of each round to the average value of all picks in rounds 1 through 3

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We’ll start with comparison No. 1 and count down the most valuable positions 10 through 1

.

10. Defensive Backs
1st Round Avg. Value: 24.9
2nd Round Avg. Value: 20.8
There is essentially no difference between 1st and 2nd round defensive backs. Their 24.9 1st-round value is among the lowest of all positions, yet their 2nd-round value is among the highest. If there’s another option on the board, it would appear to be a wise choice to wait until the 2nd round to upgrade your secondary.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Troy Polamalu (’03 Steelers)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Andre Woolfolk (’03 Titans)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Rashean Mathis (’03 Jaguars)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Ricardo Colclough (’04 Jaguars)

9. Defensive End
1st Round Avg. Value: 22.3
2nd Round Avg. Value: 17.9
Like defensive backs, defensive ends only suffer a slight decrease in value in the 2nd round. But not only is their a small difference, their 22.3 1st-round value is easily the lowest of all positions.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Ty Warren (’03 Patriots)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Jarvis Moss (’07 Broncos)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Osi Umenyiora (’03 Giants)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Dan Bazuin (’07 Bears)

8. Offensive Tackle
1st Round Avg. Value: 29.1
2nd Round Avg. Value: 23.8
Offensive tackles are actually a very safe pick in each round, but their low rating is a result of their incredible 2nd-round value. They’re easily the most valuable 2nd-round pick, which makes it unnecessary to reach for tackles in the 1st round.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Jordan Gross (’03 Panthers)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Joe Staley (’07 49ers)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Michael Roos (’05 Titans)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Jacob Rogers (’04 Cowboys)

7. Wide Receiver
1st Round Avg. Value: 24.7
2nd Round Avg. Value: 15.6
Here’s where we start to see some separation. There is obviously more value in the 1st round at the receiver position, but their 24.7 1st-round value is the 3rd lowest. These numbers indicate that the receiver position is the most volatile. While 2nd-round picks rarely pan out, 1st-round picks are hit-or-miss as well.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Andre Johnson (’03 Texans)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Rashaun Woods (’04 49ers)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Anquan Boldin (’03 Cardinals)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Terrence Murphy (’05 Packers)

6. Offensive Guard
1st Round Avg. Value: 27.8
2nd Round Avg. Value: 18.2
Guards are a safe bet in either round, but their 27.8 1st-round value indicates that they’re borderline can’t-miss prospects early in the draft. However, their 2nd-round grade is also impressive, meaning there’s no need to reach for one in the 1st-round.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Logan Mankins (’05 Patriots)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Ben Grubbs (’07 Ravens)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Chris Snee (’04 Giants)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Bruce Nelson (’03 Panthers)

5. Linebacker
1st Round Avg. Value: 31.1
2nd Round Avg. Value: 20.0
Linebackers hold the highest 1st-round value among the defensive positions and come in second to defensive backs in the 2nd round. Starter-quality players can certainly be found in the 2nd round, but the 1st round frequently produces stars.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Terrell Suggs (’03 Ravens)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: David Pollack (’05 Bengals)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Lofa Tatupu (’05 Seahawks)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Terry Pierce (’03 Broncos)

4. Defensive Tackle
1st Round Avg. Value: 26.7
2nd Round Avg. Value: 12.1
While defensive tackles don’t hold as much 1st-round value as linebackers, their low 2nd-round grade indicates that the draft pool dries up quickly once the top players are off the board. If you want a starter at defensive tackle, you better get one early.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Kevin Williams (’03 Vikings)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Justin Harrell (’07 Packers)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Anthony Adams (’03 49ers)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Alan Branch (’07 Cardinals)

3. Tight End
1st Round Avg. Value: 31.0
2nd Round Avg. Value: 13.9
1st-round tight ends are can’t miss prospects. Even the least productive tight ends in this group (Greg Olsen Marcedes Lewis) have been starters since early in their careers. However, there is almost always a precipitous drop-off in talent once the top one or two tight ends are off the board.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Dallas Clark (’03 Colts)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Greg Olsen (’07 Bears)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: L.J. Smith (’03 Eagles)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Bennie Joppru (’03 Texans)

2. Running Back
1st Round Avg. Value: 32.4
2nd Round Avg. Value: 13.9
It should be noted that 1st-round running backs are almost always thrown into the fire from day one. Meaning even the ones that end up being busts are at least given the opportunity to play, which can’t be said for all positions. However, its clear that the top talent is almost always found in the 1st round.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Larry Johnson (’03 Chiefs)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Chris Perry (’04 Bengals)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Maurice Jones-Drew (’06 Jaguars)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Kenny Irons (’07 Bengals)

1. Quarterback
1st Round Avg. Value: 31.0
2nd Round Avg. Value: 3.8
There’s really no surprise here. 1st-round quarterbacks aren’t can’t miss prospects, but the percentage of non-1st-round picks that develop into starters is astronomically low. Essentially there’s no difference between a 2nd-rounder and a 7th-rounder. In our data set, 14 of the 16 1st-round quarterbacks are rated higher than the highest-rated 2nd-round pick. If you want to find a future star at the position you better find him in the 1st round or just run into some dumb luck later in the draft.
Highest rated 1st-round pick: Ben Roethlisberger (’04 Steelers)
Lowest rated 1st-round pick: Brady Quinn (’07 Browns)
Highest rated 2nd-round pick: Tarvaris Jackson (’06 Vikings)
Lowest rated 2nd-round pick: Drew Stanton (’07 Lions)

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While that list does a nice job of comparing the first two rounds of the draft, quality players can still be found in the 3rd round. When you add them to the equation the list changes slightly. Rather than run through each position again, take a look at the chart below:

The numbers below each position corresponded to that round’s average value above or below the combined value for all three rounds at that position (which is listed on the bottom line).

From this chart, we can see where the breaking point is for each position. Quarterback, for example, is clearly the most top-heavy position as their value falls over 20 points from the 1st to the 2nd and 3rd round. Defensive backs, however, still have a positive value in the 2nd round which coincides with our first list’s claim that they are the least-valuable 1st-round choice.

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The question now is: how can we apply this study to the draft?

The list certainly shouldn’t be taken as gospel, as the value within each draft changes from year to year based on available talent. But lets see how it could be used in a specific example:

Let’s say the Browns are on the clock at No. 7. Based on how the first six picks played out the top remaining players on their draft board are Joe Haden and Rolando McClain. Who do they pick?

Even if Haden is rated higher on their board, the smart choice would be McClain. History tells us that the Browns can still find an above average cornerback in the 2nd round (perhaps a guy like Patrick Robinson). However, there is going to be a significant drop-off in talent at inside linebacker once McClain is gone.

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If you have any questions related to this study, feel free to shoot us an email (webmaster[at]draftace.com) or send us a message on twitter (@draftace).

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in Research 2 Comments

About the author

Ryan McCrystal

Ryan launched DraftAce in 2004. His Top 100 board is currently ranked 1st out of 20 publications in The Huddle Report's five-year averages. His mock draft is ranked 10th out of 32 competitors.You can also find Ryan's weekly Heisman Predictor series on ESPN Insider every fall.