Best Round to Draft a Linebacker? Data Reveals Where NFL Teams Can Maximize Value

The NFL Draft is often referred to as an art form, rather than a science. While success in football isn’t hard to quantify, the trajectory from college football to professional football has been difficult to predict. Moreover, positions have been difficult to compare to one another, making the NFL draft incredibly unpredictable.

I set out to gauge the relative value of the average player drafted in each round –both in general and at a specific position. After which, I was able to compare the relative values. Doing so enables one to assess when to draft what position, as to maximize the relative value of that pick.

Using pro football reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric, I took the mean AV of every player drafted in 2008-2012 in an attempt to formulate a draft strategy that maximizes value. Created by pro football reference’s Doug Drinin, the Approximate Value (AV) method is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year. AV’s methodology is explained here.

Quarterback

The quarterback position is paramount, plain and simple. Teams will often go to extreme lengths to acquire a high draft pick in order to select one of the top collegiate signal callers, even mortgaging their future by packaging picks to trade up.

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As common sense may have led you to believe, if you want a starting quarterback, you need to draft him early. Though the success rate of 1st round quarterbacks historically hovers around 50%, there is a chance you can find a good quarterback in rounds 2 and 3. There were 2 outliers for rounds 2 and 3, respectively – Andy Dalton (RD 2/Mean AV of 12.67), Colin Kaepernick (RD 2/Mean AV of 8), Russell Wilson (RD 3/Mean AV of 16), and Nick Foles (RD 3/Mean AV of 8) all are, statistically, successful NFL quarterbacks. All 4 play in very specific systems, with Kaepernick and Wilson utilizing their speed within their systems.

So, if you find yourself wanting your team to go out and get a new starting quarterback, you should hope they do so in round 1. If not, rest easy knowing there is good value to be had in rounds 2 and 3, with the possibility of finding the next All Pro. However, it would seem as if the success of the non-1st round quarterbacks is more dependent on how that player fits into the scheme.

Halfback

No position has been devalued over the years quite like the halfback position. Not only does the average NFL halfback have a ridiculously short shelf life, but many teams have also started dividing carries between multiple backs. To top it off, good halfbacks have been emerging at the back-end of drafts, driving the relative value of top-tier backs down.

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It should come as no surprise that the relative value of a 1st round running back is low; it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to draft one there. If NFL general managers want to maximize your value, they should look towards the 2nd and 3rd rounds for their next running backs. Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, and Rashad Mendenhall, all of whom have mean AV’s in the 5’s, were selected in the first round ahead of Matt Forte (2nd/11.33 AV), Ray Rice (2nd,11.67 AV), and Jamaal Charles (3rd/9 AV). LeSean McCoy, arguably the best running back in football, wasn’t taken until the middle of the 2nd round, as he was passed over for 3 other backs (credit horton). It’s clear that value in the 1st round is simply not there anymore, not even for the next Adrian Peterson.

Wide Receiver

While the analysis of the quarterback and halfback positions came as no surprise to me, I was definitely taken back by the success of 1st round wide receivers. Out of 16 1st round wide receivers, only 4 had an average AV under 5 (A.J. Jenkins, Jon Baldwin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Kenny Britt). Of those 4, Jenkins and Heyward-Bey were considered ridiculous reaches when drafted, while Britt’s legal troubles have hindered his production immensely.

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Aside from the 1st round, there is good relative value in the 5th and 6th rounds. Pierre Garcon (6.67 AV) and Josh Morgan (3.67 AV) have both been exceptionally productive for 6th round picks. 5th-rounders Marvin Jones (4.5 AV) and Riley Cooper (3.25 AV) are both emerging receivers, and highlight the potential value of late round wide receivers.

Tight End

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The tight end value in the ‘08-’12 drafts has been, on the whole, incredibly weak. None of the 1st round tight ends have provided enough value to justify their picks, and the back end of the draft has been equally disappointing for the position. The 2nd-3rd round is the sweet spot, producing prolific players such as Rob Gronkowski (8 AV), Jared Cook (4.2 AV), and Jimmy Graham (8.75 AV).

Tackle

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Outside of the quarterback, the tackle spot is perhaps the most coveted by NFL player personnel. After all, what good was it trading up to get that 1st round quarterback if you can’t protect him? Fortunately for quarterbacks, the relative value of NFL tackles has been outstanding in recent drafts. The 1st-rounders have provided good value, while the 2nd round provides maximum value. Interestingly enough, some of the most productive late round picks have been moved to guard. 6th round pick Carl Nicks, who was promptly moved to guard after the draft, has the 5th highest average AV of any tackle drafted from 2008-2012.

Guard/Center
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If your team is in need of interior offensive linemen, the 2nd round is where you’ll get far and away the most value. In fact, there is so much relative value in 2nd round guards/centers, it’s almost foolish to pass up on one if it’s anything remotely close to a need for your team. Zane Beatles (8.75 AV), Andy Levitre (7.2), and Stefan Wisniewki (6.6) are three examples of Pro Bowl caliber interior offensive lineman drafted in the 2nd round in the last few seasons. Though there is value to be had by drafting a center or guard in the 1st round, doing so wouldn’t be an efficient way to get as much out of the draft as possible.

Defensive End

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There seems to be a great deal of risk/reward associated with drafting a defensive end in the 1st round. Interestingly enough, the risk involved seems to positively correlate with whether or not the player is what NFL analysts refer to as a ‘tweener’ – a player not quite big enough to play defensive end, and not quite athletic enough to be a pass rushing outside linebacker. Aaron Maybin (1 AV), Vernon Gholston (1 AV), Brandon Graham (2.5 AV), and Melvin Ingram (1.5 AV) were all considered to be ‘tweeners’ with great upside – all have failed to materialize in the NFL.

Defensive Tackle

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Unlike defensive end, defensive tackle is a much safer 1st round pick value-wise. Only 36% of defensive tackles drafted in the 1st round had a mean AV under 6.0. Lamaar Houston (7 AV) and Derek Wolfe (6.5 AV) are solid 2nd round picks, but it’s clear the value sweet spot here is rounds 4 through 6. Geno Atkins (4th/9.5 AV) and Red Bryant (4th/4.83 AV) are two such mid-round picks that represent outstanding value.

Linebackers

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The 2nd round has been a hotspot for elite linebacker talent over the last few years. Bobby Wagner (10 AV), Lavonte David (9 AV), and Daryl Washington (9.25 AV) all represent the kind of relative value you can get if you decide to wait a round to fill that linebacker hole on your roster. 49ers linebacker Navarro Bowman, who was a 3rd round pick, has the highest mean AV of any linebacker (12.25). Sam Acho (5.33 AV) and Perry Riley (4.75 AV) reflect the type of value you can find in the fourth round, after which you’re mostly looking at special team players.

Defensive Backs

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Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” boasts the only two players with double digit mean AV’s – Richard Sherman (5th round/12.67 AV) and Earl Thomas (1st round/10.5 AV). An alarming 48% of 1st round picks had AV’s under 5, while aside from Thomas, none had an AV greater than 7. For defensive backs, the value just hasn’t been there – as such, teams should look to the mid-rounds in order to minimize risk and maximize relative value.

Alterraun Verner (4th/6.25 AV), Kam Chancellor (5th/6.75), and Brandon Carr (5th/ 6.1) are all proof that you can find outstanding value in the late rounds.  Even 7th rounders have been productive – Captain Munnerlyn (4.4 AV) and Cary Williams (3.83 AV) have been big contributors, despite lasting until the final round of the draft.

Finding Value

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The NFL Draft is always a difficult balancing act. On one hand, every team has immediate needs. On the other hand, sacrificing value to fill a hole doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, particularly considering the amount of injuries that occur in the NFL – “needs” can pop up at any minute. Using this methodology, you can balance need with value by finding various value sweet spots.

About the author: A native of Philadelphia, Steve can often be heard defending everything about his city, aside from the accent. He lives and breathes Arsenal soccer, and believes in the ability of data to empower people. Follow him on Twitter.

  • Shaun Mason

    Interesting article Steve. My question is this: since it is obvious that the data shows that the earlier a player is drafted the better the odds of them being successful, do you think this is due to draft bias? For example, a coaching staff has a vested interest in proving that they picked successfully, a first round player will get more opportunity to improve their AV, correct?

    • Steve Mayernick

      Absolutely – I would think having all that money tied up in high draft picks definitely creates a bias. It would be interesting to see how the new CBA has affected the degree of the bias. Less money, particularly at the top of the draft, might decrease the extent of it. I think this would be the case with every position other than quarterback, where there is seemingly more pressure than ever on franchises to start a newly drafted guy. Will dig through some data and report back.

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