Every spring brings with it warmer weather, blooming flowers (and the allergies that may come with them) but more importantly the hope that the players selected in the NFL draft can go on and make an immediate impact on the field in the fall.
With the volatility that comes during the transition from the college game to the pro game, the draft is no sure thing, for every Peyton Manning there’s a JaMarcus Russell, and while most 6th round picks won’t make a roster, every once in a while a team will strike gold on someone like Tom Brady. In simple terms, the draft can be a bit of a crapshoot and approaches vary from front office to front office.
Some teams prefer to bet the farm on top prospects, as in the notable Ricky Williams trade, when the New Orleans Saints traded every single one of their 1999 draft picks, 6 in total, along with a first and third round pick in 2000, all to move up 7 spots to draft the leading college rusher and Heisman. Needless to say the trade didn’t pay off as the Saints had their second worst season in team history at 3-13, leading to the firing of a Super Bowl winning in Mike Ditka.
On the flip side, some teams prefer the dart board approach, accumulating as many draft picks as they can, whether it be through trade or letting free agents go and accumulating compensatory draft picks, with the idea that the more draft picks to throw at the board, the greater the chance will be that at least a few will pan out. The Bill Belichick led Patriots and the Ravens under Ozzie Newsome are known for using this approach.
And in recent years, some teams decide their best path to success is by trading their picks for established players, a favorite strategy of the Rams front office that resulted in their Super Bowl LVI win.
Regardless of approach, building a viable NFL team is not an easy task, and requires shrewd decision making on a round by round basis in order to field enough quality contributors that can make a difference.
Utilizing profootballreference.com’s weighted Approximate Value, or wAV for short, allows for an objective view at determining when it’s best for a front office to pull trigger on a certain position. Created by PFR founder Doug Drinen, 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 (since 1960).
The most important position on the field, quarterback, brings no surprises when it comes to correlating wAV to round drafted. In the past decade, quarterbacks selected in the first round overwhelmingly accounted for the total wAV of all quarterbacks (113) selected in the draft, at approximately 67% of total wAV.
While there were some viable starting QBs found in round 2, it just isn’t a viable strategy for GMs to gamble on anything but a first round signal caller as a primary option.
With the increased focus on the passing game, receivers have become more highly valued than ever before. But still some front offices decide that they can get away with drafting one in the later rounds. The Patriots are notable for only taking a receiver in the first round once since the Bill Belichick, with that selection being a bust in N’Keal Harry.
The wAV for receivers drafted in the past 10 years paints the picture that, while not as truly top-heavy as the quarterback position, investing in receivers is best done in the first and second, followed by a big drop-off to the third round, and a much bigger drop-off to the subsequent rounds.
Unlike quarterback and wide receiver, running back is a position where quality can be found throughout the draft, with a better total wAV seen in second round backs than in the first.
Like running back, tight end is a position where it’s better to wait than to invest a premium pick. The greatest tight ends of the past decade, Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce, were both selected outside the first round, with Gronk going in the second and Kelce going in the third. Mark Andrews and George Kittle, two of the other top tight ends in the league currently, were selected in the third and the fifth rounds, respectively.
Based on total wAV, tight ends selected in the second and third rounds combined for over half of all wAV from tight ends drafted in the past decade, proving that drafting a tight end after the first is a winning strategy.
Players should always be evaluated on a case by case basis, trends will change and there’s always going to be exceptions to the rules, but making the most of objective statistics like wAV in formulating a draft philosophy will go a long way to minimizing the amount of busted picks and maximizing the number of key contributors.