Draft Day: A Look at Positional Value by Round – Skill Guys


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.

Surviving the Cap: Competing with Dead Cap Hits


To say the start of the 2022 NFL free agency period has been hectic would be an understatement. In quarterback moves alone, we’ve seen Russell Wilson traded to the Broncos, Deshaun Watson traded to the Browns, Carson Wentz traded to the Commanders and subsequently Matt Ryan traded to the Colts.

Each of these blockbuster trades incur what is known as a dead salary cap hit, which is money allocated in a team’s salary going to players no longer on the roster, resulting from a player being released or traded prior to their contract’s expiration. The Atlanta Falcons losing out on the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes, while simultaneously ruining their relationship with franchise cornerstone Matt Ryan led to the quarterback being traded to the Indianapolis Colts, which in turn generated the single largest dead cap hit in NFL history.

In 2022, the Falcons will be paying $40,525,000, or 19.47% of their cap to Matt Ryan alone. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with a quarterback making more than 12.3% of the salary cap (Tom Brady, 2020), let alone a quarterback not even on their roster. Factoring in the Julio Jones trade from last year along with other trades/cuts, the Falcons lead the league with nearly 30% of the team’s salary cap in 2022 going towards players no longer on their roster.

Top 10 Dead Cap Hits (2022)

But it could be worse.

In 2013, the then Oakland Raiders experienced an overall dead cap hit of 43.33%, the highest single-season dead cap hit in the past decade. Voiding the remaining years of Hall of Famer Richard Seymour’s contract, along with trading Carson Palmer to the Cardinals, and cutting players such as Rolando McClain, Tommy Kelly and Darrius Heyward-Bey effectively put the Raiders in cap hell, inhibiting their ability to compete as they finished the season 4-12.

Top 10 Single-Season Dead Cap Hits (2011-2022)

The rest of the teams with the single-season worst dead cap hits experienced a similar lack of success. Only 3 teams on the list managed winning records, the 2021 Saints and 2021 Eagles were just barely a game over .500. In terms of point differential, teams fared just as poorly, with only 3 teams having positive point differentials. In spite of their high dead cap hits, the 2012 Colts and 2021 Eagles teams were able to experience modest success, making the playoffs only to lose in the wild-card round.

Single-Season Worst Dead Cap Hits – Team Success (2011-2021)

The teams with the top 10 highest dead cap hits each season struggled more often than they succeeded, as only 35% of teams in the top 10 over the decade posted winning records. Of the 136 total playoff spots occupied during this timespan, exactly 25% were occupied by a team with a top 10 dead cap hit. Following the trend, a lack of Super Bowl success for these teams saddled with dead money would make sense.

Yet the numbers tell us a different story.

Super Bowl Winners with High Dead Cap Hits (2011-2021)

Of the 11 Super Bowl winners from 2011-2021, nearly half of them had a dead cap hit in the top 10 for their respective seasons. Although the dead cap hits were high for their seasons, they weren’t necessarily earth-shattering, hovering around 10% and going as high as 13.42% with the 2014 Patriots team. The Los Angeles Rams, however, did the unthinkable and won with a dead cap hit of over 25% this past season, good for the 4th highest dead cap hit of all teams last year.

How is it that a team that had a quarter of their salary cap tied up in former players like Jared Goff and Todd Gurley was able to win it all and bring a Lombardi to LA? Having a top tier coach in Sean McVay certainly helps, along with the acquisitions of elite players like Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.

The simplest explanation is that the production of the active players on the roster was far better than their contract numbers. Von Miller played for a whooping 0.39% cap hit, while Odell played for 0.45%. Having two game-changing players added to a team already rich in talent for less than a single percent of the total cap greatly helped the Rams overcome their dead money, and contributed to their high Team Value Ranking. The Team Value Ranking (TVS) is a metric created by Spotrac.com that aggregates player production per contract, effectively measuring how well a team does at maximizing the value of all their players. Last year the Rams had the 6th best TVS; the other Super Bowl winners with high dead cap hits had similarly high TVS rankings, with the exception of the 2012 Ravens.

While some teams can overcome a high dead cap hit over a single season, it is still inadvisable for a team to build a long term strategy around trading/cutting players and accumulating dead money.

Only one team has been able to be truly successful over the past decade in maneuvering past dead cap hits: Mickey Loomis’s New Orleans Saints. The Saints are virtually tied with the Dolphins for the highest sum of dead cap hit percentage at 157%, yet while the Dolphins have struggled in the past decade, with a point differential of -492, the Saints have a positive point differential nearly three times as high at 813.

The obvious first impression is that the Saints had something all other teams on this list lacked: a Hall of Fame quarterback. And while that’s true, Loomis’s impact as a GM is just as integral to the franchise’s decade long success.

Jeremy Trottier of profootballmania.com makes the case for Loomis as top GM, citing his incredible draft hit rate from 2016-2020, where each player taken in the first 3 rounds has started at least one game. Like the 2021 Rams, Loomis exceeds at maximizing the value of players on active contracts, averaging a TVS ranking of 11 since 2012, and 6.5 since 2016.

Saints TVS Rankings (2012-2021)

In a game of inches, the ability to consistently overcome adversity is the key to success. Roadblocks like penalties can set you back on the field, just as much as dead money can set you back off the field. Although teams can find ways to win here and there in spite of these roadblocks, they still make the path to success that much harder along the way.

Bye Week Blues: Do Bye Weeks Affect Team Injuries?

Picture this: You’re a starting player on the Texans’ defense.

The off-season was tumultuous to say the least: Your starting quarterback, Deshaun Watson, was replaced by a journeyman in Tyrod Taylor, your rookie head coach, David Culley, has been a wide receivers coach for his 27 years in the NFL, and your executive vice president of football operations, Jack Easterby, is widely known as the NFL equivalent of Rasputin.

You play the Colts and Texans two times each, and will be asked to tackle 6’3″, 238 pound running back Derrick Henry, and 5’11” 227 pound running back Jonathan Taylor, who both had top speeds of 21.62 and 21.6 miles per hour in 2020. That week 10 bye can’t come soon enough.

Season after season, fans and pundits alike harp on the bye weeks assigned to teams, concerned that week 4 byes are too early, and cause teams to tire out over the final stretch of the season heading into the playoffs, yet week 12 byes are too late, and can cause teams to burn out earlier.

So naturally you’d think to yourself that the middle of the season, around week 8 must be the sweet spot for a giving a team a chance to heal and recover.

But does the data back that up?

Looking at seasons from 2009 to 2020, bye weeks were normally held during week 4 and week 12, with a few exceptions. The first exception being week 1 in the 2017 season, where the Bucs and Dolphins had their opening game postponed due to Hurricane Irma, and their bye week moved to week 1 as a result. The other exceptions being week 13 used as a bye week for the Browns and Titans in the 2016 season, and for the Bucs and Panthers in the 2020 season.

To the NFL’s credit, they do a good job of scheduling as many byes as possible as they can in the middle of the season, with byes during week 8 and week 9 occurring most frequently during those 12 seasons. The other bye weeks are all fairly frequent, with the exception of Week 4, which only occurred 7.81% of the time.

Using nflfastR for the injury data source, I was able to use Python to compile the total injury status designations for all 32 teams from 2009-2020, and match them with their byes for their respective seasons.

The above tables represent the average total injury designations per each bye week, which is calculated by dividing the total injury designations for a particular bye week by the amount of times the bye week occurred. For example, for the two teams that had the week 1 bye in 2017, they had a combined total of 203 injury designations, and since a week 1 bye has only occurred twice (for both teams in that 2017 season), the average total injury designations would be half of the total, giving an average of 101.5 total injury designations for teams that had seasons with week 1 byes.

The total injury designations include every player that was designated as questionable, probable, doubtful or out for a given game. The NFL decided to drop the probable injury designation prior to the 2016 season, and the table on the right reflects the average total injury designations excluding probable designations.

Excluding week 1 and 13 from the data due to only 6 bye weeks occurring during those weeks, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between a team’s bye week and injury designations.

Based on the assumption that the closer to the middle of the season that a team’s bye occurs, the lower amount of injuries a team will experience, we would expect the shape of the graph to be an inverted bell curve. While teams with week 4 byes did have the second highest number of injury designations on average, and a decrease in injuries occurs for the next 2 consecutive weeks, with a large drop-off in designations from week 5 to week 6, the number of injury designations shoots back up as the middle of the season approaches with week 7.

The middle of the season is fairly consistent from weeks 7-9, and then spikes up a decent amount for week 10, before experiencing another large drop-off from week 10 to week 11, and another smaller drop-off from week 11 to week 12.

Teams with a week 12 bye had the least amount of injuries at 98 injury designations on average, however the sample size is very small as a week 12 bye only occurred 3.12% over the past 12 seasons.

There are many factors that go into a team’s injuries for a given season, whether it be poor conditioning, giving players an unsustainable volume of touches (such as Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey in the 2021 season), inadequate playing field surfaces, and perhaps the biggest factor of all – randomness/chance.

Bye weeks are definitely important in giving a team a mental break to recharge and refocus, but with respect to the media’s claims that a bye week being scheduled during a certain part of the season would help keep a team healthy, the evidence just isn’t there to support it.