The NFL Draft by Numbers: When will the top players go at each position?

With about two weeks to go until the draft starts, every Cowboys fan has his pet cats by now. For some it's an offensive lineman, for others it's a safety, others again might want a wide receiver as the first pick. And then of course there's also the whole 'best player available' school of thought.

What makes picking the right player difficult, regardless of what position you're looking for, is the fact that this year (barring any trades) Dallas is picking towards the end of each round.

Raf recently pointed out that the Cowboys have assigned 25 first round grades on this year's board, and that there is actually a high likelihood of one of these players falling to the 27th spot. But which one?

There are many ways to build your own draft board: Use an online draft simulator like the one provided by Drafttek.com, build a board based on your own evaluation of team needs, use the the boards from some of the draft gurus like Scott Wright (draftcountdown.com), Mike Mayock (NFL Network), Wes Bunting (National Football Post),  NFL Draft Scout.com (CBS), Scout.com, Pro Football Weekly and so on - you get the idea.

Another way to approach your draft board is to look at the history of when which positions were picked in previous drafts - and this is exactly what we'll do after the jump.

In the following analysis, I looked at the top four players by position, and where these top four were picked in the last ten drafts, from 2000 through 2009. The base data is taken from Pro-football-reference.com, and I calculated the average draft spot over those ten years for each position.

I'll be the first to say that the talent level (or its absence) in a given year has a huge impact on the number of players from any position drafted e.g. in the first round, and that averaging this over ten years might give a false sense of accuracy, but it does give you a directional indication of when, say, the fourth safety is likely to be off the board.

Also, I've limited the analysis to the top four players at each position on the assumption that the odds of scoring a hit are a lot higher with the first four picks than with later picks. This is true for most positions outside of quarterback and wide receiver (as we've seen in a previous post: Bust Factors on Offense), where you can basically flip a coin: two of the top four picks are likely to be busts.

Here is an overview of when the first four players in every position were drafted on average in the last ten years:

Draft positions 2000-2009
Position 1st player 2nd player 3rd player 4th player
Defensive Ends 6 11 17 25
Wide Receivers
10 14 20 29
Linebackers 10 18 27 33
Cornerbacks 11 17 24 33
Offensive Tackles 4 16 27 41
Running Backs 10 18 31 44
Defensive Tackles 9 17 28 47
Quarterbacks 3 19 34 49
Safeties 20 32 43 50
Tight Ends 21 40 61 84
Guards 29 49 62 86
Centers 49 84 139 164
Kickers 129 193 210 - -
Legend
First Round Second Round Third Round Fourth Round
and lower

What does this mean?

Take safeties for example: Over the last ten years, an average of two safeties were taken in the first round, the first on average with the 20th pick, the second on average with the 32nd pick, and so on.

Now let's assume that you're using the Drafttek Big Board. They rank the safeties as follows: 1) Eric Berry, 2) Taylor Mays, 3) Earl Thomas, 4) Nate Allen, 5) Chad Jones, 6) Morgan Burnett.

If you let draft history guide you, you'll know that the fourth safety (in this case Nate Allen) was historically drafted with the 50th pick, putting him just out of reach of the Cowboys' 59th pick. But if your pet cat is Morgan Burnett, rejoice! He'll likely still be available with the 59th pick, providing the Drafttek big board is right in their ranking. Scott Wright has Burnett as the seventh ranked safety, Scout.com has him as the 5th ranked safety. Wes Bunting on the other hand has Burnett as the number two safety in this years' draft. Don't order the Burnett jersey just yet.

Random observations

Looking for a fullback? Over the last ten years, there were no fullbacks taken in the first two rounds. Only four were taken in the third round and nine in the fourth. Investing your sixth round pick in a fullback named like a character in the Terminator films might actually yield some decent value.

Looking to take kicker Hunter Lawrence in the seventh round? The data from the last ten years suggests he'll be long gone by then. Note that I have excluded Oakland's first round pick in 2000, Kicker Sebastian Janikowski, from the kicker averages. And yet, the first kicker was selected on average with the 129th pick, top of the fifth round. The second kicker was gone with the 193rd pick, top of the seventh, and the third kicker, on average, was taken in the mid seventh round with the 210th pick.

Looking to fill some of the more obvious Cowboys needs? You're in luck. Safeties, guards and centers are some of the positions where you can arguably get some quality outside of the first round.

The allure of the offensive tackle: I have seen reputable mocks that have 6-8 offensive tackles going in the first round. In fact, this year might see 2008's NFL record haul of 7 offensive tackles taken in the first round matched, if not exceeded. Why is this important? Because of the 25 players we believe the Cowboys have given a first round grade, only four are offensive tackles. If more than those four offensive tackles are selected in the first round, other players who graded out higher on the Cowboys' board get pushed into the 27th spot. This could be a critical factor in determining which, if any, of the A) number two and three ranked safeties, B) top ranked guard and C) top ranked Center would still be available for the Cowboys pick.

Final observation

Who do I think will be there at number 27? I haven't got the slightest clue.

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