NFL Draft By Numbers: When Will Top Players Go At Each Position?

UDFAs Tony Romo and Miles Austin: Poster boys for the inaccuracy of draft science.

On Tuesday this week, we looked at how NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock ranked the top five players per position in this year's draft.

Rankings like that always lead to interesting questions about positional value. Is a tackle more valuable than a corner or a pass rusher? Is the second best defensive end a better pick than the top-rated guard? A lot of this will of course depend on the individual player grades, but assuming two players have the exact same grade and also meet an equally big need, which player do you pick?

These are tricky questions to consider as you build your draft board or engage in a mock draft exercise. One way to approach the question is to look at the history of when the top players at each position were picked in previous drafts - and that's 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 2002 through 2011. The base data is taken from Pro-football-reference.com, and I calculated the average draft spot over those ten years for each position.

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

Draft positions 2002-2011
Position 1st player 2nd player 3rd player 4th player
Defensive Ends 8 13 19 27
Cornerbacks 9 17 22 29
Wide Receivers
11 16 24 34
Linebackers 10 19 29 35
Offensive Tackles 5 15 27 39
Defensive Tackles 8 15 25 44
Running Backs 13 20 36 49
Quarterbacks 1 13 27 48
Safeties 19 32 52 57
Tight Ends 23 42 61 86
Guards 27 45 61 83
Centers 42 69 132 160
Kickers 132 200 230 - -
Legend
First Round Second Round Third Round Fourth Round
and lower

Random observations

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.

Looking to fill some of the more obvious Cowboys needs? You're in luck. Interior offensive linemen are some of the positions where you can arguably get some quality outside of the first round. Here's a look at last year's draft and where the top players at each position was taken:

Position QB OLB DT WR CB OT DE OG RB ILB TE S OC K FB
Team CAR DEN BUF CIN ARI DAL HOU MIA NO DAL MIN DEN OAK PHI CLE
Pick #
1 2 3 4 5 9 11 15 28 40 43 45 48 120 124

Looking to draft a running back high? You probably won't have a lot of competitors in today's NFL. Over the last four decades, NFL teams have drafted running backs successively lower. In the 70s, the top four running backs were were all snapped up in the first round. Today, the fourth running back is lucky if he doesn't drop to the third round, as the table below shows:

Running back draft positions over four decades
Decade 1st player 2nd player 3rd player 4th player
1970-1979 6 10 19 23
1980-1989 6 14 20 25
1990-1999
6 25 26 35
2002-2011 13 20 36 49

Defensive ends and cornerbacks were the only positions over the last ten years to average all four top picks in the first round. Chances are that if you want to get one of the top guys at these positions, you can't wait until the second round. On the other hand, demand for these positions is so high that these positions are likely to be overdrafted. In fact, it might be better to stay out of the first-round scramble for corners and pass rushers altogether - unless your player grade justifies the draft spot.

Positional value is not the be-all and end-all for managing a draft board, far from it. But I do think it provides some interesting food for thought.

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