This may sound like a silly question, but if you had the choice in the 2013 NFL draft, would you rather pick the best defensive end on your board, or would you prefer the fourth-ranked defensive end?
The question sounds a lot less silly when you phrase it a little differently: Would you rather have the fourth best defensive end in the draft or the best guard?
The second question is probably a lot more difficult to answer than the first question. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to the concept of positional value. Is a tackle more valuable than a corner? Is the third-best wide receiver better than the top safety? Of course, the answer here hinges on the specific player grades on your board, but assuming two players at different positions have the exact same grade and also meet an equally big need, which player do you pick?
After ending three successive paragraphs with a question, let's move on to some answers. One way to approach the question of positional value is to look at the history of when the top players at each position were picked in previous drafts. If you want the perceived best quarterback in a draft class, you'll probably have to invest the number one pick - at least that's what teams have done in eight of the last ten years. With the exception of 2008 (Jake Long) and 2006 (Mario Williams) all the number one picks in the last ten drafts have been quarterbacks. In '08 and '06, the first quarterbacks had to wait until the 3rd overall pick to be selected (Matt Ryan and Vince Young). That means that the average draft position for the first QB picked in the draft was 1.4 over the last ten years.
This exercise can be repeated for the top top four players at each position to find out where the top four prospects at each position were picked on average - which is exactly what I did. Here's how those positional rankings shake out over the last ten years:
|Draft positions 2003-2012|
|Position||1st player||2nd player||3rd player||4th player|
||First Round||Second Round||Third Round||Fourth Round
Clearly, just because you can average a set of data over ten years isn't a guarantee that the 2013 draft class will turn out anything like the average. 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 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.
Even if you take the table above as a directional indicator only, you've got to like how the Cowboys' 18th pick is lining up with the Cowboys' likely draft priorities. I'll freely admit that I want the Cowboys to draft a DE or DT. In fact, I've wanted that for the last two years ruunning, but the Cowboys chose to go a different route the last two years. DEs and DTs are some of the most sought after positions in the draft, and with the 18th pick, the Cowboys are likely to end up with the third-best prospect at that position according to the table above. And with the abundance of talent at these positions in this year's draft, the Cowboys might even be left with only the fourth or even fifth guy at DT or DE.
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.
The good news however, is that with the 18th pick, the Cowboys stand a good chance of getting the top safety or the top guard in the 2013 draft class - if the last ten years are anything to go by. And those two priority positions also look good later in the draft: the fourth best safety is a borderline third-rounder, while the fourth best guard is projecting six picks below the Cowboys' third round pick.
Pre-draft, fans traditionally overvalue the positions along the interior offensive line. Every year there's a guard or center who "looks like the next Larry Allen" and "grades out as a top ten pick" according to many draft pundits. But the NFL reality is different. Here's where the top guards/centers were picked in each of the last ten drafts:
Not once in the last ten years was an interior offensive lineman picked above the 15th spot. And the top guy was available at the 18th pick in six out of the past ten drafts. Like with all draft picks, draft position is no guarantee of eventual success, but should the Cowboys be looking for a guard in this draft, the chances are good that they'll have the choice among the two top guards on their draft board.
But whether the top two guards have a better draft grade than the fourth best defensive lineman or the top safety is another issue entirely.
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.