This may sound like a trick question, but I assure you it is not: If you had the choice in the 2015 NFL draft, would you rather pick the fourth-best defensive end in the draft or the best running back?
Of course, your answer here probably depends 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? In a roundabout way, this question brings us to the concept of positional value. Is a defensive end more valuable than a defensive tackle? Is the third-best cornerback better than the top safety?
For the Cowboys, the answer is fairly straightforward. Given the choice between two prospects, they'll choose the better player at his position. Over the last five years the Cowboys, partly through luck and partly by design, have drafted the Best Player at Position (BPP) fairly consistently with their top picks.
In 2010, Dez Bryant and Sean Lee were the only players at their positions with first-round grades on the Cowboys' draft board.
In 2011, the Cowboys picked Tyron Smith, their highest-rated tackle, with their first pick. Bruce Carter also had a first-round grade, and even though Von Miller was probably rated higher as a linebacker, there's a good chance Carter was the highest-rated inside linebacker for a 3-4 scheme on the Cowboys' draft board.
In 2012, the Cowboys traded up for Morris Claiborne, whom they considered the best defensive player in the draft. Had they stayed put at No. 14, Stephen Jones said DT Michael Brockers likely would have been the pick, as Brockers was the highest-rated defensive tackle on their board.
In 2013, we know the Cowboys targeted the top two guards in the draft, but when those were taken early, the Cowboys traded down and took Travis Frederick, the best center on their draft board.
In 2014, the Cowboys really liked DT Aaron Donald and LB Ryan Shazier, both the top-rated prospects at their positions, but when they were taken early, the Cowboys took the highest-rated guard on their board, Zack Martin.
Despite the unsatisfactory return on the Morris Claiborne investment, the BPP strategy has paid off handsomely for the Cowboys. Four of their last five top picks made the All Pro team this year, Bryant, Smith, and Martin as first-teamers, Frederick as a second-teamer.
So if the Cowboys follow BPP again this year, what could be the positions they'll go after?
One way to approach that question 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 10 of the last 15 years. If you average the draft positions of the first QBs taken in each of the last 15 drafts, you'll get an average draft position for the top QBs of 3.5.
And that's an exercise we can repeat for the 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 below, except I limited the timeframe to the last five years. Here's how those positional rankings shake out over the last five drafts:
|Draft positions 2010-2014|
|Position||1st player||2nd player||3rd player||4th player|
||Picks 20-39||Picks 40-59||Picks 60-100
It goes without saying that just because you can average a set of data over five years doesn't mean that the 2015 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 in the top rounds, and looking at these averages can easily give a false sense of accuracy. But the numbers do give you a directional indication of when, say, the fourth defensive end is likely to be off the board.
Every year, the Cowboys have around 20 players with a first-round grade on their draft board, which is why the positions with an average draft position between one and 19 are marked in blue. These are your likely blue-chip prospects, and trading up from the 27th spot to get one of these players is probably too expensive. The green cells mark the picks that are within reach of the Cowboys' top pick, either by moving up or down slightly. The yellow cells denote the picks somewhere between the Cowboys' 27th and 59th picks, and the red cells highlight the remaining picks in the top 100.
Even if you take the table above as a directional indicator only, you'll quickly get a feel for how the Cowboys' 27th pick is lining up with the Cowboys' likely draft priorities. For the last four years I've been pounding the table for the Cowboys to draft a DE or DT with their first pick, but the Cowboys chose to go a different route every year. Unfortunately, DEs and DTs are some of the most sought after positions in the draft, and with the 27th pick, the Cowboys are likely to end up with the fourth-best prospect at that position - at least according to the data above.
Over the last five years, defensive linemen and cornerbacks averaged all four top picks in the first round. Chances are that if you want to get one of the top guys at these positions, it'll cost you a king's ransom if you're starting out from the 27th spot. Demand for these positions is so high that these positions are likely to be overdrafted, making them even more expensive. If the Cowboys want to avoid a repeat of the Claiborne trade, they'd be well advised to stay out of the first-round scramble for corners and defensive linemen altogether - that's the downside of making the playoffs.
In theory, there's a good chance the Cowboys can get a top safety or a top running back in the 2015 draft class - if the last five years are anything to go by. Unfortunately, with the way the draft is shaking out right now, Alabama's Landon Collins looks like the only top safety in this year's class and could be a top ten pick. The situation looks a little more favorable at running back, where the current top-ranked RB, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon could potentially be available in the 20s. But if the Cowboys re-sign DeMarco Murray, investing a first-rounder in a running back seems highly unlikely.
The running back position also highlights the fluid and fleeting nature of these positional rankings. Over the last four and a half decades, NFL teams have drafted running backs successively lower. In the 70s, the top four running backs were all snapped up in the first round. Today, the top-rated running back is lucky if he doesn't drop to the second round, as the table below shows:
|Running back draft positions over five decades|
|Decade||1st player||2nd player||3rd player||4th player|
Similarly, the Cowboys might be able to grab a highly-rated inside linebacker, but that will depend on what they do in free agency with the likes of Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter, and Justin Durant.
When you draft 27th, your chances of grabbing the Best Player at Position simply aren't that great. The Cowboys may be best served to sit and wait to see which defensive lineman or corner remains on their board when it's their turn to pick. After all, there's no rule that says the 3rd- or 4th-Best Player at Position is prohibited from making All Pro. Then again, the Cowboys used their 27th pick (and their third-rounder) in the 2010 draft to move up three spots to select Dez Bryant, and that has worked out rather well.
Positional value is not the be-all and end-all for managing a draft board, far from it. But it does provide some interesting food for thought.