If you had the choice in the 2017 NFL draft, would you rather pick the fourth-best defensive end in the draft or the best safety?
This may sound like a trick question, but I assure you it is not: that may be a very real question the Cowboys have to ask themselves in April.
Of course, your answer here probably depends on the specific player grades you have assigned to each player, 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 - or at least that's what a large part of the Cowboys draft community has convinced itself of. With a large helping of hindsight, a case can be made that over the last seven 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 was the highest-graded wide receiver on the Cowboys' draft board, and the Cowboys moved up to get him.
In 2011, the Cowboys picked Tyron Smith, their highest-rated tackle, with their first pick. Obviously, when you're picking 9th overall, almost any player you pick will be the BPP.
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. 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 were already on the phone with LB Ryan Shazier, but the Steelers snatched him away at the last second and the Cowboys took the highest-rated guard on their board, Zack Martin. Shazier was the third linebacker taken in the draft, though technically a point could be made that he was the first inside linebacker draft.
In 2015, and now drafting 27th, the Cowboys picked Byron Jones. Listed as a cornerback entering the draft, Jones was the fourth CB taken, but because the Cowboys moved him to safety, he technically became the first safety taken, thus making him the BPP retroactively.
In 2016, the Cowboys would have been hard-pressed not to draft the BPP with the fourth overall pick, and drafted the best running back in the draft with Ezekiel Elliott.
Despite the unsatisfactory return on the Morris Claiborne investment, the BPP approach has paid off handsomely for the Cowboys, as five of the last seven top picks have already made the All Pro team.
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 11 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 2.4 (and if you exclude 2013 16th-overall pick E.J. Manuel, that number climbs to 1.4).
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 to include only the drafts under the new CBA. Here's how those positional rankings shake out over the last five drafts:
|Draft positions 2012-2016|
|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 2017 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. Trading up from the 28th spot to get one of these players may be 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' 28th and 60th 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' 28th pick is lining up with the Cowboys' likely draft priorities.
If you want the Cowboys to pick a DE, a CB, or perhaps a WR, you can kiss the idea of BPP goodbye. Because those are some of the most sought-after positions in the draft according to the data above, and with the 28th pick, the Cowboys will likely to end up with the fourth-best prospect at that position - if they are lucky.
It's still very early in the draft process, but here's a look at where the CBS Sports big board has the top players at each position ranked:
|Top Player Rank
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 28th 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, edge rushers, and wide receivers. That's the downside of drafting at the bottom of the first round.
When you draft 28th, 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 position is left 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.
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.