What is a draft pick really worth in the NFL? Teams like the Dallas Cowboys treat them as precious treasure. In the mind of EVP Stephen Jones, they are just about as coveted as salary cap dollars. Other teams trade them away eagerly. Given the varied approaches of franchises, it is logical to speculate on which approach is better. If only there were some kind of analytical approach to determining that.
You probably can guess where this is going. Pro Football Focus analyst Timo Riske (on Twitter as @PFF_Moo) took a look at this exact question. A professional mathematician, he crunched the numbers for us to not only figure out a basis for evaluating the benefits of using draft picks versus signing free agents, but to look back over the past few years to see how teams across the league have done in using their draft picks. His information, contained in three articles at the PFF premium site, was so interesting Roy White and I had him on this weeks edition of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network.
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The articles are behind a paywall, so for those who don’t have access, or the tl;dr crowd, here is a summary of their content. The first, ‘The surplus value of each position in the NFL draft’, sets up a way to look at the financial/cap space benefit to the team in filling a roster spot versus signing a free agent. Basically, the rookie pay scale means that a team saves space and payroll dollars with draftees. That seems something that Jones would be in complete agreement on.
Of course, the savings vary based on where a player is drafted and how good the individual is. Using a five-tier system, here is a chart Timo developed to illustrate the potential savings.
Obviously, some positions offer much more savings than others. Quarterback is always a special case in the NFL, as true starting-caliber passers earn huge contracts. Since that is such an outlier in this comparison, and since the Cowboys are not in the market for one, we will focus on the rest of the positions.
It is not much of a surprise to see that EDGE, WR, and OT are among the best values. What is a bit of a surprise is the position of IDL. However, that is partly because of how Timo ranked things, using the elite level. The contracts of the most expensive ones in the league, Aaron Donald, Leonard Williams, DeForest Buckner, and Chris Jones, skew things. The way the other four levels drop off shows that unless they see a potential superstar at the position available in the first, Dallas would be well advised to go after one of those later in the draft. That would make Jordan Davis the only viable option at 24 to address that need, and that would require him to fall quite a bit. However, given the uncertainty due to the lack of truly elite talent in this draft, it is not out of the question.
For the Cowboys, there is certainly an argument to be made based on the data for going after a wide receiver or pass rusher in the first round. But there is a growing consensus that the draft is aligning to allow them to address another big need, guard. While the cap savings are not as great at that position, there is another factor. Guards have a good chance of turning into elite players late in the first round, slightly better than either EDGE or WR. And it is more pronounced in the second round as well.
What is also clear is that some positions definitely need to be addressed later in the draft. RB (HB in the chart) is the most obvious. That is one more bit of fuel to the fire over the outsized value of Ezekiel Elliott’s contract. Tight end is also seen as a possible need pending what is done about Dalton Schultz’s tag, but it is another position that should not be addressed in the early rounds.
To figure out better how Dallas should use their draft picks, we need to also have an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this particular draft class. That is the subject of another article by Riske, ‘Investigating position group strengths and weaknesses in the 2022 NFL Draft’. He includes two charts that summarize this for all positions outside of specialists.
This year, OT, WR, and EDGE are the strengths of the class, with CB also a place where good value can be found. IOL and another need for the Cowboys, LB, are more average, while other needs like LB, TE, and RB definitely point to later-round investment.
Trying to fold all this in with the holes of their roster, Dallas would likely be best served if they could get a guard, a pass rusher, and a wide receiver during the first two days of the draft. If they can add a second-round pick with a trade back from 24 while still getting one of their top targets with their first selection, they could add another strong player at a variety of needs, or even double dip if someone falls in their lap.
All this depends a lot on Will McClay and his scouting staff doing a good job. We have a lot of faith in them, but they have also had a clunker or two. So how have they done over the past few years? Timo addressed the performance of NFL teams since 2016 in his article titled ‘2022 NFL Draft: Measuring positional draft success for every NFL team’, and it is encouraging for Cowboys fans. He broke the positions outside of QB up slightly differently into seven groups. In five of them, WR, OL, RB, TE, and DB, they were among the top five teams by his criteria, and they were a respectable tenth at LB. Only on DL were they bad, coming in 28th.
That last is a bit disturbing, given that the Cowboys have skewed heavily toward defense in the period under consideration, using over 60% of all their picks on that side of the ball. Too much was probably spent at LB, where they sunk 21% of their available draft capital. However, Micah Parsons affects that quite a bit, since he was in essence a twofer, giving them one of the best off-ball linebackers and elite pass rushers in one incredible package.
It also notes once more how they have really overinvested in running back, with that using up 14% of their draft resources.
If Dallas can avoid a couple of past trends and get good value this year, it could be a great haul for them. The talent is lining up well in most respects, and as was shown, they have indeed been one of the top drafting teams in the league in recent seasons. If you have access to the PFF premium site, you really should read the articles. And give our podcast a listen for some insights from the author.