With the NFL Draft fast approaching, we’ll hear a lot about the foundational positions in football, and how finding players at those positions is paramount. That conventional wisdom is correct, but what follows isn’t. For a long time, quarterback, left tackle, and edge rusher have been considered the most important positions in football. However, that is not the case; as the style of play has changed, certain positions are now more valuable. So, how valuable is each position? Today, we’ll be analyzing how important each position group is to a team, and how they can use that information to build a sustainable winner in today’s marketplace.
For this deep dive, we’ll be using the mean WAR and coefficient of variations provided by Pro Football Focus. The mean WAR gives us an idea how much wins above replacement an average player at the position is providing, while multiplying it by the coefficient of variation adjusts for a potential confounding variables; higher variance means that that mean WAR may be lower than it should be due to poor performers, but also that there is an ability to make a high-end impact. Here are the products after doing that, and then subtracting that number by one. Outside of quarterbacks, the lower the number is, the better:
Individually, here is approximately how valuable an average player at each position is:
SLOT WR- 3.71%
SLOT CB- 3.36%
Right off the bat, it’s easy to see how much more valuable a quarterback is than any other position. After that, the differences in positions vary, the perimeter positions- cornerback, receiver, and safety – stand out as the next most important positions. It’s telling that slot receivers and cornerbacks, who only play roughly 70% of snaps, on average, are more impactful than players in the trenches on either side of the ball. When teams ran the ball heavily, winning in the trenches was important. However, it’s now a passing league that values speed, which is why the outside positions are now standing out as the new pillar positions in football.
However, this doesn’t do justice to offensive lineman; a major reason that the value of the individual is lower for them is that it requires five players to fill out an offensive line. To do so, let’s illustrate how valuable each position group is, rather than just looking at the importance of one individual player:
A team’s offensive line still on average generates less value than their receiver or cornerback group, but when factoring in all five players, it does pass a team’s safety duo in the hierarchy of importance. For this exercise, I’m assuming this random team runs a 4-2-5 defense that utilizes nickel packages around 70% of the time, while the offense uses 11-personnel at the same rate. Obviously, if that differs, teams should value certain positions slightly differently; the Ravens, for instance, use a lot of multiple tight end sets, so that position is more important for them. Yet, once again, it appears that teams should be looking to build from the outside, and then in; the farther away a player is from the line of scrimmage, the more valuable they are likely to be.
Yet, individually, this is what the NFL, based on top-ten contract averages, is valuing a player at each position at:
Obviously, quarterback is naturally going to be undervalued, since it’s so much more important than other position. By my estimations, the top-ten contract average for them should be around $47.63 million, which isn’t financially feasible. Yet, right away, it appears that NFL teams are still valuing building through the trenches too much; cornerbacks should not be making less than interior defensive lineman, considering how much more they move the needle.
As mentioned, this is based on the top-ten contract averages at each position. To provide context on which positions are the most over/undervalued, let’s examine the differences between the current top-ten contract averages at each position, and what would be recommended based on how valuable they are. For this part, we’ll combined slot receivers and slot cornerbacks with the outside players at their position. We’ll also set a cap on quarterbacks at $32 million, as a top-ten quarterback is destined to be worth more than the actual contract. The differences in price would be much greater had we factored in quarterbacks, but because of that, the extra $15 million was able to spread around to the other positions.
Difference= (Recommended top-ten average – Actual)
RB= $4.28M-$9.4954M= -$5.2154M
WR= $14.78M – $18.0265M = -$3.2465M
TE= $7.64M – $8.5675M = -$0.9275M
OT= $6.53M – $15.33M = -$8.8M
IOL= $7.32M – $11.62M = -$4.32M
IDL= $5.35M – $15.05M = -$9.7M
EDGE= $6.13M – $18.8744M = -$12.7444M
LB= $6.032M – $13.39M = -$7.358M
CB= $13.41M – $14.47M = -$1.06M
S= $12.03M – $12.63M = -$0.60M
Even when setting a limit on quarterback pay, every non-quarterback position remains relatively overpaid. However, no position falls under that label more than edge rusher and interior defensive line, which coincides with the idea that teams are still trying to build their defense from the front four. Meanwhile, tight end, safety, and cornerback are also all around market value, so compared to the other positions, they’re actually underpaid. Yet, this is all also due to supply and demand; offensive tackles are hard to find, so it’s much more reasonable to pay them than interior offensive lineman, which are easier to find. At the very least, teams are starting to move off of paying running backs, as the supply of them greatly exceeds the demand; their performance is also dictated on their offensive line and how many players the opposing defenses is putting near the line of scrimmage. Overall, though, it appears that teams tend to overpay for one specific player.
However, you need more than one starting individual player at every position besides quarterback, tight end, and running back. Let’s examine what teams should be spending on each position group, assuming the quarterback makes around $32 million and going off of the $198,200,00 salary cap.
Veteran Quarterback= $32,000,000
Remaining Space= $166,200,000
If you have one cheap edge rusher, for example, you can go over the recommended budget to find an edge rusher opposite of him, and that applies to all positions. However, there isn’t a position where it’s more valuable to have a cheap contributor than quarterback. The amount that teams can spend on each position skyrockets if they have a rookie quarterback:
Rookie Contract= roughly $4M
As you can see, the benefits of having a rookie quarterback is magnificent. Yet, a team must be certain that their rookie quarterback won’t need to be replaced. The Chiefs and Ravens, for example, have been able to go all-in on their elite young quarterbacks. The Bears and Jaguars, meanwhile, tried to do the same, and as a result, struggled to find adequate replacements for their struggling signal-callers.
These aren’t strict budgets that teams should stick to, but it is a nice estimate of how much teams should allocating their resources to each position. For example, if you over invest in your front seven, it could prevent you from addressing more important positions, such as cornerback and receiver. If you have the salary cap space to do so, and don’t have a need at any super valuable positions, it’s okay to splurge on short-term deals for edge rushers, linebackers, or interior defensive lineman. However, football is about avoiding weak links, and building this way will help with long-term success. The main point of this exercise was to show where teams should invest based on what positions accumulate the most WAR, and furthermore, to highlight the flaws in investing too much in a non-QB. It’s all dependent on teams circumstances, but these are nice guidelines to follow, as it’s a welcome reminder of what truly moves the needle in the modern NFL. Quarterbacks will always be underpaid, so as long as there is a large enough sample size that proves they’re an above-average player, teams should never be scared to pay them what they’re asking for. Outside of that, every contract is made with context, which is why there is no perfect way to quantity how much one should spend on a particular player. Yet, teams like the Bears and Rams have learned the challenges of investing their finances in a few players, as it places pressure to find cheap contributors through the draft, which is very difficult. Therefore, rather than overspending on an edge rusher, front offices should capitalize on a lack of positional oversight, and attack the market on undervalued positions. Meanwhile, if a player plays a position that either a) relies on depth (OL) or b) can be found in the draft (RB, IDL), they probably shouldn’t be a priority. It’s very important to be responsible and build for the long-term, and as a result, giving long-term deals to the right players (QB, WR, CB) can be the difference between building a sustainable winner, and going all-in on a window that may never be open. By following the hierarchy established of which positions are the most important, front offices can give their fans what they truly desire- a team that not only can win a Super Bowl this year, but also can do so in any given year.