Dallas Cowboys: The Importance of Positional Value in the NFL Draft

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

For years, the debate has been whether or not the Dallas Cowboys should draft for “need” or just select the “best player available.” The debate finally settled on best player available according to need as a sort of logical compromise.

For instance, if you have a young Pro Bowl QB under contract for the foreseeable future, you probably don’t want to spend your top pick on another QB. Only one can play at a time and it’s a waste of resources if one doesn’t play – no matter how good he may be.

At the same time, if a good enough player falls into your lap (see also: Dallas Cowboys and CeeDee Lamb 2020), and you know you can get him on the field, you make the pick, even if the need isn’t overly apparent. So we’ve seen team lean on little of each in their decision-making process.

But what if we’re still wrong and this wasn’t a binary compromise at all? What if there actually is a third factor that must be considered?

Positional value is something the Dallas Cowboys need to start weighing more in the NFL Draft.

We all know some positions are more valuable than others. The quarterback is widely considered the most valuable position in football, while positions like punter and fullback are down at the very bottom. It’s this common knowledge that drives teams to “reach” at QB early drafts and at the same time avoid drafting the latter two positions altogether.

They recognize the varying importance and value of the positions.

But those are the obvious extremes of the spectrum. What about all the positions in the middle? How do we know how they rank in importance and value? We can solve for his by looking at a two specific items:

  1. Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which will measure replaceability.
  2. Market Value (How much NFL teams pay one position compared to the others)

Wins Above Replacement

Pro Football Focus looked at these very items last year and found some pretty interesting results regarding positional value. First, we look at WAR. How much better is a top-10 player at his position than a regular run-of-the-mill NFL player at the same position?

By WAR we can figure out which positions are hard to replace and which are easy to replace. And the results aren’t all that surprising.

As you can see, the hardest to replace positions are quarterbacks, receivers, and safeties, respectively.

The easiest to replace positions are: Interior defensive linemen, running backs, and linebackers.

In other words, the WAR is the delta between a top-10 player and an average player at the same position. We’ve seen street free agents come in and produce at RB, DT, and LB quite frequently.

The takeaway from this is the top of the WAR board are positions worth targeting with your most important draft resources. They are the hardest to find and in many ways, the most important positions on the field.  In the same vein teams should avoid using their top draft resources on the bottom of the list. These positions don’t need elite players to man them and are much easier to fill with JAGs (just a guy).

WAR speaks to value above replacement – not necessarily to their value around front offices. I mean, elite edge rushers are highly coveted around the NFL. Wise or not, if you have one, you hold onto him. “War Daddies” don’t grow on trees, after all…

The Dollars and Sense

“Let the money do the talking” is an expression that safely applies to just about any situation. People have a way of saying one thing, yet doing something completely different. If NFL general managers value one position more than another, the money will tell you. The market is a beautiful thing that way.

So how do NFL GMs value the different positions around the league? Again, we’ll return to PFFs findings on player salary to determine the order in which GMs value the positions.

Nothing all that shocking to see here, either.  Quarterbacks demand far and away more than anyone else, but when you consider they offer roughly 9x the WAR of a top-10 edge player and over 3x than that of a WR, a solid case can be made you’re actually underpaying the QB position.

The top three positions in pay: Quarterback, edge, and receiver, respectively.

The lowest valued three positions around the league are: Tight end, running back, and safety.

for Dallas to get the most bang for their buck they’d want to target the positions at the top of the pay scale rather the positions at the bottom.

The Dallas Cowboys should keep this in mind as they build their draft board for a couple reasons: Not only does this illustrate which positions GMs think are the most important in football, but it also tells them where the most first round value is found.

The cost figures represent how much the top-10 are getting paid. So for the Dallas Cowboys to get the most bang for their buck they’d want to target the positions at the top of the pay scale rather the positions at the bottom.

The 10th pick is roughly slotted to pay $5 million to whomever the Dallas Cowboys draft. If they pick a tight end, they’re only saving about 3.7 million in top-10 value. Whereas if they pick an edge player one could say they are saving $13.8 million (the difference between pick value and a top-10 salary at that respective position).

This isn’t to say the Dallas Cowboys must avoid TE Kyle Pitts at all costs, nor is it saying they should use that top pick on DE Gregory Rousseau. Drafting by positional value is not something done in a vacuum and must be weighed with need and actual player evaluation in its application.

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What this tells us is positions like TE, RB, and LB are all fairly easy to replace and not overly valued around the league. It’s buyer beware to anyone trying to grab one of those positions with a top-50 pick, let alone a top-10 pick.

In coming days and weeks we’ll  move in from this macro level view and hone in on actual players and real circumstances facing the Dallas Cowboys in the 2021 NFL Draft.

For now the main takeaway is just an expansion on what you already know: Some positions are more valuable than others and the least valuable and most replaceable ones should be avoided early in the draft.

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The Dallas Cowboys have failed to apply positional value to their decision-making process early in their most recent drafts. Not only have they drafted a RB in the top-5 , but they also picked two LBs with top-35 picks. If they want to get the most bang for their buck in the 2021 NFL Draft, they will need to change course.

  • Published on 02/01/2021 at 12:32 PM
  • Last updated at 02/01/2021 at 15:19 PM