Which position is the safest to draft in the first round?

Originally posted 4/17/2009. Updated 4/21/2010.

When it comes to the first round of the NFL Draft, is one position safer than another? For example, if the Rams have three holes to fill (they have more, but bear with me) – quarterback, wide receiver and defensive tackle – and they can’t decide amongst the three players, is one position a safer pick than the other two?

I compiled a list of the 345 players that were picked from 1997-2007 (assuming that it takes three seasons to get a decent idea of what kind of player a draft pick is going to turn out to be) and asked our NFL guru, Anthony Stalter, to rate each player on a scale of 1 to 5…

(1) Out of League
(2) Reserve
(3) Starter
(4) Star
(5) Superstar

The Out of League, Star and Superstar categories are pretty self-explanatory. To qualify as a Starter, the player must be starter-caliber for the majority of his NFL career. A Reserve is a player that is a backup for the majority of his career, so he may have started at one point, but on the whole he’s a backup. For the younger players, Anthony had to project a little bit. For example, a player is a starter in his third year – does he project to be star or superstar, or will he simply be a starter for the majority of his career?

Anthony rated each player (and after some spirited debate about a few of his ratings), I compiled all the data into Table 1 below. It shows each position, the percentage of first round picks that position was taken, and the number (and percentage) of times those picks turned out to be superstars, stars, starters, reserves and out of league players.

(Click on the table to see a bigger version.)

In Table 2, I summed the Star and Superstar categories (naming it “Star+”) to find out which position provided the most. If the goal of a first round pick is to “not mess it up,” and at least get a solid starter out of the pick, then teams would be interested in the sum of the Starter, Star and Superstar categories (a.k.a. “Starter+”).

There are a number of positions that hit Stars or Superstars at a 20-30% rate – QB, RB, WR, G, LB and S – but quarterback and wide receiver only hit Starter+ at about a 45% clip whereas running back is at 66% while the other three positions are all at 83% or more. The lesson? Guard, linebacker and safety are much safer picks than wide receivers or quarterbacks.

But back to the Rams — they have holes at QB, WR and DT, and the top consensus picks at QB and DT, Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh (or Gerald McCoy) would be reasonable selections with the #1 overall pick.

So who should the Rams take?

Assuming St. Louis has done its due diligence and the two players grade out about the same (i.e. the Rams’ scouting hasn’t revealed a clear choice), the safest pick appears to be Suh. According to the numbers, he has an 81% chance of developing into at least a starter and a 13% chance of turning into a star or a superstar. Compare that to the numbers for QB (45% Starter+, 28% Star+) and it’s clear why Suh is the safe way to go here. As the #1 overall pick, the Rams are going to have to invest a ton of money in the player (especially if it’s a QB), so maybe it’s better to go with a position that they’re pretty sure will turn into at least a starter, even if it’s not as likely that the player will turn into a star.

Another approach would be to take Bradford because the QB position has a better chance of becoming a star or a superstar. If the Rams roll the dice on Bradford and he turns out to be a franchise QB, then they’re set. If he’s a flop (like, say, Joey Harrington or Ryan Leaf) then it could send the team into a bigger tailspin. Considering how important the QB position is, it may be worth the risk. One drawback is that QB draftees expect a premium in terms of compensation, so not only is there more risk involved with drafting a QB, but it’s going to cost more as well. For example, Matt Stafford signed a six-year deal worth $72 million while Tyson Jackson inked a five-year deal worth “just” $31 million, so QBs are going to command about twice as much dough as a defensive lineman.

Quarterback is a position with a ton of upside and downside.

Photos from fOTOGLIF

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