The 2020 NFL offseason is in full swing. We’re still in the process of digesting all the new data from the NFL Scouting Combine, going back to the tape to confirm what we saw or to look at prospects who might have been overlooked but raised eyebrows at Indy.
We’re also looking ahead to the start of NFL Free Agency in a little less than two weeks.
This is, in short, team-building season. This is when the New York Giants and the 31 other teams will be assembling the raw materials which, over the course of OTAs, mini-camp, training camp, and the pre-season, will be whittled down into their 53-man rosters for the 2020 season.
As I was kicking around thoughts that might turn into “corner” pieces, I realized that a lot of what I was thinking about was based on how I view positional value in the NFL. And if I’m going to explore those ideas over the course of the off-season, I needed to lay my foundation.
I have said a few times in the past — both in written pieces and on the podcast — that I firmly believe that at its core, football is a game of resource management. That is true at every level, but it is particularly true at the NFL level. The NFL tries to force parity on the 32 teams at ever turn and at every level. They all start out with (roughly) the same amount of money to spend on their roster, the same number of draft picks and the order is determined to give the advantage to the worst teams. They all get the same number of practices, which are run under the same rules. Rosters are all the same size, games are played on fields of the same dimensions and over the course of the game each team is guaranteed to receive at least one kickoff.
So if every team gets (roughly) the same resources, the biggest difference between success and failure is how a team uses its resources. Of course, one of the things that makes the game of football so fascinating (at least for me) is that it is endlessly layered with an almost unlimited number of ways to put pieces together. There is no one “right” answer for how to win a football game, and that leaves the door wide open for innovation and game changers.
That being said, I do believe there is a general order to the impact a position has on the field. That, in turn, decides how I think those positions should be valued.
You’ve probably seen charts like this before, or perhaps a “power ranking” of all the various positions on the field. But, at least in my opinion, those are too granular. Trying to decide whether a left guard is more or less important than a slot corner or a third receiver depends entirely too much on specific schemes to determine anything like a broad guideline.
I decided to take a broader view of the positions and group them in a manner similar to the “Hierarchy Of Needs.” The general idea is that the positions most important to a team’s sustained success form the foundation of the pyramid while the higher positions build on the foundation of the ones set below them.
Plain and simple, the NFL is a quarterback driven league. We know that, in general, offense is more sustainable from year to year than defense. We also know that passing the football is more valuable than running the football. There’s an EPA (expected points added) argument for this, but also a simple math argument: No quarterback in the NFL averaged less than 6.1 yards per attempt last year, but there were only 4 running backs with more than 140 carries who averaged 5.0 yards per carry. If you’re trying to advance the ball into the end zone as efficiently as possible, you want to be throwing more than you’re running.
There’s also the economic aspect, in that quarterbacks are the most highly-paid players in the NFL, which is really just another measure of how important they are to the team as a whole.
Obviously it is possible for a great team to drag a mediocre (or bad) quarterback to a championship. The 2000 Ravens did it with Trent Dilfer and Blake Bortles was almost carried to the Super Bowl by the Jacksonville Jaguars defense in 2016. But those teams are rare and their success isn’t sustainable.
If you don’t have a quarterback, you aren’t winning consistently. That’s why they’re consistently over-drafted or over-paid.
Offensive Tackle, Wide Receiver, EDGE, Cornerback
These are the players who can directly affect the play of the quarterback. Traditionally, left tackle, right defensive end, and number one corner are seen as the other “premier” or “cornerstone” positions besides. However, as the game has evolved, I have come to view that a bit differently.
Offensive Tackle - I don't differentiate between left and right tackles in my evaluations. A player should go to whichever one he can play the best, but neither side is more or less important than the other. Defenses are putting athletic and talented pass rushers on both ends of their formations and hits, sacks, fumbles, and injuries don’t show a preference for side.
EDGE: The best, and in some cases only, way to stop a modern offense is to disrupt the quarterback. Pressure off the edge is generally the best way to achieve that. Either the rusher can sack the quarterback and potentially jar the ball loose, or he can pressure the quarterback into making a mistake. Either way, it's a vital position.
Cornerback: The other end of the defensive equation. As this year's draft class shows, there are more and more talented receivers entering the league. Good corners can keep plays from being made, keep the ball in the quarterback’s hands long enough for pass rushers to do their jobs, and capitalize on mistakes forced by rushers.
Wide Receiver: Wideouts have generally been viewed as luxury players. However, much of offensive philosophy is based on creating match-ups and forcing adjustments by the defense. A good receiver can force defenses to adjust coverages, and create instant offense through big plays. A receiver can also help his quarterback by getting open quickly, creating separation, expanding catch windows, and adjusting to off-target throws.
And as with quarterbacks, tackles, receivers, pass rushers, and cornerbacks are highly sought-after in the draft and highly paid on the open market.
Center, Free Safety, MIKE linebackers, and Defensive Tackles
These three positions are responsible for communication in their respective units. They are also required to perform a variety tasked depending on the play and scheme.
Center: Centers are the only position besides quarterback who touch the ball every down, they are responsible for calling protections, double-teams, pulling, and blocking at the second level.
MIKE Linebacker MIKE backers relay the defensive play, line up the front seven players, and are heavily involved in run defense, pass coverage, and blitzing.
Free Safeties: Free safeties communicate with the rest of the secondary, are the last line of defense, occasionally have to match up in man coverage on receivers, and play a big role in disguising (or executing) blitz schemes.
Because of all that, these positions require rare players to perform at the highest levels, balancing size, athleticism, strength, and a high football IQ.
Interior Defensive Line: The interior defensive line positions as a whole straddle this and the next tier. Unless they are a pass rusher, their job isn’t glamorous, but it is necessary. Defensive tackles help protect the second-level players from offensive linemen, and occupying blocks helps other players make plays. That being said, those with pass rushing upside and true “three-down” ability are the ones who belong in this tier.
Guard, Tight End, Off-ball linebacker, and Strong Safety
These positions absolutely have value, but they don’t move the needle as much as the positions beneath them.
Guard: Guards are important for running the ball, setting the depth of the pocket, and blocking interior pressure. However, the difference between average guard play and elite guard play isn’t as dramatic as with the other positions.
Tight End: Tight ends can provide dangerous mismatches and be the focal point of offenses (see: Rob Gronkowski) but most players don’t have that height/weight/speed combination, and too many offenses fail to properly utilize the potential match-ups.
That being said, when used correctly, athletic receiving tight ends can rip pages out of defensive playbooks and good blockers can be important in many running or protection schemes.
Off-Ball Linebackers and Strong (or box) Safeties With how running backs and tight ends are being used by (some) offenses, off-ball linebackers and box safeties are increasingly important. However, they are also frequently the first or second players taken off the field in nickel situations. If they’re the players you’re willing to sacrifice on important downs, it says something about their overall value.
Yes, kickers are people, too.
Games can be won and lost on special teams, with kickers, punters, and returners working to create hidden yardage for the offense and defense.
And if you want examples of just how important these players are, realize that in 2010, the Los Angeles Chargers (then the San Diego Chargers), fielded the League’s best offense and defense, but still missed the playoffs because of their special teams. Kicker Adam Vinatieri has scored more points than any other player in NFL history, while Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants to a pair of Super Bowls, while Steve Weatherford’s punts played a big role in helping the defense put the Giants in position for Tynes to make the winning kick against the San Francisco 49ers.
Moms, don’t let your sons grow up to be running backs. Running backs have the shortest careers and the least impact on a team’s success.
The phrase “running backs don’t matter” gets tossed around a lot and misunderstood almost as often. I do not mean to say that the running game is inconsequential. It isn’t. Being able to run the football in short yardage or red zone situations is vital because of how much faster the game is in those situations. That being said, being able to run the football depends much more on offensive line play, field position, and defensive alignment than on the running back himself. Generally speaking, most running backs are interchangeable and their production is replaceable.