This time of year, we NFL fans all begin to obsess over what our favorite team is going to do with its first-round draft pick(s) (unless you are a fan of the Los Angeles Rams, who haven’t had one since 2016). Teams gravitate toward high-value positions with their Day 1 picks: quarterbacks, edge defenders, offensive tackles, wide receivers, cornerbacks.
Then there are the other players who round out the 22 on the field: Tight ends, guards, centers, running backs, interior defensive linemen, off-ball linebackers, and safeties. The pejorative term “low positional value” is used to describe these players, not so much because they aren’t important but rather because good players at these positions are often available throughout the draft. “Low positional value” is also a synonym for “not worth paying much for.”
In Round 1, teams aren’t just looking to fill holes. They want impact players - players who make the difference between winning and losing and form the core of a team that contends for a Super Bowl. Exhibit A for not drafting “low positional value” players very high is the Indianapolis Colts, who have arguably three of the best players in the NFL at “low-value” positions (G Quenton Nelson, RB Jonathan Taylor, LB Shaquille Leonard) yet have missed the playoffs in three of the past five seasons. (Taylor and Leonard were high Round 2 rather than Round 1 picks.) Center Ryan Kelly, another good Colts player, was a Round 1 pick as well.
Those players weren’t the reason why the Colts haven’t risen to the top - but they also didn’t affect the W-L column enough to overcome the Colts’ inattention to some other positions (quarterback, which the Colts have refused to use a Round 1 pick on since Andrew Luck retired, but also wide receiver, where they have taken three shots in Round 2 the past few years and have yet to find a true difference-maker).
Counter-arguments to the low positional value argument include IDL Aaron Donald, one of the best ever, who preserved the Rams’ Super Bowl win last year with his fourth-down sack of Joe Burrow; TE Travis Kelce, who has been Patrick Mahomes’ go-to receiver ever since Mahomes entered the league; and LB Ray Lewis, who was the heart of the suffocating defense of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl defense. Donald was a Round 1 pick in 2014. Kelce was a Round 3 pick in 2013. Lewis was a Round 1 pick in 1996. You grab impact players where you can find them. And that’s the key - if there is a true “generational” player at a “low-value” position who can change games, then they are worth a first-round pick. The problem is that draft experts and fans (and maybe general managers, too) anoint draft prospects as “generational” about 10 times as often as they actually occur.
Arguably the 2022 New York Giants had two impact players at “low positional value” positions: RB Saquon Barkley, forever seen as the big mistake of the Dave Gettleman era but the heart of the offense on the Giants’ playoff team; and IDL Dexter Lawrence, who emerged in his fourth year into the dominant player on the defense.
Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the Giants re-sign Daniel Jones and Barkley, do nothing with Andrew Thomas except try to work out a contract extension, give Evan Neal another year to become the offensive tackle everyone thinks he can be, decide to roll with Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari as their two primary edge defenders, and bring back Julian Love to pair with Xavier McKinney at safety (traditionally a borderline “low-value” position, but not in a Wink Martindale defense). That would leave cornerback and wide receiver as high-impact positions of need that the Giants could easily be imagined targeting with their No. 25 pick in Round 1.
But unlike 2022, when general manager Joe Schoen could have a small list of players two of whom he knew would fall to him at No. 5 and No. 7, 2023 is a bird of a different feather. If he does not trade up, 24 players will already be off the board. Those 24 may include all the cornerbacks and wide receivers the Giantd deem to be of first-round quality. That would leave three choices: Trade down, draft the best player available at a position of existing strength on the team, or draft the best player available at a “low-value” position of need. What does history tell us about the last of these three strategies for positions at which the Giants need help?
The big board right now
The NFL Mock Draft Database Consensus Big Board is a good place to start. It may or may not have anything to with what actually happens, but it’s a reasonable summary of how a broad cross-cross section of draft analysts feel about things at the moment, pre-draft combine, pre-pro days, and before any pre-draft trades that shake up the landscape. Chris Pflum, Nick Falato and colleagues will produce their own two-dimensional big board as draft weekend nears, which is valuable because it shows which positions are deep or shallow in quality throughout the draft, which are plentiful at the top but lacking in quality below, and which are sparse at the top but deep in later rounds. This is another thing to consider in making a first-round draft choice.
Most importantly, none of these big boards mean anything. Last year Schoen made entirely predictable picks at No. 5 and No. 7 and then went rogue after that, mostly drafting players in the later rounds that many of us had never heard of or at least knew nothing about. Schoen admitted before the draft that his big board is smaller than many people might imagine, with players excluded because of injury histories, off-field problems, personality issues, etc. There are also considerations of scheme fit, e.g., a CB that is high on big boards but has played mostly zone defense will be of less value to Wink Martindale than a lower rated CB who has performed well in man defense.
Let’s assume, though, that the consensus board above is close to reality, that cornerbacks Christian Gonzalez, Joey Porter Jr., Devon Witherspoon, Cam Smith, Kelee Ringo, and Clark Phillips III are gone before No. 25, and that wide receivers Quentin Johnston, Jordan Addison, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and Jalin Hyatt are off the board too. Let’s also eliminate the chance of any kind of deus ex machina like Will Anderson Jr. or Jalen Carter dropping to No. 25.
Under those circumstances, would it be wise for Schoen to use the No. 25 pick on a position of need but low positional value? Let’s see what recent history has to say.
Only four tight ends have been drafted in the first round in the past five years. The best so far has been T.J. Hockenson (drafted No. 8 in 2019), who has been voted to two Pro Bowls and had a very good 2022 season with 86 receptions, 914 yards, and 6 TDs. The most ballyhooed was Kyle Pitts, taken No. 4 in 2021 just ahead of Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle. Pitts has been to one Pro Bowl. His 2022 was cut short by an injury, but he had been having a good rather than great season to that point. Noah Fant (No. 20, 2019) and Hayden Hurst (No. 25, 2018) have been useful starters through their careers but not much more than that.
Going back another year we have the infamous 2017 draft, with three tight ends taken in Round 1 (O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku). None have been premier NFL players. There are currently only three TEs who can be called impact players: Kelce (Round 3, 2013), a sure Hall of Famer; George Kittle (Round 5, 2017), who will probably make the Hall of Fame if he can stay healthy; and Mark Andrews (Round 3, 2018), who is having an excellent career to date. Retired sure Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski was a Round 2 pick in 2010.
The Giants could certainly use another TE, a position at which they have only question marks after Daniel Bellinger. There are five TEs thought to be worthy of a top 100 pick:
Mayer has routinely been projected as a Round 1 pick, a very good receiver and blocker who lacks speed but has been nicknamed “Baby Gronk.” Washington, a mammoth man for a TE and better blocker than receiver, and Kincaid, a better receiver than blocker, hang around near the bottom of Round 1 or top of Round 2 in many mock drafts. Are any of them going to be the next Gronk, Kelce, Kittle at the NFL level? History says it’s unlikely.
Interior offensive lineman
We will combine guards and centers because it is fairly common for even first-round draftees to switch from one position to the other in the NFL (and because the Mock Draft Database groups them together).
Guards have come off the board six times in Round 1 in the past few years, half of them in the most recent draft: Quenton Nelson (No. 6 in 2018), Chris Lindstrom (No. 14 in 2019), Alijah Vera-Tucker (No. 14 in 2021), and Kenyon Green (No. 15), Zion Johnson (No. 17), and Cole Strange (No. 29) in 2022.
Centers have been drafted five times in Round 1 since 2018: Frank Ragnow and Billy Price back-to-back (Nos. 20 and 21) in 2018 (what a difference one draft slot makes!), Garrett Bradbury (No. 18 in 2019), Cesar Ruiz (No. 24 in 2020, but was moved to G in the NFL), and Tyler Linderbaum (No. 25 in 2022).
Many of these have been good to excellent NFL players, especially Nelson, who was hands-down the best guard in the NFL for three years before regressing this past season; Lindstrom, one of the best guards in the NFL in 2022; Ragnow, one of the best centers in the league each year; and Linderbaum and Vera-Tucker, both promising young players. Are any of them game-changers for their teams?
Here are PFF’s 2022 top 10 IOLs from the 2018-2022 classes:
That list consists of three first-rounders (Lindstrom, Ragnow, and Linderbaum), three second-rounders (Creed Humphrey, Teven Jenkins, Connor Williams), three third-rounders (Chuma Edoga, Quinn Meinerz, Matt Hennessy), and one sixth-rounder (Michael Onwenu). So why use a first-round pick on an IOL?
Here are the Mock Draft Database rankings of IOL prospects in the coming draft:
I don’t know enough about any of these players to comment. But unless Schoen thinks he sees the next Jason Kelce or Zack Martin in O’Cyrus Torrence, Cody Mauch, John Michael Schmitz, or anyone else that would make him jump in Round 1, there seem to be plenty of opportunities to shore up the Giants’ IOL this year in Round 2 or 3 (if not Round 4) and use the No. 25 pick on a different position.
There is no more glaring need on the Giants’ roster than at off-ball linebacker, where Giants’ GMs have been patching things up with duct tape forever. As I mentioned in a previous piece, the Giants haven’t drafted an off-ball LB on Day 2 or earlier since Gerris Wilkinson (Round 3, No. 96). I’m hoping that Darrian Beavers, coming off an ACL tear, can show this year what he did in 2022 training camp and claim a starting spot. I’m also hoping that Joe Schoen will use his cap space to sign one of the veteran free-agent linebackers that Nick Falato has discussed.
But even if my wishes come true that doesn’t eliminate the need for the Giants to draft one this year before Day 3 rolls around. The question is: Should the Giants use their first-round pick on this position?
Linebacker is a difficult position to fill because it requires three distinct skills: Stopping the run, covering TEs and RBs (and even big WRs sometimes), and rushing the passer. The last of these is a bonus - if you get a LB with pass-rushing skill, great, but I wouldn’t go thumbs up or down on a prospect based on that. Stopping the run is Job 1 for a LB. People like to drool over “tackling machines,” the phrase du jour, but tackles are a misleading statistic. If you don’t miss any tackles but your man is past the first down marker when you do it, you’re not succeeding. Stops short of the first down are the key statistic whether you’re defending a run or a pass. Breaking up passes is even better than allowing completions and tackling short of the first down. Are there any linebackers that do all these things?
Off-ball linebackers have been drafted in the first round 13 times in the past five years: Roquan Smith (No. 8), Tremaine Edmunds (No. 16) and Rashaan Evans (No. 22) in 2018; Devin White (No. 5) and Devin Bush Jr. (No. 10) in 2019; Isaiah Simmons (No. 8), Kenneth Murray (No. 23), Jordyn Brooks (No. 27), and Patrick Queen (No. 28) in 2020; Zaven Collins (No. 16) and Jamin Davis (No. 19) in 2021; and Quay Walker (No. 22) and Devin Lloyd (No. 27) in 2022.
There are some high-profile players in that list - but not any game-changers. Roquan Smith is borderline. He only finished 19th in PFF’s overall LB defense rankings in 2022, but he is a “tackling machine” (tied for fifth in the NFL) who makes a high fraction of his tackles “stops” (failures for the offense): 62 out of 114. He only graded 59.0, slightly below average, in pass coverage, though. Tremaine Edmunds, a possible Giants free agent target, finished seventh overall in defense grade in PFF this year. He is excellent in pass coverage (88.1) but was subpar this year in run defense (56.5). The rest have been only average players or disappointments so far, although it is early yet for Walker and Lloyd in particular. Devin White (45.5) has been fool’s gold: A player who gets a lot of attention because he is good at rushing the passer on stunts, but who is poor fitting the run and covering. Less-heralded teammate Lavonte David (84.1), who is stout against the run and great in coverage, is more of a difference-maker; he is a free agent and would look nice in blue for a couple of years.
Here are PFF’s top 10 LBs from the 2018-2022 classes for 2022:
Other than first-round pick Edmunds, that list includes second-round pick Nick Bolton, three third-round picks (Fred Warner, Germaine Pratt, Jerome Baker), two fifth-round picks (Dre Greenlaw and Ja’Whaun Bentley), a sixth-round pick (David Long, also a free agent), a seventh-round pick (Kaden Elliss), and an undrafted free agent (T.J. Edwards), another free agent.
One name missing from the list is Micah Parsons. He was drafted as a linebacker and played a lot at that position the first half of his rookie year, but as time went on he spent more time at edge defender, where he really excelled, and is now pretty much full-time on the edge. That is an inadvertent comment on positional value by the Cowboys: Why waste this guy at LB when he can dominate at a more important position?
Here are the 2023 LB prospects in the top 100:
Trenton Simpson gets all the first-round buzz, but as Ed Valentine points out, he is a one-dimensional speed/coverage player who gets swallowed against the run. No thanks. Among the others, are there any Fred Warners? It’s not clear. If not, then let’s hope that the Giants sign one of the better free agent linebackers and draft one of the players above in Round 3 or 4.
Interior defensive lineman
In some ways IDL does not belong on a list of “low-value” positions. In the old NFL, tackles were the heart of a defense, and those who could both stop the run and rush the quarterback were worth their weight in gold. More recently, though, IDLs shrank in impact relative to their more attention-getting brethren on the edge as passing became king, and many of them in the NFL were strictly “run-stuffers” (not that there’s anything wrong with that) who brought little in the way of pass rush. If you don’t agree that the league values IDLs less than edge defenders, just follow the money: Per Over the Cap, the top 10 edge defenders have contracts with average annual value $17-28M. The top 10 IDLs after Aaron Donald (who finally got paid for his unique skills - $31.7M) make $14-21M.
The best IDLs, though, affect both facets of offense, and IDLs have become a position of more interest in the NFL now as offenses are beginning to trend back toward more balance between the rush and the pass. On the one hand, the Giants do not need an IDL: Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams (when healthy) form one of the best IDL pairs in the NFL. On the other hand, IDLs can’t play every snap, and we saw this season that after Nick Williams (who played well for the Giants and hopefully will be back in 2023) went down for the season with an injury, the Giants had no answer for opponents’ inside running game when Lawrence or Williams were not on the field.
Thirteen IDLs have been drafted in Round 1 since 2018: Vita Vea (No. 12), Daron Payne (No. 13), and Taven Bryan (No. 29) in 2018; Quinnen Williams (No. 3), Ed Oliver (No. 9), Christian Wilkins (No. 13), Dexter Lawrence (No. 17), Jeffery Simmons (No. 19), and Jerry Tillery (No. 28) in the monster 2019 draft; Derrick Brown (No. 7) and Javon Kinlaw (No. 14) in 2020; Jordan Davis (No. 13) and Devonte Wyatt (No. 28) in 2022.
Compared to the other “low positional value” positions, that’s an impressive list. How impressive? Here are the 2022 top 10 performing IDLs from the 2018-2022 classes according to PFF:
All five of the top IDLs in the league from the 2018-2022 classes were first-round picks, four of them from that amazing 2019 class. Lawrence, Williams, Wilkins, Brown and Simmons were top 11 league-wide considering all draft classes. And Vita Vea had a slightly down 2022 but has been a top 10 IDL since entering the league. To be sure, values can be found in later rounds: Zach Seiler was a seventh-rounder, Milton Williams a third-rounder, Teair Tartt an undrafted free agent, Zach Allen a third-rounder, and Davon Hamilton a third-rounder. But Giants, Jets, Dolphins, and Titans fans can’t be upset that their teams spent prime draft capital on an IDL in 2019.
Here are the IDL draft prospects in the 2023 top 100:
We ignore Jalen Carter, who will be long gone at No. 25. The name that stands out as a possibility is Bryan Bresee. His injury history might keep him off Joe Schoen’s big board, but if not there’s a chance that he will still be available at No. 25. Bresee would provide all-around skill spelling Lawrence or Williams during games and perhaps replacing Williams when the latter’s contract (assuming he is extended another year to deal with his 2023 cap hit) is up. Otherwise there are numerous prospects who might fill the bill on Day 2 for the Giants. This year’s Super Bowl teams showed what a deep, talented defensive line can do to win games.
What the Giants shouldn’t do
I really do hope that a top man coverage cornerback prospect falls to the Giants at No. 25, and barring that, a top wide receiver prospect. Those are potential impact players at high-value positions as well as being positions of need for the Giants, and I doubt that either need can be satisfied in free agency this year.
But if the draft doesn’t play out that way, and JSchoen does not trade down, then IMHO:
- Don’t draft a tight end. The odds of that changing the Giants’ fortunes are slim, unless the Giants are convinced that Michael Mayer can become Travis Kelce or George Kittle.
- Think long and hard before using first-round draft capital on a guard, center, or off-ball linebacker. The chances of satisfying those needs on Day 2 or even early on Day 3 are good.
- Jump at the chance to grab an IDL talent like Bryan Bresee if he’s there and his “medicals” don’t scare you away. If not, then someone like Siaki Ika (if you want to go big) or Tuli Tuipulotu (if you want to go smaller and quicker) might be good, too. Our SB Nation colleagues at Windy City Gridiron see both Ika and Tuipulotu going in Round 1.
- If all of those are not options, then draft the best player available at a high-value position. I’ll wait for the BBV Big Boards to learn about who those candidates might be.