On the morning of the first round of the 2021 draft, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported on a story line that had been unfolding that week: “The value of 2022 draft picks is sky-high. ‘Like gold,’ as one executive described.”
This confirmed a prevailing sentiment in the league. The 2020 college football season had been such a mess—due to players opting out, canceled games, and COVID-19 absences—that evaluation and tape study were an uphill battle. Decision-makers around the league were correct about one thing: The 2021 college season offered more opportunities to fairly evaluate prospects. But that doesn’t mean they’re feeling great about this year’s class heading into Thursday’s first round. Rapoport reported last year that “we could see an all-time low of future picks dealt.” The teams that prioritized 2022 picks with that sentiment in mind are having a bad time right now.
There is no such thing as a bad NFL draft, only a confusing one, and this is a confusing one. Even the worst drafts of all time produce superstars—the most analogous draft to 2022 in terms of top-level talent is probably 2013, when the top 10 was dominated by tackles and pass rushers. A quarterback wasn’t selected until the 16th pick when the Bills took EJ Manuel, and no one really believed there were any franchise-changing players available at the top of that draft. This more or less turned out to be correct. There were players in that draft who still dominate—David Bakhtiari, Travis Kelce, and Keenan Allen—but they were third- or fourth-round picks. First-rounders like Lane Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Travis Frederick all became great players, but the lack of elite talent at the top of the draft left GMs with no way to maneuver, no top pick to overpay for, and no prospect to write “no matter what” about on a piece of paper. Nothing. It’s a similar scenario this year: There are more questions than answers. Here are a few of those questions, and a few of the answers:
Are there any position groups that are good in this year’s draft?
Jason Fitzgerald at Over the Cap did a great study this week using team spending patterns to figure out which positions were the most valuable. Quarterback, to no one’s surprise, is the most valuable pick, but you might be astounded at how valuable: a quarterback on a rookie deal provides 195 percent more value relative to the salary cap than a quarterback once he’s off that deal. Wide receivers provide the second-best value at 60 percent. Left tackles slide in at 21 percent. Fitzgerald used Atlanta’s selection of tight end Kyle Pitts when Ja’Marr Chase was still available as an example. The purely financial argument is that taking Chase and signing a tight end saves you about $6 million on average, compared to taking Pitts and signing a wideout, because tight end is one of the least valuable positions.
“Guard, center, and right tackle are the three spots where I’m not sure any case could or should be made to take in the first round unless there is simply nobody else available,” Fitzgerald wrote.
So, if a team is approaching this draft in terms of pure value, then, yes, the lack of high-level quarterbacks hurts this draft, but the amount of wideouts, tackles, and edge rushers helps a bit. Pro Football Focus says that there are four edge rushers—Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, George Karlaftis, and Travon Walker—who would have been the top edge player in last year’s draft (Kwity Paye was the top-ranked edge rusher in 2021; Micah Parsons, who was the best NFL rookie to play on the edge last year, was evaluated as a linebacker in the predraft process). Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported that Karlaftis might be overhyped among this group “Going back to the fall, I can’t remember hearing many, if any, NFL people talking about him like he’d be a first-round pick. And my guess right now is that he won’t be,” he wrote. Even Karlaftis, though, has a pretty good first-round case:
George Karlaftis falling out of the first round would be criminal pic.twitter.com/S3NtNBdchw— Ben Linsey (@PFF_Linsey) April 27, 2022
Elsewhere in this year’s class, we’ll find out the positional value for punters: San Diego State punter Matt Araiza’s over/under is set at pick 117.5.
I think in a draft like this, the positional value debate starts to eat its own tail at some point. The 33rd Team did a nice study using data from 2010 to 2017 about where to find value in the draft and it was sort of stunning to see that only 31 percent of first-round picks selected during that span signed their second contract with the team that drafted them. It’s much more likely for a draft pick to sign with a second deal with a different team. “Round 1 through Round 3 picks will often get a second chance in the league somewhere else. Based on the 2010-2017 data, the most likely outcome for a player drafted in rounds 1 and 2 is a second contract with a different team. For Round 3, the most likely outcome is no second contract (51 percent), but a second contract is almost a coin toss at this point,” the study said.
If the odds don’t favor a pick panning out in a normal draft, what are teams to do in a confusing one? I would abandon basically all analytic principles and all of the value studies and frankly just pick whoever looks good. Tyler Linderbaum, a center out of Iowa, is universally regarded as a future solid starter whose position hurts his draft stock. Center is, according to contract data, not a particularly valuable position for a first-round pick. Counterpoint: Who cares? In a draft without very many safe options, put the charts away and take the player you know can play.
Will there be chaos?
Glad you asked: Yes, absolutely. There are two reports that are currently worth noting: The first is Adam Schefter’s report this week that the desire to move back in the first round far exceeds the amount of teams that want to trade up in the draft. There simply aren’t all that many “first-round grades” this year to entice teams to want to move up. The second report is from NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, who predicted that some teams have fewer than 15 first-round grades. The Cowboys front office said 14 to 16. Now, this is not necessarily the disaster it seems. There are plenty of years when GMs don’t have 32 first-round grades, and every team’s board is different enough that most teams will take a player they wanted in the first round.
But the tepid reaction leaguewide to this year’s high-end talent creates a situation that will absolutely lead to wild scenarios: Let’s say the Panthers want a quarterback but don’t want to take one at no. 6, but there’s almost no value available in trading back. Do they just take one at no. 6? Do they take 50 cents on the dollar knowing the same player will likely be available if they trade back to 20? I don’t know because neither do the people who run teams. There are boatloads of intriguing prospects: Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams has elite speed, but he’s coming off an ACL injury he suffered in January. Arkansas’s Treylon Burks looks like he can do everything on a football field, but he didn’t put up elite athleticism numbers at the combine. LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. played really well in 2019 and tested well, but his 2021 tape wasn’t nearly as good. The ceiling on some of these prospects is unbelievable. The floor is not. The draft is a beautiful mess, as it should be. This is cinema.
What about quarterbacks?
At the risk of simply doing the same thing Rapoport and others (including me!) did last year and saying next year’s draft is so much better than this one: Well, next year’s draft is so much better than this one. The 2023 draft will likely include quarterbacks like Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, as well as Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr., among others. The depth at the quarterback position next year puts teams in a tricky spot this year: If you are the Lions, Falcons, Texans, or Panthers, who clearly need an upgrade at quarterback, do you sit out the entire quarterback cycle this year? Do you even attempt to invest in the position if say, Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, or one of the second-tier prospects falls to you? Don’t overlook the fact that some teams might be out of the quarterback sweepstakes this year and are looking to position themselves for next year when the quality of players is expected to be much higher. If I were a GM, I’d focus on exploiting the depth in this draft. There are almost 20 prospects who could get drafted that will be 25 by the time the season rolls around. It is a mature class, having played so many games in college. The COVID-impacted season in 2020 gave many of these prospects an extra year of eligibility and allowed some to be six-year seniors.
GMs have said in the past few weeks that there are so many guys worth taking a flier on in the middle rounds, to the point that trading for fourth- and fifth-round picks might be advisable. Incidentally, in a normal year, The 33rd Team’s data says the fifth round actually provides the best value in the draft based on the value of the guaranteed money in second contracts. That might be doubly true this year. Maybe this is not the year to need elite talent. Next year? Treat those picks like gold, right?