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The NFL Draft’s First Round Is a Case Study in Positional Value

Saquon Barkley at no. 2? Roquan Smith at no. 8? Thursday’s first-round results spoke volumes about the changing perception of some positions—and the draft-day norms that should endure for years to come.

Saquon Barkley, Quenton Nelson, and Roquan Smith Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

As is the case in most years, the 2018 NFL draft class will be defined by the success and failure of its quarterbacks. Baker Mayfield and friends will steal headlines today and for years to come, both in regard to the order in which they were picked and how that aligns with their production. Beyond the fates of the QB crop, though, this year’s first round offers a fascinating case study in the evolution of positional value.

That conversation begins with the second overall pick. When the Giants let it fly and took Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, first-year general manager Dave Gettleman and his staff made it known that they believe Barkley is a generational talent, an outlier even among the recent collection of backs selected in the top 10. Some will say that Barkley was the wrong choice because the Saints took Alvin Kamara at no. 67 in last year’s draft; that isn’t altogether different from arguing that Mayfield was the wrong choice at no. 1 because the Seahawks once nabbed Russell Wilson at no. 75. Those who champion value on draft day will certainly question the Barkley pick, but let’s consider the spots where teams have found great running backs and why.

The past decade of drafts weren’t full of late-round backs who can carry massive workloads and contribute as both running-game monsters and passing-game mismatches. Two seasons after the 2016 draft, it’s probably fair to say the Cowboys would rather have Jalen Ramsey (the no. 5 pick) on the field than Ezekiel Elliott (no. 4). But the Dallas back has also caught only four more passes in his pro career than Barkley did in his final season at Penn State alone. In evaluating what a transcendent backfield talent can bring to an offense, it’s better to look at Todd Gurley (no. 10). Last season—his first with an actual NFL coaching staff—he had 64 catches, gained more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage, and put together a legitimate case for MVP (if that award could go to any position other than QB at this point).

The list of players asked to carry the sort of burden that Gurley did for the Rams offense while remaining effective on a per-touch basis is tiny in the modern NFL. Two comparable backs are Le’Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy. Neither went as a first-round pick, but that says more about teams’ poor predraft evaluation than it does about supply and demand at the position. Bell has lost 15 pounds since weighing in at the 2013 combine and has transformed into a rare and multifaceted offensive playmaker; McCoy’s shiftiness in the open field has allowed him to escape the trappings of a traditional back despite posting forgettable testing numbers. And it’s not as if either guy went in the fourth round. Both were taken in the first 53 picks. The version of Barkley that evaluators saw in college comes with none of the uncertainty that Bell or McCoy had; he’s a finished physical product and one of the most staggering athletes to come along at the position in years. It’s up to the Giants to grant Barkley a role that instantly allows him to have a more two-dimensional impact than Elliott, Leonard Fournette, and Christian McCaffrey. If they do, it’s not silly to suggest that the pick may be worth it.

For those clamoring about the shelf life of running backs in the league and snidely pointing out the shrinking second contracts handed out to players at the position, I’d respond with the overall hit rate for any position in the top 10. Worrying about any non-quarterback’s second contract on draft day is like cutting off a first date five minutes in because a person doesn’t seem like marriage material. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If Barkley emerges as a dual-threat contributor and creates matchup issues in the passing game while hammering teams on the ground, his pick will pay dividends, even if the Giants express hesitance about giving him a second deal that takes him into his late 20s. Again, look at what the Steelers have gotten from Bell. Or what the Bills derived from Stephon Gilmore and the Patriots found with Chandler Jones. When so many picks provide next to nothing, four or five years of high-level production doesn’t equate to failure.

Barkley was this year’s first departure from recent positional value norms, but he was hardly the last. With the no. 6 pick, the Colts nabbed Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. If we include Washington guard Brandon Scherff, who played tackle in college but was a guard from his first day in the league, Nelson is only the second player at that position to go within the first six picks in more than two decades. Two picks later, the Bears scooped up Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, who became the first exclusively off-the-ball linebacker to go in the top 10 since Luke Kuechly in 2012.

Both players bucking draft-value standards speaks to their quality as prospects. Nelson is the best incoming offensive lineman I’ve watched in my five years covering the NFL, regardless of position. Smith was arguably the best defender in college football last season and carried one of the year’s defining teams all the way to the national championship game. And beyond Nelson’s and Smith’s individual merits, their draft standing speaks to shifting notions of positional value around the league. Guard and move linebacker have long been marginalized positions on which personnel executives have been content to skimp; as of late, the gap between those spots and their more expensive brethren has begun to disappear. As offenses deploy more personnel packages designed to take advantage of overmatched linebackers in space, players with Smith’s coverage skills are coming at a premium. And with interior pass rushers such as Aaron Donald wrecking the league, the value of guards tasked with stopping them resembles that of some tackles.

Bradley Chubb
Bradley Chubb
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Still, for all the shifting positional value in this year’s first round, plenty of conventional wisdom endured, informing several of the more surprising picks of the night. The quarterbacks are an obvious example; another is Cleveland snatching Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick. Ward was a top-flight prospect before proving to be an all-time athlete at this year’s combine; few scoffed at the idea of him being the first defender off the board, especially given that he was taken by a team that finished 27th in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA last season.

Those who did bristle at the pick likely saw NC State’s Bradley Chubb as the clear top defensive player in this class and felt like Cleveland missed out by failing to pair him with 2017 no. 1 pick Myles Garrett. Count John Elway and the Broncos among that bunch. Denver’s brass was delighted to add the draft’s top pass rusher to a defense that already features Von Miller.

Chubb’s draft position falls in line both with how teams have traditionally valued pass rushers and how many predicted this year’s first round would shake out. If anything, many see the no. 5 pick as too low for a player of Chubb’s caliber, an outcome made possible only because of the early infatuation with QBs. The same predictable quality can’t be ascribed to the second pass rusher taken Thursday night. Marcus Davenport, the University of Texas–San Antonio defensive end who tallied 17.5 tackles for loss (including 8.5 sacks) last season, was believed to be among the draft’s late risers, but no one expected a team to part with the type of capital the Saints did to nab him. New Orleans dealt the no. 27 overall pick, the no. 147 pick, and next year’s first-round pick to the Packers to move up 13 spots to take Davenport. That’s a steeper price than the Texans paid to jump exactly that many spots to select Deshaun Watson last season.

The Saints haven’t cared much about prudence or draft value since Drew Brees entered the twilight of his career—and such a move speaks to the dangers of a franchise seeing itself as a piece or two away from the Super Bowl. Yet casting aside the front office’s disdain for shrewdness, the move for Davenport points to the value that teams still see in pass rushers. With the free-agent signing of Demario Davis and the return of 2017 third-round pick Alex Anzalone, the Saints saw finding a no. 2 pass rusher as their resurgent defense’s most glaring priority. They didn’t screw around to land their preferred guy.

If teams are still willing to pay big for edge defenders, it would track that decision-makers would be willing to do the same for the guys tasked with stopping those pass rushers. San Francisco’s decision to take Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey ninth overall won’t garner many headlines, but it was among the most stunning picks of the first round. McGlinchey had been billed as a first-round lock, yet even the evaluators who liked him projected him as barely scratching the top 20. Instead, the 49ers grabbed him long before blue-chippers like Tremaine Edmunds and Derwin James came off the board. San Francisco taking McGlinchey provides a window into its long-term evaluation of right tackle Trent Brown, who’s entering the final year of his deal. More importantly, it serves as a reminder of the way teams covet bookend offensive linemen in general.

Six picks after McGlinchey went, the Raiders selected UCLA tackle Kolton Miller as their likely Week 1 starter at right tackle and as Donald Penn’s eventual replacement on the blind side. Miller’s draft position may have come as a shock (and don’t get me started on why NFL teams—and those with Tom Cable as their offensive line coach, no less—are still valuing athleticism over all else for line prospects), but it probably shouldn’t have.

Watching four quarterbacks, two tackles, and a cornerback go within the first 15 picks was a reflection of how NFL decision-makers have traditionally viewed positional value. Yet the top of the first round also included enough departures from drafting norms that it may be remembered differently. If Barkley, Nelson, and Smith live up to their top-10 billing, this class could prompt a shift in how teams value certain positions. Then again, if they struggle, they could go down as further arguments against ingenuity in the part of the draft that matters most.