When it comes to debating the NFL Draft, the classic argument is whether a team should adhere to a best player available philosophy or, ideally, combine that with filling team needs. "BPA versus need" is therefore a phrase uttered frequently during this time of the year - particularly by Buffalo Bills fans, since the pre-draft season has replaced the playoffs in terms of our annual month of excitement for the past 13 years.
Football, however, is a business. Why does that risky cornerback get picked ahead of the sure bet at guard every year? It's simple economics, really: when contracts mature and players hit the open market, cornerbacks break the bank and guards (relatively) do not.
The easiest way to determine how positions are valued by NFL teams is to rank them based on their franchise tag valuations. We've done so in the below chart, separating out guards and centers from offensive tackles, because the NFL should be doing that already. (Andy Levitre, for example, does not have a single-year base salary higher than $6.5 million in his massive contract with Tennessee.) We've also included some names of early-to-mid first-round prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft for an exercise we're hoping y'all will participate in for the ensuing discussion.
|Position (rough tag value)||Early-to-Mid Round 1 value, 2013 NFL Draft|
|Quarterback ($14.9 million)||Geno Smith, Matt Barkley|
|Defensive end ($11.2 million)||Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah, Barkevious Mingo, Bjoern Werner|
|Cornerback ($10.9 million)||Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes, Desmond Trufant|
|Wide receiver ($10.5 million)||Cordarrelle Patterson, Tavon Austin, Justin Hunter|
|Offensive tackle ($9.8 million)||Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson, D.J. Fluker|
|Linebacker ($9.6 million)||Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree|
|Defensive tackle ($8.5 million)||Sharrif Floyd, Star Lotulelei, Sheldon Richardson|
|Running back ($8.2 million)||N/A|
|Guard, center (~$8 million)||Chance Warmack, Jonathan Cooper|
|Safety ($6.9 million)||Kenny Vaccaro|
|Tight end ($6.1 million)||Tyler Eifert|
It's important to factor future financial implications into our draft-related arguments. Take a player like cornerback Stephon Gilmore, for example: if he plays in Buffalo for a decade, the Bills will have paid a player at a premium position the NFL's equivalent of peanuts for 40 percent of his playing career. Gilmore is entering the second year of a four-year, $12 million deal; if he reaches elite status, his next contract could be for six years and upwards of $65-70 million.
The build-through the draft model is reliant on finding good players, developing them, and retaining them. Teams can't retain them all, so premium positions go earlier on draft day to maximize bang-for-the-buck over the long haul. Particularly for a small-market team like the Bills, this kind of accounting matters. Finding players that can walk into a lineup and play a full season's worth of snaps is not easy to do, which is why Gilmore - despite his struggles with penalties and stopping the run last season - was a great pick for the Bills, at least as it pertained to his value in the 2012 season. And having a player at a premium position in a system for four years might help in the retention process, as well. Put better: if a playoff team like Cincinnati had drafted Gilmore a year ago, it'd have been an even better pick, because they'd have plugged a hole on a playoff team at a key position for a financial coup.
Take this stat, for example: Gilmore was paid roughly $7.6 million (all but $390,000 of it signing bonus) last season as a rookie. He played 1,056 snaps on defense, earning about $7,214 per snap. Mario Williams - a premium-position, in-his-prime free agent that the Bills signed to the richest contract ever given to a defender in NFL history - was paid $24.9 million ($19 million of that in signing bonus) and played 929 snaps, earning $26,800 per snap. Those figures will normalize a bit in 2013 without signing bonuses factored in, but at the end of the day, the Bills will be paying for two premium-position players at very different pay rates. This, folks, is why teams want to develop talent at premium positions in-house.
Clearly, this shouldn't be the only consideration; need absolutely plays a role, as does the Bills' scouting process and the resulting "big board" it yields. (And a whole bunch of other stuff, too.) But when people can't understand why I continually insist that the Bills won't take Chance Warmack at No. 8 this year, I'll point to this argument (on top of the fact that guards don't win you anything in the NFL) in my rationalization: the position is not paid at a premium, and you're therefore not getting enough bang for your buck.
There are exceptions to the financial rules, of course. Pass-rushing linebackers like Von Miller net you a premium edge rusher a bit cheaper than the elite rushers that put their hand in the dirt. C.J. Spiller is the type of player that could exceed the typical running back contract thanks to his elite traits. Both players were drafted early for those reasons, and the financial implications are significant.
In the end, however, the point is this: "best player available" and "need" are not the only two factors fans should consider. "Value" - positional value, long-term contractual value and the immediate value of contribution - must be considered, as well. (Again, along with other things, as well.)
Keeping that in mind, our question for the community is this: how do the following factors apply to your big board, and will any of this lead to your re-considering your favorite options for the Bills at No. 8? (And since I'm asking, I'll jump into the comments section at some point with my own thoughts on how this applies to my big board.)
- Prospect status (i.e. athletic, intangible, character, medical considerations)
- Team need
- Position played (i.e. league value, future financial implications)
- Immediacy of impact (i.e. playing time, potential production considerations)