When football fans discuss the NFL Draft, they spend an inordinate amount of time discussing team needs - which makes a great deal of sense, of course, because the whole idea behind this annual event is for teams to get better.
Positional value is something that fans do not spend nearly as much time discussing. That's less sensible, because teams should and do place more importance on certain positions than others. The easiest way to discern which positions have the most value in the league is to see how much franchise-caliber players make at that position. If pro teams are paying more for premium players at that position, they value said position more - and as the franchise tag valuations for the positions is calculated by average cap values over five years, we essentially have a list of how the league prioritizes team-building.
Here are the franchise tag valuations from the 2013 season. We've split the list up into five fairly distinct tiers.
1. QB ($14.896 million). This should surprise no one. The 2011 CBA, which introduced a rookie pay scale, made the financial implications of taking a first-round gamble on a quarterback significantly smaller, and those who take rookie quarterbacks and play them immediately are doing so with incredible cost-effectiveness - particularly if said quarterback is good, like Andrew Luck in Indy.
2. DE ($11.175 million). A delineation is made between pass rushers (who are almost always called defensive ends, even if they spend half their time standing up) and defensive tackles, with guys like J.J. Watt left to figure out how to convince people that he's an end (which is what he's listed as in Houston's defense) and not a tackle (which is mostly how he lines up).
3. CB ($10.854 million). Pass and stop the pass is the current motto in the NFL. We've covered the passers and the pass disruptors; now we get to the guys who stop people from catching the ball...
4. WR ($10.537 million). ... the guys who catch the ball for a living...
5. OL ($9.828 million). ... and the guys that protect the passers. Note also that the league does not differentiate between tackles and guards/centers like they do on the defensive line, which is why a team like the Buffalo Bills couldn't dream of using the franchise tag on Andy Levitre (especially since a much more sensible tag option was available), but why it's perhaps less of a bitter pill to swallow if you had to franchise a left tackle.
6. LB ($9.619 million). Sneaking in at the end of this list is the trusty old linebacker, a position that teams don't need in as much quantity than they did years ago thanks to the evolution of the passing game.
7. DT ($8.450 million). For every star defensive tackle in the NFL (and the Bills have two very good ones themselves), there are several more that don't pile up the stats to justify big salary numbers from teams. It's also a bit unfair that a franchise-caliber tackle would make nearly $1.5 million less than a franchise-caliber guard; they're both positions that do the grunt work.
8. RB ($8.219 million). Short shelf life contributes to the lower salary of this position; if running backs could play for a decade and a half, they might be right up there with quarterbacks in terms of compensation, so popular are the players at this position. (Thanks, fantasy football!)
9. S ($6.916 million). Jairus Byrd reportedly wanted a $9 million average last season. The Bills may soon be willing to pay that; time will tell. Byrd may very well could have found a team to pay him that on the open market last March. But in general, this position is devalued in the NFL. That may change...
10. TE ($6.066 million). ... as ultra-productive, super-athletic tight ends become more commonplace in the league. It seems likely that the value of these positions will continue to increase as the league further evolves.
11. K/P ($2.977 million). These poor elite kickers and punters, only pulling in $3 million to play 120 snaps of non-contact football a season.
Where have the Bills landed on positional value related to draft position over the last four years, when the current regime has been involved in the draft process? You can see below, but the fact that there isn't a clear trend - aside from not diving down into Tier 4 until the fourth round - speaks to the team using this (or something like it) as a small part of their decision-making process, particularly in Round 1.
Tier 1: QB EJ Manuel (2013)
Tier 2: CB Stephon Gilmore (2012)
Tier 3: DT Marcell Dareus (2011), RB C.J. Spiller (2010)
Tier 2: CB Aaron Williams (2011), WR Robert Woods (2013), OT Cordy Glenn (2012), ILB Kiko Alonso (2013)
Tier 3: DT Torell Troup (2010)
Tier 2: WR T.J. Graham (2012), WR Marquise Goodwin (2013), ILB Kelvin Sheppard (2011)
Tier 3: DT Alex Carrington (2010)
Tier 2: CB Ron Brooks (2012), WR Marcus Easley (2010), OT Chris Hairston (2011), ILB Nigel Bradham (2012)
Tier 4: S Da'Norris Searcy (2011), S Duke Williams (2013)
Tier 2: OT Ed Wang (2010), OT Zebrie Sanders (2012), LB Tank Carder (2012)
Tier 3: RB Johnny White (2011)
Tier 4: S Jonathan Meeks (2013)
Tier 2: OLB Danny Batten (2010), OG Mark Asper (2012), ILB Arthur Moats (2010), ILB Chris White (2011)
Tier 5: K Dustin Hopkins (2013)
Tier 1: QB Levi Brown (2010)
Tier 2: CB Justin Rogers (2011), OG Kyle Calloway (2010)
Tier 3: DT Michael Jasper (2011)
Tier 4: TE Chris Gragg (2013)
Tier 5: K John Potter (2012)
Note, also, that this same positional value information can apply to how the team approaches free agency. It's useful for determining how to supplement the draft with veteran players, but it's particularly important for strategizing which of your productive young players you'd like to re-sign for the long haul.