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Are middle linebackers worth drafting in the first round?

Perhaps we make too much of position value

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Utah at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

My three annual man crushes for the 2022 draft, in order, are QB Matt Corral, LB Devin Lloyd and WR Treylon Burks. This article was inspired by the comments on KyleSmithforGM’s recent profile of Lloyd.

I like Lloyd for the Commanders as high as the 11th pick because he would help the team catch up to where the league has been heading for over a decade. Lloyd is experienced in calling defenses, to fulfill a key requirement of the middle linebacker role, which is currently vacant. He also has the sideline-to-sideline speed and the coverage skills to stay on the field and excel on all three downs. I can’t actually remember a time when Washington’s defense wasn’t vulnerable to running backs and tight ends in the passing game and think that a player with Lloyd’s skillset might finally do something about that.

Quite a few commenters, however, reminded me of the conventional wisdom that middle linebackers are not worth selecting in the first round because they have low position value. High first-round picks should be used on players at high-impact positions. There is general agreement that quarterbacks have outsized value relative to all other positions. After quarterbacks there is less agreement about how the other positions stack up.

For purposes of argument, I would suggest that the following positions are generally considered worth drafting near the top of the draft order: QB, LT, EDGE, CB, DT. WRs are regularly taken in the top 10, but are a bit more controversial because it is debatable whether the difference between prospects selected in the first and second rounds is worth paying for in terms of draft capital. A similar argument regarding RBs has gained more traction in the league. Safeties, interior offensive linemen, non-pass rushing linebackers and tight ends are generally devalued, and fullbacks and specialists are relegated to the later rounds.

There are a variety of analytical approaches to derive position value, ranging from average salary levels to advanced statistical metrics, which give an equal variety of answers. What they all have in common, is that they are based on estimating the relative value of the average player at each position.

Is that what teams are looking for when they are drafting in the top 16, though, an average player at his position? I don’ think so. I think that teams picking as high as 11th overall are generally hoping to draft an exceptional player. They might only do so around half of the time, but that should be the goal. And that raises some questions about the value of position value as a guide for making draft selections.

While a slightly better than average starting quarterback will usually have more overall impact than any other player on his team, there have been plenty of cases where a middle linebacker was amongst the two most impactful players in his draft class, as ranked by Pro Football Reference’s career Approximate Value metrics (CarAV prior to 2000, wAV afterwards):

1996 LB Ray Lewis, CarAV 160, rank 1st in class, HOF

2000 LB Brian Urlacher, wAV 119, rank 2nd in class, HOF

2007 LB Patrick Willis, wAV 93, rank 2nd in class

2012 LB Bobby Wagner, wAV 110, rank 2nd in class

2018 LB Darius Leonard, wAV 55, rank 2nd in class

2019 LB Devin White, wAV 44, rank 2nd in class

2021 LB Micah Parsons, AV 18, rank 1st in class

This raises the question, can over-reliance on position value cause teams to miss out on exceptional talents in the draft? Thinking about that inspired me to take an alternative approach to the question of position value. Rather than estimating the relative value of the average player at each position, I decided to have a look at the outliers in each draft class. Are some positions more likely to produce exceptional talents than others?

Defining the Elite Players in a Draft Class

In statistics, an outlier is a data point that sits well outside a distribution. In football terms, we can think of them as the small handful of elite players in each draft class. To identify the outliers in each draft class, I calculated the mean (average) and standard deviation of the weighted Approximate Values (wAV) for all the players in the class. The cutoff for outliers was set at the mean plus two standard deviations.

For example, lets have a look at the 2012 draft class. 231 out of 253 players drafted that year played enough snaps in the NFL to register a wAV value. The distribution of wAV values for those players is as follows:

The mean wAV in this draft class was 20.0 and the standard deviation was 23.3. The cutoff for outliers was therefore 20 + 2 x 23.3 = 66.7. In that year, 14 out of 253 drafted players (6%) had wAV > 66.7. The elite player cutoff is indicated by the red marker on the graph. Let’s have a look at the elite players to the right of that marker:

Aside from a few Kirk Cousins haters, most readers will probably agree this method has picked up the exceptional players in this draft class. As I mentioned above, Cousins and Ryan Tannehill make the elite players list because they are above average starting QBs. There shouldn’t be much debate about the other players deserving their “elite” designation. It might just be a coincidence, but there sure are a lot of linebackers in this list, including two players with 11 first-team All Pro appearances between them.

To get a large sample for analysis, I examined the elite players in the draft classes from 2010 to 2019. I stopped at 2019 to give the players at least three years to show their stuff in the NFL. In total, there were 133 elite players, thus defined, in the 10 draft classes, for an average of 13.3 elite players per class.

What Positions Produce the Most Elite Players?

If the conventional wisdom on position value holds true, we should expect to see quarterbacks well represented amongst the elite players, although maybe not in large numbers, because starting quality quarterbacks are fairly rare. We should also expect to see a fair number of edge defenders, offensive and defensive tackles and cornerbacks, since those are supposed to be amongst the higher impact positions. The 2012 draft class lived up to expectations regarding QBs, but not so much at other positions. Perhaps that was anomalous. Let’s see how the numbers work out across a ten-year period.

The breakdown of elite players by position in the drafts from 2010 to 2019 was as follows:

The first thing is that pops out is that wide receiver is the most numerous position group amongst the elite players in these draft classes. I think that’s almost certainly a combination of two things. First, wide receivers are fairly plentiful; each team has essentially three starters at the position. Second, quality receivers have huge impact on game outcomes.

The second thing that stands out to me is how uncommon elite CBs are compared to other impact positions. Conventional wisdom is that a lockdown corner is premium commodity, well worth a top ten pick. Yet relatively few CBs make it into the elite echelons.

The third point brings us pretty close to answer to the question I asked at the start. Linebackers are only slightly less numerous within the elite ranks than edge defenders and are on more or less even footing with defensive and offensive tackles.

We have already seen who four of the elite linebackers contributing to these totals are, when I showed the bumper crop in the 2012 draft class. Here are all 16:

Drafting by position value takes the first six listed players off your board in the first round. I think that’s counterproductive

Are linebackers worth drafting in the first round?

The answer is really a matter of perspective. If your aim is to play moneyball, and optimize the expected value from each draft pick, the guys at Pro Football Focus would probably tell you to pick a cornerback or a wide receiver instead, if there’s no quarterback available.

On the other hand, if the aim is to add elite talent to your roster, and you would consider drafting a pass rusher, defensive or offensive tackle in the first round, there is no reason to pass on a linebacker if he’s the next player on your board.

If Devin Lloyd lives up to the Fred Warner comps he is getting, two years from now selecting him 11th will look like a great move.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to James Dorsett for editorial assistance


What is your most important consideration with a first-round pick?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Overall talent level
    (185 votes)
  • 3%
    Roster need
    (21 votes)
  • 46%
    Balance of talent and need
    (269 votes)
  • 10%
    Chance of being an immediate starter
    (63 votes)
  • 3%
    Position value (includes finding a QB)
    (21 votes)
  • 3%
    Pleasing Mr Snyder
    (20 votes)
579 votes total Vote Now