No Sleep Till Football

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How To Build An NFL Roster

(note: This post is born out of the Move the Sticks podcast hosted by Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks. I started listening to Move the Sticks the first time Daniel did the podcast before he went back to work scouting for the Philadelphia Eagles. Both Daniel and Bucky do this sort of thing all the time and I thought it would be appropriate to give them all the credit for any kind of scouting knowledge I’ve gained over the years.)

Soon I want to start writing posts about specific NFL teams and what they might be looking for in the 2017 NFL Draft. These posts will basically be overviews of each team and what they have on hand and the contracts associated with those players. This will lead us to what each team might be thinking when it comes to the NFL Draft and the players they should target. I played around with this a bit last season for fun, but thought it a worthwhile discussion to look at in depth on this blog. What follows is the criteria I’ll be using, for the most part, in this organizational evaluation.

I come from a baseball background steeped in Sabermetrics, so one of the things that has always interested me is roster construction. In baseball roster construction is a little bit different because there is no salary cap so the only financial limitations placed on a franchise is the willingness of the owner to spend money or the amount of money that said owner has to spend. The NFL is a completely different animal partly because of the numerous positions, but also because of the salary cap that each franchise has to abide by. It’s a very interesting wrinkle, but what is probably the MOST interesting aspect of football roster construction is the depth at position that football teams need. For example, a typical roster might carry 4-5 running backs with each doing slightly different things. This obviously opens up creative avenues for offensive coaches, but it also guards against injuries and allows the team to stay true to its desired scheme despite the bumps and bruises. Baseball by comparison, would never think to carry 4-5 shortstops which each one doing things slightly different. Baseball teams would construct their team around a single shortstop and then a backup middle infielder who could probably play both shortstop and second base. As you can see, the complexity of a football roster becomes a much more arduous task to fill. What I want to do in this particular post is map out a typical 53-man roster for an NFL team and then list, in order of importance, the positions in which an NFL team should build through the draft or free agency.

THE MAKEUP OF A TYPICAL 53-MAN ROSTER

QB – 2
RB – 4
WR – 6
TE – 3
OL – 9
3-4 DL – 7
4-3 DL – 9
3-4 LB – 9
4-3 LB – 7
DB – 10
K – 1
P – 1
LS – 1
TOTAL = 53

There are some caveats here. The first is that if you want to deviate from the assigned number of players at a position, you must know that you are taking away depth from another position. For example, if you want to carry 3 QBs on your roster, then you have to realize that you are going to have to take away a RB or a WR or a DB. You’ll also note a difference between DL and LB according to the base defense a team employs. In both cases you’ll use 16 men in your front-7. More astute readers will realize that even this distinction is becoming more blurred with the advent of the hybrid S/WIL position used by guys such as Mark Barron, Deone Bucannon and even Landon Collins at times. Defensive backs are becoming even more difficult to define as corners need to be able to play the run while safeties need to be good in coverage. The line between free safety & strong safety becomes more blurred by the minute as well. If you head over to Our Lads and look at the current Dallas Cowboys roster you’ll find the following breakdown:

QB – 3
RB – 5
WR – 6
TE – 2
OL – 7
4-3 DL – 10
4-3 LB – 7
DB – 10
K – 1
P – 1
LS – 1
TOTAL = 53

As you can see, Dallas deviates from the ideal version slightly. They subtract a TE and 2 OL in order to carry an extra RB, QB and DL. All 32 NFL teams will do this in some form or fashion. Having 3 QBs seems preferable these days as almost two-thirds of teams carry a 3rd quarterback. The Cleveland Browns are the only team currently in the NFL who have four different quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. That might not seem like a huge deal with a team of 53 players, but it also provides some context to just how important depth really is in the NFL. Taking a couple of spots away from other positions for QB will eventually take a toll on your overall roster, therefore it’s not a complete surprise that Cleveland is 0-14 and carrying four different quarterbacks.

Now that we have our roster guidelines we can begin to formulate a plan of attack in building the roster itself. I’m going to list the positions from the ones I consider most important to the ones I consider least important in regards to building a roster. I do want to point out that this is certainly arbitrary. You will find kicker very low on the list, but that shouldn’t diminish the importance of the position itself. I am discussing order of position in relation to roster building. With that being said, a kicker isn’t going to win the MVP award. To build on another baseball comparison, your 8th inning guy might be terribly important to the team’s overall success, but major league baseball teams aren’t drafting 8th inning relievers very high in their amateur draft and those guys certainly aren’t commanding more money through free agency than #1 starting pitchers.

BUILDING A 53-MAN ROSTER – THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIONS

#1 – QUARTERBACK

The single most important position in probably all of sports. Think Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers, John Elway, Dan Marino, Bart Starr, and Johnny Unitas. The list goes on. Legends all of them. An elite QB will almost always by himself put a team in the playoffs through shear will. At the very least he’ll put them in playoff contention assuming the rest of the team isn’t a complete dumpster fire or injuries haven’t hit exceptionally hard. The offense runs through the quarterback completely and when you look at overall turnover numbers, the QB is most responsible for those turnovers. The New York Giants so far this season has 27 turnovers. Eli Manning has thrown 16 of them. Manning has also fumbled the ball 7 times although he’s not lost one of them. The NFL has given out the MVP award since 1957. A total of 61 awards have been given out with quarterbacks accounting for 40 of the 61 awards. Eight of the last 9 MVP awards have been given to quarterbacks. The last time a defensive player won an MVP award was Lawrence Taylor back in 1986.

Viewed another way, since 1987 there have been 18 #1 overall draft picks who were QBs. That’s almost 67% and the other 33% of drafts simply didn’t have a QB worth taking at the #1 overall slot. There is simply no other position that affects the outcome of a football game more than the QB. Stability at this position is a premium. Tom Brady & Peyton Manning had their teams in the playoffs on a constant basis. Brady has been to 6 Super Bowls and has won 4 of them. Manning went to 4 Super Bowls. He won two of them. That’s a combined 10 Super Bowl appearances by those two quarterbacks and Brady still has time to add to his numbers. Quarterbacks are also that rare position that can have longevity. We all know NFL stands for NOT FOR LONG, but a solid QB can stick around for quite awhile ensuring his organization stays competitive for the better part of 15 years! Extremely lucky organizations like Indianapolis & Green Bay can make the transition from great to QB to great QB. The Packers got extremely lucky when Aaron Rodgers fell to them late in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts were lucky in a much darker way given that Peyton Manning had to be injured for them to be bad enough to get the #1 overall pick. That happened at just the right time for Andrew Luck in 2012 NFL Draft. It will also be the great challenge for teams like New England, Pittsburgh, San Diego and the NY Giants to overcome in trying to replace their stalwart quarterback.

No position is more important which is why when building a team, you ALWAYS start with the man under center. If he’s the missing piece then you’re simply a 6-10 team at best hoping for the bottom to fall out so you can potentially grab the #1 pick and hope a true franchise QB is waiting in the wings in that particular draft.

#2 – EDGE RUSHERS

There have been only two defensive players in NFL history to have won an MVP award. I’ve already mentioned Lawrence Taylor taking the award home in 1986, but the other defender to win the honor was Vikings DT Alan Page who won his MVP award in 1971. Do not let the DT designation fool you. Page is one of the most gifted pass rushers in NFL history and could hold his own as much as guys like Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor. At this point in the list I think we could start debating about which position is more important. Quarterback is the easy part. The other positions now become the talking points. In my opinion I think edge rushers are the second most important position behind QB. No position outside of QB can dictate the pace and flow of a game the way an edge rusher can. If you want to see this in action, simply watch a big time sack or a huge tackle for loss and see how momentum changes in a game. There is nothing more thrilling in NFL football right now than seeing a Von Miller or Khalil Mack or Ryan Kerrigan come off the edge and hammer a QB giving the offense a 10-yard loss and either hyping the crowd up to a fevered pitch or quieting them down to nursing home levels. These are some of the most athletically gifted and powerful players on the field. They are practically impossible to miss and if talented, almost impossible to stop.

Beyond momentum and hype, elite edge rushers also have plenty of responsibility and can affect game outcomes in tremendous ways. The obvious example is the QB sack. The offense loses yards and they also lose a down putting offenses in predictable situations that defenses can better defend. Another area an edge rusher has the ability to affect games is via the forcing of turnovers. If the edge rusher can get to the QB, he can strip sack the QB or he can force a fumble as he’s sacking the opposition. Turnovers are game changes, and the more a defender can take away, the better off his team is in regards to winning. A good edge rusher can also seal the edge of the line and stop the running game. He can also shed blocks on sweeps and get to the RB before the RB cuts up field for a big gain. Edge rushers can also be involved in turnovers here as well with stripping the RB of the ball should he reach the runner before getting to the edge. I think it’s also worth mentioning that solid edge rushers can also be a big help with filling in the B and C gaps against the run. It’s obviously a secondary need for edge rushers, but their ability to recognize the run could be the difference between filling a gap and leaving that for a LB to fill. Remember too that an edge rusher being solid against the run adds to personnel creativity for the defensive coordinator. A player who can ONLY pass rush has to be taken out against obvious running plays because said edge rusher is simply going to go up the field in a straight line & essentially the offense gets to attack a defense with just 10 defenders given that the edge rusher takes himself out of the play.

Schematically having a great edge rusher also sets the tone for what personnel is on the field. Remember that an edge rusher’s primary responsibility is getting to the QB so we are talking about passing plays. If the QB is able to get off a pass, it makes more sense for the defense to have as many players drop back into coverage as possible to increase the odds a pass will fall incomplete, or even better become an interception. If a defense can get tremendous pressure from their edge rushers, then it is possible for the defense to rush only 3 or 4 players leaving 7 to 8 defenders to drop back into coverage. This gives the defense a significant numbers advantage. Just taking into account the O-Line and the QB, the most any offense can send out to catch a football is 5. If the defense drops 7-8 then every man is covered with 2-3 players left over for zone coverage or double teams. If a defense cannot bring adequate pressure with 3-4 players, then the defense is likely to rush 4 players along with keeping a LB in or even bringing in a designated pass rusher to get 5-6 players rushing. The problem of course is numbers. If a defense needs 6 players to create a pass rush, they only have 5 to drop back into coverage. If the offense is sending 5 then the offense gets single coverage on every player. Defenses get crushed this way.

The last thing I want to talk about is timing. Fast, ferocious edge rushers don’t give the QB much time in the pocket. This allows for a couple of things. The first is that it forces the QB to speed up his process and if he’s incapable of doing that then mistakes will follow or said QB is going to be taking on a ton of sacks. Speeding up the game for the QB via pass rush creates turnovers because he’s not throwing the ball well or he’s throwing the wrong receiver or he’s simply missing receivers all together. Timing is everything and this is one aspect of what analysts mean when they say the game is too fast for a QB. Dominant edge rushers also affect timing by giving the secondary the benefit of having to not cover receivers for very long. A fast pass rush doesn’t allow receivers to get into the breaks or run their correct routes. This makes life a lot more easy on the secondary, and remember that if elite edge rushers allow for 7-8 defenders to drop into coverage, that means there are a lot of guys available to intercept errant passes.

As you can see, the edge rusher is a premium position, and is the 2nd most important position on the field in my opinion. The effect they have on the outcomes of games almost cannot be measured. Finally I think it’s worth mentioning position scarcity and depth. If you are looking to be a championship team, you want to have at least a couple of edge rushers to affect both sides of the offensive line. It’s also worth noting that for depth purposes, having 3-4 solid edge rushers is almost an imperative when thinking about potential injuries or even fatigue during a football game. The importance of edge rushers isn’t as high as it is for quarterbacks. Everyone agrees with that, but edge rushers come closest.

#3 – CORNERBACKS

In my mind, corners and edge rushers sort of go hand in hand in some ways which makes them very close on the list. I like edge rushers better if building a team from scratch, but if someone wanted to argue taking an elite cornerback, I’m not sure I’d have much room to argue. Since we discussed how cornerbacks interplay with defensive ends, let’s now talk about the corner’s role in reverse. While having elite edge rushers allows a defense to drop more people into coverage, having ELITE corners who excel in man-on-man coverage can allow the defense to rush more defenders to the quarterback because they don’t need over the top coverage to help the corners against elite wide receivers. Think about your typical eleven personnel. If you have 3 elite corners then you have the opposing receivers covered with 8 defenders left over. Assuming a passing play and leaving a LB each for the TE & RB who could drift over the middle, the defense could potentially send six pass rushers at the QB. Again we are playing a numbers game. There are only 5 offensive linemen and if there are 6 rushers, it leaves an unopposed rusher to the QB. The defense still theoretically has an advantage even if the RB & TE stay in to block. That leaves 7 blockers for potentially 8 pass rushers. That still leaves a man open to attack the QB unopposed. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of football strategy, you are talking about number advantages and disadvantages. Having elite corners allows for a number advantage in the trenches whereas having elite edge rushers allow for a numbers advantage in the secondary.

As you can see, having ELITE corners who can play press man coverage is a luxury championship level teams certainly enjoy. No better example is the 2015 Denver Broncos who exploited an outstanding secondary to get tremendous pressure on the QB. It certainly didn’t hurt that Von Miller was one of those edge rushers, but Miller was certainly helped out by having elite corners playing behind him. As I wrote about edge rushers, the corners can affect timing in the opposite way. While elite level edge rushers ensure that corners don’t have to cover for too long, elite level corners allow the edge rushers more time to get to the QB. This works in the defense’s favor by all the things that can happen to a QB when an edge rusher finally reaches his goal. At worst the defense gets a QB hurry where the QB probably isn’t making an optimal decision. At best the edge rusher forces a turnover by causing a fumble or strip sacking the QB. I think an undervalued aspect of elite corners giving edge rushers more time is that they tire the offensive line. Typically a good defense will be able to sub in and out 4-5 defensive linemen, but the O-Line is pretty much set in stone unless injuries occur. It cuts both ways as the defense can’t sub out unless the offense does, but at worst you have tired linemen with the defense having the advantage because of the elite corner coverage giving the D-Line more time to work.

Another advantage of elite corners is size. A perfect example of this is the 2016 NFL Draft. Everyone knew Jalen Ramsey was going to be the first DB taken off the board but he was thought to be somewhat of a hybrid S/CB player so his 6’1/210lbs wasn’t an issue. The best pure corner in the draft was thought to be Vernon Hargreaves, but at 5’10/200lbs, some thought Hargreaves was a bit too little to be a truly ELITE corner on the edge covering legitimate #1 receivers in the NFL. That didn’t stop Hargreaves from being drafted 11th overall by Tamp Bay, but notice that the Giants too Eli Apple with the 10th pick. Apple is 6’1/200lbs who ran a flat 4.40 at the combine. Hargreaves ran a 4.53. Coming out of college Hargreaves was thought to be a better corner than Apple, but Apple went ahead of Hargreaves most likely because of upside related to size. It’s a lot easier to cover a 6’3 wideout when you are 6’1 than when you are 5’10. Think about your other 2016 1st round picks: William Jackson (6’0/199lbs; 4.37), and Artie Burns (6’0/193lbs; 4.45). Compare those guys with Mackenzie Alexander who at 5’10/190; 4.47 went as the 2nd CB in the 2nd round after being hyped as a first rounder all through the draft process. Even Xavier Howard who is 6’0/200lbs was taken ahead of Alexander in the 2nd round. This doesn’t always have to be the case. There are plenty of guys at corner who do great jobs at 5’10, but that height is about the lowest NFL teams want to go. If you are drafting for corners, your floor should be 5’10 and no less.

The last couple of things I want to talk about in regards to cornerback importance is their support in defending the running game and their ability to create turnovers. It’s obvious that corners can play a signficant role in the running game if they choose to do so. Some corners don’t really like to hit so they shy away from making tackles. Deion Sanders is the most used example of this, but a corner who can make significant contributions in the running game while still being an elite corner is a treasure indeed. Think of guys like Aqib Talib or Richard Sherman. Those guys are quickly able to diagnose a run, shed blocks and get to the runner. This is extremely important in stopping bit time runs when the running back is able to get to the edge and it also closes the north-south gap of a runner should the runner break loose. Corners also play a significant role in turning the ball over. For the most part this ability on comes through in intercepting passes, but a corner’s ability to “ball hawk” is almost as important as an edge rusher’s ability to get to the QB. It can change momentum quickly and demoralizes the opposition. A corner’s primary purpose to shut down receivers and prevent completed passes, but if the corner can also turn the ball over a few times, the defense wins huge. A minor note about turnovers is the corners ability to strip the ball after a completed catch or his ability to punch the ball out. This is another avenue by which the corner can affect the game and get the ball back for the offense.

It’s clear that the cornerback plays a significant role on any team hoping to build a championship franchise. Like I wrote before, if you want to argue the cornerback as the 2nd most important position on the field I wouldn’t argue too much although I prefer edge rushers. Take a look at recent Super Bowl winners. Last year the Broncos had Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. In 2014 the Patriots had 1st Team All-Pro Darrelle Revis. In 2013 the Seahawks had Richard Sherman. In 2011 the Giants had Aaron Ross, Corey Webster & Kenny Phillips. The list goes on. The obvious point is if you’re building a team, you want to get your cornerbacks in place.

#4 – DEFENSIVE LINE

Yes I have 3 of my top-4 positions to build around coming from the defense. All you need to know about the importance of interior defensive linemen is that JJ Watt & Aaron Donald have been the very best defenders in football for the past few seasons. I’m separating defensive line from edge rushers even though technically 4-3 edge rushers play on the line. I think they are different animals and I’ll try my best to explain the differences here and why having interior defensive linemen is important, so important even that they are the 4th ranked position to build around. There are essentially 3 different types of defensive linemen we’ll talk about. They are as follows:

3-4 NT: It’s easy to get caught up in techniques here but for the most part the 3-4 NT will either line up at 0-technique (right over the center) or the 1-technique which is either the right or left shoulder of the center. I’ve come to think that playing a 3-4 base is superior defensive strategy (Peyton Manning, arguably the most cerebral QB in history even had a tough time figure out the 3-4), but the problem typically exists in finding a legitimate 3-4 NT who can handle the position. A 3-4 NT will have a tremendous anchor. He’ll be a massive individual who is also athletic. Think of Vince Wilfork in his prime. Wilfork is 6’2-6’3 and plays in that 330-340lbs range. That’s MASSIVE. Some teams who want to run a 3-4 base will sometimes use a couple of defensive tackles and a big defensive end to mimic, but a true 3-4 is a defense with a huge 2-gap daddy right in the middle. Dontari Poe is a good example of a true 3-4 NT. Poe is 6’3/350lbs. These are extremely rare players. The only collegiate player coming out in 2017 NFL Draft that carries this sort of size might be Missouri’s Josh Augusta who is 6’4/350lbs. Texas A&M’s Daylon Mack is 6’1/335lbs and projects as a legitimate 3-4 NT even though the Aggies run more of a 4-3 scheme. The same is true for Tennessee’s Kahlil McKenzie who is 6’3/350lbs. These are guys are must have if you run a 3-4 scheme. You need the bulk as a 3-4 NT because you are essentially responsible for 2-gaps. The NT is responsible for both A gaps and he needs to command the attention of not only the center, but also one of the guards. Remember we are talking numbers here. If the NT takes up a couple of interior linemen it means that one of the 3-4 DEs are one on one with a tackle, but if that’s the case then the 3-4 OLB (edge rusher) has a mismatch against either a TE or a RB or possible both the TE & RB. If the edge rusher takes up two potential offensive threats, then the offense’s options are dwindling very fast. Two areas that 3-4 NT needs to do well. He needs to clog up both A gaps which will stop any inside running on behalf of the offense. Plays ran inside go nowhere or the NT causes the RB to try to cut outside which takes time and the other defenders can move in to stop any gain. The other responsibility a 3-4 NT has is to create inside pressure on the QB. The NT can certainly be a 1-gap pass rusher if he has that explosive first step quickness to get beyond the interior O-Linemen. Your inside linemen are typically much better run blockers than pass blocker so having a superior 3-4 NT who can get inside pressure is a huge benefit. This inside pressure also collapses the pocket. When the edge rushers get close to a QB, the QB will step forward in the pocket, but if a NT is dominant, there will be no expanding pocket to step into. The QB is stuck with a collapsing pocket with inside rush from the DT along with outside rush from the edge rushers. That puts the offense and the QB in a precarious situation. Turnovers abound in these types of situations. Ball hawking interior defensive linemen can smell it. You can certainly make an argument that if you are running a base 3-4 defense and really want a true nose tackle, you’d do yourself a favor if you made the 3-4 NT the most important position to build around outside of the QB. He’s that important to your overall defensive scheme.

3-4 DE: The 3-4 DE is one of the most fascinating players on the defense for me because size plays such an important role. Like the 3-4 NT, the 3-4 DE is responsible for 2-gaps, the B & C. Again, not trying to get too technical with the techniques, but the 3-4 DE is usually lined up in the 4-technique which is directly over the OT. He can change this up of course. A lot of times you’ll see 3-4 DE on the inside shoulder of the OT which is called the 4i technique. You’ll rarely if ever see a true 3-4 DE get closer than that. It leaves the C gap unattended for the most part, a gap he is responsible for. Because of these 2-gap responsibilities, the 3-4 DE needs to be a lot bigger than a typical DE. You really want your 3-4 DE to be in the 6’5-6’7 range and in the 290-310lbs range. Typical guys like this are JJ Watt (6’5/290lbs), Calais Campbell (6’8/300lbs), DeForest Buckner (6’7/291lbs) and Arik Armstead (6’7/292lbs). One of the more interesting thing about the 49ers as a team is that they actually have ideal 3-4 DEs on both sides of the football in Buckner & Armstead. David Irving (6’7/286lbs) is another good example of a 3-4 DE although Dallas employs more of a 4-3 base defense. Like 3-4 NT, 3-4 DE aren’t easy to come by either given their physical size. This is why Michigan St.’s Malik McDowell is going to be highly sought after due to his 6’6/290lbs frame which is ideally suited to play 3-4 DE. As I’ve already pointed out in discussing the 3-4 NT, we are playing a numbers game with elite 3-4 DEs. They control the B & C gaps meaning elite level players should command double teams from either the guard/tackle or the tackle/tight end. Either way this happens, the 3-4 DE is creating mismatches for their edge rushers by putting them against tight ends or running backs. The 3-4 DE also can make his mark as a legitimate inside pass rusher. One of the biggest reasons JJ Watt is so dominant is because he can rack up massive amounts of sacks from the 3-4 DE spot. The Texans rank 10th in the NFL in scoring defense and Football Outsiders has them currently as the 13th best defense in the NFL. Imagine the impact Watt would have if he were back in the lineup which would push Jadeveon Clowney to 3-4 OLB along with Whitney Mercilus! Talk about overwhelming pass protection! The 3-4 DE also has gap responsibilities in the run game and is responsible for sealing the edge. Remember, 3-4 defensive linemen have 2 gap responsibilities so the 3-4 DE shuts down the B & C gap. This will either force the RB inside in the A gaps where there shouldn’t be any room due to the 3-4 NT or it forces the RB even wider which allows the defense (the LBs and safeties) to hunt with a significant numbers advantage. A minor advantage to these guys is their long arms. Being 6’6/290lbs gives you quite a wing span which could help in batting down passes. It’s a minor point, but one worth mentioning as batted balls at worst force incomplete passes which also costs the offense a down, but at best turns the play into a tip drill that that defense can use to turn the ball over. Having a 3-4 DE who can seal the edge, command double teams and exert inside pressure is a truly valuable commodity. It is one of the reasons why there was some talk of DeForest Buckner or even Joey Bosa (6’5/270lbs) potentially being the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

4-3 DT: The 4-3 DT is a little harder to pin down with size. Aaron Donald is without question the best 4-3 DT in the NFL and I think everyone would assume he’s a bit undersized at a shade over 6’0 and 285lbs. His teammate at DT is Michael Brockers who is 6’5/322lbs. You can even argue that Brockers fits the 3-4 DE position a lot better than he does the 4-3 DT, but it gives you an idea of how different the sizes can be. Sheldon Rankins was thought to be an ELITE 4-3 DT coming out of Louisville last season when the Saints took him in the 1st round and he measures out at 6’1/300lbs. One of the greatest DTs to ever play the game was Randy White who stood 6’5/260lbs. Ndamukong Suh is 6’4/305lbs. What you really want out of a 4-3 DT is someone who is in that 6’1-6’4 range who is around 300lbs. The 4-3 base is a bit different than the 3-4 in that the lineman have 1-gap responsibilities. The DT will either fill up the A or B gap and let the edge rusher (4-3 DE) be responsible for the C gap. The LBs of course will take gap responsibilities as well. The 4-3 DT has a few tasks that need to be mentioned. Their first task is to generate inside pressure. This isn’t unlike the interior gap pressure a 3-4 NT will create. This is also why Aaron Donald is so ELITE and why Sheldon Rankins was such a high draft pick. The ability of these players to get that first step quickness through the gap puts extreme pressure on the QB to make quick decisions and the O-line to figure out how to block against that speed. If a 4-3 DT can command a double team it creates a numbers mismatch for the other defenders. The 4-3 DT also has gap responsibility against the run. This is where some size could be needed. Guys like Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh regularly command double teams against the run because they can take up 2 gaps. In a 4-3 set this allows the LBs to hunt even more viciously and will force the runner to cut out requiring more time which allows the DE and LBs to close. Everything I’ve written about QB pressure and turnovers regarding 3-4 DE and 3-4 NT apply to 4-3 DTs. Guys like Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald certainly prove the point of the importance of a 4-3 DT. These guys might be a little more easy to come by because the size requirements aren’t as strict, but finding ELITE level 4-3 DTs is just as challenging as finding 3-4 DEs and 3-4 NTs.

I’ve lumped the interior defensive linemen together instead of separating them out because a lot of their functions are the same. The line between 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses gets blurrier and blurrier all the time, but it’s still useful when looking at constructing a team. If you want to argue that interior D-Linemen are more important then I think you could make a case for them potentially being the #2 option here behind quarterback especially if you want an ELITE DT with pass rushing skills. Guys like JJ Watt and Aaron Donald don’t exactly grow on trees. I also don’t think there is any value gained by separating the positions out. I could potentially see having separate designations for the 3-4 DE and the 3-4 NT because they are a bit different in nature. If given the best of either positions, I’d rank the NT just ahead of the DE because of the incredible mismatches a true 3-4 NT can create, but that proposition is rarely if ever on the table to take on.

#5 – OFFENSIVE TACKLES

There used to be the idea that offensive tackles should be #2 behind quarterbacks. The thinking is that if you have a franchise QB then you obviously want the tackles to protect him or your investment is prone to injury. That line of reasoning has somewhat went by the wayside and I can’t help but wonder if it is because of the tremendous success the Broncos/Colts had with Peyton Manning and the success the Patriots have had with Tom Brady or even the success the Steelers have had with Ben Roethlisberger. None of those teams really had ELITE level tackles guarding Hall of Fame QBs, yet the wins kept piling up as did the championships. And then there are guys like Joe Thomas who are dominant OTs but the Browns can’t win to save their lives. That line of thinking is a bit simplistic in nature, and while I don’t think it’s necessary to make offensive tackles your second priority after your quarterback, I still have them in the top-5 positions to build around. The Tennessee Titans are a good example of a team investing in their tackles. They took Taylor Lewan with their first round draft pick in 2014. In 2016 they took Jack Conklin with their first round draft pick. In between, the Titans took their franchise QB in Marcus Mariota and hope they have bookend tackles for the next 10-12 years.

I’m not going to pretend to be an offensive line guru. It’s one of the areas of scouting that I’m probably most unfamiliar with and I’ve read the O-Line is one of the areas that is difficult to scout. What I do know is that you want a long athletic OT with long arms, big hands, a mean streak and the ability to dance around the field. I do want to point out that there used to be some thinking that left tackles and right tackles are different in nature. Left tackles should be more pass blocking oriented because they protect the QB’s blindside. They need to be a bit lighter and more agile than their counterparts on the right side. Their run blocking skills do not have to be top notch. The reverse is true for the right tackles. These guys need to be adequate in pass protection and completely maulers in the run game as they typically line up on the strong side of the offense. The right tackles aren’t as agile and they are heavier. This line of thinking is starting to become a bit more dated as defenses load up on edge rushers and sometimes put their best pass rushers on the left side of the defense which means guys like Khalil Mack and Von Miller are lining up against the right tackle. If the offense throws out a tradition right tackle, then defenses that line their best pass rusher up against the RT have a distinct advantage by rushing against an inferior pass blocking tackle. Some teams are realizing this. Philadelphia is a good example drafting Lane Johnson to play RT while Jason Peters is still at LT. The aforementioned Titans did the same thing by drafting LT Jack Conklin out of Michigan St. and moving him to RT where he’s already playing like an all-pro. I think this trend will continue as long as there are plenty of edge rushers with enough talent that teams can afford two of them on both sides. It presents a significant problem for the offense.

The added emphasis on pass blocking on the right side does present a conundrum for placing offensive tackles at #5. If truly dominant left tackles are a rare species, and teams now need two of them, doesn’t it serve a team better to prioritize these players higher than #5? Possibly, but I still keep coming back to QBs like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. These guys haven’t had ELITE level tackles playing for them in their careers yet have been great players. Let’s even go back to the Indianapolis Colts during the Peyton Manning era. The Colts never had great draft position because they were winning too much but the Colts definitely emphasized more offensive skill players and O-Linemen instead of defensive playmakers. That’s clearly what they shouldn’t have done as evidenced by the lack of championship banners hanging from Lucas Oil Stadium. With the right QB you can get away with having average offensive tackles and this is why I have them at #5 instead of #2. At the end of the day you want long, big, strong, athletic tackles and you need both to be able to pass block. If you can get two left tackles and move one to the right side, all the better.

#6 – SAFETIES

The safety is the ULTIMATE game changer. There is no way around it. A dominant safety can come up and LAY THE WOOD on an offensive player with a hit so hard it literally changes the momentum of a football game immediately. Safeties can take players out. An elite safety is also a ball-hawking safety that seems to be every where the ball is. A perfect example of this was Tryann Mathieu when he was at LSU. Wherever the ball was, Mathieu was sure to be around. These players are turnover machines with their freelance ability in coverage. They are also turnover machines when it comes to separating runners or receivers from the football. Safeties can also play a huge role in the pass rush by becoming an extra blitzer or rushing the QB on a delayed blitz. Think about the impact Bob Sanders, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu had on games. Their influence was incalculable. In today’s game how important are guys like Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Eric Weddle, Harrison Smith, Landon Collins and Eric Berry. Show me a good defense and I can guarantee you’ll fine elite level safeties. Teams know this too. There is a reason why the Falcons took Keanu Neal and the Raiders took Karl Joseph in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. When HC Dan Quinn of the Falcons sought to replicate the defense he had in Seattle with the Falcons, what player was he trying to build his defense around? Keanu Neal, who he hopes can be the Falcons version of Kam Chancellor. It is worth mentioning that there is some minor differences between free safety and strong safety although lines are being blurred more and more as athletes tend to take on an ubiquitous cadre of responsibilities. This is by no means exhaustive but here is the essential breakdown:

Strong Safety: As you can guess, the strong safety typically lines up on the strong side of the defense. Historically the SS will drop down in the box on obvious run plays and is a big help with the rush defense. He needs to be able to cover the tight end on pass plays because usually that is his man in cover-0, cover-1 or cover-3 defense. The strong safety typically doesn’t have to have elite coverage skills but with so much spread offense being played, the strong safety ability to cover has grown to be more important. There is some size issues here as well. Strong safeties can get away with being short and heavy. Bob Sanders was around 5’9 and about 220lbs. These guys are typically big heaters and seek out contact. Troy Polamalu is another SS who comes to mind and he was about 5’10/215lbs. Strong safeties should also have some “ball-hawking” ability as well. While they don’t roam around as much as free safeties do, they should be where the action in which can obviously turn into interceptions or forced fumbles. An example of a legitimate strong safety might be Tony Jefferson of the Cardinals who is about 5’10/220lbs or Jonathan Cyprien of the Jaguars who is 6’0/220lbs.

Free Safety: If you ever hear an announcer saying a defender is playing center field, he’s typically talking about the free safety. They usually are roaming and looking for ways to change the outcome of a game by making big plays on thrown balls. They need elite coverage skills but as with the strong safety, they need to be able to play hard against the run as well. Historically the free safety hasn’t had all that much responsibility with the run, but with the lines being blurred the free safety needs to have more run skills. A good example of these blurred line is in Seattle with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Both players are ELITE level safeties who are great against the run and the pass. Free safeties are the very definition of ball hawks. An elite free safety will always break on the ball. In theory the free safety should be faster than their strong safety counterparts because free safeties could have responsibilities covering speedy wideouts on passing plays. There are size issues here as well. Free safeties will generally be taller than strong safeties and lighter. They should be a bit more twitched up but that’s debatable. A good example of a true free safety could be San Diego’s Dwight Lowery who is 5’11/195lbs or New England’s Devin McCourty who is 5’11/193lbs. TJ McDonald of the Rams shows us a good example of a free safety being taller at 6’2/215lbs.

I’ve lumped the strong safeties and the free safeties together for purposes of roster construction in this exercise mostly because of the blurred lines. I think in an ideal world everyone would want to create a situation like Seattle has with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, but even that is almost counter to what we’d expect. With Seattle you’d actually call Earl Thomas the free safety despite him being 5’10/200lbs with a 4.48 40-yard dash. Kam Chancellor is a beast of a defensive back at 6’3/232lbs with a 4.70 40-yard dash! Chancellor could almost be considered big enough for a very light 3-4 OLB which is ridiculous considering he plays strong safety. The point is that you can get two very different players physically who represent similar skill sets. Both can be especially good at defending the run or the pass, but both need to be able to defend the run and pass well. This position is a big time game changer. It deserves to rank this high.

#7 – TIGHT ENDS

It’s no surprise that Tight Ends rank highly here given the impact that guys like Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Tyler Eifert, Jordan Reed, Delanie Walker, Greg Olsen and Jason Witten have on outcomes. Going a bit further back we get impacts from Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. In evaluating tight ends I’m not going to spend too much time talking about move tight ends or blocking tight ends. What makes guys like Gronkowski and Witten so amazing is their ability to run block which makes them truly every down tight ends as opposed to someone like Jordan Reed or Greg Olsen who aren’t the best players when it comes to run blocking. Tight ends are massive match up nightmares. Elite tight ends will have sure hands, big size and speed. Rob Gronkowski is a perfect example of a freak athlete at TE. Gronk is a shade over 6’6 and almost 270lbs with 4.70 speed. He’s arguably the greatest TE in NFL history with his health being the only thing truly holding him back. He’s already had 3 seasons over over 1,000 yards receiving and 4 seasons of 10+ TD receptions. This season in limited time he averaged over 21 yards per catch which is absolutely phenomenal. Gronk is a 4-time pro bowler and a 3-time 1st team All-Pro Tight End! With Gronkowski injured this season, Travis Kelce has taken over the title of “Best TE in the NFL.” Kelce is too a freak athlete at 6’5/255lbs with 4.65 speed. The Cincinnati product has been trending upwards for the last couple of years but has truly broken out this season with 1,100+ receiving yards on the year with one game left to play. He’s a GIGANTIC reason the Chiefs are 11-4 with a shot to win the AFC West and in my opinion the most valuable offensive player the Chiefs have. As you can see from Kelce & Gronkowski, size is a big issue. Jimmy Grahma is 6’6/260lbs. Greg Olsen is 6’6/255lbs and Tyler Eifert is 6’5/250lbs. Size can swing the other way though. Jordan Reed is only 6’2/236 while Delanie Walker is 6’1/242lbs. Walker had 4.49 speed though which was a positive. Walker is more of an H-back type of player.

The best part about a TE might be the matchup nightmare they produce. Taking Travis Kelce as an example, he’s almost uncoverable from a size perspective. At 6’5/255lbs with speed, he’s practically untouchable by LBs on underneath routes. At this point not only does Kelce have height but he also has speed on LBs. Against strong safeties coming down to play man coverage, Kelce has height & bulk over a strong safety. The safety should be bulked up enough to take Kelce down, but he’s not tall or big enough to defend Kelce against the pass. This is why a guy like Kam Chancellor is so important. Chancellor is 6’3 which negates Kelce’s height advantage. Having a corner cover Kelce is also a big mismatch. Most corners are sub-6’0 tall which gives Kelce a huge height advantage but Kelce is also going to have at least a 60lbs weight advantage over corners as well. Corners are certainly going to be faster than Kelce, but Kelce can use his body to wall off a defender, make the catch and move the chains. This is what makes a Richard Sherman so valuable. He’s a 6’3 cornerback! All of this is true for a guy like Gronkowski as well except Gronk is an even more devastating matchup nightmare given that he’s approaching 6’7 in height. The potential matchup nightmare associated with size is also why Western Kentucky’s Tyler Higbee was talked about so much last year leading up to the 2016 draft. Higbee is 6’6/250lbs with room to grow but with fantastic ball skills and soft hands. The Rams ended up taking him in the 4th round. He hasn’t done much this season but the potential is there for Higbee to become a game changing tight end.

Tight ends have some responsibility in the running game and I don’t want to diminish that. The TE is going to be on the strong side of the O-line (because he makes it the strong side!) and has the responsibility of sealing off the edge for run plays to his side. You certainly want that in your tight end but some teams have that inline blocking TE on the roster for that specific purpose. These guys are almost like mini left tackles in size. A good example of this might be Pittsburgh’s Jesse James who is 6’7 and close to 270lbs. Houston’s C.J. Fiedorowicz is another good example of a blocking TE which isn’t surprising given that he played at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz. Ideally you want to have a guy like Tyler Eifert who can be a great run blocker but also a fantastic pass catcher. Remember, we are talking about roster construction and having a TE who can do both frees up a player at another position to add more depth. If a team has a pass catching tight end along with a blocking tight end and wants to have adequate backups for both, then 4 roster spots are taken by tight ends which means another position is suffering. More than a few NFL teams employ 4 tight ends although no team has gone with five.

Tight ends are a HUGE part of an offensive attack even if only as a safety valve for a young QB to lean on. I don’t view them as being more important offensively than quarterbacks or offensive tackles, but I think they rank ahead of the other offensive positions. Some of that is the size/skill combination that makes them so difficult to defend. I think another big part of it is position scarcity. Remember that Gronkowski came into the league in 2010. Tyler Eifert, Travis Kelce & Jordan Reed came into the league in 2013. Jason Witten was drafted in 2003 for crying out loud! Greg Olsen came into the league in 2007. That’s the thing with TEs. They are obviously a position you want to have locked up on your roster, but at the same time the truly ELITE tight ends are few and far between. They rank as the 3rd most important position offensively for me, but at the same time I think it’s a position you have to draft when the opportunity arises. If that opportunity does arise, your teams becomes A LOT better in a short amount of time. The tight end position is a big time game changer.

#8 – RUNNING BACKS

The last couple of year Le’Veon Bell has done a superb job of bringing back the importance of the running attack and Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson this year are doing their part to solidify that opinion. The running back position has taken quite a beating recently as far as importance is concerned. This is a development I don’t quite understand from a strategic perspective when it comes to NFL success but more pass happy offenses have left the running back vulnerable in regards to importance. Let’s take a look at some recent drafts and how many RBs were taken in the first couple of rounds:

2016: 1st round – 1 (Elliott); 2nd round – 1 (Henry)
2015: 1st round – 2 (Gurley & Gordon); 2nd round – 2 (Yeldon & Abdullah)
2014: 1st round – 0; 2nd round – 3 (Sankey, Hill & Hyde)
2013: 1st round – 0; 2nd round – 5 (Bernard, Bell, Ball, Lacy, Michael)
2012: 1st round – 3 (Richardson, Martin & Wilson); 2nd round – 2 (Pead & James)
2011: 1st round – 1 (Ingram); 2nd round – 4 (Williams, Vereen, Leshoure & Thomas)
2010: 1st round – 3 (Spiller, Mathews & Best); 2nd round – 4 (McCluster, Gerhart, Tate & Hardesty)

That’s a far cry from 2005 when three RBs were taken in the first five picks or even 1995 when Ki-Jana Carter was the #1 overall pick and five RBs were taken in the first round. The true 3-down RB in the NFL is a rare beast. From a size perspective they need to be in the 5’10-6’1 range and in the 220-230lbs range. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Le’Veon Bell is 6’1/230lbs, Ezekiel Elliott is 6’0/225lbs, David Johnson is 6’1/224lbs and Todd Gurley is 6’1/222lbs. It’s not surprising that LSU’s Leonard Fournette is 6’1/230lbs or Penn St’s Saquon Barkley is 5’11/225lbs. A couple of examples of shorter but very effective backs are LeSean McCoy at 5’10/200lbs or Frank Gore who is 5’9/220lbs. Heck, Barry Sanders & Emmitt Smith were shorter than 5’10. From a talent perspective the 3-down RB needs to have incredible vision, great hands, be able to pass block, have home run speed, but also have short burst speed that gets them up field in a hurry. Elite backs DO NOT fumble! Guys like Bell, Elliott and D.Johnson check all the boxes which is why they are so dynamic.

The bigger picture for me here is clock management. Running the football takes time off the clock. Typically runners don’t go out of bounds which would stop the clock. A running play isn’t a passing play obviously which means the clock doesn’t stop for an incomplete pass. Running the football not only eats up the clock but it keeps the opposing offense on the sidelines. If an opponent’s offense can’t get on the field, they can’t score points. Remember that almost everyone said that the way to beat a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady or an Aaron Rodgers is not allow them to be on the field. This is done by limiting their time on the field by running out the clock. Running the football also tires out a defense by keeping them on the field too long. A tired defense is a very vulnerable defense. Getting run on is also demoralizing. It means your team is getting hammered at the point of attack. The offensive team is winning in the trenches and as the first downs pile up, the defense gets weaker and weaker. The weaker the defense the easier it is for the offense to score.

Keep in mind also that a team who can run the ball effectively is going to score on a tired defense. This means that the team is typically playing from a lead. This forces the opponent to play a bit reckless by making the offense more pass oriented. This serves a couple of purposes. The first is that a team who is always passing is susceptible to a quick 3 and out which puts the defense right back on the field which means more playing time which means more fatigue. What a passing offense coming from behind also has to deal with is a defense who now can pin their ears back and get after the QB at will. This of course leads to potential turnovers where the defense becomes completely demoralized and the offense has the opportunity to break the game wide open. A secondary advantage to a dominant running game is that the passing game opens up considerably. This isn’t unlike what we see in Kansas City with Travis Kelce getting so much yardage via the passing game. It also shouldn’t be lost on anyone that LeGarrette Blount has rushed for over 1,000 yards and leads the NFL in rushing TDs. Defenses certainly have to account for Tom Brady which opens up the running lanes for Blount, but if a defense keys in on stopping Blount then Tom Brady can go to serious work. The strategic advantages of having a true skilled 3-down RB are so many that you almost have to wonder why this position isn’t more valued and if it shouldn’t rank #2 on the list! Afterall, strategic advantage is one of the reasons why edge rushers and defensive linemen rank so high. Why not running backs as well?

This of course begs the question of whether the Cowboys made the right move in drafting Ezekiel Elliott with the #4 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft given the other needs the Cowboys were facing. Given my ranking of the positions, the Cowboys didn’t need a QB because of Tony Romo. Dak Prescott worked out as a 4th round pick but that is certainly now the way Jerry Jones envisioned it. Joey Bosa was taken 3rd overall an the next edge rusher off the board was Shaq Lawson to the Bills at #19. The #4 pick was too rich for Lawson. You can argue that Dallas needed help on their defensive line and the highest drafted defensive lineman was DeForest Buckner, but that was a bad fit because Buckner is a 3-4 DE and the Cowboys utilize a base 4-3. The next guy off was Sheldon Rankins who went #12 to the Saints. I love Rankins but taking him #4 was too high. Aaron Donald back in 2014 was the #13 overall pick. Even JJ Watt lasted until pick #11!!! Rankins at #4 was simply too high. This leads to corner. I think the Cowboys felt OK here with Orlando Scandrick coming back from injury to go with Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr. Having Byron Jones at safety also helped and I think this led Dallas away from taking a Jalen Ramsey or Vernon Hargreaves. OT was a non-starter given that Dallas already had Tyron Smith and Doug Free book ending the line. Grabbing Laremy Tunsil at #4 would have been an interesting move that would have made Dallas’ O-Line even stronger if that were possible, but the need wasn’t there. Safety was a dead issue. The Cowboys used a 1st round draft pick in 2015 on Byron Jones. Tight End was covered by Jason Witten. That leaves running back and Ezekiel Elliott.

In retrospect it was a pretty genius move although at the time it seemed improbably because the Cowboys already had Darren McFadden on the roster and they had just acquired Alfred Morris from the Redskins. Why take on another RB which would be 3 chefs in one kitchen? I think the answer is two-fold. McFadden is getting older and has been injury prone in the past. If McFadden goes down then Dallas would be without a RB. I think this is some of the reason why Morris was acquired, but the problem with Morris is that he’s not much when it comes to pass catching out of the backfield. That’s a situational player. Elliott comes along as a legitimate 3-down back who loves to block. Elliott will also be 21 years old for the 2016 season. You know who else was 21 their rookie season in the NFL? Emmitt Smith! You wonder if Jerry Jones didn’t see visions of Emmitt Smith in his head when Elliott was sitting there at #4. It’s easy to look at Emmitt has the all-time leading rusher, but if you play close attention you’ll note that Dallas won 3 Super Bowls in Emmitt’s first 6 seasons. In those first 6 seasons, Emmitt made the Pro-Bowl all 6 years and was 1st Team All-Pro for four of those seasons. Emmitt would play for another 9 years, but would only make 2 Pro Bowls during the period. Emmitt averaged 4.5ypc those first 6 seasons. In his last 9 years he averaged 3.9ypc. In those first 6 seasons, Smith led the league in rushing 4 times and led the league in rushing TDs 3 times. He never led the league again in either category. In fact, he would only have 3 seasons in his final 9  where he rushed for at last 10TD. It’s also amazing to break down Dallas’ record during Smith’s first 6 years and his other 7 years in Dallas. In his first 6 years the Cowboys went 67-29 and won 3 Super Bowls, won 4 division titles and went to 4 conference championship games. In his last 7 years the Cowboys went 49-63 made the playoffs only three times, won one division title and won exactly one playoff game. When Emmitt left for Arizona, the Cardinals went 10-22 in his two seasons in red.

I think the Elliott pick also served noticed that Dallas knew their own weaknesses. Remember back in 1990 when Emmitt Smith was a rookie, Dallas already had in place Troy Aiman, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek, Daryl Johnston, Nate Newton, Mark Tuinei, and Mark Stepnoski on offense. The Cowboys would use future drafts to pick up guys like Alvin Harper, Russell Maryland, Darren Woodson, Erik Williams and Larry Allen. They’d acquire pieces like Deion Sanders. In the same way, Dallas already has their offense in place to protect Elliott and let him thrive. It also serves notice to strategic player acquisition on the Cowboys part. If Elliott can be the RB they need him to be, then Dallas is going to be able to score a lot points while grinding down the clock. If the defense is a perceived weakness, then Dallas can minimize the risk and damage taken on by the defense by limited their time on the field. Drafting Elliott has to work of course. He couldn’t have turned into another Trent Richardson, but I wonder if that is why the Cowboys hedged their bets by keeping McFadden on the roster and grabbing Alfred Morris.

We are using a great deal of hindsight in all of this and as everyone knows, hindsight is always 20/20, but given the circumstances, drafting Elliott as high as #4 was actually a risk the Cowboys could afford to take and it has paid off in spades. I have the RB position #8 on my list and I think that’s appropriate. Given the pass happy offenses of the day, the RB position can’t be as high as the QB and it’s a well known adage that defenses win championships. I think however that at just the right time and place, the RB position can truly be a game changing position for a team building a roster, but only after the other pieces are in place. Without the other pieces, I think the RB is exposed too much and is too easy to contain. The NFL stands for NOT FOR LONG and beating up your RB is a quick way to get him out of the league. RBs probably only have 6-7 great years in them and those years are usually the first years they are in the league. This means if you take a RB high, your team needs to be ready to roll when he gets inside the building. This is what happened exactly with Elliott. It’s also why the Cardinals need to take advantage of David Johnson as much as they can as well as the Steelers with Le’Veon Bell.  The clock is ticking.

#9 – WIDE RECEIVERS

The playmakers! I’m not going to spend too much time on receivers. I have them at #9 because I think you need a lot of other things in place besides wideouts. That doesn’t mean to say they are unimportant, but it’s easy to look at them and wonder just how important they are. Recently think about the great receivers we’ve had. Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Chad Johnson, AJ Green, Julio Jones, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Brandon Marshall, Odell Beckham, the list goes on and on. What do none of them have? A Super Bowl ring! The Patriots won the Super Bowl two years ago with Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell being their top two wide receivers. The 2013 Seahawks won the Super Bowl with Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin being the top-2 receivers and that Seahawks team did not feature a receiver with 1,000 yards or a receiver with 10TD catches. Peyton Manning has made players like Brandon Stokely & Austin Collie legitimate threats while Tom Brady has done the same with guys like Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. Look at what Adam Thielen has done in Minnesota this year. Cole Beasley is Dallas’ leading receiver despite the fact the Cowboys also have Dez Bryant and Jason Witten!

It’s not that receivers are less important, it’s that they don’t seem to affect championships and it seems clearer and clearer that good hands, excellent route running and high football IQ might be better measures of judging wide receiver talent than just raw size and speed. Calvin Johnson is probably the most physically gifted WR in the history of the NFL. He has no championships. On the other hand, some people considered Jerry Rice a slow receiver and all he did was win championships and catch pass after pass after pass after pass. If speed was the only thing that mattered, then track athletes would be NFL receivers, but we know that rarely equals success on the gridiron.

I also don’t want to spend too much time on size. Antonio Brown isn’t even 6’0 tall and yet he’s the best WR in the game. Steve Smith is a Hall of Fame WR and has done it all at 5’9. The 6’4/220lbs receivers are always going to get your attention especially if they a running 4.4 forty-yard times, but size isn’t the end all be all for receivers. More or less I think wide receivers are situational players to build around. They aren’t unlike running backs in this way. If they are a final piece to the puzzle then I think it’s OK to draft them. If a once in a generation prospect comes along then maybe you want to risk drafting a WR, but if you are building a team, I would venture to say the receiver is the least of your concerns. Their personalities most of the time would tell you different, but receivers are more like complimentary pieces than centerpieces. Because of this I think you can get away with players who are great route runners who have great hands with high football IQ. Remember, offenses want to move the chains. Getting big players vertically is outstanding and you certainly want to stretch defenses to keep them honest, but at the same time getting 5 yards per carry moves the sticks and that’s all that is needed.

I do want to mention a couple of strategic points about receivers. The first concerns big tall wideouts. When you get close to the endzone, a lot of times you’ll look for one on one matchups with corners and allow your receiver to high point the football. That is A LOT easier to do when the receiver is 6’4 instead of 5’10. I also think there is merit to having possession receivers with big physical size because they can wall off defensive backs. The Vikings drafted Laquon Treadwell with this in mind. The last point I want to make regarding strategy is the dinking and dunking that some teams do offensively that moves the chains in a similar way that the running game does. The Patriots have used this approach effectively over the years and I think it’s a viable option although it adds to devaluing big time wideouts that are very costly in building a roster. Again, I think receivers are complimentary pieces. The mid-1990s Dallas Cowboys were going to be great with or without Michael Irvin. Irvin was a piece that took the Cowboys from great to historically great.

#10 – LINEBACKERS

Given the mythology of the LB position in the NFL, it seems absurd to think this position could be this low, but it makes some sense when it comes to team building. I also think a lot of linebacker mythology exists because of pass rushing linebackers and I exclude them from this position. These linebackers are the 4-3 LBs and the 3-4 ILBs. Edge rushers, or the 3-4 OLBs, are excluded from this particular analysis. In order to appreciate where I’m going with this, we need to first understand a little bit about the position. By no means are these explanations exhaustive. Volumes have been written about NFL positions. I’m trying my best to simplify them in the most basic and most concise way possible. Let’s start with the three LBs in a 4-3 base. These LBs are known as the SAM, the MIKE and the WIL:

SAM LB: The SAM LB as you can guess is the strongside LB in a 4-3 scheme. As with the strong safety, the SAM lines up on the strong side which is typically the side the TE lines up for the offense. Teams are usually right dominant so the SAM LB will line up on the left side of the defense. In theory these guys are the bigger more physical LBs. We are talking about guys who are 6’1-6’3 reaching upwards of 250lbs. Reggie Ragland at 6’2/255lbs is a good example of a possible SAM LB although Ragland plays ILB in a 3-4 scheme both at Alabama and now with the Buffalo Bills. The SAM LB must be stout against the run. He needs to be a big time physical player who can shed blocks from opposing TEs and OLs. The SAM LB will also be asked to drop into coverage against the TE on occasion. When teams sub-package their nickle defense, the SAM LB is typically replaced with a DB who is usually the nickle CB.

MIKE LB: The MIKE LB is the middle LB. The MIKE is usually the captain of the defense and probably should be the most versatile of the linebackers. He needs to be big and physical at the point of attack to defend against the run but he also needs to be agile enough to drop into coverage and cover the intermediate middle of the defense. Legitimate MLBs aren’t exactly easy to come by. Carolina’s Luke Kuechley is a good example of one. Kuechley is 6’3/243lbs. Bobby Wagner of Seattle is another fantastic example of a MLB. Wagner is 6’0/241lbs. I think MIKE LBs should be great at reading offensive formations, making the right calls for the defense and pursuing the football. They need to read and react very quickly. I think MIKEs are the best when they are on the hunt.

WIL LB: The WIL LB is the weakside LB. Obviously they play on the opposite side of where the TE plays and they need to be your lightest and fastest LB of the group. An interesting phenomena is happening in the NFL now in that the WIL LB is almost forming a sort of hybrid WIL/S type of position. Mark Barron has done this in LA. Barron is 6’1/213lbs. Deone Bucannon who is 6’1/211lbs has also become somewhat of a hybrid S/WIL for the Cardinals. The WIL needs to be more athletic. He doesn’t have to be as big because he’s not taking on as much heat from the TE or potential O-Linemen but he needs to be able to have the speed to chase runners down from the backside and he also needs to be fast to rush the QB from the blindside. The WIL also needs to be able to drop into coverage against the slot receiver at times. In this past draft Myles Jack from UCLA was thought to be an outstanding WIL LB prospect. He was 6’1/245lbs which creams SAM LB or MIKE LB, but his 4.55 speed made him that much more valuable as a WIL who could get extremely physical. Jaylon Smith at 6’2/223lbs was thought to be another elite WIL LB prospect before hurting his knee at Notre Dame.

In a 3-4 scheme the terminology is a little different. The 3-4 OLBs are typically called a Buck and Jack LBs. They are sort hybrid LB/DE. In a 3-4 scheme the ILBs can either be a MIKE and SAM or a MIKE and WIL. The responsibilities are essentially the same as described above, but I think the ILBs in a 3-4 scheme are more hunters than their 4-3 counterparts. In a 3-4 you almost have 5 D-Lineman if you count the 3-4OLBs as edge rushers. This is where I think the superiority of the 3-4 shines. If the 3-4 DE can seal the edge of the line and the OLBs can diagnose run, the 3-4 ILBs become purely read and react and can hunt the gaps and close the distance on RBs. Having effective D-Linemen only make this job easier. If these ILBs can diagnose pass fairly quickly then you have 2 players who can drop into intermediate coverage or pick up guys crossing over the middle.

The beauty of the defensive assignment for LBs is also one of the reasons why I rank them 10th. Linebackers are at their best when they have supporting players who are doing their job which makes the LBs more able to do precisely what they should be doing. In a 3-4 scheme, the ILBs can’t really do a good job if the OLBs and the D-line is terrible. It puts too much pressure on the LBs to pick up the slack. The same is true in the 4-3 scheme. If the D-Linemen can’t hold up then the MIKE & SAM are almost taken out of the plays by bigger offensive linemen before the plays even begin. It’s a brutally difficult proposition for LBs to succeed in. As with receivers, I think these are more complimentary pieces when building a defense. This certainly goes against linebacker mythology, but when building a team, it’s the smart way to go.

#11 – INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

I’m not going to separate out guards and centers in this analysis. Much like LTs and RTs, I think for drafting purposes we can lump in interior defensive linemen together although I suppose you could make an argument that the center position is probably a bit more important to team success than either guards. Interior linemen are historically needed for their mauling ability in the run. You certainly want to have guards and a center who can pass protect, but run blocking is what these guys should be best at to open up holes in the middle and allow for runners to get north and south up the middle. I do want to mention that this notion is changing just a bit. As with LT and RT become indistinguishable due to teams lining up their best pass rusher opposite the RT, teams are also starting to value DTs with inside rushing ability. The reaction of course is to have more athletic guards and centers who can pass block as well as run block to protect against interior defensive linemen with that very quick initial first step through the gap.

As with the offensive tackles, I’m not going to pretend I know the intricacies of offensive line play. I do think it’s interesting lately to see how things have played out within the draft. In 2016 the Colts took Ryan Kelly to be their future center and to grow with Andrew Luck, no doubt trying to replicate the magic that Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday had. Of course, Saturday was an undrafted player for what it’s worth. Is this a matter of the Colts being proactive with Kelly or reaching for something that happens more organically? Cleveland did the same thing with Cameron Irving the year before. The Cowboys made it a priority to draft both Zach Martin & Travis Frederick although both guys were mid (Martin) and late (Frederick) first round picks. This of course lends itself to the question of whether or not the interior offensive linemen should be more valuable when building a team than the running back considering the success the Cowboys have had with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott AFTER THE FACT of the O-Line being in place. Then again, the 49ers were roundly criticized for taking Josh Garnett at the end of the first round in 2016.

Either way you slice it, I think it makes the most sense for the interior offensive linemen to rank last. The interesting part is that you can make a serious argument that the offensive line is the most important unit on an entire football team. I think position scarcity and availability have something to do with these guys ranking this low, but if I had to build a team, I think these three positions would be the three I would value least which isn’t to say they aren’t extremely valuable. If anything this exercise has taught me, it’s that there are no unimportant positions.

SUMMARY

In summary here would be my rankings of the positions most important to build around:

1. QB
2. Edge Rushers
3. CB
4. Interior D-Line
5. OT
6. Safeties
7. TE
8. RB
9. WR
10. LB
11. Interior O-Line

There are things I’ve obviously left out, but this is the basic proposition I’ll work off when it comes to the 2017 NFL Draft and team needs. It’s not perfect by any definition but it is close enough to make some educated guesses concerning the direction of teams and how they might look to draft in 2017.

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December 29, 2016 - Posted by | Decision Making, Game Theory, NFL, NFL Draft, Statistics, Strategy

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