NFL Draft 2016: Which Position Has Been Most Difficult to Evaluate?

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Every year, I gather over 40 big boards from respected draft analysts to determine a general consensus on which players are the best in any draft class. While that is the most obvious and useful application of generating a wide consensus, it also allows us to categorize different types of analysts, figure out which players are the most polarizing and which positions groups are the deepest.

It also allows us to conduct analysis on whether or not we can add a dimension to the typical “best player available” or “need” debate by introducing the concept of “player scarcity”—the idea that even if a player isn’t the best player or highest need, he may be the best pick because there are no other great players left after him at his position.

Today, we’ll look at which positions have caused the most contentiousness for evaluators. In this case, it means seeing how often evaluators disagree on the positional rankings for players.

The simplest explanation could be that those positions might be the toughest to evaluate.

As an example, if everyone agreed that Laremy Tunsil was the top tackle, that Ronnie Stanley was the second-best tackle and that Taylor Decker and Jack Conklin followed in order, then tackles would not be a contentious position group. On the other hand, if different analysts had wide variance between those players—say some had Conklin first, some had Tunsil third and so on—then that would not only be a contentious position group, but uniquely difficult to evaluate.

Yesterday, we quickly looked at which position groups were the deepest and deeper position groups naturally mean a greater variance in rankings, so after adjusting for that we can look at the variance of how each player ranked among their peers and then sum the individual variances for each position group.

If analysts disagree on the positional ranking of a player, that alone may tell you much about the player. There could be different interpretations of injury concerns or athletic ability at the extremes—positive or negative. They may be a boom-bust player or, alternatively, offer very little upside.

The simplest explanation could be that those positions might be the toughest to evaluate.

Here’s the average variance (variance is simply the average difference among a set of numbers… so we’re looking at the average of an average) in positional rankings for each position:

Position Total
S 2.97
OG 2.64
ID 2.19
OB 1.52
WR 1.47
CB 1.34
RB 1.11
TE 0.85
ED 0.70
OT 0.57
QB 0.55
C 0.44

You’d think that having one offensive line position at the top would also come with other offensive line positions near the top, but that isn’t the case here—people aren’t really disagreeing on how to evaluate offensive linemen, it just so happens that the guards people evaluate are not obviously dominant.

It’s no surprise that safeties are at the top; those should be the most difficult to evaluate, especially if one is using the broadcast to make an initial assessment. Often, safeties cannot be seen until well after the play starts, and their responsibilities in the run game aren’t obvious from scheme to scheme.

People seem to agree on centers. Not many individual boards had someone other than Alabama’s Ryan Kelly as their top center, and about as many boards had Notre Dame’s Nick Kelly as their second center. Even down the line, USC’s Max Tuerk was generally graded right behind Michigan State’s Jack Allen.

Quarterbacks had their own consensus third place (Paxton Lynch) and though there’s a lot of debate between Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, analysts were comfortable rating them 1-2 in some order, meaning the variance was generally pretty low. Connor Cook was also a pretty consistent fourth, with about as many people ranking him fourth as there were ranking Carson Wentz second among quarterbacks.

Tackles (Laremy Tunsil-Ronnie Stanley-Jack Conklin/Taylor Decker-Jason Spriggs) followed the same pattern, as did edge defenders (Joey Bosa-Shaq Lawson-Noah Spence/Kevin Dodd-Emmanuel Ogbah/Jonathan Bullard), with only a few disagreements as to positional ranks.

Each analyst has his favorites

As for guards, safeties and interior defenders, the rankings were pretty wild. The only consistently ranked guards were Cody Whitehair (first in his group) and Joshua Garnett (consistently receiving second or third). Vadal Alexander and Landon Turner both made the top 100, but each of them garnered multiple rankings between second and 19th, with Corey Chavous of DraftNasty even ranking Landon Turner as the 23rd-best guard in his class.

At safety, the top spot could have gone to Jeremy Cash, Darian Thompson, Keanu Neal, Vonn Bell or Karl Joseph, and all five of them got multiple #1 rankings. Of note, Jalen Ramsey—universally the best overall defensive back in the draft—is coded as a cornerback,where NFL analyst Mike Mayock moved him in his most recent positional rankings—but even if Ramsey was moved to safety, safety would still be the most volatile position group.

Those five safeties also had multiple rankings in the teens, as well. Jalen Mills and Sean Davis both grabbed a #1 ranking from an analyst, but were at least more consistent overall than those other five.

Each analyst has his favorites.

The interior defender ranking shouldn’t be a huge surprise either. While analysts do generally like Sheldon Rankins and Andrew Billings, a number of analysts strongly disagree on Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, Chris Jones, Javon Hargrave and DeForest Buckner. Buckner, Rankins, Billings and Robinson all earned pretty consistent spots in the top three, but Robinson and Buckner had that balanced out by rankings near tenth. Ethan Young even ranked A’Shawn Robinson as his 18th-best interior defensive player.

For the Vikings and their fans, most relevant are the wide receivers and off-ball linebackers, who sport generally average variance. For receivers, the only player that was consistent was Ohio State’s Michael Thomas, earning third, fourth or fifth among receivers pretty frequently. At off-ball linebacker, it was Myles Jack, earning near-unanimous #1 plaudits among his peers.

People did not know what to do with Jaylon Smith’s injury, and he ranked between #1 and #10, though usually fourth or fifth. Corey Coleman was even harder to place for people, as he traversed the ranks between first and eighth, with one analyst (Kyle Crabbs of NDT Scouting) ranking him 16th among receivers and 141st overall.

many might find it surprising that most boards ranked him as the top receiver

Kentrell Brothers was nobody’s favorite, but whether or not he was above-average or awful was up for significant debate. The same was true for Deion Jones, though analysts tended to trend a little more pessimistic for him. Reggie Ragland hovered between second and sixth, but that didn’t prevent analysts from slotting him below that at times.

Most fans are familiar with the debate surrounding Laquon Treadwell, though many might find it surprising that most boards ranked him as the top receiver. He still ended up as a high-variance player, however, because of how many dropped him heavily for his performance at the combine, and Treadwell had to deal with ranks from fifth to ninth.

And of course, deciding who was second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh among Josh Doctson, Tyler Boyd, Will Fuller, Braxton Miller and Leonte Carroo was never consistent—again, with only Michael Thomas maintaining a steady position—and a few analysts even put Sterling Shepard into the mix as the third or fourth-best receiver.

With all this in mind, it will be important to remember that if a team passes on a player that’s the “consensus” third-best at his position to choose someone less impressive at another position of need, it may not only be because they disagree with the consensus—they could just be more sure of their evaluation.

After all, it’s their job on the line and they are stewarding an organization’s most valuable asset: a first-round draft pick. It pays to be sure.

Listen to Arif every week on THE ANDY LUKE & ARIF FOOTBALL MACHINE!

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