Should the Vikings Prioritize Cornerback Or Edge Rusher In the Draft?

Photo Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Over at Wide Left, I collated two weeks’ worth of mock drafts to get a general sense of how experts anticipated the Minnesota Vikings’ draft going. To my surprise, over half of them picked an edge rusher for Minnesota with the 11th selection, leaving quarterback and cornerback for later in the draft.

Because the Vikings don’t have a third-round pick, their ability to fulfill their needs in the first two days of the draft is limited. Either they’d need to trade down to recoup that pick or find another way to add another Day 2 selection.

Absent that or a substantial investment in free agency, they’ll be left at a crossroads in the draft. The Vikings could grab their quarterback and sacrifice an opportunity to build the defense. Or they could invest in this year’s playoff prospects by grabbing two players who could improve the unit and prepare for a postseason run.

This week, we’ll assume the latter scenario and discuss the difficulty of choosing between edge rusher and cornerback.

At first, it might seem pretty easy to think that the priority placed on edge rusher is a product of pure talent. After all, if the edge rushers in this year’s draft are more talented than the cornerbacks, shouldn’t a team just outside of the top 10 take the edge rusher?

A survey of mock drafts thus far – there is no meaningful consensus big board yet – tells us this may be what’s happening. At GrindingTheMocks, an average of three edge rushers get selected before the first cornerback. The consensus mock draft at the NFLMockDraftDatabase has two edge rushers go before the first cornerback, with the third shortly after.

But mock drafts aren’t really the same as a measure of pure talent, even in the aggregate. Checking big boards from big media organizations reveals a bit of a split – about 40% of them rank their top cornerback above their top edge rusher.

There has been a slight bias for edge rushers in mock drafts over their board position. That’s not a bad thing; it reveals that draft analysts believe the NFL prioritizes the edge position more than cornerback. That’s certainly the case with more extreme examples, like at quarterback.

In the abstract, does that assumption hold up?

Studies of the past several drafts bear it out. Edge rushers consistently get picked over cornerbacks in the NFL draft. Interestingly, this seems to contradict the modern understanding of positional value; cornerbacks tend to matter more in determining the outcome of NFL games. That holds true for prospects; the average draft prospect at cornerback will produce more wins above replacement than at edge rusher.

So, if the two players are relatively close in talent, the Vikings should opt for a cornerback, right? Or, ideally, bait a team into drafting an edge rusher by trading down and selecting a cornerback in the process.

But that’s not necessarily the correct approach. The draft isn’t about selecting the most valuable player with your first pick; it’s about producing the best class of players. If the dropoff in talent at cornerback is smaller going into the second round than at edge rusher, then it makes sense to pick an edge rusher earlier and a cornerback later.

Again, there’s not a ton of conclusive evidence for this in this year’s draft. The GrindingTheMocks aggregate suggests that there are three edge rushers and three cornerbacks in the 30 to 50 range. The consensus mocks at NFLMockDraftDatabase suggest something similar.

This isn’t perfect. If fewer cornerbacks fit the Vikings’ system projected to go in the second round, there’s more scarcity at the position than the mock draft aggregates suggest. On top of that, mock draft data that rely on mock drafts with at least two rounds will be unreliable; there simply are not many mock drafts that go beyond the first round.

Still, it gives us some idea of the landscape of this year’s draft. Would you rather have Dallas Turner and Kamari Lassiter or Kool-Aid McKinstry and Chop Robinson?

Aside from how cool the names in the second group are, that is.

Of course, the draft isn’t as simple as that, either. There are other considerations. If a front office attempts to maximize value throughout the draft, pure talent isn’t a useful metric, nor is raw positional value.

Instead, the draft is the best opportunity teams have to sign superstars to underpaid contracts. That’s not wonderful for high performers on rookie contracts, but it’s great for teams. And because edge rushers are worth more on the market than cornerbacks – for better or worse – there’s more “surplus value” to be extracted from the edge rusher position.

Chart courtesy Pro Football Focus

Evaluation confidence doesn’t really play a role here, either. From 2013 to 2017, an equal number of edge rushers and cornerbacks were selected in the first round. There was a one-player difference in hit rate (defined by 33rd team as “receiving a second contract”). That said, the data on this question is difficult to parse; work at Philly Cover Corner found, perhaps ironically, that cornerback had the largest miss rate in the first round of the draft.

Pro Football Focus’ look at hit rate by round and position suggested that cornerbacks dropped off more than any other position from the first round into the second using success rate (finding a star or a starter) and average value. But edge rusher came in a close second.

Ultimately, the data suggests that the Vikings can’t go wrong prioritizing one position over the other in this year’s draft. That’s a pretty rare situation.

But I still think they should pick a corner.

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