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Is conventional wisdom right about “premium positions” and what does it mean for the Packers?

Brian Gutekunst will likely look for long-term solutions at linebacker, offensive tackle, and receiver this offseason. Positional value data can help determine how to structure their search.

Are offensive tackles like Bryan Bulaga really still premium position players? Some new data casts doubt.
| Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

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When Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going,” she wasn’t talking about NFL teams. Then again, she wasn’t not talking about them. To figure out where the Green Bay Packers need to go, they must first decide what they’ve been — where they’re strong and where they’re weak. Setting a plan to fix those and stacking the order of priority, requires understanding not only the degree to what a need exists, but the value of potentially fixing it. Such a task requires a stance on positional value. Adding a B+ player at one position is not the same as adding a B+ player at another.

In order to assess the quality of the roster or to stack a draft board, positional value must be understood. A team’s hole at receiver looms larger than a team’s hole at linebacker, even if they have comparable backups capable of playing. At least that’s conventional wisdom.

The premium positions are quarterback, edge rusher (though now we could say the broader “pass rusher” to include interior players), offensive tackle, receiver, and cornerback. They’re players worth high first-round selections, prioritized by teams because of their impact on the game relative to other positions.

Left off that list: guards, interior defenders (or run-defending edge players), centers, running backs, tight ends, and safeties. But is that right? Conventional wisdom lurches forward, always chasing behind the reality it is meant to represent.

To find out, I took an average of the top 30 players at each position over the last three seasons based on Sports Info Solutions “Total Points” metric. For a more in-depth explanation of what that means, you can find it here, but the high-level view is relatively straightforward. Based on individual impact on a given play, Total Points uses historical win probability and EPA data to decide how much credit each player gets for a specific play. In other words, a nine-yard pass on 1st-and-10 has some value. Total Points attempts to measure which plays had impact on that play and how much, to quantify the value of a player on a given play.

Think of it as a Pro Football Focus grade, but with tangible value attached. A quarterback who makes a perfect throw to a receiver still gets credit for the throw if it’s dropped even though the play doesn’t count. This works even for players who don’t accumulate traditional statistics. SIS tracks factors like blown blocks for offensive linemen and pressures for defensive players.

They’re not in the box score, but they matter. And their goal is to measure just how much they matter. From there, we can look at how much each position tends to impact the game, who offers the most vs. the least.

The results are surprisingly unsurprising. In terms of average value created, here is how the positions ranked over a three-year average:

  • QB — 75 Points Earned

(Enormous gap)

  • EDGE — 41.9 Points Saved
  • LB — 40.46 Points Saved
  • CB — 39.84 Points Saved
  • WR — 35.88 Points Earned
  • S — 34.81 Points Saved
  • OT — 31.18 Points Earned
  • G — 28.52 Points Earned
  • TE — 27.9 Points Earned
  • DL — 26.76 Points Saved
  • C — 23.8 Points Earned
  • RB — 21.25 Points Earned

If we include only the best players at the position, the only place we see change would be to swap running backs and centers. In other words, outliers at the top don’t make significant impact on how we think about these positions.

That tells teams not to chase aberrations like Aaron Donald by drafting interior defensive linemen early. To wit, the second-best defensive linemen in 2019 in value would have been 23rd among edge defenders. A team like Green Bay, who may be looking to bolster the defensive front, likely won’t find an impact interior defender at all, which makes using valuable draft capital on one a fool’s errand. They’re almost certainly not going to impact the game like Donald, and if that’s true, they’re far less valuable that premium position players who could be drafted with those picks.

Speaking of premium positions, four of the five stand at the top, with only offensive tackle out of the mix. One potential explanation for that stems from the inherent flaw in the grading process. That’s not a shot at SIS, but measuring blown blocks or pass block win rate only evaluates outcomes, not process. That is, in part, a flaw of the metric itself: it only tells what happened, not how it happened.

On the other hand, by not separating themselves from the field based on factors like blown blocks, the separation between top tackles and serviceable ones may not be as big as we otherwise think. On the edge, the top pass rusher last year, T.J. Watt, saved almost twice as many points as the 16th-best edge, but the top offensive tackle, Andrew Whitworth, earned just 17% more points than the 16th-best tackle. Not only are the best players more impactful, they separate themselves even more from the field.

This doesn’t mean drafting a tackle with a high pick is necessarily wrong, particularly with the need for two on literally every offensive play, but this data indicates the separation between the ‘best’ and the ‘good’ players isn’t significant. These findings dovetail with a recent push to categorize sacks as something closer to a quarterback stat than on offensive linemen. The reason the Packers can have the best Pass Block Win Rate in football and still have a mediocre pressure rate/sack numbers rests at the capable feet of Aaron Rodgers.

It could mean the Packers wouldn’t be risking much letting Bryan Bulaga go and replacing him with an average player whether through free agency or the draft. Even if Billy Turner would be the 28th-best right tackle in this scenario, the value he brings wouldn’t be significantly lower than Bulaga, even if he’s theoretically 8th.

Also of particular interest to the Packers, linebacker parachutes into the top of this list in perhaps the most surprising findings of this thought experiment. A whopping seven off-ball linebackers earned more Points Saved than Aaron Donald last year and the position came in ahead cornerbacks and receivers in terms of value. As I wrote earlier this month, the most compelling part of this for Green Bay comes in not having a linebacker anywhere near the top-30 in 2019. They’re behind the rest of the league at the position.

But are they really more impactful than cornerbacks or receivers?

This could be once again due to sample bias. A cornerback, for example, covering a receiver who doesn’t get the ball, doesn’t get the same credit as a cornerback who may have allowed more separation but recovers in time to make a play. Ditto for a receiver who doesn’t get the ball, though the top receivers get the ball their way 150+ times a season.

In some ways though, that’s the argument in favor of linebackers as valuable: they’re more inimitable because they can impact the game in all facets, in the run game, coverage, and blitzing. It’s hard for a play to exist at all without the impact of a linebacker in some way. Edge rushers can only affect the game in two ways. Receivers can catch and block, but can’t throw passes to themselves. Linebackers necessarily must play all phases. The problem is very few players effectively can do it, so is it worth to expend considerable capital to get them?

Perhaps we have to view linebackers similarly to the way view quarterbacks in fantasy football. The ones at the top are very good and useful to winning, but the 20th best one is going to put up numbers and you can get good ones almost anywhere. Draft Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers (when he was the MVP), early or wait for Matt Ryan in the 10th round.

According to a fascinating Pro Football Focus data study, the league is bad at determining which linebackers are good and which ones aren’t, even relative to their similar failings at other positions (they’re actually pretty good at identifying cornerbacks, for example). If Patrick Queen or Kenneth Murray are there and they love them, take one. If not, they’re not giving up much as a risk proposition waiting for later in the draft based on PFF’s historical analysis. They could still get a good player.

When looking at the positions that matter most according to these numbers, the Packers built a strong stable at four of six spots. If the premium positions don’t truly include offensive tackle, there’s a better case to subvert that need in favor of one of the more valuable positions. If the Packers were looking for an excuse to justify taking a linebacker early in the draft or expending considerable resources on a player like Corey Littleton in free agency, this would be it.

The two positions the Packers lack most according in those top groups according to this analysis jibes with how we view this team anecdotally heading into the offseason: linebacker and receiver need some work. In Green Bay, that’s all that matters, but it some ways it may be nice to have evidence saying upgrading those positions will likely have a bigger impact on their team than other positions they could bolster.

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