Offense or Defense: What Do You Draft?

Quarterbacks always have the inside track when it comes to being selected at the top of the draft board. But that aside, do NFL teams favor one side of the ball or the other when drafting? Do teams prefer to load up at a position early in the draft and then ignore that position later in the draft, or vice versa? This article addresses those issues through the examination of the 2005 through 2014 drafts. Offense vs. Defense While there might be short-term fluctuations due to supply or demand at a position, over time it is reasonable to expect that number of offense players and defensive players drafted should be about even. When looking at the 2005-2014 drafts that does turn out to be the case. Of the 2501 non-kickers drafted, our count is that 1245 were offensive players and 1256 were defensive players. That’s about as even as you can get. There are more significant variances on a team-by-team basis. Certain teams, even over a 10-year period, do show at least some indication of bias on one side of the ball or the other. A short-term bias is certainly understandable as a team looks to plug holes wherever they exist. Over a 10-year period, though, all that should even out and it may come to a team’s drafting strategy or pure chance. The following table shows the percentage of offensive draftees for each NFL team for 2005-2014. The ends of the spectrum are the Jets taking offensive players with 58% of its selections and, on the other end, the Falcons taking defensive players with 60% of its choices. Is the variance from the average a matter of a team’s strategy or is it just random based on a team’s draft board and the players available? It is impossible to say without being in the draft room or being part of a team’s management. The first three rounds of the draft produce most of the starters in a draft class. Over those three rounds, the numbers historically lean slightly toward defense, but it is still a relatively even split with about 49% of the draftees being offensive players versus 51% on defense. The team distribution changes, though, indicating that some teams favor one side of the ball in the first three rounds and then the other side in the final four rounds. Here is the chart as previously shown, but for the first three rounds only and with the scale slightly changed to accommodate the 49%/51% split. The extremes for the first three rounds are the 49ers with 59% of its selections from the offensive side and the Saints with defensive players making up 62% of its selections. The same question as above is still applicable regarding whether this is a planned strategy or just a matter of chance. The differences by team can be seen more clearly in the next table. This table shows the percentage of offensive draftees by playing position and team for round 1-3, rounds 4-7 and overall. Defensive draftees are, of course, 100% minus the percentage of offensive draftees. Bias by Playing Position  Within the offensive and defensive splits presented above, there are also biases by playing position. Before looking at the information by team here is a breakdown by playing position for the first three rounds, the last four rounds and all rounds. The percentages represent the portion of all drafted players in each grouping from 2005-2014. This table shows that quarterbacks, wide receivers, defensive linemen and corners account for 50% of draftees in the first three rounds but only 44% of players drafted in rounds 4-7. This indicates a bias towards drafting those positions in the top three rounds. To get a better feel for the teams that are most and least likely to draft players at those four positions, the following tables show the distribution of players drafted by playing position and NFL team. The first table shows the quarterbacks drafted in the first three rounds. The Browns, still searching for a quarterback, had the most with five. Six teams did not draft a quarterback in the first three rounds. The Texans are one of those six, though they are not settled at the position. The next table shows the distribution by team for wide receivers drafted in the first three rounds. The Giants and Titans are the leaders with eight and seven, respectively. The Titans are far from settled at the position. Five teams drafted two or fewer receivers in the first three rounds. With the exception of the Cowboys, none of the teams are well set at the position. The next table shows the distribution for defensive linemen. The Eagles had the most with 10 and the Redskins the least with one. And finally, the distribution for corner backs is shown in the next table. The Rams led with eight corners drafted in the first three rounds while the Eagles had only one. This addressed only one aspect of the positional bias issue. A “shortcut” way of looking at the possible existence of a bias is to find situations where the number of players drafted at a position is somewhat greater (or less) than 1.5 times the number of draftees for the first three rounds. The 1.5 factor is based on averages by position as discovered in this study.   The logic would be applied as follows:
  • The 49ers selected eight offensive linemen in the first three rounds and six offensive linemen in rounds 4-7.
  • This indicates a bias for selecting offensive linemen earlier rather than later as using the 1.5 factor they would be expected to have drafted 12 lineman in rounds 4-7, or double the number drafted.
  • On the other hand they selected two corners in rounds 1-3 and nine corners in rounds 4-7.
  • This would indicate that they believe they can find corners later in the draft and do not need to draft them early.
  • The expectation would be that three corners would have been selected in the later rounds, and not the nine actually selected.
The following table shows selected instances of positional biases for each NFL team and the number of players drafted in rounds 1-3 and then in round 4-7.. The number of instances was capped at three. The column labeled “bias” indicates whether the bias was in favor of drafting a position early (like the 49ers offensive linemen) or in favor of drafting a position later. 1-3 indicates that the bias is toward drafting early. 4-7 means that the bias is toward drafting later. Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics

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