Finding value in 2021 NFL Draft: How to utilize scouting, board value, positional value and more

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) runs off the field after the NFL game on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Bengals defeated Tennessee Titans 31-20. Cincinnati Bengals At Tennessee Titans

You’re going to hear the word “value” thrown around hundreds of times between now and the Day 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft, and for good reason.

Finding value is a necessity in a salary-capped league. Every single team in the NFL has the same $182.5 million to work with in 2021, and teams win Super Bowls by finding ways to best allot that money.

However, value manifests itself in a number of different ways when it comes to the draft. Whether it’s on the draft board itself by finding steals and not reaching, drafting positions that impact the game more than others or valuing picks correctly via trades, there are edges to be found everywhere.

Let’s take a deeper look into each of those options.

Board Value

This is the kind of value talking heads will spout off about after certain picks — myself included.

Was this player’s talent worthy of where he got drafted or was he a dreaded reach? This is the part of the draft that is the great unknown. We here at PFF have our opinionas does the general public — but NFL teams don’t care about the opinion of anyone outside their war rooms. This is scouting, and as we’ve seen, very few can gain a consistent edge in this regard. The recent draft track records of well-regarded GMs like Seattle’s John Schneider and New England’s Bill Belichick are pretty indicative of that.

Positional/Salary Value

This is how intelligent franchises can gain an edge without being any better at actual talent evaluation than the rest of the league. This is the kind of value that we at PFF bang the table for.

It’s a two-fold problem. The first is simply quantifying what kind of impact each position can make on the football field. PFF’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric tries to do exactly that, based on PFF’s play-by-play grading and the impact that has on results. While outliers at any position on the high end can still make major impacts at pretty much any position, WAR has the standard hit or quality starter broken down into the tiers shown below.

  • Tier 1: QB
  • Tier 2: WR, S, CB
  • Tier 3: ED, OT, IOL, TE, LB
  • Tier 4: RB, DI

PFF WAR suggests that Tier 1 is around four times more valuable than Tier 2. Tier 2 is approximately 1.5 to 2 times more valuable than tier 3. Finally, Tier 3 is around 1.25 to 1.5 times more valuable than Tier 4. 

These are obviously not hard-and-fast rules for every scheme in the NFL but rather a better attempt at quantifying exactly what contributions more strongly correlate to wins. That inevitably comes back to positions that heavily impact the passing game, as you can see.

Now, even if you don't put much stock into PFF's wins above replacement metric, there is the very real consequence of salary-cap allocation when it comes to draft picks. Below is the average of the 10 highest-paid players at each position in terms of average cap hit per year heading into 2021. 

Position Average of Top-10 APY Salaries (in millions)
QB $35.1
EDGE $20.6
WR $19.7
OT $18.3
DI $18.0
CB $16.1
LB $13.9
IOL $13.2
S $13.1
RB $11.7
TE $10.4

Now, below is the average cap hit per year by pick for different draft slots in the first round. Note that it doesn’t matter which position you pick; they still get paid the same over the first four seasons.

Pick Average Yearly Cap Hit on Rookie Deal (in Millions)
1 $9.2
5 $7.7
10 $5.0
20 $3.4
32 $2.8

That means if you draft a top-10 edge defender with the 10th overall pick, you’re saving $15 million in cap space that you don’t have to pay to get elite talent at that position on the open market. If you draft a top-10 running back at 10th overall, you’re saving yourself only $5 million.

Once again, everyone is working with the same dollar resources in a capped league. Freeing up as much of those dollars as possible to use to find veterans in free agency to supplement your roster should be the goal. 

That's why the elite rookie quarterback is the Holy Grail in the NFL. Even with the No. 1 overall pick, you’re freeing up a cool $26 million in space compared to teams paying their established veterans. That would be three quality starters a team can add via free agency that others simply can’t. So even if you don’t believe certain positions are more valuable on the field, you can’t ignore the value they can provide from a salary-cap perspective.

Pick Value

The final aspect of value has to do with the overconfidence often seen in evaluations. The prevailing thought is that the team trading up is the one that has to pay a premium, but the studies we’ve done say that’s fool’s gold. This is what the result of that study looks like in PFF’s pick value model. 

Pick Number 4-Year WAR Value
1 1.135
2 1.099
3 1.063
4 1.027
5 0.991
10 0.811
15 0.695
20 0.606
30 0.518
50 0.378
75 0.26
100 0.196
200 0.068
250 0.0482

While the way we evaluate actual trade value decisions is a little more complex than the chart above and involves simulations with a number of factors, the basic gist is that it’s difficult to have one player — outside of a quarterback — match the contributions that two players (or more) can make on a football field. The data shows that teams tend to get overconfident when they pick toward the top of the draft.

This is why the old Jimmy Johnson trade value chart has the fifth overall pick equal to picks 16 + 26 while the trade-value chart devised in part by PFF’s salary cap expert Brad Spielberger has the fifth overall pick equal to picks 36 + 51.

More often than not, the more swings a team has, the better. More swings on cheaper players saves them even more money.

Safety worth way more than 2 points. Help protect your family with fast, free will.
NFL Draft Featured Tools

Unlock the 2023 Fantasy Draft Kit, with League Sync, Live Draft Assistant, PFF Grades & Data Platform that powers all 32 Pro Teams

$31 Draft Kit Fee + $8.99/mo
$89.88/yr + FREE Draft Kit