In a league with a salary cap, value is — quite literally — everything.
Because every NFL team works with more or less the same amount of money each season, the Super Bowl champions have to find a way to use their dollars more efficiently than everyone else. That’s where these guys come in — the players who outperform their draft slots in such a way that the team can overpay for players elsewhere.
Therefore, without further ado, let's dive into every NFL team's best value draft since PFF started grading in 2006.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: S TYRANN MATHIEU, LSU (69TH OVERALL IN 2013)
Mathieu has had a career arc that, quite frankly, doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. He was persona non grata after he was dismissed from LSU for reportedly failing multiple drug tests and fell to the third round. Since then, he’s grown into one of the most respected leaders in the NFL. Mathieu has generated the third-most wins above replacement (WAR) among safeties since entering the league and is definitely a player the Cardinals wish they didn't let walk in the first place.
ATLANTA FALCONS: DI GRADY JARRETT, CLEMSON (137TH OVERALL IN 2015)
You have to go all the way back to Deion Jones in 2016 until the Falcons have anyone worth considering for this list, which has been a big part of the problem for the franchise lately. Jarrett has proved to be consistent throughout his career and was taken multiple rounds later than Jones. He’s averaged 47 pressures a season over the past six years.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: OL MARSHAL YANDA, IOWA (86TH OVERALL IN 2007)
Look out for Yanda when PFF introduces its initial Hall of Fame class later this year. Hopefully, the Pro Football Hall of Fame follows suit in a few years, as he never earned a sub-80.5 overall grade during his 13-year career.
BUFFALO BILLS: QB JOSH ALLEN, WYOMING (SEVENTH OVERALL IN 2018)
Move over Kyle Williams, as defensive tackle value doesn’t come close to that of a franchise quarterback. Allen's 7.16 WAR over the past two seasons ranks third in the entire NFL — not bad for the third quarterback selected in his draft class.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: LB LUKE KUECHLY, BOSTON COLLEGE (NINTH OVERALL IN 2012)
Taylor Moton has been the best find for the Panthers outside the first round since 2006, but even he doesn’t hold a candle to the value over expected that Kuechly brought to the table. Kuechley hasn’t even played the past two seasons yet still ranks second among all linebackers in total WAR over the past decade.
CHICAGO BEARS: S EDDIE JACKSON, ALABAMA (112TH OVERALL IN 2017)
This one is close to a toss-up between Jackson and the 173rd pick in 2020, Darnell Mooney. We’ll give Mooney a few more years before we really have that debate, though. For now, it’s Jackson, who was electric on his rookie deal yet hasn’t been the same player of late. He’s one of the best quarter-coverage safeties in the NFL, and his 94.7 coverage grade in 2018 is one of the highest single-season figures in PFF's history.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: DI GENO ATKINS, GEORGIA (120TH OVERALL IN 2010)
This one is tight as can be. On one hand, Andrew Whitworth was over a decade-long cornerstone who recorded 90.0-plus grades for three seasons with the Bengals. On the other hand, Atkins was drafted 65 picks later and recorded 70-plus pressures in four different seasons. While it was a sharp decline at the end, Atkins' peak was the closest any defensive tackle has come to Aaron Donald since PFF began grading in 2006.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: OT JOE THOMAS, WISCONSIN (3RD OVERALL IN 2015)
While Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah may make a strong push here soon, Thomas’ spot on this list is safe, for now. Thomas went a decade without missing a snap and earned 90..0-plus pass-blocking grades in half of those years. Thomas was the single most consistent left tackle in the PFF era.
DALLAS COWBOYS: QB DAK PRESCOTT, MISSISSIPPI STATE (135TH OVERALL IN 2016)
The latest drafted franchise quarterback of the PFF era, Prescott is quite obviously going to be the pick here. No one is confusing him for the truly elite quarterbacks in the league, but he still ranks 10th in total WAR since entering the NFL.
DENVER BRONCOS: CB CHRIS HARRIS JR., KANSAS (UDFA IN 2011)
Harris is still underrated to this day. At the moment, he narrowly edges Richard Sherman for the most valuable corner over the past 16 years according to PFF WAR. In his nine years with the Broncos, he never allowed more than 561 yards in a season.
DETROIT LIONS: WR CALVIN JOHNSON, GEORGIA TECH (2ND OVERALL IN 2007)
The second overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft still providing the best return on investment is partly an indictment of how the Lions have drafted, but it's mostly an indication of how special Johnson was throughout his career. He averaged 81 catches, 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns per year for his entire career.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: OT DAVID BAKHTIARI, COLORADO (109TH OVERALL IN 2013)
Former general manager Ted Thompson was the late-round king. Name a round, and he probably found some high-end players there:
- Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Casey Hayward in the second round.
- James Jones, Jermichael Finley, and Morgan Burnett in the third.
- Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Mike Daniels, David Bakhtiari, Blake Martinez, and J.C. Tretter in the fourth.
- Micah Hyde, Aaron Jones, and Corey Linsley in the fifth.
Among the listed above, Bakhtiari is the best value considering where he was selected, how good he’s been and his position value. Before missing most of 2021, Bakhtiari recorded five straight seasons with 89.0-plus pass-blocking grades.
HOUSTON TEXANS: EDGE J.J. WATT, WISCONSIN (11TH OVERALL IN 2011)
While Donald is the gold standard, Watt arguably had the better peak in the PFF era, as his 65 combined sacks and hits back in 2014 are a PFF record and were more than double that of the next closest player that season. Donald has never recorded more than 41 in a season. While the injuries piled up and his peak was short-lived, Watt was still the best draft pick in Texans history.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: DARIUS LEONARD, SOUTH CAROLINA STATE (36TH OVERALL IN 2018)
This was T.Y. Hilton last year, but after Leonard’s fourth straight impressive season to start his career, he gets the nod. One underrated aspect of Leonard’s game has been his tackling — in four seasons, he’s amassed 511 tackles yet missed only 33.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: LB TELVIN SMITH SR., FSU (144TH OVERALL IN 2014)
It’s slim pickings when looking over the Jaguars' draft history since 2006. Nonetheless, finding a player of Smith’s caliber all the way down in the fifth round was a big win. In his five seasons before he abruptly retired, Smith averaged just over 55 stops per season — a figure that would have ranked fourth among all linebackers last season.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: WR TYREEK HILL, WEST ALABAMA (165TH OVERALL IN 2016)
The single most impactful receiver in the NFL over the past half-decade, Hill exceeded even the most optimistic expectations as a former running back who was forced to transfer from Oklahoma State. Since entering the league in 2016, Hill accumulated 458 more deep receiving yards (2,773) and six more deep receiving scores (30) than any other player in the NFL.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: QB DEREK CARR, FRESNO STATE (36TH OVERALL IN 2014)
Maxx Crosby could be a good pick here, as he was taken two rounds later, but Carr obviously plays the more valuable position. Carr is one of only four quarterbacks who was drafted outside the first round in the PFF era and is currently being paid over $30 million per year (Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and Prescott as well).
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: QB JUSTIN HERBERT, OREGON (6TH OVERALL IN 2020)
Unseating Keenan Allen from last year's list, Herbert has played his way into the Chargers' best value pick. Herbert has been the fourth-highest graded quarterback in the NFL despite not being a top-five pick, and that was just in Year 2!
LOS ANGELES RAMS: DI AARON DONALD, PITTSBURGH (13TH OVERALL IN 2014)
I don’t care where the Rams drafted the single most consistently dominant defensive force in the PFF era, he’s making this list. He’s currently tied with Von Miller for the most consecutive seasons with 90-plus overall grades (eight). After a 93.5 overall grade last season, I expect that record to be broken in 2022.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: CB XAVIEN HOWARD, BAYLOR (38TH OVERALL IN 2016)
Olivier Vernon and Jarvis Landry are in the conversation here, but Howard’s peak has lasted a little longer. His 27 interceptions since entering the league in 2016 are two more than the next closest NFL defender.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: WR ADAM THIELEN, MINNESOTA STATE (UDFA IN 2013)
Getting any playing time out of an undrafted free agent is good value, let alone multiple 1,000-yard seasons. He was a bit of a late breakout as a 26-year-old in 2016, which is why his prime was so short-lived, but for that handful of seasons, the Vikings' offense ran through Thielen.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: TE ROB GRONKOWSKI, ARIZONA (42ND OVERALL IN 2010)
Since the list starts when PFF started grading in 2006, Tom Brady can’t make an appearance; however, Gronk is a nice consolation prize. He earned 90.0-plus overall grades in every season from 2011 through 2017.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: OT TERRON ARMSTEAD, ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF (75TH OVERALL IN 2013)
If Armstead could have stayed healthy his entire career, we could be talking about a future Hall of Fame left tackle who was found in the third round. He’s never allowed more than 25 pressures in any season of his career, but he’s also never played a full 1,000 snaps in a season.
NEW YORK GIANTS: WR ODELL BECKHAM JR., LSU (12TH OVERALL IN 2014)
There aren’t many teams that have a worse track record after the first round in the PFF era than the Giants. Linval Joseph, Weston Richburg and Landon Collins are really the only ones to write home about, and they were all still second-rounders. With that said, the receiver with the hottest start to his NFL career gets the nod. Before injuries struck, Beckham was the gold standard at the position with 4,122 yards in his first three seasons.
NEW YORK JETS: CB DARRELLE REVIS, PITTSBURGH (14TH OVERALL IN 2007)
While he won his ring with New England, Revis’ best work of his career still came early on with the Jets. His 2009 season is still the single most impressive cornerback year in the PFF era. While shadowing opposing No. 1 receivers, he allowed only 41 catches from 111 targets for 425 yards while generating six interceptions and 23 pass breakups.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: OT JORDAN MAILATA, None (233RD OVERALL IN 2018)
Considering positional value and how his draft status ultimately affected his second contract, Mailata gets the nod here. While Jason Kelce will go down as one of the best sixth-round picks of all time, Mailata could very easily go down as the best seventh-rounder of all-time — an honor that likely belongs to former Broncos tight end and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe at the moment. If Mailata continues to grade out as a top-three NFL tackle in the NFL like he did last season, there will be a debate. Only 25 years old with limited football experience prior to getting drafted, Mailata’s arrow is still pointed up.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: WR ANTONIO BROWN, CENTRAL MICHIGAN (195TH OVERALL IN 2010)
Even with his career in turmoil ever since he left Pittsburgh, Brown is still the single most valuable receiver of the PFF era according to our WAR metric. Finding that in the sixth round is an all-time draft steal.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: TE GEORGE KITTLE, IOWA (146TH OVERALL IN 2017)
Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner would all have been runaway options for other teams on this list, but the 49ers can only have one winner. Since Kittle’s rookie season, he’s earned 89.7, 95.0, 84.9 and 90.9 overall PFF grades.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: QB RUSSELL WILSON, WISCONSIN (75TH OVERALL IN 2012)
The Seahawks' golden era was built on later-round picks, and Richard Sherman in the fifth would be the pick for just about any other team in the league. UDFA Michael Bennett, who the Seahawks initially cut, is a sneaky pick, as well. Nonetheless, Wilson gets the nod, as he posted three seasons with 90.0-plus overall grades.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: LB LAVONTE DAVID, NEBRASKA (58TH OVERALL IN 2012)
A Hall of Fame-caliber linebacker (in my opinion), David was taken in the same draft class as Kuechly; yet, he’s still playing elite football. Last season, he allowed only 395 yards in his coverage for the second-highest coverage grade among NFL off-ball linebackers.
TENNESSEE TITANS: WR A.J. BROWN, OLE MISS (51ST OVERALL IN 2019)
Last year, former sixth-rounder Jason McCourty was Tennessee's best value pick since 2006, but Brown ultimate gets the honor after yet another big season (when healthy). His per-game stats for his career when extrapolated to a 17-game season are as follows: 73 catches, 1,184 yard and nine scores.
WASHINGTON COMMANDERS: WR TERRY MCLAURIN (76TH OVERALL IN 2019)
It’s time for Scary Terry to unseat Kirk Cousins for this spot because for as good as Cousins has become, he really didn’t provide any of that surplus value on his rookie deal. His first season graded over 80.0 overall came on the franchise tag for Washington. McLaurin, on the other hand, has racked up over 3,000 yards in three seasons while making less than $1.5 million per season.