Running the Numbers: 1st-Round Offensive Tackles a Good Bet

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Math has a number of powerful and practical uses in the NFL, the most applicable of which might be in relation to the draft. Still a very inefficient practice, the NFL Draft is the avenue through which teams can most effectively bolster their long-term success. Some organizations do it better than others.


Last week, I used some numbers to show that first-round guards have historically been superior options to safeties. That doesn't mean that you should always draft a guard over a safety, but rather that it's probably beneficial to side with the guard if you have the two players rated just about equally. Over the long run, playing the percentages like that can yield big returns. Even if you expect, say, a five percent increase in production by making an optimal draft selection, that adds up to a massive competitive advantage over the course of a few seasons and dozens of picks.

Let's head to the night of Thursday, April 25. The Cowboys are on the clock, and they're deciding between Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker. As in my hypothetical Cooper/Vaccaro dilemma, we'll assume the Cowboys have both of these players rated evenly. Most teams probably have Richardson higher on their board, but that's really a moot point; you can substitute any two players in there that you'd like. The point is to show how teams might want to analyze players at different positions when they have the prospects rated just about equally.

The Numbers

So we've got equally-rated players at offensive tackle and defensive tackle. Who's the pick? All other things being equal, meaning we assume both positions are equal needs, both have the same amount of depth in the draft and so on, we'd want the player at the position that has historically performed the best. As it relates to first-round linemen, there's some evidence that offensive tackle might be the way to go.

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Since 2000, there have been 39 offensive tackles and 41 defensive tackles drafted in the first round. The average draft spot of the offensive tackles has been 12.9, just slightly higher than the 14.5 average draft spot for the defensive tackles. There have been a few more top five offensive tackles, but for the most part, the two positions have been selected relatively evenly.

I measured the players in three ways: approximate value, total starts and total Pro Bowls. The offensive tackles won out in all three metrics, particularly total starts. That's probably because, in general, offensive tackles have longer careers than defensive tackles.

Again, there are all sorts of variables the Cowboys will need to consider when they're on the clock, the most important of which is their ratings of each prospect that they're considering. If they have Richardson rated far ahead of Fluker, as I do, it really doesn't matter what position the prospects play because Fluker wouldn't be a consideration.

In instances when it's a close call, however, it's generally optimal to side with the percentages – a strategy that can lead to big advantages down the road. In the case of [embedded_ad]

offensive and defensive tackles, the numbers suggest that for teams deciding between equally-rated players at the two positions, the best option probably plays on offense.

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