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Which positions have the best success rates in the 20-29 range of the NFL draft?

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 23: Bears G Kyle Long (75) straps up his helmet and he waits for the game to start during the Chicago Bears vs. Washington Redskins Monday Night Football game September 23, 2019 at FedEx Field in Landover, MD.
(Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the New York Jets get set to make the 23rd overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, let’s take a look at history to see which positions have been the most fruitful selections in that range.

Looking back at the past 10 drafts (2011-20), let’s analyze which positions have been the most successful out of the twenties range in the NFL draft’s first round. We will use a few different metrics to measure the success rates of players selected at each position from No. 20 to No. 29 since 2011.

Picks by position

Before getting into the success rates, here is a look at the distribution of picks in the 20-29 range over the past 10 years. With 10 picks being made in this range per year, we are looking at data from 100 players in this study.

  1. Wide receiver: 18
  2. Defensive end: 13
  3. Off-ball linebacker: 12
  4. Offensive tackle: 11
  5. Cornerback: 10
  6. Defensive tackle: 8
  7. Safety: 7
  8. Guard: 6
  9. Tight end: 5
  10. Quarterback: 4
  11. Center: 3
  12. Running back: 3

There were a total of 20 offensive line selections, making it the most commonly selected position in this range if you group centers, guards, and tackles together. The Jets will most likely not be thinking about a wide receiver at No. 23, but their three biggest needs after the offensive line (arguably) – cornerback, linebacker, and edge rusher/defensive end – follow up OL and WR as the next three most commonly selected positions in the twenties.

Seasons as a starter

Here is the percentage of all possible seasons that players selected at each position served as the primary starter for their team. For example, the defensive tackles combined for 14 seasons as a primary starter out of 48 possible seasons, so their rate is 29.2%.

  1. Safety: 82.4%
  2. Offensive tackle: 70.5%
  3. Guard: 66.0%
  4. Center: 57.1%
  5. Cornerback: 57.1%
  6. Wide receiver: 54.3%
  7. Linebacker: 53.7%
  8. Defensive end: 46.3%
  9. Tight end: 42.9%
  10. Running back: 40.0%
  11. Defensive tackle: 29.2%
  12. Quarterback: 4.5%

Altogether, the 100 players in this group have combined to serve as a primary starter in 52.9% of possible seasons. Only 42 of them have been a primary starter in at least 75% of their career seasons. A whopping 52 of them have been a primary starter in half of their seasons or fewer. This puts into perspective how tough it is to hit on a draft pick, even this early on.

Approximate value per season

Pro Football Reference tracks a stat called “approximate value” (AV), which takes into account a player’s production to give a one-number estimate on his impact. Here is a look at the average AV accumulated per season by players selected in the 20-29 range since 2011. For reference, 4 AV is about the mark of a replacement-level starter. About 5 AV would be a decent starter, 6 AV a solid starter, 7 AV a good starter, and so on.

  1. Running back: 5.73
  2. Safety: 5.50
  3. Center: 5.43
  4. Linebacker: 4.54
  5. Offensive tackle: 4.52
  6. Guard: 4.43
  7. Wide receiver: 4.32
  8. Defensive end: 4.09
  9. Cornerback: 4.08
  10. Tight end: 3.05
  11. Defensive tackle: 2.54
  12. Quarterback: 0.95

Of the 100 players, 53 of them have averaged 4.0 AV per season or worse throughout their career. For reference, 4 AV is equal to the marks posted by Harvey Langi, Frank Gore, and Greg Van Roten in 2020. Once again, this just puts into perspective how difficult the draft is.

Hit rate

What is the exact success rate at each position?

From my experience of evaluating the career production of draft picks, I’ve found that a good barometer for whether a pick was a “hit” or a “miss” is about the 4.5 AV mark. If they average 4.5 AV per season or better, they were/are probably at least a decent yearly starter (obviously, whether or not that would be considered a “hit” depends on where in the draft they were taken, but it at least means they were/are a solid NFL player). Any player who checks in below the 4.5 mark is probably a below-average performer.

Here is a look at the percentage of players at each position who have averaged 4.5 AV per season or better after being taken in the 20-29 range from 2011-20 – giving us an excellent look at the hit rates for each position in the Jets’ locale.

  1. Safety: 85.7%
  2. Center: 66.7%
  3. Guard: 66.7%
  4. Running back: 66.7%
  5. Linebacker: 58.3%
  6. Wide receiver: 50.0%
  7. Offensive tackle: 45.5%
  8. Cornerback: 40.0%
  9. Defensive end: 30.8%
  10. Tight end: 20.0%
  11. Defensive tackle: 12.5%
  12. Quarterback: 0.0%

The safety position has been a gold mine in the twenties. With only seven picks, studs like Harrison Smith (MIN, 2012, #29), Darnell Savage (GB, 2019, #21), Deonne Bucannon (ARI, 2014, #27), and HaHa Clinton-Dix (GB, 2014, #21) were produced. Throw in Jabrill Peppers (CLE, 2017, #25) and Terrell Edmunds (PIT, 2018, #28).

Luckily for the Jets, who own the 23rd overall pick, teams have found success with the interior offensive line in this area of the draft.

Out of nine selections at center and guard, there have been five established success stories in David DeCastro (PIT, 2012, #24), Kevin Zeitler (CIN, 2012, #27), Kyle Long (CHI, 2013, #20), Frank Ragnow (DET, 2018, #20), and Laken Tomlinson (DET, 2015, #28), although Tomlinson didn’t hit his stride until he left Detroit and joined current Jets’ offensive line coach John Benton in San Francisco. The Saints’ No. 24 overall pick in 2020, Cesar Ruiz, started nine games as a rookie and may have a good career ahead of him.

Linebacker is another position on the Jets’ radar that has been fruitful in the twenties. Rashaan Evans (TEN, 2018, #22), Dont’a Hightower (NE, 2012, #25), and Shaq Thompson (CAR, 2015, #25) are among the successes. The 2020 draft featured Patrick Queen (BAL, #28) and Kenneth Murray (LAC, #23) showing a lot of promise as rookies.

The cornerback position has actually been very reliable in this area from a talent perspective – injuries are responsible for knocking its overall success. Tre’Davious White (BUF, 2017, #27), Byron Jones (DAL, 2015, #27), Xavier Rhodes (MIN, 2013, #25), and Desmond Trufant (ATL, 2013, #22) are the home runs, but Darqueze Dennard (CIN, 2011, #24) and Jason Verrett (SD, 2014, #25) could have joined them if not for health issues. Jimmy Smith (BAL, 2011, #27) came out of this range, too.

The Jets could look at a defensive end with the 23rd overall pick, but this is a position that has been very hot-and-cold in this part of the draft. Cameron Jordan (NO, 2011, #24), Montez Sweat (WAS, 2019, #26), and Chandler Jones (NE, 2012, #21) were excellent picks, while Whitney Mercilus (HOU, 2012, #26) is solid, but that’s about it for the 13-player group. None of the other nine players have made a single Pro Bowl or been a primary starter in more than half of their career seasons.

Thankfully for Jets fans, the two worst positions on this list will not even be remotely considered by the Jets at No. 23. Defensive tackles have been a lost cause in the twenties, with Kenny Clark (GB, 2016, #27) being the only notable player out of eight selections. Quarterback has been a joke, featuring Paxton Lynch (DEN, 2016, #26), Johnny Manziel (CLE, 2014, #22), and Brandon Weeden (CLE, 2012, #22). Can Jordan Love (GB, 2020, #26) reverse the curse?

Altogether, only 45 of the 100 players taken from picks 20-29 over the past 10 years have averaged 4.5 AV or better throughout their careers, giving us an approximate hit rate of 45% if we go off of that barometer. The NFL draft certainly is a crapshoot, and there is perhaps no part of the draft that better exemplifies this phenomenon than the twenties, which has proven to be a complete coin-toss over the past decade.

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