NFL Draft: Which Position Groups Are Drafted the Most?

Which position groups are selected most frequently in the NFL Draft, and which positions can create the most surplus value?

The NFL Draft provides teams with the opportunity to enhance their rosters. As a new crop of young stars enters the league, teams have to balance drafting the best players against positional needs. Not all positions are created equal. Let’s take a look at which position groups are drafted the most.

Which Position Groups Are Drafted Most Frequently?

Using Pro Football Reference’s Draft Finder, let’s examine which positions groups have been selected most frequently over the past decade. Here’s how many players were chosen from each position group from 2013 through 2023:

  • Quarterback: 127
  • Running Back: 247
  • Wide Receiver: 351
  • Tight End: 160
  • Offensive Line: 468
  • Defensive Line: 488
  • Linebacker: 345
  • Cornerback: 247
  • Safety: 150
  • Kicker/Punter: 43

It should come as little surprise that offensive and defensive linemen are the most heavily drafted players. On any given play, there are at least five offensive linemen and 3-4 defensive linemen on the field. That’s the most out of any position. Thus, it makes sense that more than 40 offensive and defensive linemen are generally selected in each draft.

Which Position Groups Hold the Most Value in the NFL Draft?

Selecting productive players is the most important goal in the NFL Draft, but creating surplus value is nearly as important. Because rookie deals are superficially held in check via the NFL’s allotted contract system, finding a young player who can produce as much as a veteran player for a fraction of the cost is extremely valuable.

In 2022, Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap and Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus conducted studies to determine which position groups led to the most surplus value in the NFL Draft.

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The results mostly lined up with accepted wisdom. Fitzgerald found that quarterbacks on their rookie deals provide the largest salary cap benefit relative to veteran players.

Next up were wide receivers, followed by left tackles, edge rushers, and interior defensive linemen. Those are typically positions that are difficult to find on the free agent market, making it a priority for teams to find solutions in the draft.

Riske’s study also listed quarterbacks, edge rushers, wide receivers, and offensive tackles at the top.

Although edge rushers’ contract values are higher than any position aside from quarterbacks, Riske noted that edge defenders’ surplus value isn’t quite as notable as receivers’ and offensive tackles’ because the hit rate for edge rushers has been lower than those of other position groups.

Riske placed interior defenders into a separate, lower bucket. While interior defenders selected highly can create surplus value, the free agent value of “second-tier and average contracts are fairly low” compared to other premium positions.

There has been a lot of discourse recently about running back contracts. The position takes tremendous punishment and has one of the shortest shelf lives in the NFL. Combined with the fact that running backs have a minimal impact on the outcome of games, it makes it exceedingly difficult for backs to get lucrative second contracts.

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It also devalues the position in the NFL Draft, as teams feel they can find a running back in the later rounds or free agency.

We’re seeing similar devaluation at safety, linebacker, interior offensive line, and tight end. As a result, teams are more apt to draft these positions late or sign players as UDFAs. If they miss, they can usually just fix the problem in free agency without breaking the bank.

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