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Ranking the Most Important Positions in the NFL Based on Data From the Last Decade
There are plenty of theories as to what positions are most important on an NFL roster. Unlike other sports, American Football is truly intriguing in that your very best players only play half of the game, either on offense or defense. It truly is a team effort, but with that said, are there positions where having an elite player correlates to success more than the others?
It goes without saying that the Quarterback position is the most important, but what about the rest? Where could your favorite team stand to improve the team either through a blockbuster trade or through the NFL draft? In other words, what positions are most irreplaceable.
Is it true that your team should go after that elite pass rusher? What about the age-old saying that the left guard is the most vital position outside of the Quarterback? Is the linebacker, known as the Quarterback of the defense, most important in having a championship-caliber team?
To do my part in ending the debate, I conducted an analysis to see which positions over the last ten years have been most correlated to success. But before we start, some ground rules.
The first ground rule is that this pertains to elite players. Like quantifiably without using the eye test or just personal opinion. So I figured the best way to do that is by looking at individual awards in relation to a team's success. I did not want to use MVP or any huge individual award because that is just one a season.
So that left the All-Pro or Pro Bowl team. Up until recently the Pro Bowl team was decided by fans, and a lot of players opt-out, so less deserving players eventually get those spots. That makes the Pro Bowl an ineffective measuring system.
So I settled for First and Second Team All-Pro. All-Pro is done strictly by professional analysts with no fans involved. It is the most accurate and objective individual award.
If you are a football fan, then you know that there are multiple publications that release their own All-Pro list. Thankfully, we have Pro Football Focus and their annual All-Pro list that uses purely statistical data to determine who makes the team. They are by far the most objective way to garner which players have been elite throughout the season.
The next thing was to quantify what justifies a team's success. I did not want to do the Super Bowl game because the sample size would be too small at just two teams a season, so I went with conference championship games, which is four teams a season.
The last step was gathering a sample size that was large enough and accounted for how often the NFL changes. The NFL is notorious for being a copycat league in that the style of play will look different every five years based on what the best teams are doing. The NFL of today looks nothing like it did in 2009. For example, Drew Brees led the NFL with 34 passing touchdowns in 2009, a number that would have finished 9th this last season just above a rookie in Justin Herbert.
To account for that propensity for change, I used the decade between 2010 and this last 2020 NFL season for my sample size. That gave me 40 teams.
This then tells me how many players in those 40 teams that made the conference championship between 2010 and 2020 had a player on the first or second all-pro teams. And more importantly, what positions those players played.
It should tell us which positions are more correlated to winning and therefore more irreplaceable.
One last thing, some positions have more members named than others each year. For example, two quarterbacks make the All-Pro team every year as opposed to four linebackers every season. To account for this change, I reduced things to a percentage point. So, the higher the percentage, the more correlated that position was to a team that made the Conference Championship game. And at the same time, it was not until 2012 that PFF designated the edge and interior pass-rushing positions, so that sample size is only nine years.
With that said, here are the results.
1. Quarterback = 7 first team, 4 second team = 11, 11/20 = 55%
The Quarterback position, as expected, had the highest correlation to a conference championship game. In the decade between 2011 and 2020, 11 of the 20 Quarterbacks in the All-Pro Team also played in the Conference Championship game. No surprise here.
2. Tight End = 7 first team, 3 second team = 10/20 = 50%
I was admittedly surprised to see Tight Ends at second. It speaks to the ever-changing nature of the NFL and the increased importance of Tight Ends in modern offenses. For example, in 2009, no Tight End made the top 10 for receiving yards, while this last season, two Tight Ends made the top 10. Not to mention that the Tight End receiving yards record has been broken three times since 2018.
3. Right Tackle = 1 first team, 6 second team = 7/20 = 35%
It was a bit of a surprise to see Right Tackles rank this high instead of Left Tackles. Right Tackles are vital to an elite running game. Just about every team in the modern NFL can protect the QB and throw the ball all over the field. Very few can run the ball at an elite level, which might explain this correlation.
4. Right Guard = 4 first team, 2 second team = 6/20 = 30%
The Right Guard position is similar to the Right Tackle position and comes in at fourth place. I certainly did not expect Right Guard to come in before Left Tackle, but yet here we are.
5. Cornerback = 9 first team, 9 second team = 18/60 = 30%
Cornerbacks tend to be the most bashful players on the team, and this information backs that up. Cornerbacks come in as the defensive position most correlated to success over the last decade of football. It makes sense upon further thought, the current NFL is very pass-heavy, and having elite Cornerback play cuts the field in half and gives a defense a fighting chance.
6. Punter = 3 first team, 3 second team = 6/20 = 30%
A special teams position was always going to finish surprisingly high. The assumption would be field goal kickers, but the truth is elite teams make a habit of converting red zone opportunities to touchdowns and not field goals. A great Punter, on the other hand, is instrumental in getting you that game-changing field position.
7. Wide Receiver = 8 first team, 4 second team = 12/56 = 21%
The NFL is pass heavy nowadays. And what this suggests is that having an elite wide receiver opens up the playbook. However, this high correlation could also mean that the very best Quarterbacks tend to elevate the play of their Wide Receivers.
8. Linebacker = 5 first team, 3 second team = 8/40 = 20%
Linebackers come in as the defensive position that is second most correlated to success. These are traditional Linebackers too; not pass-rushing edge Linebackers (further down the list). It essentially confirms the theory that the Linebacker is the QB on the other side of the ball, and having an elite Linebacker can catapult a defense and team to new heights.
9. Safety = 3 first team, 5 second team = 8/40 = 20%
The Safety position comes in tied with the Linebacker position. And it makes sense considering an elite Safety will send fear into the hearts of Quarterbacks and Offensive coordinators. An elite Safety seems to be just as important as an elite Linebacker.
10. Kicker = 2 first team, 2 second team = 4/20 = 20%
Kickers come in at 10th. I mentioned earlier that elite teams make a habit of converting red-zone trips into touchdowns and not field goals, but even those teams need a Kicker that can belt in kicks anywhere from 40 to 60 yards. And do it at a high clip too.
11. Running Back = 0 first team, 4 second team = 4/24 = 16%
It does not come as a surprise that Running Backs finish so low. Long gone are the old days of the bell-cow Running Back that would get 25-35 rushes a game. Most teams are shifting towards running back by committee. In fact, no First-Team All-Pro Running Back either in the Running Back or flex position has played in a conference championship game over the last decade. Were this analysis done 20 years ago, I suspect elite Running Back play would be far more correlated to success.
12. Left Tackle = 0 first team, 3 second team = 3/20 = 15%
I personally thought the Left Tackle position would be far more correlated, but that is not this case. It might be down to how creative Offensive Coordinators have gotten and how they often use schemes to protect the Quarterback, rather than the old days that put those duties solely on the left tackle. It suggests that all you realistically need is a good Left Tackle. You don't have to break the bank for the best of the best. No First-Team All-Pro Left Tackle in the last decade has played in a conference championship game.
13. Center = 2 first team, 1 second team = 3/20 = 15%
The Center position is overlooked, but once again, this suggests that you do not necessarily need an elite player in this position to have success at the highest level.
14. Edge Pass Rusher = 1 first team, 4 second team = 5/36 = 13%
This was a true surprise. 2012 was when PFF designated this specific All-Pro spot to a mixture of Defensive Ends and Outside Linebackers in different schemes that have the goal of getting to the Quarterback. So with that in mind, I assumed edge rushers would finish much higher. This result is not to suggest that a team does not need an elite pass rusher, but rather that having four to five decent pass rushers is far more important than breaking the bank for one elite pass rusher.
15. Return Specialist = 2 first team, 1 second team = 3/26 = 11%
The return specialist position is not really that correlated to success, and understandably so. Kick return and punt return touchdowns happen so rarely that there is really no reason to invest a significant sum in an elite returner.
16. Left Guard = 1 first team, 1 second team = 2/20 = 10%
The Left Guard position comes in at second to last. It suggests once again that in the current NFL, a team would be better off trying to get an elite player somewhere else.
17. Defensive Interior = 2 first team, 1 second team = 3/54 = 5%
This was a complete and utter shock. But according to the data, an elite defensive interior player is the least correlated to team success over the last nine years. Of the 54 All-Pro players named in those nine years, only three have played in a Conference Championship game. Once again, it seems that teams are far better off investing in multiple good pass rushers, as opposed to investing in one elite pass rusher.
The big takeaway from this situation is that I was shocked to see just how little having an elite pass rusher is correlated to high-level success. The draft and many NFL pundits make it seem as if having a great pass rusher is the end all be all to an elite defense and team, but the data suggests that is not the case. The pass rusher is a glamor position, which might explain why it is rated so highly, but in reality, teams that pass rush by committee seem to be much better off.
It was also refreshing to see just how important cornerbacks have become in the modern NFL. With many teams electing to throw the ball 35-50 times a game, sometimes more, having that one elite cornerback that Quarterbacks avoid at all costs is a huge commodity. Another massive bonus seems to be having an elite Tight End. The Tight End position came in at second most correlated to success, and that is worth noting for future drafts and what teams choose to do with first-round picks.
With this information, you are better equipped to see where your favorite team needs to be investing their highest draft picks and what positions are most correlated to success.
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