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Friday open thread: Is pick No. 2 too high to draft a safety?

Let the Kyle Hamilton debate continue.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Navy at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For this week’s Friday open thread, I cheated a bit and pulled an excellent question from this week’s POD Detroit Lions mailbag, because this is a topic worth discussing. The question comes from commentator Oldwolf00, who asked:

Do you think pick No. 2 is too high to draft a safety?

History says yes.

I know people hate to talk about positional value, but it’s a reality in the NFL, so let’s take a look at why things are this way.

Hit rate

I researched several lists that focused on, “the best EDGE/safeties in the NFL for the 2021 season” and pulled players from NFL.com, ESPN.com, and PFF, including those who grade in the top 10 in PFF grades from the season. Of course, there were several players who showed up on multiple lists, but enough differing opinions that both position groups resulted in 19 players who are considered the best at their position (note: some lists focused on specific elements such as pass-rushing or coverage only, so a few unexpected players showed up).

Here is a look at the top-19 EDGE and safeties that were on the above lists, including where they were drafted:

The basic school of thought across the league is that if you want an impact EDGE rusher, you need to take them early, while you can find safeties throughout the draft. And as is true at most positions, top-100 players tend to be more successful than Day 3 or undrafted players, which is why teams put a premium on those draft slots.

To take it a step further, the success rate of taking safeties in the first round is not great. Of the 28 safeties that have been selected in the first round since the year 2000, just 10 have been recognized to an All-Pro team, and half of them only once.

It’s no surprise that the higher the selection the better the chance of that player making an All-Pro team, but you’ll also notice that the highest safety taken in the last 21 years was pick No. 5. In fact, no safety has been picked earlier than No. 5 in the past 30 years, dating back to when Bill Belichick, then coaching the Cleveland Browns, grabbed Eric Turner with pick No. 2 in the 1991 draft.

Financial differences

Overthecap.com did a study on how NFL teams value positions differently. No surprise, the position most teams spend money on is quarterback. OTC took the salary of every quarterback in the league and it showed NFL teams pay $8.4 million on average per quarterback. EDGE came in third on the list with $4.3 million per player, while safety was 10th, averaging $2.8 million per player.

When they eliminated rookie contracts, things stayed close to the same, with quarterbacks remaining at the top ($16.8 M), EDGE was still third ($10.1 M), and safety dropped one spot to eleventh ($6.4 M). Just focusing on the salaries of the top-10 players, quarterback was again was first ($36.4 M), EDGE jumped to second ($21.7 M), with safety climbing to eighth ($14.3 M).

Now, consider the fact that the rookie cap numbers are essentially fixed by where that player is drafted rather than position. The Lions’ No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft is expected to have a cap hit of roughly $7.5 million in 2022. If that player is an EDGE, they are immediately the 36th highest paid EDGE in the NFL. If that player is a safety, they become the 19th highest-paid safety in the league.

Therefore, the Lions rookie that is drafted with pick No. 2 would, in theory, save them more money among EDGE players than at safety. Comparing that $7.5 million to the average (non-rookie) and top-10 contracts at the two positions show the following differences in cap hit:

  • Average EDGE $10.1 M - $7.5 M = $2.6 less
  • Average Safety $6.4 M - $7.5 M = $900,000 over
  • Top-10 EDGE $21.7 M - $7.5 M = $14.2 less
  • Top-10 safety $14.3 M - $7.5 M = $6.8 less

This means in order for the EDGE to meet his expected financial value, he has to perform just below average. Any performance at average or above, and he is exceeding his financial value. But at safety, that player would enter the NFL needed to be a slightly above-average player in order to justify his cost.

It’s often discussed that finding a successful quarterback on a rookie contract is a massive advantage in the NFL, but finding a successful EDGE on a rookie deal is the next best option.

Summary

EDGE tends to be the preferred option by teams at the top of the draft because:

  • Their chances of landing a high-impact player are greater
  • Finding high-end EDGE players beyond the first round is extremely challenging
  • Top-end safeties can be found high and throughout the draft
  • Fixed rookie cap hits provide more financial value with EDGE players

But... it’s all about getting the best available player, right?

The player at the center of this question is, of course, Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton.

There is little doubting Hamilton’s talent. He is often referred to as a generational talent, and he very much fits the mold of the new aged safeties like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James. He hits with authority, can line up all over the back-seven, is highly intelligent, and possesses elite range.

It’s easy to fall in love with Hamilton. But looking at all the historical data and financial implications, he’s going to have to have a significantly higher draft grade than Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux for the Lions to justify taking him with the No. 2 pick.

Ok, your turn. Let me know your thought in the comments, or send me a response on Twitter (@erikschlitt).

Poll

Is Pick No. 2 too high for Kyle Hamilton?

This poll is closed

  • 71%
    Yes
    (1681 votes)
  • 28%
    No
    (667 votes)
2348 votes total Vote Now