Critical Positions
By Phil Elmore

Critical Positions is a position where a single player can positively (or negatively) impact his team's performance. When I look at trades and drafts, I take into account how critical the position is to a football team. For example, 2 teams may trade attribute-equivalent superstar players, but if one team gets a player in a Critical Position in trade for a player in a non-critical position, he has profited (perhaps handsomely). When a team with no real QB passes on a top QB in the draft for an OL, I cringe. For me, the Critical Position concept only applies to the starters. Backups are obviously important to a winning team, but in general absolute ability and a team's current needs outweighs the Critical Position concept when making trades or drafting for backups.

I think most veteran owners already have a good grasp on this concept, but I wanted to put it forth both as a subject of debate for the vets and as a learning point for new owners.

I break down all positions in the league into 3 categories. Under each category I have listed the positions that correspond to that category. A have given a trade value estimate, but like any price estimate, the laws of supply and demand for a given position may drive prices up or down.

Tier 1: A player in this position will impact the score in every game. A top-10% Tier 1 player is worth 3-5 times a non-Tier 1 top-10% player.

QB: Since the QB handles the ball on every play, this is a no-brainer. Few teams have been successful with a poor QB (early-CSL Bills being the notable exception), and several teams have been able to ride the arm of their QB into the post-season. A poor starting-QB decreases the overall efficiency of the offense, and increases their turnover frequency. RB: Some might argue a RB's stock is diminishing with the power of the modern defenses to stuff the run, but I disagree. RB's are critical blockers on longer pass plays, and reliable pass-catchers in short-passing situations. But most importantly, a top-RB ALWAYS forces the opponent to consider the run -or- suffer the consequences. A poor starting-RB allows the opponent to focus on pass defense and robs the QB of his most important ally. LB: Since LB's are given more freedom to roam the field than other defenders, a star-LB can be the linchpin of a strong defense. He can stuff the run, he can pressure the QB on a blitz, or he can provide critical underneath coverage on passes. A star LB can change the entire tempo of the offense. Put a superstar LB on an otherwise average defense, and that defense will instantly become above-average. A poor starting LB only reacts to the offense...he may make the tackle but only after the play has picked up positive yards.

Tier 2: A player in this position can, through exceptionally good or poor play, impact the course of a game. Over the course of a season, a top Tier 2 player will improve his team. A top-10% Tier 2 player is worth 1.5-2.5 times a non-Tier 2 top-10% player.

WR/TE: No doubt about it, a hot WR/TE can help a team win a game. The WR can burn a defense deep and consistently, providing the QB can get it to him and the defense isn't keying pass. The TE can both improve the OL, but also open up many short-medium passing opportunities. Poor starters as these positions make it harder for the entire offense to function efficiently.

P/K: While they are rarely traded in blockbuster deals, these players truly function as Tier 2. A punter capable of repeated coffin-corner kicks will most certainly make the opposing offense miserable, and will most likely results in at least a few safeties. A top K usually nails ~1 more FG per game than an average one, which can occasionally spell the difference between victory and defeat.

DL: Since a top DL can penetrate even the best OL's and break up runs, passes, and special teams, a top DL rates Tier 2. Average to below average DLs function on the 'Weakest Link' principle (see below). DB: A top DB can blanket a receiver, provide run support, and even pressure the QB on a blitz. Average to below average DBs function on the 'Weakest Link' principle (see below).

Weakest Link: These positions are overall the least valuable place to have a superstar player, simply because the superstar will not make that seriously an impact on the overall success of the team.

OL: This is the most obvious position related to the Weakest-Link principle. One awesome OL will not make a difference in an overall poor or average OL. Sure, he'll pancake his target, but its the Weakest Link in the OL that will either hold his block or miss it that will determine if the play works or not.

DB and DL: As mentioned above, a top-flight DL/DB is worth Tier 2 prices, but a more humble DL/DB is not. This is simply because the play is going to proceed towards the Weakest Link in the group. The run will proceed over the pancaked DL, or the pass will go to the receiver covered by DB Pokey McSlowbutt.

It should be obvious from this why there is much excitement over trades/drafts of top-Tier 1 players. These guys can change a franchise overnight. The team trading away a top-Tier 1 player had better be well compensated, because his team will most certainly miss the departed star. My advice here is NEVER, EVER trade a top Tier 1 player without surveying his value on the open market.

Things get complicated when you are looking at say a top-25% Tier 1 player compared to a top-10% Tier 2 player. Some might say go for overall quality. I think it ultimately depends upon team need in close cases like this.

Teams in the rebuilding mode should always look to secure top young players in the Tier 1 positions, either thru trades or drafts, even to the expense of the other positions.