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5 for Friday: Taking a look at first-round values

With April now upon us, it's time to turn full attention to the NFL Draft, which will be held at the end of this month.

A question that is often asked is which position is the safest to pick in the first round?

Looking back at the 5-year stretch between 2018 through 2022, we can get a better idea of what positions are considered "safer" picks and which are not. We also get an idea of what positions the NFL values.

In those five drafts from 2018 through 2022, the positions that saw the most players selected were wide receiver and offensive tackle with 20 each. Cornerback was second with 19 selected, while quarterback and linebacker tied for third with 18 each. Defensive tackle had 13, safety and guard eight each, running back six, center five and tight end four.

So, obviously, the NFL values pass catchers, pass protectors, pass coverage players and passers, in general.

Of course, that also could just simply be how some of those drafts set up with the available talent. So, let's take a deeper look into how many players at each of those respective positions actually hit.

By hit, I take into consideration if they're a regular starter either for the team that selected them or for another team that acquired them via a trade or free agency.

Baker Mayfield is an outlier in this situation. He wound up being traded by Cleveland, then bounced around to a couple of different teams before becoming a starter again last season for Tampa Bay.

He can't be considered a hit – particularly because he was the first player selected in his draft.

By those standards, quarterbacks hit on 10 of 18 occasions, a number that is skewed by the 2020 draft class of Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love. Take that group out of the equation, and the QB hit rate over that 5-year period is just 6 of 14.

At running back, the hit rate in the first round is 4 of 6, including the Steelers' selection of Najee Harris. The two busts were Kansas City's selection of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Seattle's pick of Rashad Penny. But if you take a running back in the first round, more often than not, he provides solid play.

At wide receiver, the success rate is better at 13 of 20, a 65 percent success rate that matches that of offensive tackle, which also hit on 13 of 20 selections.

The best it rate lies on the interior offensive line. Of the eight guards taken in that time period, seven are considered solid or at least average starters, while that number sits at four for five for the centers. That's excellent.

At tight end, the hit rate is two of four, with Kyle Pitts and T.J. Hockenson being the hits and Noah Fant and Hayden Hurst counting as misses, even though they're both fine as NFL players.

Defensive tackle also has a solid hit rate, with nine of the 13 players being hits.

Defensive end also has a solid hit rate with 12 of 18 players at that position being solid players, while the hit rate at linebacker is 10 of 18, though that includes both inside and outside linebackers. The hit rate on inside linebackers is much less than that of their counterparts on the outside.

The cornerback hit rate is 10 of 19, while the hit rate at safety is 6 of 8, including Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was a 2018 first-round pick of the Dolphins before being traded to the Steelers.

Nobody would argue that Fitzpatrick hasn't worked out.

Why does all of this matter?

In this year's draft, the strength is at offensive tackle and wide receiver, two positions that we've seen heavily hit in recent years. It's also good at cornerback, and, of course, there will be a number of quarterbacks selected in the first round, as well.

History tells us the hit rate at some of those positions will be safer than others.

• The word bust gets thrown around all too often when fans and media talk about players.

In my look at the drafts from 2018 through 2022, there were certainly a number of first-round picks that might not have been stars, but they were and are solid NFL players.

Former Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds is one of those.

And Edmunds was the 28th pick in the draft, not a top-10 or even top-20 selection. There's a huge difference.

He might be a disappointment to some, but he's not a bust. He's an NFL player and regular starter and has been in all six of his NFL seasons. 

As most people who follow the draft know, in every draft, there is a tier of players who would be first-round picks in any draft that is typically between 12 and 18 players deep. And then there is a tier of players who could be first-round or second-round picks depending on need. That tier typically consists of 25 to 40 players.

This year's draft isn't typical. This year, there might be as many as 24 players who almost certainly would be first-round picks in just about any draft – largely bolstered by the strong offensive tackle class.

And the second tier of players goes an additional 40 or so players deep, largely led by the wide receiver and cornerback group.

That's why the mock drafts you see this year largely have the same 20 to 25 players in the top spots, with just a sprinkling of different names at the back end.

That 2018 draft in which Edmunds was the 28th pick? It wasn't particularly deep at all. There were at least nine players selected before the Steelers took Edmunds who absolutely could be considered bigger misses than Edmunds, who played a large number of defensive snaps for the Steelers before leaving in free agency.

• The more we hear about the new NFL kickoff rule, the more odd it seems.

By now, you've all heard about or read about the rule, which will put all of the coverage team with the exception of the kicker, on the opposing side of the field to cut down on the high-speed collisions.

The rule was developed off a 2020 kickoff rule used in the XFL, which merged with the USFL to form the UFL this year.

Thing is, the XFL used the modified kickoff rule – when it still existed. Now that it has merged with the USFL, that league is using a more conventional kickoff.

So, the NFL has now instituted a rule that the league in which it originated no longer utilizes.

But the NFL will only do it for one season and then reassess whether it continues with it in the future.

• NFL teams are in the thick of the 30 visitors they are allotted to bring in prior to the draft.

And the team doesn't appear interested in hiding its intentions regarding the positions it wishes to address in the draft.

Through Thursday, the Steelers' list of visitors has included offensive linemen, defensive linemen, wide receivers and cornerbacks.

The offensive linemen with which the Steelers have met have largely been offensive tackles, a position of strength in this draft.

The cornerbacks have largely been players capable of playing in the slot, though they also have hosted some outside cornerbacks.

Finally, the wide receivers with which they have met have included both players capable of playing outside or in the slot.

There are still plenty of visits remaining over the next couple of weeks, but nobody would be surprised if the Steelers don't heavily work the positions at which they've brought players in for visits heavily in the first two days of the draft.

• There seems to be some consternation regarding the Steelers not making a big deal out of the acquisition via trade for quarterback Justin Fields.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

But realize that last week the team's decision makers – team president Art Rooney II, head coach Mike Tomlin and GM Omar Khan – were all in Orlando for the league meetings. And it was Easter weekend coming out of those meetings.

Rest assured, there's nothing afoot with the trade for Fields.

The Steelers wanted to acquire the quarterback and he wanted to be in Pittsburgh.

"From my conversations with Justin, I know he is excited about working alongside Russell (Wilson) and maybe learning some of those veteran tricks of the trade and things that he's picked up from being in this league for over a decade," Tomlin said last week.

Also in recent days, the team's social media has posted photos of Fields in a Steelers pullover and also included him in the listing of new players' numbers for the 2024 season (He'll wear No. 2).

Again, nothing nefarious is going on there. It's the offseason. Players are on vacation and things of that nature, and many of the decision makers have been on the road doing college visits and league meetings.