Most Consistent Positions in the NFL Year-to-Year at the Top Tiers

By Jim Liao, Epoch Times
August 13, 2015 Updated: August 16, 2015    

The question of which NFL position is most consistent is always something I’ve wondered about.

For instance, everyone knows who the best quarterbacks and running backs are, but the best players at positions such as offensive line and linebacker are generally less well-known.

Pro Bowl voting for these positions is basically a popularity contest, where players who’ve been there already are usually shoo-ins for a rebid.
Pro Bowl voting for these positions is basically a popularity contest, where players who’ve been there already are usually shoo-ins for a rebid. When a previously unknown offensive lineman gets a Pro Bowl bid, you always have to ask: Did the player just become good, or did he just become recognized (after several unrecognized, elite seasons)?

But of course, more invested fans are not only able to recognize the true top players in each position for a single season, but also who the best players are spanning multiple years. Just as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers are annually the top quarterbacks, Marshal Yanda, Evan Mathis, and Josh Sitton are always up there at guard.

But the question still remains, at which positions are the upper tier of players most consistent? In other words, from year to year, what’s the likelihood that we find the same players in the upper tier?

Tying into our previous point, knowing this would tell you for which positions you can just perfunctorily vote-in past Pro-Bowlers into the Pro Bowl, and for which positions would you have to do a little more research on who’s good that particular year.

Methodology

I first want to emphasize that this is intended to be a preliminary analysis, so we use a simpler approach as opposed to more advanced statistical testing. We use Pro Football Focus grades from 2010 to 2014 as our basis of analysis.

To illustrate by way of example:

We will first look at all the quarterbacks in 2010 who had a positive grade by Pro Football Focus. Positive graders don’t signify the most elite tier, but they do signify the upper tier of players—in 2010, this was 22 quarterbacks. If we consider the total number of active quarterbacks in the league, to be in the top 22 is quite an impressive feat. This number usually fluctuates a bit by year; In 2011 it was 21, and in 2012 it was 25.

Next, we will determine the number of quarterbacks who had a positive grade in 2010 but who didn’t have a positive grade in 2011. For quarterback, that’s 8/22 players. We call this the “drop-off rate.”

We decided to use this approach because every year there are up-and-coming players who propel themselves into the upper tier. For example, in 2013 Le’Veon Bell didn’t have a positive grade, but he was the No. 2 ranked player in 2014. So if there are a lot of Le’Veon Bells in 2014, you may call it an inconsistency in that the best players of 2014 are considerably different from 2013.

But actually, a lot of these new players will stay entrenched in the NFL’s elite class and become hallmarks of consistency thereafter. One the other hand, when one player has a good year one year and struggles the next, this to me is a clear indicator of inconsistency.

Of course, this tends to happen a lot to older players who are past their prime and in a state of decline, as well as to injured players. As for the older players dropping off, I do think that you find a good number of these players for each position, so it evens out fairly adequately, especially as we aren’t looking to get too rigorous here.

As for injuries, I do not think injuries should be excused. Part of a player’s ability is the ability to stay healthy—that’s why players drop in the draft due to injury and off-the-field concerns. So, yes, if a really good player is not among the elite players the next season due to injuries, I take that as inconsistent play.

Next we will take what we did between the years 2010 and 2011, for 2011 and 2012, 2012 and 2013, and 2013 and 2014, and add the fractions together. So for quarterbacks, between 2010 and 2014 there was a total of 93 players, with 32/93 dropping off from the previous year, giving a drop-off rate of 31.4%. We repeat this for every position. The idea is that the smaller this number, the more consistent the position.

Results

Position

Fraction

Drop-Off Rate

Kickers

39/161

.242

3-4 Outside Linebacker

22/70

.314

Quarterback

32/93

.344

4-3 Defensive End

44/118

.373

Defensive Line (Total)

73/188

.388

3-4 Defensive End

29/70

.414

Center

36/83

.434

Tackle

62/135

.459

Offensive Line (Total)

177/375

.472

Cornerback

87/174

.500

Guard

79/157

.503

Wide Receiver

84/166

.506

Linebacker (Total)

137/267

.513

Tight End

77/144

.535

Safety

93/162

.540

Running Back

58/106

.547

Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle

65/116

.560

Inside Linebacker

61/106

.575

4-3 Outside Linebacker

54/91

.593

 

Relevant Points From Results

  • I was at first reluctant to include kickers because I thought it was obvious that they would beat out the other positions in terms of consistency. Kicking is a very one-dimensional talent, and there isn’t a lot of fluctuation in terms of ability. But I thought, “Hey, just for the heck of it,” and sure enough, kickers lead the pack at a drop-off rate of .242.
  • Is it surprising to anyone that quarterback is one of the most consistent positions? Because it shouldn’t be. If we’re talking about the best 15-20 quarterbacks of a given year, usually these are the same players. For example, oft-disputed guys like Joe Flacco and Eli Manning may have a putrid season one year and win the Super Bowl the next, but they are generally always within this range.
  • Examples of consistency at 3-4 outside linebacker: Justin Houston, Terrell Suggs, Ryan Kerrigan, Elvis Dumervil, Clay Matthews, Tamba Hali, and so on.
  • You would think running back would be more consistent, because big-name running backs pop out as being perennially good, such as Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson. But actually, there have been many one- or two-year wonders at running back over the past five years, such as Peyton Hillis, C.J. Spiller, Toby Gerhart, Trent Richardson, and even Giovanni Bernard.
  • If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that the linebacker position is very injury prone. For example, Navarro Bowman, Sean Lee, and Kiko Alonso in 2014, Jerod Mayo in 2014 and 2013, and Daryl Smith in 2012 all derail the consistency of the linebacker position.
  • A general flow chart of most to least consistent: special teams to quarterback and defensive line to offensive line to secondary and offensive skill positions to linebackers.

Conclusion

So that’s it. The most consistent core positions at the upper-tier level using this approach are 3-4 outside linebacker, quarterback, and the defensive line as a whole.

A more rigorous analysis would perhaps take into account player variance. For example, the upper-tier kickers are always the same players every year, but these players generally rank differently among each other each year. This would be less consistent than a position where there is less fluctuation, where you generally find the same players at the top, middle, and bottom of the upper tier regardless of year.