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Team-by-Team Draft Needs: Madden-style

By Jared Smola 12:04pm EDT 4/20/20


Full disclosure: I’m not a professional scout. I don’t have the experience or the time to grind tape.

But I wanted to get a read on team needs across the league as I work toward building a mock draft for later this week.

What I needed were ratings for any player. I wanted these ratings to carry some validity, be defined on a relatively large differentiating scale and be based on the opinion of talent evaluators. I also wanted them to be relevant to this audience.

So why not Madden ratings?

Some quick background on Madden ratings. Per the game developers, “In Madden NFL 20, 41% of the players are at 70 [overall rating] or better, which means that both low-level starters and depth players can be rated in the 60s—and maybe even 50.” For the starters, there is a severe imbalance in the ratings toward the low end.

To distinguish between teams with 3-4 vs 4-3 defensive fronts, I referenced Pro Football Reference, making adjustments where necessary for new coordinator or personnel situations. To identify slot corners and receivers, I used PFF slot coverage and performance reports.

Here’s a look at the Madden ratings of each team’s projected starters.


Having a bit of an analytical bias, the team needs below lean towards those with the most positional value, namely positions needed for and to stop the passing game.


Arizona Cardinals Top Needs: LT, C, CB, 3-4 OLB

According to Madden, Kyler Murray has more to prove but is clearly expected to grow going forward. The focus is to improve around him. And literally, the team needs to improve around him. The OL is rough with not a single starter having a rating better than 79, including the 2nd worst starting C in the league. On the defensive side, they could stand to get some help for Chandler Jones up front and boost their CB depth behind Patrick Peterson.


Atlanta Falcons Top Needs: CBx2, OT, G

Atlanta should be desperate to get help in the secondary. Their projected starters have ratings of 70, 66 and 73. In a pass-heavy league and division, this puts them well behind the 8-ball. Except at C, the offensive line is a big need area, too.


Baltimore Ravens Top Needs: WR, 3-4 OLB, IOL, MLB

Baltimore boasts one of the more solid rosters in the league, especially on the defensive side. Interior OL and MLB are the lowest rated positions on the team. As far as positional value goes, wisely, this may be by design. Lamar Jackson made the offense tick in 2019 despite an underwhelming crew of WRs. To avoid a fall back to Earth, a boost at that position would be more highly recommended. Upgrading at OLB would probably have the biggest impact on the team’s success other than at wideout.


Buffalo Bills Top Needs: OT, EDGE, CB, QB

It’s make-or-break time for Josh Allen, so GM Brandon Beane and HC Sean McDermott should give their QB more time to find his weapons from the pocket. Although defense is a strength, they could use a top tier option coming off the edges or an upgrade opposite CB Tre'Davious White in the secondary.


Carolina Panthers Top Needs: CB, G, 4-3 DL, LT, SS

Carolina’s defense is a mess. The outside CB penciled in, and I’m using “penciled” generously here, are the worst rated in the league, collectively and individually. Strong safety is just as bad. Besides Kawann Short, their 4-3 defensive line is made up of the lowest of low-level starters. The offensive side isn’t as bad, with decent balance across the board. The glaring hole is on the line. Neither of their guards are quality starters and one has no business on the field on a regular basis, with a rating of 54, lowest in the league.


Chicago Bears Top Needs: CB, WR, G, SS, QB

On offense, the Bears’ story at guard is similar to Carolina. But, there are bigger fish to fry at QB and WR. Chicago’s brass seems to think they’ve solved the problem at QB by giving Mitchell Trubisky “competition” in the name of Nick Foles, but it seems doubtful that they have the long-term answer. Allen Robinson provides quality at the top of the WR group, but the rest have some proving to do. The secondary is similarly stacked with quality at the top before a precipitous drop off.


Cincinnati Bengals Top Needs: QB, OL, CB, OLB, 4-3 DE

To exit purgatory, Bengals kingdom is ready to move on from Andy Dalton. Meanwhile, fingers are crossed for A.J. Green and Jonah Williams coming off of injury to fill some major needs at WR and LT. Other than center, they can get better across the OL. The defense is relatively solid but is missing some difference-making star power. The biggest hole there is OLB where they have the worst starters in the league. A top-end CB or 4-3 DE would also help.


Cleveland Browns Top Needs: LT, FS, CB, MLB

This one is easy: The Browns have ZERO left tackles. The hope is that QB Baker Mayfield can revert to his rookie form. But he needs better protection. If that improves -- along with the secondary behind CB Denzel Ward and MLB -- Cleveland could end up with one of the strongest rosters on paper.


Dallas Cowboys Top Needs: CB, WR, C, FS

The Cowboys don’t have glaring needs. The biggest is probably at CB. Some help for QB Dak Prescott would be warranted behind WR Amari Cooper. The OL has strengths that should help weather the storm around a weak center.


Denver Broncos Top Needs: WR, LT, C, CB, QB

If they don’t see QB Drew Lock take a leap this season, they may have a chance to remedy that at the top of the draft next year. Someone to support him and take pressure off of WR Courtland Sutton is a must. Lock is also going to be working behind a below-average O-line with the worst C in the league. Denver is one of the most lopsided teams with few holes on defense. The biggest need on that side is for a slot corner.


Detroit Lions Top Needs: OT, CB, G, DT, MLB

Beyond C, the Lions have a lack of talent across the offensive line. Their secondary could be elevated by a top notch corner to replace the departed Darius Slay. Traditionalists and baseball fans will be sad to learn that their defense is below average up the middle.


Green Bay Top Needs: CB, FS, WR, 3-4 DE, G

Secondary is a major weakness, boasting only 1 quality starter in CB Jaire Alexander. They’d get better with some DE enhancements, too. And to get the most out of QB Aaron Rodgers and his remaining years, another option in the passing game to complement WR Davante Adams could go a long way.


Houston Texans Top Needs: CB, 3-4 OLB, DT, IOL, RT

Houston has some major holes bound to spring leaks on defense if not addressed. The CB group needs to be elevated at the top, especially with the worst slot corner in the league. They also have a below average pair of OLBs. HC Bill O’Brien catches a lot of flack for some roster moves and rightfully so, but his offense isn’t too bad off at the moment. The LT spot is locked down, but the rest of the line could use some work.


Indianapolis Colts Top Needs: CB, WR, OLB, MLB, DE, SS

There are few glaring needs to fill here. QB Philip Rivers could really use some help behind WR T.Y. Hilton, but otherwise the offense is one of the best in the league according to Madden. Maybe their most obvious need on the defensive side is at LB, but the biggest boost would come from adding a quality starter at corner. Upgrading at DE and SS would be a luxury.


Jacksonville Jaguars Top Needs: OT, CB, FS, WR, QB, 4-3 DE(?)

You just shake your head at this roster considering how close they were to knocking off New England in the AFC Championship just 3 seasons ago. They are below average everywhere you need to not be. And with the speculative hole DE Yannick Ngakoue may leave, it could get worse. Gardner Minshew is penciled in at QB, but is he the future? Doubtful.


Kansas City Chiefs Top Needs: LT, CBx2, DE, FS, OLB

To keep the offense rolling, better protection on QB Patrick Mahomes’ blind side would increase everyone’s comfort level. The major room for improvement lies on the defensive side, though. They are below average in all the most important areas. Their coverage group may be the worst in the league.


Los Angeles Chargers Top Needs: QB, LT, FS, OLB, MLB

The catalyst to competing for championships for the Chargers is at QB. If they can get that figured out, look out. LT needs to get plugged, as well, considering only the Browns and Jets have worse starting options there. On the other hand, this defense could be scary good having an abundance of top-end talent. The only weakness appears to be in the middle of the field. Some later considerations could include FS, OLB or MLB.


Los Angeles Rams Top Needs: MLB, CB, 3-4 OLB, G, RB

This is the first time I’ve pegged a need for any team to upgrade at RB. I’m only going there since L.A. is running a distant last in that department and HC Sean McVay has the creativity to use a better weapon. Their G situation isn’t helping things in the running department, with their #1 G rated the worst G1 in the league. The defense has top-end talent but needs depth in coverage and on the edges. The Rams also have the worst-rated starting MLB.


Las Vegas Raiders Top Needs: LT, WR, CB, 4-3 DE, S

GM Mike Mayock and HC Jon Gruden have put a solid group together on offense that could use a top-end wideout and LT to get the offense over the hump. Most of the attention needs to be on shoring up the defense. Otherwise, you’re committing QB Derek Carr (or Marcus Mariota) to shooting it out every week. They are below average everywhere but slot corner. Their #1 DE is the worst in the league.


Miami Dolphins Top Needs: QB, WR, LT, 4-3 DE, OL

Offense! On that side, Miami doesn’t have a single above-average player. This is the year Miami slated for closing down their QB carousel. A top WR could make it a group of strength. The O-line is bad. On a brighter note, the defense has hope. With a pass rush they could be respectable. Their DE situation is only slightly better than the Raiders.


Minnesota Vikings Top Needs: CBx2, LT, WR, OL

It’s surprising that any team can rival the Falcons for worst corner group, but Minnesota is challenging for that crown. Their other defensive holes are meaningless in comparison. The offense needs to improve in the trenches and behind Thielen at WR. Their slot WR is rated worst. Not a single Minnesota O-lineman is rated above average.


New England Patriots Top Needs: QB, WR, 4-3 DE, TE, 4-3 OLB

How does HC Bill Belichick address the biggest hole at QB in the league? Even if he does, they would still need some additions next to WR Julian Edelman. The secondary is stacked, but the DL and OLBs are holding the defense back from repeating greatness.


New Orleans Saints Top Needs (Wants): CB, Best Player Available, OLB, QB

This is a lesson in needs and wants. New Orleans has all the food, water and shelter they could ask for. No matter how politely New Orleans asks the sir for more, they’d get the bowl slapped out of their hands. Depth at CB. Second 4-3 OLB. QB Drew Brees has planned his exit, so the Saints should start making plans for his heir. Moving on.


New York Giants Top Needs: OT, Coverage, 3-4 OLB, C, WR, QB

The Giants are bad in all the worst places. For better or worse, GM Dave Gettleman and crew will be rolling with QB Daniel Jones under center. He is working with one of the worst OT duos in the league. Get the man some help. At least his defense will keep him safe and off the field. They have the worst rated FS in the league and below average CBs and OLBs.


New York Jets Top Needs: LT, 3-4 OLB, WR, CB

You have to squint at this roster to see hope -- and most of it is in the shimmer coming from their 22-year-old signal caller. Clearly, the Jets have a long way to go to be competitive. If you don’t count Cleveland’s complete void at the position, New York has the worst LT by a few city blocks, with a rating of 55. He would be firmly on the bench or chopping block for most teams. Their top WR may also be the worst in the league. The defense is just as questionable, having the worst 3-4 OLB tandem in the league and below average outside CBs.


Philadelphia Eagles Top Needs: WR, MLB, OLB, DB, RB

The Eagles are currently built tipping the talent scales in favor of the offense, but there are pieces to like on both sides of the ball. With LT Jason Peters moving on, they hope Andre Dillard can prove his status as a 2019 1st-round pick. Some depth at a frequently banged-up WR corps would help. On defense, they could use help at LB, having perhaps the worst in the league. Some additional depth in the secondary would be welcome, too.


Pittsburgh Steelers Top Needs: WR, 3-4 DT, CB, OT, G, QB

Pittsburgh has a well-rounded team but is lacking in elite players. The most glaring hole to fill is at DT, where Dan McCullers is the worst slated starter in the league. Beyond DT, finding the best value players available at WR, CB, OT and G is what to watch for. Big Ben may be in his twilight, so the Steelers should also consider the future without him.


Seattle Seahawks Top Needs: 4-3 DE, CB, RT, 4-3 DT, WR

Seattle’s defense needs some high-end talent to fill around Bobby Wagner, the best MLB in the league. 4-3 DE should be the focal point to improve the worst rated projected starting duo in the league. Another quality starter in the defensive backfield would help, too. Russell Wilson could use an upgrade at RT and a step forward from 2nd-year WR D.K. Metcalf.


San Francisco 49ers Top Needs: WR, CB, DT, G

If the 49ers want to remain contenders, QB Jimmy Garoppolo and TE George Kittle need some help in the passing game, where none of the WRs rate near the elite level. G is a lesser need on offense. The defense needs CB depth behind Richard Sherman, who played very well in 2019 but is on the wrong side of his prime. With ratings of 72 and 70, their DTs make up the second worst starting 4-3 tandem in the league.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers Top Needs: OT, DB, RB

With the addition of QB Tom Brady, most eyes will be on improving his supporting cast. The best way to do that is with an upgrade at the OT spots, where both come from the bottom of the barrel. The secondary might be as big of a need, if not bigger. Tampa’s CBs and safeties need improvement across the board, barely rating as quality starters. A reliable weapon out of the backfield for Brady, who got accustomed to having one in New England, would be good to look for at a good price.


Tennessee Titans Top Needs: RT, 3-4 OLB, CB, DL, WR

Tennessee could use help in a variety of areas, especially on the defense, where only FS Kevin Byard boasts a rating to be proud about. Their RT is the worst rated in the league. And although they saw promising play come from rookie WR A.J. Brown, they should keep going back to the well here to compete with higher-powered offenses.


Washington Redskins Top Needs: WR, TE, LT, CB, 4-3 DE

Washington’s passing unit rivals Denver’s for the worst rated in the league. To make matters worse, unless Trent Williams has a change of heart, they will be needing to fill a major hole at LT, too. They at least have some young players at WR and QB that could grow to fill those perceived holes. With the loss of TEs Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, they have the weakest starter in the league. The defense isn’t in nearly as bad of shape and could just use some elite talent to be difference makers.



Some notes on the methodology for the more curious:

On the sports analytics conference circuit, I’ve seen interesting work done with FIFA ratings to study soccer. So, why not see what I could do with Madden ratings?

In my day-to-day work, I build models to identify fraud, waste, and abuse in the health care system. One of the algorithms we use is called RIDIT. RIDIT essentially transforms any discrete ordinal set of data, traditionally, onto a -1 to 1 scale, centers it around 0, emphasizes abnormal values and allows comparisons across different sets of data.

Compare the ratings for the starting left tackle (LT1) on a team and the starting running back (HB1). Both are starters on an offense, yet the scores for RB are inflated compared to those for the LT. Only one HB1 has a rating below 77; compare that to nearly half the league for LT. By using RIDIT scores, we can control for rater positional biases and mitigate subjective grades by considering them ordinally rather than absolutely.

RIDIT also has some benefits over other normalization methods. Consider 100 values where the maximum is 99 and minimum is 60. No matter how the numbers in between are distributed, 60 will always be in the 1st percentile and 99 in 100th percentile. This doesn't help identify abnormal values. Another common technique, standard deviations, are misleading for skewed sets of data, like Madden ratings.

To help illuminate each team’s weakest areas, I used these RIDIT scores to shade the Team/Position Depth Chart Madden Rating visualizations instead of the base Madden rating that is displayed.


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