What Does the NFL Draft Really Produce? (Part II)
by Scott Kacsmar
In Part I of our study on the 1994-1999 NFL drafts, it was important for every player to be retired so that we had complete career data to analyze. But those results were largely determined by the types of careers those players went on to have, wherever they played. As far as their value to the team that actually drafted them, we have to focus on the years spent with that team.
There are many interesting players who switched teams before accumulating most of their value. La'Roi Glover was one of the best draft steals from this era, but does anyone even remember him as a fifth-round pick of the Raiders in 1996? He played in just two games for Oakland before helping the Barcelona Dragons win the World Bowl in 1997 in the World League of American Football. A day after Oakland waived him, he found a new home with New Orleans and soon made six consecutive Pro Bowls. Former Saints president/general manager Bill Kuharich said Glover "turned out to be the greatest waiver claim in the history of the Saints." With so many of these steals, the drafting team never really knew what it had in the player it selected.
Does a team or general manager still deserve credit for drafting a player that only pans out with another team? Discussion of this on Twitter was mixed last week. For starters, it is difficult to know exactly who to judge on these draft decisions. The GM could have properly identified a talent capable of playing in this league, but his coaching staff may have botched the development process with that player. Sometimes, the owner goes over everyone's head to ensure he gets the player he wants. Other times, the player does not work out since the players ahead of him are too good, such as Mike Vrabel's time in Pittsburgh before he became a starting linebacker with New England. But in the case of Glover, it would seem like a big stretch to credit the Raiders with that find.
Fortunately, we do have the data that separates a player's contributions to his drafted team from the rest of his career.
Drafted Team Value vs. Career Value
We are again using Pro-Football-Reference's weighted career Approximate Value (AV) metric, which conveniently is broken down into a "DrAV" column that shows just the AV the player accumulated for his drafted team. I also broke down each player's career by how many seasons, games played, and games started he accumulated with his drafted team (DfTm). This includes second stints when the player found himself back where it all started. For players drafted by the 1994-95 Browns, time spent with the Ravens was included since the Browns became the Ravens in 1996.
|NFL Draft: Career vs. Draft Team Splits|
|Draft||CarAV||DrAV||Pct.||Career XP||DfTm XP||Games||Starts||DfTm Games||DfTm Starts|
Consistently, we find just over 65 percent of a player's career value will be realized by his drafted team, which lasts an average of just 3.4 seasons. The average career is just under six seasons, so we looked at how many players lasted six-plus seasons with their drafted team, as well as those who lasted a decade and also fewer than four seasons.
|NFL Draft: Years of Drafted Team Experience by Draft|
|Draft||Players||6+ DfTm XP||Pct.||10+ DfTm XP||Pct.||<4 DfTm XP||Pct.|
To last six years or longer, you are looking at a second contract with your drafted team. Not many players ever get that far, with fewer than 19 percent in each draft doing so. The "decade-long franchise player" is really just a 1-in-20 pipe dream. More than half of the players fail to make it to a fourth season with their drafted team, but let's look at this by round.
|NFL Draft: Career vs. Draft Team Splits by Round|
|Round||CarAV||DrAV||Pct.||Career XP||DfTm XP||Games||Starts||DfTm Games||DfTm Starts|
Again, the first three rounds make up roughly the top 100 picks, and that is where most of the value comes from in a draft. The first three rounds collect more than two-thirds of their value from the drafted team, while there is a clear drop in the final four rounds.
|NFL Draft: By Round Splits|
|Round||Players||6+ DfTm XP||Pct.||10+ DfTm XP||Pct.||<4 DfTm XP||Pct.|
Third-round picks have nearly double the departure rate before a fourth season than that of second-round picks, which was a little surprising. Only a fifth of seventh-round picks made it four seasons with their drafted team, though we did see 12 players drafted in Rounds 6 or 7 last a decade, compared to four from Rounds 4 or 5. If a team hits on a player that late, he is usually going to stick around for a long time. Think of Tom Brady and Antonio Brown as current examples. They are the best at their position from the later rounds in drafts this century. Speaking of positions, here is the next table.
|NFL Draft: Career vs. Draft Team Splits by Position|
|Position||CarAV||DrAV||Pct.||Career XP||DfTm XP||Games||Starts||DfTm Games||DfTm Starts|
From Part I, wide receivers looked like the riskiest position in which to invest, but they distribute their value to their drafted team the best with each draft producing at least 63.6 percent DrAV. This might support the idea that a lot of a wide receiver's success is quarterback dependent, so when the player leaves for a different situation, he has a hard time continuing his production unless he is an all-time great in the Terrell Owens mold. The defensive line is a much different story, with 63.2 percent DrAV being their high mark in the six drafts. The 1996 draft saw just 49 percent of the defensive line's career AV go to its drafted team, which of course includes the La'Roi Glover example from earlier. Then again, the legendary Reggie White was the first premiere free agent in 1993, and it is a position known for monster paydays in March, as we have seen this year with Malik Jackson and the Jaguars, and Olivier Vernon and the Giants.
The following chart shows the DrAV percentage by round and position, ranging from highest (dark green) to lowest (dark red). Again, fifth-round quarterbacks produced no AV because only two players qualified. We tossed the 17 kickers/punters from the data.
Quarterbacks and linemen are among the highest-paid positions, so it is not surprising to see them peak in Round 1. Everything from this era is above 60 percent in the first three rounds except for second-round linebackers and third-round running backs. You can see how defensive line really separates itself from the pack, with each of the last three rounds under 40 percent. Quarterback is the only other position with more than one round under 40 percent. Among the six entries above 80 percent, wide receivers have three of them. The peak in Round 7 is essentially all due to Donald Driver's 14-year career with Green Bay. None of the other 28 seventh-round wide receivers caught 75 passes in their career.
Draft Results: By Draft Class
Our next section is probably the one some have been waiting for the most. Which teams owned the draft in 1994-1999? Who blew it? I will start by saying we are not trying to do a true draft grade here, because that would have to include information such as trades and team need at the time. You cannot hammer the Colts for passing on Curtis Martin in 1995 when they picked Marshall Faulk in 1994. You might be able to hammer the Bengals for using the first pick on Ki-Jana Carter and missing on Martin in the third to draft Melvin Tuten, but this is not the "what if?" piece.
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There were 179 team-draft classes in 1994-1999, and we will take a few different looks at the most and least productive. One big idea that was ultimately discarded was using an expected AV metric to quantify each pick, but the available research was not compatible with what we had collected in this post-draft, pre-FOA time crunch. Chase Stuart's AV-adjusted draft value chart only covers a player's first five seasons, while this 2011 piece from the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective was based on data from 1980-2005. Finally, Pro-Football-Reference itself has an average AV for each draft position, but that is based on data through 2008, so it obviously is subject to change. It is also not normalized, so you end up with the 199th pick averaging 12 AV thanks to Tom Brady, but the 198th pick is only 6 AV. We should never punish a team for not finding a Brady-level player at 199, so that is ultimately why I decided to scrap any expected AV measurement for now.
For reference, in this time Denver had the lowest average pick at 139, while the Rams were the highest at 110. The correlation between pick number and career AV was minus-0.48, which looks like such a typical draft result. Of course draft position matters, but it is not everything.
Most Games Played and Started
First, we will look at the draft classes based on full career totals rather than the specific draft team figures from above. The next table looks at the most years of experience, as well as the most games played and started. For this time period, we will just refer to the Rams as "STL" and Raiders as "OAK" since those teams left Los Angeles in 1995. The Houston Oilers will also just be listed as "TEN" to group together with Tennessee.
|Most Years of Experience||Most Games Played||Most Games Started|
|Most Years of Experience||Most Games Played||Most Games Started|
There were 179 choices for which draft class would produce the most years of NFL experience, but we probably could have easily gone through 120 guesses before anyone came up with the 1999 Bears. It is pretty amazing to be on top when Cade McNown was your first pick and no one accumulated 50 career AV, but this just shows that service is not a great indicator of quality.
The team that really did an amazing job here was Tampa Bay in 1997, finding players that played in 1,175 NFL games, or 218 more than the runner-up. Stars of that group include first-rounder Warrick Dunn and third-round steal Ronde Barber. The difference between the Buccaneers and second-place Denver is larger than the difference between Denver and 30th-ranked Philadelphia (746 games from its 1998 draft). Each of the first eight players drafted by Tampa Bay played in at least 73 games, and seven of them played at least 109 games. Rich McKay was general manager at the time, and starting with the great 1995 draft that produced two Hall of Famers (Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks), he really helped turn the Buccaneers into a contender and eventual Super Bowl champion in 2002. McKay is also credited with hiring Tony Dungy in 1996 to get this talent producing on the field.
There were 23 draft classes that produced fewer than 300 games played. Let's turn our attention to the least-productive classes.
|Fewest Years of Experience||Fewest Games Played||Fewest Games Started|
|Fewest Years of Experience||Fewest Games Played||Fewest Games Started|
Yes, Mike Ditka and the Saints went crazy by trading their entire draft to the Redskins in 1999 to draft Ricky Williams with the No. 5 pick. Every other draft took at least three players. While Williams had a prolific career, he spent just 38 games with the Saints before getting traded to Miami in 2002. Coincidentally enough, the Dolphins had the largest draft class in this period with 14 players chosen in 1997. Yatil Green was an often-injured, first-round bust, but Sam Madison, Jason Taylor and Derrick Rodgers were very good picks for the defense.
Perhaps the ultimate stinker class may be what the Browns did in 1995 fresh off a playoff win. The shock of moving the team to Baltimore the following year did not come until during the season, but in the draft, Bill Belichick and company came up empty with six players that produced just 113 games and 24 starts in their NFL careers. Craig Powell was a first-round linebacker out of Ohio State, but he never cracked a starting lineup and appeared in just 14 games. Eric Zeier was a forgettable backup quarterback, Mike Frederick was mostly a reserve defensive lineman, and the last three picks failed to play a game in the NFL. Belichick and Michael Lombardi moved on in 1996, but the new Ravens did retain Ozzie Newsome, Phil Savage, and Scott Pioli in the front office. That group collaborated to draft Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in the first round of Baltimore's first draft, starting things off in Maryland with two Hall of Famers. To think that was on the heels of such an embarrassing draft just goes to show how little anyone truly knows about how this thing works.
The number of picks used in a draft can obviously have a big impact on these totals, so here is a quick look at the teams with the highest and lowest averages of games played or started.
|Highest Average Games Played||Highest Average Games Started|
|Lowest Average Games Played||Lowest Average Games Started|
The 1994 Seahawks went for quality over quantity, picking up two standouts in Sam Adams and Kevin Mawae, though both may be known better for their work elsewhere. The 1997 Buccaneers were the only team to use double-digit picks and still maintain an average of over 100 games played as well as 70 starts.
San Diego looks pretty bad here with three of the bottom nine draft classes, showing they made more screw-ups than just Ryan Leaf in 1998, but we'll have more on the Chargers in Part III.
All-Pros and Pro Bowls
I did not keep track of whether or not the player made a first-team All-Pro or Pro Bowl with his drafted team or if it was later in his career. With that said, the 1996 Ravens lead all classes with 12 All-Pro seasons and three All-Pro players. You know about Lewis and Ogden, but fifth-round pick Jermaine Lewis was a standout punt returner in 1998. The next closest team was those 1995 Buccaneers, with their duo of Sapp and Brooks combining for nine All-Pros. The only other drafts to produce multiple All-Pro players were the 1995 Patriots (Curtis Martin and Ty Law), 1995 Packers (Antonio Freeman and William Henderson) and 1997 Dolphins (Sam Madison and Jason Taylor). A total of 66 draft classes (36.9 percent) produced at least one All-Pro season.
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A total of 117 draft classes (65.4 percent) produced at least one Pro Bowler. The 1996 Ravens (26) and 1995 Buccaneers (18) also lead the way in career Pro Bowl appearances. The 1998 Colts finished tied for third at 14 thanks solely to drafting Peyton Manning first overall. Two teams were able to draft four Pro Bowl players. In addition to Henderson and Freeman, the 1995 Packers selected Travis Jervey and Adam Timmerman. All four players made one Pro Bowl in their careers, and Timmerman made his with the Rams. The 1998 Eagles ended up with a haul of Tra Thomas, Jeremiah Trotter, Allen Rossum and Ike Reese. Rossum made his Pro Bowl on special teams with Atlanta in 2004.
The average draft class produced 147 career AV. A total of 15 draft classes produced at least 250 AV, while 15 draft classes failed to crack 60 AV. Here are those top and bottom teams.
|Most Career AV||Lowest Career AV|
Tampa Bay looks pretty good with two top-five classes, but what about the production for the Buccaneers? A player like Warrick Dunn did some of his best work for Atlanta, after all. That is where DrAV comes in, only looking at the AV for the player's drafted team. The average draft class produced 96.1 DrAV.
|Most Draft AV||Lowest Draft AV|
It is tough to argue with any draft class that gives you two Hall of Famers, which is what pushed the 1996 Ravens and 1995 Buccaneers ahead of the 1997 Buccaneers. Only one other team ever drafted more Hall of Famers in one year: the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had four.
Also impressive are the back-to-back drafts from the Patriots (1995-96), Dolphins (1996-97), Steelers (1998-99), and Eagles (1998-99). That type of repeated success is hard to pull off, as were the back-to-back bottom-six failures for San Diego (1998-99).
In Part III of this series, we will conclude with a look at the cumulative team results for the 1994-1999 drafts, including the one team that had less than 50 percent DrAV. Any guesses? We will also offer a downloadable spreadsheet of this data. It is a lot to present here with 179 classes and 1,459 players.