What Does the NFL Draft Really Produce? (Part III)
by Scott Kacsmar
In Part I of our study on the 1994-1999 NFL drafts, we focused on the career lengths and value of the players selected. In Part II, we turned our attention towards what the drafting team got out of their picks. This final part continues the team-focused results.
Average Draft Haul
At the end of the day, what can a team really expect to get out of its draft class? Where the team is picking obviously matters, but we broke down the 179 draft classes from 1994-1999 to see how many players hit certain benchmarks for just their drafted team.
Play in a game: Asking for one regular-season appearance is not a lot, even for seventh-round picks, but we found that, on average, only 77.0 percent of a team's draft class will play in at least one game for the team. Only five teams fell below 50 percent, which includes the 1999 Redskins (2-for-6) after that haul from New Orleans in the Ricky Williams trade. Fortunately, those two players (Champ Bailey and Jon Jansen) were good ones. Twenty-four draft classes had every draft pick play for them, but sometimes that is just the case of being a bad team starved for talent. For example, no team had a higher percentage than the expansion 1999 Browns, getting at least a game from all 11 of their draft picks.
Start a game: There are many ways to get into the game as a reserve, but what about starting on offense or defense? The rate here drops to 59.0 percent of a team's draft class (4.8 players, on average) that will start at least one game. The 1996 49ers bring up the rear, only getting 1-of-7 picks to start for them, but at least the one was Terrell Owens. The 1996 Rams actually had all 10 of their picks start for them, though that draft was marred by the No. 6 overall pick used on troubled running back Lawrence Phillips, who was found dead in his prison cell back in January.
Start at least 33 games: Why 33? That means the player had to start for more than two seasons with his drafted team in this 16-game era. The average draft class produced 2.1 such players, or 27.0 percent of a team's class. No team found more than five such players in a draft, and only six teams had the maximum five, including the 1996 and 1997 Buccaneers. A total of 56 draft classes (31.3 percent) produced one or none of these players. A bit troubling is the fact that numbers of players with at least 17 starts (so, more than one season) were not much higher at 2.8 players and 35.7 percent of the class.
Start at least 50 games: Yes, 50 is a nice, round number, but it also means at least four seasons with starts. When contracts are at least four years long, you definitely want to get the most of your high draft picks in this time period. We found that only 1.5 players per class (18.0 percent of picks) make it that long. Four teams (the 1995 Steelers, Vikings, and Lions, as well as the 1998 Bengals) were able to land four such players. If we labeled this the long-term starter metric, then only 84 of the 179 drafts (46.9 percent) produced multiple long-term starters for the team.
Accumulate at least 18 DrAV: We saw in Part I that the average drafted player accumulates about 18 AV for his career. For reference, Chance Warmack has 18 AV through three seasons with the Titans. So what happens if we set 18 as the benchmark for a player's draft value to his drafted team? We find the average draft class produces 1.8 such players, or 22.7 percent of the picks. Again, only the 1997 Buccaneers and 1995 Packers found five such players, as those have been two of the very best drafts from this study.
But generally speaking, if you can find two long-term starters and two contributors, then you are kicking ass in your draft haul. It is just not realistic to draft multiple difference-makers in one year, but finding a few in consecutive years can quickly build a great team with young, cheap talent. Look at the construction of the Seahawks' current DVOA dynasty. In 2010, they drafted Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, and Kam Chancellor. In 2011, they drafted K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, and Malcolm Smith. To top it off, in 2012 they drafted Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, and Russell Wilson (the all-important quarterback pickup), and off they went to a Super Bowl win. Seattle has since lost some of those players, but that is the reality of today's NFL as you will see in our final section.
Cumulative Team Draft Results, 1994-1999
The following table summarizes how much CarAV and DrAV each team earned for all of its draft picks in 1994-1999. Since the number of picks varies, we also included the average value per pick. The last two columns show the percentage of CarAV that was accumulated by the player's drafted team. Remember, the Browns get credit for what their players did as Ravens, and "TEN" includes the Houston Oilers years. We also used "OAK" for the Raiders and "STL" for the Rams even though both teams spent 1994 in Los Angeles.
|NFL Draft: Career AV and Draft AV, 1994-1999|
Go figure, no teams found more CarAV in the draft than Pittsburgh and Green Bay, but Tampa Bay had the best draft value in this time. If the Buccaneers had done better at quarterback than Trent Dilfer, then this team may have been a dynasty after adding players such as Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, Donnie Abraham, Warrick Dunn, Ronde Barber, and Anthony McFarland.
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The Colts also fared well in this time, but had the highest standard deviation (41.4) in career AV. That was bound to happen for a team that drafted Peyton Manning, but also used a top-five pick on Trev Alberts. The Chargers (13.0) and Browns (15.6) had the lowest standard deviation, but that is because their picks were consistently poor -- the least valuable of any team.
San Diego especially botched these drafts, which might explain why the team did nothing to build on its surprising Super Bowl appearance in the 1994 season. The Chargers drafted 50 players in these six drafts, and only safety Rodney Harrison, a fifth-round gem, exceeded 40 CarAV. Vaughn Parker (40 AV) was the only other player San Diego drafted to exceed 32 CarAV or 23 DrAV. It is worth noting that San Diego's only first-round pick in this time was trading up for Ryan Leaf in 1998, but that is just the centerpiece of what was a remarkably poor draft period for the franchise.
As far as getting the most value out of your players, the Ravens lead the way with 80.3 percent of their picks' value coming while in Baltimore. It helps when Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis played their entire Hall of Fame careers with the team. The split in the top four here is amusing, given that Baltimore and Tampa Bay drafted multiple Hall of Famers and eventually won Super Bowls with incredible defenses. The Chargers and Browns drafted players that were of little value to anyone, but at least most of it was spent in San Diego and Cleveland.
Every team was above 50 percent except for Seattle, which only gained 44.1 percent of the value from its players. It was the era of Seattle being an AFC West team, playing in the Kingdome, and trying to make Rick Mirer happen. So who left Seattle for greener pastures? Kevin Mawae, a likely future Hall of Fame center, spent just four seasons with Seattle. He never made a Pro Bowl with the Seahawks, but went on to make eight of them with the Jets and Titans. In fact, Mawae's 95 AV after leaving his drafted team was the highest of the 1,459 players in this study. The sixth-highest difference was another Seattle refugee: running back Ahman Green was traded to Green Bay, where he became a star. Sam Adams and Phillip Daniels were solid defensive linemen who shined more elsewhere, but that gives Seattle four of the 28 players to break 50 AV after leaving their drafted team. Joey Galloway, Shawn Springs, Todd Weiner, and Pete Kendall also fared pretty well away from Seattle.
The Ones That Got Away
Our last table looks at the player for each team with the largest difference between his CarAV and DrAV.
For all the players Seattle lost, Matt Hasselbeck was a huge pickup in a trade from Green Bay. Of course, Mike Holmgren was there in 1998 when the Packers drafted Hasselbeck as one of Brett Favre's many notable backups. When Holmgren went to coach Seattle, he soon traded for Hasselbeck, who led Seattle to its first Super Bowl appearance in the 2005 season. That is one Green Bay fans can live with, since Favre remained the quarterback throughout the 2007 season. Similarly, Indianapolis fans cannot be too salty about the Marshall Faulk trade to St. Louis, since Edgerrin James was drafted in 1999 to be his replacement. That was a move that favored both sides, as it seems unlikely that Faulk would have exploded in Indianapolis the way he did with the Rams and the Greatest Show on Turf. James was a great addition to the new "triplets" with Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison on board.
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Pittsburgh rarely makes free-agency splashes, but Jeff Hartings (2001) and James Farrior (2002) were big additions to help the team towards a Super Bowl in 2005. New Orleans may have had the best haul here with La'Roi Glover and Joe Horn helping to resurrect the Saints in the Jim Haslett era.
Among the six players with zero DrAV, cornerback Al Harris may be the best example of a team throwing gold in the trash. Harris was a sixth-round pick in that prolific 1997 draft class from the Buccaneers, but this was a Tampa-2 defense with Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin stressing zone coverage. Harris would soon make his mark as a man-to-man corner, known for getting very physical with receivers -- traits not necessarily suited for Tampa Bay's system. Harris first made his mark in Philadelphia before a trade to Green Bay where he scored the first and only overtime pick-six in playoff history. That pass was thrown by Hasselbeck, who officially became the last drafted player of the 1990s to announce his retirement on March 9.
Since we had to leave out a lot of the data results due to space, we are providing a downloadable spreadsheet that will allow you to play around with the data. Just be courteous to credit Football Outsiders if you publish something that used this file.
I look forward to adding the next draft years to this study. The 2000 draft is just waiting for Tom Brady and Oakland's two kicking choices (Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler) to hang up the cleats. The 2001 draft is close to finished with Drew Brees, Michael Vick (currently an unsigned free agent), and Steve Smith remaining. The 2002 draft, known for some huge busts in the top 10, is also down to three players: Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney (another unsigned free agent), and, of all people, Josh McCown. There were 14 players from the 2003 draft on a 2015 roster, so we have a good wait there, but we are starting to unearth the production of a seven-round draft in the salary-cap era.
No matter how well teams think they have the draft planned out, molding that college talent into a successful pro career remains very difficult. If the 2013 draft's terrible first round is any indication, busts are still high in quantity even with far more information available today than there was in the 1990s. Draft success is a necessity for any team to become a consistent winner, but it cannot be your only method of team-building. Free agency is a different kind of gamble, but you wouldn't go to a casino and only play the blackjack tables, would you? Spread the wealth, spread the risk, and see what happens in this crazy league.