That won’t stop general managers, coaches and scouts from poring over hours of game film, college statistics and data from the pre-draft combine in hope of finding players that can help change the course of a franchise. But for all the studying and evaluating, the draft is more of a crap shoot than efficient talent evaluators consistently making correct decisions. Don’t get me wrong, better players are indeed selected more often, on average, earlier in the draft compared to later, but there hasn’t been a team that has shown it can consistently “win” the draft over any length of time.
For example, the past decade shows the top overall pick will deliver roughly 42 points of approximate value, an all-in-one metric created by Doug Drinen that values a player at any position from any year, over the first four years of his career. The 32nd pick in the first round returns an average of 19 points of approximate value over the first four years of his career. “Mr. Irrelevant,” the final pick of the draft, returns an average of 5.6 points of approximate value. That means overall the talent evaluators are doing their job.
However, there is almost no correlation between a team’s performance from one draft to the next. We conducted a study of team performance in the draft covering two decades of picks and found no team was able to routinely beat expectations through the draft. Some teams did better than others of course, but no team was infallible. The Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks were among the best at selecting draft prospects but even they had swing and misses some years.
Not even the league’s best general managers can consistently select above-average players year in and year out. John Schneider, general manager of the Seattle Seahawks since 2010, is one of the best-drafting executives of the past 20 years. Quarterback Russell Wilson, cornerback Richard Sherman, linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Earl Thomas, among others, were all successful draft picks but there were some, like wideout Paul Richardson and running back Christine Michael, that didn’t pan out based on their draft position. Schneider’s 2013 and 2014 drafts were busts, too, producing below-average value as a whole.
Bill Belichick has been the de facto general manager for New England Patriots since 2000 and 107 of the 153 picks made under his watch produced a lower approximate value than expected over the first four years of their career. In other words, he and his scouts have missed more often than they’ve been successful. In fact, his drafts from 2006 to 2009 were each below average.
Before you tout how successful quarterback Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick in 2000, was for the Patriots keep in mind he is the exception, not the rule. Since he was drafted there have been 53 other quarterbacks drafted in the sixth round or later. None have been named to the league’s all-pro team and only five of the 53 have started more than 25 games in the NFL. In fact, Brady’s case pretty much proves the rule. If the draft process were so predictable, the entire league wouldn’t have passed on a hall of fame quarterback at least five times.
The above study shows how draft results play out over several years, but even just looking at the draft’s immediate aftermath shows no consistent performances from teams. At least through one well-respected, if subjective, lens.
Data from one of the most well-known draft analysts, ESPN’s Mel Kiper, reinforces how difficult it is for teams to replicate draft success. In fact, the correlation coefficient between a team’s draft grade in one year from Kiper and its draft grade in the next year was just 0.04 from 2009 to 2019. A correlation coefficient of one implies the strongest direct relationship possible while a correlation coefficient of zero is just that, zero correlation. This means, according to Kiper, there is essentially no relationship between how well a team does relative to expectation in the draft in one year to the next. If one or more teams were routinely able to predict which prospects will outperform or under perform relative to their draft slot, then certainly Kiper would reward those teams more frequently, leading to a stronger correlation between performance from one year to the next.
It’s important to remember Kiper’s grades come out immediately after the draft and measure future potential. However, teams don’t often get back-to-back above-average grades and those that do for a single year is no guarantee for success. Let’s take the Washington Redskins’ 2016 grade (A-) as an example. Among the team’s seven draft picks, only Matthew Ioannidis, Josh Doctson, Kendall Fuller and Su’a Cravens contributed during the first four years of their career. Ioannidis is one of the best draft picks in the Daniel Snyder era but the other three were busts. Doctson never lived up to his potential. Cravens abruptly retired in 2017.
Circumstances like that just reinforce how many variables there are in trying to accumulate value in the draft. There are so many things that can short circuit a productive NFL career.
The lesson doesn’t just apply to teams, but also analysts. Take Kiper, whose reputation has been forged over years and years of draft prospect evaluations. The Dallas Cowboys got a worse grade from Kiper than the Redskins in 2016 (C) but they drafted a two-time Pro Bowl franchise quarterback (Dak Prescott), a three-time Pro Bowl running back (Ezekiel Elliott) plus three other players who produced above-average results (defensive tackle Maliek Collins, Pro Bowl linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback Anthony Brown). This isn’t to pick on Kiper or all the work he has done over the decades but only to serve as an illustration that even well-renowned analysts have the same difficulty as teams when it comes to consistently identifying successful draft prospects.
It’s easy, of course, to find faults with the benefit of hindsight. Finding a player to select on draft day is just one in a series of decisions that needs to go right. You could be right on a player’s potential or talent only to find he isn’t a fit for your system or doesn’t mesh well with a coaching staff. Injuries also play a role in a player’s development. Teams or analysts could be “right” on draft day, but proven “wrong” by any number of factors when play begins. There are so many variables in fact, the only constant is that no team can consistently mine the draft in an efficient fashion.
As a whole, NFL teams are good at sorting and ranking players on draft day. Yet they still need a little bit of luck on their side because no team can outsmart the rest of the league for long in the draft.
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