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What Can The Top NFL Players of All Time Teach Us About the NFL Draft?

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It’s not the Superbowl, but every fan knows that the future of their favorite franchise is on the line every year at draft time.The right choice can put a franchise in a good position for years to come and the wrong choice can be crippling.

The big question is, how can you predict and understand where draft success comes from?

We’ve combined a metric estimating the value a player provided over the course of their entire career with a variety of data from when they were chosen in the draft, from which university, in what year, etc.

The results make it clear just why everyone gets nervous at draft time.

Many seemingly obvious predictors of success are skin-deep, while other times, unexpected patterns emerge. Teams which may seem to dominate the draft actually have poor average results, while top players drafted in the 6th round often outperformed those chosen in the 1st (seriously).

Read on to see what I mean.

Methodology: How Are We Calculating the Value of These Players?

The cornerstone of this research is the Career Approximate Value metric developed by Doug Drinen, founder of Pro-Football-Reference.com. This metric attempts to find a balanced measure of the value provided by a particular player over the course of their career

Drinen does this by creating a unique system for measuring performance based on different positions. A more detailed explanation of the metric can be found here, as it’s far too complicated to discuss fully in this post.

Our study looks at the top 250 players in the history of the NFL by their career approximate value. This is important, as it’s not comparing all players within the NFL — just the best of the best. Unfortunately, there’s isn’t a good way to look at the tens of thousands of players who have been drafted in the history of the NFL all at once.

Applying this value metric starts with looking at the draft itself: how much of an effect does a player’s pick number really influence their career performance? Not nearly as much as you’d think.

How Important Really Is Your Draft Number?

Let’s start with the most famous number associated with any draft pick: the round number. Draft time is always full of “[Name of Player] Is a First Round Draft Pick” style headlines.

So, how much does the draft pick really influence the success of the best players in NFL history?

The big surprise here is that, out of the best players in NFL history, 6th round picks provided the highest average value. Even players who weren’t drafted at all (meaning they entered the NFL as free agents) are the 6th best performing group, following 6th round, 1st round, 13th round, 3rd round, and 2nd round picks.

How is that possible? The first thing to understand is that nearly half of these top players were chosen in the first round, while 3 were chosen in the 6th (including, importantly, Tom Brady). This means a single player has a major impact in the 6th round relative to the 1st. The numbers on top of each bar represent the total number of players chosen in that round.

Clearly, there is good value in the first three round picks, but the process is obviously less predictable than that. While there are many examples of players from the early draft rounds in the sample, the other rounds have only a few players in them, making them more susceptible to outliers.

It’s also worth mentioning that not a single player out of these 250 was drafted in the 10th round. Now that might be a fluke, but honestly, with these numbers it’s entirely possible that the number is cursed. Maybe the NFL should make it the 13th floor of draft rounds.

Let’s try breaking this down further by looking at the actual pick number instead of the more general round number.

Surprisingly, the pick numbers bring out different conclusions relative to the rounds. While these numbers can also be heavily influenced by a single player once you get past pick 10 or so, the standouts are surprising.

The highest average value for any pick number amongst top players? Number 27, of course (thanks Dan Marino). Number 199 comes in second thanks to Tom Brady. Still, the overall decline from #1 isn’t nearly as noticeable as you’d expect. It seems lightning can strike in plenty of places.

There are even some players who came close to winning the much vaunted title of “Mr. Irrelevant,” yet still managed to make it into the top 250 players of all time. Particular props to Keenan McCardell, drafted to the Cleveland Browns in 1992 for being the latest drafted player to make the list (he was picked 326th out of 336 players that year).

Where Did You Come From, Where Did You Go? Top Schools and Franchises

Every NFL draftee has to come from somewhere, so which universities can say they’ve produced the top players in the history of the NFL?

Easy, the University of Miami and USC. Yes, but no. True, those two schools have provided by far the most value through all the players drafted from them, but the averages tell a different story.

The top 3 schools providing the highest average value in a star player are the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Tennessee, and Virginia Tech. Miami and USC don’t even come close. In fact, the average player value from the University of Southern Mississippi provided 57% more value than one from the University of Miami.

Still, Miami and USC’s top spots don’t look likely to change anytime soon. The first round of the 2015 draft has two players from each school.

You could say that these schools don’t flood the NFL with stars, but when they do, they’re true stars.

But how do things look on the receiving end? Which NFL franchises end up with the best top talent?

Once again, the data doesn’t play out a single winner — things vary widely between the average value and total value. With the totals, the big franchises clearly win out. The Steelers, Cowboys, and Vikings dominate.

It’s curious though, that some relatively successful franchises really don’t fare well in the totals, with the Denver Broncos, for example, only managing 3 players in the top 250 (compared to 18 from the Steelers).

The averages, of course, show a different picture. The seemingly dominant Dallas Cowboys end up with one of the lowest grades for average player value. The Colts, 49ers, and Falcons are the teams that come out on top. This seems to be good news for the NFL, as most teams do fairly well either in the averages or the totals.

That is, as long as you’re not the New York Jets or Jacksonville Jaguars. Both teams score low in both the totals and averages. It’s especially tough for the Jets, since they’re the only NFL team without majority support in a single US county.

How Important Is Your Position?

Everyone talks about quarterbacks as the backbone of any great NFL team, but do they really hold their own when it comes to our value metrics? In short, yes.

What else does this chart teach us? Even the best Offensive Tackle in NFL history doesn’t add up to much. Sorry guys. That’s going to be surprising for many, with so many teams relying heavily on the position these days. I’ll predict that position’s rankings are going to increase as time goes on.

Fullbacks, on the other hand, perform surprisingly well (not being last qualifying as “surprising”) considering the position has been dying out for the better part of 2 decades. Chock that up to the long arm of history. Still, no doubt that position will fade from the rankings over time.

Nobody will be surprised at the prominent position of the quarterback here. There’s no chance their spot as the most important position is going to change anytime soon.

Here, I decided to take a step away from the average metric and just take a quick look at how long players in each of these positions tend to stay in the NFL. Aside from some outliers (26 years? Clearly Quarterback George Blanda was a machine) the average came out to about 13 years.

There’s definitely a correlation between the years played and the total value added. Quarterbacks and Centers, for example, rank near the top for in both categories. Luckily for Offensive Tackles, they seem to resist the urge to bail despite barely making it into the top 250. Fullbacks, one can assume, quietly leave when it becomes clear they’re not needed.

So what happens if we take position out of the equation?

1949–2011: What’s Changed in 62 Years?

Remember, the average value metric looks at the player’s top years, so the more years they play, the more likely they are to boost their overall average, right?

Again, the answer is yes and no.

True, the top players who spent fewer than 10 years in the NFL come out with the worst average scores. But that doesn’t mean more is always better. Once you pass 19 years, there’s clearly some serious diminishing returns.

Also worth noting is that the 26 years bar is there only because of George Blanda. The man really does stand alone.

But Blanda was drafted all the way back in 1949, so how have NFL draftees been doing through the years? Are there any ‘good ol’ days,’ and if so, when would they be?

A few quick notes about this chart. Some years (1950-1955) are missing, as no one drafted in that year made it into the top 250 players. Also, don’t judge the recent past so much, because players drafted in the 2000s and 2010s haven’t had much time to build up their average value scores.

Still, it’s pretty impressive that Matt Light, drafted to the Patriots in 2001, made it into the top 250 list at all.

Okay, so what’s the overall trend?

Aside from the drop off resulting from players still being in the NFL, there is a slight trend upward. You could argue this points to football becoming a better sport, or just that training regimes and player quality have made their mark.

What is undoubtedly clear, however, is that certain years were just great years for the NFL draft. While the 1980s were pretty volatile, 1985 clearly stands as the best draft year in NFL history, followed by 1991, 1983, and 1981. The worst years come out at 1959 and 1992.

What does it all add up to?

Drafting a Conclusion

What do these charts have to teach us overall and do they have any predictive power when looking at this years draftees?

As far as predictions go, there’s a single player who consistently checks off all the boxes with positive predictors from this data. The lucky winner is Phillip Dorsett, 2015’s number 29 pick for the Indianapolis Colts. He’s a wide receiver and comes from the University of Miami. That puts him at an excellent pick number, university, team, and position.

Besides him, plenty of players check off a box or two, but not many stand out based on our metrics.

What this data does provide is a picture of the history of the NFL and its draft system. The top 250 player list may be full of top draft picks, but it’s often the wildcards who really shine. Sure, the most valuable player in NFL history, Peyton Manning, was the first pick of the 1998 draft, but the second best player, Brett Favre, was chosen 33rd in 1991.

The other thing this data confirms is what players, fans, and owners have known all along: the draft defies prediction. Patterns and trends exist, but even the best supercomputers are unlikely to be able to produce that holy grail of professional football: the value-guaranteed draftee. Until then, we’ll keep our eyes on the numbers.

Just avoid the 10th round. Always avoid the 10th round.

Comments (1)

  1. sports nest - Reply

    August 26, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    The graphic of this articles is very nice

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