April 10, 2015 - Tony Villiotti
Which NFL Teams Draft the Best?
Evaluating the draft performance of an NFL team is difficult at best. The ultimate test of a team occurs on the field, of course, and is a mixture of many elements, with draft performance being just one. There are a number of issues when trying to isolate draft performance. Teams do not have the same number of selections, drafted players are moving into different playing situations, and so forth. In this article, the number of starts from 2005 through 2014 was used as the most reasonable metric for measuring draft performance. This is not perfect but allows a window into draft performance. Starts for a player are credited to the team that drafted him and includes games started for either the drafting team or a subsequent team. Drafts for the past ten years (2005-2014) were studied to see what conclusions could be drawn. Each NFL team starts with 70 selections for the 10-year period (10 years and one selection by round). Adjustments are then made for selections lost due to penalty or used in the supplemental draft, compensatory selections awarded and the net number of choices gained or lost through trades (mostly trade-up or trade-down transactions). Here is a summary by team, sorted by total number of selections between 2005 and 2014: There is quite a range in the number of selections with the Saints having the fewest with 60 and the Packers the most with 96. All draft selections are not created equal, however, as a first round choice is worth considerably more than a seventh round selection. It is fair to say, in my opinion, that no one views the absolute number of starts as being fully indicative of a team’s expectations. A measure that does a better job of weighting the draft choices is the number of starts a team could historically expect, given their number of selections and the location of their selections. This sets the expectation but does not provide any information about actual results. The following ranks the NFL teams by the number of expected starts for players drafted from 2005 through 2014. The revised rankings push the Rams into the position of being the team that should have expected the most help from the draft over the past 10 years, with the Packers dropping from first to second. There is little change at both the top and the bottom of the expectations between the first and second tables. We next ranked the teams by the actual number of starts by players drafted by each team in the 10-year study period. This gives great weight to the total number of selections by a team, particularly early round selections. The following table shows those rankings: As can be seen from reviewing the previous two tables, the difference between actual and expected performance can be rather significant. The Ravens, for example, are ranked fifth in actual starts compared to 18th in expected starts by players selected in the study period. The above table still places, in my opinion, too much weight on the actual number of draft choices. What I believe to be preferable is to rank the teams by number of actual starts as a percentage of expected starts. The following table shows the percentage by which a team’s actual performance exceeds or lags expected performance. Players drafted by the Seahawks, for example, had almost 19% more games started (1785 divided by 1505) than a historical analysis would suggest. A number in parentheses indicates that a team did not achieve expectations. It is interesting that this year’s Super Bowl participants (Seahawks and Patriots) are at the opposite end of the ratings. This reinforces the notion that there is more than one way to achieve NFL success. The Seahawks achieved most of its success in rounds two through four, while being close to average in other rounds. The Patriots did better than expected in round one but were ahead of only the Lions in second round performance. The first round is the only round where the Patriots exceeded expectations by more than a nominal amount. While the Patriots did draft some very fine players in round two (like Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Jamie Collins), they also had their share of flops and players approaching flop status in Ras-I Dowling, Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley, Ron Brace, Tavon Wilson and Chad Jackson. The best and worst performances by draft round are shown in the following table. All situations where actual was better or worse than expected by at least 100 starts are included. The table indicates that the Colts’ sixth-round selections, in the aggregate for the ten-year study period, exceeded expectations by 264 starts. Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics