Any student of the NFL can speak of how the draft made or broke their team. Take, for example, the 2010 NFL Draft Class. That year, the Seattle Seahawks drafted offensive tackle Russell Okung, wide receiver Golden Tate, free safety Earl Thomas and defensive back Kam Chancellor. These four became part of a three-year run of draft picks by the Seahawks that built the squad that won Super Bowl XLVIII and nearly won Super Bowl XLIX.
Fanatics has analyzed the draft classes of every NFL team from 1995 to 2015 in order to determine the best-performing classes of this period. In understanding how the draft may or may not predict future NFL success, it is easier to appreciate the abnormalities and curiosity that surround the annual talent lottery.
THE SCIENCE OF THE DRAFT
In 2000, the New England Patriots offered their first-round draft pick, along with the fourth- and seventh-round draft picks in the 2001 draft, to the New York Jets as a trade offer to give Bill Belichick the head coaching position with the Patriots while he was still contractually obligated to the Jets. The Patriots finished 5-11 in 2000 and were counting on the draft to help rebuild their struggling franchise. The Patriots’ top pick that year was offensive tackle Adrian Klemm – the 46th pick overall. However, the pick that most Patriots fans remember was a compensatory one in Round 6 – the 199th pick that year. That was for the quarterback from the University of Michigan, Tom Brady.Of the entire 2000 NFL Draft, only three players – Brady, Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski, and Houston Texans punter Shane Lechler still play in the league. While players who are drafted earlier tend to have longer careers than those picked later, this is far from a precise rule – Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was picked in the sixth round of the 1998 Draft and is one of only three players from that draft currently playing.The interactive flipbook above breaks down the percentages of draftees from 1995 to 2015 who are still in the league. “It’s what makes the game and the draft so fascinating, it’s not an exact science, as I’ve said many, many times,” said Ron Wolf, former general manager of the Green Bay Packers to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “You never know what a player is going to do until he gets the chance.”
THE MAGIC OF THE LATE DRAFT
When the Patriots drafted Brady in 2000, he was the fourth-string quarterback. In typical situations, the Patriots only have a bench that’s three quarterbacks deep, sending fourth-string or lower quarterbacks to the practice squad or cutting them altogether. However, Belichick made the unprecedented move of protecting Brady, sensing that – while the top-ranked quarterback may not have been important in 2000 – he could have a bigger role to play in future seasons.Coaches for top-tiered franchises tend to have a sense about a potential player. Brady struggled to make himself known at the University of Michigan in the shadow of quarterback Brian Griese and was forced to fight for the starting quarterback position against Drew Henson. However, his performance in the 1998 Citrus Bowl and the 1999 Orange Bowl suggested that – if given a place to flourish – he could eventually exceed all expectations. Brady was the type of gamble freshman head coach Belichick felt comfortable making.The graphic above shows the teams that have drafted a first team Pro Bowler in the fifth, sixth, or seventh rounds of the draft since 1995. Of these teams, five of them – the Patriots, the Packers, the Seahawks, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Baltimore Ravens – have won Super Bowls in the same period.
MEASURING THE VALUE OF 1ST ROUND QUARTERBACK PICKS
There is a common line of thought in picking quarterbacks who would likely carry a franchise, and that is that they are most likely picked in the first round. While the exceptions – such as Brady, the Saints’ Drew Brees (second-round draft pick, 2001), and the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson (third-round, 2012) – lend evidence to disprove this sentiment, it is still a common rule among scouts that if you want a quarterback, you have to grab him early in the draft.Of the last 16 drafts, a quarterback was the top pick 11 times. Many scouts feel that – with a championship college team – it is easier to pay attention to the “field general” and his winning record, without real consideration of his future potential or compatibility with the NFL franchise.The facts, however, give skeptics a lot of ammunition to shoot holes in this age-old adage. According to the NFL, for example, of the 47 Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks, only 26 are first-round draft picks. The 11 quarterbacks who were top pick in the draft have gone 15 for 17 in the playoffs. However, eight of those 15 wins came from the Giants’ Eli Manning.
The graphic above shows the correlation between number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round and the average number of passing touchdowns for these quarterbacks since 1995. Drafting a first-round quarterback is a costly proposition, and it doesn’t always pay off – as demonstrated in the above infographic. Drafted in 2008, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens proved strong investments, as both yielded healthy passing production. But 2007’s JaMarcus Russell of the Oakland Raiders – who put up a 7-18 record over three seasons – proved that a top-tier quarterback pick is no better than a coin flip in determining future success.
A RUNNING BACK’S WORTH
It should come as no surprise that the modern NFL is now a passing league. “The athletes on that side of the ball, you’re seeing bigger guys, faster guys,” said Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator, to NFL.com. “The talent level of the receivers has really increased. You don’t see fullbacks or blocking tight ends anymore. Teams put three receivers on the field, use shotgun on first and second downs, and with that third receiver, they find the better matchups.”This mentality rings true: No running backs were drafted in the first round in 2013 or 2014, which is why these years were omitted in the graphic above. This graphic shows the relationship between the number of running backs drafted in the first round and the average number of rushing touchdowns scored by these running backs since 1995.However, the St. Louis Rams drafted running back Todd Gurley in the first round of 2015 and the San Diego Chargers followed suit with Melvin Gordon, proving a significant undercurrent may disagree with the notion that rushing is dead in the league. During years when teams with rush-heavy offenses have the top picks – such as 2007, which saw the introduction of rush leaders Adrian Peterson to the Minnesota Vikings and Marshawn Lynch to the Seahawks – rush production spiked among that year’s draft picks, as run-friendly recruits are more likely to be selected.
However, because the league has enforced pass protection more stringently in recent years, the economics of a run-friendly offense will be challenged more and more in future years. The notion that recruiting a star running back does not guarantee success in converting running plays into scores – as demonstrated with the 1995, 1998, 2005, and 2010 draft classes – may prompt many franchises to spare their spending caps and gamble with a receiver instead.
LONGEVITY IN EXCELLENCE
It is not a secret that longevity in the NFL is rare. In 2011, the NFL Players Association released statistics arguing that 50 percent of the league sees fewer than four years on the gridiron. Kickers and quarterbacks tend to have longer shelf lives than other positions, and it can be argued that All-Pros are likely to have the longest careers, but a career in excess of 13 years is still extraordinary.The infographic above reveals this trend. The top graph shows the percentage of career that a draft class was selected to the All-Pro for all players drafted since 1995. The bottom graph shows the career percentage of All-Pro players who are still playing as of the 2015 season.In 1998, for example, 11 players were selected All Pro at least once. However, of those 11, just three are still playing today: the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning, the Oakland Raiders’ Charles Woodson, and the Green Bay Packers’ Matt Hasselbeck. However, there are no active players from the 199 draft class, despite the fact that 10 All-Pro selectees were drafted in 1999.
Upon examining the rubric to determine the future longevity of a draft class, one may be able to argue that the Class of 2010 will be particularly long-playing: Of the 13 All-Pro selections from this class, 12 are still playing. However, with all the other factors in the draft, attempting to predict what might happen is ultimately a fool’s errand.
Ultimately, the best way to think of the NFL Draft is as a lottery. If a team is really lucky, it may hit jackpot and get a Tom Brady as a late pick. In the same breath, a particularly unlucky team can snag a JaMarcus Russell as their top pick. In a system in which past performance may or may not be an indication of future success, the odds of picking a franchise player are no better than correctly calling a flipped coin.
However, the chance of striking lucky and getting an Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck, or Eli Manning will always keep franchises hedging bets on the top picks and maneuvering to be the first to select. It is this that makes the NFL Draft such a remarkable institution to watch and an amazing phenomenon to study.
We looked at Pro Football Reference, analyzing all draft picks from 1995 to 2015 and their corresponding career stats. For several of the assets, we removed the data for the 2015 draft, as that season is incomplete, which would have skewed the data. For the “Top of Their Class” interactive flipbook, we chose to only show players who are still active from each draft class. There are no players active from the 2000 Draft, which is why this page is omitted.
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