The NFL draft was born of necessity - an attempt to ensure the competitive viability of all teams in the league. In a post-draft era, neither deep pockets nor a winning legacy is enough to sign the best rookies. In the now annual custom, teams draft players in reverse order of their finishing place in the previous year's season. This gives struggling teams a chance to secure the best new prospects and hopefully improve their standing in the coming season. But the process of selecting all-star athletes is no simple task, as even the most carefully considered athletes do not always live up to expectations.
With so many decades of drafts behind us, it's possible to reflect on the careers of these players and determine their draft value - or performance relative to their draft position. To add some context, consider these two famous examples.
First is what may go down as one of the lowest value draft picks of all time. In the 1998 NFL draft, the Chargers selected Ryan Leaf, a Heisman candidate out of Washington State, as the No. 2 overall pick. Leaf was not the all-star quarterback the Chargers were hoping for, instead missing the 1999 season with an injury before posting a 1-8 record in 2000. He dropped out of the league in 2001 and eventually ended up in prison on burglary and drug charges. On the other side of the spectrum, the Patriots found a gem when they drafted Tom Brady as the 199th overall pick in 2000. This late-round quarterback has led his team to six Super Bowl appearances, including four wins and three MVP honors.
The previous examples highlight the importance of draft value over draft position, which leads us to take a deeper look at how well players and teams have done in this regard. Check out our analysis of every draft pick since 1960.
The above graphic demonstrates just how difficult it can be to predict future performance. Elite players are pulled almost exclusively from the first few rounds, which creates a considerable desire for teams to secure an early draft position. Yet for every truly exceptional player going in the early rounds, there are many more who never deliver. Drafting a first-round dud is a huge setback for teams that are already struggling to compete in the league.
Drafting hall of famers, on the other hand, is always good for business. Yet the biggest wins are often found in the outliers who are far above and to the right of the group. Chris Hanburger went 245th overall in 1965 and led his team to a Super Bowl appearance in '72 and became the latest overall draft pick ever to achieve Hall of Fame status. Other legendary selections include the previously mentioned Tom Brady as well as Zach Thomas, Harold Jackson, and Stan White. Each of these players delivered a performance well in excess of what is common for his draft position.
When it comes to finding top players for key positions, not all teams are on the same level. The teams on this list managed to scoop up some of the best draft values in history. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Tony Boselli - Jaguars T: 2nd overall
- Bob Griese - Dolphins QB: 4th overall
- Edgerrin James - Colts RB: 4th overall
- DeMarcus Ware - Cowboys OLB: 11th overall
- Ray Lewis - Ravens LB: 26th overall
- Dan Marino - Dolphins QB: 27th overall
- Rob Gronkowski - Patriots TE: 42nd overall
- Anquan Boldin - Cardinals WR: 54th overall
- Brad Meester - Jaguars C: 60th overall
- Bob Breunig - Cowboys LB: 70th overall
- Dick Anderson - Dolphins DB: 73rd overall
- Jake Scott - Dolphins DB: 159th overall
Overachievers are easier to find in some positions than others. The positions of the offensive and defensive line as well as the quarterback role deliver the best results for many teams. The Raiders stand out as the only team that has the most valuable draft picks from the special teams and receiver positions (Los Angeles and Oakland). Other than Ken Stabler, the Raiders have not drafted any of their other star quarterbacks.
Teams have an opportunity to review the draft roster prior to the beginning of the draft process. This allows organizations to calculate which players might be available when it's their turn to choose and create an overall drafting strategy. What should teams do if they have several key roles to fill and must choose between two or three high-ranking candidates? Historically, the stats favor filling the quarterback role first, followed by the offensive and defensive lines. Fullbacks and tight ends are generally the worst picks, returning less than half the value of many other positions.
Every year, thousands of collegiate football players compete to represent their school in the NCAA. The performances of a lucky few are good enough to gain NFL scout attention, which can lead to a career in the NFL. It's worth taking a look at which schools breed the best pros since college teams are the preferred source for new talent.
Most seasoned NFL fans are familiar with the schools on this list. Their alumni can be found on teams all over the league. When it comes to quantity, the Seminoles, Gators, and Hurricanes (all Florida schools) take top honors. For quality, Boston College takes the No. 1 spot with its average NFL career value about 30% better than the league average.
There are currently 32 players drafted in each round of the NFL draft - one for each team. With so many promising athletes available in the first round, does a team's position in the draft order really make a difference? In short: yes. The data suggest that teams negotiating draft positions assign roughly the same value for picks 12-20 and exponentially higher or lower values for picks near the beginning or end of the round.
On average, a player will only spend 1.4 years starting for the team that drafted him. So it's important to draft well year after year. This notion produces a steady stream of quality rookies that can fill critical roles for their teams and hopefully turn into long-term all stars. When it comes to consistency, nobody does it better than the Cowboys, Vikings, and Dolphins. At the bottom of the list is the Redskins, which stands alone as the team with the worst draft quality of all time.
Now that 2014 rookies have a full season under their belt, let's see what kind of value they provided their teams. Zack Martin of the Cowboys was the most valuable draft pick of the year, followed closely by C.J. Mosley of the Ravens. For late-round picks, Corey Linsley of the Packers and Zach Fulton of the Chiefs both delivered great performances.
Not all teams fared so well however. The No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney of the Texans, suffered a season-ending injury, while the Lions' No. 10 pick Eric Ebron missed several games due to hamstring issues. After trading two picks to secure Cody Latimer late in the second round, the Broncos draft value suffered when Latimer delivered less than expected in the 2014 season.
The True Value of the NFL Draft
For serious NFL fans, the draft is something to watch with great anticipation. It's not simply about teams picking one of the year's big names; those choices are obvious. Fans and teams alike will find the best players behind the scenes, jockeying for positions. These "sleepers" are the surprise picks - the diamonds in the turf. Once the dust has settled and the analysts have all gone home, fans will be left with the hope that one of their team's new rookies will develop into something special. The potential for stars to materialize from the most unlikely of picks is what makes the NFL draft such a special event, year after year.
We collected draft data for every NFL draft since 1960. Using the approximate player and career values by team, we analyzed every pick, position, and team in the NFL since 1960. Approximate values took multiple variables into account and weighted each player's best season slightly higher than others. The approximate value is not an end-all-be-all score for the best players in history, as many accomplishments and efforts never made it to the stat sheet. See here for more details.
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