Is The Draft Worth It?
Why to trade late picks
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Is the NFL draft process worth all the time, energy, attention and effort?
Is there a point in the draft when a team should stop making picks and do everything possible to trade away their remaining slots?
Is there’s really any value in the late round picks, and is it a good idea to trade draft picks for established veterans?
Which teams have done the best job of drafting? Which positions are the safest to take? Which positions produce the biggest busts?
In an attempt to try to answer all of those questions and make sense of the science of the draft process, CFN has put together a rough breakdown of every pick from 2000 to 2010 - leaving out 2011 because it’s still way too early to make a proper judgment on most of the top players.
What we discovered after all the analysis is that an NFL general manager has one job and one job only when it comes to the draft: find players who can actually help the team.
While that might be obvious, it takes nothing more than blind luck to come up with a superstar, Pro Bowl performer, and almost half of all players drafted are absolutely worthless. By our calculations, roughly 30% of all players drafted make a major impact, while the other 70% are either bodies, and nothing more, or aren’t worth the time, effort, and signing bonus to draft.
What we found out is that a team should always, always, always make the effort to trade away a mid-to-late round draft pick for a veteran whenever possible, but since no one in the NFL likes to make big trades, it’s always a better deal to get rid of any and all picks after the third round if it brings in an extra top 100 pick.
Call this the Moneyball way to look at the draft - it's all about minimizing
risk. The odds of getting a good starter go into the tank the longer the draft goes on, and while that might not come as a shocker, the drop-off from round to round is far greater than you might think.
Yes, once in a while a fifth-rounder rocks, and every year the campfire stories are told about Tom Brady and Terrell Davis to keep fans mildly interested in the late rounds, but remember, the entire idea of drafting is to take a chance on a prospect. The odds of finding a living, breathing player after the first 100 picks are horrendous – it’ll all be broken down in a moment – meaning that if you can trade two third rounders for a Brandon Marshall, or give up a fifth rounder for a Keith Rivers, or a fourth for DeMeco Ryans, then by all means do it.
A general manager has to find starters, and as we found out, that’s really, really hard to do. Drafting players late to be special teamers and fill out a roster is easy, but unnecessary. Bodies can always be picked up off the waiver wire or traded for using late draft picks, but drafting a good starter means everything in a draft.
To figure out just how the draft breaks down, every player was assigned a rating based on whether or not the pick worked, and it’s a more obvious call than you might think.
The criteria is extremely loose. Basically, if the player is a regular starter, then that’s all that matters, and players who were just bodies to make a team don’t really help the cause.
- 5 – The elite of the elite. These are the perennial Pro Bowl performers and the potential Hall of Famers who become the stars of a franchise. If you have to make a case for a player to be a 5, he’s not a 5.
Over the 11 drafts analyzed there are just 31 of these players, but none came from the 2011 class since it’s still too early a call to make on Ndamukong Suh and a few other burgeoning stars.
More importantly, just six of these elite players were drafted after the first round – Lance Briggs in the third round of the 2003 draft and Jared Allen by Kansas City in the fourth round 2004 draft are as borderline as this category gets, while Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft is the only other elite player taken after the second round. Devin Hester – he’ll go in the Hall as a kick returner - in the 2006 second round, Maurice Jones-Drew in the 2006 second round, and Drew Brees with the first pick in the second round in 2001 are the only other non-first round elite of the elite picks.
- 4 – Difference makers. These are the top starters who made a Pro Bowl or two and/or were high level stars. Out of the 152 players in this category, just 28 were taken after the second round and a mere 11 were selected after the fourth. That means that out of 2,779 players drafted from 2000 to 2010, roughly 12 players taken after the fourth round became more than just solid starters.
- 3- Starters. These are real, live NFL players who were functional starters for a long time, or were sensational for a short time, or a mix of both. Any of the players in this category would be classified as a successful pick for a general manager. They might not have all been worth the value of the pick – we’ll deal with value later – but at the very least they were starters. Some probably belong in the 4 category, and several could be ranked a bit lower, but at the very least these picks didn’t bust.
Out of the 682 players put in this category, 250 of them were drafted after the third round and 154 of those were drafted after the fourth. That means, give or take a few players here or there, about 6% of the players drafted after the fourth round from 2000 to 2010 - roughly 166 of the 2,779 players drafted - became strong NFL starters or more.
- 2 – Guys. Some are solid NFL starters and some even had a year or two of stardom, but for the most part these are just guys on a team. These are the live bodies needed to fill out a roster, and while they aren’t necessarily busts, they’re the run-of-the-mill NFL players that teams can live without. These are the cogs – they aren’t the difference makers.
- 1 – Easy cuts. There might be an occasional starter in this group, but these are the players who saw a little time, made some money, and filled in roles. However, the picks didn’t matter. These are mostly the easily replaceable players who can be taken off the scrap heap at any time.
- 0 – Nope. These are the busts who didn’t work out. Some might have hung around a roster in a backup role, and some might have found a niche as a special teamer, but for the most part these players didn’t do anything on the field worthy of the draft pick. Out of the 888 players put in this category, just six first rounders – R. Jay Soward, Sylvester Morris, and Chris McIntosh in 2000; Jamal Reynolds in 2001; Charles Rogers in 2003; and Rashaun Woods in 2004 – made the cut.
787 of the players in this category were taken after the third round. In all, 1,136 players taken after the third round over an 11-year span were, at best, guys who filled out a roster and nothing more. Out of all the players drafted during this time frame, roughly 41% of the total players drafted turned out to be have little to no value were and were taken after the third round.
Alright, so what does this all mean?
Finding a worthwhile starter after the third round is almost all luck.
To break this all down by round by percentage per round from 2000 to 2010:
First Round 349 players total
You have to really, really try to screw up in the first round. Just 10% of the first round picks were disasters while 62% of the players taken were at the very least functional NFL starters. A team has a far, far better chance of finding a star in the first round than a bust, so yes, first round picks really are that valuable.
5 – 25 players 7%
4 - 83 players 24%
3 - 143 players 41%
2- 64 players 18%
1- 28 players 8%
0 – 6 players 2%
Second Round 350 players total
There’s better than a 50/50 shot of finding a good starter in the second round and there’s little risk of the pick being a total bust. While the superstars are almost certainly going to be snapped up in the first round, there aren’t too many major misses in the second with a mere 7% of the picks doing nothing and 22% of the selections failing to produce at a decent level. Teams should load up on as many second round picks as possible because that’s where the starters are.
5 - 3 players 0.86%
4 – 42 players 12%
3 – 153 players 44%
2 - 75 players 21%
1 - 53 players 15%
0 - 24 players 7%
Third Round 375 players
And here’s where the production falls off the map. Lance Briggs is the lone third round pick to make the top category, and just over 3% of the third round picks became major difference-makers. This is when it becomes a gamble to find a good starter with 43% of the third round picks bringing little or no value and 65% of the picks failing to provide a starter worth getting excited about. In other words, teams need to play the percentages and trade a third round pick and any other later round picks to move up into the second whenever possible.
5 – 1 player 0.3%
4 - 11 players 3%
3 – 121 players 32%
2 – 86 players 23%
1 – 85 players 23%
0 – 71 players 19%
Fourth Round 396 players
There isn’t a major difference between the third and fourth rounds. Roughly 65% of the third round picks didn’t turn into difference-making starters, while over 70% of the fourth round picks failed to become worthwhile. There are almost no big-time stars coming from the round – sackmaster Jared Allen was the lone superstar player. If a team was told it had roughly a 3-in-10 shot of getting a starter, would it still want its fourth round pick?
5 – 1 player 0.25%
4 – 6 players 1.5%
3 – 106 players 27%
2 – 89 players 22%
1 – 70 players 18%
0 – 124 players 31%
Fifth Round 394 players
This is the dumping round. A fifth round pick sounds relatively valuable, but it’s not. A whopping 44% of the picks were total wastes of time and over 80% of the draft picks failed to become relevant starters.
5 – No players 0%
4 – 6 players 1.5%
3 - 62 players 16%
2 – 65 players 16%
1 – 86 players 22%
0 – 175 players 44%
Sixth Round 423 players
Over half the players taken had no value and 73% failed to do much of anything. Just over 11% of the players taken in this round turned out to be starters, and there weren’t even many bodies to fill in the gaps with just over a quarter of the players selected going on to do anything.
5 - 1 player 0.2%
4 – 2 players 0.47%
3 – 45 players 11%
2 – 66 players 16%
1 – 95 players 22%
0 – 214 players 51%
Seventh Round 492 players
Don’t even bother. Over 75% of the seventh rounders did absolutely nothing and there’s just over a 1-in-10 shot of finding a decent starter. It would be better to blow off the seventh round altogether, save the money, and go get the top rookie free agents still available.
5 – No players 0%
4 – 3 players 0.6%
3 – 54 players 11%
2 – 61 players 12%
1 – 99 players 20%
0 – 275 players 56%
In other words, be glued to your TV on Thursday night because that’s the future of the NFL. Go out and do something more valuable with your life during the rest of the draft.