I wanted to explore this idea, of how often draft picks succeed, but there really is no way to do this that is foolproof, or won't spark some arguments. Any measurement you use is going to have its shortcomings. Do you base it on how many games a player started? Plenty of guys end up starting, even if they are pretty bad. How about Pro Bowl or All Pro selections? Eh, that is kind of hit and miss too. Lots of players get selected to these All Star teams, based on past reputation, rather than their current playing ability, while good players on bad teams get overlooked.
if we can accept that this will be somewhat inexact, I think a fairly
decent picture of what is going on can be achieved. No matter how I try
to lay this out, there will undoubtedly be people who raise some 'what
ifs' or 'yeah, buts' about the views I have. I'm just shooting for a
rough ballpark figure, to get an adequate approximation of the truth.
“I think you have to divide it into top 12 and bottom 20. If you’re in
the top 12, it ought to be in the .640 range. That’s about 4.5 guys on
average per year out of the seven. You measure that at the end of three
years and what you are measuring is whether or not those guys become
winning players, guys that contribute to wins. Bottom 20 is .571, that’s
four out of seven…"- Bill Polian, former GM of the Colts
"If you look historically, teams get 2.3 (32.8% of the 7 picks) starters per draft and as a
team, I think you need to strive to get 3 starters per draft (42.8% of the 7 picks) , or I
should say players worthy of starting."- Mike Reinfeldt, former GM of the Titans
both of these cases, I think these GMs are blatantly full of sh*t.
Mike Reinfeldt is closer to the truth, but is still probably
overestimating a bit. Polian's claims/expectations, on the other hand,
appear to be wishful thinking. Polian seems to factor undrafted free
agents into his calculation, which you really shouldn't. The "guys that
contribute to wins" line is also extremely vague. There is also a tendency
for people to grade these things on a curve, where late round players
aren't counted as failures due to the lower expectations people have of
them. Of course, when a late round player performs well, suddenly the
people involved want that to be included in their resume.
our purposes, I'm just interested in knowing what percentage of all the
players selected became meaningful contributors, regardless of round.
If a first rounder busts, but a seventh rounder blossoms it all balances
out in my eyes. One of the more acceptable measures of this that I
have run across was written by Tony Villiotti over at Draftmetrics.com. It doesn't completely answer all the concerns I might have, but I think it is a good starting point.
the bottom of Mr. Villiotti's paper, he lists the percentage of players
at each position, and from each round, that manage to start at least 8
games per year (on average) in their first 5 years. This is a fairly
low bar to set, in my opinion, for judging the degree to which a player
is a success, but is probably overall a fair compromise. What I'm
particularly interested in are the overall results listed in the final
column of his chart. He suggests that from 1991 - 2004, 21.5% of all players drafted managed to meet his 8 game per year standard. Yes, players taken in the first round met this standard 73.6% of the time, and 7th rounders only met it 5.9%
of the time. In the end, the likelihood of a player meeting the
standards required here, goes down by about ten percent for each
consecutive round. I'm just interested in the overall percentage, since
I want to know how many successful players we should expect a team to
accumulate in an average year. Based on this overall 21.5% probability, this would work out to 1.5
players out of seven total draft picks, which lines up with my own
observations. Obviously, this is much lower than the estimates given by
Mr. Polian, and Mr. Reinfeldt (though they were speaking about what would constitute a good draft, rather than just an average one, they are still being overly generous as I will eventually attempt to show)..
Now, even with this
information, we run into some problems. For one, these numbers could
still be somewhat inflated. I don't think there can be much doubt that
the 73.6% success rate on 1st rounders is boosted by the likelihood
that teams will keep trotting a player out onto the field, even when
they are playing somewhat poorly, simply because of their draft status.
On the flip side, it is hard to judge the 5.9% success rate of
7th rounders, when we never know if they have been given any real
opportunity to prove themselves. In this case their low draft status,
and preconceived notions of their value, works against them. Continuing
to give opportunities to high round picks, because a team still expects
them to become a quality player and confirm their initial appraisal of
the player's talent, obviously goes hand in hand with stymieing the
success of the late round player. There are only so many starting spots
available, after all. Either way, we'll ignore this issue, since their
isn't much we can do about it.
Even if a player is
managing to start games, we can't be certain that he is actually playing
well. Making subjective assessments of a player is tricky, and
probably part of why so many turn out to be busts in the first place.
Still, I thought I would try and apply some subjective grades towards
the team I am most familiar with, the Baltimore Ravens, to get a sense
of what is going on. To do this, I simply assigned a score from 1-5, for every player they selected from the years 2000 to 2010 (87 players
in total). While this focuses on only one team, it hopefully still serves as a useful example.
While this is a very loose and
subjective approach (and quite possibly idiotic), I was trying to be as generous to the team as
possible, to see the most optimistic outlook on what is going on. Players who
never got playing time or were quickly bounced from the league got a
score of 1. Players who got some playing time but were notably horrible
got a 2 (WR Clarence Moore, for example). Anybody who I felt could be
perceived as at least an occasional starter or journeyman type got a 3
(DE Antwan Barnes, perhaps). Players with a 4 or 5 grade were the
obvious sorts, who had distinguished themselves in some way, either
statistically, or through Pro Bowls, as well as through longevity. I
will admit though that I tended to take a point off for special team
players (mainly kickers and punters) and for fullbacks, simply because
of their reduced positional value. Either way, the truth is that the
scores in themselves don't entirely matter. I just wanted to see what
percentage of players could arguably be seen as average or better,
even if I graded them a bit more generously than I believe that they
So, being very forgiving of the mediocre, the Ravens came up with 41.36%
of their 87 selections since 2000 as being at least passably average.
Now, this whole approach is obviously somewhat foolish, and not the least bit
scientific, but I just wanted to see what the best case scenario was if I
only weeded out the most blatant and inarguable busts such as Troy
Smith or Yamon Figurs, which make up the remaining 58.64% of the teams picks. In reality, I suspect we could argue that their
overall success rate might be closer to 30-35%, which would still be higher
than league wide 21.5% I mentioned earlier. This would still be a noteworthy improvement over the average result, for a team that is
perceived to be one of the best in the draft, while still being lower
that the public might expect.
As an example of what an
exceptional draft might look like, I thought the Chargers' 2005 draft
class might serve as a good example. With the selections of Shawne
Merriman, Luis Castillo, Vincent Jackson, and Darren Sproles, you could argue that their success rate that year was 57.14% (they had 7
selections that year). This probably represents, or is close enough to
representing, the upper limit for what teams can currently aspire to
achieve. This is obviously far from a typical result.
what's the point of all of this? The reason all of this interests me,
is that I suspect teams should be doing much better. From what I have
observed, teams should be shooting for a success rate closer to 70%.
While there will always be up and down periods, largely due to varying
levels of talent in a draft class, but also some random luck, teams
should almost never be dipping below a 50% success rate. Based
on the data available to them, from the combine and college stats, the
frequency with which players at the exceptional end of the "measurable
talent" bell curve succeed is much higher than they seem to realize. I
wouldn't expect a radical shift in success rate in the first 2 rounds,
where teams generally do a reasonable job of selecting the obviously
superior players, but more so from the 3rd round onwards. At that
point, it seems to me that their failure rate is much higher than it
should be. While the overall availability of highly talented players
does diminish as the draft goes on, the ones that remain and go on to
become successes, are more readily identifiable than people seem to
acknowledge. The players who reside on the extreme low end of the bell
curve, in terms of athletic ability and college production, have nearly
zero chance of panning out. Investing a team's draft picks in players
who have more exceptional qualities, even if they aren't flawless, at
least has some plausible chance of working out, based on who we have
seen emerge from mid to late round obscurity in the past.
As I continue to add to this rambling blog, I'll try to explain/justify some of my more deranged beliefs. For now, I'm just trying to avoid having any of these updates turn into an unintentional novel, that will just put people to sleep. Hmm, I might have already failed at that.