Draft Success by Team

Some teams and GMs have built reputations as good drafting teams, while others have earned the stigma of, well, as Mel Kiper says of the Jets, "not understanding what the draft is all about." What about your team? How have they fared in recent years?

I crunched some numbers for picks from the 1996 through 2008 drafts. To be honest, I chose 1996 because that was the first year of the "Baltimore NFL Franchise," the team yet to become the Ravens later that year. But '96 also makes sense because it's soon after the salary cap system was put into place, and players from that draft are still enjoying success in the NFL today. For the purposes of this article, I'm defining draft success as player years as a team's primary starter, and total number of Pro Bowl selections. Neither measure is perfect, but together they'll give us a pretty good idea of which teams have recently enjoyed the most successful drafts.

The first table lists the average number of years as a starter for each team's picks, broken out by round. For example, Indianapolis's first round picks have averaged 6.5 years as a starter. The average column is the average starting years for all a team's draft picks.

(Click on the table headers to sort.)

1 IND6.
2 ARI3.
3 BAL6.
4 STL4.
5 NYG3.
6 CIN4.
7 PIT4.
8 GB3.
9 OAK4.
10 NYJ5.
11 SEA4.
12 JAX4.
13 CHI3.
14 DAL3.
15 PHI4.
16 SF2.
17 BUF3.
18 WAS4.
19 TEN3.
20 MIN4.
21 DEN3.
22 CAR2.
23 TB3.
24 ATL3.
25 KC4.
26 MIA2.
27 NO3.
28 SD2.
29 NE3.
30 HOU3.
31 DET3.
32 CLE3.

The next table lists the total number of Pro Bowl selections for each team, broken out by round. Baltimore has had a total of 39 Pro Bowl selections by players they have drafted in the first round. (Note that some of the total numbers for the Browns and Texans will be low simply due their entry into the league in '99 and '02 respectively. The Lions are still worse, despite being in the league for the full time span.)

RankTeam 1234567Total
1 BAL3900123045
2 IND3231012039
3 PHI1489020033
4 PIT18210100031
5 SEA2144010030
6 DAL1088101129
7 CHI10311110026
8 NE961314125
9 WAS1912300025
10 GB461136324
11 KC1301360023
12 MIA186070022
13 MIN1600006022
14 CIN890201121
15 ARI1073000020
16 SF727102120
17 DEN1242100019
18 OAK8000110019
19 SD1052011019
20 TB467002019
21 CAR774000018
22 STL1521000018
23 ATL1340000017
24 NYJ1311100016
25 NYG561101014
26 BUF750100013
27 TEN820200113
28 HOU810300012
29 NO620002010
30 JAX72000009
31 CLE40002006
32 DET33000006


But the tables above don't really tell us how well teams draft as much as it tells how high in the draft each team has picked. A team that consistently picks in the top third of each round will tend to end up with players with more potential, and therefore have better individual careers. So we need to account for each team's draft positions over the time period studied.

To do this, I calculated the expected number of starting years and expected number of Pro Bowls for each slot in the draft. After smoothing the data, I compared each team's expected draft success to their actual draft success. For example, the Detroit Lions' 1st round picks averaged 3.7 years starting, but they should have averaged a lot more given their typically high pick in each round. If we sum up the differences between expected and average for all the players, we'll see how well teams really drafted.

This table lists the 'Starting Years Above Expected' and 'Pro Bowl Selections Above Expected' for each team, given the picks they had during each draft.

RankTeamSt Yrs Abv ExpPBs Abv Exp
1 IND23.617.4
2 GB17.31.7
3 STL14.3-2.5
4 OAK13.6-2.1
5 JAX13.3-1.8
6 CHI11.80.2
7 BAL11.28.3
8 SEA10.46.3
9 NYG7.4-2.9
10 SF6.44.4
11 NYJ5.0-3.7
12 CIN4.8-2.9
13 PHI4.56.8
14 ARI4.1-3.6
15 KC2.11.7
16 PIT2.11.4
17 WAS1.90.1
18 TEN-0.8-3.9
19 BUF-1.3-4.9
20 TB-3.2-0.8
21 CAR-4.2-1.1
22 DAL-5.23.8
23 ATL-5.5-1.4
24 MIA-6.7-2.5
25 DEN-6.71.4
26 MIN-10.80.4
27 NE-10.8-4.7
28 NO-15.71.1
29 SD-17.10.5
30 HOU-21.0-1.2
31 DET-21.9-7.5
32 CLE-23.0-8.0

It's important to note that none of this necessarily means certain teams or GMs are really any better than the others at identifying the best players. If the draft were completely luck, there would still be teams that look like geniuses and teams that get more than their share of busts.

In fact, that's one reason I'm building these tables. I'd like to find out how much variance there would be in draft outcomes due to luck alone, and then compare it to how much actual variance there is. The difference would the true drafting "skill" of teams, executives, and scouts. Is Ozzie really that good, or is he just lucky?

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16 Responses to “Draft Success by Team”

  1. Brian Burke says:

    A quick note to emphasize the last table takes into account the number of picks each team had at all slots in the draft. This means that CLE and HOU being at the bottom of the rankings accounts for the fact they haven't been in the league the entire time period.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would love to see the luck and skill values for Bill Polian. Certainly you cannot attribute his success every year to luck. I think he is far and away the best GM at drafting in the NFL

  3. Brian says:

    I know there's been discussion as to what outcome should be measured to determine whether a draft pick was "successful", with Pro Bowl selections and "years starting" as the leading choices. What about some measure of career earnings, which we would expect to reflect both the longevity and quality of the player? Maybe you'd have to wait until after the first few years or so, since initial salaries would probably be more dependent on draft position than player quality.

  4. Jim Glass says:

    It's interesting to see how low the Pats rank on the lists, #27 on the last one, considering their record since 1996: double-digit win seasons 9 times, plus two 9-win seasons, and only one losing season, plus the Super Bowls, of course.

    I take this as more evidence that free agency and the salary cap have dramatically reduced the importance of the draft to building teams.
    What matters now is cap management -- getting value per dollar of cap space.

    Before the FA/cap era, while the reserve clause ruled, teams could keep their players forever, so simply getting the best players was the key, with cost no problem if the team could afford it. Top teams with deep pockets could stockpile good players three deep. Bill Walsh could have Steve Young sitting on the bench behind Joe Montana.

    In that world the draft was the #1 way of getting players and the higher the pick the more valuable it was because it was more likely to secure a better player. A #1 pick in the draft could be traded for a slew of other picks and/or players.

    But in today's world each draft pick comes with a salary cap cost, with the cost rising by pick position, and the studies say that value of picks net of salary cap cost is pretty much equalized all the way through. Last year we saw teams loudly complaining that picks at the top of the first round weren't even worth their cost and were untradable.

    The main value of the draft to individual teams today seems to provide players at a discount to FA cost, helping with the cap. But even that benefit is fleeting, because after the first contract the player is either gone as a FA or being paid as one. And if the player proves really good, even before his first contract is up he threatens to leave at the end of it, and if the team wants to keep him it bumps him up early to FA market cost in exchange for an extension.

    It seems to me that if the entire draft was abolished today, and all the kids coming out of college today were treated as free agents, not much would change -- the teams that are best at managing the cap would stay the winners and the teams worst at it would stay the losers. In contrast, if the draft had been abolished in the 1970s it would have been the NFL's version of the French Revolution.

    Yet ironically, as the draft has become ever less important in substance, it has become more important to the fans and media and as a marketing device for the NFL. I can remember when it was "not much", you just read the results in the paper the next day. Now it's a cable TV special event with mock drafts and draft analysis everywhere.

    The main value of the draft today isn't to teams, it's to the league -- as the NFL's #1 way of maintaining fan interest in the off-season, and a nice source of some extra revenue too.

    So any draft fans out there who think I'm all wrong about this don't have to worry about the draft ever being abolished, it won't be.

  5. Jim Glass says:

    An after thought.

    Looking at Oakland near the very top of the list, and teams like Chicago, San Francisco, the Jets and Cincy spread through the top half, with New England down at #27, I wonder what the objective correlation between drafting well/poorly and winning/losing is these days.

    Even if the draft is totally irrelevant to winning, and cap management accounts 100% for team success, I'd expect there to be some correlation, because just plain inept management that produces bad cap management would produce bad drafts too, I'd think. And looking at that list, Detroit, Cleveland and Houston are at the very bottom, so that looks like there's some.

    But from just eyeballing the whole list, it doesn't look like there's very much.

  6. Brian Burke says:

    All good points, Jim.

    By the way, I realized that even though I accounted for the Browns' and Texans' fewer years in the league, they might still be underestimated here. Theoretically, if they had picks from before they entered the league, they might still be going to Pro Bowls and starting for teams today. I doubt the effect is large, particularly for the Browns, but there is a bias due to the relative youth of their groups of picks.

  7. Jim Glass says:

    An after-after thought, from looking at today's draft proceedings and your rankings.

    IF it is true that the value of all picks draft has been more or less equalized *net of cap cost*...

    AND it is also true that the value of picks to teams today thus is mainly that it provides players at a discount to free agent cost, thus saving cap expense per player...

    THEN -- if no one specific player you *really* need is available at the moment -- it seems the optimal "default" draft day strategy would be: always trade down to get two or more picks for one, whenever you can.

    To the extent that the value of all picks net of cap cost has been equalized, this costs nothing in terms of the value you get in the draft; and to the extent just-drafted players come at at cap-price discout, you gain more room under the cap to build your team generally.

    So it looks like a winning strategy -- even though, paradoxically, it reduces your chances of getting a good player on any given pick, and may make it look like you are drafting poorly, since you'll draft fewer good players per pick than other teams in absolute terms.

    This pops to mind at the moment because once again Belichik just spent all day trading down, as he's done for years -- and it squares the circle of the Pats being at the top of the W-L tables while being at the bottom of the draft success tables.

    This may be a "just so" story, with only entertainment value to me, I can't prove it ... but Belichick was an economics major and would understand this kind of thinking.

    And to the extent there is anything to it, Belichick would gain that much of an edge over near every other team in the league, since none of them think this way about the draft systematically, as far as I know. They're usually plotting to trade up -- to (gamble on) that "special player", make a statement, please the fans with brave action -- and when they trade down it's usually sort of anecdotal "the guy we wanted is gone, might as well"...

    I dunno. Just thinking out loud. FWIW.

  8. Sun says:

    Team-by-team table of draft trades (up, down, total) in the last five years:


    No discernible pattern. Somewhat interesting, though.

  9. Jim Glass says:

    Nice chart, good catch.

    Green Bay and Dallas both traded down more times than the Pats -- though being stat-heady about it, the Pats' trade down-to-up ratio was the highest of all (by a tad).

    That doesn't look like enough to explain anything like four Super Bowl appearances. But it may reflect a skill at cap management that does.

  10. Brian Burke says:

    'Shake-n-bake' of the StampedeBlue.com Colts blog pointed me to this PFR post from about a year ago. Instead of straight pro bowls or start years, PFR uses an 'Approximate Value' stat which I think is very cool.

    Grading Ten Years of NFL Drafts: From 1996-2005

  11. Anonymous says:

    In addition to draft slot, position would affect the expected career length and years spent as a starter.

  12. Mike says:

    Hi Brian,

    Great stuff you've got here. I ran across your site while doing research for an article I just published. I've cited your data in the post. You can find it here:

    I subscribed to your feed and I look forward to more high quality posts!!



  13. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that is really interesting. Just proves that teams that draft well win Super Bowls.

  14. Unknown says:

    i was wondering are the pro bowls counted for that team that drafted them? what happens when a teams first rounder is a bust through 4 years gets picked up by another team and make 4 probowls over the next 6 years of his contract with a new team in that case the team drafted well jus didnt coach well or visa versa with player in later rounds who do well then leave that teams system and is never heard from again

  15. Brian Burke says:

    All pro-bowls for any team.

  16. MosesZD says:

    I like it, but it's too long. The average player has a short career. Many front offices are burdened by previously inept adminstrations.

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