The NFL free agency period always reminds me just how important the NFL draft is in building a team. I have heard at least a few NFL executives equate the draft to buying wholesale and free agent signings to buying retail, and that analogy makes perfect sense.
In the age of salary cap, the inherent advantage to a team that drafts well is magnified. But are there really teams that draft better or are the draft outcomes a combination of luck and draft position (i.e., how high is the draft choice)?
I think there is more luck involved in the draft than NFL front offices and their fans would like to believe. Was the selection of Tom Brady luck or skill? I was not in the draft room with the Patriots that day, but how highly could they have had Brady ranked to wait until the sixth round to pick him? My contention is that the Patriots were no smarter than anyone else that day, just a lot luckier.
I have written several articles regarding the drafting efficiency of NFL teams, most of which dive deep into statistical details in support of an assertion. In this article I will take a very simple, and probably oversimplified, approach to the subject. Here are the basics of the analysis used for this article:
• The draft was divided into two segments – first three rounds and then the rest of the draft
-In the first three rounds an NFL team expects the player or players selected to contribute
-Later, a team hopes a player will contribute but cannot count on it
• For each team, the number of draft choices within each segment and the number of games started by those draft choices was aggregated
• The total number of games started was then divided by the number of players drafted to determine starts per draft choice, the principal efficiency measure used in this article
• The number of players that made the Pro Bowl at least once was also determined as supplemental information
The total number of starts for a team by drafted players is a function of several things: the number of draft choices that a team has, the location of those draft choices and how efficiently the selections are used. Before focusing on draft efficiency, let’s look at the total number of starts by team for players drafted from 2004 through 2013. Complete information by team is shown at the end of this article.
This table indicates that the Tennessee Titans' draft classes yielded more games started than any other team. Please remember that these are total games started by the draft classes, not just the games started for the Titans. So if a player leaves the Titans for another team, his starts for the second team are still credited to the Titans.
I next looked at draft efficiency by team for the first three rounds for the 2004 through 2013 draft years. Teams by quartile and in order of efficiency (with number of players who played in at least one Pro Bowl in parentheses) are shown below.
This table shows that the Falcons were the most efficient drafting team in the first three rounds from 2004 through 2013. The Falcons averaged about 49 starts per player drafted versus the league average of 37 games started per player drafted. The Colts bring up the rear with only 27 starts per player drafted. It should be noted that the number of starts is understated because many of the players drafted are still in mid or early career. The information is useful, though, for a comparative analysis such as this. A final accounting cannot be completed until most of the players have completed their careers, and the information is stale by that point.
The following table looks at the efficiency of NFL teams in the last four draft rounds. It can be seen that the ranking of team efficiency is significantly different as compared to the first three rounds. In weighing the importance of the last four rounds it should be noted, for the 10 years studied, that 67% of total starts come from the first three draft rounds and 77% of all Pro Bowl players come from the first three rounds. It is not surprising that this makes the first three rounds much more important.
Here are the results for rounds four through seven:
The lack of consistency in the team efficiency between the first three rounds and the last four rounds is noteworthy. With the same front office making all the selections, I would have expected to see more consistency between the two tables. The Chargers are the only team to rank in top eight of both tables.
I also combined the two groups into a table that shows the results for all rounds of the draft. A note of caution here, though, as the location of the draft choices may have a major impact on the total table. For example, a team with most of its selections in the first three rounds will appear outperform a team with the opposite situation. The numerator is mainly dependent on the first three rounds (35,983 starts versus 17,643 starts). The denominator, on the other hand, is most heavily influenced by the final four rounds (1563 selections versus 979 selections).
As I was writing this article and then reviewing the results, one thought kept recurring. What’s the deal with the Patriots? The Patriots are undoubtedly one of the most successful teams in the league but their draft efficiency, according to this simplified analysis, is among the worst in the league. We will circle back to this issue in future articles.
Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics