Late round draft picks: The key to success?

DRAFTMETRICS’ fantasy (I know, I know, but wait until you are 66) is to find a “magic formula” for building a successful NFL team. No such formula exists, of course, but that doesn’t mean that DRAFTMETRICS will stop looking. In this article DRAFTMETRICS explores the notion that successful teams gain an edge through their draft selections in the later rounds. Under this theory, early round players are so well scouted that no NFL team can gain a competitive advantage through their early round selections.

There are plenty of anecdotal examples (Tom Brady, et al) to choose from in making this argument. To examine this theory and set a context, DRAFTMETRICS reviewed data from the 2012 season for players who were still playing for the team that drafted them. Such players are referred to “Retained Draft Choices” in the remainder of this article. Retained draft choices were examined rather than all draft choices in order to exclude the effects of free agent signings, leading to a “purer” analysis.

Excluding the handful of players who were supplemental draft selections, Retained draft choices accounted for 6577 games started during the 2012 season. This represents almost 60% of all games started. The percentage breakdown by round follows, comparing Retained Draft Choices with All Draft Choices.

While it has no apparent bearing on the issue at hand, it is interesting to note that players drafted in the first three rounds are more likely than later round picks to be retained by the team that drafted them. If the more successful teams did a better job of drafting in the later rounds, one would expect there to be data supporting that point. DRAFTMETRICS compiled the following table that compares the percentage of 2012 starts by round for (1) playoff teams, (2) teams that did not make the playoff but had .500 or better records, (3) all team with winning records – the sum of items 1 and 2-- and (4) teams that finished below .500. This data is for retained draft choices only.

As you can see from the table, there are only marginal differences in the composition of games started among the categories of teams. While playoff teams do indeed have a higher percentage of starts by Retained Draft Choices selected after the third round, the margin is relatively insignificant. From this, the conclusion can be drawn that any advantage from excellent late round drafting is not held by all winning teams.

When DRAFTMETRICS reviewed data by individual teams, it became apparent that the number of draft selections could have a bearing on the composition of games started. Draft choices from 2008 through 2012 accounted for about 75% of all games started in 2012, so DRAFTMETRICS focused on the number of draft choices in those years. The following table summarizes the raw data by individual team.

Based on this table, and considering both the number of starts and the number of draft choices, DRAFTMETRICS characterized the late round success (defined as round 4 and after) of each NFL team into three categories:

This indicates that three 2012 playoff teams had better than expected success with late round draft selections, six had a “normal” level of success and three had worse than expected results. Playoff teams are in bold.

This leads to the conclusion that a high level of success with late round draft choices, while certainly attained by some winning teams, is not a significant critical success factor. The table also shows that the premise about teams having the same relative level of success in the early rounds is also not the case. DRAFTMETRICS will touch on this issue once again but over a different period of time in one of its articles next week.

Tony is the founder of DRAFTMETRICS.COM can be e-mailed at and followed on Twitter @draftmetrics

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