Any student of the NFL can speak of how the draft made or broke their team. Take the 2010 NFL Draft Class. That year, the Seattle Seahawks drafted offensive tackle Russell Okung, wide receiver Golden Tate, free safety Earl Thomas, and defensive back Kam Chancellor. These four became part of a three-year run of draft picks by the Seahawks. They built the squad that won Super Bowl XLVIII and nearly won Super Bowl XLIX.
The 2012 Jacksonville Jaguars, however, experienced a less-than-favorable draft. Three years after the draft, the team’s 2012 first-round pick – wide receiver Justin Blackmon – was absent from the team’s active roster. Multiple suspensions for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy kept him off the field since Week 8 of the 2013 season. Blackmon marked a disastrous draft haul for the Jaguars, which would shepherd the way for the three-year run of top-three first-round draft picks that followed.
To learn more about the top-performing draft classes, Fanatics analyzed every NFL team draft from 1995 to 2015. Understanding how the draft may or may not predict future NFL success allows a greater appreciation of this annual talent lottery.
Measuring the Value of First-Round Quarterbacks
Successful first-round quarterbacks tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Take the first-round quarterbacks chosen in 2006 and 2007. Of the five quarterbacks selected, only one of them, Jay Cutler, is still in the league – let alone a starting NFL quarterback. JaMarcus Russell was taken by the Oakland Raiders as the No. 1 overall draft selection in 2007. He would falter for three seasons, leading Oakland to a marginal 7-18 record while averaging less than six passing touchdowns a season.
In 1998, there were two quarterbacks selected in the first round with the first and second overall picks. One of them was five-time NFL MVP winner and two-time Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning. The other: Ryan Leaf, a quarterback who played for four different teams in four seasons. He finished his NFL career with just 14 touchdowns.
This tale of two quarterbacks perfectly illustrates the gamble teams take when they draft a quarterback in the first round. For every Peyton Manning, there is a Ryan Leaf. History should caution teams to take care when choosing between this year’s projected top quarterback prospects, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
A Running Back’s Worth
First-round running backs are just as much of a gamble as first-round quarterbacks. Above, you’ll see each running back drafted in the first round and the average number of rushing touchdowns scored per season by these running backs since 1995.
While 2007 was a weak year for quarterbacks, it was an incredibly strong year for running backs. MVP winner Adrian Peterson and All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch were both selected in the first round. But for every year like 2007, there is a positional draft haul like 2010.
That year, C.J. Spiller was a top 10 Buffalo Bills draft pick. Since his selection, Spiller has broken his collarbone and torn his meniscus. The Bills chose not to retain him as a free agent, and he was picked up by the New Orleans Saints.
This year, two of the top running back prospects are Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Ohio State phenom Ezekiel Elliott. Both come with national championships on their resumes, but only time will tell if they bust or make bank.
The Magic of the Late Draft
The graphic above focuses on the later part of the draft, rounds 5–7. It highlights teams that have drafted at least four Pro Bowlers in those rounds. Finding talent this late in the game provides incredible value and vastly improves a team’s chances of success. After all, only four teams in the NFL have accomplished this feat since 1995, and all of them have won a Super Bowl in that period.
Take the Seattle Seahawks. They won the 2014 Super Bowl and returned to the title game in 2015, largely due to their defense. Many dubbed it “the legion of boom.” The “legion” would never have come into existence without the stellar play of safety Kam Chancellor and cornerback Richard Sherman. Both players have been selected as Pro Bowlers multiple seasons, and both were drafted in the fifth round. Taking Kam Chancellor in the fifth in 2010 allowed Seattle to take All-Pro safety Earl Thomas in the first. This was another instrumental piece of their championship defense.
Top of the Draft Class
Above, you’ll see the number of All-Pro players who have been selected from each draft class and the round they were drafted in. While they’re far from a perfect measurement, the data do provide a way to compare the relative success of draft classes against each other. They also provide some insight into which rounds historically provide the most value.
Based on All-Pro selections, 1996 had the strongest draft class in that time period with an astounding 17 All-Pros. The ’96 class included such legends as linebacker Ray Lewis, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, and wide receiver Terrell Owens. Comparatively, the 2009 draft class has proved to be weakest of the draft classes. With at least five seasons to prove themselves, there have been only five players selected to the All-Pro team from that year.
Of the 201 All-Pros, 109 were first-round picks, or approximately 54%. Understandably, teams draft players in the first round with higher expectations than the later rounds, but this still leaves a surprising number of All-Pros taken after round one. The largest chunk of the remaining All-Pro players, 36.3%, were taken in the middle rounds 2–4. Nineteen All-Pros were drafted in the tail end of the draft, rounds 5–7, or about 9%.
This includes players like perennial Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown, who was selected in the sixth round, and four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, also selected in the sixth round. Statistics like these prove there is value to be had in all seven rounds and a bevy of picks does not guarantee success in any given year.
Ultimately, the best way to think of the NFL Draft is as a lottery. If a team is really lucky, it may hit jackpot and get a Tom Brady as a late pick. In the same breath, a particularly unlucky team can snag a JaMarcus Russell.
In a system in which past performance may or may not be an indication of future success, the odds of picking a franchise player are no better than correctly calling a flipped coin.
The chance of striking lucky and getting an Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck, or Eli Manning will always keep franchises hedging bets on the top picks and maneuvering to be the first to select. It is this that makes the NFL Draft such a remarkable institution to watch and a phenomenon worth studying.
We looked at Pro Football Reference, and analyzed all draft picks from 1995 to 2015 as well as their corresponding career stats. For the “Best in Class” graphic, we chose to only show players who were selected to as an All Pro at least once. For “Diamonds in the Rough” we looked at teams that have drafted at least four pro bowlers in rounds 5–7.
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