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Which NFL Teams Draft the Best?

Hint: they both wear purple

With the 2021 NFL Draft approaching at the end of the month, it seems apropos to take a look back at how well every team in the NFL has drafted in recent years. In particular, I looked back again at the period since Rick Spielman took over as Vikings’ General Manager in 2012, and how every team in the NFL has done over those last nine drafts, including the few supplemental drafts and college free agent signings.

In order to value the contribution each draft pick made to the team that drafted them, I used Pro Football Reference’s Draft Approximate Value (DrV) metric, which is the Approximate Value of a player to the team that drafted him, or in the case of college free agents, the AV for the team that originally signed him after the draft. Once that player leaves the team that originally drafted/signed them, whatever future value they accrue does not apply. So, a player drafted by one team and accrues an AV of 15 while with that team, then signs with another team and accrues 10 more AV points, still has a DrV of 15.

The methodology of how the AV metric is derived can be found in detail here. It’s an attempt to put a single numerical seasonal value on any player in any year since 1950. It’s not perfect by any means, as there isn’t a perfect way to determine a player’s relative value to a team at different positions. But it does give a decent representation of a player’s contribution. It values players by how much they actually played, and the success the team had when they were on the field, along with season accolades like Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, player of the year, etc. It also has the advantage over other measures across positions as it’s the only one widely available. I’m not sure other metrics present a more accurate comparison or value than this one either. And, to the extent it may over or under represent a player’s value, it does so evenly across the board for every team using the same methodology, so no particular team is clearly advantaged or disadvantaged by whatever shortcomings are present in the valuation methodology.

It also has a clear advantage over the typical cherry-picking and trendy analysis often presented in throw-away draft rankings for GMs and teams you often see around this time.

So, with that background and explanation on the methodology, here are the results:

There are a lot of observations to unpack from this chart, so let’s get right to it.

WHICH TEAMS HAVE DRAFTED THE BEST ?

If you consider all the drafted players over the last nine drafts, the Rams, Vikings, Seahawks, and Ravens have accumulated the most DrV points since 2012, making them the best drafting teams in the NFL over the past nine drafts. If you add in undrafted college free agents (UDFAs) signed after the draft, the Ravens, Rams, and Vikings top the list.

However, among the teams that have accumulated the most DrV points, the Rams and Seahawks owe their success to their early drafts. For example, the Seahawks, who enjoyed by far the best draft of any team during this period in 2012, which has resulted in 300 DrV points, have underperformed the league average in six of the following eight drafts. In fact, even the lowly Giants, second worst drafting team during this period, outperformed the Seahawks after the 2012 draft. Similarly, the Rams also enjoyed four good drafts from 2012-2015, but underperformed league average in four of the next five drafts.

By contrast, the Ravens and Vikings have not only been among the top teams in accumulating DrV points over the past nine drafts, they’ve also been among the most consistent. The Vikings under Rick Spielman are the only team that had only two drafts that underperformed league average (2016, 2018) and the Ravens were among only a few teams with only three underperforming drafts (2012, 2015, 2017). Both teams are in the early lead in DrV points in the 2020 draft as well, with the Ravens accumulating 34 DrV points already, and the Vikings 33.

In fact, both the Vikings and Ravens are among the top performing teams not just over the past nine drafts, but also over the last six, four, and two drafts as well. That consistency, as well as their total DrV point accumulation, makes them the best of the best.

WHICH TEAMS HAVE DRAFTED THE WORST ?

If the best two drafting teams have the color purple in common, the worst two teams share the same geography: New York. Both the Giants and Jets have done remarkably bad with their draft picks, and almost as bad with their UDFA signings. The Jets in particular are a distant last in total DrV points accumulated over the last nine seasons- only 496 - nearly 50 points behind the second-to-last Giants.

Both the Giants and Jets have been remarkably consistent in their drafting misfires, although the Giants have now strung together 3 above average drafts, so perhaps things are looking up for them. The Jets, however, have had only one draft where they (narrowly) beat the league average in their last nine attempts. For the Giants, only in the last two drafts have they appreciably beat the league average.

TROUBLE AFTER A TOP DRAFT

If you look at the teams with the best draft haul, nearly every time they follow it up with a bad one. The only exception to the rule was the 2013 Packers, who had a good 2014 draft too before following it up with a poor one. Part of the reason for the subsequent decline may likely be the fall in the draft order that typically goes along with a highly successful draft. Most teams that had a top draft followed that up with double-digit win seasons and deep runs in the playoffs within a year or two, putting them near the bottom of the draft order. The other reason may be due to a relatively high amount of draft capital in a given year, which resulted in a top draft haul.

UDFAs: NOT JUST AN AFTERTHOUGHT

If you look at the AV points among the top UDFA teams, you can see that the best teams have accumulated what amounts to an above-average draft haul with just UDFAs over the past nine years. LT Alejandro Villanueva, K Justin Tucker, WR Adam Thielen, C David Andrews - all these players went undrafted and turned into great players for their respective teams.

UDFAs used to be more of an after-thought to the draft, but as more undrafted guys turned into good players, teams began to approach what is now an unstructured, frenzied, 8th round of the draft in a different way. Scouting departments spend more time looking at potential college free agents, and often times try to get them to commit to the team beforehand should they go undrafted. Gaining that commitment may mean having a head coach or position coach recruit them, and more often lately, more money. UDFA salaries pale in comparison to even average drafted player rookie contracts, so bumping up an offer to land a more desirable UDFA prospect isn’t much more than a rounding error in terms of an NFL salary cap budget.

BEST GENERAL MANAGER ?

Among the top performing teams in the draft, only Rick Spielman, Les Snead, and Pete Carroll/John Schneider have been at the helm for the last nine seasons. Ozzie Newsome was a HoF GM with the Ravens before he retired, but even he did not best Spielman in DrV in his last years from 2012-2018, but he did when adding the AV points from UDFAs. Bill Belichick has often been cited as not just a HoF coach, but GM as well. His drafts over the past several years, however, suggest declining powers as he’s underperformed league average in each of the last five drafts. To his credit, however, he has been the second-most successful GM with UDFAs over the past nine seasons.

Les Snead with the Rams became GM the same year as Rick Spielman, and accumulated the most DrV points and second-most including UDFAs, but Snead owes more to his early years, as he’s not done as well in recent drafts. Part of the reason has been a number of questionable deals Snead has made: trading a first-round pick, two 2nds and a 3rd to move up to draft Jared Goff; trading a 2nd and 4th for Marcus Peters, who only lasted a year-and-a-half with the Rams; trading a first and a sixth for Brandin Cooks, who lasted just two years; and most recently trading two first-round picks and a 3rd round pick to the Lions for Matthew Stafford, and to take Jared Goff and his bloated contract off his hands. That’s a lot of draft capital for not so much production.

John Schneider and Pete Carroll- who has the final say- in Seattle have one of the better draft records over this period, but that’s almost entirely due to their 2012 draft. They’ve been mediocre ever since.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Jones’ in Dallas have done one of the best jobs in the draft as well over the past nine drafts, one of only six teams to accumulate over 800 DrV points from drafted players and UDFAs combined.

Overall, however, if you consider both total DrV and consistency, Ozzie Newsome was the best GM over his seven drafts during this period, including UDFAs, while Rick Spielman is the best among active GMs.

IT TAKES MORE THAN JUST A GOOD GM

Of course turning college prospects into good NFL players takes a lot more than just a GM making the picks during the draft. The team’s whole scouting department, analytics, and coaching staff all have an important role to play in selecting and coaching a college player into a quality starter. Often times, when a team is consistently bad (or good) at drafting a particular position group, it’s due to the quality of the coaching staff responsible for developing the player. Coaching staffs not only help in selecting the prospect, but are also responsible for developing them into good players. And GMs often base their pick off of coaching recommendations, so it’s not just the GM shooting from the hip on draft day. Indeed, most informed commentary on the draft process, including this very good recent one, suggest the best results come from GMs who stay true to their draft board, which is developed over the previous year based on thousands of hours and millions of miles of scouting, watching film, and detailed discussion with scouts and coaches, rather than make last minute changes based on gut feeling or last minute rumors, etc.. Remember the Browns owner taking advice from the homeless man on Johnny Manziel?

WHAT THE BEST GMs DO BEST: BE HUMBLE, DISCIPLINED, AND MANAGE DRAFT CAPITAL WELL

For those of you that have read my draft articles over the years, you may remember the one detailing how most draft picks are busts. A quick synopsis of that article is that the 80-20 rule applies to NFL draft picks: 80% of the production comes from 20% of the draft picks. A slightly more detailed synopsis is that roughly two-thirds of all draft picks are career back-ups that seldom see the field, or worse. Another 25% are either mediocre or average journeymen players. About 7% are considered great players with several above average seasons, and just 1% are considered legendary, or basically HoF players. These last two categories are basically what most fans are expecting from first-round draft picks. But only about 20 players in every draft make it to this category, while more than half of all first-round picks basically end up as busts or journeymen that disappointed compared to their draft position.

So, for all the time, effort, and advanced analytics that goes into scouting prospects, hitting on a pick remains largely a crapshoot- something good GMs recognize. That being the case, the best thing is not to push most of your chips in on one pick, but to spread the risk by gaining more picks over the course of the draft. It’s no coincidence that the teams with the most DrV points over the past nine drafts are also among teams that’ve had the most draft picks. The Vikings had the most draft picks over the last nine drafts, with 93 - 21 more than league average. The Ravens and Seahawks are runners-up with 84 and 87 respectively. Having the most draft picks doesn’t guarantee success- the 49ers, Bengals, and Browns all had over 80 draft picks too- but it does appear to be something the most successful drafting teams have in common.

On the other hand, falling in love with a player and trading up to draft him, while occasionally successful, more often is not. For every Patrick Mahomes trade, there is a Mitch Trubisky and Jared Goff. The Saints’ GM Mickey Loomis has only traded up during the draft, including over the last nine drafts, which is one reason why the Saints had the fewest number of draft picks over that time. While I’m sure he had some success in doing so, the Saints’ 23rd ranked total DrV suggests it didn’t outweigh the losses.

The reason trading down generally works better than trading up is based on how teams value their draft picks in trade. The Jimmy Johnson Draft Value Chart has remained the one by which most trades are valued today, even though it has been proven incorrect in how each draft slot is valued compared to how players drafted in those slots have performed historically. Basically it overvalues the top picks from 1-50, and undervalues those thereafter, according to the chart below.

The difference between the blue line (the Jimmy Johnson draft pick trade values) and the average production of players drafted in those draft slots (the red line), represents an arbitrage opportunity for GMs willing to trade down with their overvalued top picks, and accumulate more undervalued later picks. It’s not a certainty that a team will come out ahead by trading down in this way- football isn’t an exact science- but the odds favor it.

An extreme example illustrates the point. In this year’s draft, the Jimmy Johnson value of the first pick is 3000 points, slightly more than the entirety of the the Patriots and Ravens draft picks, 17 in all, which are: 15, 27, 46, 58, 96, 104, 120, 122, 131, 139, 171, 177, 184, 188, 197, 210, and 242. So, would you rather have Trevor Lawrence, or 2 first-round picks, 2 second-round picks, 3 third-round picks, 5 fourth-round picks, 3 fifth-round picks, 3 sixth-round picks, and one 7th round pick? Which option is likely to have the most success down the road overall? Keep in mind the last six #1 overall picks have been Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Jared Goff, and Jameis Winston. Without naming names, I’d say that’s about a 50% success rate, maximum. Would you rather push all your chips in on Trevor Lawrence, or spread them out over those other 17 draft picks?

Beyond trading down or trading players for draft picks, the Ravens have been able to accumulate more draft picks by managing compensatory picks assiduously over the years. They were one of the first teams to really focus on the value of compensatory picks and the rules regarding them, and have been the best at accumulating them since they first started awarding them in 1994.

But while playing the odds, trading down and accumulating draft picks makes sense given how teams value draft picks, trading up selectively can work too. But it’s more about value than coveting a particular player.

For example, a team may have a first-round grade on a particular player, but for some reason that player falls into the second round. As a front office and GM, if you trust your evaluation and grade on that player, it may make sense to move up to draft him as a good value, even considering the premium paid for trading up. Such was the case with Dalvin Cook a few years ago, when Rick Spielman decided to trade up to draft him in the second round. It wasn’t a case where the Vikings had coveted Cook- they hadn’t really scouted him that much as they didn’t have a first-round pick that year and expected him to go well before their first pick at #48. But overnight, after Cook fell out of the first-round, Spielman began a crash-course in due diligence and decided to trade his #48 pick and #128 to move up to #41 and draft Dalvin Cook. Using the Jimmy Johnson values, that’s still only 464 points for (presumably) a player the Vikings had a first-round grade on. The middle pick in the first round is worth 1000 points, so the Vikings selected Dalvin Cook for a little over a 50% discount. And if you look at the chart above, a 50% discount for a mid-first round draft pick is a fair price for the historical production from that draft slot.

As we all know that trade worked out, but even if it hadn’t, trading up for a discount in terms of draft capital vs. draft grade, is another way to maximize the value of your draft picks, not knowing whether any of them will work out in the end.

Bottom Line

The best drafting teams seem to adhere to a particular process that goes beyond simply having the best take on whether a particular player will succeed in the NFL or not, although that remains a key ingredient. They also attempt to game the system to some degree in order to gain more draft picks and maximize their draft capital. They often put more resources into their scouting organizations and analytics as well.

There have been studies that suggest no team can beat the draft, meaning no team can significantly outperform the league average. But those studies were based on year-over-year drafts, on a per pick basis, and 3-year average drafts on a per pick basis. And indeed the results over the past nine drafts show that teams with a very successful draft one year follow it up with a relatively bad one the next. But looking over the longer, nine draft span, it appears that a handful of teams are significantly outperforming the market - or the league average in terms of DrV. They may not be much more successful than league average in picking winners, but being just a little bit better multiplied by having more draft picks can make a significant difference. The top drafting teams over the past nine drafts have outperformed the league average by over 20%. That outperformance is significant- the equivalent production of two league-average team drafts after three years.

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