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NFL Draft Pick Bust Rate Remains Very High

More analytics haven’t increased the success rate

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year when visions of future All-Pros are dancing in the heads of NFL fans - Vikings fans included. The NFL Draft is just a couple days away, and projecting how good draft picks will be based on their college highlight reels, or RAS stats, or simply the hype behind them is difficult to avoid.

But the reality is that most draft picks don’t work out. Whether they’re busts, didn’t live up to their draft position, had injury or off-field issues, didn’t do much to move the dial, or never played much, most draft picks turn out to be some level of disappointment, or don’t make much of a difference in the team’s success.

Five years ago I did a piece detailing how most draft picks are busts, based on a study of 1996-2016 draft picks. The results, which are based on the Pro Football Reference AV metric, are sobering:

  • 16.7% didn’t play for the team that drafted them
  • 37% were considered useless. They either didn’t play much or didn’t make the team.
  • 15.3% were considered poor. Had limited playing time and didn’t do well in the time they had.
  • 10.5% were considered average. These are mediocre players that had starts or significant contributions over 2-3 years.
  • 12.3% were considered good. These could be mediocre or average players that were multi-year starters, Pat Elflein or Christian Ponder for example, or perhaps some genuinely good players that didn’t last all that long for the team that drafted them- Sidney Rice for example. This is where the AV metric can over-rate a player based on the number of starts, rather than their performance while on the field.
  • 6.9% were considered Great. This category is the first that includes undeniably good draft picks. In order to be considered great, they would’ve had to play for the team that drafted them into a second contract, and also performed well over those years.
  • 1% were considered legendary. These are future Hall of Famers, multi-year All-Pros among the best in the league for most of their relatively long careers.

And so only about 8% of draft picks are players that really make much of a difference beyond replacement value, and only about 30% see much playing time or make a significant contribution to the team.

That means among the 260 or so drafted players each year, only about 2-3 will have Hall of Fame caliber careers, and only about 21 will be undisputedly good picks- and very good but not HoF caliber players.

Overall, only about two dozen players every draft will go on to have significant careers performing at a high level. That’s not a lot - less than one genuinely good player per team each year.

Has the rise of more advanced analytics made a difference?

Since that study was conducted- based on the 1996-2016 drafts - more advanced analytics have been adopted by teams in hopes of improving their draft success. But the results so far suggest they haven’t made much of a difference.

One way to judge whether a draft pick was a success or not is whether he signed a second contract with the team that drafted him. After all, if a team is willing to extend a player, that must mean he played well for the team to want to keep him on the roster- often for more money than he was making in his rookie contract.

The 33rd Team did a study, based on the 2010-2017 NFL draft classes, which have now all completed their rookie contracts, to see what percentage of players signed a second contract with the team that drafted them. The results aren’t any better than the previous study.

The graph above breaks down the percentage of players, broken down by round in which they were drafted (R1, R2, etc.) and whether they signed a second contract with the team that drafted them (same team) or a different team. The results aren’t particularly good- even among first-round draft picks.

For example, among first-round draft picks selected between 2010-2017, only 31% signed a second contract with the team that drafted them.

Now that doesn’t mean that 69% of first-round draft picks during that period were total busts, but in most cases it meant the team didn’t value them enough to extend them. Comparing them to the previous study, these would be players in the average or worse categories, but some in the ‘good’ category as well.

Take Trae Waynes for example- who was drafted 11th overall in 2015. He ranked in the ‘good’ category from the previous study based on PFR’s AV metric. He wasn’t a bust- he was an average starter throughout his rookie contract for the most part- but the Vikings didn’t prioritize signing him to a second contract. That means in part he didn’t live up to his draft position, and secondly that the team didn’t feel he was worth the money they’d have to pay him in a second contract. And when a team picks a player 11th overall, they’re expecting a rookie starter that could make some Pro Bowls and be rewarded with a second contract. And so Trae Waynes, while not a total bust, was clearly a disappointing draft pick.

But as the graph above illustrates, Waynes was more the norm rather than the exception among first-round draft picks between 2010-2017, as only about 1 in 3 first-round draft picks worked out well enough to be rewarded with a second contract by the team that drafted them.

Overall, if you add the percentages of players from each round that signed a second contract with the team that drafted them, that results in about 32 players per draft class. That’s comparable with the percentages from the earlier study referenced above. The two dozen ‘great’ or ‘legendary’ players from the previous study, along with about a third of the ‘good’ players.

From a team standpoint, if just one of your draft picks is extended in a second contract, that is an average draft. Extending two is a good draft, and 3 or more extraordinarily good.

Why is Drafting Players so Difficult?

Drafting players is difficult at least in part because the scouting and evaluating part is the easy part. The more difficult part is developing the players that you drafted. How well players respond to coaching, and to a league where a player’s physical gifts are no longer a major advantage, are part of the factors that are difficult to assess pre-draft. How much work and discipline a player will exhibit after being handed millions can be an issue too.

Player development may also be affected by coaching ability, team culture, and fit in the particular scheme.

And there are other issues too that can impact draft success as well. Injuries. Off-field issues. Five first-round picks (of 14) for the Vikings over the last ten years had their careers derailed by injuries (Matt Kalil, Shariff Floyd, Teddy Bridgewater, Mike Hughes) or off-field incident (Jeff Gladney) that couldn’t have been anticipated in the pre-draft process. That was over a third of the Vikings’ total first-round picks.

And beyond Day One picks, teams are drafting players that have either some flaws, are more raw, haven’t faced top competition, have injury or off-field issues, or some combination of all four. All that leads some of the best drafting GMs, like Eric DeCosta of the Ravens, to say the NFL Draft is a luck-driven process. And that being the case, better to have more lottery tickets than less. Rick Spielman was a firm believer in that philosophy as well, which is also based on the idea that NFL teams undervalue later round picks, and overvalue first round picks, based on the history of draft pick compensation and actual player performance from each draft pick slot.

Bottom Line

NFL fans across the league are expecting their team to draft future Pro Bowlers, and Vikings’ fans are no different. But the reality is that drafting a Justin Jefferson is a 1% chance deal, and the more likely outcome is that 9 of 10 draft picks will either be disappointing or have little impact for the team that drafts them.

The Vikings enter this draft with eight draft picks, so having one of those picks work out and sign a second contract with the Vikings would be above average, especially as half of those picks are in the last two rounds.


Will Kwesi Adofo-Mensah be a better drafting GM than Rick Spielman?

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