When we get to talking about the draft, there are a lot of things that everybody knows. You have to hit on the picks in the first three rounds. Late round picks don't usually make it. The last round is pretty much just throwing darts at a board.
That seems to be the conventional wisdom. But I got to wondering. Just what is the success rate for the different rounds of the draft? Besides, I am naturally distrustful of the conventional wisdom.
The Dallas Cowboys certainly need to maximize their draft choices this year, which is one of those things you can almost always say and be right. It is also one of those ill-defined things that different people often say but don't always agree on what they mean.
To get a better understanding of what draft choices are really worth, I decided to go back and take a look at success rates for draft picks in a previous year. Not just for the Cowboys. For all thirty two teams, from the first pick to the last.
And along the way, I saw some things that rather surprised me.
See if you agree after the jump.
The first thing I had to do was decide on what the definition of success was. Obviously, a player like Tyron Smith who comes in and starts from day one is going to be counted as one, but how do you judge a seventh rounder? I decided to use the following criteria, with different standards as you go deeper into the draft.
First off, there has to be a certain longevity involved. I wanted to look at what happens a few seasons down the road. I decided to go back to the 2008 draft and look at where those 252 college players wound up after four seasons. It is a bit arbitrary, but given the chance of injury and the relative shortness of an NFL player's career, I thought it would was a reasonable point to decide if a player was a successful use of a pick at that point. Even if they went out after four years, that is a decent return on investment in the league.
I also am not limiting the definition of success to the original team. If a player is drafted and then changes teams due to a trade or free agency, and continues to perform, then it was a successful pick, just not necessarily one that the original team was able to keep.
First rounders have to either become starters or in certain cases fill a role the team needs them for, basically from day one. When I was thinking about this, I looked at Dallas' first pick that year, Felix Jones. He has been a starter, but is actually considered by many to be more valuable to the team as the change of pace back. Was he a home run pick? No, but then neither were some other running backs selected that year. Is he still a valuable part of his team? Yes. He is a success, not a failure. Another example from that draft, and from the same school, Arkansas, was Darren McFadden. For a variety of reasons, many having to do with a dysfunctional coaching staff, he did not have very good seasons his first two years, but in 2010, he finally got a chance and became a key part of the team, even if he had injury issues this year. He is a success.
Second and third rounders need to make some significant contribution to the team, and be on the active roster, not just carried on the team. Many become starters, but again they may be more of a role player. Another Dallas pick from that year is Martellus Bennett, the second round choice. While it can be argued as to whether his role was worth the pick, it also must be admitted that no one was going to supplant Jason Witten as the starting tight end. Martellus is seen as a force when he is used as a blocker, and he is going to play again next year. It just isn't known if that will be in Dallas.
After the third round, just being in an NFL uniform qualifies a player as a success. They may be a career backup and see limited time, but the fact that someone is paying them an NFL veteran's salary means that they fill some need.
Quarterbacks are a special case. Even if they are picked in the first three rounds, they may be a quarterback of the future for four years, or they may become a career backup. Nonetheless, any quarterback in any round is counted as a success in my book if they make it for four years. After all, Matt Flynn was taken in that draft, way down in the seventh round - and he is likely to be starting somewhere come September, based on one record breaking game to end last season.
Finally, injuries are a bit of a quandary. First of all, I could not track down all of the players who were not successes to determine if an injury was the cause of their failure (I spent more time researching this than any other article I have written, and it just got to be a matter of how long I could take). And even if it is an unforeseen injury, a player who is out of the league after a year or two is basically a wasted pick, no matter what the reason. I did have some cases of players who were starters or significant contributors all of 2010 but missed most or all of 2011 due to injury that I counted as successes, since they have a hope of coming back. It was a judgment call, and I am not claiming to be perfect on all.
So having set some rules, here are my results for the 2008 draft.
The first thing that struck me was that the fall-off rate from round to round was not as dramatic as I expected when looked at as a whole. I was especially surprised to see that the third, fifth, and seventh rounds all showed a jump over the previous rounds, which made up for the larger drops in the even numbered ones. The third round only having a six percent lower success rate than the first round was almost shocking.
The total success rate was at least 10% higher than I expected. I was somehow under the impression that players taken in the last couple of rounds only had a 25% to 30% chance at best of making it in the NFL, but that was obviously mistaken. The seventh rounders had nearly a 50-50 shot at spending the next four years as NFL players, which is quite an accomplishment. Those picks that I used to think were just afterthoughts turn out to have a surprisingly good chance of paying off.
A couple of stories also emerged from looking deeper. First, Mr. Irrelevant that year was David Vobora, pick number 252. Although he went on IR with an injured shoulder, he was still on the Seattle Seahawks roster for six games this year, after being on the game day roster 34 times the previous three years with the Rams. That qualifies as a success in my book. As a matter of fact, the last three players taken that year all were still on NFL rosters in 2011.
And the Cowboys had a 100% success rate that year. Four players, Felix Jones (22nd pick overall), Mike Jenkins (25th), Martellus Bennett (61st), and Orlando Scandrick (143rd) all are still with the team. Tashard Choice (123rd) also made the list, although barely, having managed to be on game day rosters seven times last season. He was one of the really marginal calls, but I tried to be consistent all the way through each round. The fact he was active with the Bills at the end of the season was the deciding factor for me. And the last player the Cowboys took, Erik Walden (167th), turned out to be a lost opportunity. The team tried to sneak him onto the practice squad, but he was snatched away by the Chiefs, spent some time with the Dolphins, and then got a Super Bowl ring in 2010 as a Packer. Last year he started fifteen games at OLB and had 60 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. Maybe we could have used him, you think?
I know this is just one year, and draft classes vary in strength. But the percentages really caught my attention. I have revised several of my assumptions on the draft as a result of this exercise.
The big takeaway from all this, at least for me, is that there is no such thing as a worthless draft choice. With some good scouting, even late round picks have a good chance of paying off for the team over the long haul. The Cowboys blew it in 2009 (which may have influenced my decision to look at four years rather than three to measure success), but have come back with more respectable performances in 2010 and 2011. Here is hoping that the trend continues.