Dallas Cowboys Draft: Is There Such A Thing As A Sure Pick?

Tyron Smith smiles bravely into the camera while his right hand grips his wallet tightly, just in case Goodell arbitrarily decides enforce an on-the-spot cap penalty.

Our own rabblerousr penned a very thought-provoking article yesterday in in which he looked at the role luck played in the draft, concluding that trading down may be the optimal strategy for the Cowboys.

The ensuing discussion was passionate and went in all sorts of directions, but one tangent that interested me in particular is the following question:

Is there such a thing as a sure pick?

You often hear arguments that there are only about 8-9 true blue-chip players in the draft, that they are only available in the top ten, and that you must take one if he is available. Yet the top ten of each draft is littered with busts.


Related: Trading Back Is The Optimal Strategy

Many people have argued that the Cowboys should pick David DeCastro because he is the surest pick within reach of the Cowboys. He is widely held to be a future Pro Bowler, yet there is no guarantee that that will actually come true.

The overwhelming consensus in 2012 is that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are the best and most valuable players in this draft. Yet the chances are that one of the two will not live up to the lofty expectations placed in him.

A couple of weeks ago, in the comments section of another post by rabblerousr, I asked the following question:

If a top ten draft pick does not eventually become a Pro Bowl player, is he a bust?

What about a top five pick: is a Pro Bowl berth mandatory for a top five pick?

Think about a top five pick. Specifically, think about QBs picked within the top five spots of their draft class. What would you expect from such a high draft pick?

I think at the very least you'd expect a multi-year starter, and not just for a couple of seasons, but you'd like the guy the start for perhaps eight to ten seasons. Not everybody can be a Brett Farve in terms of longevity, but if a top five pick doesn't at least play out his first contract as a starter, then you certainly have issues.

A Pro Bowl berth or two would also be a reasonable expectation of a top five pick, I would think. Granted, the Pro Bowl is more a beauty contest than anything else, but you'd still like your guy to make the trip to Hawaii, or at least play at a Pro Bowl level for a while.

And ideally, by investing a top five pick, you're hoping you've got yourself a future All Pro. Having said all that, let's now take a look at the history of quarterbacks drafted in the top five since 1990.

Top 5 QBs, 1990-2011 (click column header to sort)

Year Round Pick Player POS Team From To All Pro Pro Bowl Starter Seasons Games played Games started
1990 1 1 Jeff George QB IND 1990 2001 0 0 9 131 124
1993 1 1 Drew Bledsoe QB NWE 1993 2006 0 4 12 194 193
1993 1 2 Rick Mirer QB SEA 1993 2003 0 0 5 80 68
1994 1 3 Heath Shuler QB WAS 1994 1997 0 0 2 29 22
1995 1 3 Steve McNair QB HOU 1995 2007 0 3 10 161 153
1995 1 5 Kerry Collins QB CAR 1995 2011 0 2 11 197 180
1998 1 1 Peyton Manning QB IND 1998 2011 5 11 13 208 208
1998 1 2 Ryan Leaf QB SDG 1998 2001 0 0 1 25 21
1999 1 1 Tim Couch QB CLE 1999 2003 0 0 3 62 59
1999 1 2 Donovan McNabb QB PHI 1999 2011 0 6 11 167 161
1999 1 3 Akili Smith QB CIN 1999 2002 0 0 1 22 17
2001 1 1 Michael Vick QB ATL 2001 2011 0 4 6 111 92
2002 1 1 David Carr QB HOU 2002 2011 0 0 5 92 79
2002 1 3 Joey Harrington QB DET 2002 2007 0 0 6 81 76
2003 1 1 Carson Palmer QB CIN 2004 2011 0 2 7 107 106
2004 1 1 Eli Manning QB SDG 2004 2011 0 1 7 121 119
2004 1 4 Philip Rivers QB NYG 2004 2011 0 3 6 100 96
2005 1 1 Alex Smith QB SFO 2005 2011 0 0 6 70 66
2006 1 3 Vince Young QB TEN 2006 2011 0 2 4 61 50
2007 1 1 JaMarcus Russell QB OAK 2007 2009 0 0 2 31 25
2008 1 3 Matt Ryan QB ATL 2008 2011 0 1 4 62 62
2009 1 1 Matthew Stafford QB DET 2009 2011 0 0 2 29 29
2009 1 5 Mark Sanchez QB NYJ 2009 2011 0 0 3 47 47
2010 1 1 Sam Bradford QB STL 2010 2011 0 0 2 26 16
2011 1 1 Cam Newton QB CAR 2011 2011 0 0 1 16 16

Depending on what you consider the success criteria for a top five pick, this table presents a pretty sobering picture. Of the 25 QBs drafted within the top five of their draft class since 1991 ...

  • ... only one, Peyton Manning, was a first-team All Pro
  • ... less than half (11) made the Pro Bowl. Even if you assume that Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton will all make the Pro Bowl eventually, that would make it 14 out of 25, just slightly more than half.
  • ... only six QBs (so far) out of this group started for eight or more seasons. If you're drafting a QB that high, you're expecting to draft a franchise QB. And you'd expect that he should be your guy through at least two contracts, which would be about 8+ years. Granted, this number could be a lot higher once the careers of all players on this list are over, but for the QBs drafted before 2000, six have started for 8+ years, five didn't.

Everything I've seen, heard and read about Luck and RGIII tells me that both prospects will enjoy a stellar career in the NFL. In fact, much of the discussion these days is about whether the Colts could or should end up picking RGIII instead of Luck. These two players are clearly the consensus top picks of this draft, and you won't find many observers disputing this. Yet the history of top five picks suggests that there is a good chance one of them will not meet the lofty expectations linked to his draft slot.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to point out why Ryan Leaf was a bust and why Peyton will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer; why Akili Smith didn't last long in the NFL and why Heath Shuler was eventually benched in favor of Gus Frerotte. But at the time they were picked, this was far from clear - or they wouldn't have been rated as highly and picked as early as they eventually were.

But right now, at this exact point in time, there is no way to say whether Luck or Griffin will be the better QB or whether one of them might even be a bust. But in the event that one of them should be a disappointment, Captain Hindsight and his merry men will have a field day pointing out why it should have been clear from day one that this wasn't going to work.

The point here is that there are no guarantees in the draft. Yes, teams overall are fairly good at evaluating talent - overall, a first round pick will almost always have a better NFL career than a 7th rounder. But despite the countless hours teams spend on prodding, analyzing and evaluating their prospects, there is no such thing as a sure pick.

The truth is that the NFL's annual recruiting event has a big element of randomness, where "cant' miss" prospects become busts and unheralded players become Hall of Famers. With a draft pick, you're effectively investing in an unproven commodity.

The biggest lottery in the world (as measured by payout) is the annual Christmas lottery in Spain. Legend has it that in the mid seventies, a man looked for and found a ticket ending with a 48 - and won the lottery. When asked why he was he was looking for the 48, he said that he had been dreaming of the number seven for seven consecutive nights, "and seven times seven is 48."

At then end of the day, and at the end of a long and rigorous evaluation process, the Cowboys will pick a player in the first round of the 2012 draft. Hopefully, that player will turn out to be a stud. And if he does, I couldn't care less whether the pick was the result of skill or luck.

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