In the first three rounds of any draft, NFL teams expect to draft either an immediate starter or an eventual starter. We take a look at how successful NFL teams have been over the last three years at turning their top picks into starters.
When John Phillips signed with the Chargers early last week, multiple reports announced with great fanfare and quite a bit of glee that the "Dreadful Dozen" Cowboys draft class of 2009 was done in Dallas. While not totally accurate - Victor Butler still hasn't signed with another team yet - it's just a matter of time before it becomes a fact.
With the 2009 draft thus firmly in the rear-view mirror, perhaps we can move on and look at what has happened since then. Today, I'd like to look at the last three drafts - specifically, the first three rounds of the last three drafts - and see how well the Cowboys have drafted compared to their NFL peers.
The first three rounds are where teams should be expecting to draft immediate or eventual starters. Going by NFL.com's definition, a first-round player is expected to "start immediately except in a unique situation (i.e. behind a veteran starter)." With their second-round picks, most teams should also reasonably expect to draft starters. And with a little luck, the third-round pick is "a quality player who will contribute to the team early on and is expected to develop into a starter."
Starting in the fourth round, teams look to add a backup/role player, and if they are really lucky, these players eventually develop into starters. But that doesn't happen all that often. And that's why getting it right in the first three rounds is so critical: When teams fail to get starters with their Top 100 picks, they usually end up having to fill those voids with expensive free agents.
But "getting it right" is far from easy, even in the top three rounds. Here's an overview showing how many prospects from each round of the last three drafts ended up becoming primary starters in the NFL. A "primary starter" is a player who has started at least eight games in at least one of the last three seasons:
|Primary Starters by round, 2010-2012 Drafts|
|Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||Round 4||Round 5||Round 6||Round 7||Total|
|No. of Players||96||95||100||107||107||113||146||762|
Only 78% of the first-round picks over the last three draft classes have become primary starters so far (which means that to date, one out of five first-round picks has failed to become a starter). As is to be expected, the overall percentages decrease the further back in the draft a player is selected. Granted, because we're looking only at a three-year window, these percentages could still improve, but the overall picture won't: The top three rounds are where you can reasonably expect to get your starters; after that it's largely a matter of luck.
Cowboys fans hold their recent top-round draft picks in fairly high regard and believe the Cowboys have done quite well in the top three rounds of the last three drafts:
Of the Cowboys' seven picks above, six are primary starters. If a team's objective is to collect future starters in the first three rounds, the Cowboys look to have done a pretty good job. Some might argue that Lee, Carter and Murray have all missed significant playing time with injuries. Others might point to the fact that the Cowboys have only drafted seven players in the top three rounds of the last three drafts, and had they not moved up, the Cowboys would have had nine such picks (and possibly more had they chosen to trade down). But overall, that feels like a solid haul for the Cowboys - and there certainly isn't an outright bust in that group, something many other teams have struggled with over the last three years.
To get a better feel for how this compares to other NFL teams, the table below looks at the top three rounds of the last three drafts for all NFL teams, and shows how successful each team was in getting primary starters out of their picks.
Draft Success Rounds 1-3, 2010-12 (click column header to sort)
|Team||Picks in Rds 1-3||Primary Starters||Success rate|
|New York Jets
|New York Giants
Note that a success rate of 57% is the average value in this analysis. Note also that for the purposes of this analysis, "primary starter" is a hard cutoff. It doesn't matter whether a player did not start eight games in a season because he was injured or for any other reason. If you're Seattle's Bruce Irvin and played in 16 games but didn't start once, tough luck; if you're Pittsburgh's David DeCastro and only started three games due to injury, you're out; if you're the 49er's A.J. Jenkins and only played 37 offensive snaps, got targeted with a pass just once and dropped it, you're not making the list.
Finally, note that this list will probably look different in two or three years, as more players eventually get a primary starter season under their belt. But for now, it is what it is.
762 players were selected in the last three drafts (including two players taken in the supplemental draft). Of those, 229 have been primary starters in at least one season. That means that, on average, every NFL teams has drafted 2.4 primary starters per draft over the last three years. That's not a particularly high number, and it follows that a team's overall objective must be to collect as many quality starters as possible. The above table suggests there are two basic ways of going about this, either by going after quantity of quality. Very few teams manage to do both, some manage to do neither.
The table above is sorted by success rate, or the percentage of draft picks from the first three rounds that have become primary starters. By that measure, the Panthers, Seahawks and Cowboys have been the most successful at selecting prospects that turned into primary starters. For the Panthers, only 2010 third-round WR Armanti Edwards hasn't become a primary starter, for the Seahawks it's 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin (how scary is it that the Seahawks hit on basically every pick?), for the Cowboys it's Tyrone Crawford.
At the other end of the scale, the Steelers only have two primary starters (OC Maurkice Pouncey, RT Marcus Gilbert) to show for the last three years of drafts in the first three rounds. The Packers have two first rounders (DE Nick Perry and OL Derek Sherrod) and three second rounders (DB Casey Hayward, DT Jerel Worthy and DE Mike Neal) who they fervently hope will turn into primary starters at some point. And before you think this is just the result of a deep roster with limited opportunities for rookies, look at some of the teams in the top half of the table: Seattle, Denver, Atlanta and New England all manage above average success rates despite already having solid rosters.
If success rate is a sign of quality, then accumulating a lot of picks in the first three rounds is a sign of an approach that values quantity. Underlying that approach is some pretty simple math: The more players you draft, the better your odds of landing good players. The Patriots in particular have made this a big part of their drafting philosophy, but they are not the only ones. In total, there are ten teams who for various reasons have ended up with more than nine picks in the top three rounds over the last three years. Of those ten teams, the Patriots have a league average success rate of 57%, four teams (CLE, TB, DEN KC) have an above average success rate, five have a below average success rate.
Ultimately though, whether you go for quality or quantity (or both), what matters in the end is that you get quality players for your roster. In football, players are going to get hurt, so the more depth you have, and the more good players you have, the better your chances are of winning. Over the last three drafts, NFL teams have averaged 5.2 primary starters in the first three rounds of the draft. If you get more than that, you're doing something right. If not, you'd better ask yourself some pretty tough questions.