clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

NFL Draft 2010: Are Underclassmen Riskier Picks?

We keep hearing that the 2010 draft is deep and could potentially be one of the deepest since the '83 draft. Most people will agree that it usually takes three years to determine how good a draft was, so how can the depth of this draft be determined months before the draft?

One reason that I often saw mentioned in the context of this year's draft is that both the quantity and quality of underclassmen will elevate the overall quality of the draft. And there is a precedent for this: Fifteen underclassmen went in the first round in 2009, tying the record shared with the 2004 draft.

Imagine what the 2009 draft class might have looked like without the juniors at quarterback (Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman) and wide receiver (Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt). Think about the 2009 QB situation for a minute - without the three underclassmen, our very own Stephen McGee would have been the second highest QB pick!

We'll see in due course just how good or bad the 09 draft really was, but what we can do right now is look at how underclassmen entering the draft have performed in years past. Specifically, how underclassmen drafted in the first round have fared.

Here are some raw stats to get you in the right groove:

  • 10 of the last 20 number one picks were underclassmen.
  • Of the 317 players drafted over the last ten years in the first round, 118 (37%) were underclassmen.
  • Of the 100 players drafted in the top 10, 43 were underclassmen.
  • 45% of all underclassmen drafted in the first round are offensive skill position players (QB, WR, RB) vs. 'only' 24% of all seniors drafted in the first round.

After the jump, armed to the teeth with the benefit of hindsight, I set out to see whether drafting underclassmen is a riskier proposition than drafting seniors.

The Cowboys and underclassmen

Over the last ten years, the Cowboys have not shied away from drafting underclassmen. Below is a sampling of current and former Cowboys who were underclassmen - some hits, some misses.

2001: Quincy Carter  -  2002: Antonio Bryant, Derek Ross, Roy Williams  -  2003: Jason Witten  -  2005: Marion Barber  -  2006: Anthony Fasano  - 2008: Felix Jones, Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick  -  2009: Brandon Williams, Kevin Ogletree

Felix Jones and Roy Williams (S) were the only first round underclassmen over the last decade. Ken Hamlin (2003) and Igor Olshansky (2004) were also drafted as underclassmen by their teams and later made their way to Dallas.

Underclassmen picked at No. 1

The NFL has allowed underclassmen to enter the draft since 1989. Drafting underclassmen in the number one spot has been a hit and miss affair. And if you ever wanted proof that life isn't fair: despite a truly pathetic NFL career, Tim Couch went on to marry a Playboy Playmate.

Year
Player Hit or Miss Year
Player Hit or Miss
2009
Matthew Stafford Hit: so far, so good 1995
Ki-Jana Carter Miss: The Ryan Leaf of RBs
2007
JaMarcus Russell Miss: 68 million reasons 1994
Dan Wilkinson Miss: 16 seasons,  in the NFL, 0 awards
2006
Mario Williams Hit: Two Pro Bowls
1993
Drew Bledsoe Hit: Massive stats, 4 Pro Bowls
1999
Tim Couch Miss: stank up the joint
1992
Steve Emtman Miss: Injuries cut career very short
1997
Orlando Pace Hit: 7 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro 1990
Jeff George Miss: 16 seasons, 8 teams, 0 awards

Underclassmen by position: chasing shiny things?

As shown at the top of this post, there has been a clear emphasis on drafting underclassmen in the offensive skill positions. The heavy boys (O-Line, DT, DE) by contrast make up 44% of seniors drafted, and only 22% of underclassmen drafted.

First round draft picks 2000-2009 by position
TOTAL QB WR RB
TE OL DT DE LB DB K
Seniors
199 16 18 14 7 36 22 30 23 33 1
Underclassmen
118 10 25 18 8 8 9 10 9 20 0

Recently, Raf and I showed that the Bust Factor for Wide Receivers in the first round over the last 10 years was close to 50%. Given that the underclassmen are very WR heavy relative to the seniors, it follows that as a whole group, underclassmen have a higher bust rate than seniors. So we'll not look at overall numbers. Instead, we'll compare the offensive skill positions only.

The criteria we apply for labeling someone as a hit or a miss is simple. If you become a consistent starter on your team, you’re a hit. If not, you’re a miss. For better or for worse, guys who looked promising but don’t start because of injuries are also listed as misses.

Wide Receivers

Using the above bust factor rule of thumb, 13 of the 25 underclassmen WRs are misses (52%) and 8 of 18 senior WRs (44%). Too close to say that there is bigger risk associated with underclassmen WRs, so let's go grab us some Golden Tate, right?

Wrong.

In the table at the bottom of the page, I have listed all the underclassmen WRs drafted in the first round since 2000, their games started per year and their hit/miss rating. Of the 19 WRs drafted between 2000 and 2007, 12 (62%) are misses, a much higher rate than for the full decade, 2000-2009 (52%).  

The underclassmen WRs average for the last decade is 'saved' by what appears to be a strong 2009 WR class (Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt). We'll know more about that group in two years time, but so far, only Heyward-Bey, with a meager 9 catches in 11 games, looks like a miss early on.

Drafting a WR in the first round is generally a risky proposition. It might be even riskier drafting an underclassman.

Underclass defensive backs on the other hand only have a 30% bust rate (6/20), seniors are only marginally lower at 24% (8/33), the misses are evenly spread over the years, so there is little to no extra risk in drafting an underclassman DB.

So Jerry, go ahead and grab Earl Thomas.

Quarterbacks

In the last decade, 26 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Using the same bust factor rule, 3 of 10 (30%) underclassmen can be considered misses (JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Rex Gossman) and 6 of 16 seniors (38%). Because of the small base numbers in each case, the difference in percentages is negligible.

Over the last decade, drafting an underclassman QB has not been riskier than drafting a senior. The Cowboys have drafted a QB in the first round only twice in franchise history (Morton '65, Aikman '89), and it's not going to change this year.

So Jerry, go ahead and grab Earl Thomas.

Running Backs

32 running backs were drafted in the first round in the last 10 years. Rigorous application of the bust factor rule shows that 44% of underclassmen (8/18) are misses, while only 21% of seniors (3/14) can be considered misses.

But here's where we run into a little trouble with the 'games as starter' classification approach. Donald Brown, Darren McFadden, Chris Wells, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, all of them '08 and '09 underclassmen, all qualify as misses with that classification.

As more and more teams adopt a two- or even three running back system, individual starts become less of a measuring stick for running backs than they may have been in the past. Based on their season stats and because I'm a magnanimous and generous guy, I am awarding Wells, Stewart and Jones honorary hit status(denoted with a * in the table at the bottom). This in turn lowers the miss rate of underclassmen running backs to 28% (5/18), close enough to the seniors' numbers to be able to say that there is no increased risk of drafting an underclass RB in the first.

And since we are not in the market for a running back in the first round, I say Jerry, make Earl Thomas happen.

WR underclassmen drafted in the first round - games started by year
Year Player Pick '00 '01 '02
'03 '04 '05 '06 '07 '08 '09 Hit/Miss
2009
Darrius Heyward-Bey 7 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 11 Miss
2009
Michael Crabtree 10 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 11 Hit
2009
Jeremy Maclin 19 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 13 Hit
2009
Percy Harvin 22 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 8 Hit
2009
Hakeem Nicks 29 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 6 Hit
2009
Kenny Britt 30 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 6 Hit
2007
Calvin Johnson 2 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 16 14 Hit
2007
Ted Ginn Jr. 9 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 9 14 12 Hit
2007
Robert Meachem 27 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 0 3 7 Miss
2007
Anthony Gonzalez 32 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 9 2 1 Miss
2006
Santonio Holmes 25 - - - - - - - - - - - - 4 13 15 16 Hit
2005
Troy Williamson 7 - - - - - - - - - - 3 11 8 1 1 Miss
2005
Mike Williams 10 - - - - - - - - - - 4 2 1 1 - - Miss
2004
Larry Fitzgerald 3 - - - - - - - - 16 16 13 15 16 16 Hit
2004
Reggie Williams 9 - - - - - - - - 15 7 14 6 11 0 Miss
2004
Michael Clayton 15 - - - - - - - - 13 10 9 4 9 9 Miss
2003
Charles Rogers 2 - - - - - - 5 1 3 - - - - - - - - Miss
2003
Andre Johnson 3 - - - - - - 16 16 13 16 9 16 16 Hit
2002
Donte Stallworth 13 - - - - 7 3 10 13 11 9 7 x Miss
2002
Ashley Lelie 19 - - - - 1 10 16 13 10 3 6 - - Miss
2001
David Terrell 8 - - 6 1 7 15 0 - - - - - - - - Miss
2001
Koren Robinson 9 - - 13 16 15 8 5 0 1 12 - - Hit
2001
Freddie Mitchell 25 - - 1 1 6 9 - - - - - - - - - - Miss
2000
Plaxico Burress 8 8 16 15 16 11 15 15 16 9 x Hit
2000
Travis Taylor 10 8 13 15 16 9 13 16 0 - - - - Miss
QB underclassmen drafted in the first round - games started by year
Year Player Pick '00 '01 '02
'03 '04 '05 '06 '07 '08 '09 Hit/Miss
2009
Matthew Stafford 1 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 Hit
2009
Mark Sanchez
5 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 15 Hit
2009
Josh Freeman 17 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 9 Hit
2007
JaMarcus Russell 1 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 15 9 Miss
2006
Vince Young 3 - - - - - - - - - - - - 13 15 1 10 Hit
2005
Alex Smith 1 - - - - - - - - - - 7 16 7 0 10 Miss
2005
Aaron Rodgers
24 - - - - - - - - - - 0 0 0 16 16 Hit
2004
Ben Roethlisberger 11 - - - - - - - - 13 12 15 15 16 15 Hit
2003
Rex Gossman 22 - - - - - - 3 3 1 16 7 1 0 Miss
2001
Michael Vick 1 - - 2 15 4 15 15 16 x x 1 Miss
RB underclassmen drafted in the first round - games started by year
Year Player Pick '00 '01 '02
'03 '04 '05 '06 '07 '08 '09 Hit/Miss
2009
Knowshon Moreno 12 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 9 Hit
2009
Donald Brown
27 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 Miss
2009
Chris Wells 31 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 0 Hit*
2008
Darren McFadden 4 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 5 7 Miss
2008
Jonathan Stewart 13 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 0 3 Hit*
2008
Felix Jones 22 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 0 1 Hit*
2008
Rashard Mendenhall
23 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 12 Hit
2007
Adrian Peterson 7 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 9 15 15 Hit
2007
Marshawn Lynch 12 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 13 15 6 Hit
2006
Reggie Bush 2 - - - - - - - - - - - - 8 10 9 7 Hit
2006
Laurence Maroney 21 - - - - - - - - - - - - 0 6 3 5 Miss
2004
Steven Jackson 24 - - - - - - - - 3 15 16 12 11 15 Hit
2004
Kevin Jones 30 - - - - - - - - 14 13 12 10 0 0 Hit
2003
Willis McGahee 23 - - - - - - - - 11 15 14 15 8 1 Hit
2002
William Green 16 - - - - 10 7 12 0



Miss
2002
T.J. Duckett 18 - - - - 3 10 0 0 0 1 0
Miss
2001
Michael Bennett 27 - - 13 16 7 7 6 0 1 0 0 Hit
2000
Jamal Lewis 5 14 0 15 16 12 15 16 15 16 8 Hit