The Math of the Draft: What Do the Numbers Tell Us About NFL Reality?

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The Math of the Draft: What Do the Numbers Tell Us About NFL Reality?
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The age-old adage is that the NFL draft is the best road to success, both for the franchises and the players. But do the numbers back up that assertion?

You already knew the answer: of course they do. Such ideas don't get repeated often if they don't serve to be true. 

So instead of trying to draw out the conclusion in a lame attempt to build suspense, approach this as an essay that confirms everything you've already known. Except now, you'll be able to quote statistics and specific examples when arguing with the guy on the bar stool next to you. 

 

What Do The Numbers Say About Drafted Players' Success?

There are varying ranges of success for NFL careers. Some guys are just happy to last long enough to collect a pension (three years nowadays). Others consider themselves failures if they never break into the starting lineup. And then there are those who won't stop until they've racked up Pro Bowl nods and a yellow jacket. 

The first level of success is for those who stick around on rosters long enough to qualify for the retirement package. While these guys may never be consistent contributors (or even inconsistent ones), it's worth noting that they were good enough to be included on active rosters. All told, only 67.6 percent of all players drafted from 1990 through 2009 have stuck around for three or more years, according to draftmetrics.com

Some of those guys will inevitably find themselves inserted into the starting lineup due to injuries or poor performance. Starting a game here or there or even staying in the lineup for two years doesn't equate to the next level of success, according to draftmetrics.com. They break it down by who strings together either three- or five-plus years as a starter in this handy chart

Photo via draftmetrics.com.

As you can see, the numbers obviously drop precipitously over those who are just sticking around for a few years. While that may have been obvious, it's interesting to note that not even half of those who stay in the league long enough to earn that ever-valuable pension actually find themselves to be consistent contributors. 

Next, we turn to those who have done more than just get on the field, but have excelled enough to earn some postseason attention in the form of All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections. In short, if you want to make a Pro Bowl roster or earn one of those coveted 22 All-Pro spots, it's best to be drafted in the first round, as roughly 52% of All-Pro selections from 1990 to 2009, and 46 percent of original Pro Bowl invitees, were drafted within the first 28 picks. Conversely, only six percent of those selected for these prestigious honors were passed over by everyone and had to fight their way onto a roster as a free agent. All of this information is available thanks to the great work of Tony Villiotti at draftmetrics.com. 

None of the foregoing should have been shocking. The best players are picked early. And to drive that point home even more, only 15 of the 280 Hall of Fame enshrinees went undrafted. 

 

Can Teams Find Starters Outside of the Draft?

The short and easy answer is, again, of course. But do you realize how unlikely it is for undrafted players to find themselves on the field for the first series?

Years

Percentage of Games Started By Drafted Players

1990-1994

 90 percent

1995-1999

 88 percent

2000-2004

 86 percent

2005-2009

 87 percent

Numbers for the table provided by Tony Villiotti of www.draftmetrics.com.

While there is a little variation, the numbers have remained steady for the past two decades. As you can see, very few starters break into the NFL outside of the draft. Approximately one of out eight players who started a game in the NFL from 1990 to 2009 wasn't drafted. Therefore, in any given game, only five out of the 44 non-special teams starters in a game weren't selected in the NFL's second-biggest annual event.

(Behind the Pro Bowl, of course! What? Who cares about the Super Bowl? I love watching grown men play a version of the game that most children outgrow by fifth grade with absolutely nothing on the line.)

Sorry for the side rant. I have a thing against stupidity. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

 

Who Is The Best At It?

Finally, just for fun, let's see who really knows what they're doing when sifting through the mucky unknown for talent. 

Rich Exner and Bill Lubinger of The Plain Dealer (via www.cleveland.com) got busy and compiled the numbers for the last lap of this article. They posted the winning percentage of each team as well as the number of All-Pros each had selected between 2002 and 2011.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Chamber your sarcasm and prep the snarky comments: The best franchise at identifying the true difference makers in the draft is the New England Patriots. They've found 15 such gems and, not coincidentally, they have won seven percent more of their games than the second place team, the Indianapolis Colts. 

Oddly enough, the team with the second-best rate of picking All-Pros, the Baltimore Ravens, have only won games at a .588 clip. Injuries were likely the culprit, which demonstrates that finding the big dogs is important, but so is finding someone to fill in behind them.

So what have we learned? That only two thirds of those drafted will be in the league for three or more years, and less than a third of those selected will be consistent starters. Additionally, that first-round selection is a better indicator of future success than all of the other rounds combined. 

Maybe it isn’t what we learned, but rather what has been reinforced. 

 

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