Does Making the 'Safe' Pick Actually Pay off in the NFL Draft?

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Does Making the 'Safe' Pick Actually Pay off in the NFL Draft?
Associated Press
Former Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry

When a team goes on the clock in the first round of the NFL draft, everything is on the line: the short-, medium- and long-term success of the franchise, the hopes and dreams of the fans, the jobs of the general manager and head coach, the owner's profits—everything.

The risk of drafting a bust is massive. That's why teams obsess over "red flags" ranging from life-threatening medical conditions to questionable Twitter rumors.

A player with a medical flag could be the next Star Lotulelei or the next Jahvid Best. A player with a positive drug test could be the next Warren Sapp or the next Charles Rogers. A raw player with freaky measurables could be the next Patrick Peterson or the next JaMarcus Russell.

A quarterback bust like Russell could set the franchise back four or five years; most fans would rather their team do anything but take a quarterback.

Yet executives and coaches know if they draft the right quarterback, their jobs are safe for many years to come—so teams reach for quarterbacks again and again.

But what does making a safe pick really mean, and is a safe pick really safe?

 

Safety in Numbers

When draftniks talk about a safe pick, they mean a prospect with a high floor: a low-risk player who'll almost certainly be a solid contributor.

High-floor guys have better-than-adequate measurables and no long-term concerns. Often, prospects talked about as safe picks are multiyear starters for traditional power programs, elected captains by their college teammates and have consistently played with high effort.

The other kind of safe pick is a player whose measurables are so freaky, his talent so obvious, his ceiling so high his floor hardly matters. In the 2014 draft, many consider pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney the safest pick because he's so gifted; barring an unforeseen accident or unforgivable crime, there's no way Clowney won't become a productive NFL starter.

The idea is to be there when all of the above come together in one package, like Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson: a once-in-a-generation mix of elite size, tools and talent built on a foundation of integrity and character. When the Oakland Raiders passed on Johnson to take Russell No. 1 overall in the 2007 draft, the mistake quickly became apparent.

Then again, linebacker Aaron Curry was supposed to be just like Johnson: elite size, speed and production, impeccable character and a permanently revved motor. Instead, he spent four listless, anonymous seasons in the NFL with two different teams—and got cut from a third the following preseason.

So how can teams be sure? Are quarterbacks really a bigger risk than other positions? Are offensive linemen really safe?

Let's look at Pro Football Reference's Draft Finder tool to find out.

 

Just the Facts

I decided to go through nearly two decades' worth of recent draft classes and identify how long players at each position tended to make an impact and how big of an impact they made.

Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value stat isn't perfect, but it's a great cross-position stat that measures a player's total contribution to his team. By looking at how many seasons players in each position group averaged as a starter and their average career weighted AV, we see a very clear picture of risk/reward:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

It's no surprise, but top tailback prospects have the least staying power. First-round receivers have averaged the second-shortest stays atop their teams' depth charts, and quarterbacks aren't far behind.

On the other hand, first-round offensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers have all averaged over six years in their teams' starting lineups.

So, passing on a quarterback for a lineman is always a smart move, right?

Not so fast. A look at the vertical axis shows each position's average weighted career AV. Quarterback comes in first—meaning the average first-round quarterback was more valuable to his team than an average first-round rookie of any other position.

We see first-round linebackers, offensive linemen and running backs tend to be more productive over their careers than first-rounders at other positions—though again, linemen will average two more full seasons in the starting lineup than running backs.

So, running backs are frequent busts and offensive linemen are inherently safe picks?

As it turns out, no.

I calculated a rough "bust rate" for each of the major positions/position groups. I defined a bust as any player who both started a fewer-than-average number of games at his position and produced a less-than-average per-game rate of AV.

Here's the list of first-round-quarterback busts generated by this method: Russell, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Brady Quinn, Heath Shuler, Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington, David Klingler, Mark Sanchez, Cade McNown, Rick Mirer, Rex Grossman, Tim Couch and Sam Bradford.

There are some notable busts who barely skated by with this criteria (hello, Tim Tebow), but no stars or solid starters got slapped with the "B" word.

I divided the number of busts at each position by the number of first-round picks, and voila:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Surprisingly, receivers tend to flame out more than any other position. Defensive linemen and offensive linemen actually have the second- and third-highest bust rate, with quarterbacks and linebackers after that.

Surprisingly, running backs have a lower bust rate than any position save tight end. With their high production and quick expiration date, this data jibes with the growing trend of drafting tailbacks to make an instant impact—and explains very flat markets for free-agent veterans like Knowshon Moreno.

 

Football Players Are People, Too

Dave Martin
Robert Gallery was supposed to be a can't-miss left tackle. He missed.

These numbers are revealing, but they're far from gospel. If an NFL team needs a quarterback and a prospect it loves falls to it in the first round, it shouldn't pass on him just because an offensive lineman is more likely to be a decent contributor for longer.

At the same time, the old saw about drafting an offensive lineman and forgetting about that position for 10 years doesn't hold up, either—they bust more frequently than nearly every other position.

Ultimately, the biggest factor in whether a player succeeds or fails in the NFL isn't his height, weight, college stats, workout numbers, teammate testimonials, clean urine or clean bill of health. It's whether the team that drafts him understands his strengths and weaknesses and will put him in a position to maximize those strengths and minimize those weaknesses.

As Curry proved, there's no such thing as a can't-miss prospect. As Tom Brady proved, no amount of measuring or testing can reveal every future Hall of Famer. Football players are human beings, and their careers are affected by everything that affects every other human being's job performance. 

Trying to take a consensus "safe" pick isn't safe at all—and by taking the safe player, an NFL team might miss out on the right one.

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