The Hidden Advantage of Being a High NFL Draft Pick

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IApril 15, 2015

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (15) slaps hands with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (11) after running a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

What if I told you that NFL teams unwittingly contribute to their own mediocrity by stifling the growth of late-round draft picks while incubating an ideal environment for their top draft picks to thrive? This is not an episode of 30 for 30, but it should be. This is the hidden advantage of being drafted high in the National Football League.

Before diving deeper into the unknown, there are some obvious advantages to being drafted in the first couple of rounds. For example—more money is one major plus.

Though rookies these days aren’t making the $40 million contracts they once garnered under the old collective bargaining agreement nearly four years ago, there’s still a significant difference between a top-10 selection and a fifth-round draft pick.  

Under the current CBA, each draft pick has a predetermined length of contract and amount of money he will make based on his draft position. Every drafted rookie is signed to a four-year contract and first-round picks are subject to a fifth-year option.  

Most NFL rookies (guys drafted outside the first round) will receive four-year contracts at the league minimum while the signing bonuses get incrementally smaller as we get further down the draft rounds. In all, the first overall selection in the draft this year is expected to count a little over $4 million against the cap, whereas the first pick in the seventh round is expected to count about $450,000, according to estimates at Overthecap.com.

Estimated 2015 Rookie Cap Numbers (by round and pick)
TeamRd 1Rd 2Rd 3Rd 7
Bucs$4,064,636$1,024,382$610,826$452,281
OvertheCap.com

That’s a huge difference in earnings. It’s also a huge difference in financial commitment from the team’s point of view.   

Though these details might be informative, the concept that higher picks make more money than lower picks is hardly a hidden advantage.

So, what exactly did I mean in the opening paragraph when I claimed the NFL stifles potential on one end and incubates it on another?

First off, there is a thing called confirmation bias, which can cloud the evaluation process for coaches and general managers once they’ve made the decision to draft a guy in the first couple of rounds.

So what does this mean?

Let’s skip the meaning for a second and jump to how it plays out in action.

First-round draft picks are nearly always put in situations where they must prove over and over again that they cannot play the game before being cast aside and replaced with who the coaching staff and front office preemptively deem as a lesser option. Sometimes this process can take years before they give up on a guy. All the while, that player is afforded ample opportunities to get better from the experience.

For all intents and purposes, the vast majority of NFL rosters are created with this story playing out to some degree or another.

On a topical level, the human ego is often so fragile that we look for anything we can to prove ourselves right, rather than accept the reality presented to us when looking with an objective eye. However, this element only speaks to a portion of the dynamics at play here.

It’s ingrained in our human psychology to search for verification that our predictions are correct, while resisting any evidence that disproves it. This is one of the reasons why scientists created the scientific method.

Though analytics and other forms of empirical data are slowly gaining traction in the NFL, very few NFL teams are any good at truly starting their rookies off on an even playing field and letting the best men win.

Instead, higher draft picks are given every opportunity to succeed by the organization, oftentimes unwittingly.

Before we get into this concept further, let’s examine some data regarding NFL prospects and their career success by round.  

“Picking at the end of the second round only gives your team a 50 percent chance of finding a starter,” According to a study via datascopeanalytics.com, that analyzes 50 years worth of drafting. This is a big dropoff from the first 15 picks which generates starters between 80-90 percent of the time. On the other hand, “going towards the end of the third round, your chance of finding a starter falls to (about) 30 percent.” 

The further down you go in rounds, the lower the percentage gets. “The data shows that finding a starter in Round 6 or 7 is only 10–20 percent.”

Though decline in expectation is to be expected, there are questions about the factors that come into play that lead to such a significant disparity in the success of players based on the round they were chosen.

Everything I’ve read or heard on the subject seems to completely accept this reality without a second thought. The assumption is that these outcomes are merely the product of highly skilled talent evaluators drafting the guys with the brightest futures first. This assumption certainly plays to the ego of most general managers.  

Have you ever wondered what would’ve happened if Trent Green never got hurt back in 1998? It would have never paved the way for an undrafted, former Arena Football League player named Kurt Warner to go on to become league and Super Bowl MVP.

DAVE MARTIN/Associated Press

Warner happened to be in the right place at the right time. If everything hadn’t played out exactly right, we would still be validated in the notion that some guy named Kurt Warner had no earthly business being the starter of an NFL football team and all of our genius talent evaluators were just so brilliant.

The same thing goes for Tom Brady. Bill Belichick wasn’t trying to figure out ways to get his sixth-round quarterback on the field in front of his first-round franchise QB named Drew Bledsoe.

Have you ever considered the possibility that stories like Brady and Warner are rare more because these guys are put in positions to fail rather than the idea that we’re just really amazing at determining who can play and who can’t?

NFL coaches never spent hours of one-on-one time trying to prepare these guys to be starters.

Nobody was there to encourage these guys and instill a sense of confidence and belief in their ability. 

Would we even know who Alex Smith is if he were drafted in the sixth round instead of being the first overall selection? He's still the same guy, but his draft position likely bought him the time needed to become an adequate starter in this league.

Alex Smith's 1st Five Years
YearRecordComp %TD/INTPssr Rtg
20052-550.91/1140.8
20067-958.116/1674.8
20072-548.72/457.2
20095-560.518/1281.5
20103-759.614/1082.1
Pro Football Reference

Instead, the countless prospects like Warner and Brady about whom we never hear are guys who were ushered in and out of the league faster than they could even realize without ever being given a chance, without any faith, without any belief or coaching.

These players are replaceable commodities led to believe in their own mediocrity.

Sure, you can put them in front of a camera and get some cliche rhetoric about how they believe in themselves and will never let the NFL dream die, but underneath that tired facade lies a man whose dreams have been imploded the moment they walked into an NFL facility and were treated like afterthoughts.

There was a now-famous study done back in 1964 by a Harvard professor named Robert Rosenthal.

He went to a classroom in San Francisco to figure out what would happen if teachers were told that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed. Rosenthal took a standardized IQ test and dressed it up a bit by calling it “Flanagan’s Test of General Ability.” Each test had the words “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition” printed on the cover.

Rosenthal then told the teachers that this test from Harvard had the special ability to predict which kids were about to be very special—that is, which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ—not unlike the unintended effect that the NFL draft order has on coaches and personnel guys in the NFL.

Once the kids took the test, Rosenthal chose several children totally at random from every class. There was nothing distinguishable from one kid to the other, but he told their teachers that the test predicted those kids were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom. This is essentially the same thing as drafting a player in the first round.

As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers' expectations of these kids really did affect the students. "If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ," he says.

Further research revealed that the teachers’ daily interactions were affected in countless ways. Teachers would favor the chosen kids by giving them more time to answer questions, giving them more feedback and also providing more positive reinforcement and approval.

It’s not a stretch to imagine how this would help shape the success of a child in a classroom or even a professional football player in a team setting. And from everything I’ve witnessed and experienced as a former NFL player, this is exactly what happens to an untold number of NFL prospects who have come and gone over the years, never to see their full potential realized.

Early draft picks are given all the practice reps, they get the lion’s share of the coach’s attention and they’re treated with more respect among their peers. All of this is sure to help that player attain a higher level of confidence and comfort in their responsibilities. In short, they’re more prepared forNFL  success both emotionally and mentally.

This advantage is both real and extremely significant in the NFL.  

Obviously, this is not an absolute for any prospect. There have been hundreds of failed prospects drafted high and success stories from guys who found a way to rise above it.

This type of thing can mirror the way poverty-stricken neighborhoods can become a cyclical trap for people while affluent neighborhoods provide every opportunity for their children to succeed in society. We know that failures and successes can be generated from both origins, but it is the frequency that is what’s important here.

For the NFL, it is sadly no better than the examples provided in terms of incubating an equal opportunity for success.

One potent perpetuator of this reality is that front-office execs have a vested interest in seeing their bigger investments succeed. Obviously the guy making more money is going to have a strong advantage for landing the starting position or the roster spot in question. Going the other way actually can cost the team financially and—if done too often—can put the general manager’s job in jeopardy.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

If you would have reproduced the quarterback battle between Matt Flynn (who was just guaranteed $10 million dollars at the time) and Russell Wilson (undersized quarterback drafted in the third round) on any other team beside Seattle at that time, you would likely see 31 separate decisions to start Matt Flynn over the cheap, undersized, third-round quarterback.

This is just the way the NFL works.

The Seahawks are one of the better teams at recognizing this flaw in the system and have done a great job at freeing themselves from the self-inflicted shackles worn by so many. As a result, they’ve produced some of the most successful late-round draft picks in the NFL, which has culminated into back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and what many consider to be the most talented roster in football.

Decision-makers are overly motivated by fear. It often paralyzes them and shuts down their ability to think on their own and act boldly. This is why so many around the league are fascinated with what’s going on in Philadelphia right now.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Everyone can easily recognize a decision-maker in Chip Kelly who has no qualms being bold with his decisions and rarely factors in what is considered normal.

So when you see a late-round prospect rise to the top, understand that he has overcome much more than a guy who was expected to be there in the first place.

First-round draft picks must prove that they can’t play, while late-round prospects are forced to prove that they can.

This is one of the biggest hidden advantages for being drafted early. It has contributed to all of the historical data that demonstrates NFL success per round and has sadly destroyed the careers of many talented prospects over the years, not to mention NFL franchises. Therein lies the self-destructive irony that plays itself out year after year while talent evaluators continue to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.    

 

Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who writes for Bleacher Report.  

Follow him on Twitter @Ryan_Riddle