NFL Draft Success Not Just About Who Teams Draft, but Who They Pass Up

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IApril 18, 2015

El defensive end de los Texans, J.J. Watt, festeja tras un sack contra los Ravens de Baltimore el domingo, 21 de diciembre de 2014, en Houston. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
Patric Schneider/Associated Press

Since the year of the first NFL draft ever, less than 25,000 prospects have ever been drafted into the NFL. Since that time, both NFL front-office executives and fans alike seem to gauge the success of a draft pick primarily by answering yes/no to whether or not that particular selection turned out to be a good NFL player. If a player is considered serviceable, then the pick is generally deemed successful, regardless of what happened to the other available prospects passed up along the way.  

What few consider, however, is that every draft decision also comes with the price of something called opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is defined by Google as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”  

In other words, a successful draft pick should not be determined just by the isolated contributions of the player picked—but rather—by who they pass up along the way.

For some reason, opportunity cost is rarely factored into the analysis that goes into determining a successful draft. Perhaps it adds a layer of complication to the process people just aren’t willing to focus on.

Here’s an example of how former general manager Bill Polian measures his drafting hits and misses, as per Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com:

I think you have to divide it [the draft] into top 12 and bottom 20. If you’re in the top 12, it [serviceable contributor percentage] ought to be in the .640 range. That’s about 4.5 guys on average per year out of the seven. You measure that at the end of three years and what you are measuring is whether or not those guys become winning players, guys that contribute to wins. Bottom 20 is .571, that’s four out of seven…

You either make it or you don’t. We’ve [Colts] been above the .570 mark when you count collegiate free agents like Melvin Bullitt who come in and play, and they count. So we’ve been above the .570 mark. This past year we could get close to the .640 mark drafting 31st but it’s early.

Throughout Polian’s explanation in this quote, or with more detail in the article link, there is no consideration for who is passed up in the process. This is likely what you’ll find time and time again when you research NFL executives discussing this topic.

However, regardless of whether one chooses to focus on it or not, the impact of this cost is absolutely real.   

They say you can’t truly judge a successful draft until at least four years later. So to start, let’s go back four years to the 2011 draft.

In 2011, the Buffalo Bills had the third overall pick and they decided to select a defensive tackle out of the University of Alabama named Marcell Dareus. It’s hard to deny that Dareus has been a success in the NFL so far for the Bills. He is a two-time Pro Bowler who has amassed 28.5 sacks during his first four years and was named a first-team All-Pro in 2014.

But what about when you factor in the opportunity cost the Bills paid by passing up J.J. Watt to get him?

As many of you already know, J.J. Watt might be the most dominant defensive player in the NFL today. He has been named by the Associate Press as the Defensive Player of the Year twice in his four years in the league.

Jan 31, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers former general manager Bill Polian reacts during a press conference to introduce the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees at Symphony Hall. Mandatory Credit: Kirby
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Watt has already had two NFL seasons with more than 20 sacks and he is only 26 years old. No matter how you slice it, you really can’t say a guy with this degree of talent wouldn’t be successful on any team that drafted him.

But Watt isn’t the only talented player they passed on that year. The Bills could have had pass-rush extraordinaires like Aldon Smith and Robert Quinn, or offensive playmakers like A.J. Green and Julio Jones.

You can even ponder the possibilities the Bills had to move back in the draft and grabbed guys like Muhammad Wilkerson, who ended up going 30th overall, and another first rounder like Robert Quinn, who was eventually taken at the 14th spot.

Looking at it through this lens, it makes you wonder—just how great of a pick was it to take Marcell Dareus after all?

This is not an attempt to pick on the Bills here. It gets much worse for teams like the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars who opted for quarterbacks. Jake Locker was picked eighth and Blaine Gabbert was selected 10th overall, one pick ahead of Watt.

For perspective, Locker retired this offseason and Gabbert will battle this summer for the rights to remain the backup quarterback to Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. It’s worth noting that Kaepernick was selected in the second round of that same 2011 draft.

You can imagine Kaepernick must feel some sense of pride knowing that three of the five quarterbacks taken ahead of him can now officially be labeled as busts.

Watt vs. Dareus
NameDraft PosSacksTcklsPass DeflectionsForced Fumbles
Watt11th572413712
Dareus3rd28.5139112
Pro Football Reference
Quarterbacks Taken Ahead of Kaepernick
NameDraft Pos.TD/INTCareer Passer Rtg
Cam Newton1st82/5485.4
Jake Locker8th27/2279
Blaine Gabbert10th23/2466.8
Christian Ponder12th38/3675.9
Andy Dalton35th99/6685.2
Pro Football Reference

 

That’s enough to make fans of any of these teams want to cry.

Looking at the roster of the Kansas City Chiefs today, you can clearly see there is a need at the wide receiver. Last year, they went an astonishing 16 regular season games without a single touchdown catch from the position.

During the 2011 draft year, the Kansas City Chiefs selected wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin out of Pittsburgh with the 26th overall pick.

Obviously they paid a high price in opportunity cost at numerous positions, but just looking at receivers that could be on their roster today makes you cringe.

They passed on Torrey Smith, who went on to help the Ravens win a Super Bowl, Randall Cobb, who recently signed a huge contract to remain in Green Bay, even Cecil Shorts who was taken in the fourth round would’ve been a better option than Baldwin.

As for all those 3-4 defenses desperately seeking to upgrade their pass rush in the second round, like the Browns picking Jabaal Sheard 37th overall, or the Texans who snagged Brooks Reed with the 43rd overall, or perhaps the Chargers taking some guy named Jonas Mouton with the 61st pick, they all failed miserably when you factor in opportunity cost.

Why?

Because the Chiefs did do something right that year when they grabbed perhaps the biggest steal of 2011 in Justin Houston at 70th overall. Last year Houston finished atop the NFL in sacks with 22, just one sack shy of breaking the NFL single-season record of 22.5 held by Michael Strahan.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

2011 also saw Mark Ingram be the first running back taken with the 28th pick. He landed in New Orleans and has yet to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, despite winning the Heisman trophy.

The next running back off the board was even worse, the Cardinals selected Ryan Williams 38th overall. His has 58 carries for 164 yards in his four-year NFL career. Meanwhile, Arizona is still trying to shore up some depth and playmaking ability at the position to this day.

Then, late in the second round, the Patriots added some quality talent at the running back position when they selected Shane Vereen at 56. Mikel Leshoure would go one pick later to the Detroit Lions. Leshoure’s career has been a disappointment thus far but Vereen has been a serviceable weapon on offense as both a runner and receiver.

In terms of opportunity costs, the Cardinals would have been much better off going with Vereen in that round.

At pick No.62 the Dolphins made a play at running back by taking the big bruiser in Daniel Thomas from Kansas State. Thomas remains a Dolphin to this day but has never averaged four yards per carry in an NFL season.

Each one of those teams mentioned, hoping to land a dynamic offensive weapon at the running back position, failed miserably in terms of opportunity cost. Not long after Thomas was off the board, the Dallas Cowboys selected DeMarco Murray.

Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

In his four years with the Cowboys, Murray has averaged an impressive 85.4 yards per game rushing and 4.8 yards per carry. In 2014, Murray won the NFL’s rushing title when he rushed for 1,845 yards, while scoring 13 touchdowns.

As for every NFL team who drafted a cornerback that year who is proud of the job they did, it’s time for them to stop patting their own backs—Richard Sherman lasted 154 picks in 2011 and has since gone on to become the most feared cornerback in the NFL.  

As you can see, each year, the NFL draft will cost several teams dearly in opportunity cost. This includes the 2015 season.

Though hindsight obviously paints a clearer picture, there are no doubt stories such as the ones told here that will play out yet again over the next four years.

This April, the task of each one of these teams will be to minimize opportunity cost as much as possible. And no matter what the common belief is, there is a star to be found in nearly every round of the NFL draft. You just have to be good enough to spot him.

Judging by the mock drafts I’ve been seeing this year, it looks like the edge-rusher position is going to cause a lot of teams to miss pay big in opportunity cost.

Running Backs Drafted Before DeMarco Murray
NameDraft Pos.Team
Mark Ingram28thSaints
Ryan Williams38thCardinals
Shane Vereen56thPatriots
Mikel Leshoure57thLions
Daniel Thomas62ndDolphins
NFL.com

Guys like Dante Fowler and Shane Ray are considered to be Top 10 picks this year. However, the organizations that pull the trigger on those guys that early will eventually watch other pass-rushers taken later have much more success.

John Raoux/Associated Press

I happen to think Fowler has a good shot at being a solid NFL starter, and feel less confident about Ray, but neither of these players will go on to be viewed as the best options four years from now.

Fowler is a natural athlete, but his instincts and awareness are troubling. Film study reveals a prospect constantly out of position, shooting the wrong gaps, running up field at the wrong times and making poor decisions overall that often cost his team yardage. Some might say coaching is a quick fix here, but personally, I have my doubts.

Fowler also has a tendency to get pushed around, drawing questions about his functional strength and his ability to use proper leverage. Any team looking to acquire a star here is likely to be disappointed.

Ray plays with high-energy, quick feet and a relentless motor. However, he lacks length, power and had a subpar pro day. For perspective, Ray has the second-worst measurables of any edge-rusher in this draft class.

His high level of production in 2014 was largely due to his ability to find seams and windows into the opponent's backfield but I’m concerned with his lack of hand usage to beat NFL blockers. He has no creativity with counter moves and a frame that gets overpowered against the run.

At other positions, I have reservations about Kevin White being taken ahead of several receivers, including DeVante Parker. Trae Waynes and Marcus Peters are being touted as the top cornerbacks at their positions and I’d be willing to bet better names will emerge here in time.

I could go into detail about this players and each position, but you will just have to wait until the day before the draft when I detail The Most Overrated Player at Each Position.

The bottom line here is this, we need to slightly alter the way we approach the NFL draft, especially in the first round. This is not a round to find starters—it is a round that should be used to find stars. Any expectation of less will likely manifest an appropriate destiny laced in mediocrity.

 

 

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

Follow him on Twitter @Ryan_Riddle