Are Late-Round Draft Picks the Key to Success in the NFL?

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterApril 11, 2013

Tom Brady holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy as he stands on the podium after The New England Patriots defeated The Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX at Alltel Staduim in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Over the course of time, the NFL draft has quickly become the league's most exciting offseason event. Type in "NFL draft" on Twitter and you will see an endless list of results that appear and reappear by the second. 

Next, take that same phrase and punch it into Google. It's pretty astonishing that a single event generates 243 million results in 0.22 seconds.

Those numbers show that people do, indeed, love the NFL and everything that encompasses it.

However, when it comes to draft prospects who garner the most face time, fans and media members seem to only care about Day 1 and Day 2 prospects. The focus placed on these players is warranted, as they are looked at as immediate impacts. These prospects are expected to help their team succeed and win championships.

But is this really the case? 

Some would say yes due to the fact that early-round quarterbacks have recently helped turn average organizations into winning organizations, yet no one player, nor one position, predicates the success of a 53-man roster. 

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So here's the ultimate question: Are early-round draft picks or late-round draft picks the key to success in the NFL?

With the help of Draftmetrics, we are going to find the answer by diving into the database built by Tony Villiotti. His database evaluates active players who were retained by the team that originally drafted them. The choice to only examine retained draft selections will lead to a "purer," more fair analysis, according to Villiotti

In 2012, retained draft choices accounted for 6,577 games started, which means 58.3 percent of games were represented by players who had been originally drafted by their respected organizations. A truly large number at first glance.

When you think about how many players are selected in Rounds 4 through 7 and subsequently cut before the season even starts, it helps you understand how top-heavy teams are. Based on the numbers provided by Draftmetrics, 71.8 percent of players drafted in Rounds 1, 2 and 3 are retained by the team that drafted them.

Only 28.2 percent of players drafted in Rounds 4, 5, 6 and 7 were retained at the end of their first contract—which is a number that is largely supported by an abundance of fourth-round picks re-upping. Rounds 5, 6 and 7 made up 16.7 percent of the 28.2 percent total.

When one takes things a step further and examines the number of retained players on playoff teams versus the numbers on non-playoff teams, the results are marginal to say the least.

On average, the 12 playoff teams from this past season have retained 69.1 percent of their Round 1, 2 and 3 draft picks while retaining 30.1 percent of their Day 3 draft selections. Both figures calculate out below the league average.   

Non-postseason contenders seem to be more keen when it comes to keeping their Day 1 and Day 2 draftees. The 20 teams that missed the playoffs in 2012 retained 34.9 percent of their first-round picks, 20.1 percent of their second-round picks and 17.8 percent of their third-round picks—an obvious 3.7 percent increase over playoff-bound organizations. 

The data is telling us that loyalty to higher draft selections is relatively the same from one organization to the next, with the same being said in regard to players who are selected later on in the draft. Teams will seemingly always start and overvalue players who were selected in the top 100.

Every NFL general manager either has a hard time admitting their own mistakes or are better at evaluating talent than given credit for. One could argue either way, but in all likelihood no conclusion can be drawn that excellent late-round drafting is held by winning teams only.

As a whole, excellent late-round drafting doesn't happen all that often. Sure, some teams are better at it than others, but it honestly depends on the year. For example, the Seahawks hit the jackpot when they drafted Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright and Richard Sherman in consecutive years. 

All three players were late-round draft selections.

People often forget John Schneider and Pete Carroll had 10 other selections in Rounds 4, 5, 6 and 7 during that two-year span. Where are those other 10 players at right now?

Well, seven have been cut and three remain on the roster in a non-starting role. So it's easy to magnify late-round success when a player turns into a superstar, but one would truly be going out on a limb if they said late-round draft picks were the key to a successful NFL franchise.

There is a reason why highly touted prospects are the ones who end up being retained at the end of their contract. They are the "players who have the most impact on the outcome of a game."

All statistics used in the article were gathered from Draftmetrics.com 

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