What Are an NFL First-Round Pick's Odds for Success?

Ari HoringSenior Analyst IOctober 28, 2008

After watching JaMarcus Russell play so poorly, and Darren McFadden not even play this weekend, in the Raiders' dismal loss to the Ravens, I started to wonder how likely it is that an NFL first-round pick will fulfill his potential or be a bust.

To find this out, I went searching for information that would help me understand what percentage of first-round picks do succeed in the NFL.

I ended up finding an article that showed where every first-round pick from the '95 draft up until the 2004 draft career was at by the 2005 offseason.

I decided to only look at the '95, '96, '97, and '98 NFL first rounds, because in order to truly evaluate a draft pick’s career, you have to wait at least six to nine years after they were drafted to be fairly judge them.

After looking at these four drafts, I found that 54 out of the 122 (44 percent) first-round draft picks were out of the league by the beginning of the 2005 season. (One out of five Qbs, nine out of 14 RBs, nine out of 15 WRs, eight out of 17 tackles, one out of five guards, one out of three TEs, 10 out of 20 DEs, two out of four DTs, seven out of 15 DBs, five out of 13 LBs, and one out of five safeties).

I also found out that 60 out of the 122 draft picks (49 percent) were starters in the NFL by the 2005 season and 47 of them (39 percent) were Pro Bowlers at least once in their career.

What surprised me the most was that only eight players out of 122 (seven percent) were backup players on NFL teams by 2005, with only one coming from the '98 first round.

I started to wonder if the NFL’s first-round draft is just a miss-or-hit round full of stars and busts. I thought about what could be the reason for this and came up with some possible answers:

1. A lot of first-round picks are drafted on potential based on their athletic ability.

Many players get drafted in the first round because they have first-round athletic ability. However, many of these players aren’t NFL ready as rookies.

The players, who don’t work hard or just don’t quite have the smarts to play in the NFL, never fulfill their potential, become busts, and get run out of the league.

On the other hand, the players who do work hard and have the smarts to play do fulfill their potential and become stars.

In reality, many of these so-called first-round busts aren’t labeled busts because of their athletic ability but are busts because of their lack of work ethic and football IQ.

How many times do you see a first-round player’s stock rise because of how they performed in the NFL combine?

(e.g. In the 2005 NFL Combine, Matt Jones showed athletic ability that had not been seen before for a player of his size. His stock rose tremendously and he was taken with the 21st pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2005 NFL Draft.)

Jones has career averages of 37.7 yards receiving a game and hasn’t shown much improvement in his fourth season. He is looking more and more as though he is going to be a bust.

2. First-round picks get their big payday before they even step on the football field.

Many players, who get paid before they ever prove themselves, are unintentionally being handicapped.

Some players, who truthfully are only mainly motivated to make money and sign big contracts, don’t work hard and end up leaving the NFL happy with large bank accounts.

While on the other hand, most players in lower rounds, who don’t get big contracts right away, are motivated to work hard and become better so they can get their big contract someday.

Many first-round picks, who have gotten cut, don’t care about being in the NFL anymore because they have already been paid and therefore lack the motivation to join other teams as backups.

Even if they do have the motivation, most other teams won’t want them as backups because they have already proven that they have a bad work ethic.

(e.g. Although it is hard to find an example of a player who fits in this category, because it’s very hard to find concrete evidence that shows a player only cares about money, one person who might one day fit this category is last year’s No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell.)

Last year, he held out through the Raiders' training camp and the first week of the 2007 NFL season until signing a six-year deal worth up to $68 million, with $31.5 million guaranteed.

By holding out for so long, he basically threw his season a way because of his greed. This past offseason, there were rumors going around that Russell had ballooned close to 300 pounds, even though he clearly did lose the weight by training camp.

Behavior like this has led me to believe that Russell does not take his NFL job seriously enough. Russell has a 50 percent completion percentage this year, which is 32nd in the league, and he hasn’t shown many signs of improvement.

Although Russell has very talented arm, I believe he isn’t very motivated because he’s already gotten paid. I’m not guaranteeing it, but there is a very good chance he is not going to last more than a few more years in the NFL.

3. Most first-round picks are immediately put in starting roles.

While later-round picks are generally given time to sit and develop for a few years, most first-round picks aren’t given that luxury and are expected to produce immediately.

Many first-round picks, who need time to develop, are forced to play right away and sometimes even have to carry the weight of their franchise on their back.

This can stunt their growth and mentally ruin their confidence. The player is then labeled a bust, when it wasn’t their fault they were forced to play before they were ready.

(e.g. Don’t you think former No. 2 pick Ryan Leaf wishes he would have sat out a year or two and developed? He started his rookie season in 1998 as the Chargers' starter, even though he clearly wasn’t mentally ready.)

He had one of the worst seasons ever by a quarterback with two touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 39.

He wasn’t mature enough at the time to handle the pressure, and he needed time to sit out and develop so his football IQ could catch up with his great physical ability.

Rushing Leaf too early mentally scarred him, and I think he stopped loving the game of football. He was quoted as saying this past April, "When playing football became a job, it lost its luster for me. I kind of got out of the spotlight and life's never been this good."

4. First round picks were superstars in college.

Many first round picks relied on their athleticism to dominate games in college. Many of these picks never learned the values of working hard and pushing yourself to the max. Once these players get to the NFL, they can no longer just rely on their athletic ability.  If these players never develop a strong work ethic, they tend to fall out of the league.

5. First-round picks get labeled as busts, while later-round picks are expected to be backups.

Most first-round picks that are cut because they didn’t pan out to be the stars they were once projected be carry a stigma of being a so-called “bust” and have trouble finding teams to sign them as backups.

On the other hand, late-round picks can last as backups in the NFL for years because nobody expects anything else from them.

6. First-round picks are cocky.

Most first-round picks are told over and over again how great they are. During their draft years, they are continuously talked about on ESPN, and they assume that they will be nothing less than stars in the NFL.

Even after many of these players don’t pan out to be stars, they still can’t accept the fact that they aren’t as great as everyone thought they would be.

Why would an NFL team want a backup in their locker room who still thinks he’s a star, when they can get a younger guy who has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove to everyone he can be a star?

I’m not sure if some, none, or even all of the reasons I listed are why the first round is generally a miss-or-hit round. But I do know that there will always be first-round picks that don’t live up to their hype.

I believe that are certain things that need to be fixed so that many of these so-called “busts” are more likely to make it in the NFL, even if it means staying in the NFL as a backup.

The first thing that needs to be fixed is the overhyping of the NFL’s first-round draft. The NFL’s first-round draft is easily the most-hyped first round of any sports' draft in the U.S.

After the NFL season is over, the first round is immediately hyped up for the next four months. Every day on ESPN, the first round gets overhyped and overanalyzed until you actually start believing it.

Every single scenario in the first round a person can think of gets repeated over and over again. Predicting the NFL first round has become such a big deal that you can find contests that give out prizes to the person with the best prediction.

These first-round picks don’t deserve so much attention yet and are way too young and inexperienced to be hyped up as saviors of NFL franchises.

The overhyping of the NFL drafts leads to unrealistic expectations of these first-round picks and can cause teams to rush these players on the field and stunt their development.

But the worst part of the first round, for me, is the amount of money that these players are getting paid. It’s not helping the players or the teams. A great analogy for me is a student that has earned their grade without ever taking a test.

If a student already knows he’s going to get an A on a test before taking it, why would he bother studying? Obviously it’s not as simple as that, but the pure logistics of it are.

We would like to believe that players play for more than just money, but the honest truth is that the money is probably the leading factor.

Jake Long, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, signed a five-year contract worth $57.75 million, with $30 million of it guaranteed last year before he ever practiced.

If a person gets paid before they earn it, what’s going to motivate them to work hard, except for making even more money?

Teams not only end up paying big money to players who fall out of the league after a few years, but they never see what type of player their draft pick could have developed into, if only they hadn’t been given a big contract.

In order to lower the amount of first-round picks who get run out of the league, I believe that the immediate expectations of first-round picks, hype of first-round picks, and first-round picks' salaries, all need to be lowered.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.