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What to Expect from a 7th-Round Pick

Are 7th-round picks just warm bodies with the rare exception, or do these players provide a more meaningful contribution to roster formation?

Dallas Cowboys v Chicago Bears Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

While conventional wisdom holds that a 7th-round pick has little to no value, one of the things I like to do is dive into the actual data and see if conventional wisdom resembles reality. As part of an ongoing project looking into all drafts from 2012-2017, I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of contributions were made by 7th-rounders. At the time I pulled the information, all 241 players in this pool had been given at least four years to prove themselves. What had they done?

More than I expected.

Nearly half of all 7th-round picks played in at least 15 games (46%) and more than a third played in at least 30 games (34%). More than half (51%) lasted at least three years as a pro, and more than a quarter (27%) earned a second contract in the league, even if not with their original teams. On the other hand, barely 8% (20) spent at least two years as starters, and only 2 ever made the Pro Bowl. Both of those were offensive linemen: Trent Brown and Charles Leno. In other words, 7th-rounders do contribute more than the more skeptical fans expect, but they are probably role-players at best.

Best Gambles? OL and DB

You can’t coach size. Drafting for the offensive line was a solid investment, in that 53% lasted at least three years in the league and 50% played in at least 15 games. While only 29% played in at least 30 games, a whopping 24% were starters for at least two years, and that number will go up once 2021 is on the books for some of the players. Put another way, despite the fact that they only account for 14% of the total draft picks spent in the 7th round, they account for 40% of the starters found there and the only two Pro Bowlers. They were also 17% of the players to earn second contracts, overachieving there, too.

Breaking that down in a little bit more detail, while every center drafted played in at least 15 games, only half of the guards did so. Each of these positions accounted for a pair of 2+-year starters. Those numbers help to pad the rates of success among drafted tackles, who lacked average-level staying power (43% had 3+-year careers) and who only provided regular starters 19% of the time. Some of that might be due to the fact that 21 total picks were spent on this position. That is almost twice as many picks as spent on interior linemen, and in the 7th-round that simply means there are more picks to go wrong.

The secondary can wait? On the other side of the ball, forty-five defensive backs were drafted, and 60% of those had 3+-year careers. I actually expected to find a high number of special teams role-players here, but a notably above-average 13% made it as starters, and a “typical” 47% played in at least 15 games (though a better-than-average 42% played in at least 30 games). Another sign that this position group still had gems left later on is that while they only account for 19% of all 7th-round picks, they represent 23% of those who earned second contracts.

Defenders Play

I hate trying to sort out the played position for players in the defensive Front 7. Players come out of college drafted as OLBs and then end up as DEs, or vice versa, and “DL” is a near-meaningless distinction. There are at least four categories of linebacker (ILB, MLB, LB, and OLB) that are largely fluid within each other. Interestingly, when I tried sorting out individual groups, I got the biggest disparity when I simply put all D-somethings into one group and all LBs into another, so that is what I went with.

Seventh-round linebackers were strictly role-players, producing no 2+-year starters (but 4 players who started for a single year inside of multi-year careers, suggesting a role as understudy). However, 55% of these players were in at least 15 games and 48% showed up in 30 or more games. An amazing 58% of them lasted three or more years in the league. By contrast, defensive linemen (ends, tackles, and generalists) were less likely to contribute (53% in 15 games and 30% in 30 or more games), but a few of them (7%) were regular starters.

These players were basically “chalk” in terms of earning second contracts, representing 32% of the selections made and 34% of the second contracts awarded.

Don’t Wait on Weapons

GMs who took stabs at offensive skill positions late in the draft typically didn’t get very much of a return on their investment. Wide receivers were the best of this group, with 44% lasting three years in the league and only 44% playing in at least 15 games (both below-average). Even if they were drafted as returners or special teams, the 31% who played in at least 30 games shows that they didn’t play all that much one way or another. Only 1 (3%) was ever a starter, which is a feather in the cap of Rishard Matthews (fin in the helmet?). Still, this was not a great use of the 31 picks spent here, as indicated by the fact that more than 13% of last-round selections were wide receivers, but not even 8% earned a second contract.

Running backs had an almost identical level of non-contribution. Of the 21 backs drafted, 43% lasted at least three years, including the 1 starter (5%). Only 29% appeared in at least 30 games and 43% played in 15 games. At least they weren’t tight ends. The sixteen tight ends who were drafted only produced one starter, and while half of these players made it 3+ years, only 38% of them played in at least 15 games, and only a quarter of them played in at least 30 games. Both were more efficient in earning second contracts than receivers, but less so than all of the defensive player groups.

A worse investment than wide receivers? Quarterbacks. Only one of the nine quarterbacks drafted appeared in as many as 15 games, and that same player was the only one to ever make it as a starter or earn a second contract (Trevor Siemian). None of these players appeared in as many as 30 games.

Special Teams and Fullbacks

Both of the punters who were drafted played in at least 30 games, but only two of the five placekickers did. Still, those two place kickers and one of the punters went on to earn second contracts. At that, they contributed significantly more than the three fullbacks who were drafted (who combined to play in three total games).

Disclaimer

Obviously, it is possible that this review is skewed because there are only six drafts under study, but it does suggest that with the new rookie contract system, drafted players have a certain amount of staying power. Additionally, while these results just describe what happened at one point and are not predictive of what will happen in future drafts, the more pronounced trends (like the ones surrounding the offensive line verses wide receivers) are worth thinking about.