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NFL Draft Research Project: Prospect expectations

In the first part of a series, here’s a comprehensive look at what is reasonable to expect from a drafted player based on recent classes.

NFL: APR 26 2019 NFL Draft Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Background

A number of myths and misconceptions surround what constitute reasonable expectations of drafted players. Do half of all first-rounders bust? Are players drafted after the third round unlikely to contribute more than a few games? Should each team be able to find three starters every year in the draft? Each of these questions depends largely on era, and the rookie salary schedule initiated in 2011 significantly changed how teams handled draft picks.

Additionally, after the initial 4-year period, players are typically no longer on said price-controlled contracts, and a 5-year window provides for the ability to check on whether or not players were deemed successful enough to earn reinvestment from NFL teams (be it the initial drafting team or one of the other 31 franchises).

This study therefore looks at seven draft classes (2011-2017) for the first five years of their careers and only the first five years of their careers. This provides 1779 draft selections to evaluate. All data was primarily gathered through Pro Football Reference and cross-checked with other databases when possible. At least in the initial series, players will be looked at in terms of “countable” performance (e.g. how many games they played in, how many games they started, how many Pro Bowls they earned, how many 1st-Team All-Pro honors they earned, and so on). Of note, the length of their careers will also be compared on a round-to-round basis.

The average player drafted in these seven years played in 41 games and started in 22 (with an 11% chance of ever making the Pro Bowl and an average of 1.9 Pro Bowls earned by each of those 187 players). Meanwhile, the median player played in 45 games but had only 11 starts.

The Basics

The reality is that traditional “by round” analysis and expectations turned out to be flawed in a number of cases, but because I know fans will expect such a breakdown, that’s where I am going to begin. The short form can be found in this chart:

So, in very general terms, each successive round has worse results in terms of the average games played, the average number of player starts, and the likelihood of ever making the Pro Bowl or being selected a 1st-Team All-Pro. The final column indicates what percentage of players drafted in that round played a 5th year in the NFL. While it makes sense that teams might activate the fifth year of a 1st-rounder’s contract, they still must choose to do so. All players who make it to a fifth year have at least one team decide that they are worth continued investment, and that makes it a significant mark.

These metrics are obviously an incomplete picture. After all, this doesn’t tell me if most 4th-rounders play in 40-45 games or if half of them play in barely any games while the other half play significant snaps every Sunday. To help balance out the limitations of individual metrics, this review offers multiple secondary metrics, with the understanding that they need to be looked at together to form a two-dimensional look at each round.

Starter Rate defines what percentage of the players drafted went on to start in at least 40 games, or half of the 80 (or in some cases 81) games available to them in the first five years of their careers. Impact Rate refers to the percentage of players drafted in this round who played in at least 40 games and earned at least one Pro-Bowl (Tyler Eifert misses the cut with 39 games played, but Mitchell Trubisky makes the cut). Star Rate looks at what percentage of players earn at least two Pro Bowl honors or at least two 1st-Team All-Pros, including Jack Conklin who managed the latter without a single Pro Bowl. It also therefore includes Cordarrelle Patterson, who only has 24 starts but who played in 80 games and made 1st-Team All Pro twice as a returner in his first five years. Failure Rate looks at what percentage of players had careers lasting under 4 years, which basically means that they did not even play out their first contract. Finally, the Overachiever/Underachiever rates look at players who either beat or fall below both the means and medians of the next higher or lower round.

Round 1

Average Games (Mean/Median): 62/66

Average Starts (Mean/Median): 50/55

Starter Rate (40+ games): 69%

Impact Rate: 38%.

Star Rate: 24%

Failure Rate: 6%

Overachiever rate: Not applicable.

Underachiever rate: 19%

A player drafted in the first round is more likely to be a franchise-defining star earning multiple Pro-Bowls than he is to be a failure or an underachiever, and it is unusual for these players not to start in at least half of their available games. This is the only round where the average drafted player starts more than half of the available games. How much of that is bias, in that teams face pressure to play their top draft picks? Some. However, the fact that more than a third of these players end up both playing and earning at least one Pro Bowl offers independent confirmation that they do perform once on the field. Under a fifth of these players underachieve by the standard of the next round, meaning that true busts are rare. Twice as often as not, missing out on a first-rounder is giving up a starting player.

Round 2

Average Games (Mean/Median): 56/62

Average Starts (Mean/Median): 37/40

Starter Rate (40+ games): 51%

Impact Rate: 18%.

Star Rate: 6%

Failure Rate: 12%

Overachiever rate: 24%

Underachiever rate: 34%

Compared to players drafted in the first round, second-rounders have only half the chance of making the Pro Bowl and only a quarter of the chance of being a true impact player. However, nearly a quarter of them actually see more average “playing time” that the typical first-rounder, and roughly half of them are reliably starting games during their first five years.

It’s not all good news, though. The underachiever rate needs to be considered. About a third of all second-rounders actually do no better than middling third-rounders. Additionally, these players are also twice as likely as first-rounders to wash out before Year 4 (even if it’s still not that likely). Hitting on multiple second-rounders in a row would seem to be a key to team-building, and truly missing on second-rounders (or not having them at all) sets back a team on functional pieces.

Round 3

Average Games (Mean/Median): 48/52

Average Starts (Mean/Median): 28/18

Starter Rate (40+ games): 29%

Impact Rate: 10%.

Star Rate: 4%

Failure Rate: 23%

Overachiever rate: 22%

Underachiever rate: 29%

Starter and impact-player rates fall dramatically in the third round, and the failure rate stands out. Players are more likely to fall short of having 4-year careers than they are to exceed the prior round’s midpoint. However, the overachiever rate holds pretty steady, and the “average” player drafted in the third round still contributes in more than half of the available games. Of note is that while the “star rate” only falls from 6% to 4%, there were no two-time 1st-Team All-Pros to be found. Third-rounders are on average role-players.

Round 4

Average Games (Mean/Median): 43/48

Average Starts (Mean/Median): 19/11

Starter Rate (40+ games): 17%

Impact Rate: 5%

Star Rate: 2%

Failure Rate: 31%

Overachiever rate: 25%

Underachiever rate: 26%

What might be the most surprising thing about the fourth round is that almost three-fifths of players drafted here still manage to last at least five years in the NFL. However, typically these are not stars or impact players, and by and large they are not even starters. Instead, these are guys who step up when there are injuries and who answer the whistle when the stars are recovering for the next big play. Sometimes they are special teamers. Grabowskis. It is also beginning to look like about a quarter of drafted players will outperform the expectations of their round on a pretty reliable basis.

Round 5

Average Games (Mean/Median): 37/35

Average Starts (Mean/Median): 15/4

Starter Rate (40+ games): 14%

Impact Rate: 5%

Star Rate: 2%

Failure Rate: 37%

Overachiever rate: 23%

Underachiever rate: 27%

By the fifth round, the fall-off for finding starters has stabilized a bit, but there are a lot of shortcomings here. Fifth-rounders in many ways are just slightly inferior fourth-rounders, and these players fill rosters and hang around in the NFL as known quantities.

Round 6

Average Games (Mean/Median): 29/24

Average Starts (Mean/Median): 9/2

Starter Rate (40+ games): 7%

Impact Rate: 2%

Star Rate: 1%

Failure Rate: 49%

Overachiever rate: 17%

Underachiever rate: 29%

A player drafted in the sixth round is more likely to wash out before the four-year mark than to make it through the five-year mark. Sure, there are some exceptions here and there, but they are anecdotes. The overachiever rate finally falls below 20%, suggesting that while there are diamonds to be found in the rough, there’s probably a lot of luck and a lot of fitting the right player into the right system at work when it happens. Some of these players do end up with at least a season’s worth of starts, but as that median number of starts indicate, there are a number of players who just never make it, as well.

Round 7

Average Games (Mean/Median): 22/10

Average Starts (Mean/Median): 6/0

Starter Rate (40+ games): 4%

Impact Rate: <1%

Star Rate: 0%

Failure Rate: 64%

Overachiever rate: 16%

Underachiever rate: N/A

Seventh-rounders don’t become starters unless they play offensive line. That’s a slight exaggeration, but only barely. Of the 12 players drafted in the 7th round who started at least 40 games, half of them were offensive linemen (and another three were defensive backs).

Up Next

With this round-by-round analysis as a frame of reference, next it will be time to look at how not all draft classes are created equal, how positional value plays out by rounds, and (finally) whether or not there are “draft tiers” more accurate than the traditional round-by-round breakdowns.