While I have the database for the draft research project up and running, I thought it would be interesting to look at cautionary tales in the NFL. The first 48 picks in the NFL draft are as close as it gets to sure things. Nearly 94% of these players play out their full contracts in the NFL, and of the 211 players to earn at least one Pro Bowl in their first five years, 130 of them (62%) were taken in the Top 48. However, there is that other group. Twenty-four of these players–an average of three selections per year–do not even play out the first four years of their contract. “Bust” is a very contentious term, but in simplest terms these players are failed picks for the team in question. To give an idea of how rare it is for a selection to miss this badly, there are no Chicago Bears selections on this list.
I have gone back over their draft profiles and media buzz at the time to see if any patterns emerged, but the truth of the matter is that some of these players simply failed for reasons that could not have been foreseen. Most of them, though, had a few warning signs. There are still trends that might mean nothing or might be interesting cautionary tales.
Originally, I included a table of the players here, but after retrospect I decided to remove it. To me, the focus of this article is not on the individual players, but rather whether or not the organizations in question had issues with their own processes. For those who must see the names (or who wish to fact-check me), here is a link to a simplified table of the players in question.
Fully one-quarter (25%) of all failed top selections are wide receivers, despite the fact that wide receivers comprise only one-eighth (12.5%) of the picks in this range. Likewise, running backs are not even 6% of the pool of selections while still comprising 12.5% of the failed picks. The next largest disparity (corners at 17%) still stands out compared to investment (11% of selections), but not to the same degree. The least represented groups were offensive tackle, offensive guard, and defensive line (only one player each); perhaps surprisingly, only two of these players were quarterbacks (meaning that they made up roughly 8% of the failed selections but also around 8% of the total selections). Quarterbacks who are drafted early tend to find work, it seems, even if that work is merely holding a clipboard or running a second team in practice.
Interestingly, this is yet another line of analysis that suggests staying away from wide receivers and running backs early is a good idea, especially since only 10 of the 24 Pro Bowl-earning receivers were drafted in this range (as were only 12 of the 26 Pro Bowl-earning running backs). To put in another way, if we create a pool of draft selections called “offensive weapons” and include tight ends in this pool, 61 such players earn Pro Bowls at some point in their first five years. However, only 27 of those players (44%) were drafted with a selection in the Top 48, and for each individual position, the majority of Pro Bowlers were actually drafted after #48.
Meanwhile, across the rest of the draft, there are 150 other players to earn a Pro Bowl and 103 of them were taken in the Top 48 (that’s 69%). In fact, at every other position besides guard (50%), the majority of Pro Bowlers are taken before by #48 if not sooner. Not only is there greater risk involved in these moves, there is less urgency in finding impact-level players at receiver, running back, and tight end.
For nine of the players who did not see a fourth year in the NFL, character concerns (usually in the form of legal trouble or repeated violations of team rules) were noted in their pre-draft profiles, and for another three “motivation” issues (sometimes also described as football character) were brought up. That’s half of the pool that had red flags in the form of scouts or other experts being able to predict in advance that the player in question might have struggles off the field based on their personal histories. Note that there is an important distinction to be made here. There are many, many players in the NFL who had such issues prior to being drafted (ranging minor and major by almost any definition). It is not accurate to say that players with pre-draft concerns will struggle, but it is accurate to say that when players struggle, there were often pre-draft concerns.
Likewise, another seven players had notes specifically about how while they lacked the necessary skills at their position, they had “elite traits” or “ideal attributes” for the job. Their 40-time, their height, and so on got them drafted with the hopes that they could learn the rest. At least for those seven, they didn’t. Obviously some players overcome these concerns and do learn the route trees, hand techniques, and other skillsets that are required of them. If GMs didn’t have positive examples to look at, these decisions would be easier. However, after off-the-field concerns, a lack of skill that was overlooked for desired measurements of some kind was the most common theme.
Additionally, five of these players (including two with motivation or character concerns already) had a noted injury history prior to being drafted. Those players did eventually succumb to injury, but not always the same injury. Of course, in two cases, there were no notable concerns at all (Trent Richardson and Jonathan Martin), and both of these players eventually cited injury as their reason for leaving the NFL. Injury, officially, has actually been the reason cited for most of these careers ending.
It is interesting (and perhaps promising) that the number of failed selections seems to be declining as time goes on. That trend could easily reverse itself, however, even if it’s a real trend and not simply an artifact in the data.
It is very easy to be wise after the fact and point out that a player had concerns from the beginning. Ultimately, though, a wise GM would at least consider that issues of character are a frequent cause of players faltering in the NFL and that about once per year, a player is drafted on potential alone only for his team to find out that his potential doesn’t even see him to the end of his contract.