Is First Round Pick Development a Good Predictor of Playoff Success? Evidence from the 2010 Season
To be clear and up front about it, I opted not to turn this into a statistically based study with a sample size that could answer the question above. This is nothing more than a case study of the 2010 season. I simply went to the 32 teams, and found former first rounders on each team that fit each of the following three criteria:
- homegrown (with the team that drafted them)
- developed into a starting level player (not simply by necessity)
- played for team that drafted them in 2010
In other terms, there are a lot of free agents here who will play for other teams in 2011, but I was much more concerned with what an average team looks like, and what an average playoff team (or ten win team) looks like from the same perspective. My belief going into this thing was that there wouldn’t be much of a difference between the success of playoff teams in the first round, and the success of other teams. In part, this is because the teams picking at the top of the top of the draft have a better chance of success than the ones picking at the bottom of the round, even though typically, picking at the bottom of the first round is a much better predictor of making the playoffs in the next season.
128 first rounders subjectively “qualified” in my criteria, ranging back from Ray Lewis (1996) and Peyton Manning (1998) all the way up to Eric Berry, Devin McCourty, Sam Bradford, Trent Williams, Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, Russell Okung et al from 2010. About a third of the 2010 first round ended up on this list. The highest rated first rounder from 2010 who didn’t count towards this list was Rolando McClain of the Raiders, who has a really good chance of making it on to a list like this a year from now. 127 divided by 32 teams is exactly four developed first rounders per team.
Three teams had just two first rounders rate highly enough to be considered “developed, homegrown talent:” the Denver Broncos (DJ Williams (2004), Ryan Clady (2008)), the Cincinnati Bengals (Johnathon Joseph (2006), Leon Hall (2007)), and the Atlanta Falcons (Roddy White (2005), Matt Ryan (2008)). You could make a good argument for Michael Jenkins to be included with the Falcons first round haul, but the early career struggles of LT Sam Baker, DT Peria Jerry, and mediocre rookie year of LB Sean Weatherspoon are too obvious to ignore. Those three “talent deprived” teams combined for two playoff berths (though no wins) over the last two seasons.
On the other end were three teams who employed six or more developed first round picks. The Kansas City Chiefs (Derrick Johnson (2005), Tamba Hali (2006), Dwayne Bowe (2007), Glenn Dorsey (2008), Branden Albert (2008), Eric Berry (2010)) had the youngest average contribution of any team on the list, while the Ravens have done it differently: by holding onto the first round picks that they built this defense around long ago: (Ray Lewis (1996), Todd Heap (2001), Ed Reed (2002), Terrell Suggs (2003), Haloti Ngata (2006), Ben Grubbs (2007), Michael Oher (2009)). And of course, this blog has touched before on just how remarkable the Carolina Panthers have done at picking first rounders and keeping them in the fold. Free agency will break that string this year, but still: (Jordan Gross (2003), Chris Gamble (2004), DeAngelo Williams (2006), Jon Beason (2007), Jeff Otah (2008), Jonathon Stewart (2008)).
I wanted to address the idea that teams that win are doing better in this measure than teams that don’t win. If the NFL expectation for developing and retaining your own first rounders is four at any one time, then it’s worth pointing out that teams that won ten games last year averaged just a little under four and a half homegrown first rounders per team. Playoff teams averaged four and one-third. Maybe more significantly, only two teams made the postseason last year with fewer than average homegrown first round starters: Atlanta, and the Chicago Bears (Brian Urlacher (2000), Tommie Harris (2004), and Greg Olsen (2007)).
Selecting wisely and developing your first round picks is an important facet of building a strong organization, but it’s not impossible to overcome a lack of first round contribution, and there just isn’t that much leaguewide variance throughout the league (at least, there wasn’t in 2010). Most teams have, at any point in time, four former first rounders on their roster who are centerpieces of their schemes. Teams that tend to do worse by this measure also tend to use first round picks on receivers and quarterbacks, more so than what I predicted would be the most significant variable in play here: turnover in the coaching staff. Having a long term, experienced personnel guy such as Ozzie Newsome, Carl Peterson, Marty Hurney, or Ted Thompson typically resulted in either successful drafting, or the extension of successful picks. So limiting turnover does seem to matter, but the big thing is drafting good players each year, and keeping the scheme in place that allows them to receive extensions.
Still, the correlation between wins and retaining successful first rounders was positive, but not that strong in 2010. For teams like the Chiefs, young first round talents have been the secrets to their success. But even more successful teams like Chicago and Atlanta have done it differently from the get go. As long as you end up drafting well on the whole, how you do in the first round does not apparently outweigh other factors in building a roster.