Home > Draft, NFL > How valuable is having a draft pick at the top of the first round?

How valuable is having a draft pick at the top of the first round?

There are two very unique outputs from the waning weeks of the 2011 NFL season.  These two outputs are not unrelated.  First, there have been a good percentage of awful performances by quarterbacks over the last three or four weeks.  Secondly, there has been more discussion about doing ‘whatever it takes’ to position oneself to draft at the top of next year’s NFL Draft than ever before.

So, naturally, it’s the teams that are suffering from awful performances by their quarterbacks that are talking about getting into position to draft a more different quarterback in April.  But realistically, not all the teams that are in position to draft a new quarterback are going to draft one.  There are a lot of different variables that the fans of teams don’t account for when pushing for their own teams to lose out.  Is it really more valuable to a franchise to pick higher in the first round?

The short answer is that yes, it is, because draft resources are so finite and valuable.  Teams pay more to higher draft picks (though not quite as much on a marginal basis as in the prior CBA).  But the additional cash outlay ends up being money well spent because you are paying for additional control of the results of your draft.  You can have the best scouting resources and methodology in the league, as well as the league’s premier decision makers, but it’s going to be much easier for a team drafting six picks ahead of you to produce a great draft even if they don’t have your personnel resources.

Anyway, I did a study using 10 years of draft data from 1997-2006, and then I compared the average career Approximate Value of the players in the data sets, while testing the variable of which part of the draft the picks were made in to determine how valuable high picks were.  I will share with you some of the more unscientific observations of my findings.

The team with the first overall pick matters, but only because of the “generational talent”

In 80-90% of all years, having the first overall pick is not a particular advantage.  In general, there are a finite number of elite talents in every draft, some years there are just two or three, and in other years, there are seven or eight.  But every five years or so, the NFL produces a player such as Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, or you know, Andrew Luck (it’s an interesting debate whether or not there may be a second generational talent in this draft, such as RGIII or Trent Richardson).  In years where there is a well known generational talent, having the first overall pick is probably more than 150% more valuable than having another random pick in the first round, and perhaps 100% more valuable than having any other pick in the round (second overall, in this case).

Overall, the first overall pick came out about 55% more valuable than a random pick in the first round.  However, in most years, it’s worth pointing out that there’s no discernible difference in having the right to choose between the player who goes first overall and the player who goes third overall or even the player who goes fifth overall.  Plenty of that might simply be a reflection of who is doing the choosing: you don’t get the first overall pick by building a bunch of division winning teams.  But if there are a group of elite talents in any given draft with an abnormally high rate of success, the ability to pick one over another does not overtly increase the value of a draft pick.

There is no trend that shows having the second or third pick is more valuable to a franchise than having the fourth, fifth, or sixth pick

And it’s this finding that makes the fact that there are so few trades into the top five picks so interesting.  Teams that have the first, second, or third picks typically don’t have a lot of serious suitors for their picks.  Instead they get a selection of buyers offers, which they typically pass on to pick the players they like the best.  In some years (2007 for example), there are one or two top picks but by fourth overall, teams are picking from their favorites from a second tier of players.  Even then, no incentive exists for teams to pay to get a top two or three pick.

Additionally, in no draft during this study did the first and second overall picks both become elite players.  The best no. 2 overall picks in the sample: Donovan McNabb (105 career AV), Julius Peppers (97 career AV), and Leonard Davis (64 career AV)?  Michael Vick was the first pick in the Davis draft, but Davis hardly qualifies as an elite professional.  The best third overall picks in this study: Andre Johnson (73 career AV), Shawn Springs (62 career AV), and a near tie between Larry Fitzgerald (58) and Chris Samuels (57).

Generally speaking, top five picks did just as well as top three picks over the sample I looked at.

Top 10 picks do well for the money compared to Top 5 picks

But at some point, there is a drop-off between the expected return on the tenth overall pick and on a top five pick.  Elite performers rarely make it through the first nine picks, and the elite performers who do make it that far seem to be likely to fall further.  For every Willie Anderson or Terrell Suggs, there is a JJ Stokes or a Dunta Robinson.

But having a top ten pick is definitely still an advantage compared to having a random pick in the first round, to the tune of having a random pick in the top ten being worth about 20% in total career value more than a random pick anywhere in the first round.  Compared to the average top five pick, it’s actually a bargain (dollar for dollar) to pick between 6th and 10th.

The cost of contending for the playoffs is meaningful

Teams that pick below 11th in the first round receive, on average, a 11% lower return in career AV than a random pick anywhere in the first round.  That means that teams that win at least seven games are more likely to “lose” value in the first round compared to the rest of the league, all else equal (all else is hardly ever equal, and smart teams capitalize on other teams who won’t pick in the top ten).  So yeah, the Philadelphia Eagles are incurring a significant cost in terms of future franchise value because they are winning games after starting the season 4-8, and are now a three step process away from winning the NFC East and making the playoffs.  One more win will force the Eagles into the middle of the first round.  Their last two first round picks, DE Brandon Graham and OL Danny Watkins, have yet to produce a successful season between them.

I did not discover a particular cost paid by teams who pick 21st or lower, meaning that once you are competing for the playoffs, there’s no cost to your franchise (at least in the NFL draft) for making it.  The average 15th overall pick does minimally better than the average 26th overall pick.

How to rebuild a franchise by picking high every year

If you keep picking in the top 6, 7, or 8 for multiple years in a row, and you keep connecting on elite draft performers, that’s the simplest and easiest way to go from worst to first in the NFL.  However, that leaves one conundrum unsolved: pieces for the passing game, offensive skill talents.  There is a premium on these performers compared to other elite performers, and at least in the case of receivers and quarterbacks, a high bust rate exists in the top ten.

In my estimation, drafting receivers and quarterbacks down the board in the first round makes the most sense because that is where the values are found at those positions.  The problem is that to get to the point where you are winning games and picking in the middle of the round (as opposed to trading down), you have to be able to get some sort of meaningful production out of your current passing game.  And it’s teams that are winning and getting production from their passing offenses that are the least likely to make the changes to their passing game using draft picks, and that could be skewing the values we see in the numbers around this part of the draft.  With receivers and quarterbacks being so highly drafted early in the first round, this could be creating the effect which makes all top ten draft picks look the same from a value perspective.

To test this effect, I isolated offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, TE) from the rest of the draft and increased the sample size by two years to help offset the effect of a smaller sample.

There is no difference in the value of QB/RB/WR/TE beyond the tenth pick compared to all positions, relative to having a random pick in the first round

That does dispute my prior assumption that teams should target QBs or WRs later in the first round because their is better value.  If the need is at other positions, and the value is at other positions, teams should take the best player available according to need.

There is a big difference between having a top five pick and top ten pick when isolated to just offensive skill positions

There it is.  The players that really make a difference for franchises and who have elite draft grades: the quarterbacks, the receivers, the runners: teams who pick in the top five or six do not leave these players for other franchises to have like they do at other positions.  That’s why Julio Jones and A.J. Green went so quickly in the 2011 draft, and it’s also why there was a run on quarterbacks around the turn in the first ten picks in this past draft.  The natural risk associated with these positions means that this pushes sounder draft prospects at other positions such as defense and offensive line down the board towards the next five picks, where it makes sense to pick the remaining elite prospects.

There was a very large difference in the quality of QB/RB/WR/TE picked between 6th and 10th, and all other positions.  Of course, this sample did not include Adrian Peterson’s selection from 2007, but did include all of Matt Millen’s picks at skill positions.  In fact, this study over the course of ten years may have great insight into why Millen had so little success in the draft.

No team consistently picks in the top five in the NFL draft.  Top ten, sure, but a two win variance in finish can be the difference between picking 3rd and picking 9th, even if the team isn’t any better.  From 1997 to 2006, teams who selected QB/RB/WR/TE between 6th and 10th in the NFL draft received the production of a random QB/RB/WR/TE taken anywhere in the first round.  It was not a profitable use of a top ten draft selection compared to other positions.  And Matt Millen was one of the biggest perpetrators of that phenomenon.

Conclusions

There is a meaningful value to having a top ten pick as opposed to not having a top ten pick in terms of being able to land one of the elite talents of the draft.  But on average, if that elite talent plays offense and can throw or catch footballs, the stock of the player is driven up inside the top five or six picks.  Even elite pass rushers, on average, are not selected quite as high as players who affect quality of a team’s passing offense.  Players who play these positions come with an inherently high level of draft risk, but the opportunity to draft players on this list is rare and valuable.

And it suggests that the right to choose between Darrius Heyward Bey and Michael Crabtree may seem like it has an obvious answer, but that the differences between the two players are far more marginal than one may realize.

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