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As the NFL season ends across the United States of Football, the upcoming NFL Draft creeps into the minds of fans through mock drafts, scouting combines, more mock drafts, and more mock drafts. Other than the MLB, the NFL playoffs are the most exclusive of the four major sports. 62.5% of the league is at home when the NFL playoffs start. This scarcity of winter football combined with the lust for college football leads to an anticipation of the NFL draft which is unrivaled by any other professional league.
The NFL Network and ESPN broadcast live coverage of the draft. The prime time viewers at 8:00pm EST combined between the two networks was more than 8.3 million for the 2016 draft. The only show to beat the draft at 8:00pm was the very popular Big Bang Theory. That show is on the broadcast channel CBS while the NFL network and ESPN are cable networks. At 8:00pm EST, more people in America were watching the NFL draft than were watching the programming on FOX and NBC combined.
Clearly, the draft is popular. But is it important? It is blasphemous to even question the importance of the NFL draft. NFL draft picks are described as the currency of the NFL. There are even charts invented by personnel gurus to assign value to each pick. But the problem with draft picks is they are not currency. They are people. People have strengths and weaknesses that determine what kind of professional they will turn out to be. In 1999, the Minnesota Vikings drafted Dimitrius Underwood with the 29th pick in the first round. Based on the value chart, the Vikings could have traded Underwood for Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Gary Stills and still had value left over. Those three Pro-Bowl players played the same position as Underwood and retired with more than 150 sacks between them. They were all drafted in the third or fourth rounds. Meanwhile, Underwood, described by a Viking scout as looking as if he were “chiseled out of stone” at 6-6 and 270 pounds, never played for the Vikings and is easily described as the Vikings’ worst first round pick ever. Despite this draft failure, the 1999 Vikings went 10-6 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. The team the knocked them out of the playoffs? The St. Louis Rams, led by the undrafted Kurt Warner.
NFL teams fill out their rosters using the draft. The players are young, cheap, and eager to earn an income through football. Even cheaper and more eager, undrafted rookie free agents are invited to training camps to fill out rosters. Some of these players are known as “camp bodies” while some have a legitimate shot to compete for a roster spot. Hiring the right employee is important in any profession. Companies have human resource experts to help select the best employee. The NFL has scouts, general managers, and sometimes outside consultants. The Cleveland Browns famously spent $100,000 on an analytical study which determined that Teddy Bridgewater would be the best quarterback in the 2014 draft. The owner later said he went with another outside consultant. He passed by a homeless man who looked up at him and said “Draft Manziel.” Bridgewater went on to be voted by the fans as the Pepsi Rookie of the Year while Manziel was out of the NFL after his second season.
It is easy to point to players like Underwood and Manziel and determine that some NFL experts do not know what they’re doing. But rather than proving incompetence, the failures of the NFL draft prove the unscientific nature of predicting future NFL success. According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, the average career for an NFL player is about 3 years. Per the NFL, if a player makes the opening day roster of his rookie year, he will have an average of a 6 year career. So to determine if a draft class is successful, that information should be considered. Let’s take a look at the 2010 NFL draft. Of the 255 players drafted, only 12 were starters for a majority (started at least 8 games every year) of their first six seasons. Less than 5% of players drafted in 2010 started every year. So much for a valuable currency! NFL General Managers are said to earn their salary in rounds 3-7 of the draft. In 2010, only 1 player drafted from rounds 3-7 went on to be a starter every year of his career (Kandrick Lewis). Even with first round picks, where the talent should be more obvious, drafting impact players is difficult. Only 25% of first round picks from 2010 started a majority of each of their first six seasons.
If simply being in the league for six years is an average career, perhaps a fairer indicator of a successful pick is a player that started at least three seasons. 25 of the 32 2010 first round picks started at least three seasons. In the 2nd and 3rd rounds about 40% started at least three seasons. In rounds 4-7 the odds of finding a player that could start half of a six year career were about 1 in 10.
Rather than hoping your sixth round pick with be the next Tom Brady, later round picks should be used by strong teams to trade for immediate starters. Since draft picks are treated as valuable commodities, NFL teams trade starters for draft picks in the final four rounds often. In 2015, the Jets traded a 6th round pick for Ryan Fitzpatrick. He went on to throw for more than 3,900 yards and 31 TDs. In 2010, six quarterbacks were drafted in rounds 4-7. They have combined to have played in 5 games, thrown for a total of 305 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. The Jets brought in Brandon Marshall to be Fitzpatrick’s favorite target. His price? The Jets gave the Bears a 5th round pick. Marshall caught 109 passes for over 1,500 yards and 14 TDs. Not bad for a fifth round pick. Andy Levitre was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft. He has started every game since 2009. He was traded in 2015 for a 2016 6th round pick. The Cardinals were able to end their QB crisis by giving the Raiders a 6th and 7th round pick for Carson Palmer and a 7th round pick.
Carson Palmer and Brandon Marshall do not only cost teams a late-round pick. They also come with hefty salaries. Late-round picks are inexpensive ways to fill out a depth chart. But they are not likely to fill your roster with starters. 36% of all players drafted in 2010 in rounds 5-7 never even played a total of 16 games over their careers. Undrafted rookies can make the same minimal impact and they can reduce veterans’ salaries with their own bargain deals.
While I believe late round picks should always be traded for starters when the need is there. Teams should be very careful when trading early picks. Teams have better than a 50-50 shot of getting a 3-year starter in the first three rounds of the draft. So in order to trade one of these picks, a team should be getting back an impact player that will not drain the salary cap. General Manager’s careers are riddled with trades for quarterbacks with potential in exchange for early draft picks. For example, Charlie Whitehurst was traded from San Diego to Seattle for a 2nd round pick in 2010 and Kevin Kolb was traded for a 2nd round pick in 2012. In both instances, the receiving teams were paying for potential. Contrast that with Alex Smith.
Smith was traded from the 49ers to the Chiefs for two 2nd round picks in 2013. By the time he was traded, Smith had started 75 games at quarterback and in the 6 years after his rookie season he threw 80 TDs and 52 INTs. Kansas City was acquiring a known commodity in exchange for two 2nd round picks. He has average 10 wins and more than 3300 yards per season since arriving in Kansas City. Whitehurst had never started a game and Kolb had started seven games prior to being traded. Kolb threw 11 TDs and 14 INTs. Brett Favre proved that trading for potential can pay off. However A.J. Feely represents a more typical trade for the potentially great QB who just needs a chance. Miami gave Philadelphia an early 2nd round pick after the Eagles drafted him in the 5th round three years earlier. In those three years Feely played in 7 games and completed 57% of his passes. In his lone season with Miami, he completed 53.7% of his passes and threw 15 TDs and 10 INTs. So for all of those teams enamored by Jimmy Garrapolo,remember, caveat emptor!