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The NFL Draft - A Little Less Crapshoot, A Little More Blackjack

Several weeks ago, I compared the draft to a crapshoot, in which luck was as important as skill in determining success in the NFL draft.  While I still believe this to be the case, I also believe there are teams that do gamble better than others. So maybe I should change my analogy to Blackjack.  Even though you might demonstrate more skill than the other guys, it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win.  

Part of this change in perspective is due to a recent study by Pro Football Weekly (PFW).  In their 2010 Draft Guide, the magazine took at look at each team's drafts during the 5-year period of 2004-2008.  It looked at several benchmarks for success, but the benchmark that was the most interesting and useful was each team's breakdown for all 7 rounds of the draft in the following 3 categories:

     1) Percentage of Players Drafted On The Roster

     2) Percentage of Players Drafted Who Were Starters

     3) Percentage of Players Who Made At Least One Pro-Bowl

In my limited research, I added two other data points:

     4) Win-Loss Record For Each Team During this Period (2004-2008)

     5)  Average Draft Selection (all draft picks) For Each Team During this Period (2004-2008)

With these additional considerations, and if one believes PFW, one should be able to give a general overview of teams that have done a good job through the draft of filling their rosters, filling their starting lineups, developing draft picks into pro-bowlers, and lastly, translating these drafts into wins.  Additionally, we'll be able to see who's been doing it with less or more resources (high draft picks).    Finally, we'll see how our own Denver Broncos have faired against the rest of the league.  

So, which teams hit 21?  And do the Broncos always bust?   Bring your chips to the other side of the jump and let's find out (Raiders fans, leave your firearms at the door).

The Data

Here are the results of the PFW study of every team's draft from 2004-2008 through rounds 1-7, along with my additional data points over the same period:

  TEAM     % Still on Roster     % of starters     % pro-bowlers    Winning %     Avg. Draft Pick  (#) 
ARI 50.00 28.10 6.30 41.25% 102
ATL 47.60 26.10 4.80 51.25% 125
BAL 57.10 26.20 4.80 55.00% 133
BUF 55.30 31.60 2.60 43.75% 129
CAR 56.10 22.00 2.40 56.25% 125
CHI 50.00 19.10 7.10 56.25% 129
CIN 38.60 13.60 0.00 48.10% 128
CLE 38.90 25.00 8.30 35.00% 127
DAL 50.00 26.30 10.50 57.50% 125
DEN 38.90 16.70 5.60 58.75% 124
DET 33.30 13.90 2.80 26.25% 107
GB 59.20 26.60 2.00 51.25% 127
HOU 47.20 33.30 11.10 38.75% 128
IND 50.00 27.30 6.80 78.75% 139
JAC 40.00 25.00 0.00 56.25% 128
KC 38.10 21.40 2.40 40.00% 128
MIA 42.10 21.10 5.30 38.75% 131
MIN 38.20 20.60 2.90 51.25% 113
NE 31.70 19.50 7.30 78.75% 132
NO 44.10 32.40 5.90 45.00% 122
NYG 66.70 36.40 12.10 58.75% 124
NYJ 44.70 23.70 13.20 46.25% 128
OAK 46.20 28.20 0.00 25.00% 121
PHI 44.70 23.40 4.30 58.23% 134
PIT 42.50 30.00 2.50 70.00% 130
SD 55.30 34.20 18.40 67.50% 128
SEA 54.10 24.30 2.70 56.25% 128
SF 53.30 31.10 6.70 31.25% 125
STL 41.00 25.00 2.30 33.75% 135
TB 38.30 23.40 2.10 47.50% 142
TEN 43.10 15.70 7.80 50.00% 128
WAS 54.80 22.60 6.50 47.50% 139
AVG 46.60 24.81 5.55 50.00% 127


Let's walk through Denver as our example so that we can better understand the data.   Over the course of 2004-2008, 38.9% of Denver's draft picks were on the roster during the same period.  16.7% of Denver's draft picks were starters. Lastly, 5.6% of Denver's draft picks made the Pro-Bowl at least once during that period.  This translated to a 58.75% winning percentage.  During this 5-year span, Denver's average pick in the draft was the 124th pick (rounded).  

At once, what should immediately strike you from this data is Denver's relative lack of success when compared to the league average in all categories.  On average, 46.60% of those players drafted by all teams were making their respective rosters.  Almost 25% were becoming starters.  Although Denver's winning percentage was higher than the league average over this 5-year period, and they had more highly-valued draft picks, they were simply not drafting players who were making the roster or becoming starters at the same rate as other teams.   

This lends some credence to the widely-held view of Mike Shanahan as coach versus Mike Shanahan as General Manager. Shanahan was winning despite his draft skills, not because of them.  But we'll return to this in a moment.  

Denver's lack of draft success is especially crippling when comparing it to that of the San Diego Chargers, who have dominated the AFC West over this same 5-year span.  55.30% of San Diego's draft picks were on their roster. Over 34% became starters.  A whopping 18.40% of the Chargers' draft picks became pro-bowlers.  And despite the fact that their average pick in the draft was 128 (slightly worse than the league average), the Chargers were winning 68% percent of their games.  A.J. Smith may be may things, but apparently, from this data, the creep can roll, man.    

The New York Giants were extremely impressive with respect to these benchmarks.  Almost 67% of the players they drafted were on their roster, 36.4% became starters, and 12% became Pro-Bowlers.  This translated into a winning percentage of 58.75%.  

Drafting Does Not Equal Winning

One might expect those teams that, in generally, had a higher percentage of draft picks on their rosters, as starters, and as pro-bowlers would also have the highest winning percentage.  Certainly, PFW suggests as much:

"The following study, which spans drafts from 2004-08 and analyzes drafting proficiency through a myriad of categories, only confirms what has long been suspected--a correlation exists between draft quality and on-field success."  

p. 12.

But this not the case.  In fact, the team that won the most games during this 5-year period, the New England Patriots, actually had the lowest percentage of their draft picks on their roster and were well below the league average with respect to draft picks who became starters.  

To further test this concept, I ran a series of linear regressions to see if there was any actual statistical correlation (everyone now: correlation is not causation) between these benchmarks and team winning percentage.  Of the three different categories, only the percentage-of-players-as-starters had a moderate correlation to winning percentage (.529) over the 5-year period.  However, when I tested this regression with p-values, the statistical correlation was no more significant than a random sample.  So there goes the claim that winning is correlated to the percentage of your draft picks who become starters or who become pro-bowlers. Neither translates to winning in the NFL--at least from this data set.

Why?  I speculate that there are several reasons.  First and foremost, winning in the NFL is extremely complex.  The three benchmarks with which PFW graded teams are not sufficient to account for the multitude of factors that contribute to wins. Scheme, team chemistry, injuries, weather, coaching, all of these factors could be considered independent of draft day. Second, free agency plays a role in winning, perhaps more than the draft in some years.  Reggie White, Brett Favre, and others are good examples of this.  Third, one good draft can set a team up for years, but skew the overall draft data.  When the Colts drafted Peyton Manning, they certainly had the luxury of having poorer drafts in subsequent years.  Lastly, the simple rotation of draft picks through one's roster and into the starting lineup doesn't guarantee winning.  Neither does having draft picks make the pro-bowl, which many consider to simply be a popularity contest. Draft quality, like pornography or art, is hard to define.

Overall, the PFW study, although not perfect, is useful, and does illustrate some larger trends.  It clearly confirmed many suspicions about Denver's drafts over the last several years.   However, the magical notion that who the Broncos draft in April will transform the team into champions is a reach.  Coaching, injuries,work ethic, free agency, team chemistry, and yes, a whole mountain of luck will also play a large role.  

So, on draft day, if the Broncos stay on 16 or if they hit, you can rest easy knowing that it may matter less than you think. Or, if you'd prefer, just remember that Al Davis doesn't play Blackjack.  He only plays the slots.  

What do you think of this data and PFW's assertion?  Any teams surprise you?