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Great Expectations: The NFL Draft

The NFL draft and its aftermath is usually a time of great optimism for football fans. That late round wide receiver with great speed (but bad hands) my favorite team drafted will certainly turn into a starter. We remember surprises from past drafts and that encourages us. Wasn’t Tom Brady selected in the sixth round? Surely my team can grab a great player there too. The pessimists among us focus on the early selections who were disappointments like Jamarcus Russell who the Raiders grabbed with the first selection in the 2007 draft. He was gone after three mediocre NFL seasons.

No one is realistically thinking that the next reincarnation of Tom Brady will come out of the sixth round. But players like Ryan Jensen do. Jensen was drafted by Ravens in the 6th round in 2013. Jensen has started his last 81 games, the last four years with the Bucs. But what is the realistic expectation of selecting a starter in any round of the draft?

Quantifying that expectation is my Holy Grail. What does history tell us is a reasonable expectation for a sixth round selection to become a starter? And the same for the first round. How often do those selections turn out to be successful? I want to put numbers and percentages to those expectations.

I first addressed this issue in the late 1980s when I built a data base of drafted players and the number of games they started. Early on I decided that I needed a measurable and objective metric to measure draft outcomes. My opinion of a player should not enter into it. The number of starts was the only readily available metric. This provided a historical basis to set expectations. The data base was used to generate a study that I sold to about half the NFL teams

But the number of starts is not a great metric. What if a team opened a game in a three tight end set but that third tight end never saw the field after the opening snap? He would get credit for a start but the player who played most of the game, usually a wide receiver, would get no credit.

In 2012 the NFL began publicly reporting the number of scrimmage snaps by players in each game. The number of scrimmage snaps is not a perfect way to measure success, but it is an objective measure that arguably is a pretty good evaluation metric and much better than the number of starts.

Starting in 2012, I constructed a database of scrimmage snaps for all players drafted in 2012 and thereafter. Using that data base for the 2012-2019 draft classes I updated my earlier studies to determine expectations based on historical scrimmage snap information.

Each of the players in those draft classes were placed into one of several categories based on the number of scrimmage snaps. One of those categories included players that participated in at least 60% of a team’s snaps for at least three seasons. These players, in effect, were three-year starters.

Let’s look at the 2021 draft and use historical averages to predict the number of three-year starters.

  • 1st round: 22 of 32 players drafted should become three-year starters

  • 2nd round: 16 of 32 players

  • 3rd round: 12 of 41 players

  • 4th round: 6 of 39 players

  • 5th round: 6 of 40 players

  • 6th round: 3 of 45 players

  • 7th round: 1 of 30 players

So about 66 of the 259 players drafted are expected to become three-year starters.

This analysis, accompanied by a deep dive into scrimmage snaps from the 2021 season, allowed me to address a number of other questions as well. Do results vary by position? Do some teams draft better than others? Are draftees from some colleges more successful than others? Are some draft classes better than others? Is there a blueprint for building a winning team?

These questions and more are addressed in my study that is being sold as an E-book for $35. Be forewarned that there are a lot of numbers in this study. Email me at draftmetrics@gmail.com if you are interested in learning more or purchasing the study.

 

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