The NFL Draft is an event that has grown from being a relatively insignificant affair in terms of fan interest to being a fully televised event with all the pomp and fanfare of the Super Bowl. An entire segment of analysts and football fans dedicate themselves yearly to the scouting, analysis, and rating of draft prospects, in the hope of giving us an idea of what to expect from each incoming draft class.
Fans view first round picks as a means to transform a franchise, and it is easy to see why. Incoming rookies have wholly unknown potential. Players like Peyton Manning have transformed entire cities with their prodigious abilities, and the desire to be in position to draft someone like a Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck is something coveted by fans and teams alike.
That desire for a high first round pick has influenced many a fan base to turn to the idea of “tanking” once the playoffs are out of reach, and the sentiment has been expressed among Colts fans who would prefer the team simply lose out their remaining games to get a higher pick. It is for that reason that I began researching this story, to dig into the draft and see just how effective those first round picks really are.
To determine how well teams have done in drafting players in the first round, I first had to set a standard for what amounts to a successful draft pick. Identifying players as “hits” or “misses” can be highly subjective, and I wanted as close to a concrete method as possible to avoid that. I finally settled on considering a player a “hit” if they received a new contract, or if they made the Pro Bowl or All-Pro team.
Those criterion are not perfect, because they inevitably result in some players like RG3 who have an electric first season and go to the Pro Bowl, but are very soon a non-factor for their team. Then there is the fact that in recent years, the Pro Bowl has been a bit of a joke. I do think that over the period of time that I was viewing, it still had enough integrity to be worth using as a general measure, but as I’ve admitted, it is not perfect.
Despite its flaws, I think this is the best method to easily determine whether a player has provided good value to their team on the whole. Like almost all data, it needs to be viewed as a part of the discussion, not the whole, because according to my standards, both Peyton Manning and Rex Grossman qualify as “hits,” although no one would argue that they had equal impact on the league or their respective teams.
My purpose here is not to rate how big of a hit or how big of a miss a given first round pick was. It is simply to determine how often teams have “hit” in the first round on average. So let’s get into the numbers.
With the Colts likely in the hunt for an upgrade at quarterback through the upcoming draft, I wanted to take a look at the position and see how effective first round picks spent on quarterbacks have been. From 2000-2015, 42 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Of those selected, just 19, or 45.24% are considered “hits” by my criteria.
Top Ten QB Hits and Misses 2000-2015
We can debate the reasons for this forever. Teams reach for QBs because of need. They have bad coaching staffs. They take guys who don’t fit their scheme. A project player simply doesn’t develop like they hoped he would. The list of issues goes on and on. Ultimately though, the numbers are clear: Simply taking a QB who is given a first round grade doesn’t mean you have an answer. The chance of a QB in the first round being a hit has historically been worse than a coin flip.
But what about varying success rate inside the first round? Does it make a difference where you’re picking? Based on that time period the answer is… kind of.
Out of 24 quarterbacks selected in the top 10 during that time, 12 were considered hits. Technically Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota don’t currently meet the criteria to be listed as either “hits” or “misses,” so if you remove both from the equation pending what moves their respective teams make this offseason, it gives a hit percentage of 54.55% on top ten QBs.
By comparison, the hit rate on QBs taken from 11-32 during that same time is far less, at 38.89%. That would tend to lend some credence to the idea that getting a top ten pick is more important in picking a quarterback.
First round as a whole
So with that data in hand about selecting a first round QB, the next question might be, how likely is it that any player selected in the first round will be a “hit?”
The answer is somewhat depressing. If you hang your hopes on first round picks every year, this might be rough, but the average draft class from 2000-2014 has had 17 first round “hits” in it. That’s good for 53.13%. While we’re all compiling our draft guides and creating mock drafts and big boards this off-season, keep that number in mind.
But what about top 10 picks? Surely that percentage is higher across the draft, right? Not really. During that entire time, the average hit percentage for top 10 picks sits at 56%. What’s more, if you look at the list of “hits” you quickly realize that many of them are only barely crossing the threshold of what it means to be a hit.
So is the draft basically just luck?
It would be easy to say that at just over a 50/50 hit rate on first rounders, that the draft is little more than luck. That’s why I wanted to dig a bit deeper and look at individual team drafts. For the purposes of this exercise, I chose four teams to analyze. Naturally the Colts were one of those teams. I also chose the Patriots, Steelers, and Browns. I thought this would give a look at two other successful and well-respected organizations, as well as one that has struggled mightily. What I found was fascinating.
The Browns have had remarkably bad drafting in the first round, since 1984.
They have hit on just 28.13% of their first round picks since that time, with the jury still out on Jabrill Peppers, David Njoku, and Baker Mayfield. Since 1984, they have never been able to string together more than two consecutive drafts with a hit in the first round, despite the fact that 17 of their 36 picks have been in the top 10. That tells a lot of the story of the team we’ve seen over the years and why they’ve struggled.
By comparison, the Patriots and Steelers have had much more similar success drafting first round talent. The Patriots have hit on 48.57% of their first round picks, and the Steelers have hit on 48.48%.
What is interesting about both these teams is that while their hit percentage in total is below the average for hits in the first round, they both managed to string several good draft years together. Make a note of that.
While both those teams drafted well in the first round, the Colts were a good bit ahead of either team in terms of hit rate over that time.
Colts 1st Round Picks 1984-Present
From 1984-2018, the Colts have hit on 60% of their first round picks, a number that is likely to increase when Ryan Kelly and Malik Hooker get new deals, which they are likely to do.
From 1994-2003 the team hit on every first round pick, despite 7 of those 10 picks coming outside the top 10.
This speaks to the reality of the NFL Draft. While there is value in high picks, ultimately it is far more important who is making the picks than it is where the picks are being made. It is also critical to hit on consecutive drafts. It simply isn’t enough to hit on a first round pick. Teams need to string together first round picks in order to become a winning franchise.
Obviously there are a lot more factors that go into a winning franchise than this, but one common denominator in three of the league’s more dominant franchises since the turn of the century is that they’ve managed to stack good first round picks on top of one another year after year.
Even inside the Colts there is a dramatic variation in success rate from GM to GM. Jim Irsay’s hit rate during his time as the general manager was just 40% on his first round picks. Chris Polian and Ryan Grigson share the same 33.34% hit rate for their respective tenures (although Ryan Kelly will likely push Grigson’s to 50%).
Bill Tobin and Bill Polian, by comparison, boasted 100% and 77.78% hit rates in their first round picks respectively. Those drafts paved the way for the most dominant period in Colts football.
Chris Ballard’s success drafting in the first round is too early to truly judge. He has made just two selections, and while Quenton Nelson is a clear hit, Malik Hooker is not yet. It seems likely that he’ll receive another deal with the Colts, but it is too soon to predict at this point.
Regardless, this is where the rest of the picture comes into play. Building a coaching staff that excels at developing young players is a critical part of the process. Making sure your coaching staff and your scouting team have a unified vision about the type of player that best fits your organization are also a critical component in the process of selecting players.
What is the mental makeup of the kind of player that fits with the team? What does it take to become great and can you identify it in your draft prospects? Looking at the players you select and having a plan for how you’ll use them is another major key to fitting them well into your system.
The Colts under Chris Ballard have most, if not all, of these components to their front office and coaching staff. In an uncertain process where your chances of missing on players is already high, good organizations try to mitigate those misses by making sure they maximize the successes of the players they hit on.
The draft is exciting, and I won’t try to convince you otherwise. Having a top pick certainly could be a game changer for a team, but history says it is no guarantee of being that. The Colts have a system and staff that they like. They know the kinds of players they will be looking for, both in the draft and in free agency. Chris Ballard is a steady GM who has gotten production early out of his draft classes.
Troy was kind enough to put together this chart that illustrates Ballard’s picks in terms of their average AV by draft position. The curve here indicates what the average value is for where the players were drafted and their point on the chart indicates how they compare with that number.
The book hasn’t been written yet on Chris Ballard’s draft successes or failures. He has a year or two before we can realistically make any judgement. What most of the data I’ve seen indicates, is that the draft is kind of a tossup. You can prepare well, and attempt to minimize failure rates once you get a player in the building, but there will be misses.
In fact, for fun (or because I’m a glutton for punishment), I looked at every single Bill Polian draft pick, and calculated his hit rate outside of the first round. The Colts’ Hall of Fame general manager who helped lead the Colts to a Super Bowl and a decade of dominance hit on a whopping 11.59% outside the first round.
So to those who criticize Chris Ballard because of the misses in the draft, settle down. They are going to happen. However, the best general managers consistently beat the average, and so far Ballard seems to be doing that.
Get excited about the draft, but not at the expense of hoping for good football. Because the numbers say it just isn’t worth it.