Which Teams Have the Most Draft Success?

As I discussed in the previous post, I mentioned that prior to this year’s draft, I’ll be taking a look at some interesting insights into NFL draft history.  This week, I’m going to cover which teams have been the most successful in the draft in recent years.

For those who didn’t read the last post (and crushed my spirit), I created my own draft value chart, which estimates the amount of value that each selection in the NFL draft is worth.  In order to do this, I rely on a metric developed by Pro-Football Reference called Approximate Value (“AV”).  AV is just what it sounds like: it’s an approximation of value of all past and present NFL players in order to compare players of different eras and different positions.  While it’s not without its issues, it serves as an effective tool to compare players.  Since we can value any player, this means that we have an approximate value for every drafted player and the approximate value of each draft.

I analyzed the success of each team and each draft as measured by approximate value using the same methodology used to compile my draft chart.  However, in order to compare teams’ draft picks, I do not compare teams’ total approximate value acquired from the draft (i.e., total draft value), but their total draft value as a proportion of their total expected value from the draft (i.e., total draft capital).  The idea behind this is that you can only play the cards that you’re dealt.  If my team had a great season and has the last pick in each round (assuming the footballs are properly inflated and the NFL lets me keep my picks), I should not be expected to gain as much value from the draft as the team with the first pick in each round.  Similarly, if I’m Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown and I’ve amassed 22 picks in the first four rounds of the 2016 to 2018 NFL drafts (as of right now, I would expect that number to increase), I sure hope the players acquired through the draft accumulate a higher amount of AV than that of other teams.

The team for which the player accumulates their AV does not matter.  For example, the Falcons would have received all of the AV that Brett Favre accumulated since they drafted him.  The Falcons were smart enough to draft him (and dumb enough to trade him) so they deserve that AV. This makes sense to me for one main reason.  I want to look at the value derived from the draft.  The Packers did not draft Favre.  The Falcons did.

In order for this approach to work, I assume, incorrectly, that all trades made involving a player are at arm’s length and that teams receive equal value in return.  So, even though the Falcons traded Favre, they should have received equal value, in terms of on-field production, in return.  I could see people arguing that this approach double counts.  For example, the Falcons traded Favre for a first round pick. They would receive all value that Favre accumulated AND all value that the player used with that pick (Troy Smith) compiled.  However, for this analysis, this is not the case because I’m looking at the success of the Falcons in the draft relative to the amount of draft capital the team had available, regardless of how the draft capital was acquired. Let’s start by looking at the extremes. The table shows the team with the highest and lowest draft value acquired as a percentage of draft capital available.

The Losers

The Lions.  I’m sorry, Detroit.   The Lions, by the way, had the most draft capital available over this period since if you’re consistently bad, you amass a lot of draft capital.  It’s actually amazing that Matt Millen was able to be this bad and hold onto his job for seven years.  With respect to 2005, I’m a Vikings fan so I thank my lucky stars that Matt Millen had such a bad 2005 draft that he covered up for the Vikings drafting Troy Williamson AND Erasmus James in the first round.  Though, sadly, the draft was not the most embarrassing event for the Vikings in 2005.

Otherwise, is anyone else not that surprised by the teams on this list?  While the Ravens had some success and have the eighth-highest win percentage in the NFL over this period, they had some off years.  The Dolphins struggled in the much-heralded Jay Fiedler era, understandably considering their hangover from Dan the Man.  If you want a good laugh, take a look at the starting QBs for the Dolphins between Dan Marino and Ryan Tannehill.  It’s quite hilarious.

One fumble represents the last ten years of the Jets.  The 49ers thought 2012 would be a good year to waste their first round pick on a wide receiver who they were scared the RAMS would snatch in the second round.  The St. Louis Rams.  You know, the team who selected three wide receiver busts in two drafts and recently compiled one of the worst offensive seasons ever.  I’m so glad Trent Baalke rectified the pick by this trade in 2013.  Don’t worry, he didn’t.  Jonathan Baldwin appeared in seven games, caught three passes, and never appeared in the NFL again.

Speaking of the Rams, they used the 2006 draft to select the immortal Tye Hill and Joe Klopfenstein (Klopftenstein was one of two TEs the Rams drafted, the other being Dominique Byrd, proud graduate of my dad’s stuffy elementary school) with their first two picks. However, this doesn’t compare to the Cowboy in 2009 when their 12 draft picks, all in the third round or later, yielded a big fat 0 points of AV above replacement.

The Jaguars, were actually fairly successful in the mid-2000s (four consecutive seasons at .500 or better from 2004 to 2007) before the wrath of Khan and the advent of The Process.

The soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders showed up in 2007, when in a fairly strong draft, they wasted the first overall pick on a natural leader.   In addition to 2007, the Raiders, had some historically bad drafts during Al Davis’ final years.  The table below lists out the Raiders’ first and second round picks from 2002 to 2012 with their total AV above replacement over the first five years of their respective careers.

JaMarcus Russell is arguably the biggest bust in draft history.  Rolando McClain was a good player for the Cowboys before the purple drank landed him in troubleRobert Gallery compiled 21 points of AV because the Raiders had no one else who could start on the offensive line.  Nnamdi Amosugha had a few good years with the Raiders, got paid by the Eagles, and then subsequently forgot how to play football.  Napoleon Harris was adequate trade bait to lure Randy Moss (unfortunately, not for straight cash) to Oakland.  Otherwise, most of these picks were completely forgettable.  Al Davis lucked out that he didn’t have to suffer Jerry Jones’ fate and see his team on this list.

The Winners

The Seahawks and the Jets are the only two teams to appear on this list as a Draft Loser and as a Draft Winner.  The Seahawks didn’t start off the decade too well, but rebounded to put up some astounding numbers at the end of the decade.  Unlike some of the other winners on this list, the Seahawks translated their draft success into a Super Bowl following the 2013 season and another Super Bowl appearance the following year.  In the two years that they dominated the draft (2011 and 2012) and the year before, the Seahawks drafted seven players on the defensive side alone who started at least eight games during their Super Bowl winning season.  Six of those players put up at least eight points of AV that season.  The other was the Super Bowl MVP.  It also helps to find a franchise quarterback in the third round.

One of the things I find surprising is the prevalence of good teams winning the draft.  Immediately before the Patriots won the 2005 draft, they only had limited success – if you’re expectations are so bloated that winning three Super Bowls in four years is unacceptable.  Oh and they followed that up in 2007 with a 16-0 regular season with the record for most points, most touchdowns, and highest point differential. For those who immediately disregard any Saints success during the Gregg Williams era because of Bountygate, the real winner of the 2009 season won the 2008 draft.

In fact, if we look at all teams’ average success in the draft and win percentage, it actually shows that the best teams on the field also consistently win the draft.  The table below ranks the teams with the best to worst draft success with each teams’ average win percentage over the same period.

Teams with a high average win percentage tend to rank high on this list.  The Packers, well known for their desire to build through the draft, had the fourth highest win percentage over this period.  The Patriots, in the middle of an impressive dynasty, had the seventh best draft record to go along with the highest winning percentage.  Also, since if you ain’t first, you’re last, five of the top ten drafting teams won a Super Bowl during this period, not including the Seahawks who won the Super Bowl the following year.

If we plot the entire list of teams on a chart, we can see these results more clearly.  The scatterplot below maps draft success and win percentage on the same plot.  The y-axis is each team’s average win percentage from 2002 to 2012 and the x-axis is each team’s average draft success.

The correlation between win percentage and draft success from 2002 to 2012 is 0.81, where 0 means no relationship, 1 indicates a perfect positive relationship, and -1 indicates a perfect negative relationship.  That’s pretty high!  On average, it suggests that there is a fairly strong relationship between a draft success relative to draft capital available and win percentage.  Teams that are successful in the draft tend to also be successful on the field.

In fact, 9 of the 12 most successful teams in the draft have also competed in at least one Super Bowl between 2002 and 2012.

It should be noted, however, that these 9 teams all possessed “franchise” quarterbacks which certainly helps a team be more successful.  In addition, there could be other factors at play here that we’re not considering[1] (e.g., winning breeds continuity which leads to more success, free agents want to play for contenders, good teams select less risky players, drafting well means more money to allocate to free agents, etc.), but in the NFL, a league that prides itself on its competitive balance, it’s striking to realize that the teams that are successful on the field tend to also be successful in the draft.

This isn’t to mean that these teams are perfect.  The Seahawks, the most successful team in the draft over this period, wasted the 4th overall pick in 2009 on Aaron Curry.  The next year, the Broncos committed a first round pick to a guy who’s now playing minor league baseball and in 2012 couldn’t beat out the guy responsible for the butt fumble.  It’s almost certain that the Colts will fall down the list.  Ryan Grigson made sure of that.  However, these teams have been fairly consistent in being successful with their draft picks which in turn has helped them stay successful as a team.

Given the short term nature of NFL careers, one or two good drafts only lead to temporary success.  As Peter King noted in his latest MMQB column, the Seahawks must already start thinking about replenishing their defense to replace the homegrown players they acquired from 2010 to 2012.  Roster composition changes quickly as new players enter the NFL each year.  It will be interesting to revisit this list in future years to see if these teams have maintained their success, especially given the rapid decline and aging of NFL players.

[1] Remember, kids: correlation does not mean causation

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