7 Lessons from Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks

Synopsis: When conducting my research, I noticed that many busts could be characterized by recurring themes. I have summarized these themes by presenting them as 7 Lessons from Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks (a.k.a. Top 10 Busts). 

  1. There’s no such thing as a sure thing
  2. When in doubt, draft offensive linemen and avoid receivers
  3. Don’t reach with the pick
  4. Character matters
  5. Avoid players who have peaked already
  6. Avoid QBs who were interception leaders in college
  7. Get to camp on time

Hypothetically, these lessons can be applied to help teams avoid making similar mistakes. Regardless, you can apply them when evaluating the draft decisions made by your favorite team. 


7 LESSONS FROM HIGHLY INEFFECTIVE NFL DRAFT PICKS

For as much as I have mocked Mel Kiper for certain predictions (e.g. JaMarcus Russell, Jimmy Clausen), he should be commended for his impressive ability to evaluate and regurgitate information about hundreds of college players each year. At the same type, he’s entertaining and no one really cares if he’s accurate. While I didn’t evaluate historical NFL drafts in the same way that Kiper does, I learned a few things and developed a few takeaways that might be useful to other draft analysts or aficionados. In short, here are 7 Lessons from Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks.

Lesson #1 : There’s no such thing as a sure thing.

If history has taught us anything, there are no sure things in the NFL draft. For every “guaranteed” superstar that pans out (e.g. John Elway, Peyton Manning) there’s one who doesn’t (e.g. JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf). In fact, the odds of selecting a future Pro Bowl player with a top 10 overall pick are the same as flipping a coin and correctly calling “heads” or “tails.” Not surprisingly, the likelihood of selecting a star player only gets worse throughout the rest of the draft.

  • 30% odds for the remainder of the 1st round.
  • 20% odds for the 2nd round.
  • 12% odds for the 3rd round.
  • 5% odds for rounds 4-7.

Despite the inherent uncertainty involved in the draft, teams seem to believe that they can beat the odds. Most years, at least one team shows its desperation by giving up valuable future picks to move up only a few spots. If teams were more patient, the following mistakes could have been avoided.

Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks Involved in Disproportionate Trades
  • The Chargers’ trade get 1998 #2 pick Ryan Leaf.
  • The Browns’ trade to get 2012 #3 pick Trent Richardson.

I don’t know why more teams don’t accept those offers and diversify their risk with more chances. Imagine how different the Browns’ restart in 1999 would have been if they traded their #1 overall draft pick to the Saints for eight extra draft picks instead of taking Tim Couch.

Lesson #2: Draft Offensive Linemen / Avoid Receivers

As the following table shows, when the top ten overall selections are broken down by position, a few interesting trends can be seen.

Breakdown of Top 10 Overall Picks from 1977-2005 NFL Drafts (290 players)
Position

% of Time Taken

% Making a Pro Bowl

# of Pro Bowls Made*

Weighted Average Value (WAV)

QB 11.4% 52% 3.8

57.4

RB

13.8% 55% 3.5 53.3
WR / TE 13.4% 51% 3.7

45.5

OL

14.8% 51% 6.0 60.2
DL 21.7% 46% 3.8

53.0

DB

13.1% 61% 4.3 53.8
LB 11.7% 50% 4.4

56.4

Totals

100.0% 52% 4.2

54.1

* Average of all players who made at least one Pro Bowl

  1. The split between offensive (53%) and defensive picks (47%) is fairly even. Based on media coverage alone, I would have guessed that the split favored offensive players much more than it has.
  2. The safest picks seem to be offensive linemen and defensive backs. Offensive linemen offer the most value (WAV of 60.2) and upside (6.0 Pro Bowls). Defensive backs are the most likely to make a Pro Bowl (61%).
  3. The riskiest picks seem to be receivers and defensive linemen. Receivers offer the least value (WAV of 45.5). Defensive linemen are the least likely to make the Pro Bowl (46%).

Granted, a Pro Bowl quarterback should be worth more than a Pro Bowl offensive lineman. Regardless, the table provides a starting point to evaluate the risk-reward profile for each position.

Lesson #3: Don’t reach with a top overall pick

Due to the lack of guarantees in the draft (Lesson #1), teams shouldn’t go out on a limb when making a pick. In particular, they shouldn’t risk a top pick on someone whose past performance doesn’t fully justify the selection. Still, numerous teams make selections every year that cause analysts and fans alike to shake their heads. Sometimes, those picks work. More often than not, they don’t. If teams were more disciplined with their selections, the following mistakes could have been avoided.

Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks Taken Much Earlier Than Anticipated
  • St. Louis Cardinals taking Kelly Stouffer at #6 in 1987.
  • New Orleans Saints taking Jonathan Sullivan at #6 in 2003.
  • Minnesota Vikings taking Troy Williamson at #7 in 2005.

It’s one thing to reach by taking a projected 4th round pick in the 3rd round but a completely different thing to reach by taking a projected mid or late 1st round pick at the top of the draft. In particular, early picks can be traded for a disproportionate number of future picks. As such, teams should take the best available player or trade down at the risk of losing someone worth a lower pick.

Lesson #4: Character matters

With a top ten overall pick, a team should expect to get a Pro Bowl caliber player with leadership qualities on and off the field. Ideally, the player can inspire the team internally while representing the team externally. At a minimum, however, he should not be detrimental or even a distraction to the team. If teams focused on getting good people and not just good players, the following busts could have been avoided.

Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks with Questionable Character

Said differently, these teams could have avoided their mistakes if they weren’t blinded by the player’s talent.

Given the recent off-field issues of stars like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, teams have a heightened sensitivity to character. After all, a player can’t help his team if he’s suspended. In addition, owners don’t want to lose corporate sponsors who increasingly seem willing to end business relationships over controversial players.

This lesson seems particularly relevant this year given the likelihood that Jameis Winston declares for the 2015 Draft. It’s hard to argue with Winston’s incredible talent. In particular, the Florida State QB has demonstrated poise and an ability to lead comebacks week after week. However, his off-the-field judgment raises a big red flag.

Despite any concerns about Winston’s character, at least one desperate team (perhaps the N.Y. Jets) will offer significant future picks to move up a few spots to get him. If the Jaguars or Raiders find themselves with the #1 overall pick, they should make the trade. In particular, either team still can get a top-rated offensive lineman (e.g. Cedric Ogbuehi or Brendon Schreff), as well as another two first round picks for its trouble.

Lesson #5: Avoid players who may have peaked already

As a precondition to becoming a Top 10 Bust, each player had to be a college superstar. Specifically, he needed to be recognized as a finalist for a significant award and/or ranked nationally in at least one statistical category. When determining this criterion, I didn’t differentiate between the players’ most recent or prior seasons. For instance, a player only had to receive the distinction at some point in his college career.

In retrospect, players who experience a noticeable decline during their college career may have peaked already. As such, they may be unable to handle the significant step-up in competition from college to the pros. Not surprisingly, professional players are stronger, faster, and better coached. Therefore, a top draft pick should not have any noticeable weaknesses that can be exploited at the next level. Teams avoiding such players would have avoided the following busts.

Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks Who Peaked Before Finishing College
Lesson #6: Avoid quarterbacks who led the NCAA in interceptions

Perhaps more than any other statistic, turnover differential is the best predictor of which football team will win the game. Based on that claim, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Super Bowl XLVII Champion Seattle Seahawks led the league with a +20 turnover differential in 2013. In contrast, the Houstan Texans finished last with a -20 differential and a league-worst 2-14 record. Additionally, the five best teams in this category had a winning percentage of 71% while the five worst teams had a winning percentage of 37%.

As another example of the importance of protecting the ball, the Texans benched Matt Schaub after he threw “pick-sixes” in four consecutive games during the 2013 season. The benching occurred even though he made the Pro Bowl and led the Texans to a 12-4 record in 2012. Schaub got his starting job back, but only after Case Keenum got injured. To make matters worse, Houston traded Schuab to Oakland at the end of the season. Hey Matt, better get your tweezers ready.

Given the importance of avoiding turnovers, teams might be best served by avoiding interception-prone quarterbacks. When evaluating college QBs who threw a lot of interceptions, I made sure not to penalize players who threw the ball a lot. Specifically, I eliminated those with touchdown/interception ratios above 1.5 to 1. For instance, a quarterback throwing 45 touchdowns and 15 interceptions should not be viewed similarly to one throwing 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

The following college quarterbacks finished in the top 10 in interceptions at some point during their NCAA careers. At the same time, they had a TD/INT ratio below 1.5 to 1. Please note, the ratio after each player’s name reflects the number of TDs followed by the number of interceptions. Also, players with more than one ratio after their name qualified more than once.

Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks: Interception-Prone College Quarterbacks

Top 10 Busts

T10B Honorable Mentions or Nominees

Bad to Mediocre

  • Mark Herrman (18/27, 16/19, 23/17)
  • Erik Kramer (14/16)
  • Rodney Peete (10/15)
  • Ty Detmer (41/28)
  • Gus Frerotte (21/15)
  • Charlie Batch (21/17)
  • Derek Anderson (24/24)
  • Kevin Kolb (19/15)
  • Colt McCoy (22/18)
  • Josh Freeman (9/15)

Reasonable Success

  • Doug Flutie (13/20)
  • Vinny Testaverde* (21/15)
  • Jeff George (4/15)
  • Daunte Culpepper (19/15)
  • Jeff Garcia (21/16)
  • Jake Delhomme (10/18, 20/17)
  • Steve Beuerlein (7/18)
  • Carson Palmer (16/18)

*As an aside, Vinny Testaverde threw for the second most interceptions in a season with 35 in 1988 and led the league in interceptions four times during his career. Somehow, he still managed to have a 21-year NFL career while compiling a record of 90-123-1 as a starter.

Exception to the Rule

  • Dan Marino (17/23)

Prior to the 1982 college season, many analysts predicted that Dan Marino would challenge John Elway for the 1983 #1 overall pick. However, Marino had a significant decline in performance from his junior to senior season. As a result, many teams overlooked the future Hall of Famer and he fell to the Dolphins at #27 overall. Perhaps more shocking, four additional QBs (besides Elway) went before Marino.

Based on this lesson (as well as Lesson #5), I would have avoided Marino as well. Granted that decision would have been a big mistake. However, the lesson would have allowed teams to avoid the other 29 quarterbacks listed above.

Lesson #7:  Sign the contract and get to camp on time

I provided the first 6 lessons to help teams avoid mistakes. In contrast, I provided Lesson #7 to help players avoid a mistake.

Due to the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the number of rookie holdouts has declined dramatically. In fact, the idea has become virtually obsolete given the predetermined amount of money allocated to each pick. Current negotiations involve the timing and structure of the payments rather than the amounts.

Thanks to the NFL Players Association, superstars don’t have to worry about rookies making more than they do. Back in 1986, Jim Kelly made more than Joe Montana before ever throwing a pass in the NFL. Imagine how Tom Brady would react if Johnny Manziel made more money than he did. It’s tough enough on Mr. Gisele Bundchen that he makes less money than his supermodel wife.

Mrs. Tom Brady
Ineffective NFL Draft Picks - Mrs. Brady

Somehow, I don’t think Brady cares that he makes less money than his wife. Frankly, he deserves less.

Again thanks to the union, veterans don’t have to worry about rookies absorbing much of the salary cap. In the last year before the new CBA took effect, 2010 #1 overall pick Sam Bradford signed a 6-year, $78 million rookie contract with $50 million in guaranteed money. No one can fault the players for accepting money that the owners offer them. However, those rookie contracts hurt established players by diverting money that could have gone to them instead.

Highly Ineffective NFL Draft Picks Who Held Out
#3 T10B – JaMarcus Russell 

After missing all of training camp, 2007 #1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell signed a 6-year, $68 million contract with $31.5 million in guaranteed money. Based on the guaranteed portion of his contract, Russell “earned” over $1.2 million per start or $4.5 million per victory.  I’m sure the owners repeated those numbers extensively when negotiating the latest CBA with the NFLPA in 2011. While Russell’s holdout got him more upfront money, he may have jeopardized his football career (and long-term earnings potential) in the process.

#8 T10B- Heath Shuler

By the time 1994 #3 overall pick Heath Shuler signed his 7-year, $19.25 million contract, he missed most of Washington’s training camp. As a result, he lagged behind fellow rookie and 7th round draft pick Gus Frerotte. Throughout his short career, Shuler never made up the stagger to separate himself from Frerotte. After reflecting on his failed NFL career, Akili Smith (#5 Bust) said, “I should have just told my agent to take whatever they were offering me and got myself in camp, that (the holdout) is the biggest reason I struggled in the NFL.” While it’s unlikely that Smith’s holdout was the biggest reason he failed, it certainly didn’t help.

T10B Honorable Mentions

As another example of an ineffective player after a rookie holdout, Matt Leinart (Honorable Mention) missed enough training camp to let Kurt Warner slip back into the starting role. Once Warner returned to form, Leinart never elevated beyond a back-up role.

With respect to all of the rookie holdouts, Kelly Stouffer (Honorable Mention) may have fared the worst. Of note, he lost a full year before getting traded to a team willing to sign him. If losing valuable weeks or months as a rookie could have a long-term negative effect, imagine what losing a year could do.

For whatever reason (e.g. strained relationship which impacts effort or playing time, newfound wealth which changes the player’s work ethic, or lost practice time which stunts players’ development), the careers of these players never seemed to recover from their holdouts. Well, at least they got their money.

7 LESSONS FROM HIGHLY INEFFECTIVE NFL DRAFT PICKS
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