Synopsis: Throughout the opening night coverage of the 2015 NFL Draft, Mel Kiper continually stated that teams should avoid running backs such as Todd Gurley and Mel Gordon in the first round even though they were top prospects. Kiper is well known for making bold speculative predictions, but it seemed like this one could be analyzed. In response, I reviewed drafts from 1977-2007 to evaluate top ten picks by position. I’ve already written two posts (one focused on offense and the other on defense) discussing the upside and downside associated with those draft picks. In this post, I’ll use that analysis to evaluate to try to identify the most likely 2015 NFL Draft Busts.
Before getting into the analysis, I need to source pro-football-reference.com and its creation of the statistic Weighted Average Value (WAV). Just like the comparable statistic of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for baseball, the real benefit of WAV results from its robustness to allow an evaluation of different positions with only one number. For this post, I have defined a star as a player with a WAV of 90 or more (e.g. Phil Simms had a WAV of 91) and a bust as a player with a WAV of 15 or less (e.g. Matt Leinart had a WAV of 12).
With respect to the alternatives of swinging for the fence or playing it safe with an early draft pick, NFL teams appear to be more focused on the former than the latter. Specifically, they are more interested in maximizing their upside while protecting their downside, instead of minimizing their downside while preserving some upside. As a measurement of that potential upside, the following table ranks each offensive and defensive position based on the odds of that particular type of player becoming a star/superstar. At the same time, the table also identifies the probability of a future bust/mega-bust for each position.
STARS AND BUSTS – BY POSITION
(Top ten overall picks from 1997-2007 Drafts – 310 total picks)
|# Draft Picks||Stars||% Stars||Busts||% Busts||
Ratio (Stars to Busts)
1 to 1
|46||10||22%||2||4%||5 to 1|
3 to 1
|42||7||17%||7||17%||1 to 1|
2.5 to 1
|41||6||15%||4||10%||1.5 to 1|
0.7 to 1
Based on the data in the table, the following observations can be made about top ten overall picks at each position:
- Relative to all positions, QBs provide the most upside (30% chance of a becoming a star) as well as the most downside (30% chance of becoming a bust).
- Despite the relatively high percentage of busts, QB is the most important position so teams apparently are willing to stretch to take someone whose skill level might not otherwise warrant such a high selection.
- The trade-off between the two options (i.e. the last column in the table) produces a ratio of 1:1, which is on the low end of spectrum.
- Offensive Line
- Approximately 1 in 5 offensive linemen become stars while only 1 in 25 become busts.
- With a trade-off ratio of 5 to 1, they offer the best risk/reward for any position.
- Defensive Line / Linebackers
- Defensive linemen are selected almost twice as frequently as linebackers, but the upside/downside for each type of player is similar.
- Specifically, approximately 1 in 6 linebackers and 1 in 7 defensive linemen become stars while 1 in 20 of either position become busts.
- With trade-off ratios between 2.5 to 1 for linebackers and 3 to 1 for defensive linemen, they offer the 2nd and 3rd best risk/reward profile for any position.
- Running Backs
- Approximately 1 in 6 running backs become stars while an equal number become busts.
- The 1:1 trade-off ratio is identical to the ratio for quarterbacks, which is tied for 2nd worst.
- Wide Receivers – including Tight Ends
- Overall, receivers offer the worst risk/return profile for any position.
- Only 1 in 10 receivers become stars but 1 in 7 become busts. As such, it is the only position that is more likely to become a bust than a star.
As discussed in an earlier post regarding my selection criteria for NFL busts, I limited the pool of candidates to top ten overall draft picks because there’s a noticeable falloff in expected production from later picks. As such, the only potential Top 10 Busts from the 2015 NFL Draft would come from the following table of players.
2015 NFL DRAFT – 1ST TEN OVERALL PICKS
|Draft Pick||Player||Position||Team||Awards / Recognition|
|#1||Jameis Winston||QB||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||2013 Heisman Trophy|
|#2||Marcus Mariota||QB||Tennessee Titans||2014 Heiman Trophy|
|#3||Dante Fowler, Jr.||DE||Jacksonville Jaguars||2014 1st Team All-SEC|
|#4||Amari Cooper||WR||Oakland Raiders||2014 Biletnikoff Award (Best Receiver)|
|#5||Brandon Scherff||OT||Washington||2104 Outland Trophy (Best Interior Lineman)|
|#6||Leonard Williams||DE||New York Jets||2013-2014 1st Team All-American|
|#7||Kevin White||WR||Chicago Bears||2014 2nd Team All-American|
|#8||Vic Beasley||OLB||Atlanta Falcons||2013 & 2014 Consensus 1st Team All-American|
|#9||Ereck Flowers||OT||New York Giants||2014 2nd Team All-ACC|
|#10||Todd Gurley||RB||St. Louis Rams||None (suspended / injured)|
Based on this table alone, can you figure out which draft picks will become stars and which ones will become busts? Before you respond too quickly, Todd Gurley didn’t receive any special recognition after missing seven games last season: four because he was suspended after receiving $3,000 in exchange for autographs; and three after tearing his ACL. Then again, he might be a good bet just for those reasons. For full disclosure, Dante Fowler Jr.’s career is off to an inauspicious start given that he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in his first hour of mini-camp. I have established an injury exemption for Top 10 Busts, but that doesn’t mean that others won’t consider him a bust if his career never materializes.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll rely on historical percentages because I’m not astute enough as a football scout to evaluate talent beyond my review of data and a personal “eye test.” Arguably, the real experts aren’t much better because they routinely overestimate the upside and underestimate the downside of certain players. From a probability perspective, the best analogy I can think of comes from the NCAA Tournament during which upsets happen every year due to inaccurate rankings by the selection committee. Of note, a #12 seed has beaten a #5 seed approximately 1/3 of the time, and at least once in 24 of the last 27 years (although, not this year). As such, if you fail to predict at least one 12/5 upset in your annual bracket, you’re going against the odds.
2015 NFL Draft Potential Busts
Picks #1 & #2 – The Quarterbacks: Jameis Winston (#1) and Marcus Mariota (#2)
- Quarterbacks taken with a top ten overall pick succeed 30% of the time, but fail 30% of the time as well.
- Based on those odds, there’s a 50% chance that at least one of these QBs will be a bust and an equal chance that at least one will become a star.
- As detailed in my post regarding the questionable track record of Jameis Winston (e.g. character issues, regression in performance from one year to the next, and proneness to interceptions), I predicted that Winston is likely to become a bust.
- I understand that analysts, who know much more about evaluating college football players than I ever will, believe he has the skills to succeed in the NFL; however, I disagree.
- Even though Winston only has a 30% chance to fail, I’m predicting that he will as if he’s a #5 seed that’s about to be upset by a #12 seed.
- Given that I’ve predicted that Winston will be a bust, I’m giving Mariota a pass because the chance that they’re both busts is only 10%. On the other hand, QBs from the University of Oregon (at least since Dan Fouts retired in 1987) have not fared well in the NFL, so I’m not about to declare him a star either.
Picks #3 and #6 – The Defensive Ends: Dante Fowler Jr. (#3) and Leonard Williams (#6)
- With respect to defensive linemen taken with a top ten overall pick, 15% succeed while 6% fail.
- Based on those odds, there’s better than a 1 in 4 chance that at least one of these DEs will become a star and a 1 in 10 chance that at least one will become a bust.
- Given that Fowler is lost for the season, I’m sure that Jacksonville is already lamenting its decision to take him over Williams. Regardless, it’s still unlikely that either one will become a bust.
Picks #4 and #7 – The Wide Recievers: Amari Cooper (#4) and Kevin White (#7)
- With respect to wide receivers taken with a top ten overall pick, 10% succeed while 14% fail.
- Based on those odds, there’s a 1 in 5 chance that at least one will become a star and 1 in 4 chance that at least one will become a bust
- Relative to the two receivers, Cooper is more accomplished, but White has greater size and speed.
- I value on-field accomplishments much more than combine results so I believe Cooper will be more successful in the NFL.
- In addition, White was only a one-year wonder at West Viriginia (it was quite a year, however, with 109 receptions and 1,447 yards), which is a red flag for potential busts.
- Odds are the neither one will be a bust, but White is more likely than Cooper.
Picks #5 and #9 – The Offensive Tackles: Brandon Scherff (#5) and Ereck Flowers (#9)
- With respect to offensive linemen taken with a top ten overall pick, 22% succeed while 4% fail. As such, I don’t think either player will be a bust.
- I’ve been hyping Scherff since mid-November 2014, so I won’t stop now. In fact, I predict Scherff will be the most accomplished player (based on career WAV) of the first ten picks of the draft.
Pick #8 – The Linebacker: Vic Beasley
- As a linebacker taken with a top ten overall pick, Beasley has a 17% chance of being a star and a 6% chance of being a bust.
- With a 3 in 4 chance of being somewhere between a star and a bust, Beasley most likely will be just that.
Pick #10 – The Running Back: Todd Gurley
- As a running back taken with a top ten overall pick, Gurley has an equal 1 in 6 chance of being a star or a bust.
- While the odds of either option is not great (and therefore unlikely), I believe he has more downside than upside potential.
- Separating my analysis from my emotions, I hope Gurley succeeds simply because of his tribulations this season (i.e. the suspension and ACL injury) and the humility he demonstrated at the draft.
- Regardless of his success or failure, Gurley certainly was worth a top ten pick based on his potential.
Finally, I can get back to the original purpose of the trilogy of posts resulting from Mel Kiper’s recent comment that teams shouldn’t use a 1st round pick on a running back. In one of my favorite exchanges from the first night of the 2015 Draft, Chris Berman asked, “Who made that rule anyway, you can’t pick one [a running back] in the first round? Who made that rule?” With a smile on his face, Mel Kiper responded, “I did.” The only way he could have been more obnoxious would have been by saying, “This guy” while pointing at himself with the double-thumb salute.
Simply based on the numbers, I respectfully disagree with Kiper because running backs are still integral to a successful team. Do you think Pete Carroll wishes he relied on Marshawn Lynch at least one more time during the Seattle’s Super Bowl loss against New England? The last two rushing leaders (i.e. LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray) were drafted in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, respectively, but the best ones over time have been early first round picks.
Although drafted outside of the top ten, Mel Gordon also has tremendous upside potential. Apparently, the San Diego Chargers agree because they traded a 4th round pick this year and a 5th round pick next year to move up two spots to take Gordon with the 15th overall pick. While I believe the Chargers gave up too much in the trade, I hope Gordon performs well enough to justify it. At this point, I don’t care whether Gurley or Gordon is better as an NFL rusher, just that either one shows that a running back is worthy of an early 1st round pick.