The Art (and Science) of Drafting: I. Niner Picks 1994-2008

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hello again everyone. What with a lull in the NFL calendar, and my recent move to Fort Lauderdale, I've been AWOL on Niners Nation for much of the past month. Also, I've been steadily plugging away at several articles that will be appearing in the lead-up to the draft. I hope you enjoy them, and don't go cross-eyed after reading all the numbers.

April is one of those months that's chock full of events. There's April Fool's Day, Easter, Passover, Buddha's Birthday - just trying to get all the religions in here - Tax Day, The Boston Marathon, Earth Day, Opening Day (most of the time), and, for the stoners among us, 4/20. Although I have been known to pull a prank or two, my favorite event in April is the NFL Draft.

Now, as I've stated before on Niners Nation, I'm admittedly ignorant when it comes to college football outside of Gainesville, so for me the allure of the draft is not about rating players, projecting draft picks, or drinking games that involve doing a shot every time Mel Kiper, Jr., gets a pick wrong (I'm usually drunk by the middle of the 1st round). Rather, I love the draft for 3 reasons: (a) It reminds me that training camp is only 3 months away; (b) It gives my beloved 49ers another opportunity to improve their roster; and (c) It represents the most intense phase of the year-round dispute between Game Film Guys and Numbers Nerds.

It seems that, as the draft approaches each year, there's an obligatory discussion on ESPN, sports talk radio, and other media that usually takes the form, "Does (insert NFL Combine measurement here) really matter?" Whether it's a RB's 40-yard speed, a WR's vertical jump height, a DL's 225-pound bench press count, or a QB's Wonderlic score, you have one group of team personnel and fans who rattle off the "measurables" like they're the Da Vinci Code of drafting, while another group devotedly obeys the 11th commandment, which states, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy scouting report." In other words, no matter how slow, flightless, weak, or dumb a player shows himself to be at the Combine, all that matters is the opinion of team scouts.

As is the case with most things in nature, though, the truth probably lies somewhere in between, not to mention the fact that there are two things about the NFL that render the debate a sideshow. First, the NFL is about as transparent as the CIA when it comes to gathering and using information; it's nearly impossible to know exactly how each team weighs film and stats in their draft selections. Second, the NFL, like the CIA, is all about results. In Santa Clara, the last 3 head coaches can definitely vouch for that view. So the pertinent question here is not, "Does (insert stat or scouting report info here) matter?" Rather, it's, "Does a team's overall draft strategy -whether partial to stats or scouting reports - produce wins?"

So with that said, the stage is set for my 4-part NFL Draft preview. Over the next 2 weeks, I'm not going to be telling you about correlations between Combine "measurables" and NFL stats, and I definitely won't be attempting to tell you whether Saturday game film predicts Sunday performance. As it relates to the 49ers, rather than evaluating players in the 2009 draft, I'm going to be evaluating the team's overall draft strategies in the Salary Cap Era (1994-2008).

After the jump, I'll finish up the intro, and then proceed with (a) breaking down the 49er draft picks over the past 15 years; and (b) identifying some trends with respect to rounds, positions, and conferences...

Now, when I say, "overall draft strategy," I'm talking about things like preferring players from a specific conference, or, perhaps, preferring to draft certain positions in certain rounds. So you see, rather than focusing on the "How?" or "Why?" of SF draft picks (i.e., via stats vs. scouting reports) - which are basically left to the imagination - I'm more interested in the "When" and "From where?" - which are relatively easy to figure out.

In terms of the results side of things, I'm going to look at two outcomes: (a) how many draft picks became regular starters for the 49ers, and (b) how many draft picks made the Pro Bowl as a Niner. Whereas the reason for looking at Pro Bowlers is pretty obvious, you might argue that drafting a regular starter is less so. Well, don't fret. I did a hardcore stat analysis on the relationship between team wins and the number of starters who were drafted by the team, and found that - you guessed it - there was a pretty considerable one. From 2006-2008, teams with more drafted starters won more games. The relationship was even stronger when I looked at years of experience for drafted starters. Check out this table for a pretty definitive display of the relationship:

Ranks 1-10

Ranks 23-32

Team

Yrs Exp

Team

Yrs Exp

PIT

234

KC

109

JAC

191

BUF

105

PHI

188

SF

95

NE

181

OAK

87

IND

168

WAS

85

GB

163

MIA

81

BAL

162

DEN

81

DAL

157

HOU

80

NYG

154

NO

76

CIN

144

CLE

50

The left side of the table (top 10 in years of experience for drafted starters) is basically a who's who of successful teams over the past 3 seasons, including the 3 Super Bowl champs, whereas the right side (bottom 10) is a list of perennial cellar-dwellars and underachievers during that time. Obviously, there isn't a 1-to-1 relationship here; you can definitely see a situation where a free-agent-laden team wins a lot of games. Nevertheless, the moral of the story is this: If you want to win games in the NFL, one effective way to get there is by drafting players who become full-time starters.

Of course, it's pretty useless to just tell you how many draft picks became starters for the 49ers in the Salary Cap Era. Not only is it easy for you to find out for yourself; it also has absolutely no frame of reference. If I say that number is 30, it begs the question, "Is 30 good or bad when compared to other NFL teams?" After all, the point here is not to simply answer, "What strategies?" It's to figure out, "What strategies win?"

To answer the latter question, I'm going to be making a couple of comparisons. First, I'm going to compare the 49er draft results to that of the best (and most consistent) team in the Salary Cap Era: The New England Patriots. Though some of you might be expecting a comparison against the league average or something akin to it, let's just say this post would be going up about 6 months after the draft if I had to collect the relevant data for all 32 teams. Second, I'm going to compare draft strategies for each 49er GM (or coach-GM duo) since 1994: Policy, Walsh, Donahue, and McNolan. In this comparison, I'm going to focus specifically on how McNolan stacks up against the other 3 regimes. Finally, I'm going to compare the draft strategies of McNolan to that of each Patriot GM (or coach-GM duo) since 1994: Parcells, Grier, and Piolichick (or how about Belioli? Nah, sounds too much like a brand of olive oil).

So, before moving on, let's do a couple of things. First, as a gift from me to you, here is a spreadsheet detailing and summarizing the Niners' draft picks during the Salary Cap Era:

49er Draft Picks 1994-2008

 

And below is the schedule for this 4-part story:

  1. 4/8/09 - SF team draft history (and outcomes) focusing on strategy by round, position, and conference
  2. 4/10/09 - SF regime draft history (and outcomes) focusing on strategy by round, position, and conference
  3. 4/15/09 - Comparison of SF and NE team draft strategies
  4. 4/17/09 - Comparison of SF and NE regime draft strategies

PAC IT UP, PAC IT IN, LET ME BEGIN

Since 1994, the 49ers have made 118 selections in the NFL draft, which works out to about 8 picks per season. The most picks in any given year was 11 in 2000 and 2005, which were rebuilding years not surprisingly. The fewest picks in any given year was 3 in 1997, and the 2nd fewest was 4 in 1995. Both of these were not rebuilding years. Clearly, the Niners have seemed to follow a logical pattern of stockpiling picks when they suck, and shedding picks when they're good. In a certain way, this provides an answer to Fooch's recent post about drafting for now vs. drafting for the future. Over the past 15 years, they've drafted for the future for sure. It's just that, rather than drafting for now when they're good, the Niners instead chose to not draft for the future (i.e., they chose to have fewer picks).

In terms of rounds, the 49ers have had 21 picks in the 7th round, 18 picks in the 1st round, 18 picks in the 3rd round, 18 picks in the 6th round, 16 picks in the 4th round, 14 picks in the 5th round, and 13 picks in the 2nd round. The difference between 1st- and 2nd-round picks reflects a tendency to trade the latter for the former, whereas their stockpiling of 6th- and 7th-round picks is a result of compensatory selections and trading down (or out) for value.

I'd bet you don't know what position is the most represented among 49er draft picks in the Salary Cap Era. Go ahead and take a guess. If you said DL, you'd be right. Overall, the Niners have taken 22 DLs, 21 DBs, 18 WRs, 15 LBs, 14 OLs, 9 TEs, 7 QBs, 6 RBs, 3 FBs, 2 Ks, and 1 P. The fact that 3 of the top 4 positions are on defense is probably due to having repeated defensive issues since 1994, and having a defensive-minded head coach for the past 4 seasons.

Any guesses as to what conference is the most represented among the 49ers' 118 picks since 1994? This one should be rather easy. It's the Pac-10, of course, with 20 picks. Among the other BCS conferences, they've chosen 19 SEC players, 15 Big 10 players, 13 Big 12 players, 13 Big East players, 9 ACC players, and 5 Notre Dame players (they're BCS by proxy). The only non-BCS conference represented by more than 2 picks was the WAC (5). Interestingly enough - and I swear I'm not trying to make a racially charged point here - the Niners haven't taken a player from the MEAC, home to the traditionally Black colleges, in the Salary Cap Era.

What say you of the 49ers when it comes to drafting players who eventually become full-time starters? The correct answer is 50, or 42.4%. You'll have to wait until next week to find out how that compares to the Patriots. Same goes for the number of Pro Bowlers that the 49ers have drafted. The correct answer here is 11, or 9.3%.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • The 49ers have selected 118 players in the NFL Draft from 1994-2008.
  • The 49ers have had more picks when they're bad than when they're good.
  • The 49ers have predominately focused on drafting DLs and DBs.
  • The 49ers have predominately taken players from the Pac 10.
  • 42.4% of the 49ers' draft picks have become regular starters - and 9.3% have made the Pro Bowl - while with the team.

ROUND AND ROUND, WHAT COMES AROUND GOES AROUND

OK, so now we know how many of the 49ers' 118 draft picks since 1994 have come in each round. So what did the Niners do with them? Let's start with the 1st round.

In the 1st round, the Niners have basically had an even split between offense and defense. Specifically, they've picked 4 DLs, 3 LBs, 3 DBs, 2 QBs, 2 WRs, 1 FB, and 1 TE. What's more interesting is what they haven't picked, aka RB. That's right, the 49ers haven't used their 1st-round pick on a RB during the Salary Cap Era. Put another way, the Niners have selected as many RBs in the 1st round as they have Ks or Ps.

With respect to conferences among 1st-round picks, the most represented one might surprise you given what I told you earlier. It's the ACC. Since 1994, the Niners have used their 1st-round picks on 4 ACC players, 3 Pac-10 players, 2 Big 10 players, 2 Big 12 players, 2 Big East players, 2 SEC players, 1 Independent player, 1 MAC player, and 1 MWC player. If you tally that up, it's 16 1st-round picks from BCS conferences (including Notre Dame) and 2 from non-BCS conferences. Clearly, then, the 49ers have a fondness for big-school talent in the 1st round, and the ACC isn't much represented after the 1st round.

While DLs (3) and DBs (3) continue to be picked in the 2nd round, another position emerges as the favorite: OL, of which there have been 4 selected. What's interesting about the 2nd round is that OL is practically the only offensive position that the 49ers have taken. In fact, the Niners haven't selected a skill position player on offense in the past 15 years. That's right, no QBs, no RBs, no WRs. Is that crazy or what?

How about conferences in the 2nd round? Well, the Pac-10 remains strong (3), but the Big East (4) takes the lead. Among the other BCS conferences, the 49ers have taken 2 from the Big 10, 2 from the SEC, 1 from the Big 12, and 1 from Notre Dame. Wait, that adds up to 13, and the Niners have only had 13 2nd-round picks. See a trend emerging? They've favored BCS players in the 2nd round - to the tune of 100% - even more than they have in the 1st round (88.9%).

Apparently, there's a good reason for why the Niners haven't taken skill position players in the 2nd round. It's because they'd rather wait for the 3rd round. Namely, after taking 0 QBs, RBs, and WRs in the 2nd round, they've taken 1 QB, 2 RBs, and 5 WRs in the 3rd round. Among the other positions in Round 2, a DL has been taken 3 times, and every position has been taken at least once except for FB and P.

Among conferences, the 49ers' 3rd-round picks have continued the 1st- and 2nd-round trend: They're likely in a BCS conference. Indeed, this time, the BCS rate is 15 of 18 (83.3%). Which conference is most represented? The Pac-10 (4), followed by the SEC (3).

Rather than boring you with Rounds 4-7, I'll just provide the highlights:

  • In the 4th round, DB (6) has been a focus among the 16 picks, as has been the Big 12 (4). Both the percentage of picks on defense and the BCS rate were 68.8%, with the BCS rate representing a good-sized decrease from Rounds 1-3.
  • In the 5th round, DL (4) moves back to the top, with the other 12 picks being spread out pretty evenly. Also, the BCS rate stays relatively steady at 71.4%.
  • In the 6th round, WR (5) and DB (4) re-emerged as preferred options, and the BCS rate increased to 77.8%.
  • In the 7th round, TE (5) and LB (4) finally show up, perhaps because these are your typical special teamers. Also, the BCS rate dropped back down to 71.4%.

So what have the 49ers gotten from each round? Well, 72.2% of their 1st-rounders have become regular starters, as have 84.6% of their 2nd-rounders, 44.4% of their 3rd-rounders, 31.2% of their 4th-rounders, 7.1% of their 5th-rounders, 38.9% of their 6th-rounders, and 23.8% of their 7th-rounders. When you combine their 5th-round starter rate with their propensity for shedding 5th-round picks, the 49ers must be using the 5th round as their brunch break on Day 2 of the draft.

Regarding Pro Bowlers, the Niners have picked 3 in the 1st round and 3 in the 6th round since 1994. Those 6 represent over half of the 11 total Pro Bowlers they've selected. And what's the only round in which the 49ers haven't selected a Pro Bowler? You guessed it; the lazy 5th.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • The 49ers haven't picked 1st-round RBs.
  • The 49ers have almost exclusively picked BCS players on Day 1 of the draft.
  • Aside from OLs, the 49ers haven't taken offensive players in the 2nd round.
  • The 49ers have waited until the 3rd round to take RBs and WRs.
  • The 49ers have used the 7th round to take positions most appropriate for special teams.
  • The 49ers have been more successful at getting starters in the 1st and 2nd rounds than they are in subsequent rounds.
  • The 49ers have taken the 5th round off.

ASSUME THE POSITION

I've already broken down each round by position, so I'll start out this section by supplementing that info with some trends related to the reverse case: each position by round. For instance, did you know that the 49ers have taken more QBs in the 7th round (3) than in the 1st (2)? Of course, that's probably a reflection of the fact that the Niners didn't need a QB in the Young and Garcia years, were gun shy after the Jim Druckenmiller experience, and since 2005 have been giving Alex Smith every opportunity in the world to become their franchise QB. One more interesting position-by-round tidbit is that 5 of the 9 TEs taken by the 49ers since 1994 were drafted in the 7th round.

If we break it down by draft day, here's how the 118 Niner picks shake out:

Pos

Day 1

Day 2

Total

QB

3

4

7

RB

2

4

6

FB

2

1

3

WR

7

11

18

TE

2

7

9

OL

8

6

14

DL

10

12

22

LB

7

8

15

DB

7

14

21

K

1

1

2

P

0

1

1

Total

49

69

118

 

Summarizing this table, it seems like the 49ers only have a distinct position-by-day pattern for TEs, DBs, and perhaps WRs: They've taken more players from these positions on Day 2. Otherwise, it's a pretty even split within position.

When it comes to conferences, almost every position is dominated by BCS players. The general trend is that 80% of the 49ers drafted at each position have come from BCS conferences (and Notre Dame). FB, K, and P lead the way with 100.0%, followed by WR (88.9%), RB (83.3%), DL (81.8%), and LB (80.0%). There's only one position that bucks the trend, and that's QB. Less than half of the 7 QBs drafted by the 49ers since 1994 have come from BCS conferences (42.9%). When you think about the marquee NFL QBs (e.g., Brady, Manning, Big Ben, Rivers, Brees, etc.), one thing pretty much stands out: They came from BCS schools. So it's a wonder as to why the Niners have chosen the most important position on the field to go against their general tendency, and experiment with non-BCS players. I mean, c'mon guys, take fliers with the smaller school Ks and Ps, not the QBs.

Now for the important part: which positions the 49ers have had the most success at selecting in the draft. They've been perfect at FB, K, and P, but you'd hope that's the case given the lack of total picks at these positions, as well as the relative specificity of their position duties. If you're drafting a college FB, it better be because he's a hell of a lead blocker. So, aside from FB, K, and P, any guesses about which position is #1? Well, that would be OL. 9 of the 14 OLs drafted by the Niners since 1994 have become regular starters on the team (64.3%). After OL, the general trend is about 40%, as evidenced by TE (44.4%), LB (40.0%), and DB (38.1%). That means that RB (33.3%), WR (33.3%), DL (31.8%), and QB (28.6%) are where the Niners have had their least success in the draft. What's troublesome here is that, as you'll recall from earlier, DL and WR are 2 of the top 3 positions with respect to the number of total picks made by the 49ers in the Salary Cap Era (22 and 18, respectively). In other words, the Niners seem to be getting quantity, but not quality, at DL and WR.

Regarding Pro Bowlers, the Niners have drafted at least 1 at every position except for K and - you guessed it - QB. The only drafted position that's produced more than 1 Pro Bowler has been LB, with 3.

Finally, in case you were wondering, when you break the 49ers' picks down by unit (i.e., OFF, DEF, and ST), it's a pretty even split between OFF and DEF on all accounts. Overall, they've taken 57 OFF players, 58 DEF players, and 3 ST players. Among the OFF draft picks, 24 were taken on Day 1, 33 were taken on Day 2, 45 were taken from BCS conferences, 26 became starters, and 5 became Pro Bowlers. In an amazing display of symmetry, 25 of the DEF draft picks were taken on Day 1, 36 were taken on Day 2, 46 were taken from BCS conferences, 21 became starters, and 5 became Pro Bowlers.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • For various reasons, the 49ers have shied away from taking high-profile QBs. They don't take QBs early, and they draft an inordinate amount from non-BCS schools.
  • The 49ers have primarily made their TE, DB, and WR picks on Day 2 of the draft.
  • The 49ers have used about 80% of their picks at each position on players from BCS conferences.
  • The 49ers have been most successful at drafting OL starters. They've been relatively unsuccessful at drafting RB, WR, DL, and QB starters.
  • The 49ers have drafted a Pro Bowler at every major position except for QB. LB draft picks have been most likely to make the Pro Bowl.
  • There's been an even spread between OFF and DEF draft picks in terms of draft days, BCS conferences, starters, and Pro Bowlers.
  • The 49ers rarely draft FBs, Ks and Ps, but they're successful at it when they do.

CONFERENCE ROOM

I've already provided most of the conference breakdown in the previous sections, so this one's going to be pretty short and sweet, focusing primarily on results. But first, I'd like to hone a point that I made earlier.

Here's a table showing the number of BCS and non-BCS players that the 49ers have selected on each day of the draft:

BCS

Day 1

Day 2

Total

Yes

44

50

94

No

5

19

24

Total

49

69

118

 

Although, I noted in the round-by-round section that Day 1 has been dominated by BCS players, this table makes that point even clearer. On Day 1, only about 10% of the Niners' picks have come from BCS schools. On Day 2, however, that rate nearly triples to 27.5%. It's obvious, then, that the 49ers have been much more likely in general to take fliers from smaller conferences when their financial (and fan base) risk is low. As you'll see in Part 2, there's one SF regime in particular that applied this strategy ad absurdum. And we won't find out until next week whether this trend is also true of an NFL franchise like the Patriots that has been far more successful in the Salary Cap Era than the Niners. Again, though, my main question specific to the 49ers remains: Why have they thrown their general BCS vs. non-BCS strategy out the window when it comes to QBs?

Perhaps one reason is that they think they're equally successful at drafting BCS and non-BCS players. Here are 2 tables showing the 49ers' effectiveness since 1994 at drafting starters and Pro Bowlers with respect to BCS and non-BCS players:

Starter

BCS

Non-BCS

Total

Yes

41

9

50

No

53

15

68

Total

94

24

118

 

Pro Bowl

BCS

Non-BCS

Total

Yes

8

3

11

No

86

21

107

Total

94

24

118

 

As you can see, the Niners have been slightly better at drafting NFL starters from BCS conferences (43.6%) than they have from non-BCS conferences (37.5%). Given that non-BCS players are more of the flier types, that's not a result you'd necessarily expect. On the other hand, the Pro Bowl result is one you definitely wouldn't expect: The 49ers are actually better at drafting Pro Bowlers from non-BCS schools (12.5%) than they are from BCS schools (8.5%). Granted, none of the 3 Pro Bowlers from non-BCS schools were QBs, but this does seem to suggest some support for picking non-BCS players in general.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • The 49ers have been more likely to take non-BCS players on Day 2 of the draft than Day 1.
  • Paradoxically, the 49ers have been better at finding starters from BCS conferences, but have been better at finding Pro Bowlers from non-BCS conferences.

GENERAL ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

Let me start this section by going back to something I said at the beginning of the article: There are a couple of 900-pound gorillas in the room. First, the obvious limitation of the information I've presented here is that it covers 4 different 49er draft regimes. The results here produce general trends over the past 15 years, but Policy, Walsh, and Donahue aren't going to be in the war room in 3 weeks. In other words, I fully realize that what we really want to know is how the current McNolan/McSingle regime has approached the draft from a strategic standpoint, and how successful that strategy has been. I'll be getting to that on Friday. In this article, I just wanted to give more of an overall history lesson and do a public service given that you probably don't have the time to find this stuff out yourself.

The second 900-pound gorilla is that I've only given you what are called "descriptive statistics." In other words, all I've provided here are numbers that describe the 49ers draft strategy and results. I haven't said anything yet about whether their strategy and results are good in an NFL context. So, as you can tell, there are many questions left unanswered. For example, "Is their 10% Pro Bowl rate good for an NFL franchise?" or "Is their 80% BCS rate optimal in an NFL context?" For answers to these and other questions, tune in next week for my Patriot comparisons.

With that said, here's how I would describe the 49ers overall draft strategy up to this point in the Salary Cap Era (think of this as an idiot's guide to the 49er war room):

  1. When we're good, let's trade away picks. When we're bad, let's acquire more picks.
  2. Trade up into the 1st round using 2nd-round picks. Trade down into the 6th and 7th rounds using 5th-round picks.
  3. Take players from BCS conferences.
  4. Dominate the neighborhood (i.e., take Pac-10 players).
  5. Wait until Day 2 to draft QBs, RBs, and WRs.
  6. Grab TEs, LBs, and DBs in the late rounds for depth and special teams.
  7. Don't pull an Al Davis (i.e., Ks and Ps are not draft-worthy).

That's it for now. On Friday, I'll break all of this stuff down by regime to identify any differences between Policy, Walsh, Donahue, and McNolan. TO BE CONTINUED...

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