(Apologies for the use of Google Docs, as I don't have Microsoft Excel. I thought a link to my work would be easier to access than trying to embed graphs.)
For some time now, Seahawks fans have touted the front office as being the best in the business. It's been picks such as Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman in the later rounds, trades for impact players like Leon Washington and Chris Clemons, and Free Agent pickups like Doug Baldwin and Brandon Browner that have demonstrated John Schneider and Co.'s ability to identify talent that will fit the schemes that Pete Carroll wants to run, From a realistic, and objective, standpoint, there isn't much basis for being able to say that one front office is better than another when you take into account all of the factors I listed, and many others such as contract negotiations.
However, front offices can be judged by the players used with draft picks. Over the last week, I created a file in which every draft pick by every team in the NFC West was recorded. My basis for judging the drafting efficacy of NFC West front offices hinged on what I considered several key factors: are the players drafted still with the team they were drafted by, how many starts do the players have, how many games have those players been active for, and how many awards have those players garnered. Naturally, these categories are going to come with some caveats that I will address.
Draft Pick Retention
My first thought in determining whose front office was most successful over the course of the last three years was "Naturally, the best front offices are going to keep a higher number/proportion of their draft picks." You hear time and time again that sustained success in the NFL is achieved by building through the draft. Since 2010, NFC West teams have drafted 103 prospects from all across the country. As of the writing of this article, 75 of those draft picks remain with the team that drafted them. Having three seasons come and go since the first draft involved in this study seemed like the perfect measurement to start the article. Three seasons ago, John Schneider and Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle; Mike Singletary was starting his third season (2008 saw him coach 9 games) coaching a talented 9ers team built by Trent Baalke; Steve Spagnuolo was entering his second season with the Rams after finishing with the worst record in the NFL the year before, earning the coveted #1 draft pick; and Ken Whisenhunt was returning after two consecutive seasons that saw the Cardinals win the NFC West and even make a Super Bowl appearance.
So, in retrospect, how have these situations affected the retention of draft picks over the course of three years? Let's look at the numbers. In the past three years, the Rams have had 29 draft picks, more than any other team in the division. How many have they kept on the roster, practice squad or on an injured list? 16 of those 29 still remain with the team, giving the Rams a Draft Pick Retention Rate (DPRR) of 55%. However, it is important to note that the Rams underwent a total makeover prior to the 2012 season. Spagnuolo was fired as head coach and Jeff Fisher was brought in. How many Jeff Fisher draft picks are still on the roster? 9 out of 10, with the only casualty being 7th round pick Aaron Brown. 90% retention isn't half bad given that 7 of the 19 picks from the previous two years made the team.
The Seahawks had the second highest number of picks in the division with 28. Of those 28 picks, 23 are still with the team in one form or another. Being a Seahawks fan myself, there are misses that pain me to think about how excited I was only to have the prospect not make it out of camp. 2011 5th round pick Mark Legree, the Appalachian State standout, couldn't make the cut. Legree made me look like a fool for creating a SBN signature referencing "Earl Legree: a new form of safe-tea coming this Fall!" Excitement is good. Unbridled optimism, not so much... Retaining 23 of 28 picks gives the Seahawks a DPRR of roughly 82%. For those of you who can't remember, Pete Carroll and John Schneider didn't exactly inherit a wealth of talent when they took over the team in the Winter of 2010. As they say "The proof is in the pudding," and the Seahawks pudding was neither fresh now was it very good evidenced by the 4-12 2008 season and 5-11 2009 season. It isn't exactly surprising that a high percentage of the picks made by Scheider and Carroll ended up on the roster given they were looking to get "their guys" into the room. A coaching change doesn't necessitate wholesale changes in the roster...
...Which brings me to the 49ers. Whereas Seattle replaced their head coach and general manager, San Francisco only replaced their head coach after the conclusion of the 2010 season. Since the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, 12 of 16 draft picks are still with the team; since the 2010 draft, 17 of 24 picks are still with the team, good for a DPRR of roughly 71%. What strikes me as significant in the 49ers drafting over the last three years is the fact the team already had so many good players it had drafted in previous years, folks you might have heard of like Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, as well as supplanting the roster with free agents such as Carlos Rogers. Really quite impressive. I'd be willing to bet that there are fewer picks remaining from the 9ers 2009 draft than some of the other teams given their high retention rate from the last 3 years given the fact they have those stars from previous drafts garnering high contracts, as well as the pricier free agents, forcing newer, younger, and most importantly, cheaper talent from these more recent drafts.
Arizona has had the fewest number of draft picks over the last 3 years: 22. Of those 22, 19 are still with the Cardinals, giving them an NFC West high 86% DPRR. The only ones to be let go were two 6th round choices and a 7th round choice. Impressively enough, the Cardinals were the only team to keep all of their 1st-5th round choices.Given the fact that, until this offseason, the Cardinals had undergone the least amount of change in terms of high ranking front office personnel and head coaching staff. In fact, they were the only team in the NFC West to avoid a coaching change during the time this study covers.
Fast notes on retention:
1. The 9ers are the only team to not retain a 2nd round pick. Taylor Mays was traded to the Bengals.
2. Every QB drafted by the NFC West is still with their team. That is likely to change this offseason.
3. Mike Person, drafted by the 9ers, is on the Seahawks roster.
4. Roster information was found on each teams official website.
Draft Pick Starts
Here's where we start getting to the nitty-gritty. The number of starts a player has is extremely important to consider when determining the efficacy of a front office. Without drafting starting caliber players, a team has no real chance to compete. That was me channeling my inner Madden right there. 103 players were drafted by the four teams, and those 103 players accounted for 886 starts for the team they were drafted by. This does not take into account starts made by these players on another team. Kris Durham, Seattle's 4th round pick in 2011, didn't start for the Seahawks at all. He did start three games for the Detroit Lions in the 2012 season though. I didn't consider this an accomplishment on Seatte's part however. If I were able to create a numerical system by which credit would be fairly taken away from the Hawks front office, I would. More credit goes to the Lions' front office for identifying the available talent after roster cuts and finding a place on the team in which the player could be productive.
In the case I mentioned arlier, a 4th round pick went on to produce for another team. Generally speaking, 4th-7th round picks do not come with the same expectations that come with being picked in the first three rounds. I've operated under the rule that if you are picked in the first 96 slots, you should be a starting caliber player or, at the very least, an impact player. Being able to find starters in the later rounds (4-7) becomes extremely difficult to do. No longer are GMs looking at the players that were team captains, dominated their leagues/conferences, or racked up insane statistics. So much of drafting in the later rounds has to do with projecting how well a given player in going to fit within a system.
So let's take a look at the numbers, starting with Seattle :
Seattle Picks: 28. Seattle Picks Games Started: 279 Average Starts Per Pick: 9.96
Seattle should have an advantage in starts given the fact that they, tied with San Francisco, had the highest number of 1st round picks. It doesn't quite work out that way given the fact that Seattle's 2012 1st round pick, Bruce Irvin, did not log a single start during the season. Over the course of three seasons, Seattle was tremendously successful in drafting players who would start for the team. From these three drafts, the team acquired what is currently their starting free safety (Earl Thomas), strong safety (Kam Chancellor), strongside linebacker (KJ Wright), middle linebacker (Bobby Wagner), cornerback (Richard Sherman), wide receiver (Golden Tate), quarterback (Russell Wilson), left tackle (Russell Okung) and guard (I'm counting Carpenter when he is healthy.) Obviously, not all of those players come from the first three rounds. Six out of eight of Seattle's 1st-3rd round picks are starters for the team. The only two that are not are Bruce Irvin, who led the league in sacks for rookies this last season, and John Moffitt, who has proven to be a part time starter and extremely valuable backup.
For all the bragging that Seahawks fans like to do about how the front office has a knack for finding late round gems, only tthree starters have been gleaned from the other twenty picks outside of the first three rounds. That being said, in those later rounds, they do have their backup running back, which, needless to say, is extremely important in the offense that Seattle runs, backup weakside linebacker (who could be starting this coming year,) and backup tight end.
While Seattle didn't have the highest number of picks, they did end up the team that garnered the highest number of starts from their picks with 279, giving them an average of 9.96 starts per pick. This has been a part of the drafting philosophy of the front office in Seattle. Casting the net far and wide better ensures a healthy crop of fish. It will be interesting to see over the next couple of drafts whether the philosophy is maintained in the form of 9 to 10 draft picks per year. Ultimately, there may come a time when they pull a Bill Belichick and cash in a lot of draft capital volume for draft capital quality.
Seattle numbers: 75% success rate of starting as a top 3 pick. 15% success rate of starting as a late round pick.
San Francisco Picks: 24 San Francisco Picks Games Started: 193 Average Starts Per Pick: 8.04
I previously mentioned that San Francisco also had four first round picks, and interestingly enough, one of those picks is not a starter. AJ Jenkins, like Bruce Irvin, did not log a start for the 9ers this entire year. San Francisco's other first round picks have been extremely successful though: Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati from 2010 anchor the offensive line, and Aldon Smith has been an absolute sack machine during his two years in the league. Smith was a situational pass rusher his first year, but during a brilliant, full-time 2012 campaign he accumulated 19.5 sacks in addition to the 14 he picked up as a rookie.
The picks San Francisco have made in the top three rounds have met with quite a bit of success to go along with their first rounders. 2010 3rd round pick Navarro Bowman is a starter. 2011 2nd round pick Colin Kaepernick took over as starter midway through this year and took the 9ers to the Super Bowl. 2011 3rd round pick Chris Culliver, while not a starter, features heavily in the defense as the nickel cornerback. The only notable notable miss from the top three rounds is safety Taylor Mays. 2012 2nd round pick LaMichael James was stuck in a crowded backfield this year, but being an Oregon fan I can tell you he is going to make some plays in the coming years. Of the nine picks the 9ers have had in the top three rounds over the last three years, five of those nine are starters. The other three that are still on the team are likely to see their contributions increase next year and the year after.
San Francisco represents a unique case in drafting largely because the team was so well put together in the years prior to these drafts, as well as through free agency during the years in which these drafts occurred. It's safe to say that AJ Jenkins probably would have had more starts for the 9ers had they not signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham last offseason. In actuality, they might have drafted another receiver entirely (Brian Quick, perhaps?) with the idea that Quick might have been more ready to start. It's hard to ignore the numbers particularly from this most recent draft that those players were going to serve as depth while learning the ropes in the NFL.
Outside of the top three rounds, San Francisco has only gotten one starter from their 15 other picks. That would be seventh rounder fullback Bruce Miller. Yeah, I agree that it's kind of spotty to say that Miller is a starter, but hey, NFL.com lists him as having 21 starts, good for an average of more than 10 starts per season. Again, it's hard for guys drafted in the later rounds to be starting, much less making the team when guys drafted in the first three rounds are sitting on the bench. Obviously, I know that it doesn't matter what round a prospect is drafted in once they are on the team, but I am operating under the assumption that those drafted in the top three rounds are better prospects. With the depth of the team as a whole, it's no surprise that that the average starts per pick in San Francisco drops to roughly 8, down from the bar Seattle set at roughly 10.
9er numbers: 55% success rate of starting as a top 3 pick. 6% success rate of starting as a late round pick.
Arizona Picks: 22 Arizona Picks Games Started: 243 Average Starts Per Pick: 11.04
Arizona definitely surprised me given the fact that they had the fewest number of draft picks in the division, but had the second highest number of starts from those picks. Their average starts per pick leaps over Seattle's with an additional start per pick, an increase of ten percent. First rounder Dan Williams started as a backup his rookie season but started 21 out of 25 games he played in the subsequent two seasons. Patrick Peterson, 5th overall pick in 2011, wowed folks and has started all 32 games over two years. 2012 first rounder Michael Floyd played in all 16 games this year, but logged only three starts. Folks across the league snickered at this fact, saying "That's why your star receiver shouldn't play General Manager," but let's face it: receivers take time to develop. That and the quarterback play (or maybe it was the line play...) in Arizona was about as atrocious as it gets.
The five other selections in the first three rounds for Arizona met with a mix of success and failure. 2010 picks Daryl Washingon and Andre Roberts are both are starters and Rob Housler from 2011 started 9 games this past season. However, 2011 pick Ryan Williams can't be classified as a success by any means. His 2011 season was lost before it even started, and he managed to get through 5 games in 2012 before he had to be shut down. It may be a bit early to call Williams a bust at this point, but if his first two seasons are any indication of the future, it won't be long before the "B" word starts seeing a regular association with his name. Jamell Fleming got three starts and played in 15 games. 5 out of 8 picks in the top three rounds gives the Cards a success rate of 62.5%.
The late round picks are where Arizona has shined. Of the 14 selections in rounds 4-7, three are starters. Bobby Massie (2012), Sam Acho (2011) and O' Brien Schofield (2010) have turned out to be solid starters. I can't bring myself to list John Skelton as a starter given the fact his play has been so poor, he was benched for Ryan Lindley, and he had issues. Yeah, it may not be fair considering I listed James Carpenter a starter in Seattle, but the reality is Carpenter has started almost every game he has been healthy and will very likely be a starter next season. The same can't be said of Skelton.
Cardinal numbers: 63% success rate of starting as a top 3 pick; 21% success rate of starting as a late round pick.
St. Louis Picks: 29 St. Louis Picks Games Started: 171 Average Starts Per Pick: 5.89
I imagine that seeing those numbers for Rams fans is akin to the scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray repeatedly gets slapped in the face. Of course, the team went through a coaching change this last year so it makes sense that several of the players from the previous regime weren't going to make the cut under Fisher's watch, affecting the number of starts that Rams draft picks can cultivate. I guarantee that if I were to look back at the retention rate and average starts per pick for Seattle's 2008, 2009 and 2010 drafts following the 2010 season, it would be just as bad, if not uglier. Rams fan's can take solace in the fact that they hit on their first round picks. Sam Bradford, despite a struggling offensive line, has averaged almost exactly the same number of yards Russell Wilson threw for this year. Did I mention that happens to be with missing six full games in the 2011 season? He averages just over one extra interception a season as well. So basically, he can throw for yards and makes pretty solid decisions with the ball. Bradford may not have to throw for too much given the strength of the defense that is being cultivated in St. Louis. Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers both look quite beastly to say the least. They had Russell Wilson running for his life in week 17 this last year. It is scary to think what that defense, and offense, is going to look like in two seasons after and influx of 4 first round picks...
Rounds 1-3, over the last three years, as a whole have been decent along the same lines as the other teams. Six out of the 11 picks are starters. Bradford, Quinn and Brockers, as well as Rodger Saffold, Lance Kendricks and Janoris Jenkins all look like they have a place on this team as a starter. Saffold might be the only question mark out of that group with some health concerns. Defensive back Jerome Murphy is the only player drafted in the first three rounds who is no longer with the team. WR Brian Quick, RB Isaiah Pead, Trumaine Johnson, and Austin Pettis can't be classified as starters, but Quick, Pead, and Pettis figure to see a lot more action should Danny Amendola and Steven Jackson leave in free agency. Johnson showed he could impact a game tagging an interception in St. Louis' close win over Seattle in week 4, as well as in Tampa Bay against the Bucs. 6 out of 11 in the first three rounds gives the rams a success rate of 55%.
Outside of round 3 though, the picture get's uglier. Only one pick out of nineteen, Chris Givens, is a starter. Zuerlein technically should be a starter too, but seeing as how the NFL doesn't think they "start," I won't list him as one either. I'm surprised that Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe hasn't written an exceptionally well-written and scathing letter to the NFL offices in New York. Daryl Richardson has certainly looked promising as a backup for Steven Jackson and you can bet that he and Pead will be duking it out for the starting gig should Jackson depart. No late round pick from 2011 logged a single start with the team and the late rounders from 2010, Eugene Sims and Josh Hull, have three starts between them. The late rounds haven't been kind of the Rams but they don't necessarily have to be should the Rams keep getting solid prospects in the early ones.
Rams numbers: 55% success rate of starting as a top 3 pick. 5% success rate of starting as a late round pick.
Fast notes on Starts:
1. San Francisco's 2012 draft class did not log a start during the whole season.
2. Former Rams TE Michael Hoomanawanui played in 14 games, starting 6 of them, for the Patriots in 2012 after being released by the Fisher regime.
3. Seattle's Jaye Howard may figure to get some starts now that his former Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn from Florida has joined the Seahawks this offseason.
4. Arizona's Nate Potter could be looking to add to the 6 starts he got this last season if Levi Brown can't return from injury or if the team doesn't use a high pick on a lineman.
Draft Pick Games Played
While games played isn't the flashiest statistic out there that highlights the contribution of a player, I think it certainly says something about the player being active and ready to step up in case of an injury or something of that nature. Naturally, just because a player has logged a game under his belt doesn't necessarily mean he did anything during that game. Seattle's Jaye Howard is a perfect example of this. Despite playing two games, he didn't log a tackle or a sack. He could have been on the field during the game, but without looking at snap counts, it's hard to calculate what kind of impact he might have had. Frankly, I wouldn't even begin to know where to look for that information. Instead, I'll measure the total number of games played for the draft picks and subtract the number of starts. This way, we can more accurately judge the depth of the teams having already acknowledged the impact starters have made.
Seattle picks games played but not started: 224
Arizona picks games played but not started: 230
San Francisco picks games played but not started: 253
St. Louis picks games played but not started: 277
The fact that Seattle and Arizona got more starts out of their picks didn't necessitate the fact that they would get fewer "games played but not started." It could have been the case that San Francisco and St. Louis might have drafted that poorly. Obviously that didn't happen, seeing as both teams outpaced Seattle by almost thirty and more than fifty points.
I'm not going to pretend I know a lot about the depth of every NFC West team. I simply don't know all four teams that well. Looking at these numbers, there is no way for me to project who could be starting, who could be backing up whom, or which players may not even make their respective teams next year. All I know is that, as time goes on, the study of NFC West teams is going to get that much more interesting and exciting given the ascension from NFC Worst to NFC Best.
It's the moment you've all been waiting for: the section where we get to talk about the very best players in the division and the recognition that they have received. The two biggest awards that I will be talking about will be the Pro Bowl selections and AP All Pro selections. many of you will scoff at the notion of using the Pro Bowl as a judgement of play. The selection of Green Bay Packers' center Jeff Saturday to the Pro Bowl squad after having been benched for poor play before the end of the season is indicative of the broken process by which players receive this honor. Name recognition plays a huge part in whether or not a player goes to Hawaii. Players from big media market teams receive much more press, and are more likely to receive votes as a result. It's hard to imagine that Packer fans stuffing the ballot with Saturday's name studied the tape very closely. Even the people who might have the skills to look at tape, coaches/players, and recognize a player deserving of honor are not likely to take the time to do so given the fact that teams have prepare for a game each week and aren't going to waste their time becoming educated enough to make an informed vote for the quarterbacks representing the NFC in the Pro Bowl.As a way to compensate for this, I have included every player who may have been injured, and played in Super Bowls, as well as those players who replaced those who didn't play. This year, 18 players from the NFC got to go to the Pro Bowl due to injuries or as replacements for Super Bowl participants. I figured that for every guy who didn't deserve his Pro Bowl selection, there was a guy behind him that did.
Only one team in the division can boast a draft pick from each of the last three seasons that has some form of postseason honor: the Seahawks. The 2010 draft class boasts three players, Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor, who have had at least one Pro Bowl. Earl Thomas stands out among those three as having two Pro Bowls, as well as being selected as a 2nd Team All Pro in 2011 and 1st Team All Pro in 2012. From 2011, the ever-so-chatty Richard Sherman was selected as a 1st Team All Pro. Finally, from 2012, Russell Wilson earned himself a berth in the Pro Bowl. He also finished third in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting as well.
The 9ers have several very talented picks from the last several years as well. Mike Iupati and Navarro Bowman highlight the 2010 draft class. Bowman was a 1st Team All Pro selection this year and last year, as well as a Pro Bowl selection. Iupati garnered accolades this year as well, earning a spot next to Bowman on the All Pro and Pro Bowl squads. 2011 first round pick Aldon Smith joins his teammates as a 2012 All Pro selection and 2013 Pro Bowl selection. Smith might have been this years Defensive Player of the Year had JJ Watt not been as outstanding as he was. Similarly, he might have been the Defensive Rookie of the Year had Von Miller not been an absolute terror for the Broncos last year.
Arizona's highly undervalued Daryl Washington earned a Pro Bowl selection this year. Washington has been undervalued since coming into the league as a guy who slipped out of the first round and, much to Cardinals' fans rejoicing, fell to Arizona in the second round. It is hard to imagine that, given the recognition San Francisco's defense receives and the success of the team overall, Washington will be earning too many Pro Bowl or All Pro selections. However, I am sure that folks are going to have a very difficult time choosing between the linebackers in this division over the next several years. The defensive backfield also plays host to Patrick Peterson, who earned himself two Pro Bowl selections, one as a return man in 2012 and another as a cornerback in 2013. He also has a All Pro selection from the 2011 season.
Every single team in the division has a player earning some form of postseason honor. The Rams Sam Bradford earned Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 and rightfully so. Bradford threw for more than 3,700 yards in his rookie campaign and helped his team earn seven wins, a dramatic improvement from a league-worst one win the year before. Questions surround Bradford now after having suffered through several injuries behind a porous offensive line as well as continual change at offensive coordinator and head coach. Many begin to fear he is following down Alex Smith's footsteps given the OC changes, but given the fact that the Rams could have traded Bradford last year for a high first round draft pick it is likely we are going to see Fisher focus on improving the weapons and protections around Bradford. The act of keeping him instead of trading him is a pretty big endorsement.
Pro Bowl Selections:
Seahawks - 5
9ers - 3
Cards - 3
Rams - 0
AP All Pro Selections:
9ers - 4
Seahawks - 3
Cards - 1
Rams - 0
Rookie of the Years:
Rams - 1
Seahawks, 9ers, Cards
After nearly 5,000 words, and thanks to those of you who read them all, we come to the conclusion of the piece. It would appear at first glace that the Seahawks have indeed drafted better than the other three teams in the division. But don't let Hawks fans fool you into thinking John Schneider and Pete Carroll have the rest of the league's number. I've done my best to quantify the efficacy of how teams have drafted using the statistics and awards that I feel really matter. Quantifying the effectiveness of drafting using numbers can only take one so far. For instance, Seattle's high retention rate of it's draft picks likely have everything to do with the fact that this study begins at the start of the John Schneider/Pete Carroll era. St. Louis' low retention rate probably has everything to do with the sweeping changes in the organization. The numbers are never enough, and that is why I've written as much as I have. Even then, my knowledge is limited. David Fucillo is more than welcome to add a corollary to the end of my article with his own thoughts regarding how the draft has shaped up for the 9ers and, as always, comments are more than welcome.