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The NFL Draft: Is it High Stakes Poker or Roulette?

Over in the draft and FA threads we've had an interesting discussion about the rate of busts in the first round and in particular in the top 10. I thought that was a good question and decided to do some research on it. I wanted to look at the position, the year drafted, the pick and the team to come up with any idea of the success vs failure rates.

The first thing I had to do was come up with some sort of reasonable definition of bust. For me a first round pick should come in and be an almost immediate starter for you. They should also be a long term starter for you--if you have a guy that only plays for one or two seasons for you that's a waste of a pick. I also think that a first round pick should be better than most of the rest of the league. Here's how I decided to grade the players.

Criteria #1--Are they a starter by their 3rd season?
Criteria #2--If they were a starter during their 3rd season are they still a starter during the last year of their original contract? (Generally the 4th or 5th season)
Criteria #3--If they met criteria from #1 and #2 were they in the top 30% at their position?

With the top 30% rule I tried to be as generous as possible. For players with stats (basically everybody but offensive lineman), I used their best year and their best statistical category. For offensive linemen I had to dig a little deeper. Profootballfocus has rankings from 2007 through 2009 so I used those to help determine a player's ranking. For players not in that database I hasd to do some searching to see how they were viewed during their playing days.

One final note--if players left their original team and then turned it on with a new team I still counted them as busts, since they were not successful with the team that drafted them.

I didn't want to overwhelm myself with doing too much research, so I limited myself to players drafted from 2002 through 2009. The reason I did this was because that was the expansion year of the Houston Texans and I wanted to make sure that each team had the same number of years to choose from. That still gives us 256 players to choose from and 8 drafts so I think it's a large enough sample to give us a pretty good idea of where things stand.

I created a spreadsheet to help me sort the data--for those interested you can download it and play around with it or add to it if you would like to.

NFL Draft Spreadsheet

Join me after the jump as I tell you who the best and worst drafting teams in the NFL are (and they're probably not who you think they are).

First let's look at which teams are the best and worst at drafting in the first round. Here are the worst five teams at drafting.

Team Bust? Non-Bust
Bills 7 0
Cardinals 5 2
Jaguars 5 1
Lions 5 1
Texans 5 2

Surprisingly enough it's not the Lions who hold the number one spot. It's the Bills. Now the Lions aren't very good either, striking out on 5 out of their 6 first round picks, but the Bills haven't had a single success in the first round.


The results from the best teams are surprising as well.


Team Bust Non-Bust
Steelers 0 6
Colts 1 5
Jets 1 5
Eagles 2 4
Cowboys 2 4


As bad as the Lions were drafting the Steelers were that good. Drafting badly won't make you a perennial loser (Cardinals made the Superbowl and the playoffs despite not drafting well), but drafting excellently will certainly improve your chances of being a playoff team.


Now let's look at the positions in the draft and see which ones are safe bets and which ones aren't. The highest bust rate will surprise you, and the safest selection will also surprise you.



Position Bust Non-Bust Percentage
WR 17 4 81
DE 16 12 67
RB 10 5 67
QB 10 6 63
DT 12 8 47
OT 7 8 43
DB 17 20 46
C 1 2 33
LB 4 12 25
TE 2 6 25
G 0 4 0


Some very interesting stuff there. Wide Receiver is the most overdrafted system--it looks like a WR's success in college might be solely based on the type of system being run not on the skill set of the receiver. QB is not the biggest bust, only landing 4th on the list. I had no idea that DE would be such a tough spot to draft for either.

On the other hand if you want a successful draft pick, you'd better go get yourself a guard. Not a single one of the guards drafted since 2002 has busted out. TE and LB are pretty safe bets too, coming in at 25% each. Offensive Tackle is just under 50%--it's basically a coin flip as to whether or not a tackle will succeed in the NFL.


Now let's look at it by position to see if being drafted top 10 or bottom 10 makes you more or less likely to be a bust.


Draft selection Bust Non-Bust
Pick 1-10 28 32
Pick 11-20 33 27
Pick 20-32 41 31

Contrary to perceived wisdom you're more likely to suceed in the NFL if you're drafted top 10. You're more likely to be a bust if you're drafted in the bottom 3rd, though not by much (55% failure rate in the middle of the 1st, 57% in the bottom). Overall it looks like more busts than successes come out of the first round (102 busts to 90 successes).


Last I wanted to take a look at the year and see if that has anything to do with success rate.


Year Bust Non-Bust
2007 16 16
2006 11 21
2005 21 11
2004 17 15
2003 17 15
2002 19 13

Looks like 2006 was a pretty good year for drafting, while 2005 was pretty bad and the rest have been about 50/50.


So what does this mean for the 49ers? We have the luxury of two draft picks. Knowing what we know about the history of the draft what should we do? History says that if we draft Iupati at the guard spot we're going to be pretty safe. If we draft Spiller we have a 50/50 shot that he'll be a bust. If we go OT and OG the tackle has a 50/50 shot at being a bust as well. We could go safety/DB with the other pick since that also has a pretty high success rate.