Friday, April 17, 2009

Finding Value In The First Round

I thought it would be a little fun to take a look at the relative differences between value among top ten draft picks as compared to players taken in the second ten, 1-20 and third ten - from 21-30. It crossed my mind that the benefit of picking at the top of the draft might be entirely illusory, it might actually be simply an expensive dart game.

The goal was to look at a ten year period, a total of 300 players, to give us a large enough sample where we can begin to draw conclusions. I decided to end the process in 2005 since we can fairly confidently close the book on that draft now, and thus began in 1996. It is difficult to create an objective way to compare players across a period like this since the latter players still have nascent careers while the earlier players are mostly retired so I chose a subjective route instead, rating players as bust/disappointing (one category), solid long-term pro, or elite difference maker.

Using the 1996 top ten as an example we have:

Keyshawn Johnson Solid Pro
Kevin Hardy Solid Pro
Simeon Rice Elite
Jonathan Ogden Elite
Cedric Jones Bust
Lawrence Phillips Bust
Terry Glenn Solid
Tim Biakabatuka Bust
Rickey Dudley Bust
Willie Anderson Elite

so very good top ten in 1996. By comparison the 1996 21-30:

Pete Kendall Solid
Marcus Jones Bust
Jeff Hartings Solid
Eric Moulds Solid
Jermane Mayberry Solid
Ray Lewis Elite
John Michels Bust
Jerome Woods Solid
Jemain Stephens Bust
Andre Johnson Bust

As expected the top ten outperformed the third ten by a bit with 3 elite players and 3 solids as compared with 1 elite and 5 solids in the third ten. In fairness the "solid" top tenners this year were much better than the "solid" 21-30 players. Hopefully this balances out as we work our way through.

One final note: looking at 2008 rookie salaries, it looks like the annual average for top ten picks was $8.5M and for 21-30 picks ~ $2.5M. Arguably we would need to see three times the value from the top ten just to break even.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 3 2 1
Solid 3 7 5
Bust 4 1 4

We discussed this draft a bit already. The second ten delivered a number of solid, productive pros along with elite players Marvin Harrison and Eddie George. I reluctantly included Reggie Brown in the solid category as he played very well before nearly dying on the field in a career-ending injury his second year.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 3 2 1
Solid 4 4 3
Bust 3 4 6

1997 had a similar distribution of elite players throughout the first round. Orlando Pace, Peter Boulware and Walter Jones in the top ten, Tony Gonzales and Tarik Glenn in the second ten and Trevor Pryce a marginal elite in the third ten. James Farrior gets labeled as a top ten bust, although he managed to resurrect his career after leaving the Jets, making the Pro Bowl last year.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 2 2 2
Solid 5 5 6
Bust 3 3 2

Unless you were Indianapolis (Peyton Manning), there was no real advantage to having any other high pick in the draft, as players were evenly distributed throughout. The top ten saw Manning and Charles Woodson, the second ten Tra Thomas and Keith Brooking, the third ten Randy Moss and Alan Faneca. Robert Edwards was rated "solid" on the basis of his rookie year, as he ruined his knee and career in his sophomore training camp.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 5 2 1
Solid 3 4 3
Bust 2 4 6

On the other hand, '99 was a great year to pick at the top of the drafted, provided the team didn't fixate on one of the two overrated quarterbacks who went top three (Couch, Akili Smith). McNabb, Edgerrin James, Torry Holt, Champ Bailey and Chris McAlister were drafted top ten, making multiple Pro Bowls. Additionally, other than Bailey, each participated in at least one Super Bowl as well. The second ten produced Dante Culpepper and Jevon Kearse. The third ten was awful with only one marginally elite player, Patrick Kerney at #30, immediately following legendary bust Demetrious Underwood.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 3 3 0
Solid 4 4 4
Bust 3 2 6

Picking anywhere in the top 20 was likely to provide relatively equal value in 2000. Note that I only counted 9 players from 11-20. Oakland selected Sebastian Janikowski. Other than calling the pick a bust for the stupidity of picking a kicker in the first round, he defies classification so I pass. The top ten produced Lavar Arrington, Chris Samuels and Brian Urlacher, the second ten John Abraham, Julian Peterson and Shaun Alexander. Note that several other very good players went in the top ten who were just shy of the elite category: Jamal Lewis, Cory Simon, Thomas Jones, and Plaxico Burress.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 2 3 1
Solid 4 5 5
Bust 4 2 4

Not much advantage to picking top ten in 2001. Mike Vick (solid) went at the top of and the next two players disappointed. LaDainian Tomlinson and Richard Seymour went with consecutive picks at #5 and #6. Another all-time bust, Jamal Reynolds, went #10. The second ten produced three elite linemen with Marcus Stroud, Steve Hutchinson and Casey Hampton. The third ten had Reggie Wayne at #30.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 2 3 1
Solid 4 2 6
Bust 4 5 2

In 2002 it was easier getting an elite outside of the top ten again. Julius Peppers may have been the best player in the draft at #2 but was sandwiched by three busts at #1, #3 and #4. Roy Williams (db) was the other marginal elite in the top ten. The second ten produced Albert Haynesworth along with Dwight Freeney and Jeremy Shockey (marginal). The third ten a number of solid players along with Ed Reed.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 4 1 0
Solid 2 3 5
Bust 4 6 5

Not a good draft with 15/30 busts or disappointments in the first round. Note that the best or second best player in the round was Nnamdi Asomugha at #31 - outside of our sample. The top ten was relatively productive with Carson Palmer, Andre Johnson, Kevin Williams and Terrell Suggs. The only other elite player in the '03 first round was Troy Polamalu at #16. Larry Johnson was a near-elite at #27 but he is looking brittle and just not enough elite years.


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 3 3 1
Solid 6 6 4
Bust 1 1 5

2004 was a very productive draft with only two busts in the first twenty picks (Reggie Williams and the unfortunate Kenechi Udeze). The top ten produced Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers and Sean Taylor as elites. There is good potential for Eli Manning, Roy Williams, Kellen Winslow and/or DeAngelo Hall to join them, depending on how their careers progress. The second ten Ben Roethlisberger, Tommie Harris and Shawn Andrews. Stephen Jackson was the lone elite from the third ten, and that contingent on him bouncing back and actually starting full-time for a couple of years.

It gets tougher to compile these as we get closer to the present, as it is much more dependent on projections and subjectivity. Even so, one more year:


1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 0 3 1
Solid 4 4 6
Bust 6 3 3

The 2005 draft was probably the worst draft in recent memory, with very little value coming out of the top ten. With only 4 elite players, 2005 also rated the worst with only one other year producing as few as 5. Top ten busts included Alex Smith, Cedric "Tears" Benson, Cadillac Williams, Pacman Jones, Butterfingers Williamson and "Buffet" Mike Williams (I thought I would stick with the nickname theme once I got rolling. Alex Smith ... nothing comes to mind. Maybe "Boring".) The best value in the draft came just outside the top ten with DeMarcus Ware, Shawn Merriman and Jammal Brown going #11 - #13. The third ten produced Roddy White as the only elite skill position guy in the first round.

So putting the whole thing together:

1-10 11-20 21-30
Elite 27 24 9
Solid 39 44 47
Bust 34 31 43

What is probably most striking is the difference between the first ten and second ten. With an average of ~ $20M difference in contracts between these groups, there is virtually no difference in the quality of NFL player that they produce. To be fair, it could be argued that the elite top ten players are better than the elite players later in the first round. Manning, Bailey, Kevin Williams, Tomlinson and Urlacher have all been considered the best players at their respective positions at one time or another. Few outside of the top ten can make the same claim.

Even so, with the vast difference in investment at the top of the draft and even after pick #5 over all it is very hard to argue that there is any benefit, either in value or in absolute talent, to pick at the top of the draft.

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