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AFL versus NFL: 1960-1963 Drafts

Posted by Jason Lisk on May 14, 2009

Last week, I posted my proposed methodology for evaluating the drafts of the 1960’s. A couple of quick notes before I get into the specific drafts. After considering Jim Glass' comment and reviewing the drafts, I’ve decided not to include the head to head wins and steals in my analysis. I’ll go into more detail in the 1961 draft section.

Also, there are players who signed with one league and then moved to another. Typically, this was a player who signed with an NFL team, sat the bench for a couple of years, then moved to the AFL after playing out their option. Ben Davidson and Ron McDole are examples of this. If we are looking at who did the best at signing players, we want to credit this player to the original league, but if we want to look at which league got the production, we want to credit the league where the player starred. I decided to not include these players in the draft value analysis at all. I did include them in my list of the best players for each league, if they otherwise qualified, for the league where they accumulated their value. Finally, the best players list for each year consist of (1) players drafted in that year, even if they debuted later, and (2) undrafted free agents who debuted that season. For 1960, (since there were so many “rookies” entering the AFL) I only included undrafted players age 23 or younger. For the best players, I decided to list at least 10 AFL guys and 15 NFL guys each year, but sometimes I list more.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the drafts from 1960-1963.

1960 DRAFT
Draft Value: AFL- 36.1%; NFL 63.9%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL- 94; NFL - 76

The AFL had a draft starting in November 1959 to stock their rosters. However, I don’t have clear information on the order of selection, or how players were allocated. The teams used regional picks to take top picks, which is how Billy Cannon of LSU was selected by the Houston Oilers. In subsequent years, the AFL did a more standard form of the draft, where teams selected one player in each round. So, starting in 1961, I will use the draft order by both leagues to look at value. In 1960, though, I'm left with using solely the draft order of the NFL draft as a tool to evaluate how the AFL did.

Clearly, this favors the NFL as I'm relying only on their numbers for this season, so the Draft Value number would likely be higher for the AFL in 1960. If the AFL thought Abner Haynes was better than the 55th overall pick, he still counts as a quality 55th pick, not higher. If the NFL knew a player was going to sign with the AFL and either didn't draft him at all or drafted him late, the value would be reduced.

Even using just the NFL draft positions, the American Football League got off to a very good start in 1960. The AFL announced their presence (and pocketbooks) right away. Billy Cannon, the first overall pick of the Los Angeles Rams and LSU star, signed a contract for $50,000 with the Rams before the end of his college career, and a contract for $100,000 with the AFL’s Houston Oilers after the Sugar Bowl. Just prior to the start of the 1960 preseason, a judge declared that the contract with the Rams was invalid, finding Cannon was “a provincial lad untutored . . . in the ways of the business world”. With that decision, the upstart AFL had successfully signed away half of the NFL’s first round picks in 1960.

In on the field performance, the AFL first rounders outshone the NFL’s by a landslide. Led by Hall of Famer Ron Mix, Cannon, and fellow LSU teammate Johnny Robinson, the AFL’s six stolen first rounders combined for 37 starting seasons, 17 pro bowls, and 17 first team all-pros. The NFL first round retainees, led mainly by Jim Houston, finished with 25 starting seasons, 5 pro bowls, and 0 first team all-pros. Even discounting the number of pro bowls by the early AFL guys due to smaller league size and lack of veteran award winners, that is a large discrepancy.

The NFL closed the gap and retained most of their talent over the next several rounds. By the time the draft was done, my numbers show the AFL gaining 36.1% of the draft value in 1960. It sounds like the NFL won the talent battle, right? Well, keep in mind that the AFL had fewer teams. The NFL had 13 teams in 1960, and was getting ready to add the Minnesota Vikings the next year (which would cause expansion picks and further thinning of the rosters that would need to be re-stocked) so they needed to get 63.6% (14 of 22) of the incoming talent to draw with the AFL.

Considering three factors, I think the AFL “won” the talent acquisition in 1960, not by a knockout or anything, but certainly about as good a first year as a league could hope going up against an established league. First, even using the NFL draft figures, I have the AFL breaking even in new talent acquisition. If we make a slight upward adjustment, then the AFL got more than their share of just the players drafted by the NFL. Second, there a not-insignificant number of good young guys not drafted by the NFL in 1960 who joined the AFL and would still be around into the Super Bowl era and post-merger, headlined by Jim Otto. These players are unaccounted in the draft value figure, but are included in the pro bowls. Third, the pro bowl appearances support that the AFL got “slightly” the better of it in new talent. Remember, I’m not including AFL guys who had a cup of coffee in the NFL pre-1960, or guys who were 24 or older and were considered “rookies” in this analysis.

On the Pro Bowl figures, clearly some mental adjustment is necessary. How much? I think it’s somewhere in the range of 50% for a cumulative total, perhaps slightly lower for the early guys (though there was no AFL pro bowl in 1960) and higher than 50% for the later guys whose careers extended well into the post-merger years. The AFL had fewer teams (4 in each division versus 7 for the NFL). On the other hand, the NFL actually sent more pro bowlers each year, averaging 70 pro bowlers to the AFL’s 60 over this period. Combine those two factors and the AFL averaged 7.5 pro bowlers per team to the NFL’s 5.0 per team. Relying on just that, a 67% adjustment would be appropriate. But then, we have to consider the presence of veterans to take those slots and provide greater competition, particularly in the early years. Of course, if we created a mythical league where all of the talent was contained on the fourteen teams, some of our AFL young guys would have beaten out some of the NFL young guys (and some of the veterans) for pro bowl spots as well—The NFL pro bowl figures shouldn’t have 100% weight either. Weighing the AFL pro bowl appearances relative to the NFL’s for incoming players, I think somewhere around 50% is in the right ball park. Incidentally, using the 94 AFL pro bowl appearances and the 76 NFL pro bowl appearances for players from 1960, and applying a 50% discount to the AFL, we get a pro bowl % of 38.2%--meaning it is roughly in line with the draft value estimate, particularly if we make a slight upward adjustment due to only using the NFL’s numbers.

The NFL had two Hall of Famers from 1960, Larry Wilson and Willie Wood. The AFL had Jim Otto and Ron Mix. Among others, Johnny Robinson of the Chiefs/Texans has to be on the short list of veteran’s committee possibilities to make the Hall, while on the NFL side, Maxie Baughan and Jim Marshall are the best of the rest. Here is the list of the top AFL and NFL newcomers in 1960:

TOP AFL Players of 1960

Jim Otto
Johnny Robinson
Ron Mix
Larry Grantham
Billy Cannon 
Jim Norton
Bob Talamini
Jim Hunt 
Abner Haynes
Goose Gonsoulin
Sherrill Headrick
Wayne Hawkins
Don Floyd
Chris Burford

TOP NFL Players of 1960

Willie Wood
Larry Wilson
Maxie Baughan
Jim Marshall
Bobby Boyd
Roger Brown
Don Perkins
Grady Alderman
Don Meredith
Bob DeMarco
Jim Houston
Gail Cogdill
Len Rohde
Carroll Dale
Vince Promuto

1961 DRAFT
Draft Value: AFL- 33.6%; NFL 66.4%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL- 92; NFL - 87

The draft class of 1961 was a pretty good one overall, and the NFL bounced back after losing half of the first round picks to the AFL the year before. The NFL draft class of 1961 featured six all-time greats, while the AFL still performed respectably, signing several key contributors to championship teams. Using both the draft value method and evaluating pro bowl appearances for the AFL at around 50%, the American Football League got just over a third of the good football talent in 1961. On balance, the NFL “won” the draft battle in 1961, though the AFL was competitive and in good shape through two seasons.

In reviewing this class, I decided not to use my wins/steals approach. The primary reason: teams avoided signing players for reasons other than talent, and this approach may simply show which league was better at avoiding players who were going to sign with the other league. Johnathan Rand (who you can hear talking with Chase here) wrote a book entitled “300 Pounds of Attitude”. That book contains a chapter on the AFL-NFL signing battles and the use of draft sitters. That chapter contains a quote from then-Dallas Director of Player Personnel Gil Brandt: “you didn’t draft somebody you knew was already signed and committed. The AFL told guys ‘If someone from the NFL calls, don’t tell ‘em you’ve signed. Let ‘em draft you and they’ll have egg on their face.”

In 1961, the NFL “won” 16 of the 22 players who were either drafted within 30 slots in both drafts, or where the player signed with the lower drafting team. However, the NFL also had incentive in 1961, moreso than the AFL, to not to draft players that were likely going to sign with an AFL team, not only from the standpoint of wasting a pick, but also from a public relations standpoint. Here is a list of the quality players under-drafted by the NFL relative to the AFL (players drafted in the top 50 by the AFL and drafted more than 30 slots later by the NFL):

signed 	player			AFL	NFL
AFL	Walt Suggs		24	none
AFL	Larry Eisenhauer	42	none
AFL	Tom Goode		16	234
AFL	Billy Shaw
	11	184
AFL	Jim Tyrer		22	188
AFL	Jerry Mays		38	141
AFL	Ernie Ladd		48	119
AFL	Earl Faison		7	66
AFL	Keith Lincoln		15	61

In contrast, here are the players under-drafted by the AFL:

signed 	player			AFL	NFL
AFL	Fred Arbanas		54	22
NFL	Norm Snead		35	2
NFL	Berni Casey		69	9
NFL	Aaron Thomas		126	47
NFL	Don Oakes		162	42
NFL	Ben Davidson		none	46

The under-drafted AFL signees were generally drafted high by the better AFL organizations and were among the best players in the draft to sign with the AFL, so I doubt it was a matter of the NFL not wanting these guys. Arbanas signed with the Texans, and among the underdrafted NFL guys, Oakes and Davidson would end up in the AFL. If you add in these under-drafted guys for both leagues to the “wins”, the numbers are roughly similar to the draft value. I felt it didn’t add anything, but might reward the league that avoided drafting top prospects based on signability.

The NFL draft class of 1961 produced six Hall of Famers: Bob Lilly, Deacon Jones, Fran Tarkenton, Herb Adderley, Jimmy Johnson and Mike Ditka. The AFL class produced only guard Billy Shaw to date, though Texans/Chiefs offensive tackle Jim Tyrer would certainly have been in Canton on the merits of his playing career, if not for the way his life ended after retirement.

Here is the full list of the best incoming players for each league in 1961.

TOP AFL Players of 1961

Jim Tyrer
Billy Shaw
Jerry Mays
Dave Grayson
Ron McDole
Houston Antwine
Fred Arbanas
Ben Davidson
Larry Eisenhauer
Earl Faison
E.J. Holub
Keith Lincoln
Ernie Ladd

TOP NFL Players of 1961

Herb Adderley
Deacon Jones
Bob Lilly
Fran Tarkenton
Jimmy Johnson
Mike Ditka
Norm Snead
Bob DeMarco
Myron Pottios
Rosey Taylor
Charley Cowan
Charley Johnson
Pat Fischer
Ed Sharockman
Tom Matte
Irv Cross
Bill Brown
Tommy Mason

1962 DRAFT
Draft Value: AFL- 31.3%; NFL 68.7%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL- 46; NFL - 40

When you are a young league, you need the incoming new classes to be good, and then you need to get your share of that talent. In 1960 and 1961, the draft classes would have to rate as pretty good overall, and the AFL did fairly well in getting its share. The 1962 Draft though, rates below the other draft classes from this era in terms of depth of starting talent and overall pro bowl production. The NFL got its share of a below average class, and got the single best player from this class, Merlin Olsen. The AFL still got some stars at the top of the class, including Nick Buoniconti and the Chargers duo of John Hadl and Lance Alworth. The NFL class was also top heavy, with Roman Gabriel, Mick Tingelhoff, and Cornell Green joining Olsen. Overall, I think you would have to consider this a setback for the AFL, as the draft value and pro bowl figures suggest the AFL was below 1/3 of the incoming talent.

Here are the top players to enter both leagues in 1962:

TOP AFL Players of 1962

Nick Buoniconti
Lance Alworth
John Hadl
Mike Stratton
Fred Arbanas
Tom Sestak
Garland Boyette
Ike Lassiter
Curtis McClinton
Walt Suggs
Cookie Gilchrist
Bobby Hunt

TOP NFL Players of 1962

Merlin Olsen
Roman Gabriel
Cornell Green
Mick Tingelhoff
George Andrie
Roy Winston
Gary Collins
Mike Lucci
Ed O'Bradovich
Ernie Green
Bennie McRae
Irv Goode
Dan Sullivan
Chuck Lamson
Gary Ballman

1963 DRAFT
Draft Value: AFL- 29.5%; NFL 70.5%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL- 76; NFL - 53

When we compare my quality player draft value formula with the career pro bowl appearances of the classes of 1960-1962, and make an AFL adjustment, the numbers are pretty close to each other in each of those years. That's not true of 1963. So which one is right?

I think they both are. As I look over this class, I think that the NFL got far more quality starters than the AFL, which is what the Draft Value numbers are showing. But the "bang for the buck" of the AFL players who did pan out was significant. The AFL got a lot of stars from the 1963 draft class, and if you look at the list below, you will see several players who starred on the AFL Super Bowl teams later in the decade. So the NFL won the depth battle in 1963, while the AFL got at least half of the all-time greats from the 1963 draft class. Overall, it probably works out to roughly a draw, depending on which you think is more important. The AFL class produced 3 Hall of Fame defensive players-Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan and Bobby Bell, while the NFL had two Hall of Fame tight ends-John Mackey and Jackie Smith.

Here is the list for 1963:

TOP AFL Players of 1963

Willie Brown
Bobby Bell
Buck Buchanan
Ed Budde
Daryle Lamonica
Walt Sweeney
George Saimes
Winston Hill
Jim Dunaway
Dave Hill
Hewritt Dixon
Bill Baird

TOP NFL Players of 1963

John Mackey
Dave Robinson
Andy Russell
Lee Roy Jordan
Bob Vogel
Fred Miller
Jerry Logan
Karl Kassulke
Jackie Smith
Bob Jeter
Bill Nelsen
Dave Edwards
Kermit Alexander
Larry Stallings
Jerry Stovall
Lionel Aldridge
Dennis Gaubatz

1960-1963 OVERVIEW

My assessment is that the AFL won 1960 and got at least a draw in 1963, and that the NFL won the talent battle in two drafts (1961 & 1962). Overall, my best guesstimate is that the AFL got over one-third of the new talent coming into professional football in the early 1960's. As I noted above, the break-even point for the AFL, in order to be drawing even with the NFL over time, was 36.4%. I've got them coming in below that, but from the NFL's perspective, losing out on a third of the incoming talent (and having to engage in bidding wars to keep the number at that level) was costly relative to what the league was accustomed a few years earlier.

Let's put that one-third number in some context. With 8 teams versus the NFL's 14 teams during this period, the AFL was not quite getting the same level of talent per team as the NFL. But how far off were they? About one team worth of young talent, as the one-third ratio would match up with a 7 team to 14 team ratio.

I'll break it down in more detail in the next post, but while the AFL does not appear to have been quite on pace to reach the NFL overall by 1965, the top teams in the AFL were getting a lot of young talent, and were likely at least average compared to the NFL rank and file as early as 1963. Next time, I will break down the positions where each league was getting talent, which teams from both the AFL and NFL were individually doing well or poorly, and also look at several trends, including aging trends, rookie starting rates in the two leagues, and all-pro trends for this same period.