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AFL versus NFL: 1967-1969 draft and trends

Posted by Jason Lisk on October 1, 2009

This is the final draft class installment, looking at the players drafted in the common drafts of 1967-1969 after the two leagues had agreed to the merger. I'm going to include a breakdown of the NFL teams that moved to the AFC (Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh) and those that stayed in the NFC, as well as the AFL teams. These draft classes would have played most of their careers after the merger. Nevertheless, we will see that they did have an impact as the decade closed out. The pro bowl adjustments for the AFL guys should be virtually non-existent at this point, precisely because most of those pro bowls came after the merger.

I'm including the trends in this post as well, as the commentary on the draft classes will be more limited.

1967 DRAFT
Draft Value: AFL- 51.9%; NFL/AFC- 13.2%; NFL/NFC- 34.9%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL-54; NFL/AFC- 7; NFL/NFC- 35

If I had any doubts about whether the AFL teams could scout as well as the NFL, and whether my method of weighing both leagues' drafts equally (in terms of scoring a player by his highest draft position) this initial common draft alleviated those concerns. The problem with a team like Denver wasn't that they drafted the wrong players necessarily, it's that players who were drafted by Denver signed with the NFL. Once the need to recruit players was eliminated, and it was all about drafting the right players, the AFL teams more than held their own in 1967. They got over half of the talent (despite having nine teams drafting to the NFL's sixteen) and over half of the pro bowl appearances. When you also consider the future AFC additions, this draft class goes a long way in explaining why the AFC would become the dominant conference in the next decade.

This class represented the AFL's greatest draft victory over the NFL. Four AFL players are in the Hall of Fame (Upshaw, Griese, Lanier and Houston), and Floyd Little is one of the two veteran's committee selections this year. Three NFL players are in the Hall (Page, Barney and Wright).

Top AFL Players of 1967
Gene Upshaw
Bob Griese
Willie Lanier
Ken Houston
Floyd Little
Jim Lynch
George Webster
Mike Current
Randy Rasmussen
Zeke Moore
Bob Howard
Pete Barnes
Dickie Post

Top NFL Players of 1967
Alan Page
Lem Barney
Rayfield Wright
Rick Volk
Bobby Bryant
John Gilliam
Bubba Smith
Rocky Freitas
Paul Naumoff
Mike Bass
Dave Rowe
Preston Pearson
Bob Rowe
Danny Abramowicz
Gene Washington

1968 DRAFT
Draft Value: AFL- 49.6%; NFL/AFC- 4.4%; NFL/NFC- 46.1%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL-60; NFL-NFC- 41; NFL-AFC- 0

And the AFL did it again in 1968. This class had 60% of the pro bowls and half the draft talent. After getting outbid and outdrafted in the middle part of the decade, the AFL came back strong with two straight seasons of getting far more than its share of the talent. Shell, Bethea and Csonka are in the Hall from the AFL draft class, while Ron Yary and Charlie Sanders are in from the NFL.

Top AFL Players of 1968
Art Shell
Russ Washington
Curley Culp
Ken Stabler
Elvin Bethea
Larry Csonka
Dick Anderson
Bob Trumpy
George Atkinson
Haven Moses
Jim Kiick
Bob Johnson
Bill Lenkaitis
Al Beauchamp
Paul Smith

Top NFL Players of 1968
Ron Yary
Claude Humphrey
Harold Jackson
Greg Landry
Tommy Hart
Charlie Sanders
Greg Brezina
Fred Carr
Larry Cole
MacArthur Lane
D.D. Lewis
John Williams
Forrest Blue
Skip Vanderbundt
Charlie West
Rocky Bleier

1969 DRAFT
Draft Value: AFL- 41.4%; NFL/AFC-12.9%; NFL/NFC- 45.6%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL-42; NFL-AFC-26; NFL-NFC- 46

The NFL bounced back in 1969 with more pro bowls than the AFL (63.2%), though by draft value, the AFL still won slightly more than its share (38.5% of the teams, 41.4% of value). However, most of those pro bowls, and a fair amount of the NFL's draft value, came from the soon to be AFC teams, particularly Pittsburgh with Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, and John Kolb. So even though 1969 was pretty much a draw between the two leagues, the soon-to-be AFC "won" resoundingly against the NFC for the third straight year. The NFL had three Hall of Famers (Greene, Hendricks, and Wehrli), but only one would remain in the NFC after the merger the following season. Simpson and Joiner are in the Hall of Fame from the AFL class.

Top AFL Players of 1969
O.J. Simpson
Bill Bergey
Charlie Joiner
Ken Riley
Bill Thompson
Bob Kuechenberg
Bill Stanfill
Jack Rudnay
Mercury Morris
Carl Garrett

Top NFL Players of 1969
Joe Greene
Ted Hendricks
Roger Wehrli
George Kunz
L.C. Greenwood
Larry Brown
Fred Dryer
Ed White
Jeff Van Note
Calvin Hill
Gene A. Washington
Jon Kolb
John Zook
Bill Bradley
Ted Kwalick

1967-1969 TRENDS

The main trend is that the two leagues had agreed to merge, and on the field, the two leagues were becoming more similar. In 1968, the AFL, for the first time in its history, ran the ball more than it passed, more like the NFL. In 1969, the AFL teams averaged 28.8 passes per game, and 30.4 rush attempts, compared to the almost identical NFL numbers of 28.3 passes and 30.5 rushes.

The other big changes were to the respective league's structures, thanks to the expansion additions of Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami and Cincinnati between 1966 and 1968. I documented those changes in greater detail in this post. Both leagues kept the same 14-game schedule, but the NFL adopted a four division format with two playoff rounds, while the AFL teams stopped playing a full round robin schedule, and in 1969, adopted a wildcard format to match the NFL in number of playoff games.

Finally, I'm going to close with the rookie and second year player starting trends I began examining in 1960. I'll go ahead and summarize the entire decade, and list the rates from the pre-1960 years of 1956-1959

		rookies			second year			overall	
1959		-----	0.128		-----	0.147		-----	0.275
1960		0.688	0.105		0.034	0.101		0.722	0.206
1961		0.159	0.114		0.580	0.133		0.739	0.247
1962		0.159	0.071		0.176	0.146		0.335	0.217
1963		0.119	0.094		0.165	0.107		0.284	0.201
1964		0.091	0.091		0.142	0.127		0.233	0.218
1965		0.114	0.071		0.114	0.114		0.228	0.185
1966		0.091	0.064		0.182	0.121		0.273	0.185
1967		0.167	0.068		0.121	0.122		0.288	0.190
1968		0.186	0.063		0.136	0.116		0.322	0.179
1969		0.091	0.080		0.177	0.102		0.268	0.182

The AFL rookie rates jumped in 1967 in 1968, and we saw above that they won the draft battle handily in both those years. So did the combined drafts help the AFL compete with the NFL? It depends on who you are talking about. The teams that represented the AFL in the Super Bowl, the Chiefs, Raiders and Jets, had 11 combined rookie starters between 1967 and 1969 (5.6% of their starters were rookies), and when you consider that the rookie starters include players like Upshaw and Lanier, well, it's pretty clear that these elite AFL teams were not relying heavily on the combined drafts to boost their talent level. They were largely built prior to the merger agreement, had no problem competing with the NFL for talent before, and merely tweaked their lineups with continued additions in the draft.

On the other hand, it significantly helped in bringing up the bottom of the league. The Denver Broncos started 10 rookies acquired in the 1967 draft, and the next year, the expansion Cincinnati Bengals started 11.

By 1969, when the draft classes were pretty equal (and the bad teams of the AFL had upgraded their lineups with huge overturn already in the previous two seasons), we see that the starting rates for rookies in the two leagues was roughly equal.

The examination of the largest head to head battles of the decade is now complete, and most of the evidence has been compiled. Before I get to the conclusions, I am going to return to the Super Bowl teams and games, and then look at the results between the teams after the merger.