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Fifth-round picks

Posted by Doug on March 13, 2008

Yesterday I asked whether you, were you sitting in Bill Parcells' chair (and were such a thing not pure fantasy), would exchange the first overall pick in the draft for all 32 fifth round picks. Some good comments followed. As promised, I'll give a general overview of how often starters and stars emerge from the fifth round.

I looked at all fifth round picks between 1990 and 1999. That keeps the data somewhat recent while also leaving time for all the players being looked at to have finished at least most of their careers. Using some quick ratings based on my almost-finished-but-not-yet-released approximate value formula, here are the best fifth round picks of the 90s. 'St' is the number of seasons he was his team's main starter at his position and PB is the number of pro bowls he made.

Player               St  PB
===========================
Mark Brunell         11   3
Zach Thomas          11   7
La'Roi Glover        10   6
Joe Horn              8   4
Bryan Cox            10   3
Rob Burnett          10   1
Gary Walker          10   2
Larry Centers         8   3
Merton Hanks          7   4
Fred Miller          10   0
Rodney Harrison      10   2
Ben Coates            7   5
Santana Dotson        9   0
Chad Bratzke          7   0
Ed McDaniel           7   1
Dorsey Levens         3   1
Sam Garnes            7   0
Benji Olson           9   0
Joe Bowden            5   0
Roderick Coleman      4   1
Eric Barton           5   0
Stephen Boyd          4   2
Torrance Small        3   0
Chris Gray           11   0
Adrian Murrell        5   0
Brian Mitchell        0   1
Marcus Coleman        7   0
Norman Hand           6   0
Tony Williams         7   0
Lee Flowers           5   0
Calvin Williams       6   0
Jeff Mitchell         8   0
Chris Villarrial     10   0
Barry Foster          4   2
Charles Mincy         3   0
John Wade             7   0
Ian Beckles           9   0
Rich Owens            3   0
Shane Burton          2   0
Jay Foreman           4   0
Steve Martin          3   0
John Holecek          4   0
Gene Williams         4   0
Mike Rosenthal        3   0
Jerry Azumah          3   1
Everett Lindsay       3   0
Corey Bradford        2   0
Darren Hambrick       4   0
Oliver Ross           3   0
Jermaine Lewis        2   2

On the other side of things, here are the 50 top-five picks from the same period, a group that should form a reasonable approximation of the range of possibilities for a first overall pick.

Player               St  PB
===========================
Peyton Manning       10   8
Marshall Faulk       11   7
Edgerrin James        8   4
Steve McNair         10   3
Cortez Kennedy        9   8
Drew Bledsoe         12   4
Donovan McNabb        8   5
Junior Seau          16  12
Orlando Pace         10   7
Keyshawn Johnson     11   3
Kerry Collins        10   1
Simeon Rice          11   3
Willie McGinest      12   2
Garrison Hearst       7   2
Jonathan Ogden       12  11
Peter Boulware        7   4
Jeff George           9   0
Tony Boselli          6   5
Russell Maryland     10   1
Kevin Hardy           9   1
Charles Woodson       9   4
Ricky Williams        5   1
Marvin Jones          9   0
Sean Gilbert          8   1
Dan Wilkinson        12   0
Shawn Springs         9   1
Terrell Buckley       8   0
Todd Lyght           11   1
Eric Turner           7   2
Darrell Russell       5   2
Michael Westbrook     6   0
John Copeland         7   0
Mike Croel            6   0
Rick Mirer            5   0
Tim Couch             3   0
Quentin Coryatt       4   0
Bryant Westbrook      3   0
Cedric Jones          2   0
Keith McCants         2   0
Desmond Howard        1   1
Blair Thomas          3   0
Steve Emtman          1   0
Ki-Jana Carter        0   0
Andre Wadsworth       2   0
Curtis Enis           2   0
Heath Shuler          2   0
Trev Alberts          0   0
Bruce Pickens         0   0
Ryan Leaf             1   0
Akili Smith           1   0

Let's take a look at the best three fifth-round picks of each season of the 90s:

1990
====
Rob Burnett          10   1
Larry Centers         8   3
Brian Mitchell        0   1

1991
====
Bryan Cox            10   3
Merton Hanks          7   4
Ben Coates            7   5

1992
====
Santana Dotson        9   0
Ed McDaniel           7   1
Joe Bowden            5   0

1993
====
Mark Brunell         11   3
Chris Gray           11   0
Adrian Murrell        5   0

1994
====
Rodney Harrison      10   2
Chad Bratzke          7   0
Dorsey Levens         3   1

1995
====
Gary Walker          10   2
Stephen Boyd          4   2
Norman Hand           6   0

1996
====
Zach Thomas          11   7
La'Roi Glover        10   6
Joe Horn              8   4

1997
====
Sam Garnes            7   0
Tony Williams         7   0
Jeff Mitchell         8   0

1998
====
Benji Olson           9   0
John Wade             7   0
Corey Bradford        2   0

1999
====
Roderick Coleman      4   1
Eric Barton           5   0
Jay Foreman           4   0

Looking at these lists, it seems clear that if --- and this is a pretty big if, which is why I threw in the second of the two modifications in the last post --- you can actually identify the keepers in your group of 32, the fifth-rounders are a much better bet. Groups like Cox/Hanks/Coates and Thomas/Glover/Horn show that your group has as much upside as the first overall selection without the downside risk of Akili Smith or Ryan Leaf. At worst, you're going to get three players who can start for five years.

But there's more to it than that, as was detailed in an astute comment by JKL:

My equation is not simply #1 overall pick vs. 32 5th round picks.

It is #1 overall pick + [replacement level street free agents that would fill the roster spots otherwise occupied by 5th rounders] vs. 32 5th round picks.

He's right that the key issue is not raw value but marginal value. The value of a fifth-round pick is not the expected value of the player you'd get with that pick. It's the difference between the expected value of the player you'd get with that pick and the player you'd get off the street if you didn't have that pick.

To be more specific, the question isn't whether fifth-round pick Mark Brunell is better than nothing. It's whether he's better than undrafted Chris Leak. Or Brock Berlin. Or Mark Hartsell. Or Jason White. Or Tony Romo. Hmmmm.

However, I think JKL might be overestimating the quality of the street free agents you could acquire to replace your foregone 32 fifth-rounders. It is true that the top undrafted free agents are probably of nearly the same caliber as the top fifth-rounders. But the beauty of having the entire fifth round is that you would be locking down the exclusive rights to exactly the guys you wanted. Roughly speaking, the fifth round gives you players number 130 through 160. If you replace those guys with undrafted free agents, you don't get players 225 through 257. You'd get 1/32 of players 225 through 1180, or something along those lines. While the expected difference between player 130 and player 225 probably isn't huge, the difference between player number 150 and player 450 probably is, and the difference between player 160 and player 1180 definitely is. All those differences add up to quite a bit.

After all this, I still don't have an answer, but I think I'd lean toward the fifth-rounders, assuming I could have a year to evaluate them.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 13th, 2008 at 8:18 am and is filed under Approximate Value, General, NFL Draft. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.