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Guest post: Best Draft Classes Revisited

Posted by Doug on September 17, 2008

Article by frequent pfr-blog commenter Richie Wohlers. Any transcription errors are the fault of Doug.

About 5 years ago I began a project where I wanted to try and evaluate NFL draft performances over the years. I wanted to come up with a simple method for evaluating all NFL players, regardless of position. I decided that the main goal of an NFL team when it drafts a player is to draft a player who is going to play in NFL games. So I figured I could just rate all players by the number of games they played. I decided to also award bonus points for players who made Pro Bowls or the HOF.

So I began to manually enter this information for all players. I could get some information from NFL.com and some from this website. But all the data was not available for all players. Needless to say, I never got too far in my task. I completed the 1999 draft for all players I could find, and then I pretty much put my project on the backburner. Then, pro-football-reference.com added all this wonderful draft data and games played stats for basically every player since the 1950's, I could finally finish my project. I was just about done with my research when Doug came up with his Approximate Value formula and did a research project that was similar, yet superior, to mine.

Even though my method is more of an estimate than the AV method, and even though we've read a couple of posts on a similar topic, I went ahead and finished my research. I pulled out a few pieces of information which are a little different than what Doug and Chase have already posted in the past few months.

Methodology.
I gave each player a point value for their entire career.

  • 1 point for every NFL game played
  • 14 points for every All Pro season
  • 10 points for every Pro Bowl season
  • A bonus of up to 200 points for the percentage of seasons designated as a starter that ended up being All Pro seasons.

I suppose it could be argued that simply playing in an NFL game should not be considered a positive, and in some cases, such as Ryan Leaf, just playing in the game may be a negative to your team. But overall, I think that if a player is finding game time, then he is creating value for his team. Using this formula, the top 20 players who have been drafted since 1970 are:

Bruce Matthews  G 918
Anthony Munoz   T 792
Mike Webster    C 777
John Hannah     G 748
Barry Sanders   RB 741
Randy White     DT 740
Jerry Rice      WR 738
Lawrence Taylor LB 726
Mike Munchak    G 715
Mike Singletary LB 699
Bruce Smith     DE 694
Ronnie Lott     DB 689
Dan Marino      QB 687
Walter Payton   RB 686
Jack Lambert    LB 680
Jackie Slater   T 677
Jack Youngblood DE 676
Joe DeLamielleure G 656
Randall McDaniel G 656
Jack Ham        LB 652

Obviously, length of career becomes a pretty big factor in how a player is rated, but for the purposes of evaluating a draft I think this is not unreasonable. What better draft pick is there than to pick a future Hall Of Famer who plays 18 years in the league (like Bruce Matthews)? In my opinion, the goal of a draft is to pick good players who will be able to contribute to your team for a long time.

Over the years, the length of the NFL draft has changed quite a bit. Between 1970 and 1976 the draft was 17 rounds long. Between 1977 and 1992 the length was dropped down to 12 rounds. In 1993 the NFL drafted 8 rounds and between 1994 and 1999 the draft has been cut to just 7 rounds.

Based on this method, the 10 worst HOF inductees were:

John Riggins    RB 323
Lynn Swann      WR 344
John Stallworth WR 359
Terry Bradshaw  QB 371
Jim Kelly       QB 385
Michael Irvin   WR 404
Troy Aikman     QB 410
Kellen Winslow  TE 425
Earl Campbell   RB 432
Art Monk        WR 436

A couple of these guys like Lynn Swann and Art Monk are players who are often debated as unworthy HOFers. Then there are guys like Kellen Winslow, Earl Campbell and Michael Irvin who had short careers, but high peaks which were enough to get them into the Hall Of Fame. There's also a batch of guys who were good-to-great players that won multiple Super Bowls (Bradshaw, Aikman). John Riggins is rarely talked about as an undeserving Hall Of Famer, but it could probably be argued that he is undeserving. On the other hand, he was one of the guys who had a nice peak to his career (at an older age) that pushed him over the top.

It's interesting to note that out of the 30 #1 overall picks in this study, only 5 have made the HOF - John Elway, Lee Roy Selmon, Earl Campbell, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw. Although Bruce Smith, Orlando Pace and Peyton Manning all seem likely to join them.

I calculated the draft value for every player. This is the actual overall position he was drafted compared to his actual career ranking amongst all players drafted the same year. For instance, the Baltimore Colts selected Stan White with the 438th overall draft pick. Stan White ended up being the 24th-best player from the 1972 draft. That gives him a draft value of 414 (438 minus 24). Here are the 10 best and 10 worst draft values of all time.

10 Best Values

Year    Rnd     Pick    Tm      Player          PosPts  Yr Rank Value   College/Univ
1972    17      438     BAL     Stan White      LB 153   24     414     Ohio State
1974    17      418     SDG     Charles DeJurnett NT 118        19      399     San Jose State
1971    17      436     DET     Gordon Jolley   G 59    49      387     Utah
1970    17      430     HOU     Julian Fagan    P 56    45      385     Mississippi
1971    17      441     BAL     Don Nottingham  RB98  56        385     Kent State
1972    17      439     KAN     Ted Washington  LB 128 54       385     Miss. Valley State
1974    16      404     DEN     Darrell Austin  G 69    36      368     South Carolina
1976    15      420     STL     Lee Nelson      DB 135  52      368     Florida State
1976    14      377     TAM     Carl Roaches    WR 76   10      367     Texas A&M
1975    17      422     NOR     Greg Westbrooks LB 66   59      363     Colorado

Worst Values

1997    1       15      MIA     Yatil Green     WR 8    148     -133    Miami (FL)
1985    1       9       PHI     Kevin Allen     T 16 143        -134    Indiana
1987    1       6       STL     Kelly Stouffer  QB 22 142       -136    Colorado State
1988    1       26      DEN     Ted Gregory     NT 3 164        -138    Syracuse
1987    1       5       CLE     Mike Junkin     LB 20 144       -139    Duke
1987    1       7       DET     Reggie Rogers   DE 15 148       -141    Washington
1990    1       7       DET     Andre Ware      QB 14   149     -142    Houston
1981    1       6       GNB     Rich Campbell   QB 7    151     -145    California
1983    1       21      PIT     Gabe Rivera     NT 6    166     -145    Texas Tech
1986    1       1       TAM     Bo Jackson      RB 0    154     -153    Auburn

Bo Jackson was drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccanneers in 1986. Tampa Bay was never able to sign him and he returned to the NFL draft the following year. So his value for Tampa Bay was zero. In fact, if you figured the opportunity cost in drafting Bo Jackson, his value is less than zero. The best player of that draft ended up being Pat Swilling. All of the top values above were guys taken in the 14th round or later. Since nobody since 1977 could match them in value, here is the list of top 10 values since the implementation of the 12-round draft in 1977:

Top 10 draft values since 12-round draft:

Year    Rnd     Pick    Tm      Player                  Pos     Pts     YrRank  Value   College/Univ
1990    12      329     NYG     Matt Stover     K               367     7       322     Louisiana Tech
1979    12      328     RAM     Drew Hill       WR              319     10      318     Georgia Tech
1987    12      334     DEN     Tyrone Braxton  DB              249     20      314     North Dakota State
1977    12      317     OAK     Rod Martin      LB              364     8       309     USC
1991    12      326     WAS     Keenan McCardellWR              247     19      307     UNLV
1983    12      334     MIA     Anthony Carter  WR              258     32      302     Michigan
1983    12      310     DEN     Karl Mecklenburg        LB      419     11      299     Minnesota
1977    12      334     OAK     Rolf Benirschke K               189     38      296     California-Davis
1988    12      320     MIA     Brian Kinchen   TE              233     29      291     LSU
1989    12      316     WAS     Jimmie Johnson  TE              218     25      291     Howard

Kickers are not considered to be a good use of high draft picks, but Matt Stover and Rolf Benirschke ended up being very valuable uses of 12th-round draft picks. The list above contains 6 players who actually ended up creating most of their value for teams other than those that drafted them: Stover, Hill, McCardell, Carter, Benirschke and Kinchen.

And here are the top 10 and bottom 10 values since 1993:

Top 10 since 1993

Year    Rnd     Pick    Tm      Player          Pos     Pts     YrRank  Value   College/Univ
1995    7       243     MIN     Jason Fisk      DT      207     23      220     Stanford
1995    7       230     GNB     Adam Timmerman  G       243     15      215     South Dakota State
1994    7       218     DEN     Tom Nalen       C       353     6       212     Boston College
1997    7       231     GNB     Jerald Sowell   FB      197     29      202     Tulane
1993    8       207     NYG     Jessie Armstead LB      393     6       201     Miami (FL)
1999    7       213     GNB     Donald Driver   WR      230     12      201     Alcorn State
1993    8       214     HOU     Blaine Bishop   DB      309     14      200     Ball State
1994    7       222     NWE     Marty Moore     LB      212     23      199     Kentucky
1994    7       220     HOU     Lemanski Hall   LB      201     30      190     Alabama
1996    6       208     GNB     Marco Rivera    G       273     18      190     Penn State
1997    7       230     NWE     Scott Rehberg   G       179     40      190     Central Michigan

Worst

1995    1       1       CIN     Ki-Jana Carter          RB      59      116     -115    Penn State
1996    2       38      HOU     Bryant Mix              DE      7       153     -115    Alcorn State
1996    2       45      MIN     James Manley            DT      0       160     -115    Vanderbilt
1998    2       31      OAK     Leon Bender             DT      0       146     -115    Washington State
1999    1       24      SFO     Reggie McGrew           DT      24      140     -116    Florida
1999    1       29      MIN     Dimitrius Underwood     DT      19      145     -116    Michigan State
1994    1       5       IND     Trev Alberts            LB      29      123     -118    Nebraska
1997    2       32      ATL     Nathan Davis            DE      6       150     -118    Indiana
1997    1       26      SFO     Jim Druckenmiller       QB      6       150     -124    Virginia Tech
1996    1       30      WAS     Andre T. Johnson        T       3       157     -127    Penn State
1999    2       33      CIN     Charles Fisher          DB      1       161     -128    West Virginia
1993    1       24      PHI     Leonard Renfro          DT      23      153     -129    Colorado
1997    1       15      MIA     Yatil Green             WR      8       148     -133    Miami (FL)

The best team draft of all time belongs to the Dallas Cowboys. That draft was anchored by Randy White who accumulated 740 value points over his career. The Cowboys picked 10 players with career values of 100 or higher including Pat Donovan, Herbert Scott, Bob Breunig and Thomas Henderson. The only other team to pick 10 players with career values of 100 was the 1981 Saints. That draft was led by Rickey Jackson and included George Rogers Frank Warren and Hoby Brenner. It ranked as the 4th-best total draft value of all time.

Out of the top 10 drafts, five teams went on to Super Bowl appearances shortly after making those drafts: Dallas, Pittsburgh (on the list twice), Buffalo and Miami.

The worst draft of all time belonged to the 1975 Kansas City Chiefs. Interesting that it happened the same year that the Cowboys had the greatest draft of all time. The Chiefs picked only one player who ever played in an NFL game. Morris Lagrand played 13 games in his career. The 1989 Los Angeles Raiders had the 2nd-worst draft of all time, but that ranking is mitigated by the fact that they had no picks in the first 5 rounds of the draft due to trades.

Top Team Drafts

Year Team       Pts
1975 DAL        3171
1971 PIT        2480
1974 PIT        2472
1981 NOR        2234
1977 NYJ        2167
1985 BUF        2116
1983 HOU        2081
1985 HOU        2071
1975 SDG        2054
1983 MIA        2048

Worst Drafts

1988 DEN        188
1971 MIN        181
1975 STL        177
1999 NOR        174
1980 SDG        142
1978 CHI        80
1977 WAS        57
1976 WAS        50
1989 RAI        36
1975 KAN        13

Here are the teams with the best and worst average player value for their drafts any given year. Since so many late round picks provided little value in the days of the 17-round draft, no teams from that era make this list. The 1994 Seahawks had only 5 draft picks, but they made the best of it. Every one of their picks had career value of 155 or better. The draft included Kevin Mawae, Sam Adams, Carlester Crumpler, Larry Whigham and Lamar Smith. The 1996 Ravens picked Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, whose career values were high enough to make up for the picks of Dexter Daniels and Jon Stark.

Top

1994 SEA        296
1996 BAL        227
1983 MIA        205
1993 NYG        199
1993 NOR        193
1977 OAK        180
1997 SEA        177
1995 TAM        175
1999 NOR        174
1993 NWE        171

Worst

1970 KAN        19
1973 SFO        16
1980 SDG        14
1971 MIN        13
1975 STL        12
1977 WAS        10
1978 CHI        9
1989 RAI        7
1976 WAS        5
1975 KAN        1

What colleges have provided the most NFL value? I don't think it will come as any surprise to see USC at the top of this list, and by a wide margin. The only school that surprises me on this list is Texas A&M at #9. A&M's top contributors were Ray Childress, Lester Hayes and Richmond Webb.

Top Colleges

College/Univ    Pts
USC             24,463
Penn State      18,453
Notre Dame      16,943
UCLA            15,557
Ohio State      15,143
Miami (FL)      15,066
Nebraska        14,584
Michigan        13,952
Texas A&M       13,590
Florida         12,714
Pittsburgh      12,663
Tennessee       12,383
Colorado        12,117
Florida State   12,107
Alabama         12,043
Arizona State   12,001
Washington      11,580
Oklahoma        11,358
Auburn          10,632
Stanford        10,489

The Baltimore Ravens only had 4 drafts in this study (1996-1999), but they made the most of it. Their average drafted player has provided over 117 points of career value. Of teams that have drafted every year of this study, the Rams have picked up the most value with 83 points per player. On the other hand, over a 30 year span, for every point of career value the Rams drafted, Kansas City only drafted 3/4 of a point. Most of the teams at the bottom of this list are not surprising. Lots of
teams with lots of bad seasons (Cleveland, New York Jets, Cardinals, etc.). But the one team that stands out is the Washington Redskins. The Redskins have played in 5 Super Bowls despite being one of the worst drafting teams in the league.

Average Player Value

Team Average
BAL     118
OTI     88
TAM     85
CAR     84
RAM     83
PIT     83
JAX     82
RAI     81
NWE     81
SFO     81
SEA     80
MIA     79
DAL     77
PHI     76
BUF     76
NOR     75
CIN     75
DEN     75
CHI     74
GNB     73
NYG     73
DET     72
CLT     71
MIN     70
ATL     70
SDG     70
CRD     70
NYJ     69
CLE     68
WAS     67
KAN     61

This list is the average value of each draft for each team. The Pittsburgh Steelers have averaged 1,184 points of value from their drafts over the years. No surprise there. The biggest surprise is that the Houston Oilers have the 3rd-highest average draft value, despite having quite a few bad teams over the span, but they did manage their first Super Bowl appearance from the last batch of drafts.

Average Draft Value

Team Yearly Average
PIT     1185
RAM     1061
OTI     1057
MIA     1056
DAL     1054
CIN     1045
NWE     1028
BUF     994
TAM     939
NYJ     916
CRD     907
NOR     905
GNB     905
SFO     898
CHI     891
CLT     890
RAI     887
NYG     887
BAL     882
SDG     866
DET     860
ATL     857
PHI     856
DEN     832
SEA     824
CLE     811
MIN     804
JAX     754
KAN     734
CAR     668
WAS     638

Here is how much total career value each NFL team has drafted over the 30-year study:

Pittsburgh      35,542
LA/St Louis     31,831
Houston/Tennessee       31,719
Miami   31,671
Dallas  31,628
Cincinnati      31,341
New England     30,846
Buffalo 29,826
New Jork Jets   27,470
St Louis/Arizona        27,201
New Orleans     27,154
Green Bay       27,143
San Francisco   26,934
Chicago 26,720
Baltimore/Indianapolis  26,685
Oakland/Los Angeles     26,619
New York Giants 26,596
San Diego       25,966
Detroit 25,812
Atlanta 25,704
Philadelphia    25,676
Denver  24,950
Minnesota       24,130
Tampa Bay       22,528
Kansas City     22,022
Cleveland       21,884
Seattle 19,781
Washington      19,135
Jacksonville    3,772
Baltimore       3,526
Carolina        3,341

What positions are the safest to draft? Here is the average career value from each drafted position. Fullback has been the most productive position by far. Lorenzo Neal and Sam Gash come out as the most valuable fullbacks of all time. There have only been 40 fullbacks drafted. I assume this is because many players who eventually play fullback in the NFL were classified as a RB or some other position in college and that's what they are listed at in their draft classification. Out of the 40
fullbacks listed, 30 of them have career values over 100. The nose tackle position is another that has a pretty high average value, but it is also caused by terminology. The last time a drafted player was designated as a nose tackle was 1991. The interesting part is that QB actually comes out as the least valuable position. I think part of it is because only 1 QB plays at a time in football, but teams are continuously trying to shore up the position. So they draft QB's, many of whom will rarely play. It's also interesting that the other skill positions - WR and RB are at the bottom of the list with QB.

Avg by position
FB      133
P       107
NT      100
C       88
K       86
DE      85
G       81
DB      78
TE      78
LB      78
T       72
DT      68
RB      66
WR      66
QB      63
WB      50
KR      0

Here are the positions that have provided the most total value over the study.

By Position
DB      132,544
LB      109,740
RB      86,667
WR      78,845
DE      66,271
G       56,721
T       52,495
TE      44,351
DT      39,014
QB      29,361
C       26,641
P       12,863
NT      12,431
K       11,779
FB      5,332
WB      100
KR      0

Since there are typically 4 DB's on the field at any time, and only 1 QB on the field, it's unfair to say that DB provides more value than QB. In fact, we would expect that DB would provide 4 times the total value as QB because of this. So, I normalized the total value by position to look at total value per player who typically sees the field in a game. RB comes out as the most valuable position.

Normalized
RB       86,667
TE       44,351
WR       39,423
DB       33,136
DE       33,136
LB       31,354
QB       29,361
G        28,361
C        26,641
T        26,247
DT       19,507
P        12,863
NT       12,431
K        11,779
FB       5,332

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 17th, 2008 at 5:18 pm and is filed under History, NFL Draft. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.