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The NFL Draft - Does the “Steal” Really Exist?

NFL Draft Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Many times during the NFL draft, a player will fall far below his expected position and into the laps of a team sitting 10 picks, 20 picks, a round, or even 2+ rounds past the region that player was thought to go. It could happen for a variety of reasons; off-field concerns, injuries, overestimation, or just pure unluckiness by the way the board falls. Regardless, usually when a team selects a player of this nature in a spot far below their consensus pre-draft ranking, it’s considered a steal.

But are these players really steals? Is a pre-draft evaluation really a better predictor than the final pecking order? Are players who unexpectedly fall actually turning out to be high value selections?

I looked back at the first round of the past two drafts and picked out the biggest “steals” of each of those drafts’ first rounds, based on the difference of their actual draft slot and their average spot between four different pre-draft rankings.


The rankings I used to calculate the average pre-draft consensus for 2017 were from Mike Mayock (NFL Network), Gil Brandt (NFL Network), Jeff Legwold (ESPN), and Drafttek.

Reuben Foster, LB, 49ers: +17.2 (Pre-draft average: 13.8, selected 31st) - Foster was considered one of the best players in the draft before some off-field and injury troubles beforehand severely lowered his value. That definitely factored in to his pre-draft rankings or else he would’ve been rated way higher.

He ended up in San Francisco at the end of the 1st and didn’t disappoint. Though he missed six games, Foster made 59 tackles and ended up as PFF’s 4th-highest graded linebacker and was named an All-Rookie.

Ryan Ramczyk, T, Saints: +13.5 (Pre-draft average: 17.5, selected 32nd) - Ramczyk was seen by many as the best tackle available, but ended up going late in the first as the second tackle off the board after Garett Bolles. Ramczyk certainly proved a valuable pick, starting all 16 games at left tackle and being named an All-Rookie, ranking as PFF’s 8th-best tackle.

Jonathan Allen, DE, Redskins: +11.5 (Pre-draft average: 5.5, selected 17th) - One of the highest rated defensive linemen, Allen only played 5 games and recorded just 3 tackles and 1 sack, though he did grade solidly.

O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers, +10.0 (Pre-draft average: 9.0, selected 19th) - Howard, seen as a phenomenal all-around tight end prospect, slipped to Tampa Bay at 19, and did give them 6 touchdowns and 432 yards this season. However, most advanced numbers are very down on his all-around impact. PFF graded him as their 70th-best tight end.

Malik Hooker, S, Colts: +7.7 (Pre-draft average: 7.3, selected 15th) - Injuries were the question mark for Hooker, and that came back to bite him as he only played 7 games before going down for the year. He did live up to his ball-hawk reputation though, recording 3 picks in less than half a season and playing well at safety for Indy.

Gareon Conley, CB, Raiders: +7.2 (Pre-draft average: 16.8, selected 24th) - Conley only played 2 games in 2017 before suffering a shin injury.

Jabrill Peppers, DB, Browns, +6.2 (Pre-draft average: 18.8, selected 25th) - Peppers was a very polarizing prospect. Is a safety? Corner? Can he return? He was seen by many as a jack of all trades, but possibly a master of none. He ended up playing safety and returning for Cleveland, excelling at neither. He recorded only 3 PDs and 1 interception while ranking as PFF’s 78th-best safety. As a returner, he also struggled, recording only 6.0 yards per punt return and 22.7 per kick return with 5 fumbles.

Marshon Lattimore, CB, Saints: +5.2 (Pre-draft average: 5.8, selected 11th) - Perhaps the draft’s biggest steal. A popular Jets mock and a near-consensus top 6 kind of prospect, Lattimore slipped to the Saints at 11, possibly due to injury question marks. He proved that he truly was a top-end prospect with an elite campaign in which he recorded 5 picks and a ridiculous 18 PDs, culminating in an All-Rookie Team appearance and a PFF grade above 90 that put him at 4th among corners.

Jets pick: Jamal Adams, S: +2.7 (Pre-draft average: 3.3, selected 6th) - Like Leonard Williams before him, Adams was never considered a realistic option for the Jets. You might remember that the Jets themselves told him he was wasting his time with them. Yet, he fell to them, and the Jets scooped him up. It was an up and down year for Adams, but ultimately he proved that he very well can and will be a core piece of this defense going forward, and that his high ceiling can be fulfilled with a few cleanups.

Looking at this list, the steal rate looks pretty good. Of these 9 players, 5 were solid to great in their time on the field. 2 didn’t get significant time due to injury. 2 seemed to have up and down years but showcased promising potential.

Keep in mind that we have only seen one season of these players, so we can’t truly label any of them just yet. I also only included first rounders in this quick study. Many first round talents slip into the second round and beyond. Just some food for thought. What do you think? Is a player who falls below their expected spot really a “steal,” in that they have higher potential value than players selected around them who weren’t rated as highly pre-draft?


Is a player selected considerably below their expected range truly a higher value selection?

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