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How frequently is a top three pick one of the three best pros from his Draft class?

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The Jets will have a decision to make in a little under a week. They will have to decide whether they want to keep the third overall pick or trade down to stockpile more selections. Many factors will determine what their ultimate decision, most importantly what they are offered for the pick.

To make a good decision, the team will have to understand the true value of the third pick.

Throughout Draft season I have encountered a mindset in the Jets fanbase that I believe is mistaken. There seems to be a widely held perception that staying with the third overall pick virtually guarantees the Jets a superstar player, while trading down makes that substantially less likely.

With that in mind, I decided to do a little research to see how often the top three players selected in a Draft actually turn out to be one of the three best pros from that class.

I took a look at 15 Drafts from 2000 through 2014. Classes selected in 2015 or later have not yet completed their rookie contracts (four years plus one year team option) so I felt it was too early in their careers to judge.

Pro Football Reference has a tool called Approximate Value (AV) that offers a ballpark figure of a player’s value. It isn’t a totally perfect way to rank players, but it does a good job offering a big picture view of how players rate against each other (hence the word approximate...so spare me your minor quibbles about whether one player here or there belongs on the list).

In these 15 years I found the three players in each class who produced the highest career AV and looked at where they were selected.

Here are some of the key things I found.

  • Of the 45 players who were in the top three best players of their Draft classes over this 15 year stretch, only eight of them were selected in the top three. (17.8%)
  • Expanding things a bit, 16 of the players on the list were picked in the top ten. (35.6%)
  • The most common spot for a top three player in a class to be selected during this period was the 11th overall pick. (5 players)
  • 34 of the 45 players were among the top 32 selections in their Draft class. (75.6%)
  • 39 of the 45 players were selected in the first two rounds of the Draft. (86.7%)
  • On a fun note, the Jets signed two players in free agency this year who ranked in the top three of players in their respective Draft class. (Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley)

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I think this actually says some pretty good things about the evaluation skills of NFL teams. From this elite club, three quarters went in the top 32 picks and over 85% went in the first two rounds. Teams aren’t repeatedly passing on the elite talent.

It also does show that your odds of finding the best players in a Draft class are higher when you are picking at the top.

The fact 17.8% of the top three players in a class went in the top three overall picks is again fairly impressive in context. The top three picks represent just over 1% of the entire Draft class each year and yet 18% of the club is comprised of these players.

With that said, we see that owning a top three pick hardly guarantees one of the top three players in a Draft class. In fact, the odds are very much against landing one even when picking in the top three.

And the odds of landing an elite player don’t become substantially more dire when dropping out of the top three. There are five times as players in this club who were picked 11th overall than there are players who were picked 3rd overall.

My conclusions are similar to those I have drawn in similar examinations of the Draft.

  • The odds of hitting in the top three seem substantially lower than the general perception.
  • While the odds of success do get lower from trading down, the degree by which the odds fall is not as great as many make it out to be.

Trading down always has a cost, but as was the case with some of our other looks at the Draft, it seems that cost might not be as great as conventional wisdom suggests. This must be weighed against the benefits from acquiring additional picks.

*Players in the top three of AV from their respective Draft classes used for the purposes of this article:

2000: Tom Brady, Brian Urlacher, Shaun Ellis

2001: Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson, Reggie Wayne

2002: Julius Peppers, Ed Reed, Dwight Freeney

2003: Terrell Suggs, Carson Palmer, Kevin Williams

2004: Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning

2005: Aaron Rodgers, Logan Mankins, DeMarcus Ware

2006: Jahri Evans, Haloti Ngata, Andrew Whitworth

2007: Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis

2008: Matt Ryan, Calais Campbell, Joe Flacco

2009: Matthew Stafford, Clay Matthews, LeSean McCoy

2010: Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh, Geno Atkins

2011: Cam Newton, JJ Watt, Von Miller

2012: Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly

2013: David Bakhtiari, Le’Veon Bell, DeAndre Hopkins

2014: Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, C.J. Mosley