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Who Were the Best and Worst Drafting Teams of the Decade in the NFL?

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NFL: APR 25 2019 NFL Draft Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We are at the start of a new decade in the NFL so I decided to take a look back at the ten years that have passed. The Draft is probably the most important part of team building so I wanted to see which teams were most successful.

What is the best way to do this? Which team picked the most quality players?

I think there’s a mistaken perception that a general manager’s batting average is relevant in the Draft. It isn’t. Drafting is about quantity, not averages.

General manager A has one pick apiece in the first and second rounds. He hits on his first round pick and misses on his second round pick.

General manager B has two picks apiece in the first and second rounds. He hits on one first rounder and one second rounder and misses on one first rounder and one second rounder.

Both have the same 50% hit rate, but general manager B has done a better job. His team now has two impact players. Adding extra picks is part of Draft strategy and smart strategy at that.

What is the threshold for quality players? I decided to use players who attained a career Approximate Value (AV) of at least 30. AV is a metric created by the folks at Pro Football Reference. The NFL is still in the early stages of developing advanced statistics making it difficult to compare players across positions. AV uses a lot of relevant information to try and do so.

Why did I choose 30 as my threshold? It’s difficult to determine what a “hit” is in the Draft. A guy who performs at a Hall of Fame level for a few years might be a hit. So is a guy who is a dependable starter for a decade.

Broadly speaking, a player who has a career AV of at least 30 has had one transcendent season, three seasons as a top 100 player, four seasons as a top 250 player, or six seasons in the top one-third percentile.

Nobody is saying this is a perfect measure, but that’s why AV stands for approximate value.

If you want to nitpick, here are some of the other flaws:

  • There’s are degrees of quality. A team that drafts a five-time First Team All Pro has done better than a team that drafts a six year adequate starter.

Rebuttal: Any system you have will contain flaws along these lines. In recent years I saw people grading Mike Maccagnan’s Draft record call his selection of Lachlan Edwards in the seventh round a hit. That essentially equates the Jets successfully picking a punter in the seventh round with the Steelers picking Antonio Brown in the sixth round. This criteria at least uses a consistent method and avoids extremes like that.

  • Successful teams find role players in the late rounds who contribute on subpackages and special teams. They might not hit the 30 AV threshold but are successful picks.

Rebuttal: It’s a fair point, but the best picks are ultimately the players who move the needle for their teams.

  • The players from the most recent Drafts haven’t played in the NFL long enough to accumulate 30 career AV aside from spectacular successes like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

Rebuttal: This is also a fair point. The last two to three classes of the decade will need to be revisited in a few years. This cannot be considered a final list. The Colts who drafted quite poorly under former general manager Ryan Grigson have improved drastically under new general manager Chris Ballard. That isn’t reflected in the numbers yet but will be in a few years. Still most of the data is solid. Do you want to wait for 2023 for a retrospective on the decade that just passed?

  • You’re giving teams credit for drafting players even though some of these players left their original team and produced some of their value for other teams.

Rebuttal: We are trying to figure out who was best at identifying and obtaining talent in the Draft. It is a credit to the original teams for doing so. A lot of good teams in the NFL end up tight against the salary cap. That’s what happens when you have a lot of good players. You have to prioritize, and sometimes good players have to be let go. I’m not going to punish them for it.

Yes, you can poke holes in this method. Grading a decade’s worth of Drafts is complicated. You can poke a lot of holes in any method. I think this one is pretty solid given the difficulty of the task.

With this in mind, here are the number of 30 career AV players each team drafted in the decade that just passed.

Which five teams won the most games in the decade that just passed, and where do they rank on the list?

New England (most wins, t-2nd most quality players drafted)

Green Bay (t-2nd most wins, t-2nd most quality players drafted)

Pittsburgh (t-2nd most wins, t-6 most quality players drafted)

New Orleans (t-4th most wins, t-4th most quality players drafted)

Seattle (t-4th most wins, most quality players drafted)

Drafting matters a lot in the NFL.

Of course, our Jets sit at the bottom of the list. I figured they would rate low, but I didn’t realize things were this bleak. Sorry for ruining your Saturday with this reminder of drafting futility.