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Finding True Value in the NFL Draft

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NFL Draft Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the early 1990s a Dallas Cowboys executive named Mike McCoy started a research project. McCoy studied past trades in the NFL Draft and used his background as an engineer to convert this information into a chart that attempted to quantify the value of each pick in the NFL Draft.

This chart became famous and widely-used across the NFL. People now commonly refer to it as the Jimmy Johnson Chart. The two-time Super Bowl winning coach gets credit for the chart even though McCoy did much of the work. There are perks being the public face of a successful franchise.

Even in 2020 teams use this chart (or a variation of it) to determine whether a Draft day trade is worth it.

Although this chart was an improvement over teams simply flying by the seats of there respective pants, it isn’t clear how accurately it quantifies the value of picks. Studying past trades can tell you how other teams valued picks, but it doesn’t tell you whether they valued them accurately. In the NFL teams frequently misvalue players, prospects, and picks. It’s one thing to make a trade. It’s another to make a trade that reflects proper value.

In recent years people from Pro Football Reference’s Chase Stuart to Harvard student Kevin Meers have used the metric Approximate Value (AV) to produce charts more accurately reflecting value in the NFL Draft. AV certainly isn’t perfect, but it is one of the few tools available that allows relatively accurate comparisons between players at different positions. That’s why it is called Approximate Value.

I think sometimes these evaluations fail to take into account the discrepancy in salaries across the Draft. In the first four years of their respective careers, the top overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft will make more than double what the 12th overall pick will make. History shows us that the number one pick typically isn’t twice as good as the 12th pick, though.

One of the reasons the Draft is so important is that it gives teams the opportunity to provide teams with good players at a discount. In free agency, players are expensive because multiple teams can bid on their services. A drafted player can only sign with one team, and the parameters of the deal are mostly set by the rules of the league.

The top overall pick in 2020 will have an average $9 million cap hit in the first four years of his career. If that player turns into an All Pro it is a discount.

Still, the top pick in the second round will average a cap hit just over $2 million over his first four seasons. Get an All Pro there, and it’s a steal.

We must also consider whether a player fails to reach his potential. A top five pick who busts essentially hurts his team like a moderately priced free agency failure. Miss on a pick in the fourth round when the rookie salary is a little north of the minimum? It isn’t that big of a deal. Most low priced players produce minimum value anyway.

This changes the threshold for success in each round. Finding even a capable subpackage/special teams player at that price would be a win. That same player would be financially harmful as a first round pick.

Of course there is another side to the story. Higher round picks get bigger salaries for a reason. They are generally more talented than players who go in the lower rounds. For all of the attention extreme outliers like Vernon Gholston and Tom Brady get, the league evaluates prospects correctly. Your odds of finding a good player are higher the earlier you pick.

How do we reconcile these competing themes?

My first attempt at a solution doesn’t use much advanced statistical analysis. I took a look at every NFL Draft since 2002. That was the year the Houston Texans entered the league and gave it 32 teams. I stopped in 2016. Players drafted after then have yet to complete four full seasons.

Using the Pro Football Reference Draft Finder I then found the median player at each pick in the Draft between those years. These are 15 Draft classes so that was the eighth most productive player picked number one overall between 2002 and 2016, the eighth most productive player picked number two overall, the eighth most productive player picked number three overall, etc. Why did I do that? I wanted to figure out the type of player who should be available in a neutral situation. There are extreme outliers like Russell Wilson who performs well above his expected career trajectory based on where he was picked. You can’t expect to get Russell Wilson in the third round.

I found his AV for the first four years of his career. Why did I stop at four years? That’s how long rookie contracts are. When you draft a player, that’s the time your team has sole rights to that player. For the majority of players, this is the point where they produce the most value. The average NFL career is even between three and four years.

Then I took that AV and divided it by the amount of money over four years that will be paid to each pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. This information is available at Over the Cap.

What I came up with was an AV per million for each pick in the 2020 Draft.

For example, David Carr ranked 8th in this timeframe among top overall picks with a 35 AV over his first four years. This year’s top overall pick will get $36.2 million over his first four years. That gives us .97 AV per million dollars for the top overall pick.

I’m not sure how useful this is to judge the value of an individual selection. For example, there has been a recent trend where the 11th picks have had better careers than the 10th picks. I’m sure Jets fans would hope there is some sort of mystical quality to the 11th overall pick. It is probably more useful to group picks together.

Doing this by round:

First Round Picks: 1.42 AV per million

Second Round Picks: 2.27 AV per million

Third Round Picks: 1.87 AV per million

Fourth Round Picks: 1.42 AV per million

Fifth Round Picks: 0.89 AV per million

Sixth Round Picks: 0.51 AV per million

Seventh Round Picks: 0.37 AV per million

Grouping every ten picks together:

Picks 1-10: 1 AV per million

Picks: 11-20: 1.61 AV per million

Picks 21-30: 1.62 AV per million

Picks 31-40: 2.07 AV per million

Picks 41-50: 2.07 AV per million

Picks 51-60: 2.29 AV per million

Picks 61-70: 2.2 AV per million

Picks 71-80: 1.9 AV per million

Picks 81-90: 1.83 AV per million

Picks 91-100: 2.01 AV per million

Picks 101-110: 1.92 AV per million

Picks 111-120: 1.4 AV per million

Picks 121-130: 1.58 AV per million

Picks 131-140: 1.1 AV per million

Picks 141-150: 1.15 AV per million

Picks 151-160: 1 AV per million

Picks 161-170: 0.75 AV per million

Picks 171-180: 0.84 AV per million

Picks 181-190: 0.6 AV per million

Picks 191-200: 0.51 AV per million

Picks 201-210: 0.58 AV per million

Picks 211-220: 0.35 AV per million

Picks 221-230: 0.41 AV per million

Picks 231-240: 0.32 AV per million

Picks 240-255: 0.29 AV per million

................................................................................

So by this measure we find that picks seem to rise in value after the top ten. Things are stable between 11 and 30. Then they rise again between 31 and 50. There is another bump around 51. Between 51 and 70 is the peak in value. For the rest of the Draft there is a steady decrease.

Now I know somebody is going to read this and say, “John B actually thinks trading the number one overall pick for the 121st pick would be a good deal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I don’t. That would be ridiculous. At some point common sense applies, and we can appreciate that early first round picks have a value that this method doesn’t fully appreciate. There’s clearly an element missing here. This only looks at the first four years of players’ careers. There clearly is value to drafting an impact player who signs a second contract with your team, and your odds are much higher at finding these players at the early stages of the Draft.

With that said, it is somewhat striking to see the value of fourth, third, and especially second round picks. While the players are not as good in these rounds, there is plenty of quality. And the decrease in quality from round one can be offset somewhat by the large drop in salaries. Even if your second round pick isn’t as good as a first rounder, the money you are saving from the lower second round salary can be spent in free agency to improve your team.

And while I don’t think anything using a method this simple can be taken as the final authority, I d believe it accurately reflects the great value of these picks. I’m not alone in that either.

Michael Lombardi is a member of the media. He also has spent time working in numerous organizations under some of the most brilliant minds in the history of the sport.

Lombardi wrote a book titled Gridiron Genius chronicling his experiences with legends such as Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick.

In the book Lombardi observed the following:

One of the things that shows how Walsh and Belichick operate differently from the rest of the NFL is the way both coaches understand the value of trading down. If everyone in the NFL is missing on nearly half their draft picks, the only way to increase your odds is to make more picks, especially in the second to fourth rounds, where you generally find the best values (cost versus talent). It’s simple math, but it’s amazing how few NFL minds understand it.

That ultimately is the point. It’s difficult to accurately quantify the value of each pick, but there’s clearly value at these stages of the Draft. There are good players available who will carry a minimal cost for four years. Teams should make an effort to accumulate as many picks as possible at those stages of the Draft and very hesitant to deal any away.