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The Limits to Drafting for Need

NFL Draft Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Every year around this time fans are hopeful their favorite team will be able to fill all of its needs in the Draft. For many this becomes the primary focus.

“We have too many other needs to pick a player at this position,” one might say.

“In the third round we need to pick the best available player at this position,” you’ll hear from another.

The NFL Draft is after all the best remaining chance teams have to improve their rosters before the start of the season. There are a handful of remaining quality free agents. Summer trades and camp cuts are possible, but you never want to count on these things. The Draft is the opportunity.

There’s only one problem. The Draft rarely pays immediate dividends.

Using the Stathead database, I did some research. I found that in the last ten years there have been only 497 drafted rookies in the last ten NFL seasons to start nine games or more in their rookie season. I chose nine games for reasons that should be obvious. If you hit this threshold, you started more than half the games your first year.

Simple math tells us this means roughly 50 rookies per year fit this criteria. That’s a little less than 20% of players drafted.

Even that number is probably overstating the impact. It only tells us these players started games. It doesn’t tell us whether they were actually effective starters. Many are not as rookies.

The numbers do rise to 700 in years two and three falling a bit below 700 in year four. That’s an appreciable rise, but still that means only roughly one quarter of players become consistent starters on their rookie contracts. While there is frequently talk from fans of their favorite team needing to find three to four immediate starters, it just isn’t a realistic hope in most cases.

These numbers should be a clear sign. You can’t be overly choosy about which positions your team picks in the Draft. You should just be happy if your team picks a successful player.

Of course it would be an overstatement to say you can’t use the Draft to fill immediate needs.

In the last ten years only 60% of first round picks fit the immediate starter criteria of at least nine games as rookies. You can reasonably expect to find a starter in the opening round. It only makes sense. It’s where the best, most pro ready prospects are chosen.

I think it stands to reason you can focus a little bit more on position early in the Draft. In the first round most of the prospects are still available so it is likely your team’s biggest needs will be there.

In the second round the immediate starter rate is just north of 40%. While it’s less than a coin flip that’s still a pretty reasonable chance of finding somebody who can step into the lineup right away.

However, the rate falls to around 20% in the third round and around 10% in the fourth. You’re pretty lucky to find an immediate contributor at those stages of the Draft, and it becomes a statistical anomaly after this point. You’re probably not finding players who will help fill your needs immediately after the second round, and that should be a consideration in how you approach thing.

It should become all about the long run. Your needs change from year to year. If a player isn’t going to help you fill your needs this year, and you aren’t entirely sure what your needs will be next year, position probably won’t play as great of a role in your picks as is commonly assumed.

Of course position doesn’t become completely irrelevant. Different positions come with different value. A quarterback is obviously most valuable of all. Broadly speaking if all else is equal, a cornerback will be more valuable than an off ball linebacker and a wide receiver more valuable than a running back.

Still I wonder whether needs based drafting is overrated in the end. In the end it’s very rare to hear analysis that a pick was a success or a failure because it met or didn’t meet a need at the time. It does happen occasionally, but most of the time a pick is remembered purely for player quality.

Back in 2007 did the Jets have a big need at cornerback when they picked Darrelle Revis? For most people the honest answer would be that they don’t remember without looking it up.

I’d argue the real answer is that it doesn’t matter. Would the Revis pick be any less successful if the Jets had bigger needs than cornerback at the time? Of course not. What matters is they picked a great player who lifted the team up. Find enough players like that, and you’ll build a winner regardless of position and other needs.