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Where are the top players in each Draft class picked?

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

How frequently do NFL teams get it right in the Draft?

How high of a pick does a team need to find an elite player?

These are relevant questions as we enter NFL Draft week so I decided to take a look. Using Pro Football Reference’s database, I decided to examine Draft classes for the decade from 2010 to 2019 to see where the top talents was selected. Why did I choose this time period?The 2019 class is the most recent to complete its rookie contract. Any class since 2019 is probably too early to fully judge. Going back to 2010 gives us a clean decade.

There are 32 teams. The first round thus has 32 picks. For this effort I found the most successful 32 players from each class using Approximate Value (AV). It is a bit of a convoluted formula. It isn’t perfect, but it does offer a method to compare the respective values of players across positions, which is otherwise very difficult.

What were the findings? Do you need a first round pick to find elite talent? Here are the results of where the top 32 players in each Draft class were selected for the decade in question provided in a pair of elegant-looking GGN charts.

I find this data interesting. It shows that generally speaking teams do get it right. The first round is far and away the most likely place where you can find the top players in the Draft. Almost half of the top 32 came from the opening round. It’s striking to have 49% of the players come from the first round since those picks account for only 12.5% of the picks in a given class.

That said, you could view this data from a different perspective. Just a shade under half the players picked in the first round account ultimately are among the top 32 in their class. That means it’s slightly more likely for teams to miss out.

Beyond that, just under 40% of the top talent in each class goes on day two in either the second or third round. Yes, it’s true there are twice as many picks in rounds two and three as there are in round one. But the day two picks also tend to come with lower salaries so hits in that range carry more value.

The more you dive into Draft data, the more a few things become clear. Higher picks are more valuable than lower picks. A first round pick is better than a second round pick. However, we tend to overrate the degree by which a higher pick is more valuable and underrated the value of the lower pick.

Now let’s talk about the truly elite talent. I decided to take a look at the top ten players from each class. It’s one thing to be good. What about the real difference makers? Surely you need a top ten pick to land one of them, right?

Again, the data provides us with a mixed story as told through two more elegant-looking GGN charts.

Again your chances are clearly better drafting higher. Top ten picks account for just 4% of all players drafted, yet they account for 34% of players on this list.

That said, this data also means that two out of three of the top ten players selected in any given class are picked 11th or lower. That sure makes you rethink the idea of trading up to get into the top ten. Doesn’t it?

Now you might be thinking that this year is different. There is a lot of talk about this being a Draft lacking elite level talent. In 2023 you might make an exception to move up for the top players since there are so few. It makes sense, right?

Well it always depends on the individual trade. Which prospect are you taking? What are you giving up? In general, however, I’m not sure the case is that strong. This year’s class is most frequently compared with 2013, a Draft class generally viewed as very weak. That year only two of the most successful players were selected in the top ten, a lower rate than our overall 34% number. I know we suffer from a tiny sample size, but it does leave us with a lack of evidence suggesting a trade up is more logical in a thin class.

Ultimately we are left with answers I find unsurprising. Picking higher helps, but it is no substitute for effective scouting. A team with a high pick and poor process can get it wrong, while a team with a good front office can find talent later on.