Last night I was wondering how often NFL teams "hit" on first-round picks, and how often they just whiff on the players that are supposed to be franchise cornerstones. Being me, I decided to measure it. I went back through the last five eligible NFL first rounds, 2006-2010, and rated the 160* players on a four-category scale. Best was a Gigantic Hit, a great player and talent who's one of the top players at his position. Second-best was a Hit, a solid or above-average NFL starter. Third was So-So or Too Soon To Tell, for "meh" players; fourth was a "whiff", or bust. GH and H were grouped together as "good" players, SS/TSTT and W as "bad".
I can’t stress enough that all definitions are subjective here, and that the five-year timeframe was picked arbitrarily. It’s also important to note that the “so-so/too soon to tell” column has thinned out as you go back farther, because players got more of an opportunity to prove themselves (even past the three-year evaluation period generally used by NFL teams). First-round picks often get multiple chances from NFL teams if the first team doesn’t work out, and many players have thrived in a different environment or scheme. I will say that most players fit fairly easily into "bad" or "good", and that most of the tough calls were on whether a player was "so-so" or a "whiff", or a "hit" or "gigantic hit".
Teams hit on 86 of 160 players, or 53.75%; the remaining 74 (46.25%) were so-so, still developing or whiffs. Eighteen players were judged Gigantic Hits (11.25% of total), 68 hits (42.5%), 40 so-so/too soon (25%) and 34 whiffs (21.25%).
GH: 3 (9.3%)
H: 14 (43.75%)
SS/TSTT: 11 (34.37%)
W: 4 (12.5%)
GH: 2 (6.25%)
H: 16 (50%)
SS/TTST: 8 (25/%)
W: 6 (18.75%)
GH: 4 (12.5%)
H: 8 (25%)
SS/TTST: 12 (37.5%)
W: 8 (25%)
GH: 6 (18.75%)
H: 13 (40.6%)
SS/TTST: 5 (15.6%)
W: 8 (25%)
GH: 3 (9.37%)
H: 17 (53%)
SS/TTST: 5 (15.6%)
The best draft in that timeframe was judged to be 2006, when 20 of 32 players (62%) were graded “hit” or “gigantic hit”. The worst was 2008, which boasted four “gigantic hits” but only eight “hits”, for a total of 37.5% good players. It was the only draft to score below 50% in “good” players. 2007 boasted six “gigantic hits”: (2)** Calvin Johnson, (3) Joe Thomas, (7) Adrian Peterson, (11) Patrick Willis. (14) Darrelle Revis and (29) Ben Grubbs.
However, it also tied 2008 with the most “whiffs”, with eight. ‘07’s “whiffs”: (1) JaMarcus Russell, (4) Gaines Adams, (8) Jamaal Anderson, (16) Justin Harrell, (17) Jarvis Moss, (22) Brady Quinn, (30) Craig “Buster” Davis and (32) Anthony Gonzalez. ‘08’s: (5) Glenn Dorsey, (6) Vernon Gholston, (7) Sedrick Ellis, (8) Derrick Harvey (unlucky run!), (14) Chris Williams, (19) Jeff Otah, (28) Lawrence Jackson, (29) Kentwan Balmer and (32) Phillip Merling.
Of the 50 examples, players drafted in the top ten broke down thus: 7 “gigantic hits” (14%), 20 “hits” (40%), 10 “so-so” (20%) and 13 “whiffs” (26%). Remember that in April; one in four of those highly touted top-ten picks will bust out, and two in five will not even make ‘solid starter’ status. Only fourteen percent of them per year will fulfill their pre-draft hype. Every year saw at least one top-ten whiff, and only 2010 lacked at least one top-five whiff.
Eleven quarterbacks were drafted, with two GH (Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco), three hits, one so-so and six whiffs.
Wide receiver was one of the most popular positions, with fifteen selections. Two GH (Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin), seven hits, four so-sos and two whiffs.
Running back: 17 picks. Two GH (Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson), six hits, seven so-sos, two whiffs.
Tight end: six picks. One GH was the incomparable Vernon Davis; the other five were hits, one coming every year.
Tackle: Popular and safe. The nineteen picks boasted two GH (Joe Thomas, Jake Long) and thirteen hits, with just one so-so and three whiffs.
Guard: Two picks, one GH (Ben Grubbs), one hit.
Center: four picks, one GH (Nick Mangold), three hits. Offensive line is safe.
Defensive end (4-3 only): thirteen picks, one GH (Jason Pierre-Paul), four hits, three so-so, five whiffs.
Defensive tackle (4-3 DT, 3-4 NT and DE): the most popular and by far the riskiest pick. The twenty-one players included two GH (Ndamukong Suh, Haloti Ngata) and two hits, but eight so-sos and nine whiffs.
Outside ‘backers (3-4 only): 11 picks, one GH (Clay Matthews), three hits, two so-sos, five whiffs.
Inside ‘backers (3-4 and 4-3 ILBs, 4-3 OLBs): 11 picks, one GH (Patrick Willis), six hits, two so-so, two whiffs.
Cornerback, another popular one: 15 selections, one GH (Darrelle Revis), seven hits, six so-sos, one bust.
Safety, one of the safest in the draft: nine picks, one GH (Earl Thomas), seven hits, one so-so.
Analysis and Trivia
-If your favorite team is drafting O-line, you have an 84% chance of getting a “hit” (21 of 25) and a 16% chance (4 in 25) of getting a "Gigantic Hit". Those are not bad odds.
-Conversely, you have just a 26% chance (9 of 34) of getting a “hit” with a member of the defensive line, including a stunning 19% chance (4 of 21) with a defensive tackle. Those are horrific odds. The four players that made it? Haloti Ngata (12th in ’06), B.J. Raji (9th in ’09), Ndamukong Suh (2nd in ’10) and Gerald McCoy (3rd in ’10). Everybody drafted No. 13 or later was so-so or worse.
-The positions at which players were least often selected—center, guard, safety, tight end—had by far the best ratios, probably because nobody feels the need to overreach for them. The four positions combined for just 15 selections, but boasted fourteen “hits” and four “Gigantic Hits” (26% chance of Gigantic Hit, better than double the average).
-Every position had at least one Gigantic Hit, which I did not plan on and was quite surprised to see.
-GMs made 74 selections on offense, 86 on defense.
-The Indianapolis Colts had four selections, one hit (Joseph Addai), one so-so and two whiffs. Admittedly, they drafted 30th, 32nd, 27th and 31st.
-The Packers will pick No. 26 in 2013, barring a trade. Players selected at No. 26 in the marking period include Green Bay’s Clay Matthews (GH), Dallas’s Anthony Spencer (H), Houston’s Duane Brown (H), Arizona’s Dan Williams (so-so) and Buffalo’s John McCargo (whiff). Other recent examples outside the marking period include Kansas City’s Jonathan Baldwin (’11), Houston’s Whitney Mercilus (’12), Seattle’s Chris Spencer (’05, later with Chicago), Cincinnati’s Chris Perry (’04) and San Francisco’s Kwame Harris ('03). (Those last three didn’t amount to much.)
-Green Bay had one GH (Matthews), three hits (Bryan Bulaga, Raji, A.J. Hawk) and one whiff (Justin Harrell) during the marking period. They did not have a first-round pick in '08, but made up for it with two in '09.
The full lists will be available in a subsequent post.
*The 2008 first round had only 31 picks due to Spygate, so I included the Dolphins' Phillip Merling at No. 32.
**Numbers denote draft position.