With the NFL draft pushed back by a couple of weeks, coverage of the league’s biggest offseason event is getting a little stale as we inch closer to the first round on May 8.
There’s only so much that can be said about a process that is based on the unknown: how a college football player will translate to the next level.
But the draft gets intense coverage for a reason: It’s the most crucial and effective tool for building a roster. The teams that draft well are more likely to enjoy sustained success thanks to an injection of cheap, young talent. A team’s failure to replenish its talent in the draft forces NFL front offices into spending in free agency, a strategy that rarely pays off.
Related: NFL Draft up-to-the-minute updates
The changes in the last CBA, which significantly lessened the amount of money given out to rookies selected at the top of the draft, has made the draft even more valuable to NFL front offices.
So which front offices have done the best job of taking advantage of the draft? To figure that out, the Q reviewed the last five drafts and developed a statistical measure of which teams have done the best job of selecting college prospects, regardless of their draft slot.
The goal of this study is to determine which teams draft the best — not which teams have drafted the best players. So a team, like the Patriots, who routinely pick at the end of rounds, might not bring in the type of marquee rookies that a team like the Lions have; but New England has done a better job of picking given their positions in the draft order.
Each draft pick has been assigned a numerical grade based on the player’s performance, number of games played, positional value and the pick with which they were selected. The average grade was 0.55.
Performance was based on Pro Football Focus grades. Positional value was based on the average salary of each position. And the value of the draft pick was based on Jimmy Johnson’s famed draft pick value chart. Performance and games played accounts for about two-thirds of the grade, while pick and positional value accounts for the remaining third.
The grade is not necessarily a representation of the player’s ability but rather the value of the pick he was selected with. For instance, Andrew Luck is probably a better player than Russell Wilson, but Wilson has a higher grade because he was picked in the third round. The Colts do not get credit for being good drafters for making a pick that even the worst GM would have made.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the results.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that teams finishing in the top-half of the league combined for nine Super Bowl appearances — and all five Lombardi trophies — in the last five seasons, while the bottom half combined for just one appearance in the title game. Only four of the league’s 12 playoff teams in 2013 finished in the bottom half. In a league driven by the salary cap, the NFL Draft is still the most efficient way of building a roster. The teams that do the best job of doing so are the teams that finish at the top of the standings.
Best drafting teams
1. New England Patriots
The Patriots have a reputation as being the NFL’s model franchise — Spygate and the Aaron Hernandez case aside — and a lot of that derives from how the team constructs its roster. A perennial position at the top of the standings should make it hard for a team to add a lot of talent through the drafts, but New England has found a way. The Patriots haven’t hit a lot of home runs, but they’ve rarely struck out. Getting TE Rob Gronkowski with the 42nd pick in 2010 and LB Jamie Collins with the 52nd pick in 2013 are just a couple examples of the gems the New England brain trust has uncovered outside of the first round.
2. Tennessee Titans
Watching the Titans over the last few years, you get the sense that the team is just one or two breaks away from breaking into the playoffs. Tennessee hasn’t been a big free agent destination, but the front office has managed to keep the roster stocked with talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Over the last half-decade, they have added good defenders like CB Jason McCourty, CB Alterraun Verner, DT Jurrell Casey and DT Mike Martin outside of the top-75. Picking offensive players has been an issue for the Titans, but they’ve added some decent pieces in the draft over the years.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have one of the best rosters in NFL, and the most impressive thing about the construction of the team has been how many of its best players are homegrown talent. Sure, the 49ers have benefited from acquisitions of veterans like Anquan Boldin and Justin Smith, but the majority of the team’s many stars were brought in through the draft. This study does not go far back enough to account for players like Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis, but inspired picks like QB Colin Kaepernick, LG Mike Iupati and LB NaVorro Bowman have been enough to keep the 49ers near the top of this list.
4. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks laid an excellent foundation for their Super Bowl run through the draft, but a lot of their draft success came in later rounds while they struggled with their top picks. LB Aaron Curry was a big miss in 2009, and LT Russell Okung and LB Bruce Irvin have been inconsistent. The Seahawks’ work outside of the first round has been exceptional though. QB Russell Wilson, CB Richard Sherman, SS Kam Chancellor and LB Bobby Wagner were selected in later rounds. If not for some shaky top picks, Seattle would have easily topped this list.
Worst drafting teams
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have been big players in free agency of late and there’s a reason for that: Their drafting has been poor over the last half-decade. DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David were great picks, but outside of those two, there’s little else. QB Josh Freeman never quite worked out after a good sophomore campaign, SS Mark Barron has been a disappointment over the first two years of his career and the Bucs tried but failed to land an edge rusher multiple times. If Tampa Bay wants to turn things around, it will need to hit on some draft picks to help compliment its free agent acquisitions.
30. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers haven’t taken any notable busts over the last five years, but outside of WR Keenan Allen in 2013 and G Louis Vasquez, who’s no longer with the team, there haven’t been many good ones either. RB Ryan Mathews has shown flashes but the 2009 first round pick has struggled to stay healthy. 2012 first-rounder LB Melvin Ingram has only two sacks in his first two seasons. The Chargers had one of the more talented teams in the league just a couple seasons ago, but that has changed dramatically as of late due to poor drafting.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
Even after a nice offseason, the Jaguars still possess the league’s least talented roster. Former GM Gene Smith presided over the team from 2009 to 2012 and it’s easy to see why he was let go by new owner Shad Khan. After taking LT Eugene Monroe in the first round in 2009, the Jags then took DT Tyson Alualu, QB Blaine Gabbert and WR Justin Blackmon with their next three top picks. Alualu has been a bust, Gabbert was statistically one of the worst QBs in NFL history and Blackmon’s off-field issues have kept him on the sideline for far too many games. New GM David Caldwell has done a good job leading a massive rebuild, and the draft will play a big part in turning things around in Jacksonville.
32. Chicago Bears
In the beginning of Jerry Angelo’s tenure as Bears GM, he did a fantastic job of drafting. That was not the case towards the end, however. Outside of WR Alshon Jeffrey and G Kyle Long, who were selected by new GM Phil Emery, the Bears haven’t drafted an impact player in the last five years. When their aging defense was hit hard with injuries last season, the Bears’ lack of depth showed — that’s the result of poor drafting. S Major Wright, Chicago’s top pick in 2010, has been a liability at the safety position. DE Shea McClellin has yet to make an impact as a rusher off the edge. And 2011 first-round pick T Gabe Carimi played poorly before heading to Tampa Bay. With Emery now in charge, things could be headed in a better direction very soon.
1. J.J. Watt, Texans, 11th pick in 2011 Draft
It didn’t take long for Watt to become the most dominant defensive player in the league. The former Wisconsin Badger won the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year in his second season and could have won another in 2013 if not for the Texans’ poor record. When you can get one of the best players in the league with a pick outside of the top-10, it’s a steal.
2. Russell Wilson, Seahawks, 75th pick in 2012 Draft
Wilson’s height dropped him down to the third-round. But in just two seasons, Wilson has proven his height will not be an issue. He may have benefited from a spectacular supporting cast, but Seattle has a franchise quarterback and it didn’t take a high pick to get him.
3. Geno Atkins, Bengals, 120th pick in 2010 Draft
If Watt is the NFL’s most dominant defender, Atkins is not far behind. The fourth-round pick was having another all-pro year in 2013 before going down with an ACL tear. Getting that type of talent that late in the draft is rarely done.
4. Von Miller, Broncos, 2nd pick in 2011 Draft
Miller was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, yet he’s still considered one of the most valuable picks. That’s a testament to how disruptive Miller has been to opposing offenses. Miller had trouble staying on the field in 2013, but the Broncos have to be happy with their pick.
5. NaVorro Bowman, 49ers, 91st pick in 2010 Draft
Bowman has slowly become one of the best inside linebackers in the game. In 2013 he emerged from Patrick Willis’ shadow and had a dominating year. The 49ers got Bowman in the third round of the draft, while peers like Willis and Luke Kuechly were taken in the first.
1. Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars, 10th pick in 2010 Draft
Gabbert compiled a 66.4 QB rating in three seasons with the Jaguars before being shipped off to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick. Gabbert has all the physical tools to be a franchise QB, but his pocket presence has been downright awful.
2. Mark Sanchez, Jets, 5th pick in 2009 Draft
Sanchez is the poster child for the theory that QB win-loss records are a tad overrated. After helping the Jets to two straight AFC title games, Sanchez imploded when the talented around him dipped. A 68-to-69 TD-INT ratio is not going to cut it in the NFL.
3. Jason Smith, Rams, 2nd pick in 2009 Draft
The Rams drafted Smith with the idea of the former Baylor Bear becoming a dominant pass protector. That never materialized and Smith went to the Jets before sitting out the 2013 season.
4. Sam Bradford, Rams, 1st pick in 2010 Draft
Bradford hasn’t played poorly in St. Louis, but he also hasn’t lived up to the hype of being the No. 1 pick. After a good rookie campaign, Bradford has struggled with consistency and injuries. Getting a large contract before the new CBA was signed hasn’t helped his value either.
5. Aaron Curry, Seahawks, 4th pick in 2009 Draft
The player who was supposed to be the 2009 draft’s safest bet turned out to be one of its biggest busts. Curry never made an impact with the Seahawks and has since bounced around multiple teams’ training camps.