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Can you avoid a Bust?

By Chad Reuter
Senior Analyst
NFLDraftScout.com

April 15, 2008 -
This is the time of year where draft busts and successes from the past are re-hashed, and general statements about picking a quarterback, defensive tackle, or other positions near the top of the draft are made based on anecdotal evidence: "beware of defensive tackles in the first round, players X and Y didn't work out" and "you don't have to get a franchise quarterback early in the draft…Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick!"

 

But are some positions bust-prone and others almost always effective? Can busts be avoided?

 

Odds against

What is a bust, anyway? One would expect a top ten selection to begin starting games in his second season after at least contributing in some way as a rookie. By year three, he should be entrenched as the regular starter. To quantify that career path, a top ten player should be expected to make 56 starts in his first five seasons. That gives them a one and a half season cushion due to injuries or a veteran roster presence keeping them off the field.

 

The following table shows the percentage of 1994-2003 picks, by selected picks grouped by relative historical production, making at least 56 starts during their first five seasons:

 

Picks

All Players

CB

DE

DT

LB

OG/C

OT

QB

RB

S

TE

WR

1-10

70.0%

70.0%

71.4%

75.0%

75.0%

100.0%

91.7%

57.1%

45.5%

100.0%

100.0%

66.7%

11-20

50.0%

44.4%

36.8%

58.3%

63.6%

80.0%

72.7%

25.0%

30.0%

100.0%

100.0%

30.8%

21-50

35.3%

37.2%

30.0%

26.7%

48.4%

55.6%

40.0%

37.5%

6.7%

37.0%

44.4%

29.3%

51-80

21.3%

17.9%

13.3%

11.1%

30.2%

28.6%

31.3%

0.0%

6.5%

47.8%

9.5%

23.5%

81-120

8.0%

8.3%

5.9%

0.0%

15.0%

19.4%

10.0%

0.0%

0.0%

10.0%

9.5%

7.3%

121-160

3.8%

0.0%

6.1%

0.0%

11.1%

10.4%

0.0%

0.0%

2.8%

2.2%

0.0%

0.0%

161-200

2.5%

0.0%

2.6%

0.0%

3.4%

7.9%

7.7%

4.5%

2.6%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

201+

1.5%

0.0%

2.0%

0.0%

0.0%

8.2%

4.8%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

 

You'd anticipate the highest rate of success from top ten picks, but some may be surprised that 30 percent of top ten picks won't meet the criteria set forth here. The 50-50 odds for mid-first round picks and 35.3% figure for late first and early second round picks are also lower than most people expect. Even late second or early third round picks have only about a one in five shot at becoming regular starters during their first five seasons.

 

The 100% figures in the interior linemen, safety, and tight end groups in the top twenty occur because only one or two players at those positions were picked that high over the decade in question. The value at those positions just isn’t considered worth the top ten player's rookie contract.

 

Leading the regularly-selected positions in top ten success, to no one's surprise, are offensive tackles. It's long been considered one of the "safest" positions to use a top pick: only Buffalo's Mike Williams did not meet the criteria from 1994-2003 (although Robert Gallery hasn't been as good as expected despite starting quite a bit). Willie Anderson, Walter Jones, Johnathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, and Chris Samuels are all future Hall-of-Famers. Tony Boselli spent time in Hawaii after the season early in his career, as well, before injuries took their toll.

 

One surprise on the list is the relative success of defensive tackles. There have certainly been busts over time, but for every Ryan Sims and Johnathan Sullivan there are players like Kevin Williams and Richard Seymour.

 

Most corners, defensive ends, linebackers, and receivers picked in the top ten all had good success in their careers, but between one in three or four still did not quite meet the criteria outlined here. For each Pro Bowler like CB Champ Bailey, WR Keyshawn Johnson, or LB Brian Urlacher, there are the corresponding disappointments like CB Tom Knight, WR J.J. Stokes, or LB Jamir Miller.

 

Backfield not in motion

Quarterbacks and running backs are the clear losers in this data. Top ten QBs are at a bit of a disadvantage because they may not get a chance to start until later in their second or even their third season. That makes the relative lack of success of running backs even more disappointing.

 

Everyone knows the backs who couldn't make it work in the NFL: Tim Biakabutuka, Ki-Jana Carter, Curtis Enis, Lawrence Phillips. Teams were more than happy, however, with the play of Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, and LaDainian Tomlinson. Ricky Williams didn't do much after his first five seasons, but Thomas Jones is one of the few players who really turned it on after leaving his original team.

 

More than any other position, backs have issues staying healthy enough to remain difference-makers throughout the early portion of their careers. Biakabutuka and Carter are classic examples. Former top ten pick Fred Taylor had injury problems early on, but was one of the few who fought through them to have a long (yet underrated) career.

 

Everyone points to the success of Vikings rookie Adrian Peterson as a reason not to be afraid to pick a RB early on…but he did miss some time with injuries in his rookie season. The jury's still out on his ability to stay on the field for 15 or 16 games (although certainly not on his immense talent). Teams looking at making Darren McFadden a top five or six pick this year are considering both sides of that argument.

 

The names from this period that some fans hate to remember at QB: Heath Shuler, Akili Smith, and, of course, the infamous Ryan Leaf. Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb, and Peyton Manning all lived up to their billing. Michael Vick also did not meet the criteria, but his status as a bust did not really solidify until his off-field transgressions caught up with him after his sixth season. Steve McNair did not quite get on the field enough early in his career to get 56 starts. And although some may argue that he never really reached his potential in Tennessee, he certainly does not qualify as an outright bust.

 

This history is one reason teams like Miami (#1 pick), Atlanta (#3), and Kansas City (#5) may pass on top QB Matt Ryan this year despite their need for a signal-caller. The Ravens probably wouldn't pass on him if available at #8…but that's still pretty low for the first quarterback. Eight of the past ten number one overall selections were QBs, and the last time the top gun fell out of the top 15 was in 2000 (the Jets took Chad Pennington at #16).

 

One problem with this data, however, is that it does not focus much on the quality of the players. The tight end numbers look impressive, but Rickey Dudley and Kyle Brady were not exactly the dominant players their drafting teams expected. Gallery has already been mentioned, and regular starting quarterbacks David Carr, Joey Harrington, and Trent Dilfer (even with the Super Bowl ring) aren't considered franchise guys.

 

So in addition to the third of top ten picks who do not meet the criteria, another 10-15% become starters but are not difference-makers. That makes top ten picks just better than a 50-50 proposition to meet team and fan expectations.

 

Worth the wait?

The data table above also displays the difference in value between early and late draft selections. The likelihood of cornerbacks, defensive ends, quarterbacks and wide receivers becoming regular starters drops precipitously from the top ten to picks 11-20.

 

Large decreases happen at most positions in the 21-50 group, as well, although quarterbacks in that range actually have a higher rate of success then their 11-20 counterparts because losing teams picking in the early second (or trading into the late first) need those players to win jobs.

 

But the Dolphins, Falcons, Chiefs and/or Ravens looking to find that bargain in the 21-50 range should heed the still low 37% success rate for those quarterbacks (Drew Brees vs. Patrick Ramsey, Jake Plummer, Shaun King, Jim Druckenmiller, etc.) when considering passing on Ryan early on. Even the 57% for top ten QBs looks appealing in comparison.

 

The most successful groups in the second half of the draft? Interior offensive linemen (8.8% of players picked after #121 met the GP/GS criteria), linebackers (4.9%), tackles (4.5%), and safeties (3.8%). Given the number of players typically picked at these positions from the late fourth to seventh rounds, two to three players in this draft from those positions (combined) will probably become regular starters.

 

No corners, defensive tackles, tight ends, or receivers make the grades in the later rounds. Only one quarterback selected after pick #120 the 1994-2003 drafts became a regular starter in his first five seasons. That's right, it's Brady.

 

Late bloomers?

Some of you may be wondering about players who turn in on later in their careers. Certainly that does happen…but not too often, and certainly not regularly among late round picks. Just 102 of the 1,468 players (6.9%) selected between 1994 and 2000 who did not start 56+ games in their first five seasons ended up starting more than 36 games in years six through eight.

 

The chances of a top 50 pick accomplishing the feat (15.5%) were almost three times greater than those of the last 200 selections (5.6%). And over half of those late bloomers had 36+ starts in their first five years…so they were already well on their way.

 

QBs Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck, CB Al Harris, and WR Joe Horn were late round picks who blossomed into Pro Bowlers later in their career…but they didn't really produce until after they left the team that drafted them. So should they be considered a successful draft pick for that team?

 

In fact, a few players included in the data displayed here had at least some their early success after leaving their drafting team. But the numbers are not significant enough to change the trends outlined above. Even if they were, all that would do is lessen the chances a drafting team would get long-term benefit from a steal in the late rounds.

 

Moving on down

One caveat to this warning about pining for later picks in order to avoid the bust. Typically, the team trading down within or moving just outside the top ten gets the better of the trade. Looking at the GP/GS success percentages above, this makes sense.

 

A team receiving a pick from 11-20 and one from 51-80 for their top ten selection (which matches the values on typical team draft trade charts) has a higher total percentage at getting an outstanding player than the team with just the top ten pick…at least at some positions. Plus, they could get another fine contributor with the other pick.

 

But most of the trades occurring at the top of the draft aren't simple 2-for-1 deals. They'll include swaps of late-round or future year picks. If the team trading up can not lose any net picks in the deal, their likelihood of success is greater. Even a sixth or seventh round pick has a chance, however slight, of becoming a contributor.

 

Of course, grading a trade is wholly subjective. The Giants may believe their Super Bowl win means the acquisition of Eli Manning was worth giving up the picks with which San Diego got Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, Nate Kaeding and more. Others believe Manning played well, but the Giants' defense should receive the credit for beating the Patriots' prolific offense.

 

Other trades are pretty clearly in the favor of the team moving down. Seattle got the better of Green Bay by packaging the #10 pick and a high third rounder for the #17 and Matt Hasselbeck. The Packers picked DE Jamal Reynolds and LB Torrance Marshall, while the 'Hawks got OG Steve Hutchinson and a long-time starting QB. No contest. Dallas moved down two spots in 2002 so the Chiefs could take DT Ryan Sims at #6. The Cowboys then picked SS Roy Williams at #8 and received other picks.

 

And some trades were "even-steven" because both teams did equally well or equally poorly. So, again, moving down—if a trade partner even exists—could help a team but is certainly no guarantee of success.

 

Keeping out of the draft

A group not covered in this article so far is undrafted free agents. Quarterbacks who were unnamed during the draft like Jake Delhomme, Jeff Garcia, Jon Kitna, and Kurt Warner have had long-term success. Tony Romo shows the potential to join this group, although one and a half seasons' play is not quite enough to say for sure.

 

Top backups/spot starters Quinn Gray, Shaun Hill, Damon Huard, Cleo Lemon, and Matt Moore also showed in 2007 that teams need those sorts of players to survive week-to-week when they don't have iron men like Brett Favre and Peyton Manning taking snaps.

 

But considering all of the undrafted quarterbacks coming through training camps over the past 15 years (at least 300), the odds of finding a Romo, Warner, or Garcia are pretty small. And although TE Antonio Gates, S Sammy Knight, DT John Randle, and WR Rod Smith had great careers despite being left out of the draft, they were each signed in different years with about 100 or more other priority free agents and another 300-400 used to fill training camp rosters.

 

If one of 15 free agents a team signs after the draft becomes a starter eventually, that's considered pretty good…or bad, if you think your draft picks or veteran free agent signees should beat out a UDFA.

 

Hurry up or wait

Part of the lesson to be learned here is there is no guarantee an early pick at any position will become more than a solid starter. Not every team can pick an offensive tackle in the top ten… and if they did reach down the board a bit to pick at a "safe" position, the historical trend would eventually fail. Every position group has success stories, disappointing yet somewhat productive players, and flat-out busts. There's no way around it.

 

Mid-to-late round picks make solid contributions to their teams (that should not be overlooked) as spot starters, top reserves, and special teams aces. They are not supposed to be held to the same standard as top ten picks, and are done so here only as a way to show their inability to meet those overly high expectations.

 

So despite the potential bust factor in your team's new top ten quarterback, the fact is that the odds of finding a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker are still highest early in the draft. If you're hoping your team will pick up a Tom Brady (or even Aaron Brooks or Matt Hasselbeck) in the late rounds, just wait a decade…it might just happen.






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