For the past several years during one of the first weeks in April, I write a takeaways column detailing my attempts to grade past NFL drafts. I’ve been doing this for the past three years and thus far have looked at the 2007 through 2010 drafts five years after the fact. This week’s column will detail my analysis looking back five years at the 2011 NFL Draft.
However first I should express some of the conclusions I’ve come to over the years of doing this research, especially for any of you in the tl;dr crowd.
Now that there is five years worth of data to judge, I feel a lot better about drawing some stronger conclusions. But nonetheless my two main conclusions remain the same as they were in previous years:
- The relative strength versus weakness of any given draft class is overstated.
- Draft prospects have a tendency to be overrated because so very few of them ever achieve high levels of NFL success.
The first conclusion I’ll discuss later in this column, but I should partially address the second one before reaching that point.
These conclusions have colored my perception of the annual draft process, as I often refer to the offseason as a “season of hype.” That hype comes in the form of expectations that are rarely met by players entering the league.
As the data will later show, most players that are lucky to get drafted wind up becoming what many might call “middling” players in the NFL. A significant majority will never sniff the starting lineup in the NFL and wind up being role players. Nearly just as many won’t ever be able to pin that on their résumés as they will wash out of the league after a few years without ever making good on their NFL hopes.
Yet year after year, this doesn’t stop “draftniks” from suggesting that every player potentially selecting the first round will be a perennial Pro Bowler and every mid-round pick is destined to be a valued and highly productive starter.
The reality is much harsher. While I respect the notion of being hopeful that any given player might wind up beating the odds and being successful in the NFL (and yes the data indicates that does happen enough that it would be foolish to completely write off any prospect), I do believe that for people that are content-creators or opinion-makers in regards to all things NFL Draft-related, which I try to be, there is a certain level of realism that we have a duty to uphold.
I don’t believe that it requires going the opposite way by being overly pessimistic in suggesting every prospect is going to only be mediocre in NFL. But it has compelled me to shift my own process in evaluating prospects and begin to look for the “special” qualities that will make a player rise above the crowd and become one of the relatively rare superstars at the next level. Should I find a prospect lacking in those distinctive traits, I think it would be irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
That comes from the possibility that a player might wind up having a better-than-average NFL career, but because expectations were so exceedingly high entering the NFL, that career is seen in a negative light.
If a player winds up exceeding these more realistic expectations, I believe that’s a better outcome in the end. Those “outliers” like Richard Sherman or Antonio Brown should be celebrated.
I could wax poetic about this subject and perhaps will later this offseason if or when I have difficulty finding a topic for a future column. But let’s finally dive into the data, but first we have to take a moment to refresh yourself on the methods to my madness.
Both Subjective and Objective Methods Used to Analyze Drafts
Back in 2013, I detailed my attempts to break down the 2007 and 2008 drafts. In 2014, I added the 2009 draft class to the analysis. And last year, the 2010 was brought into the mix. This year that means that it’s time to look back at the 2011 class.
For those not in the know, I decided that it’s more accurate to look back at past drafts after five years rather than the traditional three because it better reflects how individual players’ careers turned out. I won’t spend too much time explaining that reasoning, as I have done so in each of the past three years’ columns. But for any that are curious how I came to the five-year cutoff, I recommend going back and reading the first few paragraphs of last year’s column.
One will also note that last year I started to try and bring objective analysis into the equation by using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric to look at past drafts rather than my subjective method of assigning letter grades (A, B, C, D or F) on each player selected. I’ll try to use the more objective AV-based analysis for later conclusions, but I still believe the subjective letter grades are a worthwhile method of parsing the relative strength of the 2011 class in comparison to the previous four drafts.
So let’s look at each of the drafts from 2007 to 2011 based off the subject A through F grading system:
Draft Grades (2007-11)
2011 Draft’s “Strength” in its Upper-Echelon Players
As you can see, the 2011 draft is “king” when it comes to the much higher amount of elite “A-level” talent it produced. Notably most of that came in the first round, as I concluded that seven of the first 14 picks in the draft wound up being elite players.
Three of the next four players drafted wound up becoming “B-level” players, indicating that they are top starters.
Of the 21 “A and B” players, 15 of them were drafted in the first round. It was a very top-heavy draft, much like the 2010 class that featured a significant portion of the best players being selected early.
Yet despite being incredibly top-heavy, overall there was still about the same amount of players that achieved A, B or C grades as there were in previous drafts. A total of 57 players were deemed to reach the “C level” (i.e. quality starter) or higher, which is right in line with the average of 57.5 from the previous four drafts.
What also is notable is that the number of “D-level” players fell by a significant margin. A year ago when looking at the 2011 draft after four seasons, I concluded that there were 123 players that were considered backups/role players at that point by earning a D grade.
That number fell by a huge margin by the end of this past season, with a large number of players (43) basically getting cut this past summer in training camp and finding themselves out of the league by year’s end. Two “D-level” players moved in the opposite direction and were able to elevate themselves to Cs.
For the 2010 class the number of players that found themselves being pushed out of the league between the ends of years four and five was about half as much. So it might be worthwhile to consider that the fifth summer a player finds himself in the league could be a breaking/turning point in his career.
That also meant that the 2011 draft, despite its superior talent at the top of the draft, also had the second-lowest number of players still in the NFL after five years with 135 such players. That barely edged out the “weak” 2009 draft class that had 134 players still in the league after five seasons. 2010 was the deepest group with 162 players still active, with 2007 and 2008 being about the same with 141 and 146, respectively.
What Determines a Weak vs. Strong Draft Class?
Determining the relative “strength” of an individual draft class thus depends on criteria. The 2010 class featured a relatively large number of top players (As and Bs) as well as a deep pool of backups and role players (Ds). On the other hand, 2011 had a higher number of upper-echelon players but a relatively small number of total players overall.
Which draft is stronger? For most, it’s likely the class with the most top-level talent will be judged as the stronger group, thus favoring 2011 over the others.
A decade from now, the 2011 draft might be considered one of the “strongest” in modern NFL history given the number of potential Hall of Famers it features, yet overall the amount of talent it put in the NFL is still roughly the same as the other drafts.
The difference between it and 2010 in terms of the total players still in the NFL after five seasons amounts to 28 players, a difference of about 11 percent of the total number of players selected. At least from this subjective measure, it still hammers home the point that the talent distribution year-to-year from draft class to draft class doesn’t change all that much.
Thus the notion of a “weak” or “strong” draft class is very much overblown, unless you consider an 11-percent difference to be significant. Therefore, I think it’s more important to measure the relative quality of any given year’s draft less on the overall talent but rather on how said talent is distributed.
Stronger drafts like 2010 and 2011 tend to be top heavy with the bulk of the players that wind up achieving high levels of NFL success being selected early. “Weaker” drafts’ talent distribution appears a bit more random, at least with some of the more successful players being found towards the latter part of the first round and/or in subsequent rounds. But for the most part it will be a handful less superstars that define a “weak” draft.
Objective Analysis Shows 2011 Still Dominated With Elite Talent
Now let’s turn our attention to the more objective analysis by looking at the 2011 draft through the lens of Approximate Value to see if some of these same conclusions hold up.
Notably the 2011 draft class featured the two players with the highest Approximate Value after five NFL seasons over the five-year data set in J.J. Watt (88) and Cam Newton (83).
The 2009 draft featured just two players that crossed the 50-AV threshold: Clay Matthews (55) and LeSean McCoy (53), while 2011 featured 11 such players, once again confirming that it was a fairly top-heavy group in comparison to previous classes.
Let’s take a further look at the frequency in which players were selected in each of the five draft classes by five-point AV intervals:
It’s notable that the 2011 class “overachieved” in only two interval groups at the top and bottom. Their 11 players with 50+ AV was nearly twice as much of the average of the five-year data set (6.4). They also had 78 players with a five-year AV between one and five, which was significantly more than the average of 67.2.
That meant that in most other interval groups, the 2011 class actually came below the five-year averages, although in most cases it was only by a handful of players.
The average player drafted over the entire five-year data set achieved a five-year AV of 11.9. We can use standard deviation from that average to showcase how talent was distributed between each draft.
Draft Picks by AV Standard Deviation (2007-11)
This data also shows that 2011 was a “strong” draft with nearly a third (29 percent) of the players that had five-year AVs of 40 or higher (representing two standard deviations from the mean) being from that class. It had nearly half the players (42 percent) three standard deviations from the mean i.e. with five-year AVs of 54 or more.
Yet it was just average when it came to the one standard deviation players with five-year AVs of 26 with only 39 such players.
If everyone that reached a five-year AV of 26 could be termed the “good” players put into the NFL, then this info suggests that the relative strength of any individual draft class isn’t really measured by the overall amount of good players. Instead, it’ll simply be determined by the increased amount of “great” players that are achieved far beyond the norm in terms of AV.
Yet even though 2011 doubled or tripled the number of “great” players in comparison to the average of the previous four years, relative to the entire sample of 250-plus players selected, that difference is still somewhat small. Ultimately the difference between a weak and strong draft class may be less than a dozen players.
Certainly for the dozen or so teams that reap the benefits of drafting those individual players that significance can be massive as it results in finding a player like Watt (five-year AV of 88) rather than Adrian Clayborn (17).
Ultimately the significance of labeling a draft class as weak or strength comes down to the reality that finding another defensive lineman like Watt is relatively low and instead you’ll just have to settle for more players like Corey Liuget (five-year AV of 34).
As I noted last year, I believe that should affect how teams approach the draft by seeking to add talent via a cumulative process rather than expecting that they will happen upon the next Watt, who wind up having some franchise-changing impact.
Adding a player like Liuget is not far from the norm of what teams typically find in the first round of the draft. The average first-round pick over the five-year data set had a five-year AV of 31.5. Acquiring a player on par with Liuget can thus be deemed a realistic expectation for any given first-round pick.
Liuget is certainly a good player in his own right. His 21 sacks over the past five seasons lead the San Diego Chargers over that span, and his value to that team merited him being given a contract extension worth over $50 million last summer.
Yet I would wager that if you suggested that a 2016 prospect like Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson was “only” going to be as good as a player like Liuget, that would be deemed disappointing in many eyes.
Liuget represents a realistic expectation for any first-round prospect. He’s yet to make a single Pro Bowl, but is certainly one of the better players on the Chargers roster and deemed a key part of their defensive foundation.
Falcons 2015 Class Might Not “Realistically” Reach Full Potential
Applying this more realistic approach impacts the outlook of the Atlanta Falcons’ most recent 2015 class.
Immediately following the draft, the Falcons’ seven-man group consisting of Vic Beasley, Jalen Collins, Tevin Coleman, Justin Hardy, Grady Jarrett, Jake Rodgers and Akeem King was considered one of the strongest collectives added by any NFL team a year ago.
Yet realistically in terms of how it might play out after five years suggests that the Falcons might not reap huge benefits. This analysis becomes a lot easier when we go back to the more subjective method of utilizing letter grades.
Over the five-year data set, 22.6 percent of all players drafted wound up becoming quality starters by achieving A, B or C grades. Applying that to a seven-member draft class such as what the Falcons had in 2015 equals 1.6 players. For the sake of argument, let’s be optimistic and round that up to two to say that the Falcons were better than average at finding starting-caliber talent last spring.
Guessing which of those players they might be is part of the “crapshoot” nature of the draft. Immediately following the draft, I would have wagered Beasley and Collins as the two likeliest players to reach those levels. Now a year into their careers, I’d probably shift my answer to Beasley and Jarrett. That’s largely because I believe that most of the players that do wind up succeeding have a tendency to flash their abilities early in their careers even if they haven’t quite all put it together yet.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, 43.6 percent of the 1,272 players drafted between 2007 and 2011 were out of the league by the end of their fifth seasons. Applied to the Falcons’ seven-member 2015 draft class, that would equal 3.1 players not only being off the Falcons by 2020 but also off any other NFL roster.
If being more realistic, which three players would be the best bets to achieve that “dishonor?” It’s probably easy to wager that two of them would be the pair of seventh rounders in Rodgers and King. But who the third selection might be is anybody’s guess. Looking back a year later, I’d probably be inclined to select Coleman at the least likeliest to hang on among the three remaining picks.
That is because unlike Collins or Hardy, Coleman doesn’t play special teams. Even if Collins and Hardy fail to live up to expectations as reliable starters, the ability they showed on special teams as rookies should help keep them on an NFL roster even if it’s not Atlanta’s. That makes Coleman the most vulnerable given his ability to stick in the pros will be heavily tied to his ability to produce on offense. An injury or limited production could be a major setback in keeping employed throughout the league.
Four years from now when looking back at the Falcons’ 2015 class, a realistic expectation might be that it only produced two starters and two backups for the team. Expectations immediately following the draft were probably a lot higher believing that the Falcons might have acquired up to four quality starters.
Even objectively the data suggests the chances that the Falcons found a player that will have a five-year AV of 26 or more is less than one in seven (15.6 percent). Ex-Falcons safety William Moore’s five-year AV equaled 26 as a point of comparison.
Only 38.1 percent of all players drafted over the five-year data set achieved an AV of 12 or more, making them above-average pros. Even if rounding up slightly, that means that it’s likely that only three of the team’s 2015 draftees will outperform past Falcons like Garrett Reynolds and Matt Bosher, who had five-year AVs of 15 and 10, respectively.
Five Picks Won’t Cut it For Falcons in 2016
This sort of outlook is why when you look towards the Falcons’ prospective 2016 draft, you see that having just five picks won’t cut it. Whether using subjective or objective analysis, the numbers suggest that limited number of picks is completely insufficient when it comes to talent acquisition.
It’s not impossible that the Falcons could hit on multiple players with a limited number of picks. The Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks each all drafted three players in 2011 that achieved five-year AVs above 26. They had eight, eight and nine draft picks, respectively, in that draft. That’s a hit rate approaching 40 percent, suggesting that it’s within the realm of possibility that the Falcons could find two players on par if not better than William Moore.
But certainly the odds that you find such quality increases with additional picks. That’s why it’s conducive to maximize the amount of picks you have especially early in the draft. And it’s why it’s imperative that the Falcons think hard about trading back early in this year’s draft.
I could spend all day parsing out some of this data, but I’d rather just leave you with a few tables to look over, so you yourself can come to your own conclusions:
First up is all the Approximate Values of every draft pick from 2007 to 2011 plotted out with the trendlines for each year.
Here’s the chart with the data points removed so that the proximity of the trendlines for each year are more clearly shown:
Here is the average Approximate Value of each draft pick slot using all fiv
Here’s the subjective grades of how each round broke down over the entire five-year data set:
Here’s the average Approximate Value of each year’s draft based on the round they were selected:
Average AV by Round (2007-11)