Takeaways from Last Week – April 7, 2014
Last year, I wrote about my efforts to grade past drafts. And given that it’s almost been a year to the day since I posted that initial breakdown, it’s time to give you an update.
The conventional wisdom says you have to wait at least three years to judge a draft. I tend to think that five years gives you a much more accurate picture. Take for instance a player like Jonathan Babineaux, who did not do much in his first three seasons as an Atlanta Falcon.
Babineaux was predominantly a rotation player. But in 2008, his fourth season, when the Falcons cut Grady Jackson midway through the year, Babineaux filled in ably and started to show flashes of why he was a second-round pick in 2005. But it was really in 2009 that Babs really came into his own and become one of the premier defensive tackles in the league. And in the years since, Babineaux hasn’t be quite as good a player as he was in 2009 but he’s been much better than the mediocre player he seemed to look through his first three and a half years.
In the end, the pick of Babineaux is one of the better ones the Falcons have made over the past decade. That would not have seemed the case had we made the cut-off three years.
The way in which I grade drafts is a simple grading system that assigns every player picked an A, B, C, D or F grade based off their entire five-year body of work. I’ve given examples with current Falcon players.
A – An elite or near-elite player. Mike Lombardi would call these players “blue chips.” They are players that are among the very best at their respective positions. Example: Matt Ryan.
B – Lombardi would call these “red chip” players. They are universally considered to be among the better players at their position and definite impact players. Typically these are guys are perennial Pro Bowlers. Example: Roddy White.
C – Solid starters or a premier role player (e.g. Darren Sproles). They are fairly entrenched as starters in the league and should be able to start on a significant percentage of NFL teams besides their own. Examples: Sam Baker.
D – Backups or low-level starters. These are typically role players, but may also be starters that are considered underwhelming or expendable. Examples: Harry Douglas.
F – They are out of the league.
Last year, I posted the numbers for 2007 and 2008 draft classes, as well as a preliminary look at the 2009 draft class.
The eery thing was that the 2007 and 2008 draft classes were remarkably similar in terms of the amount of talent that entered the league. And while initially the 2009 class looked different, that doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case now that we’ve finished the fifth year of that class. Here’s how the three draft classes break down:
The biggest difference between the draft classes is that the 2009 class lacked the elite players. Clay Matthews and LeSean McCoy were the only players that earned A grades from 2009.
While the number of top players differs, when you factor in A, B and C players collectively as “good players” you don’t see that much difference between the three classes. 2007 produced the most with 61 good players, while 2008 had 56 and 2009 had 58.
I also want to post a preliminary look at the 2010 and 2011 classes. These won’t be the final numbers, but if the 2009 class is the norm, then one can expect that most of the changes a year from now for the 2010 class will be in how many players receive C, D, and F grades.
The 2010 and 2011 draft classes seem to be right on track to the number of good players with 57 each. Assuming there aren’t any drastic changes to that, you can expect that in any given draft class there are going to be between 55-60 players drafted that will develop into solid starters or better.
And it leads me to the belief that the idea of a particular class of prospects being stronger than another is very overrated.
Take for instance the 2014 class that is currently being considered one of the deepest ones in memory due to it being bolstered by a record number of underclassman.
And while I suspect that the number of underclassmen will bolster the class somewhat, I don’t think when 2019 rolls around we’re going to be seeing a drastic difference from what the numbers are showing us for these other drafts.
My prediction is that many of these underclassmen that declared early aren’t going to amount to much. They’re going to be either too raw, green or immature to handle the transition to the NFL and will wash out no differently than any of the other 45 percent of players drafted that are out of the league by the end of their fifth years.
I also think that the media tends to have very short memories in regards to the draft. All the so-called draft experts get a little too enamored with the “shiny new toys” that are in each subsequent class. They believe that somehow this year’s fourth-round pick is going to be substantially better than the ones that came before him, all of whom have about a 50-50 proposition of washing out of the league within five years.
That’s probably an overly cynical outlook on the draft. But I think you have to be a little cynical when it comes to the draft.
But perhaps that’s just me. Given that I have a degree in history, perhaps I pay a little too much attention to trends that occur over time. But I believe the past is the best indicator of the future.
It’s worth a look to see how these grades break down round-by-round from 2007-09:
The chances that you draft a good player (A, B or C) in the first round is about 65 percent. That drops to about 41 percent in round two. Then it’s at 23 and 20 percent respectively for the third and fourth rounds. Then it drops to 11 percent in the fifth round and the single digits thereafter.
Those numbers show exactly why first and second-round picks are so valuable. It’s why I think it’s a very nearsighted move when teams trade future first-round picks in order to move up in the draft.
Simply put, NFL teams need to do a better job retaining those first and second-round picks. Since teams can receive compensatory picks for rounds three and later, I’d be much more willing to move those picks in order to maneuver on the draft day. But it would take unique circumstances to get me to part with a first or second-round pick as part of a draft day trade.
And of course that brings us back around to the Falcons, where they are in a position where they may opt to move up in the draft to get Jadeveon Clowney.
I know I wrote back in February that giving up a Top 75 pick is too much for a trade-up for Clowney. I will now revise that based off these figures as now I’m a bit more willing to give up a third-round pick than I was before. But I’d still be very hesitant to part ways with a first or second-round pick as part of any trade to move up for Clowney.
It’s just so hard to make up for that talent otherwise, even with a player as talented as Clowney. Because I’m also of the belief that outside a quarterback, no other position is worth two players.
The conventional wisdom is that a prolific pass rush can mask flaws in the secondary and that is correct to a point. But people may take it too far with how much the front can cover up the back-end. The St. Louis Rams were one of the weakest pass defenses in the league in 2013, despite having one of the league’s most fearsome pass rushes. The reason for their struggles is because they lacked players in their secondary. And certainly if Robert Quinn and Chris Long weren’t there, they would have been a lot worse than they were. But even combined, Quinn and Long aren’t making up for the fact that Cortland Finnegan was one of the league’s worst cornerbacks and their safeties were green and exposed often.
At the end of the day, Clowney is just one player. And I think in general people tend to vastly overrate the impact of one player, particularly non-quarterbacks. In a vacuum, players like Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham, Mario Williams, J.J. Watt, etc. are outstanding players. But in a team sport like football, they are ultimately just one of 22 pieces on the field.
And if you can’t fill those other 21 spots with quality players, then that one player isn’t going to make a huge difference. There are many good illustrations of this point, but none better than Calvin Johnson. Since he became a Lion in 2007, that team has the second-worst record in the NFL over the past seven seasons. And that’s mainly because the other 21 players on that roster just aren’t good enough. That’s through no fault of Megatron, but much like Barry Sanders, he may be one of the greatest players ever that spends the majority of his career playing on bad or mediocre football teams.
And you ultimately have to be wary of any move that limits your ability to fill those 21 spots.