The Armchair Quarterback's Guide To The NFL: Draft Pick Analysis Part 1

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The Armchair Quarterback’s Take Of The Week

The Effect Of Drafting Positions On Winning (The Offense)

This week’s Armchair Quarterback is going to be a little different than previous weeks. This is the first of a two part series that will look at the top draft picks over a five year period and see if teams that drafted certain positions did better in both the long and short term than the teams that drafted other positions. For example, did teams that spent an early draft pick on a quarterback end up winning more games than the teams that spent their early pick on an offensive lineman? This week’s column will examine the offensive positions and next week we’ll take a look at the defense.

At this point, I should probably warn you that this is going to be a pretty stat-heavy piece and if that’s just not your kind of thing you may just want to skip ahead to the beer review of the week (Boulevard Brewing’s Tasting Room Mid-Coast IPA). If taking a look inside the numbers of which draft picks equated to more wins sounds interesting, then by all means read on.

Here’s what I did.

I looked at a five year span of top ten draft picks from 2007-2011. The reason for that time span is because I wanted it to be relevant to the modern day NFL that is constantly adapting, but I also wanted the draft picks to have had some time to prove themselves and see if they might have helped their team to win. So every draft pick in this study has had at least three full seasons in the league. I then broke these picks into groups by positions (QB, RB, WR, OL, DT, pass rushers, LBs, CB, and S). I then looked at the records of the teams that drafted these players both before and after the player was drafted. I broke the records down into four categories: winning percentage of the team for the three years prior to the draft pick, the team’s record the year before the draft pick, the team’s record the year after the player was picked, and the team’s total winning percentage with that player on the roster.

What I set out to find is what kind of short and long term effect did drafting that player have on the team’s winning. Let me state for the record that I understand that wins and loses are determined by much, MUCH, MUCH more than who the team drafted with an early first round pick. That goes without saying. However, I do think that we can see some trends when we look at this data. The other thing I did was specifically look at the effect on winning that drafting a Pro Bowl player had. Teams aren’t setting out to draft JaMarcus Russell or Jason Smith. They’re setting out to draft Matt Ryan and Joe Thomas. So I wanted to see if hitting on a player like Joe Thomas, Calvin Johnson, or Adrian Peterson (all of which are Hall of Fame caliber players) equated to more wins for the teams that drafted them.

Here’s the results:

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So what does all of that tell us? Well for those of you that just glossed over it and are hoping I’ll summarize, here you go. The final chart below shows the percentage of improvement for both the first season with the team and over their career when compared with the three years prior to them being drafted. Once again I’ve included the numbers for the Pro Bowl players only so that you can see the difference it makes when you draft a player that becomes elite.

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The first thing that jumps out at me is that (to the surprise of no one) drafting a Pro Bowl quarterback is the absolute best thing that you can do. Not only did the Pro Bowl quarterbacks have the best first season turnarounds, but when you look at the long term winning percentage improvement it is almost three times the amount of the other offensive Pro Bowl positions. The other thing that jumps out is that the running back position clearly has been made obsolete in today’s NFL. The teams that drafted Pro Bowl running backs (one of which, Adrian Peterson, is one of the greatest RBs in the history of the sport) actually have been slightly worse (record wise) with those players on their roster compared to the three years prior to their arrival. So while drafting a QB is the best thing you can do, drafting a Hall of Fame caliber running back does not bring the promise of winning more games.

The wide receiver and offensive line positions have had a more positive effect on winning than the running backs, but it’s still not the impact that quarterback has. When you look at the Pro Bowl players at those positions the difference is marginal. Teams that drafted a Pro Bowl offensive linemen have only averaged 5.5% more wins than they averaged in the three years prior to drafting the player. For Pro Bowl wide receivers that number is only 4.9%.

To accent this point one last time, take a look at the best player drafted during this time span at each of the offensive positions: Matt Ryan, Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, and Joe Thomas. I would argue that Matt Ryan is actually the worst player at his position in that group. I’m not saying that Ryan isn’t great, but the other three are arguably the top player at their position in the NFL while Ryan is one step down from the best QBs in the league. Despite that, look at how the winning percentage for those players with their teams compared to the three years prior to being drafted.

Matt Ryan: +22.9%
Adrian Peterson: +0.7%
Calvin Johnson: +2.9%
Joe Thomas: +3.8%

It’s not even close. The improvement that a very good quarterback brings to a team is about three times greater than the other three positions combined. So when it comes to drafting offensive players for a team it MUST start with the quarterback. No other position has remotely as big of an effect on the team’s ability to win games. The other positions are simply supplemental pieces to work around the quarterback. These can be great players, but if there isn’t a QB there to lead the offense, the wins aren’t going to increase much.

Next week I’ll take a look at the defensive positions and see if any of them can measure up to the quarterback position.

In the meantime, check out the Armchair Quarterback’s Odds and Ends of the Week…….

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