How Important Are Extra Draft Picks to Future NFL Success?
"The night of the draft, you might feel a slight sting. That's pride messin' with you. Forget pride. Pride only hurts. It never helps. You fight through that. 'Cuz a year from now, when you kickin' it Houston at the Super Bowl, you're gonna say to yourself, 'Bill Belichick was right.'"
Who doesn't formulate their NFL draft strategy by cherry-picking modified quotations from Pulp Fiction?
Marsellus Wallace might not have been the most forgiving gang leader, but dude could have made a great general manager. By acknowledging that pride only hurts, Wallace may have been able to avoid the mistakes that have illed teams in the past.
This is something that crops up all over in decision-making, but it is most obvious and measurable when it comes to the NFL draft. Prospects bust with disgusting regularity, meaning that the odds that the player you're about to pick ends up being a non-factor are fairly high. However, when you increase the number of picks you get to make, the odds you stumble into a few good ones will increase.
This isn't some new line of thinking out of Mr. Wallace. Former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson viewed having a high volume of draft picks as "insurance against mistakes," and he hasn't coached in the NFL since the turn of the century. But if stockpiling draft picks were a truly viable strategy, wouldn't it be a more widespread philosophy by now?
Sure, we have the New England Patriots, who seemingly trade down 5 to 10 times before every pick, but they generally seem to be the exception rather than the rule. It has worked out well for them, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work for everybody.
Let's try to answer this question using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of teams and players with the team totals being adjusted based on the strength of opponent.
Here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, a team has an expected number of points it will score on its current drive. When they pick up a first down, that number will go up, and the team will have positive NEP for the play. If the quarterback gets nailed for a sack, the expected points will go down, dragging NEP down with it. Tracking these fluctuations over the course of a year can give us the best idea of an offense's and defense's efficiency, illustrating whether or not what they're doing is working.
Using NEP, let's tackle this question to see whether more draft picks lead to merrier teams, or if Marsellus Wallace should stick to getting medieval on people's behinds.
The Sample Taken
To investigate this, I went back through each draft from 2001 through 2015 to see which teams had at least 10 draft picks in a single season. This included 93 different teams, though the Houston Texans' 2002 draft was discarded because there was no previous-year data before their expansion season.
With each of these seasons, I recorded the Adjusted NEP per play and Adjusted Defensive NEP per play each team had the year before the draft and the two years after. These are the two broad measures numberFire has for each side of the ball, providing the best glimpse into year-to-year improvement for the respective units.
The intent here was to see whether or not the teams with a wealth of draft picks saw improvements in the two seasons after the draft. If not, then it may hint that trading up for players about whom a team feels confident could be the best strategy. If they do improve, though, then that would seem to be a risky strategy. Let's see what the data says.
Improvement on Both Offense and Defense
The sample here will include all 92 teams for Year 1, but Year 2 will be limited to only 87, as five teams had at least 10 draft picks in the 2015 draft. This is a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions, and the numbers look actionable.
This table illustrates the results of the study. The Adjusted NEP or Adjusted Defensive NEP per play in each cell indicates the average of each of the teams in that respective season relative to their marks the year prior to the draft. A mark of 0.000 would indicate no change. If the offensive number is positive, that indicates improvement, while a negative mark would do so on defense.
|Unit||Year 1 Change||Year 2 Change|
Does Marsellus Wallace look like a genius?
The net change (Adjusted NEP per play minus Adjusted Defensive NEP per play) is 0.029 in Year 1 and 0.037 in Year 2. If a team is doing this on a regular basis, it would stand to reason that they would swing upward in a hurry.
This isn't due to extreme outliers, either. The greatest improvement in Adjusted NEP per play came from the Atlanta Falcons, who saw their Adjusted NEP per play improve 0.21 after making 11 selections in the 2008 draft. No other team improved more than 0.16. The largest improvement on the defensive side mirrored this, with the Denver Broncos lowering their Adjusted Defensive NEP per play by 0.21 in 2009. Again, no other team moved their total down more than 0.16. Teams showed improvement on both sides of the ball nearly 60 percent of the time.
It should come as no shock that -- given the results above -- these 10-pick drafts often preceded runs of consistent quality. The Patriots had a 10-pick draft in 2000 and 2001 before Tom Brady snagged them a championship. They also had one in 2003, leading to their second Super Bowl in three seasons.
How did the Seattle Seahawks build their team under Pete Carroll? They had 10-pick drafts in 2012 and 2013, leading to Super Bowl appearances after the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have both had five 10-pick drafts since 2001. The Ravens went to the playoffs five consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2012, and the Bengals have been in the postseason six of the last seven years. This likely isn't a coincidence; more draft picks often leads to more success.
So, if we can sometimes use these 10-player drafts to see when a team is about to emerge, what does that tell us about the next few seasons? Let's take a peek.
Teams That Have Been Draft-Heavy Recently
Over the past three seasons, only two teams have had multiple 10-pick drafts. Those would be the Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders.
The Vikings have been consistent members of this list with Rick Spielman at the helm, having had 10-pick drafts in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. It is starting to pay off with the Vikings making it back to the postseason this year and showing steady improvement on both the offensive and defensive ends. They could still use some work on offense, but the team truly seems like it's trending the right way.
As for the Raiders, they showed hefty improvement on offense in 2015, though their defense took a step back. Their Adjusted NEP per play went to 0.05 this year from -0.07 while their Adjusted Defensive NEP per play rose to 0.09 from 0.05. These drafts have helped them land Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, though, so maybe the Raiders will soon find themselves in the same realm as the Vikings.
Based on all of the information above, it does seem as if embracing your failures is the key to success in the NFL draft.
The teams that finish drafts with at least 10 picks can -- more often than not -- expect to see improvement on both the offensive and defensive end each of the next two seasons. This doesn't take the quality of those drafts into account, so if a team finds a way to be more efficient with its picks, those effects could be further amplified.
These 10-player drafts can also often signal runs of top-level play. Teams such as the Patriots, Seahawks, Ravens, and Bengals have all used this strategy with regularity, and it has paid dividends with Super Bowls and consistent trips to the playoffs.
Looking forward, the Vikings appear to be a team primed to contend on a year-by-year basis. They've had four 10-pick drafts in the past five seasons, and now the team has some quality, young pieces to build around. If the Raiders continue stockpiling picks, they could be there soon, too.
This isn't meant to say that all teams should be aiming to have 10 picks in each draft. Obviously, that wouldn't work. It's more to look into whether or not trading up for that player you assume will be a stud is a fruitful endeavor. Based on the data, it appears that trading down, snagging as many picks as possible, and adding insurance for your mistakes is the way to go.