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How Strongly Does Draft Position Correlate to Performance?

I take a look at the top performers in Week 1 and chart their draft position. Are there any interesting trends?

San Francisco 49ers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

I set out this week to see if a hunch I had contained any morsel of truth. My hunch: production in the NFL has a strong correlation with draft stock for some positions, and less of a correlation with others. Or, put another way: do you have to draft some positions in the first round for them to have success, or can you gamble later in the draft?

Now obviously we’re only one week into the 2017 NFL season. So before you go any further, please note that I realize these rankings will change significantly by season’s end and we shouldn’t read too much into it. The point of the exercise is to look at the top statistical performers from Week 1 of the new season, since looking at past seasons isn’t as much fun (although I’m happy to do a follow-up article charting past seasons in the future).

Below you’ll see tables of the top statistical performers from Week 1 grouped by major category - skill positions (wide receiver, running back, tight end), pass rushers, defensive backs, and quarterbacks. ‘Overall Draft Pick’ refers to the pick they were selected in the draft. If the player wasn’t drafted, I used 256, since that’s the last pick in the draft.

Week 1 Leaders in Total Yards

First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
Kareem Hunt Chiefs 86
Antonio Brown Steelers 195
LeSean McCoy Bills 53
Adam Thielen Vikings 256
Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys 4
Tyreek Hill Chiefs 165
Dalvin Cook Vikings 41
Leonard Fournette Jaguars 4
Golden Tate Lions 60
Tarik Cohen Bears 119
Danny Amendola Patriots 256
Todd Gurley Rams 10
Lamar Miller Texans 97
Zach Ertz Eagles 35
Ty Montgomery Packers 94
Marshawn Lynch Steelers 12
David Johnson Cardinals 86
C.J. Anderson Broncos 256
Brandin Cooks Patriots 20
Stefon Diggs Vikings 146
Average 100

This is interesting. The leader in total yards for Week 1 with 246 (more than Kirk Cousins), was not only a rookie, but a late 3rd round pick. The top 3 players in receiving yards through Week 1 — Antonio Brown, Adam Thielen, and Tyreek Hill — were a 6th round pick, and undrafted free agent, and a 5th round pick respectively. Clearly statistical performance can be found anywhere in the draft (or even outside of the draft) if you look hard enough and have the right coaching and systems in place.

Week 1 Leaders in Passes Defensed

First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
Justin Bethel Cardinals 177
Brandon Carr Ravens 140
Tashaun Gipson Jaguars 256
Lamarcus Joyner Rams 41
Miles Killebrew Lions 111
Derrick Kindred Browns 129
Jalen Mills Eagles 233
Jordan Poyer Bills 218
Bradley Roby Broncos 31
Anthony Brown Cowboys 189
Average 153

The average draft position for passes defensed leaders was the middle of the 5th round. That’s very late — only a single player was drafted inside the 1st round; Bradley Roby of the Broncos.

There’s a strong history of NFL DBs drafted in the 5th round or later — Richard Sherman, Josh Norman and Kam Chancellor were 5th rounders, and Malcolm Butler was an undrafted free agent. You need to know exactly what you’re looking for and have a defined defensive scheme to find success here, plus strong positional coaches, but history shows it’s possible to draft All-Pro defensive backs late.

Week 1 Sack Leaders

First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
Calais Campbell Jaguars 50
Anthony Chickillo Steelers 212
Trey Flowers Patriots 101
Brandon Graham Eagles 13
Akiem Hicks Bears 89
Justin Houston Chiefs 70
Demarcus Lawrence Cowboys 34
Yannick Ngakoue Jaguars 69
Brooks Reed Falcons 42
Terrell Suggs Ravens 10
T.J. Watt Steelers 30
Average 65

Sacks aren’t the only metric for pass rushers, but it’s the easiest to measure. Only three players on this list (players who recorded at least 2 sacks in Week 1) were first round picks — Terrell Suggs, Brandon Graham and T.J. Watt.

Week 1 QB Rating Leaders

First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
First Last Team Overall Draft Pick
Alex Smith Chiefs 1
Sam Bradford Vikings 1
Jared Goff Rams 1
Matt Ryan Falcons 3
Derek Carr Raiders 36
Matt Stafford Lions 1
Drew Brees Saints 32
Phillip Rivers Chargers 4
Carson Wentz Eagles 2
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 11
Average 9

The top 3 players in QB rating this week were all #1 overall selections, and 7 out of 10 were top 5 selections. Only two players — Drew Brees and Derek Carr — were selected outside the first round, but just barely.

Quarterback is certainly the one position where draft status correlates the strongest with on-the-field performance and success. The only quarterbacks not on this list that could be considered “franchise” guys drafted outside the first round are few: Tom Brady (obviously), Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Andy Dalton*, and Kirk Cousins**.

*Is currently playing like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league

**Do franchise tags = franchise QB? Ask Bruce Allen

What do you think of this data? Are there certain positions you need to draft in the first round, or can you find good players anywhere if you’re looking for the right traits? Leave your thoughts in the comments.