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How certain is the consensus top prospect to be the best player in the draft class?

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Predicting player outcomes is not an exact science

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This article is inspired by a Mark Tyler’s recent post on Hogs Haven entitled Why do some Redskins fans not want Chase Young? I grew up in Bethesda in the 1970s and cut my teeth as a Redskins fan during the Gibbs/Beathard era. And while I have a special place in my heart for Art Monk, Gary Clark, Darrel Green, John Riggins, the Hogs, Dave Butz, Neal Olkewicz, Mike Nelms, and many more, my absolute favorite player from the team’s golden era was Dexter Manley, warts and all. I just loved watching him wreak mayhem in the backfield and terrorize opposing quarterbacks. If an opposing lineman was just a fraction of a second late getting to his block, you could watch in real time as the offensive play collapsed into chaos and someone might lose a limb.

I see more than a little bit of that when I watch Chase Young’s highlight clips. Maybe with a bit less recklessness and power finishing tackles, and a fair bit more initial explosion and technical skill to his pass rush, but the same ability to completely disrupt the opposing OC’s plans for the afternoon. I can think of few things I would like more than seeing Chase Young in a Redskins uniform, lined up across from Montez Sweat, giving opposing quarterbacks nowhere to hide for the next decade or so.

One of those things is for the Redskins to finally return to being a competitive football team. The Redskins’ regular season record over the last decade is 62-97. The high points of the last decade for Redskins’ fans were two wildcard round losses following 10-6 and 9-7 regular seasons, sticking out like little hills in the vast wasteland of 7 losing seasons. The last time the Redskins finished the regular season better than 10-6 or won a divisional round or higher playoff game was 1991. The Redskins have been a bad football team for a very long time and, despite what you may have heard from a recently departed team executive, they have not been close to turning that around for a very long time, either.

One of many reasons for that is poor roster management. In the aftermath of the Bruce Allen era, incoming coach Ron Rivera is taking over a roster with paper thin depth at most position groups aside from the defensive line, lacking legitimate NFL starters at several positions (LT, TE, WLB, WR2), and with big question marks or clear need for upgrades at others (QB, LG, RT, WR2, CB). The team is clearly more than one high-impact player away from fielding a competitive roster.

So, much as I would love to add a beast of an edge rusher, who could be the next Nick Bosa or even better, if the team receives the kind of trade offer that Rivera has been signaling it would take, I think trading back to address multiple needs with a package of high-round picks would be a better use of the number two overall pick.

Mark’s central thesis is that the Redskins simply cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to pick the best player in the draft at #2. The reason that we know Chase Young is the best player, aside from Mark’s own expert analysis, is that he is the consensus of all the major draft analysts and media commentators. That is a pretty compelling argument. If Dan Jeremiah, Lance Zierlein, the guys at WalterFootball, PFF, every major analyst, and even the best scout the game has seen in 20 years all agree, what’s the chance they could all be wrong?

I’ve only been following the draft with more than casual interest since about 2010, but in that time I can think of three cases where there was a consensus top prospect – Andrew Luck in 2012, Jadeveon Clowney in 2014, and Myles Garrett in 2017 - and that guy was not the best player in any of those drafts. So that got me thinking, how predictive is a consensus among draft analysts and media commentators that a prospect will be the best NFL player in the draft class? Since everyone has got it wrong before, is it possible that one of the players available in a trade back could actually be better than Chase Young?

To answer that question, I looked back through the last 25 drafts to identify years where there was a consensus number one overall pick and asked three questions: 1) Was the consensus top prospect the best NFL player in the draft class? 2) How good did the consensus top prospect turn out to be? 3) If not the consensus top prospect, where in the draft was the best player selected? There weren’t a huge number of drafts with complete consensus, so I also had a look at drafts where there were a small number of clear front runners.

My methods this time were not as scientifically oriented as in my previous articles. Ideally, I would like to do an analysis of NFL front office opinion, but those guys generally keep their draft boards to themselves. So I am forced to stick to media reporting and analysts. I was unable to find any database that systematically records NFL expert opinions from historical drafts. I would have preferred to base my search on draft ratings from the major outlets like NFL.com, ESPN, CBS Sports, PFF, etc. but I found that most historical ranking/rating data was either behind a paywall or didn’t go back that far.

So instead, I relied on memory back to about 2010, and before that I had to search through all the web-accessible draft coverage I could find to get a sense of when was either a clear consensus or a lack of one. One very useful resource was the Football Outsiders Draft Six Years later series. But generally, in drafts where it wasn’t immediately obvious, I just searched and read everything I could get my hands on until I felt I had a feel for where the draft debate settled. This is subjective as hell, and I’ll be disappointed if people don’t take issue with my categorizations in the comments.

After I’d categorized the drafts as consensus, near-consensus and non-consensus, the next challenge was to identify the best player in the draft classes and to rate the career outcomes of the top prospect when it wasn’t him. To do that, I used Pro Football Reference’s career-weighted approximate value (CAV) as a guide to rank the players in each draft class. CAV is useful as a general guide, but it has some known flaws. It tends to rate quarterbacks overly high and offensive linemen overly low; it is also pretty coarse. So I considered players within a few points of one another to be tied and used other awards, records and common sense to break ties (2017 Patrick Mahomes over Alvin Kamara, for example).

In general CAV did a pretty good job of ranking players, and I only had to really take matters into my own hands in 2015. There I still think I left Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota too high, although not high enough to alter any of the conclusions.


Consensus Drafts

2017

Consensus Best Prospect: Myles Garrett, pick #1

Career Summary: 18th ranked in draft class by CAV, 1x Pro Bowl (PB), CAV 22

Best Player: Patrick Mahomes, pick #10, 1x first team All-Pro (AP1), 2x PB, NFL MVP, Superbowl MVP, Lombardi Trophy, CAV 39

Runners Up:

Alvin Kamara, pick #67, 3x PB, CAV 41

Ryan Ramczyk, pick #32, 1x AP1, CAV 39

Christian McCaffery, pick #8, 1x AP1, 1x PB, CAV 38

Deshaun Watson, pick #12, 2x PB, CAV 38

2014

Consensus Best Prospect: Jadeveon Clowney, pick #1

Career Summary: 16th ranked in draft class, 3x PB, CAV 42

Best Player: Aaron Donald, pick #13, 5x AP1, 6x PB, 2x NFL Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY), NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (DROY), CAV 80

Runners Up:

Khalil Mack, pick #5, 3x AP1, 5x PB, CAV 68

Zack Martin, pick #16, 4x AP1, 6x PB, CAV 66

2012

Consensus Best Prospect: Andrew Luck, pick #1

Career Summary: 6th ranked in draft class, 4x PB, CAV 71

Best Player: Russell Wilson, pick #75, 6x PB, 1x AP2, NFL Offensive Rookie of the year (OROY), Lombardi trophy, CAV 108

Runners Up:

Bobby Wagner, pick #47, 5x AP1, 6x PB, CAV 95

Luke Kuechly, pick #9, 5x AP1, 7x PB, CAV 91

2002

Consensus Best Prospect: Julius Peppers, pick #2

Career Summary: AP1, 3x AP2, 9x PB, DROY, 159 sacks, CAV 129

Best Player: Peppers

Runner Up:

Ed Reed, pick #24, 5x AP1, 3x AP2, 9x PB, HoF, Lombardi trophy, DPOY, 3x interception leader, 64 interceptions, CAV 106

1998

Consensus Best Prospect: Peyton Manning, pick #1

Career Summary: 7x AP1, 14x PB, 2x Lombardi trophy, Superbowl MVP, 5x NFL MVP, 2x Offensive Player of the Year (OPOY), CAV 177

Best Player: Manning

Runners Up:

Randy Moss, pick #21, 4x AP1, 6x PB, NFL OROY, 5x receiving touchdown leader, 2nd all-time touchdown receptions, CAV 123

Alan Faneca, pick #26, 6x AP1, 9x PB, CAV 113

Charles Woodson, pick #4, 3x AP1, 9x PB, CAV 108

1997

Consensus Best Prospect: Orlando Pace*, pick #1

Career Summary: 3rd ranked in draft class, 3x AP1, 1x AP2, 7x PB, Lombardi Trophy, HoF, OL anchor of one of the greatest NFL offenses of all time, CAV 104

Best Player: Jason Taylor, pick #73, 3x AP1, 1x AP2, 6x PB, 1x NFL sacks leader, 2x AFC DPOY, 1x NFL DPOY, Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, 139 sacks, CAV 117

Runners Up:

Ronde Barber, pick #66, 3x AP1, 5x PB, CAV 110

Tiki Barber, pick #36, 1x AP1, 3x PB, CAV 99

Tony Gonzalez, pick #13, 6x AP1, 14x PB, HoF, CAV 97

Walter Jones, pick #6, 4x AP1, 9x PB, HoF, CAV 97

*Comment: This is draft is the most borderline of the consensus drafts. It appears that there was general consensus that Pace was the best prospect, but there was intense debate about whether an OL should be picked #1 overall. Pace became the first OL selected #1 overall in 29 years (1997).

1995

Consensus Best Prospect: Ki-Jana Carter, pick #1

Career Summary: 94th ranked in draft class, CAV 12

Best Player: Derrick Brooks, pick #28, 5x AP1, 11x PB, CAV 141

Runners Up:

Warren Sapp, pick #12, 4x AP1, 7x PB, HoF, CAV 117

Curtis Martin, pick #74, 1x AP1, 5x PB, HoF, CAV 100

Honorable Mentions:

Ty Law, pick #23, 6th ranked in draft class, 2x AP1, 5x PB, HoF, CAV 85

Terrell Davis, pick #196, 11th ranked in draft class, 3x AP1, 3x PB, HoF, CAV 71

Consensus Drafts Summary

By my count NFL analysts and media commentators have achieved general consensus regarding a best overall prospect seven times in the last 25 drafts (28%). In two out of those seven drafts (29%), the consensus best prospect became the best NFL player in the draft class. In four out of seven cases (57%), the consensus best prospect ranked within the top six players in their draft class, thereby justifying their pre-draft designation as an elite draft prospect. And in six of seven cases (86%), the consensus best prospect ranked within the top eighteen prospects in their draft class, justifying designation as a high first-round prospect.

The sixth case, Ki-Jana Carter, is generally regarded as one of the worst draft busts of all time. It is worth noting, though, that through much of the lead-up to the 1995 draft there was a tight race between Ki-Jana Carter and Warren Sapp. Consensus eventually shifted to Carter when Sapp tested positive for marijuana. Sapp went on to become a Hall of Famer and the second ranked NFL player in the draft class. Therefore, if not for the failed drug test, a significant proportion of the commentators would have got that one nearly right.

The best NFL players in these draft classes were selected at pick numbers 1, 2, 10, 13, 28, 73 and 75. The average draft pick number at which the best player in the class was taken is 29, with a standard deviation of 32. Overall, these results suggest that media analyst draft ratings are a pretty coarse tool for identifying the best player in any draft, even when they all agree.


Near-Consensus Drafts

2015

Close race between Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Leonard Williams and Dante Fowler

Best Player: Marcus Peters, pick #18, 2x AP1, 3x PB, CAV 52

Runners Up:

Todd Gurley, pick #10, 2x AP1, 3x PB, CAV 50

Jameis Winston, pick #1, 1x PB, CAV 54

Other Top Prospect Outcomes:

Marcus Mariota, pick #2, 4th ranked player in draft class, CAV 44

Leonard Williams, pick #6, 14th ranked player in draft class, CAV 37

Dante Fowler, pick #3, 72nd ranked player in draft class, CAV 16

Comments: Winston vs Mariota was one of the hottest quarterback debates in recent drafts and tended to dominate media discussion of top prospects. However, Leonard Williams and Dante Fowler were also frequently named as best overall prospects.

This is one case where the limitations of CAV for ranking closely scored players really become apparent. It seems unlikely that any NFL teams would pick Jameis Winston over Marcus Peters or Todd Gurley in a redraft, so I have adjusted the relative rankings of the top three scoring players accordingly. I probably should have dropped those two below Danielle Hunter (5th ranked, pick #88), Eric Kendricks (6th ranked, pick #45), Stefon Diggs (7th ranked, pick #146), and Amari Cooper (9th ranked, pick #4), at least, but leaving them where they are does not affect any of my conclusions.

2010

Close race between Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh, Gerard McCoy with some love for Trent Williams and Eric Berry

Best Players, 3-Way Tie:

Ndamukong Suh, pick #2, 3x AP1, 2x AP2, 5x PB, NFL DROY, CAV 88

Geno Atkins, pick #120, 2x AP1, 1x AP2, 8x PB, CAV 87

Antonio Brown, pick #195, 4x AP1, 1x AP2, 7x PB, 2x receiving yards leader, 2x receptions leader, 1x receiving touchdowns leader, CAV 87

Runners Up: Too many to list. This was an incredibly deep draft class. Interestingly, only 15 of the top 32 ranked players were drafted in the first round.

Other Top Prospect Outcomes:

Gerald McCoy, pick #3, 9th ranked in class, 1x AP1, 6x PB, CAV 68

Trent Williams, pick #4, 10th ranked in class, 7x PB, CAV 66

Eric Berry, pick #5, 28th ranked in class, 3x AP1, 5x PB, CAV 49

Sam Bradford, pick #1, 33rd ranked in class, CAV 44

2009

Close race between Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Aaron Curry, Jason Smith

Best Player: Matt Stafford, pick #1, 1x PB, CAV 95

Runners Up:

LeSean McCoy, pick #53, 2x AP1, 6x PB, CAV 84

Clay Matthews, pick #26, 1x AP1, 6x PB, CAV 83

Other Top Prospect Outcomes:

Mark Sanchez, pick #5, 44th ranked in class, butt fumble, CAV 34

Aaron Curry, pick #4, 93rd ranked in class, CAV 17

Jason Smith, pick #2, 113th ranked in class, CAV 10

2007

Very close race between JaMarcus Russell, Calvin Johnson and Brady Quinn

Best Player: Adrian Peterson, pick #7, 4x AP1, 3x AP2, 7x PB, 1x NFL MVP, 1x OPOY, OROY, 3x rushing yards leader, 2x rushing TD leader, 2x Bert Bell award, 1x Art Rooney award, CAV 97

Runners Up:

Patrick Willis, pick #11, 5x AP1, 7x PB, CAV 92

Darelle Revis, pick #14, 4x AP1, 7x PB, CAV 90

Marshall Yanda, pick #86, 2x AP1, 8x PB, CAV 89

Joe Thomas, pick #3, 6x AP1, 10x PB, CAV 83

Eric Weddle, pick #37, 2x AP1, 6x PB, CAV 83

Top Prospect Outcomes:

Calvin Johnson, pick #2, 9th ranked in class, 3x AP1, 6x PB, CAV 78

JaMarcus Russell, pick #1, 140th ranked in class, 2 career starts, one of the greatest draft busts of all time, CAV 6

Brady Quinn, pick #22, 177th ranked in class, 1 career start, CAV 2

2001

Close race between Michael Vick, Gerard Warren, Ladanian Tomlinson, Leonard Davis

Best Player: Drew Brees, pick #32, 1x AP1, 4x AP2, 13x PB, 2x NFL OPOY, Lombardi trophy, Bert Bell Award, Art Rooney Award, Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, Superbowl MVP, 7x passing yards leader, 4x passing TD leader, 2x passer rating leader, 6x completion percentage leader, CAV 166

Runner Up: LaDanian Tomlinson, pick #5, 3x AP1, 5x PB, HoF CAV 128

Honorable Mention: Steve Hutchinson, pick #17, class rank 6th, 5x AP1, 11x PB, HoF, CAV 96

Other Top Prospect Outcomes:

Michael Vick, pick #1, class rank 7th, 4x PB, CAV 93

Leonard Davis, pick #2, class rank 14th, CAV 67

Gerard Warren, pick #3, class rank 31st, CAV 52

Comment: Michael Vick was one of the most hyped draft prospects in recent decades, but was also a controversial prospect, with many analysts questioning whether he would ever be a good enough passer to make it in the NFL. Gerard Warren, Leonard Davis and LaDanian Tomlinson were also mentioned as best prospects by analysts who did not believe the hype.

Near-Consensus Drafts Summary

I was able to identify five drafts in the last 25 years in which the debate about the best prospect seemed to settle on a small handful of players. Three of these drafts featured a best quarterback debate and a discussion about whether any of the quarterbacks deserved to go number one overall. In two of five cases (40%), the best player in the draft class was one of the near-consensus best players. In all five drafts, one of the players in the best overall prospect debate ended up ranked in the top 9 players of their draft class.

On the other hand, of the 20 prospects involved in these best prospect debates, seven (35%) ended up ranked outside the top 32 players in their draft classes, and five (25%) were outside the top 50 players.

The five near-consensus drafts featured seven best-in-class players because of the three-way tie for best player in 2010. These players were drafted at pick numbers 1, 2, 7, 18, 32, 120 and 195. The average pick number at which the best player was selected in these drafts was 54, with a standard deviation of 75. Again, these results are consistent with the view that media analysts have a fairly limited ability to predict the best player in a draft class, even when there is a reasonably high level of agreement between multiple analysts.


Conclusion

Chase Young is probably the safest prospect in this draft class. Out of seven similar drafts in the last 25 years, there was only one case in which the consensus overall pick was a complete bust. I doubt there is another prospect in the class with a 6/7 chance of being a great NFL player. I’ve seen it written that Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and even Andrew Luck did not play up to their draft status. I think that’s total nonsense. Those guys are, or were, all excellent NFL players. The only reason that they are ever labeled as underperformers is because NFL fans and media uphold unreasonably high expectations of number one overall draft picks. Therefore, consensus number one status is a strong predictor of a successful NFL career. That should surprise no one.

On the other hand, consensus media opinion is a fairly weak predictor of who the best player in an NFL draft class will be. In only 2/7 consensus drafts, and 2/5 near-consensus drafts, did the media commentators and analysts correctly predict the best player in the class, for a combined hit rate of 4/12, or 33%. If Chase Young is anything like the consensus best prospects before him, it is more likely than not that another player in the draft will have a better NFL career.

The media commentators should not feel too bad about their performance, though. On average, the best players in the 12 draft classes I examined were passed over 40 times before their names were called (best player pick numbers 1, 1, 2, 2, 7, 10, 13, 18, 28, 32, 73, 75, 120, 195). Despite the importance that many fans place on staying within the top 10 picks to have a shot at the elite talents in the draft, 50% of the best players in these 12 draft classes were selected in the second half of the first round or later. Therefore, unless reaching for need in the first round is far more widespread than anyone wants to admit, NFL teams are similarly challenged when it comes to identifying the best player in any draft.

Overall, I conclude that it’s really hard to predict how college players will turn out in the NFL, whether you work for ESPN, an NFL franchise or just enjoy talking shit about the draft with your friends in the pub. And last of all, I really hope that Chase Young lives up to the hype.