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Where Are Elite Players Picked in the Draft and Who Picks Them?

Are the Commanders making the best use of the draft?

Big Ten Championship - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In a recent article, I examined whether over reliance on position value might cause teams to overlook elite talents in the draft. To answer that question, I had a look at the elite players, defined as statistical outliers, in each draft class from 2010 to 2019. The results didn’t really match our common conceptions about high and low-impact positions. Specifically, middle linebackers, generally considered to be a lower valued position, were about as common amongst the elite ranks as more highly valued positions including edge defenders, offensive and defensive tackles.

My conclusion from that analysis is that individual talent trumps average position value. An elite player makes a difference no matter what position he plays, with the possible exception of long snapper.

The dataset that I pulled together for that piece is also useful for addressing two questions that frequently come up in draft discussions: 1. How important is picking early in the first round to finding elite difference makers? 2. Are some teams better than others at drafting players?

To answer these questions, I had a look at where the elite players were selected in the drafts from 2010 to 2019 and which teams picked them. Elite players were identified using the career performance metric Weighted Approximate Value (wAV) developed by Pro Football Reference. Elite players were defined as the outliers of the distribution of wAV scores in each draft class. Specifically, my elite player criterion was players with wAV more than two standard deviations above the class average.

Where Are Elite Players Selected in the Draft?

There is a common belief amongst commenters on Hogs Haven that the elite talents in any given draft year come off the board in the first five to ten picks. This sometimes takes the form of pounding the table to trade up in the top 10 to select one of the elite prospects. It is certainly true that the probability of drafting a blue-chip player drops fairly steeply as the first round unfolds, but are we overstating that effect? What about the Deebo Samuels, Alvin Kamaras, Stefon Diggs, Richard Shermans and Tom Bradys of the league?

It is possible to find elite talents after the top ten picks and even on day three of the draft, but how likely is it? To answer that question, let’s have a look at where the elite talents were taken in the draft from 2010 to 2019:

As we would expect, the chance of drafting elite players starts out pretty high in the top 5 picks and drops steeply throughout the first round. But then it starts to level out. Elite players continue to come off the board to around pick number 81, around midway through the third round. After that, occasional stragglers are selected to pick number 195, around the end of the sixth round. No elite player was selected in the seventh round in this decade.

55 of 134 total elite players (41%) were selected in the first half of the first round, and 56% were taken in the first round as a whole. While 34.3% were taken on the second day of the draft, only 9.7% lasted until day three. I haven’t gone into elite UDFAs in this analysis, since it’s more or less impossible to define the population from which they are drawn to calculate a mean and standard deviation. They would be an interesting topic for another day.

Getting a bit more granular on the first-round picks, eight of ten players (80%) selected first overall in this decade were classified as elite. Only six out of 20 players selected 2nd or 3rd overall were elite, for a hit rate of 30%. 19 elite players were selected over the next four picks, bringing the hit rate back up to 47.5%. The hit rate then drops to 24% at picks nine to 16 and 12% from picks 17 to 32. The curious dip in hit rate at picks two and three turns up consistently whenever I examine draft outcomes. I have no idea what causes it.

In summary, it clearly pays to pick as early as possible in the first round. Hit rates drop fairly quickly through the first half of the first round. It is still possible to find elite players into the third round. After that, it’s more likely than being struck by lightning, but maybe not by much.

Are some teams better than others at drafting elite players?

The question at the top of most readers’ minds is probably how Washington has stacked up at drafting elite players relative to the rest of the league.

The Redskins drafted four elite players by this definition from 2010 to 2019:

2010 Trent Williams, LT, 4th overall pick, wAV 78, ranked 5th in draft class

2012 Kirk Cousins, QB, 102nd pick, wAV 82, ranked 6th in class

2015 Brandon Scherff, G, wAV 47, 5th overall, ranked 11th in class

2019 Terry McLaurin, WR, 76th pick, wAV 23, ranked 12th in class

Curiously, Washington has not made a habit of keeping the elite players it drafts. Let’s hope they end the streak with the most recent one. Even so, drafting four top end talents in a decade doesn’t sound like a lot. How does it compare to the rest of the league? The following table shows how all 32 teams did at drafting elite players in the same decade:

The best teams at drafting elite players were the Chiefs and Rams, with seven apiece. The first thing you might notice is that the last three Super Bowl winners are in the top two bands, as are five of the last six conference champions.

The Bears and Jaguars picked up the rear with only one elite draftee per team. Washington’s four elite draftees was the most common number, tying them with nine other teams. Washington’s hit rate was close to the league average of 4.2 elite draftees per decade. We are neither great nor terrible.

Any GM really should be able to hit on a few elite players per decade if he’s got enough picks in the first round. What really separates the best drafters from the rest is finding elite talents on days two and three.

From 2010 to 2019, 27 elite players were selected in the 2nd round, 19 in the third, 6 in the 4th, 5 in the 5th, and 2 in the 6th. Here is how these later round “hidden gems” were distributed by team:

Three of the best teams over the past decade, along with the Vikings, are the best in the league at finding elite talents after the first round. Seattle tops the list thanks to their dream run from 2010 to 2012. Washington is, once again, right in the middle pack. The Redskins’ two elite draftees picked after the first round (Kirk Cousins, Terry McLaurin) put them right on the league average, 1.8, after rounding.

How much of a difference does drafting elite players make?

A popular refrain in draft discussions is the idea that elite difference makers are the key to winning. Teams that draft elite talents give themselves an added advantage, because the cap savings of rookie contracts make it possible to build around them. If that’s true, then we would expect to see a relationship between the number of elite draftees and teams’ performance over a decade.

To put that to the test, I plotted the numbers of elite draftees against two measures of sustained success over the decade: number of winning seasons and number of seasons with a playoff win.

There is a visible trend for teams that draft more elite players to have more winning seasons. However, it is very weak and only explains around 8.7% of the variance in number of winning seasons.

Number of seasons with a playoff win was also weakly correlated with the number of elite players teams drafted.

The results are consistent with the suggestion that drafting elite players contributes to team success. However, I should point out here that correlation does not establish causality. It is possible that draft success and success on the field both result from the same thing, such as a front office that knows what it is doing, rather than one causing the other.

If success at drafting elite talents is driving team performance, it isn’t a huge effect. There are clearly many other factors that contribute to success on the field such as coaching, overall roster talent levels, possibly acquiring top-level talent through other means, and non-meddling owners. I’m actually surprised that the effect shows through at a statistical level at all.

Last of all, I pointed out above that most of the Super Bowl and Conference champions in the last three years were among the best teams at drafting elite talents from 2010 to 2019. The championship-level performances of those teams in 2020 and 2021 were not reflected in the analysis presented here. This suggests that there might be a lag to the performance boost from drafting elite players.

If so, the relationship between success at drafting elite players and team performance might actually be stronger that what I showed here if I introduced a delay between the draft years and the years in which I measured team performance. However, working out the optimal delay would be a lot of extra work and I’m not going to do it.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

Conclusions

Three years into Ron Rivera’s rebuild, the Commanders’ roster is still very thin on top-end talent. Most of the position groups could use an infusion of young talent in the upcoming draft. In this and the previous article, I examined some properties of the elite players selected in a decade of drafts, to get an idea of what the Commanders might look for and where they might look to find some more top-end talents.

In the previous article, I used drafting middle linebackers in the first round as a foil to examine the concept of position value. An analysis of the position breakdown of the top players selected in the drafts from 2010 to 2019 showed that focusing on position value might cause Ron and the Martys to overlook elite talents at undervalued positions such as middle linebacker, safety and interior offensive line.

In this article, I asked where the elite talents are taken in the draft, and whether some teams are better than others at drafting them.

An analysis of draft position showed that just over half of the elite players were selected in the first round. There is still significant value, in this regard to draft picks on the second day of the draft. It is a shame that the Commanders keep trading away second and third-round draft picks for mid-level talents. Finding an elite playmaker after around the middle of the third round is a rare event. The Commanders should focus on building depth and finding valuable role players with their late-round picks.

My analysis of success at drafting elite players revealed that, through three GM-like executives (Mike Shanahan, Bruce Allen, Scott McLoughan) over a decade, the Redskins performed around the league-average level. They weren’t as bad as Jacksonville and Chicago, but they were well behind the top teams like the Chiefs, Rams, and Seahawks.

How much of a factor is Washington’s mediocre performance in the draft when it comes to wins and losses? To answer that, I examined the correlation between drafting elite players and team success. The results revealed weak, positive correlations between drafting elite players and numbers of winning seasons and seasons with a playoff win. Drafting elite playmakers is sure to help, but it does not appear to be an overwhelming determinant of team success. The team should focus on building its talent pipeline throughout the whole draft. The first step should be to start focusing on acquiring draft capital, rather than continuing to trade it away.

They also might want to look at whether the coaching staff could use some upgrades, and whether they have the right owner.

Acknowledgement: Thanks as usual to James Dorsett for editorial improvements


Poll

What would you do with the 11th pick if Ron handed you the reigns?

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    Trade back with a team targeting Kyle Hamilton or Malik Willis for a late first-round pick and more day-two draft picks
    (297 votes)
  • 0%
    Trade up into the top five for one of the elite prospects
    (4 votes)
  • 6%
    Pick a player at a high impact position, such as LT or CB
    (36 votes)
  • 27%
    Pick the best player available
    (157 votes)
  • 7%
    Pick the player that fills the biggest need
    (44 votes)
  • 4%
    Trick question, it’s Tanya’s pick
    (26 votes)
564 votes total Vote Now