Sunday, December 9, 2012

Best NFL Drafts in the Salary Cap Era (#10 to #6)

Now that I have dropped 10,000 words on how I think that draft picks should be valued it’s time to look at some of the other conclusions we can pull from the same data set. For instance, each pick has an expected value and we can go back into the data to see which teams have had the best drafts since 1994. While I believe career surplus value is a better measure within draft classes (i.e., which team had the best draft of 1995), we will rank the performance of these drafts according to surplus value per season to give recent draft classes a chance to compete with those older classes in which most or all the players have finished their careers. Looking at surplus rather than absolute value will keep us from rewarding teams with high draft picks simply for being there.

Number 10: 1998 Indianapolis Colts – 3.4% Surplus[1]

The second-best player in this draft class is center Steve McKinney. He exceeded the expected value of the 93rd pick by over 150%, though most of this excess value came from playing 10 seasons rather than the expected 5. His per-season value was 1.6% against an expectation of 1.3%.

This draft, of course, was not about the second-best player. Peyton Manning was picked first overall by the Colts and has gone on to have the best career of any draft pick, first or otherwise, in the Salary Cap era. Manning’s value per season is an astronomical 11.6%, well above the 4.6% expected of a first-overall pick. To put this in perspective, 11.6% in value represents slightly above a Pro Bowl output level (the average salary of the top 6 QBs) every single year of his career.

Outside of Manning and McKinney the Colts did not have a single player who exceeded the expectation for their draft slot. Wide receiver Jerome Pathon, LB Antony Jordan and WR E.G. Green were the other picks to make it multiple seasons, but Pathon’s 4 seasons as a starter represent the only such seasons outside of Manning and McKinney.

Number 9: 2001 Cincinnati Bengals – 3.6% Surplus

Compared to the 1998 Colts, the Bengals took the opposite approach to a high-performing draft with their 2001 effort, bringing in four players who each added significant value over their expectation.

The headliner in this class was Chad Ochocinco (nee Johnson) with 5.0% value per season compared to the 2.0% per season expected of the 36th pick. With 6 Pro Bowl and 2 All Pro seasons, Johnson is one of the top WRs selected in the Salary Cap era. Only Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens delivered a higher per-season surplus. DE Justin Smith, RB Rudi Johnson and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh each brought in approximately 1% in surplus value per season, and each of them made at least one Pro Bowl as well.

The only real bust in this draft is TE Sean Brewer. At the 66th pick, the Bengals were looking for at least 1.5% of Salary Cap Value per season. Unfortunately, they discovered shortly after drafting him that Brewer was a smoker with a three-pack-a-day habit. He played 12 games, starting two, in his short career and underperformed even more strongly when looking at whole career numbers, delivering 1.0% in value for his career against an expectation of 8.4% given his draft position.

Number 8: 2006 New Orleans Saints – 3.7% Surplus

This is the first of our top ten where the top pick turned out to be a bust. Reggie Bush, selected at number two overall, is bringing in only about half of the expected 4.1% value per season. The three picks to follow, however, delivered above expectations with tackle Jahri Evans as the standout. Evans has been selected to the All-Pro team three times in his first six seasons. This would be sufficient for a tackle in the first overall pick, so it is well above expectations for one picked 108th overall.

DB Roman Harper, DE Rob Ninkovich and WR Marques Colston combined for a further 3% in surplus value per season. Only one player, DB Josh Lay, failed to suit up for a single season. The other underperformers besides Bush and Lay were WR Mike Hass and G Zach Strief.

Number 7: 2001 San Diego Chargers – 3.9% Surplus

Nothing to see here, just two players at or near the top of their respective positions. Drafting Drew Brees and LaDanian Tomlinson set the Chargers up for their run of competitiveness throughout the 2000s. Brees has racked up one All-Pro and five Pro Bowl seasons while Tomlinson has three All-Pro and the same five Pro Bowl seasons.

Because Brees was drafted later and plays a more valuable position, his contributions result in a much higher surplus. The 32nd pick in the draft is expected to contribute 2.1% of the salary cap in annual value. Brees has pulled in 4x that number per season so far in his career. Tomlinson’s contributions, while still impressive at 4.0% Salary Cap Value per season, result in surplus of only 0.6% annually.

The remainder of this draft contains exactly one player who exceeded their expectation (tackle Brandon Gorin with 1.2% rather than the expected 1.0% value per season). The other five players give back 3% in surplus value per season, but still leave the 2001 Chargers draft as the 7th best since 1994.

Number 6: 2004 Arizona Cardinals – 4.7% Surplus

The 2004 draft by the Cardinals is even more balanced than the 2001 Bengals. The highest surplus belongs to DT Darnell Dockett at 1.9% surplus salary cap value per season while the lowest goes to C Alex Stepanovich at -0.5%.

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is by far the most valuable player for his career, but he was taken third overall and that carries much higher expectations. His total career value is nearly 60% higher than Dockett. LB Karlos Dansby and DE Antonio Smith round out the top performers in this draft and formed the core of the defense that supported QB Kurt Warner’s offense in their run to the 2009 Super Bowl.

Only player besides Stepanovich, QB John Navarre, failed to deliver surplus value. Notably every single player the Cardinals drafted in 2004 stayed in the league for at least two seasons, a feat matched by only 14% of drafts since 1994. 
Be sure to check out… the top five drafts since 1994

[1] Surplus here represents surplus value per player per season. If the draft class contained two players who each played two seasons and one player who played a single season for five total seasons played, we would expect the total surplus to be 5x the number quoted here.

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