Evaluating Draft Picks

As we continue our approach to the NFL draft, it’s worth asking ourselves the question of how important it is to hit on every draft pick.

You have some people who are quick to write off any draft pick that doesn’t work out as a bust, even though the rule of thumb with most players selected in the final three rounds is they might not stick around on the roster for very long. Stories like Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe are wonderful, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Then there are those who declare that a pick taken in the first three rounds needs to be a starter right away or it’s a busted pick, when not every player may turn out that way. Still others would suggest that the first three rounds are for players you want to be with the team for the bulk of their careers, while forgetting free agency and the salary cap means this isn’t always possible.

But now that we are well into the most recent collective bargaining agreement and the rookie pay scale, It’s a good time to examine what you are really looking for in each draft pick and how to judge how players turn out depending on what they do or the effort you put into trying to retain them.

Some of this is based on my past thinking, but I have adjusted it to account for how things currently work with rookie contracts and the fact that undrafted players are emerging as key contributors in more cases, given that scouts are not perfect when it comes to evaluating talent worthy of being drafted.

First round: What you are looking for from a first-round pick is a player who will be part of the franchise for well beyond his rookie deal. Most of the time, you would expect that you would pick up the fifth-year option of the deal. And the higher the pick is in the first round, the greater the importance that the player become an impact player.

I do not necessarily believe that the player must be elite at his position to become a good pick because elite players are rare. But you are definitely looking for a player who will contribute for more than just four or five years.

One must consider, though, that a team may choose to extend a player rather than pick up the fifth-year option because the team doesn’t think the player is worth what the option costs. In such cases, you could argue the player was overdrafted by a round, but he’s not a bust. And if you have a player you want to extend but are unable to do so, then it’s not a wasted pick as long as he was a major contributor for most of his time with the team. Ideally, your first-round pick would be worth the franchise tag, but there could be instances in which another player should get the tag or takes priority in extending. The salary cap constrains what you can do, so you have to ensure you are paying players what you think they are worth and prioritizing which ones to retain.

With that said, a first-round pick who is waived before his rookie deal ends is definitely a bust. The same applies if you trade the player away before the rookie deal ends. For those you do not pick up the fifth-year option and make no attempt to re-sign, it depends more on how high the player was taken. Such players taken in the top 10 would be busts, but those taken with the final five picks of the first round are better described as overdrafted by a round because there isn’t much difference between the final five picks of the first round and the first five picks of the second round, except regarding how much salary they will receive.

So if you are looking at true first-round busts, you talk more about players like Johnny Manziel and Bjorn Werner, and it would be fine to bring up players like Robert Griffin III and Mark Barron (remember, the Buccaneers drafted him, then traded him to the Rams) but you aren’t necessarily doing that with Bruce Irvin (because the Seahawks tried to extend him even though they didn’t pick up the rookie option).

Second and third round: Ideally, you want these players to be long-term contributors who you extend past the rookie deal. But at the very least these players need to be contributors to the team for the majority of the rookie deal.

Again, if the player is waived before the rookie deal expires, he’s a busted pick. This is why it is correct to call Montee Ball a bust.

But what happens if you don’t extend the player? He’s not necessarily a bust if he contributed throughout his rookie deal and you decided to prioritize other needs. Orlando Franklin does not count as a bust because he was a good contributor in his time with the Broncos. What ultimately led to the Broncos letting him walk was because they had other priorities and the biggest one may have been the emergence of Chris Harris, who was a undrafted rookie free agent.

Fourth round: You are now entering an area in which it’s less likely you’ll find a starter, but you would expect you would get at least a good depth player who can play special teams, while starting from time to time. Think like how David Bruton Jr. contributed during his time with the Broncos. This is what you are looking for in these players.

With that said, I can understand those who would call such players a busted pick if the player doesn’t even contribute as a depth player (Phillip Blake comes to mind). On the other hand, if you do get a quality starter, you have a good value pick.

Fifth through seventh rounds: Your expectation is that the majority of these players are fighting for roster spots and may be several years away from developing into a quality starter, assuming they do. So calling any such player who doesn’t pan out a bust is silly. Because you aren’t counting on getting a top-notch player, and because teams that do a good job building the roster will only have so many spots available, your mindset should be that these players aren’t likely to make an impact.

But if any of these players do make an impact, you have a draft-day steal. That’s the correct way to describe Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. And even though the Broncos didn’t extend them, they remain draft-day steals. Again, sometimes you can’t extend such players because you have priorities elsewhere.

So with that in mind, let’s examine the Broncos’ draft day selections from the past few years.

2011
Delivered as expected: Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, Quinton Carter, Virgil Green
Value pick: Julius Thomas
Overdrafted by a round: Nate Irving
Didn’t stick around long but not busts given where they were drafted: Mike Mohamed, Jeremy Beal

The 2011 draft went pretty well for the Broncos as they got what they wanted out of the bulk of the picks that made the team. Irving didn’t become a major contributor until his final year, so given that he was really best as a depth and special teams player, I consider him overdrafted.

2012
Delivered as expected: Derek Wolfe, Omar Bolden
Draft day steals: Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan
Overdrafted by a round: Ronnie Hillman
Draft bust: Phillip Blake
Tough to categorize: Brock Osweiler

Osweiler is tough to categorize, given that he did some good things, but that he didn’t really contribute much until his final season with the team. The Broncos did attempt to extend him, even though it didn’t happen. I suppose one could call him overdrafted, but some might say he delivered as expected. I think Hillman is safely categorized as overdrafted, because I don’t think anybody complains as much if he had been taken in the fourth or fifth round.

2013
Delivered as expected: Sylvester Williams, Kayvon Webster
Didn’t stick around long but not busts given where they were drafted: Quanterus Smith, Tavarres King, Vinston Painter, Zac Dysert
Draft bust: Montee Ball

While it would have been nice to hit on more of these picks, this was a season in which the Broncos had a deeper roster and saw more contributions from the 2011 and 2012 draft classes. I could understand some might see Webster as overdrafted by a round, but at least he’s made a big impact on special teams. Perhaps over the long term he’ll have a career similar to David Bruton.

2014
Delivering as expected: Bradley Roby, Corey Nelson
Looks like a value pick: Matt Paradis
Trending overdrafted: Cody Latimer, Michael Schofield
Didn’t stick around long but not busts given where they were drafted: Lamin Barrow

It remains to be seen what Latimer and Schofield do this season. Obviously, they would be busts if they get waived. If not, it depends on what they contribute this season. I will say if Laitmer and Schofield had been fifth-round picks that most of us would say, “Well, that’s what you would expect from a guy taken on day three.” If Paradis can keep improving, he could turn into a draft-day steal.

Since the 2015 draft class is recent, I won’t be judging anyone just yet, but a good sign is that Max Garcia looks like a value pick and, while Josh Furman is no longer with the team, the Broncos having so many day three picks (six total) that year should tell you that at least one of them wouldn’t make the final cut, especially after several other players (particularly Shaquil Barret) emerged in the preseason.

Published by

Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.

  • Snipe

    Nice write up. I think we’ve done okay. I think Latimer is working his way towards being the biggest bust because receivers don’t seem to need as much time to develop. There are plenty of examples of rookies tearing it up in the league. He just isn’t making the field, although he did some good things on special teams at the end of the year. Montee Ball doesn’t seem as terrible (to me at least) because I just don’t have high expectations of running backs. It seems kind of a crap shoot who will do well. I bet if a list was created of all the running backs drafted in the first round, there would be a fair number that aren’t superstars, and may not even be good (ala Trent Richardson). Would anyone be surprised if Elliot or Derrick Henry don’t produce that much, or surprised when some no name from nowhere has a good year?

    • cjfarls

      WRs historically have definitely needed time to develop. The rookie WR success story may have exceptions, but that isn’t the historic norm. There are numerous cases of not good rookie WRs that turned out fine later.

      RBs in contrast do tend to at least “flash” as rookies as a committee back. Their careers are shorter, and the number that “develop” in future years are far fewer. Hillman is about the best case, and he was so young that he’s definitely an exception to rule.

      Now that said, the probability curve of RBs is relatively shallow… the probability of a 1st round RB “flashing” is probably not hugely greater than a 2nd/3rd rounder. Compared to a QB (where the drop off between the highly drafted guys and the later ones is far steeper), and you certainly want to be sure any 1st round RB you go after is one likely to be “special.”

    • Hercules_Rockefeller

      Some WRs are immediate stars at the pro level, but those guys tend to be so extremely talented that their talent transcends the gap between NCAA and NFL football. I’m thinking of guys like Odell Beckham Jr, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, etc. For most WRs the transition from the NCAA passing game to the intricacies of NFL route running simply can’t be accomplished in their rookie years. You’ll see a future star WR flash ability hear and there, but more often than not his production will be inconsistent at best. That especially the case in the last 10 years as offensive strategies employed in the NCAA and NFL have diverged. with OBJ as the lone exception, there really haven’t been any really great rookie seasons from a WR in the last 10 years.

    • Jeremy

      Curious Dubs opinion on this, but I believe WRs typically need time to develop.

      • Snipe

        Take a look at 2014 when Latimer was drafted for example. Look at how many of those guys are starters on their team. Quite a few… Not all stars, but quite a few are reasonably recognizable names clear up to quite successful. That’s what I mean. And here we have a guy that can’t beat out later round people or UFAs. Same can be said for many of the recent years… The wide receivers were starters as rookies

        • Jeremy

          Yeah, I went and looked at that after I made my post and was actually surprised. To re-frame it though, of the 24 guys drafted after him, only 4 have started more than 8 games, and only 7 have started more than 4. So there still is some hope.

          Crazy that 34 WRs were drafted that year.

          • cjfarls

            Yep… but everyone said it was perhaps the deepest WR draft ever.

          • Snipe

            Yeah, huge quantities of receivers. I see quite a few from other years where wide receivers from the 1st, 2nd and occasionally third rounds started their first or second year. So it seems easier to be a contributor. From the viewpoint of gauging Latimer, he is trending towards failure. Hopefully I’ll be pleasantly surprised this year

  • Rhett Rothberg

    Timely 🙂

  • cjfarls

    I think the other big thing to note is the expectation that there WILL be “busts” by your definition. Something like 30% of 1st round picks “bust”. So if a GM hits on 4 out of 5, that is plenty good. Same goes for later rounds, where the likelihood of a “bust” by your definition increases.

    Doesn’t really change your post above, but in aggregate its important to note that the goal is not perfection, but rather simply being better than the league as a whole.

    • DragonPie

      And, to not assume that regression to the mean after a run of luck is instead regression of skill in the ability to draft.

  • MWill07

    for comparison sake, go back a few years…2006-2010. That span covers (IMO) the best and worst of Shanahan, plus the McD experiment. Looking at those past drafts really puts what Elway has done into perspective.

  • I think I saw Nate Silver showing how there’s a good chance to get a player who should’ve been at 100 at 150 for example. Scheme fits, good scouting or just plain luck.

    What his numbers did show is that there’s not much skill involved and it’s unlikely that it happens year after year. So someone who finds a steal this year may not find one next year.

    But thanks to Brady, TD etc GMs are going to be looking for that one steal that makes a difference

    http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/no-team-can-beat-the-draft/

    • Of course the actual skill, which Elway has been good at, is picking players who’ve at least hit the performance expected by their position

      • DragonPie

        I don’t think that’s the real skill either. I think that understanding which positions are of greater value overall is more important. For example, understanding that you can draft quality running backs later than other positions and that they are relatively fungible is important. And understanding that teams overvalue their own knowledge and think that they have more certain knowledge than they do and that they tend to overvalue the earlier picks is important.

        If I had an early pick, I’d happily trade back several times in steps and accrue some substantial draft capital for the future if I was a GM even the conventional wisdom was that I was losing with those trades.

        • Snipe

          You can’t keep them all, so no point accruing 12 picks or something, especially if you are only gaining later round picks for your effort

          • DragonPie

            I would focus on acquiring 2nd and 3rd rounders before 4ths and 5ths. And I would trade into future years as well as the current year.

          • cjfarls

            Yes… that said, I think there is something to be said about going for the top talent. The majority of probowlers are/were first round picks. While obviously name recognition is part of that, its not all of it. You can only have 11 guys on the field at a time, so passing up a A-rated player in favor or 2 B-rated players is not necessarily a win.

            The big point is I think GMs need to think in “talent tiers”. Focus less on individual players, and more on maximizing your number of players in a given tier. So if you can drop back 10 slots and still get a player in the same “tier”, that is always a win, even if its not the highest rated player on your board.

            And I agree… understanding the “tier dropoff” relative to different positions is key. QBs may be “tier D” by the 2nd round… RBs may still have “tier B” players maybe even into the 3rd/4th depending on the draft.

  • Sorry for OT comment but Chris Harris gets to rebut LT’s comments about “shutdown corners” but I think Chris could’ve done a better job, haha. http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-network-total-access/0ap3000000649098/No-shutdown-corners-Chris-Harris-and-LT-debate
    He mostly focuses on “rings” still. But he could use stats if he wanted to, to counter LT’s claim. Unless I missed it he doesn’t mention things like the number of TDs he gave up last season and his streak in general, which even in era of more pass friendly rule changes was pretty damned impressive. Anyway, still amusing I guess.

    • orangeandblueaussie

      I agree with you. He left himself wide open there by going off-point and not describing individual skills and performance. The question they asked about LT illustrates this point. Does Revis really only now become a shutdown because he finally won his ring?

      As you say, if he’d focussed on his own personal output – completion percentages & yardages or TDs given up then I think you would see a better acceptance of his retort.

  • babsonjr

    Dubs, great stuff…again. Of all the draft hits the Broncos have had, they do seem do seem to struggle in the 2nd round for whatever reason. Think of past 2nd round picks….Ty Sambraillo, Cody Latimer, Montee Ball, Brock Osweiler, Rahim Moore, etc…

    Not a great track record. Now I am firmly against trading a 2nd for Kaep, or any pick for him for that matter. But if our ’16 2nd rounder busts and Kaep goes on to rejuvenate his career for some other franchise I’m going to have serious superstitions about the Broncos 2nd picks in the draft from now on!!

    • DragonPie

      That reason is randomness. Also, I think that only Ball and Latimer could be genuinely considered busts. Sambraillo it’s too early to tell and Moore was a pretty productive second round safety as long as you don’t let yourself be blinded by one terrible play against the Ravens. Quarterbacks fail a very high rate in the second round and several years as a backup to Manning before being given a shot as a starter isn’t what I’d call a bust.

      • babsonjr

        I wasn’t labeling any of this group, only playing the superstitious card. Ty has freak injury, out for the season when he was needed most on the line. Cody on his way to bust, Montee already there. Brock….nuff said. Rahim the dream left us one nightmare play short of a likely 2nd super bowl ring with Manning. If I were a superstitious man I would bet Kaep has a great career…somewhere else…while our 2016 2nd round pick causes headaches for the organization.

        Thankfully I’m not superstitious.

        • DragonPie

          I get why people do it, but Rahim deserves better than to be remembered for the worst play with the worst timing of his career.

          And, I really don’t think that there was enough said about Brock.

          But, yeah, the second round hasn’t been particularly fantastic. I just think it’s been typical for the production most teams get.

    • SterlingMalloryArcher

      Don’t forget Derek Wolfe and Orlando Franklin. I would argue that Elway’s “hit” rate in the second round has been pretty respectable. Of Wolfe, Osweiler, Moore, Franklin, Ball, Latimer and Sambrailo only Ball is clearly a miss. Too early to tell for Latimer and Sambrailo, though Latimer has to show something this year. And I think Sambrailo was a bad one as well, having already been given up on as a tackle. Still, Wolfe, Os, Moore and Franklin either are or were starters on good teams. That’s 4 out of 5 hits with two yet to be decided. Not bad.