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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.