NFL Draft luck? Picking a Pro Bowler like Aaron Donald or Dak Prescott is not as easy as it looks
The greatest quarterback in the history of the National Football League was chosen in the sixth round of the draft in which he was available. That fact alone, that Tom Brady waited while so many other players celebrated their opportunities to join the league, suggests that there is greatness to be acquired throughout the NFL Draft and that maybe this process isn’t quite the science it is presented to be.
Like many things in life, though — such as beating par on a golf course or folding a fitted sheet — drafting is much more complicated in practice.
If drafting were easy, every first-rounder would be a Pro Bowler, every top-10 pick would be an All-Pro and every player chosen at the very top of the draft would be handed a ballcap with his new team’s logo and a postdated plane ticket to Canton.
That’s not how it goes. Such players as JaMarcus Russell, Mark Sanchez and Johnny Manziel remind us the draft can be extremely challenging. And there is more to this than anecdotal evidence.
The measure of a successful draft pick can be difficult to define. There are Pittsburgh Steelers fans, for instance, who consider safety Terrell Edmunds to be a bust of a first-round pick even though he was chosen with the 28th overall pick in 2018 and has started 43 of a possible 48 regular-season games in three seasons, and even though he was second on the team in tackles and solo tackles in his second season and was a fixture in the league’s third-ranked scoring defense in his third.
There are nearly 1,700 players in the NFL. A typical season, because of injuries and conflicts with the Super Bowl, now sees about 120 of the best selected for the Pro Bowl, which places them among the top 7 percent of performers in the league. So a Pro Bowl selection would seem to be a reasonable baseline for drafting success.
It is instructive how challenging it is to draft such a player, how rarely it happens beyond the early picks in the draft, which teams excel in this department and which do not.
These are some of the most compelling lessons from a deep dive into the NFL Draft and its Pro Bowl products over the period from 2005 to 2020:
— Of the Pro Bowl players drafted in that period, 44 percent were chosen in Round 1, and 65 percent were taken in the first two rounds. That includes 68 percent of all Pro Bowl quarterbacks drafted in this period.
Matt Cassell, chosen in the seventh round of the 2005 draft, did not have the most glorious career. But as drafting has become more sophisticated over the past two decades, his progression from a 230th overall pick to 81 career starts, 14 seasons and that 2010 Pro Bowl selection might never be equaled.
— It is exceedingly rare to find a Pro Bowl gem after the third round. Only 23 percent of all Pro Bowl draft picks were taken in the fourth round or later. And that number takes a bigger hit if one eliminates special-teamers and fullbacks, specialty players who represent nearly a third of those honored.
Even counting, say, punters like Pat McAfee (Colts, No. 222 in 2009), only 2 percent of the Pro Bowlers came in the final round. That includes Cortland Finnegan, who started 111 games for four teams including the Titans, the team that drafted him 215th overall in 2006.
— The teams that drafted the most Pro Bowlers in that period: Kansas City, Baltimore and Green Bay, each of which won a Super Bowl and appeared in multiple conference championships games. Perhaps no coincidence, each also drafted a Pro Bowl quarterback in that stretch: Patrick Mahomes with the Chiefs (No. 10 overall in 2017), Lamar Jackson with the Ravens (No. 32 in 2018) and Aaron Rodgers with the Packers (No. 24 in 2005).
Oh, hold on, Dallas also was in that group, and also drafted a Pro Bowl quarterback, one of the few from beyond the first three rounds (Dak Prescott, No. 135, 2016). But the Cowboys won only three postseason games in that entire period and haven’t reached a conference final since 1995.
— The teams that drafted the fewest: the Raiders, Jets, Lions, Jaguars and, surprisingly, the Colts, who also won a Super Bowl, reached another and reached the AFC championship game a third time. The Jets hit reasonably often on their first-round picks; the average was 5.6 Pro Bowl first-rounders per team in that period, and they had six. But they came up close to empty beyond the first. It is not a coincidence that they’ve failed to make the playoffs since 2010.
— Perhaps no one has a more curious recent draft history than the Seahawks — which is not to say that it hasn’t been spectacular. The Seahawks were 27 percent above average in terms of Pro Bowlers selected. But they chose only two Pro Bowls with first-round picks, both in the same season, 2010: tackle Russell Okung (No. 6 overall) and safety Earl Thomas (No 14).
At least some of that was the product of not having a first-round selection from 2013 to 2015, but they managed to win one Super Bowl and appear in another by executing such heists as receiver Golden Tate (No. 60, 2010), safety Kam Chancellor (No. 133, 2010), linebacker K.J. Wright (No. 99, 2011) and cornerback Richard Sherman (No. 154, 2011).
The Steelers’ 1974 draft that included Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster figures never to be equaled, but that 2010 Seahawks draft would be on the list of the best ever.
— Although it’s obvious that more Pro Bowlers come from the first round than at any other point in the draft, making a first-round selection is not a guarantee that the player will reach even that degree of success.
It’s more likely that he won’t.
Only 37 percent of first-round draft choices reached at least one Pro Bowl. There are far more players such as Sammy Watkins (a Super Bowl champ but never a Pro Bowler) than Aaron Donald (a Super Bowl entrant in 2018 and a Pro Bowler in every season he has played). They were selected in the same year, 2014, Watkins at No. 4 overall and Donald at No. 13.
Donald is a particularly unusual case. Of the Pro Bowlers who are chosen in the first round, 40 percent come from the top 10, 30 percent from the second 10 and 30 percent from the last 12 picks in the round. To gain a two-time defensive player that deep in the draft is extraordinary.
If drafting were easy, there probably wouldn’t have been 12 teams that passed up the opportunity to select him.
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