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Navigating Bear Markets: What’s a First-Round Pick Worth, Anyways?

Analyzing data dating back to 2001 to determine which first-round NFL Draft slots have been the most valuable.

NFL Draft First Round Picks
Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Navigating Bear Markets is a series of articles focusing on analytics and creative ways to look at numbers regarding current events in the NFL and the Chicago Bears. You can follow me @ButkusStats on Twitter for more charts, analysis, and stats.

Every draft class is different, and there is not a typical rhyme or reason for how each year’s draft shakes out. But there may be some trends in where value is found, and at what points in the draft that teams may find opportunities. I have gone back through every first-round class from 2001 through 2019 in order to determine which draft slots have been the most valuable. For this study, first-round picks were classified as any player picked in the first 32 picks in the given time range. So Drew Brees classified as a first-round pick, despite being the first pick in the second round (32 overall).

Methodology

I primarily used a stat called “Approximate Value”, which is generated by Pro Football Reference. This stat is referred to as “AV” for short. Pro Football Reference describes AV as “putting a single numerical value on any player’s season, at any position, from any year.”

AV is awarded to offensive players based on team points per drive relative to league average and divided up among each player. A similar strategy is used for defensive players using points against. Adding to that figure, points are awarded for being named an All-Pro or Pro Bowl at certain positions. A more complete definition can be found here.

First, I separated all QB picks from other position player picks. I did this because AV tends to overvalue QB play. An example of this can be seen in the 2015 NFL Draft with Jameis Winston. AV currently lists Winston as the second-most valuable player drafted in 2015. QB’s are simply on a different spectrum in the world of AV, so they got their own analysis.

Looking at position players, I calculated the average AV for a player drafted in the first round each year and the percent above or below the average (+/- AVG) that each player accumulated AV. I did this as opposed to averaging the AV across multiple years because a player drafted in 2009 has accumulated AV for 11 seasons, while a player drafted in 2019 has only accumulated AV for two seasons. I considered finding an “AV per year” figure, but the outcomes did not work out as cleanly as weighing each player against their draft class.

We can use Terrell Suggs as an example. Suggs was drafted tenth overall in 2003. He accumulated an AV of 110 over the course of his career. The average AV of a first-round pick in 2003 was 45.13.

+/- AVG = (Pick AV / AVG AV)-1

Terrell Suggs +/- AVG = (110 / 45.13)-1 = 144%

The selection of Suggs was 144% above the average AV for a first-round selection in 2003. In order to get the final results, I averaged the outcome for each pick in each year into a total average percentage.

As a side note, AV is a fairly general stat. From the Pro Football Reference index, “If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can’t be very confident that the 16 AV player actually had a better season than the 14 AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16 AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14 AV.”

AV is great for working with large groups (i.e. draft classes), but not as great for finding absolute answers (i.e. which individual pick was best). So each choice for best/worst picks in the below section is based on AV and may not be absolutely correct. But I can say with good faith that the individual choices are relatively close to correct, with the total findings being more accurate than the individual findings.

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Top 10 (Excluding QB)

  • To nobody’s surprise, the first overall pick is the most valuable pick and the most reliable pick by a wide margin. Although, it should be noted that the first overall pick was used on a QB 14 times from 2001-2019, making for a small sample size of only five players. The best pick at #1 overall here is Eric Fisher, with the worst being Jadaveon Clowney. That’s a high floor, but a limited sample size.
  • The most variable pick in the entire draft is #2 overall, with a standard deviation of 71%. This pick has resulted in high-end players like Julius Peppers, Von Miller, Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson, Leonard Davis, and Chris Long. It also resulted in low-end players like Charles Rogers, Jason Smith, Luke Joeckel, Greg Robinson, and Robert Gallery.
  • The fifth overall pick proved to be the second-most valuable pick, historically. It has resulted in high-end players like LaDanian Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Khalil Mack, Terrance Newman, AJ Hawk, Quentin Jammer, Jalen Ramsey, Eric Berry. The fifth overall pick only has one major black eye in this time frame in Justin Blackmon. Other misses still have some production with guys like Ezekial Ansah, Cadillac Williams, Sean Taylor, Glenn Dorsey, and Levi Brown.
  • Outside of #1 overall, the #4 pick has the lowest standard deviation in the top ten. This means that it has the highest floor of the top ten picks. Misses here include Gaines Adams, Aaron Curry, Cedric Benson, Leonard Fournette, and Sammy Watkins. These players were generally productive at points in their careers (outside of Curry and Adams), but never quite lived up to the #4 overall billing.
  • The worst return for a pick in the top ten is #7 overall, including poor selections like Kevin White, Troy Williamson, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Troy Williamson, Sedrick Ellis, Mark Barron, and Jonathan Cooper. The best players selected here include Adrian Peterson, Bryant McKinnie, Joe Haden, Mike Evans, and Deforest Buckner.

Picks 11-20 (Excluding QB)

  • We see here that the top pick in the range is again the most valuable, with #11 overall having the best outcomes. But it also has the highest standard deviation of the group, meaning that it tends to have higher highs and lower lows than picks 12-20. The best players picked at #11 were DeMarcus Ware, JJ Watt, Patrick Willis, Dwight Freeney, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, among others. The worst players picked at #11 were Aaron Maybin, Vernon Hargreaves, Leodis McKelvin, and Dan Morgan, among others.
  • The second-most reliable pick in the entire draft — and the least valuable of the top 20 picks — was #19. Players picked here were generally productive but did also sit generally below average with a low ceiling. The high end for #19 overall includes Antonio Cromartie, Casey Hampton, Jeremy Maclin, Justin Pugh, Prince Amukamara, and Leighton Vander Esch. The low end includes Jeff Otah, Shea McLellin, Sean Witherspoon, and Alex Barron.
  • Because the Bears hold the #20 overall pick, I will not pass on the chance to discuss it. The #20 overall pick has generally produced a player who is 8% below the average first-round pick, so generally shooting par. It has a low standard deviation at 39%, so it is fairly reliable as far as first-round picks go. The best players selected at #20 overall include Tamba Hali, Aqib Talib, Kareem Jackson, Brandin Cooks, and Kyle Long. The worst players selected at #20 include Kenechi Udeze, Brandon Pettigrew, Aaron Ross, Adrian Clayborn, and Kendall Wright.
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Picks 21-32 (Excluding QB)

  • The most valuable pick in the final 12 picks was #24, but this pick also has some major swings as it has the third-highest standrad deviation of all first-round picks. This pick has produced high-end talents like Ed Reed, Cameron Jordan, Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson, and Dez Bryant. It has also produced busts like Bjoern Werner, Will Middlebrooks, Peria Jerry, and Gareon Conley.
  • The least valuable picks in the draft are #28 and #29, both coming in with AV 28% below the average first-round pick. These two picks have returned some strong players like Joe Staley, Harrison Smith, Mark Ingram, Nick Mangold, and Nick Barnett. But the other side of that coin is Andre Woolfolk, Kentwan Balmer, Dominique Easley, Robert Nkemdiche, Joshua Garnett, Derrick Gibson, and Gabe Carimi.

QB’s

  • For QB’s, I had to tweak the methodology. Instead of doing the average AV for each draft class, I used the average AV of any QB drafted in the first round of the previous draft, the same draft, or the following draft. Results are shown above.
  • The most productive and reliable slot to draft a QB is #1 overall. It has the best average AV and the lowest standard deviation. Picks here include Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith, Michael Vick, and Andrew Luck. Busts include JaMarcus Russel, David Carr, Jared Goff, and Jameis Winston.
  • In the 11-19 range, we have seen QB’s such as Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Deshaun Watson, Josh Freeman, Christian Ponder, Kyle Boller, EJ Manuel, and Dwayne Haskins.
  • The worst range to select a QB is #22 to #26. Aaron Rodgers is the lone example of success in this group, with other QB’s being Jason Campbell, Rex Grossman, JP Losman, Brandon Weeden, Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, Brady Quinn, Paxton Lynch, and Jordan Love (TBD).
  • Pick #32 stands out with success stories like Drew Brees and Lamar Jackson, a middle ground of Teddy Bridgewater, and a low end of Patrick Ramsey. This slot had a massive standard deviation, but a small sample.
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ALL 32 PICKS (Excluding QB)

This chart summarizes all 32 pick slots into one image

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