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Best and Worst Drafts since 1970

Not all drafts are created equal. The 2014 NFL Draft was said to be very rich in talent, while last year’s iteration was considered relatively weak. We don’t have much data on which drafts scouts have labeled as “good” or “bad”, but I thought it might be fun to see which drafts have turned out to be the best and worst.

To do this, I looked at every draft from 1970 to 2008. Since there were only 222 picks in the 1994 draft, I looked at only the top 222 drafts in each of these drafts. The formula I used to measure each draft was pretty simple: use PFR’s Approximate Value grades to produce a value for each player, and then sum the values for each of the top 222 picks in each draft. More recent drafts will obviously be disadvantaged by this formula, since AV is a counting metric, which means the 2008, 2007, 2006, etc., drafts will look stronger in a few years. Regardless, take a look:

best worst drafts

The top draft was in 1993, which has already produced a pair of Hall of Famers in Michael Strahan and Willie Roaf; Will Shields, Jerome Bettis, and John Lynch may soon join them in Canton. The first overall pick was Drew Bledsoe, but he wasn’t the only star quarterback: Mark Brunell was selected in the 5th round, while Trent Green and Elvis Grbac were 8th round picks (Rick Mirer, of course, was the second pick). Chad Brown, Michael McCrary, Dana Stubblefield and Chris Slade each topped 50 sacks, while Ray Buchanan, Brock Marion, and Ryan McNeil each hit the 30 career interceptions mark. The draft was filled with successful backs: In addition to the Bus, Garrison Hearst, Robert Smith, Natrone Means, Adrian Murrell, Terry Kirby, Richie Anderson, Lorenzo Neal, and Glyn Milburn were all drafted in 1993. This draft even produced some excellent kickers in Craig Hentrich and Jason Elam.

Excluding 2008, which is still accumulating value, the worst draft was in 1972.1 Franco Harris is the only Hall of Famer from this draft, while the first round was filled with busts. Eleven of the top 20 picks — Walt Patulski, Lionel Antoine, Greg Sampson, Royce Smith, Jerry Tagge, Craig Clemons, John Reaves, Clarence Ellis, Eldridge Small, Terry Beasley, and Michael Taylor — produced less than 30 points of career AV.

Mike Tanier recently wrote a great article on the USFL and the 1984 draft.  The rival league held a draft in January of that season, and selected players like players like Reggie White, Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman, Gary Clark, William Fuller, and Mike Rozier. A few months later, the NFL held separate drafts for USFL players and for the regular collegiate prospects. As a result, it wasn’t Young or White that went first overall in the regular draft, but Irving Fryar. One might suspect that as a result, the 1984 draft would be a historical outlier; that’s not quite the case, although it clearly was a relatively weak draft (but, for example, it grades out as better than the ’82 draft). This analysis also ignores that Earnest Byner, who produced the third most AV of any player from that draft, was selected with the 280th pick.

Let me close with the top and bottom four values from each draft, taking into account draft position and career AV.

YearTop Four ValuesBottom Four Values
2008Ray Rice (2/55); Carl Nicks (5/164); Josh Sitton (4/135); Matt Forte (2/44)Vernon Gholston (1/6); Derrick Harvey (1/8); James Hardy (2/41); Devin Thomas (2/34)
2007Patrick Willis (1/11); David Harris (2/47); Darrelle Revis (1/14); Adrian Peterson (1/7)JaMarcus Russell (1/1); Justin Harrell (1/16); Jarvis Moss (1/17); Gaines Adams (1/4)
2006Jahri Evans (4/108); Brandon Marshall (4/119); Maurice Jones-Drew (2/60); Charlie Johnson (6/199)Matt Leinart (1/10); Tye Hill (1/15); John McCargo (1/26); Vince Young (1/3)
2005Trent Cole (5/146); Aaron Rodgers (1/24); Frank Gore (3/65); Logan Mankins (1/32)Troy Williamson (1/7); David Pollack (1/17); Mike Williams (1/10); Erasmus James (1/18)
2004Jared Allen (4/126); Matt Schaub (3/90); Ben Roethlisberger (1/11); Philip Rivers (1/4)Robert Gallery (1/2); Rashaun Woods (1/31); Ricardo Colclough (2/38); Marcus Tubbs (1/23)
2003Lance Briggs (3/68); Asante Samuel (4/120); David Diehl (5/160); Dan Koppen (5/164)Charles Rogers (1/2); Johnathan Sullivan (1/6); Jerome McDougle (1/15); Michael Haynes (1/14)
2002Ed Reed (1/24); Julius Peppers (1/2); Brian Westbrook (3/91); Clinton Portis (2/51)Wendell Bryant (1/12); Mike Williams (1/4); Joey Harrington (1/3); David Carr (1/1)
2001Drew Brees (2/32); Reggie Wayne (1/30); Steve Smith (3/74); Matt Light (2/48)Jamal Reynolds (1/10); David Terrell (1/8); Willie Middlebrooks (1/24); Paul Toviessi (2/51)
2000Tom Brady (6/199); Brian Urlacher (1/9); Brad Meester (2/60); Adalius Thomas (6/186)Courtney Brown (1/1); Peter Warrick (1/4); Sylvester Morris (1/21); R. Jay Soward (1/29)
1999Donald Driver (7/213); Joey Porter (3/73); Champ Bailey (1/7); Edgerrin James (1/4)Akili Smith (1/3); Tim Couch (1/1); Cade McNown (1/12); Reggie McGrew (1/24)
1998Peyton Manning (1/1); Randy Moss (1/21); Matt Hasselbeck (6/187); Alan Faneca (1/26)Ryan Leaf (1/2); Andre Wadsworth (1/3); Curtis Enis (1/5); Jason Peter (1/14)
1997Jason Taylor (3/73); Ronde Barber (3/66); Derrick Mason (4/98); Darren Sharper (2/60)Yatil Green (1/15); Michael Booker (1/11); Jim Druckenmiller (1/26); Bryant Westbrook (1/5)
1996Ray Lewis (1/26); Zach Thomas (5/154); Terrell Owens (3/89); Marvin Harrison (1/19)Lawrence Phillips (1/6); Cedric Jones (1/5); Andre Johnson (1/30); Alex Van Dyke (2/31)
1995Derrick Brooks (1/28); Curtis Martin (3/74); Warren Sapp (1/12); Terrell Davis (6/196)Ki-Jana Carter (1/1); Craig Powell (1/30); Trezelle Jenkins (1/31); Billy Milner (1/25)
1994Tom Nalen (7/218); Kevin Mawae (2/36); Larry Allen (2/46); Isaac Bruce (2/33)Heath Shuler (1/3); Trev Alberts (1/5); Bernard Williams (1/14); Kevin Lee (2/35)
1993Will Shields (3/74); Trent Green (8/222); Michael Strahan (2/40); Mark Brunell (5/118)Rick Mirer (1/2); Patrick Bates (1/12); Eric Curry (1/6); Leonard Renfro (1/24)
1992Jimmy Smith (2/36); Jeff Blake (6/166); Keith Hamilton (4/99); Levon Kirkland (2/38)Steve Emtman (1/1); David Klingler (1/6); Desmond Howard (1/4); Derek Brown (1/14)
1991Brett Favre (2/33); Aeneas Williams (3/59); Ricky Watters (2/45); Mo Lewis (3/63)Bruce Pickens (1/3); Huey Richardson (1/15); Dan McGwire (1/16); Charles McRae (1/7)
1990Emmitt Smith (1/17); Shannon Sharpe (7/192); Junior Seau (1/5); Rob Burnett (5/129)Andre Ware (1/7); Blair Thomas (1/2); Keith McCants (1/4); Percy Snow (1/13)
1989Steve Wisniewski (2/29); Deion Sanders (1/5); Barry Sanders (1/3); Mark Stepnoski (3/57)Tony Mandarich (1/2); Tim Worley (1/7); Sammie Smith (1/9); Mike Elkins (2/32)
1988Thurman Thomas (2/40); Randall McDaniel (1/19); Dermontti Dawson (2/44); Eric Allen (2/30)Aundray Bruce (1/1); Rickey Dixon (1/5); Eric Kumerow (1/16); Ted Gregory (1/26)
1987Rod Woodson (1/10); Rich Gannon (4/98); Hardy Nickerson (5/122); Greg Lloyd (6/150)Mike Junkin (1/5); Kelly Stouffer (1/6); Alonzo Highsmith (1/3); Reggie Rogers (1/7)
1986Seth Joyner (8/208); Pat Swilling (3/60); Ray Brown (8/201); Charles Haley (4/96)Bo Jackson (1/1); Brian Jozwiak (1/7); Chuck Long (1/12); James FitzPatrick (1/13)
1985Jerry Rice (1/16); Andre Reed (4/86); Randall Cunningham (2/37); Kevin Greene (5/113)Kevin Allen (1/9); Greg Allen (2/35); Don Anderson (2/32); Mark Traynowicz (2/29)
1984Boomer Esiason (2/38); Wilber Marshall (1/11); Kevin Ross (7/173); Guy McIntyre (3/73)Mossy Cade (1/6); Kenny Jackson (1/4); Clyde Duncan (1/17); Leonard Coleman (1/8)
1983Dan Marino (1/27); Richard Dent (8/203); Bruce Matthews (1/9); Roger Craig (2/49)Todd Blackledge (1/7); Gabe Rivera (1/21); Tony Hunter (1/12); Michael Haddix (1/8)
1982Andre Tippett (2/41); Marcus Allen (1/10); Mark Duper (2/52); Mike Merriweather (3/70)Art Schlichter (1/4); Kenneth Sims (1/1); Perry Tuttle (1/19); Lindsay Scott (1/13)
1981Mike Singletary (2/38); Rickey Jackson (2/51); Lawrence Taylor (1/2); Howie Long (2/48)Rich Campbell (1/6); David Verser (1/10); David Overstreet (1/13); Willie Scott (1/14)
1980Steve McMichael (3/73); Anthony Munoz (1/3); Art Monk (1/18); Dwight Stephenson (2/48)Lam Jones (1/2); Junior Miller (1/7); Kirby Criswell (2/31); Gene Bradley (2/37)
1979Joe Montana (3/82); Max Montoya (7/168); Cody Risien (7/183); Mark Gastineau (2/41)Jack Thompson (1/3); Tom Cousineau (1/1); Russell Erxleben (1/11); Robert Shaw (1/27)
1978Mike Kenn (1/13); James Lofton (1/6); Clay Matthews (1/12); Fred Quillan (7/175)Ken MacAfee (1/7); Steve Little (1/15); Terry Miller (1/5); Luther Bradley (1/11)
1977Dan Alexander (8/200); Wilbert Montgomery (6/154); Lester Hayes (5/126); Joe Klecko (6/144)Ricky Bell (1/1); Phil Dokes (1/12); Joe Campbell (1/7); Steve Pisarkiewicz (1/19)
1976Steve Largent (4/117); Harry Carson (4/105); Jackie Slater (3/86); Carl Hairston (7/191)Steve Niehaus (1/2); Bubba Bean (1/9); Rod Walters (1/14); Lawrence Gaines (1/16)
1975Steve Grogan (5/116); Walter Payton (1/4); Rubin Carter (5/121); Randy White (1/2)Larry Burton (1/7); Mack Mitchell (1/5); Kurt Schumacher (1/12); Elmore Stephens (2/34)
1974Mike Webster (5/125); Jack Lambert (2/46); John Stallworth (4/82); Nat Moore (3/78)Bo Matthews (1/2); John Hicks (1/3); J.V. Cain (1/7); Waymond Bryant (1/4)
1973Dan Fouts (3/64); Tom Jackson (4/88); Ed Newman (6/156); Joe Ferguson (3/57)Paul Seymour (1/7); George Amundson (1/14); John Matuszak (1/1); Gary Butler (2/27)
1972Cliff Branch (4/98); Lydell Mitchell (2/48); Franco Harris (1/13); Lawrence McCutcheon (3/70)Walt Patulski (1/1); Lionel Antoine (1/3); Jerry Tagge (1/11); Royce Smith (1/8)
1971Ken Anderson (3/67); Jack Ham (2/34); Joe Theismann (4/99); Harold Carmichael (7/161)Joe Moore (1/11); Joe Profit (1/7); Leon Burns (1/13); Richard Harris (1/5)
1970Mel Blount (3/53); Lemar Parrish (7/163); Jake Scott (7/159); Rich Saul (8/204)Larry Stegent (1/8); Phil Olsen (1/4); Jim Corrigall (2/33); Donnie Williams (2/35)
  1. Although I will note that Brian Sipe, Stan White, and Larry Brooks were selected with picks 300+. []
  • Ryan

    Arguably the best picks after 222 (Pick/AV): Minimum 60 AV
    1972 – Brian Sipe Cle-QB (330/75)
    1972 – Larry Brooks LAR(Stl)-DT (355/67)
    1972 – Stan White Bal(Ind)-LB (438/67)
    1975 – Herbert Scott G-DAL (330/68)
    1975 – Joe Fields C-NYJ (349/78)
    1976 – Gary Fencik S-Mia (281/81)
    1977 – Steve DeBerg QB-Dal (275/79)
    1977 – Rod Martin LB-Oak (317/77)
    1979 – Drew Hill WR-LAR(Stl) (328/74)
    1981 – Jim Wilks DE-NO (305/63)
    1983 – Jesse Sapolu C-SF (289/78)
    1983 – Karl Mecklenburg LB-Den (310/92)
    1984 – Earnest Byner RB-Cle (280/82)
    1986 – Clyde Simmons DE-Phi (233/87)
    1987 – Frank Winters C-Cle (276/69)
    1987 – Howard Ballard T-Buf (283/67)
    1987 – Tyrone Braxton CB-Den (334/57*)
    1991 – Keenan McCardell WR-Was (326/84)
    1995 – Adam Timmerman GB-G (230/80)

    Do you guys have a player finder on pfr showing the greatest AV for undrafted players?

  • Richie

    Thanks for linking to Tanier’s article about the USFL supplemental draft. That was interesting. (The USFL fascinates me.)

    I calculated 1207 points of AV taken in that supplemental draft. I realize if you just add this to the 3530 AV in your chart above, that this puts the draft well over 222 players. But I assume most of the valuable players from that draft would have gone in the first 222 players.

    But that would have made 1984 one of the best drafts (instead of one of the worst). This makes me wonder if 1984 really had better talent, or did the season or two played in the USFL somehow change the player development and talent distribution in the NFL? (1983 also has a high AV, but a few of the guys from that draft also played in the USFL first.) So, not only were those 2 of the highest AV drafts, but it was accomplished even though many of those players lost out on some career AV by playing between one and three seasons in the USFL.

    It seems unlikely that all this talent could really come into the league in back-to-back seasons due to natural distribution. Instead, I think that maybe having Jim Kelly and Anthony Carter and Reggie White (and others) honing their skills against talent that is much better than college players, but not quite as tough as the NFL made them better players. It also looks like the 1985-1991 drafts were very slightly less productive than other drafts. When the USFL refugees came to the NFL, I think they may have done a better than typical job of keeping some of the younger players from getting playing time (hence, the lower production in the late 80s).

    Maybe a tiny part of it is selection bias. The NFL teams were giving the players who succeeded in the USFL the benefit of the doubt for playing time in the NFL.

    This all makes me think that it might make sense for the NFL to create its own minor league system. I think there would be a market for minor league football, particularly if many of the players were likely to be playing in the NFL soon. Also, a minor league system might lead to a higher level of play in the NFL. The only risk might be a potential dilution of interest in the NFL if there was too much football.