Last week the 2010 NFL draft doubled down on its already swollen media exposure. The first round was broadcast as a single event last Thursday, followed by rounds two and three on Friday night, and the remaining four on Saturday.
The NFL draft is easily one of the silliest events in the perpetual motion machine that is our modern sports consumption culture. I suspect the pomp and circumstance surrounding the draft has a lot to do with the comparative dearth of games in the NFL regular season. The NFL, in addition to being the most financially lucrative sports league in the world, provides a special kind of social cohesion to a large percentage of American males. It is not a stretch to suggest that, for many American men, it is easier to talk about football than to talk about anything else.
Yet there are only 16 games in the regular season, giving the football fan comparatively little actual sporting activity to talk about. Enter the overblown pageantry of mid-April’s selection of amateur football players by our favorite professional teams. Judging by the resources devoted to draft coverage by all the major sporting news outlets, one would think the outcome of the next 10 Super Bowls hinged on last week’s draft.
Data pulled from Pro Football Reference suggests a decidedly more patient perspective. Over the last 10 years, 463 individual players have either played or been voted to play in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s all star game. The chart below looks at the round those players were drafted in against the average number of seasons it took to make their first Pro Bowl.
I’m assuming that making your first Pro Bowl effectively defines someone as an established above-average NFL player. One would expect that whatever latent combination of natural talent, work ethic, and luck that turns a college football player into a quality NFL player is more obvious for first round selections. After all, predicting a higher likelihood of success than other amateur players is by definition the reason why you would take someone in the first round (unless you’re the Raiders).
The crucial but neglected question at draft time is this: How long does it take for players to establish themselves? For 1st round picks, it appears to be 3 to 4 years on average.
Any undrafted free agent that lasts 7 years in the league is a huge windfall for their teams, whether they make the Pro Bowl or not. But the NFL draft is, in the words of Gregg Easterbrook, almost literally a lottery. Of course 1st round picks are better to have than 7th round picks. 1st round picks give you better odds on drafting a Pro Bowl player, but it takes years before you know if your gamble worked out.
Furthermore, picks are distributed more or less equally, so the idea that the outcome of any team’s season turns on that year’s draft is absurd. If you want to spend your offseason energy divining next year’s impact players, look at the 2007 draft class (featuring 2nd round pick Kevin Kolb, your new starting QB for the Philadelphia Eagles).
(Side note: I am much more likely to watch a show projecting the 2007 draft class for their impact next season than the three days of bloviating that covered this year’s rookies. The odds of a rookie making a substantive impact are empirically small.)
Obviously 1st round picks are more likely to make the Pro Bowl in their careers than 7th round picks. But not as obviously, undrafted free agents are as likely, if not more likely, to make the Pro Bowl as anyone drafted in the 3rd through 7th rounds.
The graph below shows the number of individual Pro Bowlers by draft position over the past decade. One could read this to mean that we need another two hours of ESPN programming breaking down the undrafted free agent signings, like we had last Friday night for the 2nd and 3rd rounds. Or one could read this as the draft being the crapshoot it mostly is, and stop wasting beautiful spring days trapped inside Radio City Music Hall to cheer your team once every hour.
A few notes:
Players drafted after the 7th round before the draft’s modern format, but made their first Pro Bowl in 2000 or later, are counted as undrafted. I reran the data without special teams players, but the overall trends didn’t change much. The most notable exception is the number of undrafted free agents that make the Pro Bowl, because a considerable number of kickers, punters, and long snappers come from those humble ranks. The graph above makes clear the proportion of special team Pro Bowlers in each draft position.
The data includes outliers like former Cardinals, Redskins, 49ers, and Lions guard Ray Brown, who went in the 8th round of the 1986 draft before making his first Pro Bowl 15 seasons later in 2001.