The chance of a bust in the NFL draft

May 1, 2012

With the 2012 NFL draft officially complete, the fans of every NFL franchise are dissecting their teams draft picks looking for hidden gems and potential busts. Intuitively, early picks in the draft have a much higher propensity to succeed in the NFL as we showed last week. What about the chance that a pick will be a bust? It’s been well covered that, out of the four times in NFL draft history a QB has been chosen 1 and 2, only once have both QBs been successful (1971: Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning). We decided to expand the search and look at all picks over the last 50 years and determine the average chance an NFL draft pick will be a bust.

What is a “bust?” We'll look at it two different ways. First, a bust is a player that ends up with a value score of less than 5 according to A value of less than 5 is equivalent to a marginal role player that has limited game experience and contributes little to no value to an NFL franchise. Here it is in a visual:

You can see from about round 6 (pick 160) and later, the percent chance of failing on a draft pick is over 70%. With such a low hit rate, NFL teams should focus their decision making on players that fit their current schema and can be a strong contributor on special teams.

Now, with early round picks, the expectation is a lot higher than just contributing on the field. With a first or second round pick, an NFL team is expecting a player that can come in, start, and contribute for years to come. With that in mind, our second method for setting the bar for a “bust” is that the player starts for less than one year or plays less than 40 games in their career. Here's the same visual with the different way of measuring busts:

A couple of interesting notes from the graph. First, picking at the end of the second round only gives your team a 50% chance of finding a starter. Going towards the end of the round 3, your chance of finding a starter falls to ~30%. Using this criteria and our draft value chart from last week, let’s evaluate a couple of the trades from Friday.

  • The Browns trading out of pick 67 to the Broncos for picks 87 and 120. The Browns increased their chance of getting a starter from 41% to 49%. On a pick value basis, the Browns increased their pick value from 259 to 299. All in all a fairly even trade for both sides but I give the edge to the Browns.
  • What about the Cowboys and Rams trade in the first round? The Cowboys traded away picks 14 and 45 for the 6th pick in the draft from the Rams. From a “starter” perspective, the Cowboys decreased their chance of picking a starter from 88% to 85%. From a pick value perspective, the Cowboys decreased their value from 1141 to 779. From a stat point of view, looks like the Rams got the better of the deal but once again a fairly even trade.

Another interesting note, in the later rounds, an NFL team has a really slim chance of finding the next Tom Brady in round 6 or Donald Driver in round 7. The data shows that finding a starter in round 6 or 7 is only 10 - 20%. Further strengthening the argument to search for players that are effective on special teams in later rounds. Finally, see pick 148 on the graph (highlighted in blue). In the past 50 years, only two players picked 148 have started more than one year and played in at least 40 games. Best of luck to Chris Greenwood of the Detroit Lions, the 148th selection of the 2012 draft. According to the data, you are the true Mr. Irrelevant.

contributors to this post

headshot of Aaron Wolf
headshot of Dean Malmgren
headshot of Mike Stringer