Out of all the major professional leagues, the NFL features perhaps the least active free agent market. Since the league deals in non-guaranteed contracts, teams never hesitate to lock up their marquee players. And when teams do decide to shell out boatloads of cash for the top free agents on the market, it rarely goes well.
That’s why it’s so important for teams to groom “homegrown” stars. Sports research engine PointAfter identified every Pro Bowler drafted since 2003 and tallied how many appearances they made for the team that drafted them, as well as any other club for which they later played.
The goal is to gauge the best—and worst—franchises at developing talent over the past decade. We extended the sample size back to 2003 since the vast majority of Pro Bowl rosters are made up of players who have been in the league for at least three years (the class of 2012 has accounted for just 21 Pro Bowlers over the past three years, while the class of ‘13 has just eight combined appearances thus far).
The results largely confirmed the hypothesis that scouting and coaching up players is the key to success in the NFL. The interactive graph below, developed by PointAfter, depicts a decidedly positive correlation between homegrown Pro Bowl appearances and team wins since 2003.
Note: You can hover over each dot to see the corresponding team, and click through to see each team’s PointAfter profile page.
Some interesting league-wide tidbits from the results:
• Since 2003, there have been 287 Pro Bowlers drafted who went on to make a combined 650 appearances in the NFL’s de facto All-Star Game. A whopping 353 of those Pro Bowl honors were given to first-round picks.
• The round-to-round decline of Pro Bowl appearances by players drafted since 2003 actually lined up as logic would suggest: 102 Pro Bowl slots went to second-round picks, third-rounders combined for 65 appearances, fourth-rounders combined for 61 appearances, 34 selections went to fifth-round picks, 24 to sixth-round picks and just 11 went to seventh-round picks.
• The 2010 draft class appears to be the strongest one in years. They’ve combined for 64 Pro Bowl appearances, more than twice the amount the exceedingly weak class of 2009 (29) has mustered and more than ‘08 (46), ‘05 (60) and ‘04 (61).
Alright, let’s get down to business. It’s time to anoint the three best and worst NFL franchises at developing homegrown superstars.
The Clueless Franchises
When Dante Fowler Jr. tore his ACL in rookie minicamp last week, seemingly every football fan across the nation took a moment of silence to sympathize with Jaguars fans. How can you root against the sad-sack Jaguars, who have cycled through four head coaches since their last winning season in 2007?
Fowler’s injury is just the latest and cruelest turn in more than a decade of crummy Jacksonville luck. Since 2003, the Jaguars have drafted just three players who went on to make the Pro Bowl (Rashean Mathis, Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis), despite the fact that the club has owned nine top-10 picks during that period.
In fact, Jacksonville hasn’t drafted a future Pro Bowler since 2006. For a team that has to overpay free agents to get them to even consider playing in North Florida (ahem, Julius Thomas), repeated failures in talent development have proven to be a death knell.
The Bills haven’t made poor draft-day decisions in recent years. Their selections have made 22 combined Pro Bowls since 2003, which puts them right in the middle of the pack.
They have, however, let a frustrating amount of draft picks go to other teams only to watch them flourish—Marshawn Lynch, anyone? Only 12 of those 22 Pro Bowl appearances have come in a Buffalo uniform, which gives them a retention rate of 54.5 percent. That’s by far the worst mark of any team during that span, and well below the league average of 87.2 percent.
If you consider yourself a proud member of Raider Nation, you might just want to move on to the next section.
Oakland has somehow managed to reap just four Pro Bowl appearances from the 97 selections the team made between the 2003-14 drafts—the fewest in the NFL. The lone Raiders to make the trip to Hawaii: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and tight end Zach Miller, who were both honored in 2010. No non-special teams player drafted by Oakland has followed suit since (both Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler have made Pro Bowls since, but they were both selected in 2000).
Just two of the 287 Pro Bowlers drafted since 2003 were selected by Oakland, and the last time the Raiders picked a player who went on to make the Pro Bowl was 2007.
The Best Talent Developers
San Francisco 49ers
Buoyed by an uncanny tendency to maximize first-round selections, the 49ers have reaped more Pro Bowls from their draft selections over the last decade than almost every other NFL franchise. The 49ers saw 30 “homegrown” Pro Bowl appearances from 10 different players plucked from the college ranks between 2003-14, including a massive haul in ‘07 that established the framework for the smash-mouth identity that the team would come to embrace under Jim Harbaugh.
Trading up in the first round of the draft is rarely a good idea. But the Niners’ front office surely made the right move in 2007, when they swapped a future first-round pick and fourth-rounder to tab Joe Staley as the team’s second first-rounder alongside Patrick Willis.
Staley, Willis and Dashon Goldson were all integral parts of San Francisco’s resurgence, and have combined to make 13 Pro Bowl appearances for the Niners—the most any team has received from a single draft since 2003. Staley could still add to that total, having made four consecutive Pro Bowl trips.
Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, who oversaw the team’s personnel from 2001-12, was quite wasteful with Chicago’s first-round picks during his tenure. The only selections that could be called successes were defensive tackle Tommie Harris (’04) and tight end Greg Olsen (’07).
But Angelo was masterful in the middle rounds of the draft. Since 2003, the Bears have coaxed 20 Pro Bowl appearances from their draft picks outside of the first round, tied with the Cowboys for the most in the league.
It’s a wonder the Cowboys haven’t found more on-field success in recent years. Dallas has drafted 15 Pro Bowlers since 2003 (tied with San Diego for the most in the NFL), and those players have made a league-high 36 “homegrown” Pro Bowl appearances.
And yet, they’ve only tasted victory in the playoffs twice over that span, failing to finish over .500 four times in the last five seasons.
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PointAfter is part of the FindTheBest network, a research website that’s collected all the information about the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders and put it all in one place so you don’t have to go searching for it.