A closer look at the last 15 years of drafts shows just how important it is to nail the first-round pick. Which teams are consistently the best at getting the draft right?
As the NFL draft approaches, 30 of the league's 32 teams are studying the top of their Big Boards to pinpoint who they want to welcome into the fold with their first-round picks—sorry, Bills and Seahawks.
But just how important is nailing that first pick, anyway? The Seahawks have established a mini-dynasty with many important contributors they found outside of the first round. Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor were all drafted in the third round or later, while Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Michael Bennett were signed as undrafted free agents.
At the same time, it certainly helps if you maximize the value of your early selections: The Seahawks have plucked Earl Thomas, Russell Okung, James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin in the first round since 2010.
The interactive graph below, developed by PointAfter, depicts a slightly positive correlation since 2000 between Pro Bowl appearances by players picked in the first round and team wins.
All in all, first-rounders drafted since 2000 have accounted for 490 Pro Bowl selections, or about 32.6 each year. Each team has averaged 15.3 Pro Bowl selections from the first round.
But which franchises have excelled—and failed—at identifying the premier players of each draft class? This visualization shows the amount of Pro Bowl appearances earned by the first-round picks of each team, beginning with the 2000 NFL draft.
It’s interesting to browse those results, but they don’t tell the whole story. Let’s break down the teams who have been the best and worst at finding superstars early on in the draft.
The three worst first-round drafters
Both the Jaguars and Rams have reaped only six Pro Bowl selections from their first round picks since 2000, but Jacksonville loses the tiebreaker here because their few success stories (Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, Marcedes Lewis) are either out of the league or past their primes. St. Louis, meanwhile, is poised to shoot up the rankings in the near future with Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald likely to make the trip several more times.
Due to its small-market fan base, location and franchise history, the Jags are already at a sizeable disadvantage when it comes to attracting marquee free agents to Jacksonville. It's no coincidence that repeated first-round flops have sent the team to the bottom of the standings in recent years.
There are several candidates here, though no clear-cut favorite. There’s an argument to be made for R. Jay Soward, who lasted just one season in the NFL after the Jags drafted him at No. 29 in 2000. But the prize goes to Derrick Harvey, who proved to be an utter waste of a top-10 pick. The supposedly promising pass rusher out of Florida collected just 72 tackles and eight sacks in four seasons before flaming out of the league.
It’s remarkable the Eagles have steadily contended since 2000 (Philly’s 144 wins are the fifth-most during that span) because they haven’t drafted a future Pro Bowler in the first round since 2004. (Jeremy Maclin's lone Pro Bowl appearance doesn't count, since he was originally selected as an alternate last season before replacing Demaryius Thomas.) Admittedly, the Eagles got a lot of mileage from taking Donovan McNabb No. 2 in 1999, one year outside of the span of this exercise.
Since then, the only high picks who have panned out were Corey Simon, Lito Sheppard and Shawn Andrews, who combined for five Pro Bowl campaigns. At least Fletcher Cox and Lane Johnson still have time to improve Philly’s standing here.
The Eagles have made some pretty poor draft decisions on Day 1 over the years, but perhaps none top trading up 15 spots in the first round to select 25-year-old defensive end Jerome McDougle in 2003. For the price of the No. 30 and No. 62 picks, Philadelphia gained just 29 tackles, three sacks and zero starts from McDougle between 2003-06.
Much of the blame for the Raiders’ draft woes used to fall on late owner Al Davis, who famously coveted speed and overall athletic ability over polished football skill while evaluating prospects. For whatever reason, Oakland’s scouting approach has led to some of the biggest busts and most obvious reaches in the 21st century.
The Raiders have reaped just two Pro Bowlers from their 15 selections in the first round since 2000. Even more amazingly, one of those is kicker Sebastian Janikowski, whom they curiously chose with the No. 17 pick. That was the third-highest pick ever used on a kicker, making Janikowski the quickest kicker to come off the board since 1978.
Even though Janikowski and his historically strong leg has turned out to be perfectly serviceable, Oakland could have gotten more value out of that draft slot considering Chad Pennington and Shaun Alexander were chosen directly after Janikowski. For the Raiders, even their small triumphs in the draft this century have some caveats attached to them.
Could it be anyone else? JaMarcus Russell is universally regarded as the worst NFL draft pick of the aughts, so he certainly earns this designation.
Unlike some other infamous busts, Russell didn’t fail due to a slew of injuries—he just flat out wasn’t good enough to be in the league. And yet, when the Raiders had their pick of the litter in 2007, they chose Russell over Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch and Darrelle Revis.
The three best first-round drafters
San Francisco 49ers
Between 2006-10, San Francisco held multiple first-round picks in three out of five drafts. Once those talented youngsters matured in the early part of the current decade, it led to the franchise’s most successful three-year period since Steve Young was under center.
With talented stalwarts such as Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Patrick Willis providing All-Pro play at the lower-profile positions, other homegrown skill players like Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore could shine under Jim Harbaugh.
Willis earned seven Pro Bowl selections during his eight-year career in the Bay Area and will go down as one of the franchise’s most celebrated icons despite retiring a half-decade before Hall of Fame linebackers normally do.
Before their first season in Baltimore, the Ravens drafted Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis at No. 4 and No. 26, respectively. That would signal the beginning of prolonged run of success in the first round, where the franchise has chosen players who’ve gone on to make the Pro Bowl a combined 26 times since 2000.
It seems as though the Ravens have unearthed another first-round gem in C.J. Mosley, who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie campaign last year. Not even the three other Pro Bowl linebackers the Ravens have drafted in the first round (Lewis, Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs) can make that claim.
Ed Reed racked up 64 interceptions and earned nine Pro Bowl appearances in his 10 years as the starting centerfielder—er, safety—of the Ravens’ defensive dynasty. His nine interceptions in 15 career playoff games, including one in Super Bowl XLVII against the 49ers, are tied for the most in NFL history. Not too shabby for the 24th pick.
New York Jets
The Jets have prioritized early picks since 2000, stockpiling 20 first-round picks in that period. That strategy paid off, as the franchise hit home runs on guys like John Abraham, Jonathan Vilma, Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Darrelle Revis, as well as some more modest successes in Shaun Ellis and Santana Moss. Who knows where they’d be if they hadn’t converted on that volume.
New York’s first-round picks have yielded a league-high 27 Pro Bowl selections, though that river has dried up in recent years. Since drafting Vernon Gholston No. 6 in 2008, just one of the Jets' first-round choices has gone on to make the Pro Bowl. They’re currently slotted at the sixth spot again this year. Will the Jets make another costly mistake or choose someone who can aid their ascension in the AFC East?
When Revis was traded to the Buccaneers two years ago for a pair of draft picks, Jets fans were right to despair. Revis is the best cornerback of his generation and one of only two Jets selections since 2000 to earn six trips to the Pro Bowl (Nick Mangold is the other).
But looking back after everything has come full circle with Revis’s return in free agency, New York clearly won that trade. One of the two picks the Jets received from Tampa Bay turned into defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who himself made his first Pro Bowl last season and looks to be a fixture on the franchise’s defensive line for years to come.
Now, the Jets have had some modest success in the last 15 years. But they haven’t exactly perfected the model for winning Super Bowls, either.
So what’s the moral here?
Even though there’s a slight positive correlation between Pro Bowl appearances produced in the first round and wins, maybe you shouldn’t stress so much about your team’s upcoming first-round pick. And if you’re a Bills or Seahawks fan, don’t fret over the fact that those teams doesn’t have one at all. There’s more than one way to go about winning the off-season, and nailing a first-round pick is only the most glamorous route.
Perhaps the key to winning is doing your due diligence on the “sleeper” prospects in the draft or hitting on bargain bin signings in free agency. Or maybe it’s just establishing an identity around a top-tier quarterback or a dominant defense, as some of the era's best teams have done.
Just be glad you’re not the one tasked with figuring out that formula. Outside of the Patriots, which has managed to coax 23 Pro Bowl appearances from its first-rounders and won a league-high 175 games since 2000 despite habitually trading down in the draft, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who knows exactly how to do it.
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