How do we know if a pick in the NFL was a successful pick?

Looking back, it’s relatively easy to make qualitative judgments.

Does the player help your team get to the Super Bowl? Great pick!

Does the player get cut early in training camp? Not-so-great pick.

But, how do we turn this into some sort of qualitative comparison?

For instance, we could ask the question: which quarterback bust was worse: Robert Griffin III or Johnny Manziel?

You could make a lot of arguments about where they were drafted or what their teams gave up to draft them, or injury history or production. But, it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Searching the Internet for some sort of objective tool was a futile quest, so we’ll just have to come up with our own.

Here’s what I propose:

We have to abstract out production. While it makes intuitive sense to factor in a player’s measured performance on the field, differing playbooks and systems between NFL teams mean that players with equal skill in the same position might have wildly-varying numbers. Likewise, while it might be tempting to look over a team’s overall record, playoff success, and yes, Super Bowls, individual players only contribute so much to that result.

So, we want to focus on metrics that relate only to a single player. I’ve come up with two: games started and individual awards. Games started, as opposed to games played, are important because it means that the player has proven to the team that he is the best player at that position. To look at it another way, the pick is a good pick, because the player was proved better than the players at the same position who were on the team before the draft. And, individual awards suggest that the player is better than most other players in the league.

So, we’ll give a point for each game started in a career, as well as eight points, or half a season’s worth, of points for an individual award.

But, that doesn’t tell the whole story of picks.

Players picked in the first round are expected to have more talent and less risk than those picked in later rounds. Because of this, similar production from a player in a lower round is worth more than that of a player in a higher round. Players selected in the last rounds are often not expected to ever see the field, and they are paid like it. If they do well, then that’s a great deal for the team.

So, here’s the possible points:

16 for games started

8 for individual awards

4 for making a Pro Bowl

4 for being voted All-Pro

1x multiplier for first round

1.25x multiplier for second and third round

1.5x multiplier for fourth and fifth round

1.75x multiplier for sixth and seventh round

A first-round pick could be worth as much as 32 points in a single season, while a seventh rounder maxes out at 56.

The University of Alabama won championships in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2017 under coach Nick Saban. Players from Alabama are now in high demand in the NFL.

Since 2010, Alabama has sent 73 players to the NFL, including 25 in the first round. The next closest team is LSU, with 57 players taken and 9 first round picks in the same span. In third is Florida, with 55 players, and 12 first round picks.

How is it that 28% more players to the NFL than the next team, and more than double the first rounders?

Are these players being drafted too highly?

Let’s find out.

I crunched the numbers for every player drafted from Alabama from 2010 to 2016. I left 2017 off because the rookie season is often not entirely representative of the career, and 2018 isn’t on there because they haven’t played yet.

That leaves us with 52 players.

You can view the full data by clicking here. 

A pattern quickly emerged as I entered the data. Any player that averaged more than 11 points was having a pretty good career. Anything over 15 was great. Anything under 10 was okay, but if it was under 8 or so, it was fairly disastrous.

These numbers make some logical sense. If you’re starting in 2/3 of games your teams play, you’re starting in 10.6 games a year. This gives some wiggle room for injury. If you’re topping 15, you’re playing in almost every game. Not only are you good, you’re injury resistant.

But if you can’t even start half the time, you’re not that great or cursed with injuries.

So, are Alabama players worth drafting as much as they are drafted?

In a word, yes*


*But, this only applies to the first round, where 14/17 drafted in this time span had scores over 11. That’s 82%. 4/182-247 had scores over 15. So, you draft an Alabama player in the first round, you have roughly a 24% chance of getting an all-star and a 58% chance of getting a reliable starter. You only have an 18% chance of busting, and only one player had a score lower than 8. That’s pretty good!

The other rounds start to look less good. 6/14 in the second and third rounds were reliable starters or about 43%. Only 3/14 were all-stars or 21%. 8/14, or 57%, were busts.

In the fourth and fifth rounds, there were no reliable starters. Honorable mention goes to Quinton Dial, with a score of 10.2. 100% bust rate, or, 91.6% if you cut Dial some slack.

The sixth and seventh rounds are no better. Again, no starters were found.

Now, you could attribute these numbers to the natural way the draft goes. Players picked in the higher rounds do better.

But, there’s an alternate interpretation: Alabama has some of the best high-end talent. If a player is considered good enough to go in the first from Alabama, the odds of them being above-average or great, are very good.

However, Alabama’s mid- and low-range talent is nowhere near as good, but they seem to be benefiting from the quality of the Alabama brand. There were only three players taken from Alabama in the second and third rounds. All were busts. There were six players taken in the same rounds in 2016, and, to their credit, only half were busts.

In 2010 and 2011, 0 players were taken from Alabama in the fourth and fifth rounds. 12 were taken from 2012-15, and all were busts.

And, you should probably just stay away from sixth- and seventh-round-rated Alabama players. They don’t work out.

What does this say about Alabama?

It suggests that a lot of their success is due to having a small number of players every year who will go on to be elite in the NFL, but also that coaching plays a huge role because their depth is lacking, at least when it comes to the players that are of NFL-quality. We make a big deal about how many players have been drafted, but maybe we should take a closer look at how many are able to compete in the league. It may well be possible that the NFL has done a poor job of evaluating these players merely due to the success of the school.