AFC analytical draft grades
Quantifying trade, positional and selection value for the most accurate and predictive assessments of how well teams did in the NFL draft
Three days, seven rounds and 259 picks later, the culmination of months of planning and detail for 32 NFL franchises has come and gone. All that’s left now is to sort through the results. I recently discussed in detail why parsing the noise for signal in draft grading can be so difficult, mostly because the draft media industrial complex doesn’t focus on what’s most important and predictive. You can also check out my NFC grades (really rankings, grades are kinda silly since there’s no shared understanding of distribution).
Draft content is mostly about who will be the best players in the NFL, so that’s also what drives most draft grades. The problem is that all the research around the draft shows that giving kudos or demerits based on how teams drafted versus your expectation is a fool’s errand. There’s only a little correlation between a loss in value when teams reach for a player versus consensus, and nearly no correlation if they draft a player later that we think they’ll go before the draft. As I explained in my draft grading philosophy primer:
It isn’t that prospect evaluation doesn’t matter, it’s that NFL teams pour so many resources and expertise into the task that relative success and failure will be narrow, especially over a longer timeline. You shouldn’t take away from the data that no teams are really good at prospect evaluations. Instead it’s that all teams are really good, and likely much better than outside evaluators.
While we can’t rely too heavily on the specific prospects the team chose at there draft slots, there are larger macro forces that teams can leverage to, on average, better their draft outcomes. The two primary drivers of quantifiable draft value are:
Trade value gained/lost
Positional value gained/lost
There are extended bodies of research on the value teams can gain trading back in the NFL, and in this analysis I quantify that value through looking at the equivalent value in NFL salary of players similar to those drafted. Rookie contracts are set at artificially low amounts, so the the difference in player value over contract value is what the team gains with each draft selection, or surplus value. Different positions are valued much differently in NFL contract markets, so hitting on an All-Pro level running back in the draft gives less surplus value at a particular draft selection than landing an elite edge rusher. When teams are faced with the choice of wear to allocate their draft capital, especially in early rounds, accounting of positional value will skew the odds of success in their favor.
Looking at all the AFC teams in terms of value added ($M) in trades (average expected surplus of picks traded away versus those gained) and what I call selection value (a combination of positional value and a much smaller contribution from taking players after/before their consensus value), you can see that a couple big trades skews the results, and how powerful the impacts of those trades can be.
The Texans break the scale, mostly by trading up to No. 3 to select edge rusher Will Anderson. There’s very little chance that trade pays off, though the team did a good job with selection value taking a premium non-quarterback position there and a quarterback at No. 2.
It’s hard to decipher, but the gains to the Jaguars and Colts in the trade department are really larger, around $20 million each, despite not having made a blockbuster trade out of a top-5 spot. The Colts also got a strong boost in positional value taking a quarterback at No. 4.
Digging further into the two components of selection value, we see that positional value has a bigger relative impact, more than three times the standard deviation of value gained by drafting players versus consensus rankings.
The reach/steal paradigm is going to be the primary driver of most draft grades you see from media analysts this week, yet’s it’s least impactful. Research shows that steals are much less likely to produce benefit than reaches cause harm, so you should be especially skeptical of draft grades that lean heavily into teams who drafted the most players far after their consensus expectations. The numbers on the plot are relative, so the positives in reach/steal value are mostly from not reaching, and little from getting “steals”. Positional value is significantly more impactful than selection value versus consensus opinion.
Let’s get to our analytical grading, going through each AFC division here. Again, if you want more details why I believe this is the best method for analyzing drafts in a predictive manner, check out my draft grading primer.
Not a lot to brag about in the draft for the AFC East. The Jets are at the top of the division, but middling relative to the entire NFL. If I included the Aaron Rodgers trade compensation as part of this draft, it was be severely negative. Rodgers can’t be assumed to have much surplus value over his contract of $60 million for one year or $110 million for two, so the trade compensation of roughly a high first-round pick would be around a loss in future surplus value of $40 million.
I was surprised the Jets didn’t lose value with pick discipline after taking Will McDonald with the 15th pick considering his consensus big board ranking of 36. But the rest of their selections weren’t reaches, and McDonald’s higher positional value as an edge rusher offset losses from taking a center and running back with their second and fourth selections.
The Dolphins were one of two teams (Chargers the other) who didn’t make a single one of the 32 draft trades in this analysis. It appears they didn’t spend the mind-space saved by maximizing positional value, though I think the model is overly harsh on second-round cornerback selections. Based on the data in my model (2008-2017), cornerbacks drafted outside of the first round haven’t been as successful as players at other positions, but that could be an overconfident assessment based on a smaller sample.
The Patriots did their usual great job accumulating value with multiple trade-backs, but missed the mark on positional value and reaches. Starting with reaches, the Patriots are famous for trusting their board over consensus opinion. They continued the trend this draft with four straight selections taken at least 50 spots earlier than consensus. They took safety Marte Mapu at 76 (consensus 126), center Jake Andrews at 107 (consensus 258), guard Sidy Sow at 117 (consensus 218) and guard Atonio Mafi at 144 (consensus 196). This doesn’t include the selection of not one, but two specialists in kicker Chad Ryland in the early fourth and punter Bryce Baringer in the sixth round. The Patriots did a good job maximizing their draft darts with 12 picks, but could have taken better aim.