Picking Teammates

Why it’s such a big deal in the NFL.

Remember when you were back in school and you had to pick players for a team sport? It could be an emotional and consequential decision process. In the National Football League (NFL) it is the prelude to the season. It has to be done every year for the league to survive. It’s part of the game.

NFL Draft

Every year, beginning on the last Thursday in April, the NFL conducts its seven-round draft of college players. The highly hyped event continues for three days during which the 32 NFL teams each select seven players (more or less because of trades and compensatory picks). Each team makes a pick in an order established on the basis of their win-loss record from the prior season and other factors. The team who won the Super Bowl picks last in each round. There are 224 regular picks in the draft plus some number of compensatory picks awarded by the NFL to account for players lost during free agency. The last player picked in the draft has been dubbed Mr. Irrevalent.

After the draft is over, teams try to sign undrafted players and free agents to contracts. They can have up to 90 players on the roster at the start of preseason but only 53 during the season, so there is a considerable number of player transactions. The 53 players who make a team’s roster are a mixture of drafted and undrafted players. For the 2021-2022 season. approximately 67% of the players were drafted and 33% were undrafted.

Not long after the draft is completed, football pundits begin publishing mock drafts for the following season. There are nearly 200 experts who produce mock drafts, sometimes several times between drafts. These prognosticators of mock drafts successfully pick between 4 and 10 (12% to 31%) team selections in the first round of the draft. By a less stringent criterion, they pick up to 90% of the top 100 prospects actually selected by any team in the first 100 picks of the draft.

Selections in mock drafts are somewhat different from selections in the actual draft. Mock drafts consider player skills and team needs. Teams in the NFL draft consider more. They might factor in long-term potential, player health, trade possibilities, salary cap maneuvers, and a host of other things. An individual team has to select players who will help it win. If it doesn’t, coaches and even the General Manager may lose their jobs. Mock drafters have to guess what they think every team will do. They are different targets.

There are several reasons mock drafts are so popular. First, they introduce fans to potential college draftees. This is important because many fans who follow professional football don’t also follow college football. Second, they feed fans who are starving for any football news during the offseason. Third, they establish an expectation for what might happen during the actual draft. That way, fans are ready to be overjoyed or outraged over their team’s pick. This is especially important in New York, Philadelphia, and probably other franchise cities as well. Finally, the drafts maintain fan interest so that businesses, both inside and outside of the NFL, can continue to sell their merchandise.

Draft Picks by Position

Not every drafted player makes the team. There are many notable, even legendary, draft busts, documented again and again and again and again. There’s no shaming like draft-bust shaming. Of the draft busts, 82% were offensive players, including 52% who were quarterbacks. Most busts are attributable to disappointing play, some succumb to injuries, and a few commit objectionable off-field behaviors.

It’s no surprise that quarterbacks are the most likely to go bust. Quarterbacks control the game, are most often the top picks in the draft, and make the most money. 32% of quarterbacks at the start of the 2021 season were drafted in the first round. Only 22% went undrafted. Teams plan years in advance for when they might draft a quarterback.

Wide receivers and offensive linemen garner considerable attention in the draft. A third of the players at both positions (who were on rosters at the start of the 2021 season) were selected in the first few rounds. The attention paid to quarterbacks is less true of running backs and tight ends Players at these positions were picked in the middle rounds of the draft if they were picked at all.

Over two-thirds of active defensive players were drafted, mostly in the first half of their respective drafts. Special teamers are a totally different situation. They are rarely drafted in the first four rounds of the draft if they are drafted at all. Kickers and punters are the gig-workers of professional football.

There are of course exceptions to every trend. Tom Brady, currently considered to be the greatest quarterback of all time, was the 199th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. He is a true outlier.

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