Assessing First-Round NFL Draft Picks By Approximate Value

No first-round draft pick is a sure thing. There are so many variables in play when it comes to selecting 21-year-olds that it becomes very difficult to predict which players will become valuable NFL additions and which ones won’t make an impact. However, there are trends in the success rate that indicate some teams and some positions will be more successful. Studying the first-round draft picks from 2010-2019 reveals some interesting information.

Approximate Value is a statistic created by “AV” is a number that represents a player’s value to a team for a season, and can be added up to find the player’s value for their whole career. It is intended to be a measure of a player’s value to his team and can be used to compare players across time and position. A player with a higher AV for a season is expected to have played better than a player with a lower AV. This statistic is used in place of more subjective performance measures like Pro Bowls or games started. AV is used here in relation to the last 10 years of first-round draft picks to see which positions and teams have shown the most success.

AV from the past decade of first-round picks measures which teams’ picks have been the most productive during this time span. This means that picks from earlier in the decade have a higher AV because they have played more and therefore produced more. Below is how the teams stack up in their first-round draft picks’ approximate value over the last decade.

Interestingly enough, the Cowboys’ first-round draft picks in the past 10 years have had more success in the NFL than any other team. Their selections have been very impressive. Out of their nine first-round draft picks from 2010-2019, seven have made the Pro Bowl. Within a four-year span from 2011-2014, the Cowboys selected three Pro Bowl offensive linemen (Tyron Smith in 2011, Travis Frederick in 2013, Zack Martin in 2014) who have contributed to the Cowboys for many years.

Second on the list is the Houston Texans. The Texans have also been great at identifying high impact players in the first round. Unlike the Cowboys, who have mostly retained their first-round successes, the Texans have let theirs go. Out of the Texans’ four Pro Bowl selections, two are no longer with the team (DeAndre Hopkins and Jadaveon Clowney).

What is most interesting is the lack of success of the teams that are high on this list. The five teams with the highest AV have combined to win zero Super Bowls this decade. The team that has won the most Super Bowls this decade, the Patriots, rank 20th. Obviously, there is so much more to winning than the quality of a teams’ first-round picks.

One enormous factor is finding the right quarterback for the team. One would assume teams should try to draft quarterbacks in the first round. According to the last 10 years of first-round picks, however, quarterbacks have not provided the most value out of any position in the first round. Other positions have proven to be more consistent and reliable.

This graph shows which positions have had the highest AV in the first round in the past decade. It is the sum of the average of each position for each year, so the number of certain positions drafted is accounted for. What this graph illustrates is the consistency of success that teams have had drafting these positions.

The position that has shown the most success in the first round, according to Approximate Value, is linebacker. Linebackers drafted in the first round over the past decade have generally been very valuable. As you can see, quarterbacks are near the middle. Quarterbacks have a high likelihood to be busts given the nature of the position. So while linebackers may not pan out to what was expected of them, they are less likely to be a complete bust like EJ Manuel or Johnny Manziel.

The position that has by far had the least amount of success in the first round has been tight end. Tight ends are not drafted in the first round very frequently and there might be a reason for this. Tight end is a very versatile position that is asked to do many different things. If a tight end isn’t able to fit into the role that the offense demands of them, they aren’t likely to be successful. The tight end drafted in the first round with the highest Approximate Value in the last decade is Jermaine Gresham in 2010. Also near the bottom are the defensive backs. Although cornerbacks and safeties are drafted at a much higher rate than tight ends, defensive backs may also have a higher bust rate because of their fit in the team. A corner or safety might be asked to do something differently at the NFL level than in college and could excel in this role or not be as great. For that reason, we see a lot of success at defensive back from picks in later rounds, such as Eddie Jackson, Kevin Byard and Justin Simmons in recent years.


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