Using Approximate Value to Measure Draft Success in the NFL
Drafting in the NFL is a sport unto itself: Nobody is perfect, but some people are a lot better at it than others. Using Doug Drinen’s “Approximate Value” (AV) statistic, which uses a formula to portion out a team’s success to its players, it’s possible to compare how much value every NFL team has gotten from its draft picks since 2015. As a reference, Russell Wilson has accumulated the most AV since 2015, with 96 AV, while teammate Bobby Wagner is the closest competitor with 92 AV of his own. This measurement has high face validity; the leaderboard continues with Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Defensive superstars Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald check in at eighth and ninth respectively, followed by offensive tackle David Bakhtiari at 10 and receiver Julio Jones at 12. Unfortunately for the special teams fanatics, kicker Justin Tucker and his 32 AV doesn’t check in until 316.
Among individual seasons, Lamar Jackson’s 2019 MVP campaign is the best-rated season since 2015, earning 25 AV, followed closely by Patrick Mahomes’ own MVP season at 22 AV. Non-quarterbacks are also rated, with Defensive Players of the Years Stephon Gilmore (2019) and J.J. Watt (2015) each earning 21 AV in their respective award-winning seasons. Of players in 2020, Josh Allen led the way with 19 AV; Rodgers, Fred Warner, T.J. Watt and Wilson were all close on his tail with 18 AV.
Here is the cumulative AV of players drafted by each team since 2015:
The Baltimore Ravens take the cake here with 542 cumulative AV, more than 40 AV above second place, as the transition at GM from Ozzie Newsome to Eric DeCosta hasn’t hurt their drafting ability at all. Buoyed by their league-leading 2018 draft, bringing in future MVP Lamar Jackson as well as OT Orlando Brown and TE Mark Andrews, the Ravens also pulled off highly-rated 2016 and 2020 drafts, seeing players such as Ronnie Stanley, Matthew Judon, Patrick Queen and JK Dobbins emerge.
Other highly-rated drafters include Chris Ballard’s Colts and Brett Veach’s Chiefs, but a deeper dive into the details reveals the Dallas Cowboys as a surprising anomaly, checking in at eighth. It’s surprising the Cowboys don’t rank higher, considering they had the best individual draft in 2016 – when Zeke Elliott, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins and Dak Prescott helped them tally 194 AV. With a ranking of 30th in 2019 and mediocrity (at best) elsewhere, they haven’t managed to repeat their drafting success.
At the bottom, the Jets have managed only 293 cumulative AV. With no years that rank in the top half of the league, their struggling 2020 season has more explanation, especially when considering that their top AV-earners, Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams, were already applying their talents elsewhere. Outside of their big-name early picks, over 75% of their selections after the third round haven’t surpassed 5 career AV, equal to former Jets’ kicker Jason Myers’ 2020 season.
A keen eye will notice the exclusion of the Cleveland Browns in the above summary, despite the fact that they finished as the third-best cumulative drafters. Their high ranking certainly speaks to their 2020 success and strong building blocks for the future, but also creates a need to further dice up the results. The Browns had 59 draft selections over the six-year period, so is it really fair to compare them with a team like the New Orleans Saints, which had a league-low 37 selections?
As you might have guessed, weighting Approximate Value by the number of draft picks shoots Mickey Loomis’ New Orleans Saints to the top, while teams with a higher total of picks like Minnesota, Cleveland, Baltimore and Seattle fall back towards league average. The Saints have only picked more than their allotted 7 picks a single time since 2015, but world-beating classes in 2016 and 2017 produced stars like Michael Thomas, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore among a host of strong role players, and has set the table for their four straight playoff berths.
Brett Veach and the Chiefs again represent here, as Mahomes and Tyreek Hill are well supported across the board. Despite a weaker year in 2018, this ranking is significantly buoyed by an under-appreciated 2015 class that has mostly gone on to strong roles elsewhere – in addition to two-time All-Pro Marcus Peters, players like Mitch Morse, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Chris Conley and Steven Nelson are all still producing around the league.
On the flip side, the Raiders fall to the bottom of the barrel and are now joined by Cincinnati. Both have picked over 50 players, but standouts such as Josh Jacobs and Tyler Boyd are mixed with wasteland classes like the 2017 Raiders (9 picks, nobody above 10 AV) and 2015 Bengals (9 picks, only Cedric Ogbuehi above 10 AV).
The final condition of note is that not every draft pick is created equal. The first overall pick is significantly more valuable than the second because the player pool shrinks with each pick, making it harder to draft successful players. By using the Fitzgerald-Spielberger Draft Value Chart, it’s possible to assign a value to each pick and therefore find the teams that draft above expectations, rather than just getting the first overall pick each year and taking the assumed best player.
Here, Kansas City finally ascends to the throne. Despite an average first pick in the second round (33rd overall), they’ve excelled at finding value and it has paid off handsomely for them. After spending a paragraph above describing their contributors, there are still many more that have been key pieces in their latest playoff run like Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi or Juan Thornhill.
New Orleans makes another appearance, but Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago all surprisingly rise up the ranks. Atlanta has struggled since their Super Bowl appearance, but the depth on the roster is quietly building behind Calvin Ridley, Foyesade Oluokun and Russell Gage. As discussed, Dallas has largely missed the mark outside of 2016, but they’ve only had two picks in the top 25 since then and have found some later value with Xavier Woods, Michael Gallup and Chidobe Awuzie. Finally, the Bears have been much maligned, but productive picks like Eddie Jackson, Eddie Goldman and Tarik Cohen have been overshadowed by the quarterback drama while Leonard Floyd and Adrian Amos have produced elsewhere.
It’s beyond overstated that the NFL Draft is an inexact science. However, it’s obvious that there are methods and techniques that allow certain teams to consistently extract more value than others. While perennial favorites like Baltimore, Kansas City and New Orleans get a lot of attention, and rightfully so, the front offices in Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles (Chargers) should also get some acclaim for building a strong track record in the draft with the capital available to them.