Career Success by Draft Order

In response to some requests from commenters I’ve put together a few more graphs of how draft picks tend to pan out according to when they were picked. These graphs are for all players and not broken out by position. Mostly it’s just some food for thought heading into the big day tomorrow.

As always the data are from All draft picks from 1996-2008 are considered.

First is a graph of the likelihood of Pro Bowl selection according to draft order (overall pick number). The graph is grouped into sets of five picks, with the first data point as picks #1 to #5, the second as #6 to #10, etc. Without the grouping the graphs are too noisy to be helpful.

Notice the small spike for picks #11 - 15. I'm not sure if we can read anything into that or not, but it might be worth investigating.

Next is a graph of the average years as a starter by draft order. The picks are grouped into sets of 5.

Phil B. raised an important consideration. Player success has a lot to do with opportunity, and that needs to be factored into the discussion. He suggested that top picks will get the opportunities to start, (ostensibly because teams have the most invested in them). So regardless of differences in ability, top picks would naturally be expected to become Pro Bowlers more often simply due to opportunity. Phil suggested a graph plotting success divided by opportunity.

I think this graph is what he was suggesting. Below is a plot of number of Pro Bowl selections divided by years as starter (#PBs/St Yrs), by draft order.

There is a distinct downward slope. The top picks are more likely to become successful even accounting for opportunity (at least in terms of Pro Bowls, an admittedly imperfect measure). In fact, my hunch is that this would over-account for opportunity because Pro Bowl selection and being a starter are both directly proportional to player talent. So we’re really dividing talent by talent + opportunity. The “excess” Pro Bowl selections of the top picks suggests their success has to do with more than just opportunity. But it might not be all due to talent--top picks certainly get their share of notoriety, which can be a factor in Pro Bowl selection.

Notice the plateau from about pick 51 to pick 80. I'm not sure if it means anything, but perhaps this suggests 3rd round picks are better in terms of talent than their opportunities allow. Or on the other side of the coin, maybe 2nd round picks are given more opportunities than their talent merits. But it might be just noise in the data.

A quick note regarding the use of Pro Bowl selections as a measure of success. I've pointed to the flaws in using Pro Bowl selections several times, so perhaps I should explain why I do think it can be useful. Even though Pro Bowls aren't purely performance-based, the best players do rise to the top in the aggregate. Plus, being named to at least a single Pro Bowl at some point in a player's career, at the very least, confirms a pick is not a bust.

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9 Responses to “Career Success by Draft Order”

  1. Phil Birnbaum says:


    Thanks for the graph!

    Hmmm ... maybe what this means is that teams aren't that good at distinguishing better from worse players after the first few rounds? I mean, it's POSSIBLE that the later players are worse (judging by the number of starters), but that the ones who DO get a shot at starting are just as good as each other, regardless if they were the 100th pick or 200th. But it seems more likely to me that they'd be roughly equal overall, and the difference would just be opportunity.

  2. Phil Birnbaum says:

    To clarify:

    Theory 1: more starter-caliber players at 100 than 200, but the starter-caliber players are of equal quality in both groups.

    Theory 2: about the same proportion of starter-caliber players at 200 than 100, but the 100 guys get more opportunity.

    I think theory 2 makes more sense.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Is it possible to create a chart of pro bowl appearances for each round of the draft instead of splitting it up into groups of 5 picks?

  4. Chase says:

    I covered this last year:

    Neat graph also included.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Would there be any use in looking at "years as a starter" for players who had >= 1 year as a starter?
    Or would that be just like the pro bowls/year graph?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I'd say, just using my radar, that yes, the highest drafted players are going to get the early opportunity. But any coaching staff worth diddly is going to recognize the better player and use him no matter where he is drafted.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The 11-20 spike may be a sign that good players are going to (pretty) good teams. It may be that players 1-10 are significantly better than their position on the graph would indicate, but they go and play for the worst teams in the NFL (i.e. those with a high draft slot). As most players in the first round are pretty quality, it would seem that the biggest determinant of who would get Pro Bowl selections would be who played for the best team, and therefore had the best system supporting them (not to metion the extra media exposure, which might help since it is a voting process).

    In regards to previous Anonymous's post--this may be towards the back end of the draft, in that low-drafted players get gametime, but high drafted players who suck get a huge opportunity before they get the boot, so that also could pull down the numbers at the beginning picks (See Russell, Jamarcus).

  8. Anonymous says:

    Using Pro-Bowls as a judge of success is not good. The fan vote rendered the pro bowl selection meaningless.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Just a thought. The spike from 60-75 interested me. One variable that can explain this rather than just linear reasoning is that the first group 1-10 usually are skill players (Qb, RB, WR, DE, CB etc.) while good lineman, LB, TE etc. tend to be drafted in the middle rounds and yet the PRO BOWl needs players at these positions. I wonder if this why the spike there rather than an inherent outlier that later draft picks can also make the PB. Dr. Shoe

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