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An NFL draft study: The value of draft grades

May 9, 2022 07:07 PM
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In an NFL offseason, nothing is more scrutinized than the three days of the draft. The way the experts and graders sing it, you’d figure the draft is of ultra-importance to each team’s success in the next season or two, right?

Well, after studying the impact of the NFL draft on team success, I have not found an immediate correlation. In fact, draft grades make for little more than a conversation point. 

Sports Illustrated is one of the most reliable sources for NFL draft analysis. In seven years of tracking their work, I had only seen one grade below a C- before this year. Strangely, SI.com handed out a D or lower grade to three teams after last week’s draft (Cardinals, Commanders, Vikings). The Vikings received a D-, the lowest grade I’ve seen since I started tracking SI in 2016. SI’s average grade is a touch higher than a B, or, on a numerical scale, a 3.03. 

With SI’s analysis serving as the foundation of my study, I went back and compared won-lost records in recent years to the draft grades SI assigned.

As you’ll see in my findings, there’s little evidence to suggest that what teams did on draft weekend had a substantial impact on their fortunes in the near term. Now, before anyone goes crazy about that statement, I’m not suggesting the draft doesn’t matter. Obviously, some of the players selected are the future cornerstones for their new teams. I’m merely trying to convey that the grades you see, even by reliable sources such as SI, should be used for entertainment value at this point and are not going to instantly transform a team. 

In fact, I give a lot of credit to reporters who go back years later and re-grade drafts, since that type of analysis is far more accurate. As far as team success in the upcoming season goes, factors such as a coaching change, health, statistical traits from the previous season or even free-agent moves are likely to have a bigger impact than draft grades.

In short, don’t overreact to anything you saw or read about the 2022 NFL Draft. I can assure you it will take some time for the draft to sort itself out. The Ravens and Eagles receiving A+ grades surely won’t hurt their prospects — and it’s exciting for fans — but there’s a lot more that will go into determining how those teams fare this fall. Similarly, I’m sure Vikings fans are feeling dejected after last weekend’s proceedings, but the team has a new coaching staff and some offensive stars after a near-.500 season in 2021. The D- grade doesn’t change much about their chances in 2022.

In general, SI tends to grade like a highly optimistic teacher, with an average grade point of 3.03 (between a B and a B+ ) over the last seven drafts, including 2022. Prior to this year, the only team with a D grade was the Falcons in 2016. And how did that affect the franchise? Well, Dan Quinn’s team went from 8-8 to 11-5 following that draft in 2016, then proceeded to win double-digit games in 2017 as well. 

Similarly, SI had awarded four A+ grades in the six drafts prior to this one. All four of those teams had at least a two-win drop in the following season, including the 2016 Bengals, who plummeted from 12-4 in 2015 to 6-9-1 after the draft. For the Ravens and Eagles in 2022, a healthy Lamar Jackson and the continued growth of Jalen Hurts are far more important than last weekend’s draft.

To SI’s credit, I have found they are right more often than they are wrong. The numbers below show the win differential for teams one year, two years, three years and four years after each draft:

Win differential, by draft grade, between season before draft and Years 1, 2, 3 and 4 (2016-21)

A-level draft grade: + 0.06 in Year 1, + 0.91 in Year 2, + 0.79 in Year 3, + 0.84 in Year 4

B-level draft grade: -0.09 in Year 1, -0.39 in Year 2, -0.18 in Year 3, -0.07 in Year 4

C- or D-level draft grade: + 0.57 in Year 1, + 0.34 in Year 2, + 0.09 in Year 3, -0.11 in Year 4

Some thoughts:

— Teams with A-level grades generally show improvement but by an average of less than one win. I’ll show in the coming weeks that statistical traits from the previous season are far more predictive for determining potential improvement (or decline). 

— Teams with B-level grades, or essentially average marks, actually fare the worst, averaging fewer wins in the four seasons after the draft. It seems it’s better to make waves, good or bad, on draft weekend. 

— Teams with the lowest grades (C or worse) actually tend to win more games the next season (0.57 wins on average). Of course, factors such as free agency, luck and coaching changes contribute to those results. 

As you can see, the most dramatic win-total improvement comes for teams with A grades (A+ , A, A-) in Years 2, 3 and 4, so being assigned a good grade is a positive. Here’s a look at the group of teams most likely to improve (compared to the season before their A drafts) in 2022, based on the findings: 

2019 A grades (2018 record)

— Miami Dolphins (7-9)

— Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1)

— Green Bay Packers (7-9)

— Chicago Bears (5-11)

2020 A grades (2019 record)

— Denver Broncos (7-9)

— Detroit Lions (3-12-1)

— Los Angeles Rams (9-7)

2021 A grades (2020 record)

— Chicago Bears (8-8)

— Cleveland Browns (11-5)

— Green Bay Packers (13-3)

— Los Angeles Chargers (10-6)

— Miami Dolphins (10-6)

— San Francisco 49ers (6-10)

The most dramatic win-total decline comes for teams with B grades (B+ , B, B-) in Year 2. Here’s a look at the group of teams most likely to see a decline (compared to their 2020 records) in 2022, based on the findings: 

2021 B grades (2020 record)

— Atlanta Falcons (4-12)

— Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

— Buffalo Bills (13-3)

— Dallas Cowboys (6-10)

— Denver Broncos (5-11)

— Detroit Lions (5-11)

— Houston Texans (4-12)

— Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

— Los Angeles Rams (8-8)

— Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

— New England Patriots (7-9)

— New York Giants (6-10)

— New York Jets (2-14)

— Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1)

— Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)

— Tennessee Titans (11-5)

— Washington Commanders (7-9)

Another way to use this information is to look at cumulative draft grades compared to cumulative records from 2016-21. Here are the NFL’s 32 teams, in alphabetical order, with average SI.com draft grade (and league ranking) from the previous six drafts compared to won-lost record (and ranking) in the same span. I used a common grade-point-average scale for quantifying draft grades (i.e. 4.0 for A, 3.7 for A-, 3.3 for B+ , etc.):

Team: SI.com 6-year GPA (NFL rank), won-lost record (NFL rank)

— Arizona Cardinals: 3.05 (16), 42-53-2 (20)

— Atlanta Falcons: 2.6 (31), 46-51 (18)

— Baltimore Ravens: 3.28 (8), 60-37 (6)

— Buffalo Bills: 3.35 (7), 56-41 (10)

— Carolina Panthers: 2.72 (26), 39-58 (25)

— Chicago Bears: 2.97 (20), 42-55 (21)

— Cincinnati Bengals: 3.5 (2), 35-60-2 (27)

— Cleveland Browns: 2.95 (21), 33-63-1 (29)

— Dallas Cowboys: 3.27 (9), 58-39 (9)

— Denver Broncos: 3.67 (1), 39-58 (25)

— Detroit Lions: 3.17 (12), 35-60-2 (28)

— Green Bay Packers: 3.4 (4), 62-34-1 (5)

— Houston Texans: 2.9 (23), 42-55 (21)

— Indianapolis Colts: 3.12 (12), 49-48 (16)

— Jacksonville Jaguars: 3 (18), 28-69 (31)

— Kansas City Chiefs: 2.72 (26), 72-25 (1)

— Las Vegas Raiders: 2.38 (32), 45-52 (19)

— Los Angeles Chargers: 3.38 (5), 53-44 (13)

— Los Angeles Rams: 2.78 (25), 55-42 (11)

— Miami Dolphins: 3.23 (10), 47-50 (17)

— Minnesota Vikings: 3.38 (5), 54-42-1 (12)

— New England Patriots: 2.92 (22), 67-30 (2)

— New Orleans Saints: 2.72 (26), 65-32 (3)

— New York Giants: 3.12 (14), 33-64 (30)

— New York Jets: 2.83 (24), 27-70 (32)

— Philadelphia Eagles: 3 (18), 51-45-1 (14)

— Pittsburgh Steelers: 2.67 (30), 62-33-2 (4)

— San Francisco 49ers: 3.47 (3), 41-56 (23)

— Seattle Seahawks: 2.68 (29), 59-37-1 (7)

— Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3.07 (15), 50-47 (15)

— Tennessee Titans: 3.05 (16), 59-38 (8)

— Washington Commanders: 3.22 (11), 39-57-1 (24)

A few highlights:

— Teams that have drafted and played well (top-10 ranking for draft grade and record): Baltimore, Buffalo, Dallas and Green Bay. 

— Teams that have struggled in the draft and on the field (bottom-nine ranking for draft grade and record): Carolina and New York Jets.

— Teams that have greatly outperformed their draft ranking (record ranking at least 20 spots higher than draft ranking): Pittsburgh (+ 26), Kansas City (+ 25), New Orleans (+ 23), Seattle (+ 22) and New England (+ 20). Fans of these teams should take draft grades with a grain of salt. These teams are naturally drafting in lower positions, plus there could be some draft bias against these teams because of their on-field success.

— Teams that have failed to turn draft success into on-field results (record ranking at least 20 spots lower than draft ranking): Cincinnati (-25), Denver (-24) and San Francisco (-20). Of course, the Bengals are coming off a Super Bowl run led by players primarily acquired through the draft, so perhaps years of quality drafting are finally bearing fruit. Incidentally, all three teams received a B grade for 2022. 

The last thing I looked at was teams that scored consecutive high or poor draft grades (or close to it) and what impact that might have on the field. As you’ll see, this turned out to be inconclusive:

— The Arizona Cardinals received their worst draft grade in at least seven seasons, scoring a D last week. It’s their second straight grade of C or worse, perhaps setting the stage for the end of an improving pattern in which they won 3, 5, 8 and 11 games over the last four seasons.

— The Baltimore Ravens have received A grades in two of the last three seasons. Combining that with the healthy return of Lamar Jackson suggests the team could get back to double-digit win territory after an 8-9 season in 2021.

— The Carolina Panthers have won exactly five games in each of the last three seasons. With C grades in 2021 and 2022, the Panthers might be stuck for a while.

— The Cincinnati Bengals received grades of B+ or better every year from 2016-20. With a C+ in 2021 followed by a Super Bowl run, it was clearly the work done in previous Aprils that made the difference.

— The Dallas Cowboys were given an A+ in 2020 and a B in 2021 — the 2021 draft appears to be as good or better than 2020 — so a good foundation appears to be in place despite a C+ grade last weekend.

— SI.com awarded the Denver Broncos four straight A-level grades from 2017-20. In the four follow-up seasons, the Broncos went just 23-41 on the field. This team’s drafts have been consistently overvalued. That said, the addition of Russell Wilson could be bigger than any draft weekend.

— Despite the Green Bay Packers again infuriating draft observers by refusing to select a wide receiver in the first round, four of their last five drafts have received an A- or better from SI. Back-to-back-to back 13-win seasons are the result.

— In four of the last five years, the Jacksonville Jaguars have received a grade of B- or worse. Obviously, the results on the field have paralleled that assessment. 

— The Las Vegas Raiders were SI’s least respected draft team from 2016-21, with a grade-point average of 2.38. They received a B+ this year for the first time since 2016, when they improved from 7-9 to 12-4. Reason for optimism for Las Vegas fans.

— The Minnesota Vikings have fared well in the draft over the last six seasons (3.38 GPA, fifth-best in the league) but have little postseason success to show for it. What impact will this year’s D- grade have?

— The New Orleans Saints are trending down after grades of C-, C and C over the last three drafts. With Drew Brees and Sean Payton gone, it seems this team’s window is closed.

— The New York Giants received their third A-level grade since 2016. After their previous two A-level drafts, they improved by five and two wins.

— The New York Jets are on a three-year run of being graded A-, B+ and A, providing some hope they can get out of the funk that has seen them go a league-worst 27-70 over the last six seasons.

— In four of the last seven years, including 2020 and 2021, the San Francisco 49ers received grades of A- or better. This franchise should be in position for lasting success.

— Last year I called for the potential end of the Seattle Seahawks’ run because of their draft failures. The Seahawks are ranked 29th in the league with a draft GPA of 2.68 over the previous six seasons and fell to 7-10 on the field in 2021.

— The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ acquisition of Tom Brady is one (big) part of their recent success, but their A- grades in both 2019 and 2020 is another. Despite grades of B- in 2021 and 2022, this team is in a good place with a mix of young and veteran talent.

— The Tennessee Titans have had the most consistent grades from 2016-22, scoring between B+ and B- every year. Not surprisingly, the Titans have been consistently good but not great on the field.

None of what I found seems to be predictive enough to form the basis of a futures wager. I can assure you the statistical traits I reveal in the coming weeks will be more definitive. Regardless, analyzing the draft analysis is always an interesting endeavor.

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