Do NFL draft grades predict team results?

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In the absence of any daily sports at this time last year, I took on a project for the first time, analyzing the grades given for each NFL team’s drafts over the previous five years. What I was hoping to find out was whether or not there was any correlation between a team’s draft grades and its success, or lack thereof, on the field. Let’s face it, the NFL has become a year-round league and there is nothing more scrutinized each offseason than the draft. That means it’s of ultra importance, right? Well, I learned a few things last year, so I decided to update the findings after the 2021 draft, which wrapped up last Saturday.

One of the most consistent, efficient and reliable sources for each NFL draft is Sports Illustrated, as it has typically put out its full analysis within 24 hours of the final pick being made. In the six years I have tracked SI’s grades, I have never seen one lower than a C-, and the average grade is a touch higher than a B. With this steady analysis serving as the foundation of my study, I went back and compared the regular-season won-lost records in recent years to the grades that SI assigned the teams for their draft work.

As you’ll again see this year, there was very little concrete evidence to suggest that anything teams did on draft weekend made a substantial impact on their fortunes on the field in the near-term future. Now, before anyone goes crazy about that comment, I’m not so ignorant to say that the players picked each year on draft weekend don’t mean anything to their team’s fortunes, as obviously they are the next cornerstones for franchises. I’m merely trying to convey that the grades you see given by sources like Sports Illustrated should be given entertainment value only at this point, and not used for thinking that what happened last weekend and the grade associated with it is going to instantly transform a team. In fact, I give credit to a lot of places for going back years later and “regrading” earlier drafts, since that type of analysis is far more accurate. From what I shared a few weeks back in PSW in studying the statistical characteristics of teams that can rapidly improve or decline from season to season, that is clearly more important than draft grades.

In short, don’t overreact to anything you saw or read about the 2021 NFL draft. It will take some time for that to sort itself out. The fact that the Browns were the only team that got an A for their performance is exciting for fans in Cleveland, and certainly doesn’t figure to hurt their chances of continued improvement. The same can be said for the five other teams that received A- grades. Conversely, the fact that the Cardinals, Panthers, Raiders and Saints received the worst grades, C’s, doesn’t mean that their hope is lost for 2021.

In general, SI.com tends to grade like a highly optimistic teacher, with a grade point average of 3.05 over the last six drafts, including 2021. That is between B and B+  range. Only one of the 192 teams to draft since 2016 was given a grade worse than C-, and that was the Falcons of 2016, who received a “D.” Did that doom Atlanta to a miserable 2016 season? Absolutely not. In fact, coach Dan Quinn’s team went from 8-8 to 11-5 after that draft, and proceeded to win double-digit games the next season as well.

Similarly, SI.com has awarded four A+  grades over the last six drafts, including the Cowboys last year. Looking at the fortunes of those three other teams, the 2016 Bengals, hot off a 12-4 season, were widely praised for supposedly preparing themselves for the next step on draft weekend. Instead, they dropped to 6-10 after that “stellar” draft. That same season, the Jaguars were looking to improve on a dismal 5-11 season and were thought to have shored up a lot of weak spots with a fantastic draft performance. The result was a 3-13 record the next year. Then, after the 2017 season, the Super Bowl runner-up Patriots took what was the league’s best draft grade and actually dropped two games in their regular season won-lost mark. Of course, New England did win the Super Bowl that season, but the Patriots were generally considered a lesser team than their predecessors. Finally, we can all remember what happened to the Cowboys last year. Riding lofty expectations, they succumbed to injuries and bad defense and eventually finished 6-10, two games worse than 2019.

Those rare grades at opposite ends of the spectrum were obvious misses by their authors. That said, what I have found is that they are right more often than they are wrong, thus the term reputable can best be used to accurately describe the predictive nature of the analysis. Take a look at the chart below, which shows the one-year, two-year, and three-year eventual regular-season win differences for teams that were assigned each of the grade levels.

As I studied this chart, here are some of my thoughts:

-       Teams graded above the average (3.04) generally showed consistent improvement. In fact, the B+ , A-, and A graded teams all showed average win improvements in all three time windows other than the two-year window off a B+  grade.

-       Teams with grades below the average showed decline. The B, B-, and C+  graded teams all had declining average regular-season win totals for all three time windows.

-       The grades on the extreme ends (A, C, C-, D) all turned out to be wild misses in terms of their predictive nature. The best-graded teams flopped, while the lowest-graded teams tended to rise. Of course, there are many factors, including free agency, luck, momentum swings and coaching changes, among other things that could contribute to these results.

As you can see from the chart, the most dramatic positive win-total changes came from A grades in the two-years-ago and three-years-ago windows, as well as the C- grades from the two-years-ago and three-years-ago windows. The teams that would qualify as potential IMPROVEMENT teams in 2021 based upon this logic would be:

2019 A grades (2018 record) – average improvement – 1.13 games

Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1)

Green Bay Packers (7-9)

Chicago Bears (5-11)

2020 A grades (2019 record) – average improvement – 1.7 games

Denver Broncos (7-9)

Detroit Lions (3-12-1)

Los Angeles Rams (9-7)

2019 C- grades (2018 record) – average improvement – 4.67 games

Cleveland Browns (7-8-1)

Las Vegas Raiders (4-12)

New York Giants (5-11)

2020 C- grades (2019 record) – average improvement – 3.17 games

New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The most dramatic negative win-total changes came from C+  grades in the two-years-ago and three-years-ago windows, as well as the C grades from the two-years-ago window. The teams that would qualify as potential DECLINE teams in 2021 based upon these findings would be:

 

2019 C+  grades (2018 record) – average decline – 1.44 games

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

New York Jets (4-12-1)

 

2020 C+  grades (2019 record) – average decline – 1.82 games

Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Las Vegas Raiders (7-9)

New England Patriots (12-4)

 

2020 C grades (2019 record) – average decline – 2.4 games

Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

 

Another interesting way to look at this draft grade information is to focus on the cumulative grades by team against their on-the-field success over the last five seasons. Here are the NFL’s 32 teams in alphabetical order with their average SI.com draft grade and league ranking for the time period of 2016-20 as compared with their regular-season won-lost record in that same span:

Note that I have used a common grade point average scale for quantifying the draft grades (i.e. A – 4.0, A- 3.7, B+  3.3, etc.)

Team: SI.com 5-year Draft Grade (Rank), Won-Lost Record (Rank)

Arizona Cardinals: 3.26 (11), 31-47-2 (26)

Atlanta Falcons: 2.52 (31), 39-41 (16)

Baltimore Ravens: 3.28 (9), 52-28 (6)

Buffalo Bills: 3.42 (3), 45-35 (11)

Carolina Panthers: 2.86 (23), 34-46 (22)

Chicago Bears: 2.82 (24), 36-44 (20)

Cincinnati Bengals: 3.74 (2), 25-53-2 (20)

Cleveland Browns: 2.74 (28), 25-54-1 (30)

Dallas Cowboys: 3.32 (7), 46-34 (10)

Denver Broncos: 3.74 (1), 32-48 (25)

Detroit Lions: 3.26 (10), 32-47-1 (23)

Green Bay Packers: 3.34 (6), 49-30-1 (7)

Houston Texans: 2.94 (20), 38-42 (18)

Indianapolis Colts: 3.14 (13), 40-40 (15)

Jacksonville Jaguars: 3.14 (16), 25-55 (31)

Kansas City Chiefs: 2.8 (25), 60-20 (1)

Las Vegas Raiders: 2.46 (32), 36-44 (21)

Los Angeles Chargers: 3.32 (8), 41-39 (14)

Los Angeles Rams: 2.74 (27), 45-35 (12)

Miami Dolphins: 3.14 (14), 38-42 (17)

Minnesota Vikings: 3.4 (5), 46-33-1 (9)

New England Patriots: 2.9 (22), 57-23 (2)

New Orleans Saints: 2.86 (21), 56-24 (3)

New York Giants: 3.08 (18), 29-51 (28)

New York Jets: 2.74 (29), 23-57 (32)

Philadelphia Eagles: 3.06 (17), 42-37-1 (13)

Pittsburgh Steelers: 2.74 (26), 53-26-1 (4)

San Francisco 49ers: 3.42 (4), 31-49 (27)

Seattle Seahawks: 2.68 (30), 52-27-1 (5)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3.14 (15), 37-43 (19)

Tennessee Titans: 3 (19), 47-33 (8)

Washington Football Team: 3.2 (12), 32-47-1 (24)

 

A few highlights:

-       The teams that have both played and drafted well would be considered Baltimore, Green Bay and Minnesota. All are ranked in top 10 in both draft rank and won-lost record.

-       The teams that have struggled on draft weekend and on the field over the last five years have been Cleveland and the New York Jets. They rank in the bottom five in both categories.

-       Teams that have greatly outperformed their draft rankings have been Seattle (+ 25), Kansas City (+ 24), Pittsburgh (+ 22), New England (+ 20) and New Orleans (+ 18). Obviously fans of these teams should take the reviews of their respective drafts with a grain of salt. There could be some draft bias against these teams as well because of their on-field success. They are naturally drafting lower year after year as well.

-       Teams that have not transferred draft success to the playing field: Denver (-24), San Francisco (-23) and Cincinnati (-18). The 49ers scored another A- grade for 2021. Fans shouldn’t celebrate just yet, although some of the improvement analysis I offered a few weeks back says otherwise.

The last thing I looked to study was when teams scored multiple high or poor draft grades in a row and what impact that might have on their on-the-field fortunes. As you’ll see, this also turned out to be inconclusive.

-       Over the last six years, Atlanta has received a draft grade above B only one time, that being a B+  in 2020. The Falcons’ poor drafts of 2016-18 seem to be catching up as they are just 18-30 over the last three seasons.

-       Baltimore received grades of B+ , B+ , and A- in the 2015-17 draft years. The next two seasons were not viewed as highly. The Ravens improved in five straight seasons, capped by a 14-2 record in 2019. After dropping by three wins a year ago, is this three-year pattern pointing to a further drop in 2021?

-       Buffalo received A- grades in three of four years from 2016 and 2019, and the results have shown with back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins. Their last two drafts haven’t been viewed as highly. Is 2021 when Buffalo hits the wall?

-       The last time the Bears received a grade in the A’s, they went from 5-11 to 12-4 that season (2018). Chicago received an A- for its 2021 draft work.

-       The Bengals received grades of A- or better in four of the last six seasons. Obviously it hasn’t translated into success. For 2021, the Bengals received a six-year low grade of C+ , so maybe this is where the tide turns?

-       SI.com awarded Denver its fourth straight A-level grade for its performance last year. In the four follow-up seasons to those lofty marks, the Broncos were just 23-41. One of these seasons all that talent has to come to the forefront, right? Unless the people at SI are closet Broncos fans.

-       Despite the fact that Green Bay continues to infuriate draft observers by refusing to select a wide receiver in the first round, three of the last four Packers drafts have been highly respected by SI, all receiving grades of A- or better. Perhaps they have a better feel than the instant reactors, as back-to-back 13-win seasons have been the result.

-       The Jaguars have seen their draft grades plummet in three straight years, and according to SI, it would mean that new head coach Urban Meyer figures to have his hands full this season. My analysis of a few weeks ago suggests differently.

-       After four straight years of grades in the B’s, the last two report cards for the Chiefs show C+  marks. It’s hard to stay on top for long, and not drafting well makes it even tougher.

-       The Raiders have officially been the league’s least respected draft team by SI.com, receiving grades of C+ , C-, C+  and C over the last four seasons. This, combined with the Broncos’ respect leaves me wondering if a little personal bias may be entering the equation, but even so, the poor grades have not produced a winner either for Las Vegas.

-       The Dolphins have added a 2021 draft grade of A- to the 10-6 record of last season, leaving room for plenty of optimism. It should be noted, however, that in 2019, this franchise received an A grade yet dropped by two games afterward.

-       Minnesota has scored A, A-, and B+  the last three years but seems to be in a mode lately of having to replace huge veteran free-agent losses with rookie talent.

-       I’ll simply repeat what I wrote last year about the Patriots: “In three of the last five years, the Patriots received grades of C+  or worse. The franchise had the oldest team in the NFL last season. Perhaps this is the year it catches up to them.” A grade of B for 2021 doesn’t provide a lot to be excited about.

-       The Saints are trending downward after the last two draft years produced seven-year-low grades of C- and C. With Drew Brees retiring, it might be easy to predict that the run of four straight double-digit win seasons is about to end.

-       The Jets’ two most recent draft grades of A- and B+  provide some hope that they can get out of the funk that has seen them go a league worst 23-57 over the last five seasons.

-       In four of the last six years, including 2020 and 2021, the 49ers received grades of A- or better. This franchise has seemingly put itself in position for lasting success.

-       According to SI, Seattle hasn’t had an above-average draft (B+  or better) in any of the last six years. Seemingly, it hasn’t hurt the Seahawks on the field. Is 2021 the year that happens?

-       Tampa Bay’s 2019 and 2020 draft grades were both A-. People seem to think it was only Tom Brady coming over from New England that put this team at the top. Clearly there is good young talent too.

 

While not earth-shattering findings, some of what we’ve found in this piece might help us going forward. Regardless, analyzing the draft analysis is always an interesting endeavor.

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