The Draft Project

There has been a lot of discussion recently as to whether the Indianapolis Colts are drafting as well as they used to.

I decided that the only way to reasonably measure the Colts’ drafts was to compare them with all the other drafts of NFL teams over the past several years.  So with the help of two intrepid 18to88 readers (Josh Baker and Dan Menezes), we’ve complied draft data on all 32 teams from 2002-2009.

Over the course of the next several days, I’ll be doing a series of articles about the drafts (best, worst, AFC South history), ect.  The study used two tools to aid in the process.  The first was “point value” for draft picks.

Point value is based on the theoretical trade value of each NFL draft pick.  Higher picks are worth more than lower picks.  For every draft pick used from 2002-2009, we used the trade chart to give the draft slot (NOT THE PLAYER) a point value.  Point value represents potential average value of the draft slot before a player is picked. On average, the first pick of the draft will be worth more than the 30th pick.  Once the players are selected, that value is irrelevant, but over time, it plays out that the top of the draft is more vastly more valuable than the bottom.

Once a player is selected, we judged his performance using a stat called Approximate Value.  Approximate value is a stat engineered by Pro Football Reference. It is not a perfect stat. It is meant to be, well, approximate.  For more discussion of the methodology of this study and of approximate value, please refer to the appendix.

In the appendix to this article, you can not only find further explanations of the methodology, but a link to the spread-sheet with all the data.  I won’t be listing individual data points in the article, because they are meaningless without context.  If you want to see the results, simply download the spreadsheet.

There are two ways to measure the success of a draft.

The first is to measure the total value of a draft.  Ultimately, what matters most is getting as much production as possible regardless of draft slot.

The second is to measure the efficiency of a draft.  Teams at the top of the draft have obvious advantages over teams at the bottom.  It’s not fair to expect the team drafting 30th to get the same value as the team drafting 3rd.

There is a secondary issue: the value a player provides to the team that drafted him versus the total value a player provides over the course of his career to all the teams he plays for.  The first number tells us how well a team managed its roster after the fact, but the second number more accurately tells us how well the team evaluated talent.  Take Jake Scott for instance.  He was drafted by the Colts and played several seasons providing excellent value.  He then went to Tennessee.  Obviously, his value to the Titans speaks well of the Colts’ ability to select a good player, but is useless to our understanding of how much he meant to the Colts.  For the purposes of this article, I will be only judging teams based on the value provided to the drafting team by the player.  Later in the week, I’ll discuss the total value a player provided to the league.

Most Total Draft Value 2002-2009

1. Jacksonville

2. San Diego

3. Dallas

4. Indianapolis

5. New York Giants

Lowest Total Draft Value 2002-2009

32. Saint Louis

31. Washington

30. Detroit

29. Tampa Bay

28. Miami

This measure tells us how teams drafted regardless of where they picked.  What it doesn’t tell us is how strong their opportunity to select was.  The Indianapolis Colts, for example, had the fewest ‘draft points’ in the NFL over this span by a wide margin.  Indy had 30% fewer draft points than the average NFL team over this span, and nearly 10% fewer than the next lowest team (the Pittsburgh Steelers).  Because of this, we also developed a metric for comparing the value a team received from the picks to the point value of the picks themselves.

Most Efficient Drafts 2002-2009 (rank in total draft points in parenthesis)

1. Indianapolis (32)

2. Pittsburgh (31)

3. New York Giants (27)

4. Baltimore  (25)

5. Philadelphia (26)

Least Efficient Drafts 2002-2009

32. Detroit (1)

31. Saint Louis (15)

30. Oakland (2)

29. Miami (16)

28. Cleveland (7)

To put this in perspective, the Lions had 24,711.3 draft points.  The Colts had just 10,116.8 points over the same span. Indianapolis compiled total a approximate value of 805, while Detroit posted just 446.  From 2002 to 2009, their records were 99-29 and 31-97 respectively. 

In reference to the Colts, the charge has been made that they are drafting less effectively than in the past.  To test that, we also ran the numbers from just the 2005-2009 drafts.  Now, it’s really too soon to evaluate the 2009 (and probably the 2008) draft, but for the sake of argument, we have those results.

Most Total Value 2005-2009

1. Green Bay

2. Tennessee

3.  Philadelphia

4. Atlanta

5. San Fransisco

6. Indianapolis

Least Total Value 2005-2009

32.  Saint Louis

31. Detroit

30. Chicago

29. Washington

28. Cleveland

So, the Colts rank two spots lower over the past five years than over the past 8 years.  However, the reason is that Indianapolis again had the fewest draft points available to use during this span.  The Colts had nearly 40% fewer available draft points than the NFL average and 13% less than the next lowest team, the Chicago Bears.

Most Efficient Drafts 2005-2009 (Rank in total draft points in parenthesis)

1.  Indianapolis (32)

2.  Philadelphia (23)

3. New York Giants (30)

4. San Diego (26)

5.  Green Bay (10)

You can see why Green Bay won the Super Bowl.  They not only had a fairly high amount of draft points, but they used them with incredible efficiency, managing the best overall drafts during this span.

Least Efficient Drafts 2005-2009

32. Detroit (1)

31. Saint Louis (6)

30. Miami (2)

29. Oakland (3)

28. Cleveland (5)

Here’s a look at the Colts drafts from 2002-2009:

Total Value Rank % Compared to League Average Efficiency Rank Efficiency % Compared to NFL Average
2002 9th 125% 13th 113%
2003 4th 162% 1st 230%
2004 13th 99% 3rd 162%
2005 20th 71% 14th 107%
2006 4th 156% 1st 276%
2007 13th 106% 6th 141%
2008 8th 128% 1st 438%
2009 10th 122% 6th 185%

The Colts were better than league average in efficiency in every draft. Their total value was at league average in 2004, and was only significantly below average in one season, 2005. Even the highly criticized 2007 draft was basically average in terms of true value.  The 2008 Colts draft is currently by far the single most efficient draft of the past eight years.  The Colts did not have a first round pick, but every player selected provided some value.  Though some would criticize the Colts’ draft efforts in recent years, it’s clear they are still getting solid total value from their picks, and when their draft position is considered, they absolutely lap the NFL field.  They posted the most efficient drafts in the NFL in 2003, 2006 and 2008.

It appears that much of the complaining about the Colts draft is based on completely unrealistic expectations and a lack of perspective of how other teams fair in the draft.

In the days to come, I’ll compare the Colts’ drafts to those of the rest of the AFC South as well as to other major AFC contenders.  Remember that in an absolute sense, the only thing that matters is the Total Value a draft produces. Total value means good football players and should correlate to winning football games.  However, when complaining about declining total value, one has to be careful to consider explanations beyond ‘drafting bad players’.  The Colts are as efficient as they ever were at drafting, but that success has lead to better records and better records mean fewer draft points to work with in the subsequent draft.

It’s clear that Bill Polian and the Colts’ scouting department are drafting as well as they ever have and are doing more with less than any other front office in the NFL.