NFL Draft Study: Player Retention

by Justis Mosqueda

According to FiveThirtyEight, 15 teams in the NFL already have less than a 10 percent chance to make it to the playoffs with three weeks left to go in the season. Draft season is right around the corner, where the hope trafficking will get you to believe that a mid-round guard is a “safe, 10-year starter” and that sixth-round outside linebacker is a “sleeper.”

Really, what you want to know is if a given draft pick is going to be a difference-maker for your team long-term. Is he going to be a staple player for your franchise? There’s a chance that you will be able to find someone on the internet who can sell you on any given draft pick.

In an attempt to break the cliches and hope trafficking, I decided to take a look for myself at what the chances are of draft picks becoming long-term difference-makers based on where they were selected, hopefully painting a just picture to manage expectations.

There are plenty of ways to skin the cat, but let me explain the process I chose. If you talk with anyone in the league or in the NFL apparatus, the importance of the last collective bargaining agreement cannot be overstated. The limits on practice time have influenced how young players develop, which is why you are seeing some, like Bill Belichick, electing to add players who have at least seen NFL playing time rather than banking on a rookie to pan out. Because of this dynamic, I only looked at the retention of draft picks from 2011 on.

The second leg of this explanation is that I chose to look at player retention (veteran re-signing or extension by a team which originally drafted a player) above everything else. You don’t want to know if a player is going to be good. You want to know if a player is going to be good and is good for your team, which is a very different question to be answered. Within this current collective bargaining agreement, player retention would probably be most accurately measured in Year 6. The reason for this is that contracts that first-round picks sign now include a team option (fifth-year option) that can make it so that a player, if a team chooses, does not have an opportunity to sign a second long-term contract (or franchise tag, which I think is just to be equal as player retention) until after he has played five seasons in the league.

Unfortunately, this means that the study can only stretch from 2011 (the start of the new collective bargaining agreement) to 2013 (the latest class to play into their sixth season in the NFL), which is not great but does reflect how few data points the NFL has to work within this new era.

Above is what the data looks like (excluding special teamers) when split into buckets that stretch 16 draft slots, a half of a round in the NFL draft. Players drafted in the first 16 picks of those three draft classes were still on their original teams’ rosters 40 percent of the time. That number actually rose slightly to 46 percent over the following 16 picks before the drop off rapidly began.

If you were wondering why NFL teams seem to value first-round picks more than anything else, it’s because reality tells them to! Of the 96 players drafted in the first round from 2011 to 2013, 41 of them were still on the team in six years. Of the 653 non-special team players drafted outside of the first round from 2011 to 2013, only 65 of them (roughly one-fourth of the rate of first-round picks) were still on the team in six years.

This is what the data looks like when you group these 16-slot buckets into similar, consecutive ranges (I also noted rough round equivalents, though the ranges change from year to year because of the NFL’s compensatory pick allocation process.) Players picked in the first round to the mid-second round are retained 38.2 percent of the time. Players drafted from the mid-second round through the third round are retained 14 percent of the time. Players drafted from the fourth round to the mid-sixth round are retained 8.9 percent of the time. Players drafted from the mid-sixth round through the seventh round are retained 1.5 percent of the time.

That’s right, your seventh-round pick is literally a player with a 1-in-100 shot at taking up a long-term roster spot. When you consider the value it costs to even carry a player on the roster, trading one first-round pick for the last 50 selection in a draft seems like a bad dumb as turning down a one for 50 transaction seems on an anecdotal level. While every pick at the top of the draft doesn't pan out, the NFL is good enough at drafting that the end of the draft means very, very little.

Anything can happen. A player can certainly outperform his draft position. With that being said, there is a reason why the draft conversation usually revolves around players at the top of the draft, digs a little into mid-round selections and largely ignores players who are candidates to be drafted in the sixth and seventh rounds. Reality, at least under this collective bargaining agreement, is telling us that player retention, which is what fans hope for draft picks, basically mirrors that process.