The Falcons have three primary options in the draft, does history show one is better than the others?
One of the signature aspects of draft season is projection. Every morsel of information, every physical test given and every bit of game film pored over is all meant to help discern what a player can be down the road.
But what does history say?
For all of the time, energy and money dedicated to scouting and draft research, there still remain too many factors outside of a team’s control for it to guarantee success on a pick. This, inherently, makes the draft a well-informed guessing game. And we can look at past results to find out how likely it is to select the right player.
There are really three primary options for the Falcons with the fourth-overall pick: Take a quarterback, take the best player on their draft board or find a partner and trade back in the draft. Using the last two decades as a sample size, have any of those options proven to be more effective than the others? Here’s what I found.
Taking a QB at #4
This is shaping up to be a historic first round at the quarterback position, and the Falcons are right in the thick of it. Consensus reporting right now has Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones going one, two and three, though there is at least some skepticism about Jones. If that happens, it would be just the third time in history that quarterbacks went with the first three picks.
The 1999 NFL Draft was the last time that rare occurrence happened, and a total of five were selected in the first round. As with this year, that class was billed as a special group of quarterbacks. Tim Couch was drafted by Cleveland with the first pick; Donavan McNabb landed in Philadelphia with the second and Akili Smith went to Cincinnati at three. Among that trio, only McNabb panned out
The fourth quarterback taken in the 1999 draft was Daunte Culpepper, who became a three-time Pro Bowler and twice took the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs. A portion of the Falcons fan base is wary of selecting what draft experts would label the fourth- or fifth-best quarterback, but this is just one of the many different examples proving that order taken doesn’t guarantee relative success.
Since the 2000 NFL Draft, 27 quarterbacks have been selected with one of the top five picks, but how many became successful pros?
Setting aside five quarterbacks who are still too young to fully label, there are 22 upon whom we can render a verdict. Seven of these quarterbacks can be deemed a hit, 11 can safely be labeled a miss, and four fall towards the middle of the spectrum as long-term starters but not much more.
So, even including the four average starters as hits, it’s a 50-50 tossup. Keep in mind, that’s just quarterbacks taken in the top 5, or the players who would be considered premier draft picks. Even with that great setup, teams whiff on guys just as much as they nail it. This remains the case when looking at specific examples.
Three quarterbacks have been selected with the #4 pick since the 1967 NFL-AFL merger. One, Bob Griese, who was drafted by Miami in 1967, put together a Hall of Fame career. Art Schlichter was drafted by Baltimore in 1982 and played only 13 games in three seasons. Philip Rivers was the last quarterback taken at #4, and he made eight Pro Bowls in 17 years and could possibly get into the Hall of Fame.
Will the Falcons add a fourth quarterback to that list? If so, they could make this year’s draft the first ever to have four quarterbacks taken to start the event. Yet, even at such an important position, this is a crapshoot. It’s not often players go in the correct order, even at the start of the draft. If Atlanta’s scouting and research tells them that whichever quarterback available is the right pick, that’s the decision they should make. Even if that player is technically the fourth one off the board.
Trading back to accumulate more picks
Does anything have as high an approval rating as draft picks? Seriously, nobody ever says no to getting more draft picks by trading back, and that includes Falcons fans.
There’s some work that needs to be done rebuilding the roster and cheap rookie contracts are a great way for the organization to reset. The argument against doing so is the downside of passing up a potentially elite prospect for a higher quantity of them. How often has trading back proven to be the right call?
In the last 21 drafts, there have been 29 occasions when a team has traded outside of the top 10 (I used top 10 to increase the sample size). On the surface, the story is the same. Of the teams trading out, 12 could be declared winners of the trade, 12 could be declared losers of the trade and five had a neutral outcome. So, it looks like it’s again a toss-up, but teams appear to have more faculty in how things turn out with these.
I’m defining winning a trade as the team that moved back using their extra picks to land either one elite player or multiple good players. In this sense, it doesn’t matter who the team moving up selected, because we’re trying to determine how frequently teams are successful at still landing impact players when trading back.
An organization’s ability to scout and accurately determine depth and value for the draft can impact how good a team is at moving around the draft board. Some teams, like the Cleveland Browns and Las Vegas Raiders, show up multiple times in the loss column. Other teams, like the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have found good value after moving down and have multiple wins piled up.
The 2018 NFL Draft provides a recent example of how the Buccaneers added great value by trading back. Tampa Bay traded the #7 pick to the Bills for their #12 overall pick and a pair of second-round picks. While the Bills grabbed quarterback Josh Allen, a good decision in hindsight, the Buccaneers added defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round and made one more trade back before eventually adding cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead. All three have become starters and played key roles in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win. That makes for a great trade back.
Based on this, it does seem that this is at least somewhat tied to the competency of a front office. And it likely has to do with whether a team has a plan in mind when making a deal. Fans are discussing the number of picks the team can get in return, but the Falcons need to view those picks as certain players they want to target. The teams that have proven to be good at this usually move to a seemingly specific spot and usually nail their selection.
Ultimately, this should come down to whether the strategy the Falcons want to execute involves trading down and a specific player they have their eye on.
Taking best player available
Remember the 1999 NFL Draft you read about approximately 2,000 words ago? Well, after Akili Smith was the third quarterback taken to start the draft, the Indianapolis Colts went on the clock. Having selected Peyton Manning the year prior, quarterback wasn’t on the table and Indianapolis had the best player at every other position still available.
They used that pick to select another future Hall of Famer: Running back Edgerrin James. At the time, the pick was fairly shocking. The consensus was that Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams would be the first running back taken, but Indianapolis’s scouting indicated that James was the better prospect, and that scouting proved to be right.
That’s the thing about best player available – it’s entirely subjective. There are 32 top-secret briefings happening in team facilities across the country right now, and every single one of them is different. The 33rd briefing is the one happening publicly, and it’s why everyone thinks they know exactly where every player should be taken.
But that’s never how any of this shakes out. The best player available strategy really comes down to how willing a team is to stick by that mantra, even if it means adding talent at a position of strength, and the talent of the scouting department to successfully arrange the draft board.
Even with the #4 pick, a sure thing is not guaranteed. Of the players drafted fourth since 2000 that can be evaluated, three went on to reach an All-Pro level, seven became Pro Bowlers and nine can be called busts. Again, close to a 50-50 split. However, historically, the #4 pick has proven to be fruitful.
James is not the only Hall of Famer to be taken at #4, far from it. There has been a total of 11 Hall of Famers selected at that spot.
Each draft is different, though. And this year is shaping up to be different from any we’ve ever seen. If the Falcons do intend to truly go best player available, history indicates they can have success with that strategy at #4. Nevertheless, It’s still up to the Falcons to make the correct pick, and, keep in mind, that best player available approach could still lead them to a quarterback.
At the end of the day, the draft is an inexact science, and teams are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed. But, like good teams on the field, good front offices can take different approaches to different drafts to find the best value and take the best players. Now, it’s time to find out if this new Atlanta regime can find that right approach.