The 2021 NFL Draft is now in the history books, and with it, the interminable pre-draft analysis has concluded and been replaced by interminable post-draft analysis. Given how closely scrutinized the process is, how many millions of dollars are at stake, and how much analytics have taken over the game of NFL football, you’d think that there would be more research put into how effective teams are at drafting players and how to optimize one’s draft picks. But even the best NFL analysts’ take can be roughly summarized as, “Drafting players is a crapshoot, so the best approach is to draft as many players as possible to increase your team’s chances of finding NFL-caliber players.”
It’s easy to look at recent high-profile draft picks and spot the apparent randomness. 2012: Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III drafted #1 and #2; Russell Wilson drafted #75. 2015: Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota drafted #1 and #2. 2016: Jared Goff and Carson Wentz drafted #1 and #2. 2017: Mitchell Trubisky drafted #2, Patrick Mahomes #10, Deshaun Watson #12. None of the six quarterbacks drafted #1 between 2009 and 2016 (Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Luck, Winston, and Goff) are still with their original teams, including two drafted by the Rams. The same goes for the five quarterbacks drafted #2 and #3 from 2012 to 2017 (RG3, Blake Bortles, Mariota, Wentz, and Trubisky).
This belies the notion that using a top-three draft pick to select a potential franchise quarterback is a solid bet. Unless teams have suddenly gotten smarter or luckier, and given that the four most recent #1 picks and the top three picks in 2021 were all quarterbacks, there’s a good chance this trend will continue.
Because of injuries and team quality, there is always going to be a significant element of fortune with the ultimate performance of top draft picks, as exemplified by Luck and RG3. But I wonder how much serious analysis has been done in this regard. For example, how strongly do PFF grades for NFL players correlate with their original draft order? On average, do first rounders grade higher than second rounders, and if so, by how much? Does the relative performance of certain position groups correlate more with draft order than others (e.g. offensive linemen versus quarterbacks)? Is there a strong correlation between performance and draft order at different phases of a career (years 1-3 vs. 4-6), and is that correlated by position group (e.g. do running backs start stronger and fade faster while linemen start more slowly but continue to improve)?
I could research all of this myself, but it would take a lot of time. So I took a major shortcut by looking only at the players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were drafted (or draft eligible) starting in 1967. I chose 1967 because it’s the first year of that the NFL and AFL merged their drafts. Including the 2021 HoF class, there are 146 players in this cohort.
Before I get into the details and what did and did not surprise me, I thought it would be fun to construct a quiz based on the analysis. Ten questions, multiple choice. Remember we’re only looking at Hall of Fame players who were first draft-eligible in 1967 or later. Let’s see how good your guesses are:
- What percentage of Hall of Famers were drafted in the first round?
- What percentage of Hall of Famers were undrafted?
- Which draft position has the most Hall of Famers?
- How many Hall of Famers were drafted in the position referenced in the previous question?
- How many Hall of Famers were drafted #1?
- How many times have Hall of Famers been drafted #1 in consecutive years?
- Outside of the first round, which draft position has the most Hall of Famers?
- Excluding undrafted and supplemental picks, what is the lowest draft position of a Hall of Famer?
- From 1967 through 2000, which draft year has the most Hall of Famers?
- There is only one draft year from 1967-2000 with no Hall of Famers. Which is it?
Once you’ve attempted to answer these questions, go to the follow-up post to read the answer key and some additional analysis.