The NFL Draft to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Part II: Answers and Analysis

In my previous post, I wondered how much retrospective analysis of NFL draft picks is done, and devised a shortcut method of determining this: Looking at where NFL players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were draft-eligible from 1967 to the present were drafted. My analysis led me to construct a trivia quiz.

Here is the answer key to the quiz:

  1. 56%. Of the 146 Hall of Fame players who were draft-eligible in 1967 or later, 82 were selected in the first round.
  2. 5%. Of those 146 players, 8 were undrafted. They are: Larry Little (1967), Jim Langer (1970), Cliff Harris (1970), Drew Pearson (1973), Donnie Shell (1974), Warren Moon (1984), John Randle (1990), Kurt Warner (1994). Little and Langer were offensive linemates on the dominant Dolphins teams of the early 1970s, and Harris and Pearson were teammates on the dominant Cowboys teams of the mid-to-late 1970s.
  3. #4. 11 Hall of Famers were drafted in the #4 position in the draft. They are: Bob Griese (1967), Joe Greene (1969), John Hannah (1973), Walter Payton (1975), Dan Hampton (1979), Kenny Easley (1981), Chris Doleman (1985), Derrick Thomas (1989), Jonathan Ogden (1996), Charles Woodson (1998), Edgerrin James (1999).
  4. 11. See above.
  5. 10. Ron Yary (1968), O.J. Simpson (1969), Terry Bradshaw (1970), Lee Roy Selmon (1976), Earl Campbell (1978), John Elway (1983), Bruce Smith (1985), Troy Aikman (1989), Orlando Pace (1997), Peyton Manning (1998), Tim Couch (1999). OK, not Tim Couch.
  6. 2. Per above, 1968-1970 and 1997-1998. Give yourself credit for 3, but only if you chose to count 1968-1969 and 1969-1970 separately.
  7. #33. 4 Hall of Famers were drafted #33, though none of them when it was the first pick of the second round, as it is today. They are: Ted Hendricks (1969), Fred Dean (1975), Brett Favre (1991), Isaac Bruce (1994).
  8. #214. Ken Houston, drafted by Houston in the 9th round of the 1967 draft. Choice #198 was a nod to Tom Brady being selected #199 in 2000 draft, and choice #321 was a nod to Giants Hall of Fame OT Rosey Brown, who was drafted #322 by the Giants in the 27th round of 1953 draft.
  9. 1967, with 9 (including one undrafted). They are: Bob Griese (#4), Floyd Little (#6), Alan Page (#15), Gene Upshaw (#17), Lem Barney (#34), Willie Lanier (#50), Rayfield Wright (#182), Ken Houston (#214), and Larry Little (undrafted). Note that Wikipedia reports 10 Hall of Famers for this draft, as they also include Jan Stenerud. I exclude Stenerud because he was originally selected in the 1966 AFL draft. The runner-up drafts are 1983 with 8, and 1968 and 1981 with 7 each. We’ll see if any of the more recent drafts will eventually challenge these numbers; currently no draft after 1996 has more than four Hall of Famers.
  10. 1992. 1972 and 1977 have one each (Franco Harris and Tony Dorsett, respectively). Tony Dungy is also a Hall of Famer who was draft-eligible in 1977 (though undrafted), but he’s in as a coach, not a player. Some people consider the 1984 draft to be one with no Hall of Famers, but I count the three Hall of Famers who were selected in the 1984 supplemental draft: Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman, and Reggie White.

What can we conclude from all of this? First, it’s incredibly difficult to predict when drafting who is going to be a future Hall of Famer. If we constrain ourselves to the years 1967 through 2000, 29% (= 10/34) of the #1 draft picks are in the Hall of Fame. If you look at the top five draft picks from each year, it’s 21% (35 players out of 170 picks). And while we don’t know for certain how many Hall of Fame players more recent drafts will turn out, it’s not looking promising for the top picks. Of the fifteen players chosen #1 from 2001-2015, the best are Eli Manning, Mario Williams, and Jake Long, and it drops off pretty quickly after that, so maintaining the 29% hit rate seems unlikely.

A major thing that has changed in the NFL over the past twenty years is the greater emphasis of the passing game, and the central role of the quarterback to that. Teams are increasingly spending their top draft picks in search of franchise QBs. And while I don’t have hard evidence for this assertion, it seems like it’s easier to predict that an outstanding college lineman will be HoF caliber than a college quarterback. I conjecture that the skills and attributes that make a lineman great in college translate to the NFL more readily than for a QB.

From 1981 through 2000, 7 of the 20 (35%) #1 picks were QBs, and three of them (Elway, Aikman, and P. Manning) are in the Hall of Fame. (The four who aren’t? Vinny Testaverde, Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe, and Tim Couch.) From 2001 to 2015, 11 of the 15 (73%) #1 picks were QBs, and from 2016 to 2021, 5 of 6 (83%).

Those 1981-2000 quarterbacks combined for 13 Super Bowl appearances and a 7-6 record. (You can increase those numbers to 14 and 8-6 if you want to give Bledsoe credit for his role on the 2001 Patriots.)

If you look at the eleven 2001-2015 #1 pick quarterbacks, you have three combined Super Bowl appearances to date: Two wins by Eli Manning and a loss by Cam Newton. (If you choose to include backups, you can count David Carr’s win in 2011 and Alex Smith’s loss in 2013.) Now you can argue that comparing Super Bowl records is unfair in the Tom Brady era, but let’s look at who is a reasonably candidate for the Hall of Fame from this cohort. Eli Manning has a good shot, but is not a slam dunk. Cam Newton has won an MVP award, but seems like a long shot. Matthew Stafford has had a long career and put up some good numbers, but nothing HoF-worthy, esp. without a playoff victory. Still, Stafford’s not out of the question if he can lead the Rams to success. Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck had impressive if injury-riddled careers, but neither seems like a plausible HoF candidate. That leaves Michael Vick, Carr, Smith, JaMarcus Russell, Sam Bradford, and Jameis Winston. The likely future HoF quarterbacks from this era, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, were first-round picks, but not in the top ten.

It’s way too early to tell how the QBs picked #1 in the last five years will fare, but given how much top college QBs have been front-loaded in recent years, it seems likely that future Hall of Fame QBs from this era will be first-round picks, if not #1. An open question is whether there are likely to be later-round QB picks who have HoF-caliber careers, the way Tom Brady (6th round in 2000) and Russell Wilson (3rd round in 2012, and still only a potential HoFer) have.

Broadening the analysis beyond quarterbacks picked #1, we can see that there is an apparent correlation between draft round and eventual Hall of Fame membership:

RoundNumberPercentage
18256%
22316%
31410%
475%
521%
611%
732%
811%
911%
Supplemental43%
Undrafted85%
Total146
Pro Football Hall of Fame players by NFL draft round, 1967-present

More than half of the future Hall of Famers were chosen in the first round, and more than 80% in the first three rounds. So even if the top picks are hit-and-miss, especially recently at quarterback, the top of the draft doesn’t seem to miss to many Hall of Fame-caliber players.

Here’s the breakdown of these players by position. I could have included some questions about this on the quiz, but I didn’t do this analysis until later.

PositionNumberPercentage
OL2920%
WR+TE2416%
DB2114%
DL2114%
RB1913%
LB1611%
QB1410%
K+P21%
Total146
Pro Football Hall of Fame players by position, 1967-present

While it’s noteworthy that the quarterback position is near the bottom of this list, it’s tricky to compare this to other positions where there are typically two or more starters per team. If you break down the position groups further, for example, you find that there are only five centers and six tight ends in this group. So fourteen QBs is actually high by that measure.

Narrowing the analysis to only Hall of Fame players probably doesn’t do a great job of determining the draft’s ability to identify the overwhelming number of NFL players who have solid but not top-tier careers. Even broadening the list to All-Pro selections would give a more meaningful measure. I’ll leave that on my to-do list for a later date.

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