Given that the Browns have a pair of first-round draft picks in April – including the fourth overall selection – I thought it'd be interesting to examine more closely how well teams have done in similar situations in the past.
Statistically speaking, it appears from what I've put together that somewhere between 40% and 45% of offensive players drafted in the first round go on to have long and successful careers.
The rest? They're mostly busts. A smattering of players have had promising careers cut short by injury, drugs, crime, becoming a preacher and even death. But the vast majority of players who petered out just weren't up to snuff.
The breakdown and methodology after the jump.
I decided to approach this question of offensive draft success straightforwardly – by looking at every QB, WR, RB and offensive lineman drafted between 1990 and 2005. I then tried to determine whether they had successful careers.
This was challenging because success in the NFL can be tough to define. Are you a successful receiver if you have a 10-year career, bag 5,000 receiving yards but never make the Pro Bowl and are never a standout? Borderline cases like these were hard, but I tried my best to give them a fair grade. Luckily, in most instances players were either obviously busts or obviously standouts.
Here is what I found, as detailed in the spreadsheet here. While I tried to be thorough, I probably made an error here and there; please let me know if you notice anything wrong.
A total of 35 QBs were taken in the first round between 1990 and 2005. A couple of the best were Peyton Manning at first overall in 1998 and Aaron Rodgers at 24 in 2005. The worst were the infamous Ryan Leaf in the second spot in 1998 and our own Tim Couch the following year at number one. My overall success rate for QBs was exactly 40%.
WR picks were more common than QBs – there were more than 60 chosen in the 16-draft period I looked at. Generally, I required WRs to have at least 5,000 yards receiving and at least eight years in the league, giving extra consideration for Pro Bowl appearances and longevity with a single team. The success rate was pretty similar, at 44.25%.
I expected to see a rise in teams using top picks to take OTs as time went on, but the statistics say otherwise. They've always been popular first-round picks: more offensive linemen than wide receivers were chosen in the first round between 1990 and 2005. Aside from the 1990 draft, when just one was chosen, at least three offensive linemen were taken in the first round in every year I looked at. The success rate here was 43.94%, measured on longevity and Pro Bowl appearances.
More than 50 RBs were taken in the first round over the period I looked at. The success rate was remarkably similar to WRs and offensive linemen. I set a minimum of about 5,000 rushing yards (less for active players) and used the same sorts of other criteria as I applied to WRs. The rate here was 44.23%.
What does it all mean? First of all, I have to reinforce that there's a high degree of subjectivity that makes this an imperfect statistical analysis at best. Secondly, even if these numbers were significant statistically, it's not as though they would be incredibly useful to talent scouts and GMs. They make draft decisions based on performance, physical attributes, their teams' needs and a plethora of other things, and that's how it should be.
Despite that, I find these numbers interesting. For one thing, they underline that if you have a couple of first-round picks, based on past experience you're theoretically better off keeping both of those picks than trading for a higher pick. If your goal is to get at least one star player, it's better to have two 40-to-45% chances of getting there than one 40% chance of getting a good guy. Draft position within the first round had no significant impact on the probability of success, according to these figures.
I know I'm leaving out TEs from this analysis, by the way. I will put them in when I've got time.