Drafting is more of a science than ever: teams have never devoted so much money, time, resources and research into analyzing college talent than they do today.
All of which should make the average Troll a bit curious: how come teams drafted so much better decades ago than they do today?
At least that's the question posed by one alert Cold, Hard Football Facts reader, Neil Wicker, who studied every No. 1 pick in the Super Bowl Era.
He noticed that, back in the first two decades of the SB Era, teams had a very good likelihood of finding a future Hall of Famer, or at the very least a Pro Bowl-caliber performer, with the No. 1 pick. But in recent decades, the Hall of Famers have been few and far between, while bona fide busts are more common than ever.
Yes, it's a small sample. Neil only looked at overall No. 1 picks from 1966 to 2005 (the assumption is that it's still too early to judge the more recent picks). So that's just 40 players. But it is pretty evident that teams fail far more often now with the No. 1 pick than they did in the past.
Our immediate thoughts? Easy. Teams completely overanalyze players these days. In the past, teams were more likely to have one main concern: can the guy play football?
These days, an ability to actually play seems like a secondary concern. Teams instead seem to out-think themselves, considering information that's completely irrelevant, like a guy's time in the shuttle run or the number of reps he can bang out in the bench press. Also, in a day when hype drives perception, teams seem to fall victim to the PR machine as much as fans.
From our point of view, the modern draft reminds us of the modern education system: America spends more money than ever teaching our kids, yet they're dumber than ever. Little Tommy is oblivious in many cases to the basics of math, history and science, much like NFL draft execs are oblivious to the basics of blocking, tackling, running and passing.
Time to get back to basics, both in the NFL draft and in the education system ... but we digress.
Here's Neil's study and email to us (with some edits):
I noticed an oddity that you may able to better shed some light on. I read a list of No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft and broke the list down into 10-year segments starting at 1966 (the first year of the Super Bowl Era) and rated each player in one of four categories:
1) Hall of Fame (HOF); 2) Pretty Good Player (PGP); 3) Meh; and 4) Bust
HOF: Terry Bradshaw, Ron Yary, O.J. Simpson
PGP: Bubba Smith, Ed Jones, Steve Bartkowski, Tommy Nobis, Jim Plunkett
Meh: John Matuszak (who seems more myth than man)
Bust: Walt Patulski
I was shocked to note that Bubba Smith wasn't in the HOF. I was shocked to see that Ed Jones wasn't in either (a tragedy considering I think he's more HOF worthy than Bob Hayes). You could argue that Nobis (pictured here at Texas) was a Hall of Famer, too. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 1960s All-Decade team. As a rookie, he set an NFL record with 294 tackles. (CHFF note: we got a separate email on that exact topic last week, too, ironically.)
Plunkett, meanwhile, was rookie of the year with the Patriots in 1970 and won two Super Bowls later in his career. In either case, the results are very good: three of 10 No. 1's reached the Hall of Fame. Eight of 10 had great careers in the NFL. Teams could not have done much better with their No. 1 picks in the first decade of the Super Bowl Era.
HOF: Lee Roy Selmon, Earl Campbell, John Elway, Bruce Smith
PGP: Billy Sims, George Rogers, Irving Fryar
Bust: Kenneth Sims, Ricky Bell, Tom Cousineau
NFL teams identified four Hall of Famers with the 10 No. 1 picks in this era. That's very good. But we can see a rise in the boom-or-bust cycle. Three of the No. 1's failed to make any impact in the NFL (Cousineau, in fact, chose to play in the CFL first, before joining the NFL).
HOF: Troy Aikman
PGP: Bo Jackson, Vinny Testaverde, Russell Maryland, Drew Bledsoe
Meh: Jeff George, Dan Wilkinson
Busts: Steve Emtman, Aundray Bruce, Ki-Jana Carter
This decade is somewhat skewed by perception. Jackson had HOF potential and may have been in the HOF if he would have stuck with football and obviously avoided injury. Wilkinson could have been a PGP, but my opinion is "Meh." Jeff George had HOF potential, PGP numbers but gets a meh because of his TO-like ability to divide a locker room.
All in all, though, as the NFL got bigger and more scientific, the quality of the drafts suffered: just one Hall of Famer among 10 No. 1 picks; and five of those 10 clearly failed to live up to the hype of an overall No. 1.
HOF: Peyton Manning, Orlando Pace
PGP: Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Keyshawn Johnson
Meh: Michael Vick
Bust: Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, David Carr, Alex Smith
This list could obviously change. But the current perceptions give us those categories above, and Vick could be rated a bust by some or PGP by others. But the busts in recent years have climbed once again: four of the 10 No. 1s are bona fide busts.
The oddity is apparent:
From 1966 to 1985, teams found seven Hall of Famers and eight Pretty Good Players among 20 No. 1 picks.
From 1986 through 2005, teams found only three Hall of Famers and seven Pretty Good Players among 20 No. 1 picks.
The busts nearly doubled, too, from just four among the 20 No. 1s from 1966 to 1985, to seven busts among the 20 No. 1 picks from 1986 to 205.
It seems the number of bad players (busts, mehs) doubled and the number of good players declined by one third (from 15 to 10). (Fully realizing correlation does not necessarily mean causation as the game has changed.)
Over the past 20 years, 10 of the overall No. 1 picks lived up to the hype, and 10 did not.
I would be curious to get your thoughts on this odd trend. Cheers – Neil Wicker.
Back to CHFF:
Well, good info, Neil. We provided our thoughts in the intro to the piece: teams overanalyze talent these days. They're concerned with things that don't matter when it comes to actually playing football. And, with the hype surrounding players and sports in general bigger and more bombastic than ever, teams simply seem more likely to be swayed by all the noise.
Even the most recent years seem to continue the trend you've highlighted here. It's clearly too early to judge the careers of the last four No. 1 picks (2006-09) since Alex Smith and before Sam Bradford this year.
Mario Williams has come on strong in recent years, and right now would qualify as a PGP, though he's had little impact on the franchise's fortunes. JaMarcus Russell has been a disaster in his three seasons, and would go down as a bust if his career ended right now. Jake Long has spent two years in the NFL and has been part of a strong turnaround for the organization. He's made the Pro Bowl each year. Matt Stafford needs another couple years under his belt before we start to define his career.
We think teams should watch a guy play football more and watch do the shuttle run and the bench press less, and they'd probably return to the glory days of drafting like they did 40 years ago.