The Retention Rate of the Top Draft Picks

With teams prepared to make pretty big financial commitments to the top picks in the draft I wanted to a quick look back and see what the payoffs were on those picks. This is nothing fancy like my trade value tables or anything like that just a basic look at success rates mainly measured by a teams decision to retain the player.

To measure the impact of the players I went back and looked at all the top 10 picks from 2004 through 2013.  The reason I cut off at 2013 was because that was the last draft class where we can safely gauge if a player is going to remain with his original team beyond the length of his original contract. For picks made prior to 2011 that would be a 6 year contract length and a 5 year contract length for those thereafter. I also wanted to go back and see how the teams performed for as long as the players remained with their original team.

I was actually surprised at the overall lack of success at the top of the draft. While we all know that the draft is hit or miss, I honestly anticipated many players lasting longer with their original teams. .

PickRe-signedCut/Left% Re-signed
16460.0%
24640.0%
35550.0%
46460.0%
54544.4%
63730.0%
73730.0%
82820.0%
93730.0%
102820.0%

The numbers 6 through 10 are absolutely brutal.  Here is the breakdown by position from 6 through 10

PositionNot RetainedRetained% Gone
DE40100.0%
G20100.0%
DB11284.6%
WR7277.8%
QB3175.0%
LB4266.7%
DT2250.0%
RB1150.0%
T2250.0%
TE1150.0%

While the contract values on an annual basis are not as bad as in the past, the 10th pick in the draft will earn a guaranteed salary of about $16.4 million, which is a pretty big number. Quality veterans have to perform at a reasonable level to earn that kind of guarantee on a 2nd contract- a $16.4M guarantee at signing would rank around 90th in the NFL after taking out all quarterbacks and other rookies and here most of the players are not performing well enough to justify sticking around beyond the rookie contract.

The biggest offenders look to be the receivers and the players in the secondary (defensive ends were bad but far less picks were made at that position). Many of these players are decent talents. Deangelo Hall, Donte Whitner, Antrel Rolle, etc…all went on to good careers. Stephon Gilmore and Mark Barron both earned massive contracts from other teams. But the players are simply not having the impact necessary to justify the re-investment in those players. The average win percentage for the defensive backs who were not brought back was just 0.416.  For receivers just 0.42.

Teams are more successful in selecting players at the top of the draft. Here are the percentage of players gone per position selected in the top 10.

PositionNot RetainedRetained% Gone
RB5183.3%
DE4180.0%
DT2250.0%
QB5741.7%
WR2340.0%
T4736.4%
DB1233.3%
LB1233.3%

Here the two miss positions look to be running back and defensive end. Running backs are never taken this high anymore and this is probably the reason why.  The “hit” at running back was Darren McFadden who signed a short term deal with the Raiders after his rookie contract expired, so realistically they batted 0. Teams with the backs didn’t necessarily do poorly (they had records around 500, which is well above the miss average) but that seemed to be in spite of the bad draft pick not because of it.

The lack of impact from the defensive end spot is surprising. Maybe that says something for the incredible physical tools that the players have which makes teams jump the gun. Of those selected in the top 10 there is no question that Vernon Gholston, Dion Jordan, Gaines Adams, Derrick Harvey, and Jamaal Anderson were busts.  Tyson Jackson was a disappointment and I don’t think Chris Long ever measured up to being a top selection, though he did have a long career with the Rams.  Aldon Smith’s personal demons ruined his career which leaves Mario Williams, who the Texans didn’t think was worth the massive investment for a second go around.

I thought the tackle numbers were kind of interesting. Teams are able to hide the poor DE/RB but with just one tackle on the field I think it becomes far more noticeable when the player fails. Among the players drafted in the top 5, the winning percentage of teams that did not retain their tackle was just 35% during his tenure compared to nearly 46% for those who re-signed their players.

Though the position in the past was a safer spot because of the hit rate I have to think that is changing. The 35% is a risky number and the only position worse was receiver, with a much smaller sample. If we extend that to the top 10 they are basically even. Is the reward really there with that position to justify the downside especially now when the college talent coming into the league is inferior to what it was 7 or 8 years ago?  Probably not and that explains a big reason behind the recent heavy investments in tackles in free agency.

This year there is a small level of debate on how high a QB should go in the draft since the prospects are not considered that great, but I can understand some logic at least in considering the option.  Teams that “hit” on a long term option have gone on to have about a 0.54 winning percentage, which reinforces the notion that this position has the biggest material impact on a teams performance.

The only other positon that had that kind of result was linebacker (the hits were at a 0.67 win percentage), but my assumption in those cases is that the players landed on teams that also ended up hitting on or already had the QB. You had Peyton Manning in Denver, Tom Brady in New England, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre in Green Bay, and Cam Newton in Carolina. For the teams that didn’t have that wasting a pick on a linebacker was a disaster

Here are the average team performance for each position during the entire time the draft pick remained with his drafted team, split up by players who were not brought back and those who were kept beyond the rookie contract.

PositionKeptCutWin % RetainedWin % Cut
DB4120.4250.421
DE180.3090.518
DT440.4430.481
G02NA0.518
LB450.6740.335
QB880.5430.407
RB260.4170.477
T960.4820.397
TE110.5160.350
WR590.4800.388

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc