Using Salary Data to Better Value NFL Draft Picks

Every now and then around draft time I try to do some type of look at the NFL draft and value of the players selected through some financial means and I decided to go back and do that again this year. This time around I wanted to look back at the first five years of the current CBA, which introduced the rookie wage scale, and look at some summary data that may help us place a better value on a draft pick.

The first thing that I thought was interesting to look at was just the general outcome of the rookie contract. We see teams these days going out of their way to accumulate picks through the compensatory draft system, adding later round picks via trades, and so on. I broke the data down by round but broke the first round up into three subcategories. The first is the top 10 picks who are generally regarded as the best in the draft and have a high number fifth year option. The second are picks 11 to 20 who generally have had their entire contract guaranteed. The final one is 21 to 32 who have most of their contract but not all of it guaranteed. For the 2015 draft class if the player is currently on their option year I excluded them from the analysis.

RoundExpiredOption cutExtendedTerminatedTraded
Top 1024.4%4.4%37.8%8.9%24.4%
11 to 2045.5%4.5%31.8%6.8%11.4%
21 to 3242.9%1.8%21.4%16.1%17.9%
247.1%0.0%15.9%26.1%10.8%
338.0%0.0%13.5%39.2%9.4%
438.8%0.0%5.3%49.5%6.4%
521.2%0.0%6.7%66.5%5.6%
614.5%0.0%5.2%75.6%4.7%
711.6%0.0%2.2%84.0%2.2%

The thing that jumped out at me is the relative low worth of the 6th and 7th round pick. Over 75% of the contracts were terminated by the team that drafted them and less than 21% were either extended or finished the contract with the team. Now that doesn’t mean that the player was cut and never came back (players bounce back all the time between the practice squad and active roster) but it does mean that the team was not worried about exposing the player to waivers at some point during their tenure.

The second thing that jumped out to me was the extension figures (extension meaning a player re-signed before the final year of his rookie contract was completed in week 17) for rounds 2 and 3. People often ask about why there is such a push for those 3rd round comp picks and I would think this is why. While there is value in the fourth round (39% of picks playing out their contract), the extension rates are dramatically different. Basically if you are looking for more long term probability of finding help it is going to come in the 3rd or higher rounds.

The last thing is we so often hear the phrase about 1st rounders being a “10 year solution” that pretty much a joke. 38% of top 10 players are cut or traded before their rookie deal ends. Another 25% play out their contract. Here is the breakdown by round of where a player is playing after the first four (or five years for a 1st rounder who played out his deal) of his contract.

RoundNew TeamDrafting TeamOut of NFL
Top 1044.4%44.4%11.1%
11 to 2059.1%36.4%4.5%
21 to 3041.1%35.7%23.2%
259.2%27.4%13.4%
348.5%21.6%29.8%
446.8%16.0%37.2%
539.1%14.0%46.9%
634.2%13.5%52.3%
729.3%4.0%66.7%

The NFL is really all about short term fixes and the draft is no different. Teams draft and churn those draft picks over a four year period. These numbers also show some of the value that exists by dropping out of the backend of the first round and into the second round and I think also identify why some of those third round comps are looked at as far more valuable than the others. 7th round picks I think also continue to be something generally useless to go out of your way to acquire.

Still while retention rates are important they still aren’t really giving us the value of the pick. How do we get closer to that value?  Well let’s look at the average annual contract value that the player receives at the five (or six year for first rounders) mark. That average contract value is generally dependent on the performance of the player during those first few years in the NFL and really tells us more about the player than any stat we can try to use.

RoundAAV (Same Team)AAV (New Team)Overall AAV
Top 10$15,353,755$7,451,139$10,135,508
11 to 20$12,989,670$5,946,435$8,237,319
21 to 32$9,462,188$5,757,780$5,744,155
2$9,769,549$4,720,995$5,472,249
3$8,224,624$3,525,858$3,490,978
4$4,598,489$3,062,778$2,167,442
5$5,152,689$2,686,150$1,770,099
6$3,283,765$1,678,245$1,016,280
7$3,266,944$2,066,059$736,722

Some important takeaways here. The numbers clearly reiterate why moving from the backend of the 1st to the 2nd round makes sense. The overall salary expectation for the player (that includes those out of the NFL) is virtually the same. The high end number for those remaining on the original team is also virtually the same. So in that sense giving up a late 1 for a 2nd rounder and a 3rd rounder is a no brainer.

You can also see that big value in the third round pick. The drop off in high end talent is not that large between the late 1st and 3rd (about a 13% drop) though there is more risk in the 3rd round pick since the flame out level is much higher which drives the expected value down from $5.7 to $3.5 million. Still this is why that 3rd round comp pick is so valuable compared to the 4th and especially the later ones.

The 6th and 7th round picks are basically no better than just signing a minimum salaried veteran but at half the cost during the rookie years and some upside potential. This is why teams likely prefer these players over a veteran.

Lets now break these salaries down by rounds into various salary bins.

RoundOver $15M$10 to $15M$7.5 to $10M5 to $7.5M2.5 to 5M1.5 to 2.5M745K to $1.5MUnder Vet MinimumOut of NFL
Top 1026.7%26.7%6.7%13.3%8.9%6.7%0.0%0.0%11.1%
11 to 2018.2%25.0%11.4%6.8%13.6%9.1%11.4%0.0%4.5%
21 to 327.1%23.2%3.6%12.5%19.6%3.6%7.1%0.0%23.2%
216.6%24.8%6.9%11.0%14.5%6.2%6.2%0.0%13.8%
35.7%15.9%8.9%15.9%12.7%4.5%15.9%7.0%13.4%
42.3%8.2%9.4%9.9%10.5%7.6%15.2%7.0%29.8%
51.6%1.6%3.7%9.0%12.8%9.6%20.2%4.3%37.2%
61.1%2.2%4.5%6.7%6.1%5.0%19.6%7.8%46.9%
70.0%0.5%1.6%4.7%7.3%5.2%14.0%14.5%52.3%

These numbers again should reinforce the value of that 2nd round pick and even 3rd round pick compared to the late first round selection. The odds of higher level success are basically the same.

So how do we look pick by pick? This is the ultimate salary outcome of every selection made between 2011 and 2015 that is no longer on that initial rookie contract.

NFL Draft Values

So what if we begin to average out the values for the type of player available at every selection?  Basically to do this we want to include a few picks before and after (with the size growing a bit as the draft gets longer) to take into account the type of player that would likely be available for each pick.  This was just completely subjective on my part as to how I split them. This should also show you how undervalued draft picks are with the top pick being worth around a $14M player on a $8.8M contract.

NFl Rookie Draft Value

If you smooth the data out you can then come up with something of a point system for each pick which would look something like this.

New NFL Draft Value Chart

You can see the value that teams can drive out of the draft when exploiting the current chart when they move up. Now I think we can further improve on this by also taking into account positions. Right now I based these numbers off salaries but its also not entirely fair to compare a mid grade QB to an elite LB since the positional salary inflates the worth of the mid level QB compared to other positions. I have an idea on how to do this and if I get the time in the next few days Ill make those adjustments and see how it comes out but for a basic new way to look at how we should value picks in the draft I think this is a pretty good way to start a different discussion on valuation of the picks and potential that exists round by round.  For those curious about the value of each player this table has the value and corresponding points for each selection.

PickValuePoints
1$14,653,7863000
2$12,870,8462635
3$11,827,8932421
4$11,087,9062270
5$10,513,9282152
6$10,044,9532056
7$9,648,4411975
8$9,304,9661905
9$9,002,0001843
10$8,730,9871787
11$8,485,8271737
12$8,262,0131691
13$8,056,1241649
14$7,865,5001610
15$7,688,0341574
16$7,522,0261540
17$7,366,0851508
18$7,219,0601478
19$7,079,9861449
20$6,948,0471422
21$6,822,5471397
22$6,702,8871372
23$6,588,5461349
24$6,479,0731326
25$6,374,0691305
26$6,273,1841284
27$6,176,1071264
28$6,082,5601245
29$5,992,2971227
30$5,905,0941209
31$5,820,7511192
32$5,739,0861175
33$5,659,9341159
34$5,583,1451143
35$5,508,5821128
36$5,436,1201113
37$5,365,6431098
38$5,297,0461084
39$5,230,2311071
40$5,165,1071057
41$5,101,5921044
42$5,039,6071032
43$4,979,0811019
44$4,919,9471007
45$4,862,141995
46$4,805,606984
47$4,750,287973
48$4,696,133961
49$4,643,095951
50$4,591,129940
51$4,540,192929
52$4,490,244919
53$4,441,247909
54$4,393,166899
55$4,345,968890
56$4,299,620880
57$4,254,093871
58$4,209,357862
59$4,165,386853
60$4,122,154844
61$4,079,637835
62$4,037,811827
63$3,996,654818
64$3,956,146810
65$3,916,265802
66$3,876,994794
67$3,838,313786
68$3,800,205778
69$3,762,653770
70$3,725,642763
71$3,689,155755
72$3,653,179748
73$3,617,700741
74$3,582,703733
75$3,548,176726
76$3,514,106719
77$3,480,481713
78$3,447,291706
79$3,414,523699
80$3,382,167692
81$3,350,213686
82$3,318,652679
83$3,287,473673
84$3,256,667667
85$3,226,226660
86$3,196,141654
87$3,166,404648
88$3,137,007642
89$3,107,941636
90$3,079,201630
91$3,050,778625
92$3,022,666619
93$2,994,858613
94$2,967,347607
95$2,940,127602
96$2,913,192596
97$2,886,537591
98$2,860,155586
99$2,834,040580
100$2,808,189575
101$2,782,594570
102$2,757,251564
103$2,732,156559
104$2,707,303554
105$2,682,689549
106$2,658,307544
107$2,634,154539
108$2,610,226534
109$2,586,519530
110$2,563,028525
111$2,539,750520
112$2,516,680515
113$2,493,816511
114$2,471,153506
115$2,448,687501
116$2,426,417497
117$2,404,337492
118$2,382,446488
119$2,360,739483
120$2,339,214479
121$2,317,867475
122$2,296,697470
123$2,275,699466
124$2,254,871462
125$2,234,210457
126$2,213,714453
127$2,193,380449
128$2,173,205445
129$2,153,188441
130$2,133,325437
131$2,113,614433
132$2,094,053429
133$2,074,640425
134$2,055,372421
135$2,036,248417
136$2,017,264413
137$1,998,420409
138$1,979,713405
139$1,961,141401
140$1,942,702398
141$1,924,394394
142$1,906,215390
143$1,888,164387
144$1,870,239383
145$1,852,438379
146$1,834,760376
147$1,817,202372
148$1,799,763368
149$1,782,441365
150$1,765,235361
151$1,748,144358
152$1,731,166354
153$1,714,298351
154$1,697,541348
155$1,680,892344
156$1,664,350341
157$1,647,914337
158$1,631,583334
159$1,615,354331
160$1,599,227327
161$1,583,200324
162$1,567,273321
163$1,551,444318
164$1,535,712314
165$1,520,075311
166$1,504,533308
167$1,489,084305
168$1,473,727302
169$1,458,461299
170$1,443,286295
171$1,428,199292
172$1,413,201289
173$1,398,289286
174$1,383,464283
175$1,368,723280
176$1,354,066277
177$1,339,493274
178$1,325,001271
179$1,310,591268
180$1,296,261265
181$1,282,010262
182$1,267,838260
183$1,253,744257
184$1,239,726254
185$1,225,784251
186$1,211,918248
187$1,198,125245
188$1,184,407242
189$1,170,761240
190$1,157,187237
191$1,143,684234
192$1,130,252231
193$1,116,890229
194$1,103,597226
195$1,090,372223
196$1,077,215221
197$1,064,124218
198$1,051,100215
199$1,038,142213
200$1,025,248210
201$1,012,419207
202$999,654205
203$986,951202
204$974,311199
205$961,733197
206$949,216194
207$936,760192
208$924,363189
209$912,026187
210$899,748184
211$887,529182
212$875,367179
213$863,262177
214$851,214174
215$839,222172
216$827,286169
217$815,405167
218$803,579165
219$791,807162
220$780,088160
221$768,422157
222$756,810155
223$745,249153
224$733,740150
225$722,282148
226$710,875146
227$699,519143
228$688,212141
229$676,955139
230$665,747136
231$654,588134
232$643,477132
233$632,413129
234$621,397127
235$610,428125
236$599,506123
237$588,629121
238$577,799118
239$567,014116
240$556,274114
241$545,578112
242$534,927110
243$524,320107
244$513,757105
245$503,236103
246$492,759101
247$482,32399
248$471,93197
249$461,58094
250$451,27092
251$441,00190
252$430,77488
253$420,58786
254$410,44084
255$400,33382
256$390,26580

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