After Ohio State beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on January 1 to advance to the CFP National Championship game, many thought that OSU quarterback Justin Fields was a strong candidate to be selected second overall by the New York Jets in the 2021 NFL Draft. Instead he was taken 11th by the Chicago Bears.
Every draft slot a prospect falls could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars or more just as they start their professional careers. The difference in signing bonus between the No. 2 overall pick and the No. 11 selection this year was more than $10 million.
Rookie compensation dramatically decreases as each first round pick ticks by, though the curve flattens in subsequent rounds. The picks at the top of the draft are supposed to be worth a premium: witness Jets fans screaming at their TVs last year as their 1-14 team defeated the Cleveland Browns– and as a result handing the top pick over to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But is having one of the highest picks in the NFL draft worth the hype? To answer this question, we used the Approximate Value (AV) metric via Pro Football Reference, which is an attempt to put a single number on the value of any player at any position during a given season. According to founder Doug Drinen, “Essentially, AV is a substitute for metrics like ‘number of seasons as a starter’ or ‘number of times making the pro bowl’ or the like.” While one-number metrics in football lag behind baseball, or even basketball, AV serves as a proxy for value added to a team.
Sportico looked at the average AV of each draft pick between the years of 1996 and 2016, counting only players’ AV accumulated while playing for the teams that drafted them. Some draft positions are outliers. For example, the 24th pick has the fourth-highest average AV of any slot because Pro Bowlers Dez Bryant, Chris Johnson and Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed were all drafted 24th– to say nothing of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was picked in that spot in 2005. To account for these outliers, we charted the five-pick rolling average to understand how players drafted at various slots contribute to the teams that pick them.
The tanking race to the bottom seems to pay off. During the two-decade span Sportico analyzed, No. 1 overall picks provided 40% more value to their teams on average when compared with second overall picks. After that, though, the decline in on-field performance with each pick is not as significant as the decline in rookie salary might suggest.
We can more clearly illuminate this relationship by calculating the average AV per $1 million in rookie contract cost for each draft pick. In terms of pure return on investment, picks closer to the top of the draft aren’t necessarily the best. The back half of the first round is actually superior to the front half by this standard. Furthermore, picks in the second round and early third round yield the highest AV per million dollars of salary.
This simplified analysis, however, overlooks a number of key benefits of drafting early. For one, star rookies drive fan engagement and the resulting revenue: Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, the first and fifth picks in the 2020 draft, each finished among the top six players in NFLPA merchandise sales last season.
Additionally, downtrodden franchises may not have the patience to mine for talent in later rounds. They want to increase their chances of landing a star– and with good reason: 15 of the last 20 Super Bowl winners, aside from sixth-round pick Tom Brady’s claim on four of the last seven, came from the first round of the draft.
An NFL team simply looking to get the most bang for their buck, however, might set their sites a little lower and dig for gems in round two.