Makinen: Using NFL team draft analysis to gauge future prospects

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A few years ago, I set out hoping to find whether or not there was any correlation between a team’s draft grades and its success or lack thereof on the field. The NFL is essentially a 12-month-a-year league nowadays, and it seems as if there is nothing more scrutinized each offseason than the three days that make up the drafting process. The way the experts and graders sing it, you would figure that it is of ultra-importance when considering how teams will fare in the next season or two, right? Well, in essence, I have not found that to be the case, and while there are specific examples otherwise that I will share, the draft and the grades associated really make for little more than a great conversational point.

One of the most consistent, efficient, and reliable sources for each NFL draft is Sports Illustrated, as they have typically put out their full analysis within 24 hours of the final pick being made. In the eight years I have tracked their grades, I have only seen six grades below a C-, including two this week, Denver and Miami. The average grade since 2016 has been exactly a B, or in numerical scales, a 3.0. With this steady analysis serving as the foundation of my study, I have again gone back and compared the regular season won-lost records in recent years to the grades that SI assigned the teams for their draft work.

As proven in my findings, there was very little concrete evidence to suggest that anything that teams did on draft weekend made a substantial direct impact on their fortunes on the field in the near-term future. Now, before anyone goes crazy about that comment, I’m not so ignorant to say that the players picked each year on draft weekend don’t mean anything to their team’s fortunes. Obviously, they are the next cornerstones for franchises. I’m merely trying to convey that the grades you see given by sources like SI.com should be seen as entertainment value only at this point, and not used for thinking that what happened last weekend and the grade associated with it is going to instantly transform a team. The greater factors that contribute immediately to quick improvement or decline for any team are injury issues, free agent signings, coaching changes, and momentum swings.

I give credit to a lot of places for going back years later and “re-grading” earlier drafts, since that type of analysis is far more accurate.

In short, don’t overreact to anything you saw or read about the 2023 NFL draft. I can assure you that it will take some time for that to sort itself out. The fact that the Eagles received an A+ grade for a second straight season surely won’t hurt their situation, and it’s exciting for their fan bases, but there is a lot more that will go into determining how they fare this fall after winning the NFC title this past January. Similarly, I’m sure Broncos fans are not feeling optimistic after last weekend’s proceedings, but they have a new coaching staff and the 2022 team seemed to play its best football towards the end of the season. Their D+ grade doesn’t change much about their internal hope for 2023.

In general, SI.com tends to grade from a glass-half-full standpoint, with an average grade point of 3.0, or a B, over the last eight drafts, including 2023. Again, only six of the 256 teams to draft since 2016 were given a grade worse than C-. The only team that had been given a “D-” grade was the Vikings of 2022. How did that ugly interpretation of Minnesota’s work that weekend affect the franchise? Well, rookie Head Coach Kevin O’Connell’s team went from 8-9 to 13-4 following that draft. This is not an exact science, and again, a team’s prospects hinge on so many factors besides a draft grade.

Similarly, SI.com had awarded six A+ grades in the six drafts prior to this past weekend.  Looking at the fortunes of those six teams, four of them dropped by at least two wins in the next regular season, including the 2016 Bengals, who plummeted from 12-4 to 6-9-1. This past year’s Ravens and Eagles became the first teams to improve following their deemed massive successes on draft weekend.

Those rare grades at opposite ends of the spectrum were mostly misses by their authors. That said, to the staff at SI’s credit, I have found that they are right more often than they are wrong. This is why I choose them as the source for my data to study. Their work in this field is indeed credible.

Take a look at the list below which shows the 1-year, 2-year, 3-year, and 4-year eventual regular season win differences for teams that were assigned grades in each of the numerical levels since ‘16.

 

Grade: Avg Win +/- 1-yr, 2-yr, 3-yr, 4-yr

A’s: +0.27, +0.64, +0.84, +1.33

B’s: -0.18, -0.16, -0.08, -0.29

C/D’s: +0.41, +0.41, -0.03, +0.3

 

As I studied this list, here are some of the thoughts I have deducted:

– The “A” grades generally showed consistent improvement, with the four-year improvement the only one predicting any noticeable improvement.

– The “B” level grades, or essentially the average marks, actually fare the worst, with all four various time scenarios showing declines in the average wins of teams. It seems that it’s better to make waves, good or bad, on draft weekend than to just perform at the average level.

– The extreme lower grades (C or less) for the most part turned out to be misses in terms of their predictive nature. In fact, teams with the lowest draft grades actually tended to get a little better the next season, by a bit over a half win per season.  Of course, there are many factors, including free agency, luck, momentum swings, and coaching changes, among other things that can contribute to these results.

Looking closer at the potential win improvements from past draft grades, and focusing on the +1.33 win group 4-years after the A grade, these would be the teams theoretically expected to improve from their 2019 records for 2023 based on their 2020 draft grades:

 

2020 A Grades (2019 Record)

Denver Broncos (7-9)

Detroit Lions (3-12-1)

Los Angeles Rams (9-7)

 

Of course, if the Lions were to improve by just 1.33 wins on that 3-12-1 record, they would win just 4.33 games this season, a decline from last season. Alternatively, the Broncos’ 8.33 wins and the Rams’ 10.33 wins would be actual improvements for this season.

Another interesting way to look at this draft grade information is to focus on the cumulative grades by team against their on-the-field success over the last five seasons. Here are the NFL’s 32 teams in alphabetical order with their average SI.com draft grade and league ranking for the time period of 2017-22 as compared to their regular season won-lost record in that same span:

Note that I have used a common grade point average scale for quantifying the draft grades. I.e. A – 4.0, A- 3.7, B+ 3.3, etc.

 

Team: SI.com 6-year Draft Grade (Rank), Won-Lost Record (Rank)

Arizona Cardinals: 2.72 (28), 39-58-1 (25)

Atlanta Falcons: 2.88 (22), 42-56 (19)

Baltimore Ravens: 3.45 (3), 62-36 (4)

Buffalo Bills: 3.18 (10), 62-35-1 (3)

Carolina Panthers: 2.72 (29), 40-58 (22)

Chicago Bears: 2.8 (24), 42-56 (20)

Cincinnati Bengals: 3.28 (6), 41-55-2 (21)

Cleveland Browns: 3.12 (12), 39-58-1 (23)

Dallas Cowboys: 3.03 (17), 57-41 (13)

Denver Broncos: 3.62 (1), 35-63 (29)

Detroit Lions: 3.33 (5), 35-61-2 (28)

Green Bay Packers: 3.57 (2), 60-37-1 (7)

Houston Texans: 2.9 (21), 36-61-1 (27)

Indianapolis Colts: 3.23 (8), 45-52-1 (18)

Jacksonville Jaguars: 2.73 (27), 34-64 (30)

Kansas City Chiefs: 2.93 (20), 74-24 (1)

Las Vegas Raiders: 2.38 (32), 39-59 (26)

Los Angeles Chargers: 3.28 (7), 58-40 (10)

Los Angeles Rams: 2.83 (23), 56-42 (14)

Miami Dolphins: 3.07 (13), 46-52 (17)

Minnesota Vikings: 3 (18), 59-38-1 (8)

New England Patriots: 2.98 (19), 61-37 (5)

New Orleans Saints: 2.55 (31), 65-33 (2)

New York Giants: 3.07 (14), 31-66-1 (31)

New York Jets: 3.05 (15), 29-69 (32)

Philadelphia Eagles: 3.22 (9), 58-39-1 (9)

Pittsburgh Steelers: 2.78 (25), 60-36-2 (6)

San Francisco 49ers: 3.35 (4), 52-46 (15)

Seattle Seahawks: 2.62 (30), 58-40 (11)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3.18 (11), 49-49 (16)

Tennessee Titans: 3.05 (16), 57-41 (12)

Washington Commanders: 2.77 (26), 39-58-1 (24)

 

A few highlights from this:

– The teams that have both played and drafted well would be considered: Baltimore, Buffalo, Green Bay, the Chargers, and Philadelphia. All are ranked in the top 10 in both draft rank and won-lost record.

– The teams that have struggled on draft weekend and on the field over the last five years have been: Arizona, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, and Washington. All are bottom 10 ranked teams in both categories.

–  Teams that have greatly outperformed their supposed draft respect have been: New Orleans (+29), Kansas City (+19), Pittsburgh, & Seattle (+19). Interestingly, New Orleans & Kansas City received B grades this season while the Steelers and Seahawks received A grades. Perhaps those teams are due for improvement, or alternatively, the writers at SI are starting to give these franchises more credit for their drafts based on on-field success. The last thing the league needs for parity purposes is to see the Chiefs hit it big on draft day consistently.

– Teams that have not consistently transferred draft success to the playing field: Denver (-28), Detroit (-23), and the Giants & Jets (each -17). Both the Lions and Broncos received their worst draft grades since prior to 2016 this past weekend while the New York teams received grades in the B range.

 

Team-by-team draft analysis

The last thing I looked to study was each individual team’s draft performance. As you’ll see below, there have been some interesting patterns that have emerged in a correlation between draft grades and on-field success. In other cases, draft analysis and winning football games have been purely random.

 

Team: Draft Grades 2023, ‘22, ‘21, ‘20, ‘19, ‘18

Arizona Cardinals: B-, D, C, B+, B, B+

Steve’s thoughts: If draft success is any indication, the Cardinals could be headed for a string of losing seasons. They’ve had their three worst draft seasons since 2016 in the last three years and come off a 4-13 campaign which resulted in a coaching change. This would seem to be the beginning of a rebuild.

 

Atlanta Falcons: B, B-, B, B+, B, C+

Steve’s thought: The Falcons’ draft GPA over the last seven years has been 2.9, a little below average. Their on-field results have also been below average, winning 7.0 games per season during that span, including exactly seven wins in four of the last five seasons. This correlation might not be a coincidence.

 

Baltimore Ravens: B+, A+, B+, A-, B, B-

Steve’s thoughts: Baltimore always seems to get respect from the analysts at SI for its draft work. Having a consistent front office staff can weigh in on this. With an eight-year draft GPA of 3.43, and just one season under .500 since 2016, this franchise always seems to be on the right path. Locking up QB Lamar Jackson, a 2018 draftee, to a contract extension should help solidify the future too.

 

Buffalo Bills: B, B-, B, B, A-, B

Steve’s thoughts: Buffalo’s emergence as an AFC power back around 2019 seemed to coincide with a strong draft grade run from ’16 to ’19. The Bills received three A-level grades in that span but none since. Could they be hitting their ceiling? After another playoff failure this past January, it’s quite possible.

 

Carolina Panthers: A, C, C, B, C+, A-

Steve’s thoughts: In half of the last eight years, the Panthers received draft grades of C+ or worse. It’s no wonder that they have enjoyed just one winning season since 2016. This past weekend the Panthers received an A grade, their highest since prior to 2016. Will this make the difference for new Head Coach Frank Reich? Can new QB Bryce Young lead an immediate improvement? Might be a bit more challenging considering the team won seven games a year but they are in the league’s worst division.

 

Chicago Bears: B, C, A-, B-, B-, A

Steve’s thoughts: Chicago is a team that seems to have experienced little correlation between its on-field success and its draft weekend performance. Coming off a season in which they won just three games, the Bears desperately needed a better grade than a B. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for optimism.

 

Cincinnati Bengals: B, B, C+, A-, B+, A-

Steve’s thoughts: Cincinnati had a string of five straight seasons between ’16 and ’20 in which it received draft grades of B+ or better. It finally paid off in ’21 when the Bengals went 10-7 and reached a Super Bowl. They followed that up with a 12-4-1 mark last year. B grades the last two seasons and the continued health of QB Joe Burrow should keep them near the top of the AFC.

 

Cleveland Browns: C-, B+, A, B+, C-, B-

Steve’s thoughts: Cleveland’s draft performance over the last eight years may be among the least consistent in the league according to SI. Two “A” grades, three “C” grades, and three in-between. Still, the fact that the Browns have gone over .500 just once since ’16 probably has more to do with inconsistent quarterback play than anything. A full season with QB Deshaun Watson could turn things around.

 

Dallas Cowboys: C, C+, B, A+, B, C+

Steve’s thoughts: The Cowboys have gone 12-5 in back-to-back seasons and theoretically should only need to retool. That doesn’t lessen the disappointment of back-to-back “C” grades in the draft over the last two seasons. Is this year’s team improved? Ready to challenge Philly in the NFC East? I wouldn’t say so by what has been netted from the draft.

 

Denver Broncos: D+, B, B+, A, A-, A-

Steve’s thoughts: In all honesty, after last year’s grades were out, I started to suspect a bit of bias from the SI staff in their review of the Broncos’ draft performances. It was seven straight years of B or better on draft weekend, yet not a single winning record from ’17-’22. Well, this year the Denver front office was bludgeoned for its draft work with a league-worst grade of D+. Will it make a difference for new Head Coach Sean Payton or is this really all about what QB Russell Wilson brings to the table in ’23?

 

Detroit Lions: C+, A, B-, A, B+, B

Steve’s thoughts: Any of you who watched the draft probably picked up on the thought that Lions’ management felt better about their draft than the TV analysts and those at SI did. After a breakout season in ’22, finishing 9-8 mind you, Detroit received its worst draft weekend grade since prior to ’16, a C+. Did this franchise feel it was at a point of having an embarrassment of riches already, passing up some bigger needs and perhaps even better players for positions they were already solid at? Sure feels that way.

 

Green Bay Packers: B+, A, A-, B-, A-, A

Steve’s thoughts: The Packers have had a franchise tendency of making moves to increase the number of draft picks they own each year. The result is usually a respected bolstering of young talent each spring. SI has certainly gotten behind this strategy in awarding Green Bay with solid grades year after year. Will all this young talent supposedly in place make up for the loss of QB Aaron Rodgers and keep the success coming? That’s the massive question for 2023.

 

Houston Texans: A, B, B-, B-, B, C

Steve’s thoughts: After winning just 11 games over the past three seasons, the Texans needed a big draft weekend. They got it, scoring their first A grade since 2017, the year they drafted QB Deshaun Watson. A year later they were in double-digit wins. Can the same thing happen here behind newly acquired QB CJ Stroud? I wouldn’t bet too hard against it.

 

Indianapolis Colts: A-, A, B, A-, B, C-

Steve’s thoughts: Indianapolis has received three grades in the A range in the last four years. Ironically, they have declined on the field in each of the last two seasons. That may have more to do with the fact that they’ve endured failed experiments with veteran quarterback signings. They’ll turn to a youngster now in draftee Anthony Richardson out of Florida. Can he get it turned around after a 4-12-1 campaign in ’22? I wouldn’t count on it this year, but the future looks bright.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars: C-, B-, C+, B-, B, B-

Steve’s thoughts: Jacksonville has its QB of the future, its most respected head coach in many years, and is coming off its first playoff appearance since 2017. I would have hoped for better than a C- grade on draft weekend but I don’t figure it to be too impactful. This team seems headed in the right direction.

 

Kansas City Chiefs: B, A, C+, C+, B+, B-

Steve’s thoughts: To put in perspective how wrong draft analysis can be, most experts considered QB Patrick Mahomes a risky project pick back in ’17, much of the reason the Chiefs only received an average grade that year. Obviously looking back at that year, it was the most impactful draft class in the history of the franchise. Of course, the ’22 class got an A grade, this year’s received a B. Are these groups just adding to a stable of talent in KC? Sure looks like it.

 

Las Vegas Raiders: C+, B+, C, C+, C-, C+

Steve’s thoughts: The Raiders are another franchise that seems to receive a little bias from SI analysts, only in this case they seem to be wildly against anything this franchise does. Receiving five grades in the C’s over the last six years, it seems that nothing Las Vegas drafts ever looks promising. Having won just 6.5 games per season over the last six years, perhaps SI has it right.

 

Los Angeles Chargers: C, B-, A-, B-, B+, B+

Steve’s thoughts: The Chargers followed up their disappointing playoff loss of this past January with their worst draft grade in over eight years, a C according to SI. They are also in the midst of a contract squabble with their stud RB Austin Ekeler. It would seem that things are headed in the wrong direction. I wouldn’t shed too many tears for L.A. though. They have won double-digit games in three straight seasons, have one of the best young QBs in the game, and have drafted consistently well prior to last weekend. Things will be fine.

 

Los Angeles Rams: B, B, B, A, B-, C+

Steve’s thoughts: The Rams have yielded a lot of draft capital in recent years due to other player transactions. It did result in a Super Bowl win following the ’21 season, however, so all was worth it. The franchise seems to be perhaps on the verge of paying the price in the next couple of seasons however, and coming off a 5-12 campaign a year ago, three straight average-rated draft classes don’t figure to get it turned around quickly.

 

Miami Dolphins: D+, C, A-, B-, A, B

Steve’s thoughts: Miami has three straight seasons of plus-.500 football to boast of, yet has not played in a playoff game since following the 2016 season. Could the franchise already have missed its window of opportunity? That possibly certainly exists, and with their worst draft class grades in consecutive years since prior to ’16, it will only fuel that speculation.

 

Minnesota Vikings: B, D-, B+, A-, A, B

Steve’s thoughts: The Vikings of ’22 had the worst-evaluated draft class of any team going back to ’16. No matter; they simply went out and won 13 games, improving by five wins over ’21. It could be smoke and mirrors however, as they were outscored by opponents, eliminated in their first playoff game at home, and have an aging QB that experts are starting to question as to whether or not he can take the team where it needs to go. Count me among those who think this team could decline sharply in ’23.

 

New England Patriots: B-, B-, B, C+, B+, A+

Steve’s thoughts: For many years in the Tom Brady era, the Patriots either picked late in the draft or had dealt their picks away in other transactions. As a result, their draft grades suffered. But they had Tom Brady and continued to win at a high rate. Now, when they need quality young players to bolster the roster and get back into contention, they’ve scored four straight draft grades of average or worse. It could reasonably be argued that this team’s best days are now officially behind them, at least for the time being.

 

New Orleans Saints: B, C, C, C-, B, B+

Steve’s thoughts: As I explained earlier, the Saints have for long been one of the league’s top teams in terms of winning games against their draft success perception. They come off their first losing season since 2016 however, but were wildly inconsistent at the QB position. Now, with Derek Carr acquired to man that key spot, New Orleans looks ready to perhaps “overachieve” once again.

 

New York Giants: B+, A-, B+, B, C-, A

Steve’s thoughts: Not to toot my own horn or anything, but the Giants were one of the teams I projected to surprise last year. Not only did they turn to a respected new head coach in Brian Daboll, but they had been accumulating solid young talent for most of the last handful of drafts. Including this year’s analysis, this franchise has scored draft grades of B or better in four straight years. The talent is here and getting re-signed. The ’22 season could be just the start of a run of success in New York.

 

New York Jets: B-, A, B+, A-, C+, B+

Steve’s thoughts: Regardless of the draft grades received, the Jets have not enjoyed success on the field, winning just 4.9 games per season on average dating back to ’16. The last four years have seemingly produced some solid talent on draft weekend. However, all of it pales in comparison to the impact that acquiring QB Aaron Rodgers might have on the immediate future of this team. All signs point upward.

 

Philadelphia Eagles: A+, A+, B-, C, A-, B+

Steve’s thoughts: I often question the motives of the draft analysts, and I might have done so fervently last year when reading about the haul the Eagles made. I assumed any improvement realized fell on the arm (and legs) of QB Jalen Hurts. Well, he played at an MVP level and the rest of the assembled talent joined him in going 14-3 and reaching the Super Bowl. Now, adding a second straight A+ graded class, it’s title or bust.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers: A, A-, C+, C, A-, B-

Steve’s thoughts: Under Head Coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers’ draft classes have been wildly inconsistent, yet the franchise has continued to win, a testament to his leadership. Even after losing longtime franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger prior to last season, Pittsburgh still managed to finish over.-.500 at 9-8. Now, riding back-to-back draft success of grades A- and A, this team would seem to be on even more solid footing than ever. Expect Tomlin’s team to be an even more prominent contender in coming years.

 

San Francisco 49ers: C+, B, A-, A-, B, B

Steve’s thoughts: The question remains the same for a second straight season. What would the 49ers be capable of if they could get some elite production from the quarterback position? Seemingly everywhere else this team is loaded, and a lot of credit for that comes from recent drafts. San Francisco did nothing to stabilize the QB situation for ’23 and comes off its worst draft performance on my record. Are the 49ers in line to take a step or two back this fall?

 

Seattle Seahawks: A-, C+, B-, B, B-, C

Steve’s thoughts: Like Tomlin’s Steelers, the Seahawks have also achieved wide ranges of success on draft weekends under Pete Carroll. Whatever the case, they have continued to win, as the players they do draft tend to develop. Case in point last year when everything was supposed to implode following the departure of QB Russell Wilson. Seattle showed its talent depth in going 9-8 behind journeyman QB Geno Smith. Now, things are looking up for ’23 after a much-respected draft weekend and the decline of the NFC West Division.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: C+, B-, B-, A-, A-, B

Steve’s thoughts: In the three seasons with Tom Brady under center, it seemed that Tampa Bay opted for veteran players over youth, and now with him gone, it may be time to pay the piper. The last three draft classes were all graded below average, and last year’s team total underachieved. Don’t be surprised if this year’s Bucs team falls well short of recent standards.

 

Tennessee Titans: B+, B+, B+, B, B-, B-

Steve’s thoughts: Tennessee’s draft work has been the single most consistent in the league, scoring a B-level grade in eight straight years according to SI. It’s no wonder that the Titans have been a contender every year in that span, winning 9.4 games per season on average and making the playoffs four times in the last seven seasons. With what’s happened so far in this offseason (very little so far), there’s no reason to suspect that won’t continue.

 

Washington Commanders: C, D, B+, B+, B, C+

Steve’s thoughts: With the sale of the franchise looming in the background, the Commanders went out and achieved a C-grade performance at this past weekend’s NFL draft. Following the D of ’22, there isn’t a lot going on in Washington to be excited about in terms of the upcoming season. This team has been stuck in an era of mediocrity and the sale was much-needed. Don’t expect instant results this season, however.

 

Some of what I have uncovered here could help you with the recently released win totals for ’23 at places like DraftKings. I would personally suggest being patient with it, however, as I can assure you that the statistical resume stuff I reveal in the next week or two on VSiN will be more definitive. Regardless, analyzing the draft analysis is always an interesting endeavor.

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Steve Makinen
As one of the original founders of StatFox, Steve Makinen has been in the business of sports betting and data analysis for almost 25 years now. In his time in the industry, Steve has worked in a variety of capacities on both sides of the betting counter, from his early days of developing the StatFox business, to almost a decade of oddsmaking consulting for one of the world's leading sportsbooks, to his last seven years as Point Spread Weekly and Analytics Director with VSiN. Steve has always believed that number crunching and handicapping through foundational trends and systems is the secret to success and he shares this data with VSiN readers on a daily basis for all of the major sports.