NFL Draft Prep: How Successful are First Round Picks?
So your team is projected to take a quarterback in the first round and you are ready for a decade of success. Perhaps it’s the big-name wide receiver who runs like the wind or the stud running back that could knock down a building. Whatever the pick, I have some sobering news: most of these guys just won’t work out like we hope. Despite all the pre-draft hype and excitement, most of these prospects will fizzle out faster than you can say “Tank for Trevor”.
I could bring up countless names that have been first-round flops. Here is–in my opinion–the worst first-round QB picked in every draft since 2002: Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, JP Losman, Jason Campbell, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Tim Tebow, Jake Locker, Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Paxton Lynch, Mitch Trubisky, Josh Rosen, and Dwayne Haskins. That’s quite the list. Surely there were studs taken too, right? Of course. I could list Michael Vick (01), Carson Palmer (03), the monster 2004 class, and plenty of other successful players. What we need to know is the rate of success. I want to take a position by position look at rookies and their hit rates. Let’s start with Quarterback.
We will begin by taking a look at some season-long benchmarks for QB success and see what percent hit the marks at least once in their career: (Note that all samples used in this article run from 2000 to the present. I have excluded all players from the 2018 and 2019 drafts because of a lack of sufficient sample size.)
|Draft Range||3200 yards||4000 yards||4800 yards||24 touchdowns||32 touchdowns||40 touchdowns||less than 5 yrs*|
|1st rd pick||66%||43%||13%||47%||30%||8%||45%|
|#1 overall pick||83%||67%||25%||67%||58%||17%||17%|
So those success rates are pretty atrocious. Less than half of first-round QBs manage a single 4000-yd or 24 touchdown season. Those are pretty low bars for success. On top of that, almost half don’t even make it to a second contract. Expecting a first-round QB to change your franchise appears to be wishful thinking. If we tighten the constraints to just top-10 picks, things don’t get much better. We still see that half still don’t ever see 4000 yards or 24 touchdowns in a season. On top of that, only 70% last 5 years with their drafting team. Okay, let’s be VERY restrictive: just first overall picks. Now we are down to a sample size of 12 guys. It’s little surprise that the numbers are looking better. A 3200-yd season is closer to a guarantee and we have pretty good odds at 4000 yards and 32 touchdowns. Still, the elite marks remain elusive and two of these 12 quarterbacks didn’t see their fifth year. What conclusions can we draw?
Real-life outlook: Be cautiously optimistic. Starting quarterbacks have to come from somewhere, so why not hope for the best? For every Mitchell Trubisky, there is a Patrick Mahomes. It could be your team, right? It’s better to imagine years of success than to look at those awful numbers again…
Fantasy outlook: Stay far away! Quarterbacks clearly are not worth the investment. Thinking you know better is a recipe for disaster (Remember that Tom Brady went in the sixth round with no fanfare, JaMarcus Russell was a no-brainer first overall pick, and Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf was a coin-flip decision)
Moving on to running backs, we should be entering a much safer territory. Running backs are supposed to be the rock of the team, and it is supposed to be the quickest transition (at least in terms of fantasy success). Like we did with quarterbacks, we are going to focus on first-round selections at the position. Our benchmarks here are hitting 1000 yards in a season, having multiple 1000-yd seasons, hitting 1500 yards in a season, scoring 8 total TDs in a season, scoring 16 total TDs in a season, and totaling 500-yd receiving in a season.
|Draft Range||1,000 rush yds||2+ 1,000-yd seasons||1,500 rush yds||8+ total TD||16+ total TD||500 rec. yds|
|1st rd pick||74%||52%||26%||77%||26%||24%|
These are MUCH better hit rates. Most first-round running backs find repeated success in the league. If you are a first-round pick, it is much more likely than not you will hit 1000 yards and 8 touchdowns at least once. More than half of these guys will have repeated 1000-yd seasons and elite production (1500+ rush yds, 16+ TD, and 500+ receiving yds) isn’t that uncommon. If we boost this to top-10 picks, the numbers get even better. It is hard to take a top-10 running back who doesn’t succeed as the team can force-feed them volume.
Real-life outlook: This is the jersey to buy if you want a quick payoff as a fan. That first-round running back (Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs) will probably pay off at least in the short term. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t make it to a second contract. Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Melvin Gordon, and Le’Veon Bell have proven how fast things can change.
Fantasy outlook: Rookie running backs tend to produce, but beware overzealous ADPs from league mates wanting to pick the next big thing. I hesitate to take a rookie running back in the first two rounds of a draft due to the unknowns: will they adjust to the league? Will the team properly utilize them? That being said, the fourth round is an excellent time to jump. I am fine with a rookie RB as my RB2.
We leave the safety of running backs and head back out to the wild west of wide receiver. Receivers are, to understate it, tough to pick well. Any GM telling you otherwise is either lying or ignorant. How tough is it? Let’s take a look:
|Draft Range||No 1,000-yd seasons||one 1,000-yd season||2+ 1,000-yd seasons||3+ 1,000-yd seasons||8-TD season||16-TD season|
|1st rd pick||51%||19%||30%||23%||52%||16%|
So, only 49% of first-round wide receivers have had a 1,000-yd season. On top of that, only 30% have had 2 or more. It’s not exactly like I qualify a two-time thousand-yarder as a superstar. That’s a pretty low bar for what is supposed to be elite talent. There are just so many misses that it’s hard to consider anything here as set in stone. Here’s another way to put it: there have been 15 drafts since 2000 with multiple wide receivers taken in the first round. Only twice have all the first-round receivers hit 1,000 yards at some point in their career. In twelve of those years, multiple receivers failed that test. Yikes.
Even if we limit our results down to top-10 picks as we did with running backs, it’s still a shot in the dark. Half of the players never put up a 1,000-yard season and only 32% have multiple 1k seasons. Honestly, looking at the success rates tells me a trade back is probably the best call for teams hoping to draft pass-catchers. I’d rather pick twice late in the first than once early–save for those rare generational talents.
Real-life outlook: Don’t be so quick to envy the team with the shiny new first-round weapon. You can probably find a similar talent in the second round at a much cheaper price. Even if they hit, expect receivers to take some time to fully develop.
Fantasy outlook: Avoid! Running backs are much safer, and a running back who pops in year one can easily be traded for a failed/ slow-developing wide receiver prospect in dynasty/keeper leagues. I will not have any shares of CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, or the rest of the gang in 2020 redraft for exactly this reason. Ignore the hype and believe the decades of history.
As bad as quarterback and wide receiver were, tight end is worse. It’s the bottom of the barrel. I pretty much hate seeing teams take tight ends in the first round because of the slow development curve and the low hit rates. Here is what I’m talking about:
|Draft Range||500-yd season||1,000-yd season||8+ TD season||12+ TD season||Best Yardage*||Best TD output*|
|1st rd pick||86%||14%||38%||14%||614||6|
*Note: Best yardage and best TD are an average of the best statistical outcome in the first three years of all TE drafted in the first round. The yardage and TD numbers are not necessarily from the same season.
Looking at the 21 first-round picks since 2000, only 14% have gone on to put up a 1,000-yard season during their careers. The same percent have pulled off a 12+ TD season. If I loosen the touchdown requirement to 8, it’s still only 38%. Looking at the average best outputs (combining yardage and TD highs) we are left with 614 yards and 6 touchdowns: a finish in the TE8-10 range. So all those elite tight end prospects (look at 2002, 2004, 2006, 2017, 2019 for some examples) tend to become nothing more than filler at the position–at least early in their careers. This is not an area we should be wasting our money on.
Real-life outlook: Unhappiness. No first-round tight end has put up 1,000 yards in one of his first three seasons. Only one has put up a double-digit touchdown season. You should not expect an immediate impact from that top-32 pick. How does that sound?
Fantasy outlook: Same. If I don’t expect 1,000 yards or double-digit touchdowns as a realistic possibility, why am I prioritizing that tight end? Remember how crazy people went for TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant? They had a combined 929 yards and 5 touchdowns last year: good for a TE6 finish. Unfortunately, most leagues won’t let you combine their stats each week.
I hope this hasn’t dampened your excitement for the upcoming NFL draft. Though I am aware of the abysmal success rates, I will still be happily cheering on my team’s every move. I will search out highlight videos of every QB, RB, WR, and TE that’s taken. Though the odds are slim, hope springs eternal this time of year. Just be realistic when fantasy draft season comes along…
- Only half of top-10 quarterback picks ever hit the 4,000 yard OR 24 TD milestones in a season.
- First-round running backs generally see plenty of action and are the safest bet by far. Beware the long-term shelf life though.
- Only 49% of first-round WR ever hit 1,000 yards in a season. The stat is virtually the same for top-10 picks.
- No tight end in our sample put up 900 yards in any of his first three years, and only one had 10+ touchdowns.
(Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)