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AFC North Drafting, 2001-2012: An In-Depth Look

And heck, let's throw the Pats in for kicks. Part One of a series comparing the AFC North and the New England Patriots to the league average.


Ever since I got interested in football, way back in 2009, I've been hearing various truisms about drafting. First and foremost, perhaps, is the general feeling that Bill Belichick knows how to work the draft like none other. The Steelers, under the combined guidance of Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert, were a sure thing. (With Mike Tomlin, maybe not so much...) Ozzie Newsome is supposedly a wizard, known particularly for his ability to winkle out talented guys in the lower rounds of the draft. Cincinnati, under the allegedly dubious stewardship of owner Mike Brown and a minimal scouting department, is thought to be pretty hit or miss. And Cleveland just stinks, no matter who you put in there.

If I but had the time and energy I'm sure I could find the story lines for every team in the league. But it seems to me that five teams is a reasonable sample size, and these five teams are of particular interest to Steeler Nation. (Well, maybe not the Pats, but since they are supposedly the gold standard in so many areas they make an interesting addition to the mix.)

Thanks to Pro Football Reference one can access all kinds of data about drafts, going all the way back to 1936. But for my purposes (and my sanity) 2001 is a good cut-off point. It was Kevin Colbert's first full year as GM of the Steelers. Ozzie Newsome took over as GM of the Ravens in 2002. Bill Belichick became the Patriot's head coach in 2000. So it seems as good a spot as any.

Although the information in the Pro Football Reference draft database is quite detailed, for my purposes I boiled it down to two figures—the Weighted Career Approximate Value of each player, and the portion of said value the player accumulated on the team which drafted him. These metrics aren't perfect. Any judgment made of a player is by nature going to be somewhat subjective. But over a large amount of players one would expect the law of averages to take over.

I've mined a great deal of information from PFR. Today's post is going to focus on two questions—a) how does each team compare, year by year, with the league average, in the general awesomeness of the players they draft, and b) how well did each team do in utilizing the talent they drafted, compared to the average?

Question a) is fairly simple to answer, although there are always mitigating circumstances. (I will go into more detail about those in later posts.) Question b) is a lot trickier. In fact, it can never really be answered. There is no way to know whether, say, Mike Wallace would have turned out better, or worse, had he been drafted by a different team. But the piece of data we can look at is the percentage of a player's WCAV* achieved on the team who drafted him.

First let's look at what is typical for the league. As always, you can click on any chart to make it bigger:


To generate these figures, I added up the total amount of WCAV generated by each player drafted in each round in a given year and averaged it. So if, for instance, 42 players were drafted in the 3rd round in 2002, their cumulative WCAV would be averaged to get the figure for an "average" player in that round for that draft. All seven rounds were added together to get the average figure.

This naturally favors a team who, say, has two first round picks in a given year. They should look a great deal better than most of the teams that year. One of the interesting questions is whether they do or not. We will see a couple of examples of this as we look at the data in more depth in later posts.

As you look at the chart you may be wondering why there is so much unnecessary white space at the top. It is because I've decided to keep every chart to the same parameters for purposes of easy comparison, and we'll need a lot of that space when we start adding some of the teams in question.

Looking left to right along the timeline, as we approach the final draft (2012) the amount of the WCAV players accumulate on the team who drafted them nears 100%, in a gradual fashion. Except for 2009, which is an odd outlier. I'm not at all sure why. Maybe, once I start looking into the circumstances, it will become clear. But it seems pretty counterintuitive, as you would expect the great majority of player generating much of any WCAV to still be on the team drafting them in 2009. Generally speaking, though, the chart reads as expected.

So first let's see who has done the best job overall since 2001, in terms of how often they beat the league average:


I have put the figures for the past several years onto the charts, for completeness, but I'm not sure it tells the true tale for a few years yet.

Here's how everyone has done in the years prior to 2011:

New England Patriots: There are three seasons in which they dominate the competition and several season in which they are distinctly below average. Other than that their drafts are average to good.

Baltimore Ravens: They show two seasons of dominance, four well-below-average seasons, two excellent seasons, and a couple of average ones.

Cincinnati Bengals: They have one dominant draft, four below-average drafts, and several very good drafts. They seem to be a bit more boom-or-bust.

Cleveland Browns: They track the average pretty closely most years. Like the Steelers, they had a stinker of a draft in 2008. Their most recent drafts look very good in the initial going, but the jury is still out.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers were at the top of the heap for two seasons, distinctly below average for two seasons, and were mostly slightly better than average the rest of the time. We'll get into a lot more detail on why in a later post.

But before we crown a king of the draft, let's see how much of all that lovely WCAV actually accrued to the team drafting the player:


At first glance this tracks the first chart pretty closely. This surprised me, as I expected to find a higher retention rate on some teams than others.

There are differences, though. They just aren't particularly easy to see in that particular format, so I've put together a chart showing the league average percentage, compared to our teams:


It's now a bit easier to see. As one would expect, The Steelers consistently had a high percentage of the WCAV earned by their draftees actually be earned on the team. What I didn't really expect to find, however, is that with a couple of notable exceptions, the Patriots tend to have an above-average amount of their players remain with the team. Somehow I thought they tended to draft a whole bunch of players and throw most of them out. Once again we'll look at this in more depth in a later post.

So, since this is a Steelers blog, let's return to the previous chart and look at it again. We then note that, if we look at only how much of the WCAV of their draftees has benefitted the team, the Steelers' drafts take a step up. With two notable exceptions, 2006 and 2008, the drafts are well above the league average, mostly being either the best or second best draft among the five teams in consideration. Conversely, we note that while the Browns drafted some good-to-excellent players, they didn't usually manage to keep them, or they improved on other teams. Thus they show up as well below average in this metric for most of the ten seasons in question. This metric also evens out the bumps to a degree for the Bengals.

So who is the best at drafting? In the end, perhaps the only measure which matters is whether your team is contention on a regular basis. But that won't stop me from breaking it down more—a lot more—in the coming weeks. As a teaser, here is one more way to look at it:


This adds up the entire WCAV value for each team compared to the league average. Looking at it this way, in the ten drafts between 2001 and 2010 the Patriots have garnered both the prize for highest total value and highest value of players retained. The Steelers come in second—not by a lot over Baltimore in the total, but by a great deal in the amount of WCAV retained on the team. And we can see this is where the Browns have really struggled. There were a couple of drafts in which the total WCAV bested the league average, but the retention was very low. The worst case was 2003, in which their total WCAV was 139 (compared to a league average of 130) but the WCAV earned on the team was 29. However, they appear to have turned this around in recent years.

The actual percentages are striking. Over this 10-year period the league average team WCAV is 76% of the total for their draftees. Here's how our five teams compare:

Cleveland: 65%

Cincinnati: 77%

Baltimore: 78%

New England: 80%

Pittsburgh: 89%

That's it for today, folks. I hope you will all raise a glass of orange juice in my honor tomorrow morning as I walk for the homeless...

*If you need to know what WCAV is, it is a weighted version of PFR's Career Approximate Value. The idea is to balance out peak years vs. raw production in comparing players.

Here's an example of a real player:


The first column is "raw production"—his Approximate Value for each season. The second column takes his best year (2008) at 100%, second best (2010) at 95%, third best (2011) at 90%, and so on. It gets rounded up to 88, as PFR only deals with whole numbers.

There is a prize for the first person to recognize the player from this description. Don't quit your day job, however : )