The Science Of The NFL Draft: What Makes A True Draft Day 'Winner'?

Really and truly, it's unlike any other spectacle in sports.

Just imagine it all in your head. Start with a bunch of college kids becoming millionaires on national television. Add tens of thousands of rowdy fans on hand to cheer what’s essentially a glorified cattle auction. Throw in representatives from 32 teams sitting anxiously in front of the draft stage, constantly working the phones, and then rushing to the front of the room to hand off their pick to representatives from the NFL before the gigantic clock at the top of the room reads 0:00. And finally, picture a neverending avalanche of analysis from commentators on two gigantic television sets, ten feet away from each other, both talking about the same four or five storylines for three days straight.

All happening in one room, all at the same time. That's the NFL Draft.

But of course, beneath the shiny exterior, the NFL Draft is also a gritty battle between teams looking to improve, especially as the draft's emerged as perhaps the most crucial aspect of building a winning team in the modern day NFL. It’s a great show for football fans, but lest we forget the reason we watch in the first place: This stuff can shape the next decade for some teams. The draft is its own kind of game, with winners and losers, opposing strategies, and endless gamesmanship.

And frankly, just like on the field, some teams are just better than when it comes to playing that game. Try and forget the myth that "none of this gets decided for the next five years—at least!" That’s true in a certain sense, but still misleading.

Obviously nobody knows for sure which players will turn out to be successful. We’ve already established that the scouting process is alchemy disguised as chemistry; handicapping the odds for a certain prospect’s success is like betting on horse races. You can have your favorites, you can have your sure thing, and even Mel Kiper as your soothsaying horse whisperer, but on some level, it’s still a guessing game.

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But there's an important distinction to be made here: When people call the draft a crapshoot, they’re referring to the scouting. And just because scouting isn’t scientific, doesn’t mean that drafting isn’t.


There are very clear and objective ways to see whether a team succeeds or fails on draft day. And here, it’s probably better to show than tell. One sequence, in particular, stood out from this weekend…

  1. Because of trades in past years, the Patriots  had the 44th, 47th, and 53rd picks coming into the second round.
  2. With their 44th, they traded up to 42nd and grabbed Rob Gronkowski, the highest-rated TE on their Draft Board.
  3. At the 47th slot, they traded back to 58, and picked up Arizona’s 3rd round pick in the process.
  4. With the 53rd pick, they took Jermaine Cunnigham, a D-line hybrid from Florida.
  5. At 58th, they traded again, picked up a fifth round pick, and moved back to 62.
  6. At 62, New England took Brandon Spikes, an inside linebacker to compliment Jerod Mayo in their 3-4 scheme.
  7. Finally, New England exchanged the 3rd round pick they got from Arizona, this time trading with the Carolina Panthers, who gave the Patriots a 2011 2nd round pick in return.

Even when you break it down on a step-by-step basis, "Draft day for the Patriots" is just about the most labyrinthine process imaginable, featuring unspectacular move after unspectacular move until… BAM! Here they are with a promising group of new players, and a bonus like Carolina’s 2nd pick in 2011, ensuring they’ll have the assets to repeat the process twelve months from now.

That’s why they’re the best at this stuff.

To understand this from a competitive perspective, think about it like this: Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ brain trust is no different than Peyton Manning before the play at the line of scrimmage. Without fail, during every game or every draft, you’ll find both in constant frenzy of adjustments and checkdowns, always looking for the best ways to exploit the situation at hand.


Now, just like Manning can never be sure that Pierre Garcon is going to catch the ball when he’s wide open, Belichick can’t know whether Brandon Spikes or Jermaine Cunningham will succeed. But what he can do is put his team in the best position to exploit the draft choices they’re given each year. Just like Manning can check down to a route that’ll put Garcon in a situation to exploit whatever scheme a defense presents.

Belichick and the Patriots’ brain trust are constantly, compulsively, looking for that edge. No different than Manning yammering out audibles before every play. It’s an obnoxious trait, but a successful one, especially when you look at their competition.

While the Patriots came away with a bevy of versatile prospects and flexibility for the future, think about the Carolina Panthers. They traded a 2nd round pick to New England to choose Armanti Edwards, a potential Wildcat-QB who they really liked. Really, really liked, apparently.

Because the Panthers essentially used a third round pick AND a second round pick on Edwards, a player who likely won’t see the field for more than 25% of Carolina’s offensive possessions next year (and that’s being generous). And even if Armanti Edwards turns out to be phenomenal for Carolina… That’s not the point.


The Patriots are winners here and the Panthers are losers (at least with this pick), because with the draft, it’s all about playing the percentages, and stockpiling as many assets as possible. Given the mercurial nature of the scouting process, betting on the skills of any one player is incredibly risky, especially if he doesn’t fill an immediate need. (Or especially if he’s a 5’11 QB-WR from D1-AA…) When you come away with a number of draft picks, even in later rounds, you're more liable to succeed.

Think about the first round. How often do teams sacrifice valuable draft picks trading up to draft a "superstar," and then that player actually turns out to be a superstar? And even if the player does turn into a superstar, how often do you win a Super Bowl with him? Not very often. Eli Manning has worked out for the Giants, but for every Eli, there are four or five examples of guys that were brought in with sky-high price tags and ultimately failed. To wit:

  • Ricky Williams to the Saints in exchange for eight draft choices to the Redskins, one of which became LB Lavar Arrington (no. 3 overall), and another of which was used to acquire Champ Bailey in a draft-day trade.
  • The Chargers trading up to draft Ryan Leaf, forfeiting a first round pick the next year that became WR David Boston. In other words, the Chargers used TWO first-round picks on Ryan Leaf.
  • Michael Vick to the Falcons in exchange for a draft pick that became Ladanian Tomlinson, and led the Chargers to "settle" for Drew Brees in the 2nd round.
  • Cleveland trades a 2nd round pick (that became Kevin Kolb) and a 1st round pick the following year (that became Felix Jones) for Brady Quinn. (They would later trade Quinn for a fullback and a sixth round pick.)
  • The ultimate lesson: Herschel Walker to the Vikings in exchange for a bevy of draft picks that ultimately helped the Cowboys land the following players: RB Emmitt Smith, DT Russel Maryland, SS Darren Woodson, CB Kevin Smith, and CB Clayton Holmes. Oof.

If we're to derive anything from those examples, it’s this: Whether trading up to draft Michael Vick or giving up a 2nd round pick in 2011 to draft Armanti Edwards, ultimately, you're putting more eggs in one basket. And there are a lot of ways to succeed with the NFL Draft, but only one that's consistent: Don't do that. To win consistently with the draft, you hoarde picks, take advantage of desperate teams when possible, or if not, take the best player available. Picking the right players is still important, but with a hundred different variables determining a guy's success in the pros, nobody can get 'em right all the time.

One variable you can control? Having the most chances at success.

Even if it means picking lower, and adding less-prestigious players. To make this simpler: Imagine the draft is like chess, where ideally, every piece you add makes you better. Would you rather trade up to for the chance to draft a King or Queen in the top ten, or hang back and draft one Bishop in the late-first, a Rook and a Knight in the second, and three Pawns in the later rounds?

This sounds abstract (and it is), but look at the Baltimore Ravens this past weekend. Rather than trading up from the 25th spot to try and take a potential gamebreaker like WR Dez Bryant, the Ravens traded down, giving up their first round choice in exchange for an extra 2nd, 3rd, and 4th pick from Denver. How'd that work out? Denver took Tim Tebow as their one player from the deal, while the Ravens added a first-round talent in LB Sergio Kindle (with Denver's second rounder), another massive talent in Terrence Cody (with their own 2nd rounder), and two promising TEs, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, with Denver's 3rd and 4th round picks.

So... Tebow vs. Kindle, Cody, and two of the highest rated TEs in the draft. Who had the better day?

Think about it: every single time, a team with more good pieces beats a team with only one King, and that's assuming every top 10 pick pans out (obviously not the case). This is why we see so many of the same teams drafting in the top ten every year. They keep going for Kings, when the winning teams are happy to add a handful of Bishops and Rooks. One more example and we'll wrap this up.

The Oakland Raiders selected Rolando McClain at number eight overall on Thursday night, and considering Oakland's draft history, it was actually a pretty solid choice. More than 24 hours and 50 selections later, New England drafted Brandon Spikes out of Florida. And... Well, what's the difference between McClain and Spikes? McClain graded out slightly better in the pre-draft testing and was considered a more enticing prospect, but last year, they were the two best players on the two best defenses in the best conference in America.


Brandon Spikes was an ANIMAL at Florida, just like McClain at Alabama. Both won National Titles. Both were named All-Americans. Both were the quarterbacks for their defense on every play. Halfway through the season last year, if you'd had to choose which player you'd want to have as the heartbeat of your defense, it would have been a toss-up. A few months later, and scouts have given McClain a definitive edge in that debate.

But if you're an NFL team, even if you think McClain has the chance to develop into a perennial Pro Bowler (a King, if you will), would you rather risk $40 million on him, or give 6 or 7 million to Brandon Spikes, a guy that was every bit the player McClain was in college, and seems like a good bet to become a quality NFL starter (a rook, if you will) for the next decade? To me, the choice is obvious.


So as we get inundated with NFL Draft grades over the next few days, just keep this in mind. Because you never know what players might pan out, grading a draft class isn't really fair for a few years, so all these evaluations come with an asterisk, or qualifiers like "Check back at the 2015 Pro Bowl." But the fact is, we can absolutely tell who made the most of their choices, going for great value when they picked, and not mortgaging a bunch of picks (or tying up a ton of cap space) to make a spalsh. And again this year, it's the usual suspects.

Teams like the Ravens, Eagles, Colts, Steelers, Bengals, and once again, the Patriots. The best franchises in the NFL stay that way for a reason, and the draft is a big part of that. You may wonder: How do they all keep getting so lucky with this stuff that nobody can predict?

Well... If you play the game the right way, it's really not luck.

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