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Why Do Day Three Draft Picks Hit (or Miss)? A Deep Dive…

| May 6th, 2020


Former NFL executive Joe Banner did an interview a few years ago where he referenced a study by an NFL team that found most day 3 picks who turn into successful NFL players are guys who slip through the cracks either because they were from small schools, had an injury in their last year of college, or were undersized for their position.

This made me curious, and since it was a private study without information published, I decided to do it myself.


The Setup

I used the Pro Football Reference database to grab information about every day 3 draft pick from 2007-16. I stopped at 2016 because I wanted players who had finished their 4 year rookie contracts, and started at 2007 to give me 10 seasons’ worth of data. This gave a sample size of 1509 picks.

I then identified players who were a hit based on 2 criteria:

  1. They were a primary starter on offense or defense for at least 2 seasons (as defined by Pro Football Reference).
  2. They had a career AV (a Pro Football Reference metric that attempts to quantify overall impact of each player) of at least 15. I chose this value as the cutoff because Nick Kwiatkoski finished his four years in Chicago with an AV of 15, and that feels about right for the cutoff for a hit.

Any player that hit at least one of these thresholds was considered a hit, while all others were not. I also found that the majority of players who hit this threshold also hit the 1st one, though there of course some outliers.


Results

Let’s take a look at some different factors and see how they influenced hit rates on day 3 of the draft.

Small School

We’ll start with players from a small school, which I defined as anything but the “power 5” conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC). The table below shows hit rates for Power 5 picks vs. small school picks for each round of the draft’s 3rd day.

A few thoughts:

  • Generally, the small schools hit at a slightly higher rate than Power 5 schools, a difference that is more pronounced later in the draft.
  • Given this, it seems weird that teams spend far more day 3 draft picks on Power 5 players than they do small school guys. Between 63%-74% of picks in each round were spent on players from Power 5 schools. Of course, fewer small school players getting drafted probably helps explain why they have a higher hit rate. If you take more small school guys just because, they probably won’t be able to sustain that higher odds of success.
  • Notice rounds 4-5 are fairly similar, but very different than rounds 6-7. In order to have larger sample sizes, I will split day 3 into those 2 groups going forward.
  • With that in mind, general rules of thumb to keep in mind are that roughly 1/3 of picks in rounds 4-5 pan out, compared to roughly 15% (1 in about 6.5) of picks in rounds 6-7. As we look at other factors, we’ll look for anything that changes appreciably from those numbers.


Injury

Continuing through Banner’s trends, I next looked at the 235 hits from Power 5 schools to see who had an injury in their last year of college. I only did this for the smaller group instead of all 1509 picks because I had to manually search each player and try to find anything I could. Unfortunately, this meant that I couldn’t compare the hit rates for players who were injured in college vs. those who were healthy.

I identified a player as having an injury if they played fewer than 10 games in their last season of college, or if a Google search (which often led to their official NFL Combine profile) led me to specific information about an injury.

Using this approach, I only found 18 out of 235 hits (8%) from Power 5 schools who had injuries in their senior year. This doesn’t seem like a noteworthy amount to me, but it’s highly possible there were injuries that I missed, so let’s call this inconclusive.

I didn’t do anything specifically exploring the third trait Banner mentioned – size – for a few reasons. First, it’s hard to quantify what counts as undersized, and that will probably vary a good bit from team to team. Second, measurables are not easily available online for all of these prospects, and third, I didn’t feel like manually entering that information for 1509 players.


Position

Looking through Banner’s three trends – small school, injury, and undersized – didn’t leave me with much. All I found was that school players hit at a slightly higher rate than large school players on day three. However, once I had all this data, I figured I could look for some other trends on my own. So I next sorted all these picks by position to see how hit rates there might vary. I first looked at rounds 4-5 only, and the results can be seen below. (note IOL = interior offensive line, so guard or center).

A few thoughts:

  • The three positions with the highest hit rate – TE, DT, and IOL – are generally viewed as some of the least valuable offensive or defensive positions. That’s probably not a coincidence, as teams spend more high picks on the valuable positions and wait to try for those.
  • The other position with an appreciably higher hit rate than average is offensive tackle, which is a premium position in the NFL. This honestly surprised me, as conventional wisdom says you need to draft a tackle early.
  • On the flip side, quarterback is far and away the least efficient draft pick in rounds 4-5. This should come as no surprise to anybody, as teams typically only play 1 quarterback at a time (whereas most positions have 2+ players on the field and rotate guys through) and it’s a position where the majority of starters are taken high in the draft. The only 2 hits in this sample were Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott.
  • WR, CB, and S also had low hit rates, with only about 1/4 picks panning out (compared to the average of 1/3). These are spots where teams spend a lot of picks, but most of them don’t amount to much. If you have to try for a cornerback, you have better odds with a small school prospect (31%) than a player from a power 5 school (21%).

I then applied the same analysis to rounds 6 and 7. That data can be seen in the table below.

A few thoughts:

  • Interior offensive line is the pick that gives the best chance at finding a starter in the late stages of the draft by a healthy margin, hitting at nearly double the average rate. The majority of this comes from small school prospects, which hit at a 41% rate compared to 24% from power 5 players.
  • The other positions that hit at a higher than average rate are the same as the top ones in rounds 4-5, but the order is a little mixed around. Yet again offensive tackle stands out as a high value pick (and these are tackles who stayed at tackle, not moved to guard) given the positional importance.
  • At offensive tackle, the best odds come with players from small schools. These players hit at a 38% rate, compared to only 8% for power 5 tackles.
  • WR and QB remain at the bottom in terms of hit rate. These are positions that don’t make a lot of sense to draft on day 3.

Position Change

While doing some of the legwork to assign positions (some players were generically listed as DB or OL), I noticed many of them had a position change either late in college or from college to the NFL. So I went through all 235 hits from power 5 schools and found that 36 players (15%) fit this criteria. What is more, 28 of the 36 came at only 2 positions: safety (mostly changing from CB, a few times from WR or LB) and interior offensive line (always changing from offensive tackle). That means roughly half of the power 5 hits at those 2 positions had a position change, which feels significant.


Lessons Learned

Add it all up, and here are some of the best places to find value on day 3 of the draft:

  • Tight ends in rounds 4-5.
  • Safeties in rounds 6-7. Most of the successes here are power 5 CBs who make a position change to S in the NFL.
  • OT throughout day 3. In rounds 6-7, small school picks have a much better hit rate than power 5 picks.
  • Interior OL throughout day 3. In rounds 4-5, your best chance of success is a power 5 offensive tackle who is converting to guard, while small school prospects have the best track record in rounds 6-7.
  • Defensive tackle throughout day 3.

On the flip side of things, here are selections with the lowest odds of panning out on day 3:

  • Wide receiver and quarterback throughout day 3.
  • Safety and cornerback in rounds 4-5. If you have to go CB, look for somebody from a small school.

Applications to Chicago’s 2020 Draft

With these lessons in mind, let’s look at Chicago’s selections on day 3 of the 2020 draft:

  • Round 5: DE Trevis Gipson. Defensive ends in rounds 4-5 pan out just above average at 36%, and small school vs. power 5 conference doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
  • Round 5: CB Kindle Vildor. A 5th round CB has a low chance of success, but Vildor being from a small school moves his odds up towards average.
  • Round 5: WR Darnell Mooney. A 5th round WR historically has about a 1 in 4 chance of panning out, which is not very good expected value compared to other positions. Small school vs. power conference doesn’t seem to make much of ad ifference.
  • Round 7: IOL Arlington Hambright. Interior offensive line is the position with the best chance of panning out in rounds 6-7 (29% hit rate). Hambright also fits the mold of a power 5 conference OT who will be moving inside in the NFL, though that profile was more common in rounds 4-5.
  • Round 7: OT Lachavious Simmons. Simmons is a small school OT, which panned out more than 1/3 of the time in my study. To be perfectly clear, no 7th round pick has a good chance of becoming a starter, but the Bears’ 2 7th round picks are at the 2 spots with the least bad chance.

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