The Immediate Value of a Top Ten Draft Pick

Now that the Seahawks have won three of their last four games and have an outside shot at a playoff berth (more on that later), it’s difficult to remember that just a month ago we were all basking in the anemic, miserable glow of a 2-6 record. There isn’t much consolation to be found in that many losses, and that drove some folks to root for the team to keep right on losing in order to secure an even higher position in next year’s draft, the hope being that landing a highly touted first-rounder like Andrew Luck would solve many of the Seattle’s problems and jumpstart the team’s return to perennial postseason contention.

Speaking of Luck, I’ve always had a violently negative reaction to other people telling me what I should do or think.  Ask me to do something and I’ll hear you out, but give me orders and all you’ll get in return is a steadfast refusal to listen.  Trust me, I’ve seen me do it on many an occasion.  So back when the “Suck for Luck” chants were at their loudest, I more or less refused to do much thinking about draft position, and once they quieted down I found myself wondering if having a top ten pick really made that much difference in a team’s record the following season.  (My parents should be nominated for sainthood for not killing and burying me in a shallow grave once I hit the teenage years, is basically what I’m saying here.)

Of course, just because a team has a top ten pick in a given year doesn’t mean they used the pick themselves, so just looking at who actually drafted in the top ten is misleading.  For example, in the 2011 draft the Falcons took Julio Jones with the sixth overall choice, but only because the Browns traded the pick to them  In cases like that, I included the team who was originally slated to draft at that spot, not the team who actually ended up drafting at that position — the Browns may not have actually chosen in the top ten, but they still benefitted by getting plenty in return for trading their pick away.  I also included three teams who would have chosen in the top ten had they not already used up their first rounder in the previous year’s supplemental draft.  Finally, to make sure I was working with a large enough data sample, I looked at every draft from 1967 onward (the first year the NFL and AFL held a joint draft), and although there were some real head-scratchers to unsnarl for some draft years1 I’m reasonably sure I got all the original draft orders worked out correctly.

The results were pretty lopsided.  Of the 450 teams I looked at, 291 (64.67%) went on to post losing records in the season following the draft.  Only 119 teams (26.44%) managed to post winning records, while the remaining 40 teams (8.89%) posted even win-loss records.  To make matters worse, 233 of those losing teams (51.78%) posted bad enough records to earn themselves another top ten draft pick the following year.  In short, losing is not a good winning strategy.

Oddly enough though, when teams originally slated to pick in the top ten did manage to post winning records, they tended to win a lot.  Of those 119 teams, an incredible 85 won enough games to earn themselves a playoff berth.  The Seahawks have joined that club twice: once in 1983, when they went all the way to the AFC Championship game after drafting 9th overall, and again last year when they made it to the divisional round after drafting 6th overall.  But even when we narrow our focus to just the Seahawks, it’s pretty clear that that kind of finish isn’t the norm:

Year Draft Position Win/Loss Record Drafted in Top Ten
the Following Year
1976 2nd 2-12 Yes
1977 2nd 5-9 Yes
1978 9th 9-7 No
1981 6th 6-10 Yes
1982 7th 4-5 Yes
1983 9th 9-7, Playoffs No
1990 10th 9-7 No
1992 10th 2-14 Yes
1993 2nd 6-10 Yes
1994 8th 6-10 Yes
1995 8th 8-8 No
2001 10th 9-7 No
2009 4th 5-11 Yes
2010 6th 7-9, Playoffs No

Over the years, the Seahawks have been slated to draft in the top ten in 14 different drafts.  Following those drafts, the Seahawks posted winning records five times, going to the playoffs in one of those years, and last year became the first NFL to go to the playoffs on a losing record.  The eight other seasons, the Seahawks posted losing records so bad that they ended up picking in the top ten again the very next year.  So, anyone still want to Suck for Luck?

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1 The biggest headache was the 1986 draft.  The Bills tied with the Buccaneers in 1985 for the worst record in the NFL (2-14), but according to all the databases I checked not only did the Bills not have a top ten pick in ’86, they didn’t have a first round pick at all.  What’s worse, none of those databases bothered to explain what happened to the Bills’ draft pick — for all I could tell, the damn thing had vanished without a trace.  After a whole lot more searching, I finally learned that Buffalo traded their 1986 first rounder to Cleveland the year before, and the Browns promptly used that pick in the ’85 supplemental draft to take Bernie Kosar.  You’d think something unusual like that would be notable enough to warrant at least a footnote, but I guess not.