Every year, the NFL Draft gives teams an opportunity to sign young, unproven players at minimal cost. After picking a player in the draft, an NFL team can then sign them to a rookie contract (usually four years) at a predetermined salary. NFL teams maximize their roster talent by drafting players that perform early and well. When young players on rookie contracts can perform at a high level, the team can save cap space (money amount used to sign players to roster) at that position and use that money to sign proven free agents. Take the New York Giants for instance – they were able to get elite production at minimal cost out of Odell Beckham Jr., freeing up cap space in turn to resurrect their sputtering defense. Maximizing the talent/cost ratio at each position is crucial to winning, and it all starts with drafting well.
One important variable to use when measuring production is Approximated Value (AV). Created by Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen, AV is, “an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year” (“Approximated Value”). Comparable to Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in baseball statistics, AV is a standardized measuring system of production across all positions. This allows for the evaluation of overall production between vastly different positions, fixing the inability to compare a running back’s rushing yards to a defensive back’s interceptions. When evaluating players, AV is a great tool to look on small and large scales; it can be used to compare individual production or to reveal draft trends across a time period. In the Giants’ case, AV can be used to show how they maximized roster talent during Odell Beckham Jr.’s rookie contract.
In 2014, the New York Giants won the cap space lottery by signing wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a rookie contract averaging $1 million a year. For the duration of the contract, the Giants paid Beckham Jr. nowhere near the rate other elite receivers were paid for their production (Barnwell). Over the 2014 to 2016 seasons, Beckham Jr.’s AV was 34, while his cap number (amount of salary deducted from salary cap) was just above $7 million. In comparison, Demaryius Thomas’s AV for the same period was a bit less (33), but his cap number surpassed $33 million. Because Thomas had been resigned after his rookie contract, the Denver Broncos had to cough up over five times what the Giants did for the same production. Because of Odell’s huge AV during his rookie contract, the Giants could refocus millions in cap space to strengthen the talent of a historically bad Giants defense.
In the summer of 2016, the Giants signed defensive studs Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison. According to Pro Football Reference, the Giants defense improved from the thirtieth to the second defense, by points allowed; this new defensive talent added five wins to their record and a trip to the NFC championship. Without Odell’s production on such a cheap contract, the Giants’ defense would have remained all-time bad with no prayer of a playoff bid. While the Giants found a great opportunity to maximize talent in other positions with Beckham Jr.’s contract, he is an outlier when it comes to player’s AV on a rookie contract. Teams that maximize AV out of each draft pick, every year set themselves up for the most success.
When evaluating a team’s ability to maximize AV, it is important to look over multiple drafts by round. Looking at the 2008-2011 drafts, teams averaged around 32 picks, or around 8 year. Picks can be traded though, so the pick number per year often fluctuates. On average, teams were able to add almost 293 AV over each of their draft picks’ rookie contracts. The team that drafted the most production over that period was the Atlanta Falcons, led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. That being said, the Falcons were not carried by these two excellent picks – they had over nine players produce an AV over 15. By averaging almost 12 AV a pick, the Falcons would propel themselves to the playoffs four of out of five years and an eventual Super Bowl appearance (Pro Football Reference). On the other hand, by not drafting well, the Washington Redskins minimized their roster talent and stunted the team’s success. Over the same period, the Redskins had more picks but averaged a measly 6.4 AV per pick, leading to zero playoff appearances (Pro Football Reference). The key takeaway here is that the number of draft picks does not matter as much as the quality of those picks. When chasing a Super Bowl, maximizing the talent of every position starts with the draft.
Looking at Super Bowl results in the seasons after the 2008-2011 Draft period, four out of five of the winners had an average AV per pick above the overall team average. The Saints had multiple high AV players from each draft, and made the most of their twenty-two picks. Even the Giants, who were the most hit-or-miss with their players’ AV, had multiple defensive players produce high AV’s en route to their upset of the New England Patriots in 2012 (“Super Bowl Winners”). By making the most out of every pick, NFL teams set themselves up with a roster that pays the least for the most production, an almost guaranteed formula for success.
The NFL Draft is the cornerstone to maximizing a roster’s production. It provides NFL teams with an opportunity to pay for production minimally, offering on average eight players to each team each year. Further, drafting players that produce early in their career significantly affects cap space, giving teams the extra money needed to sign additional players. To succeed in the NFL, teams must spend draft picks and money carefully to build a championship team.
“Approximate Value.” Pro-Football-Reference.com, Sports Reference, LLC.
Barnwell, Bill. “Answering Biggest Odell Beckham Jr. Questions: Will Giants Pay up?” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 14 June 2018.
“Super Bowl Winners.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures.
*All AV statistics all from Pro Football Reference; see attached excel sheet