It’s no coincidence that more than half of the 2015 AP All-Pro team was selected in the first round of the NFL draft. That’s where teams find talent, skill and athleticism rarely available later in the draft. Under the new CBA, these first-rounders no longer come at an exorbitant price, so hitting on a top pick also provides more value than a similarly productive free agent.
The problem? Drafting in the first round is an inexact science with about as many first-round successes as busts.
So which teams have hit more than they’ve missed? To answer that question, we utilized Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric to break down every first-round pick over the past 10 seasons.
To read the full explanation of our methodology, go to the end of the article, but the ranking is essentially based on a formula that determines which teams have done the best job at drafting players who exceeded the expectations of their draft slot during their first four seasons in the league.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-11.5
Biggest hit: Cam Newton (No. 1, 2011 draft)
Biggest miss: Jeff Otah (No. 19, 2008 draft)
Carolina is in a league of its own when it comes to first-round success over the last 10 seasons. Three of the top 10 first-round picks in terms of surplus AV in the past decade — Newton, Luke Kuechly and Jon Beason — were selected by the Panthers in a six-year span. Newton’s performance in particular is impressive given the massive expectations heaped upon the No. 1 overall pick.
Based on this methodology, Watt has been the most valuable first-round pick in the last 25 seasons. He produced 42 AV above expectations in his first four seasons, and no player in NFL history has more AV through five seasons than Watt. Although Clowney is listed as the biggest miss, it’s too early to call him a bust after 17 games played in two seasons.
Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome has drafted 11 Pro Bowlers in the first round since 1996, including C.J. Mosley, Ben Grubbs and Haloti Ngata in the last 10 seasons. Ultimately, Flacco’s ability to lead Baltimore to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as a starter made him the Ravens’ best value pick.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-6.4
Biggest hit:Nate Solder (No. 17, 2011 draft)
Biggest miss: Dominique Easley (No. 29, 2014 draft)
The Patriots do not have a first-round pick this season, which might be good news for the rest of the league. The only Patriots first-rounder in the last decade who did not meet or exceed draft slot expectations was Easley, whom the team cut this offseason. Solder, Chandler Jones, Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo are all recent first-round picks who contributed to New England’s consistent success in the last 10 seasons.
The Vikings had eight of their own first-round picks start in Week 1 last season, the most of any team in the NFL. Peterson has been their most valuable pick in the last 10 seasons, but we might look back a decade from now praising GM Rick Spielman’s decision to trade back into the first round and select Teddy Bridgewater in 2014.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-4.7
Biggest hit: Santonio Holmes (No. 25, 2006 draft)
Biggest miss:Jarvis Jones (No. 17, 2013 draft)
The Steelers haven’t hit any J.J. Watt-level home runs in the last 10 seasons, but they also have rarely missed on a first-rounder. Pittsburgh is one of two teams during that time to not select a single player who has failed to meet expectations by more than 5 AV. Their “biggest miss” was a solid contributor last season.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-3.5
Biggest hit: Matt Ryan (No. 3, 2008 draft)
Biggest miss: Peria Jerry (No. 24, 2009 draft)
The Falcons gave up a lot to draft Julio Jones No. 6 overall in the 2011 draft, but Jones has exceeded the already-lofty expectations of a top pick. Recent drafts have also been effective with Atlanta’s last three first-round picks — Vic Beasley Jr. (2015),Jake Matthews (2014),Desmond Trufant (2013) — each starting at least 15 games in their rookie seasons.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-3.4
Biggest hit: Joseph Addai (No. 30, 2006 draft)
Biggest miss:Jerry Hughes (No. 31, 2010 draft)
Sure, Andrew Luck was a no-brainer No. 1 overall pick, and he has produced at a level above what would be expected of the top selection. But by this measure, Addai added even more value than Luck in his first four seasons, given where he was selected (30th overall) and his production (4,756 yards from scrimmage). One transaction not factored into these rankings was the Colts’ decision to trade their 2014 first-rounder for Trent Richardson — a failed decision by all accounts.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-3.0
Biggest hit:Darrelle Revis (No. 14, 2007 draft)
Biggest miss: Vernon Gholston (No. 6, 2008 draft)
The Jets have gone through a number of general managers, but looking at their combined body of work, there were more hits than misses. Revis, Muhammad Wilkerson, Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Sheldon Richardson were all Pro Bowlers who exceeded draft slot expectations. Despite finding value in the trenches, the Jets have not drafted many skill-position players in the first round, which remains one of their greatest needs.
10. Dallas Cowboys
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-2.8
Biggest hit: Tyron Smith (No. 9, 2011 draft)
Biggest miss: Bobby Carpenter (No. 18, 2006 draft)
In the last 10 seasons, Dallas’ five best picks have come on the offensive side of the ball, including three productive picks on the offensive line (Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin). Carpenter and Morris Claiborne lead the list of disappointing defensive first-round picks, but with the No. 4 overall pick, the Cowboys should have a chance to add an impact defender (if they choose) in this draft.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-2.7
Biggest hit: Ryan Kerrigan (No. 16, 2011 draft)
Biggest miss: LaRon Landry (No. 6, 2007 draft)
At first glance, the Redskins might appear too high, but this ranking is on a per-pick basis, so losing two additional first round picks in the Robert Griffin III trade is not a factor. Instead, the ranking accounts for the fact that four of Washington’s six first-round picks in the last decade made at least one Pro Bowl within their first four seasons in the league.
12. Tennessee Titans
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-2.3
Biggest hit: Chris Johnson (No. 24, 2008 draft)
Biggest miss: Jake Locker (No. 8, 2011 draft)
After the selections of Vince Young in 2006 (third overall) and Jake Locker in 2011 (eighth overall),the Titans’ first-round draft success will ultimately be judged by Marcus Mariota‘s development. The main reason Tennessee ranks 12th on this list, however, is Chris Johnson’s record-breaking first four seasons, which moved the Titans up 12 spots in these rankings.
13. Detroit Lions
By limiting the list to the last 10 seasons, many of Detroit’s previous draft mistakes (Mike Williams and Charles Rogers) are eliminated, and their recent draft successes (Suh, Calvin Johnson and Ezekiel Ansah) are retained. Despite an improvement in the first round, Detroit has a long way to go in the later rounds; no team has received less value from its late-round picks in the last decade than the Lions.
Despite drafting few superstars, the Saints have found consistent starters late in the first round. New Orleans’ top picks have come at the skill positions (Reggie Bush, Brandin Cooks and Robert Meachem),whereas their three worst picks came on the defensive side of the ball. The results on the field mimic that draft trend; the Saints had the second-most efficient offense and least efficient defense in the NFL last season.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-1.2
Biggest hit: Patrick Willis (No. 11, 2007 draft)
Biggest miss: A.J. Jenkins (No. 30, 2012 draft)
Unlike the Saints, whose first-round picks have performed about as expected, the 49ers’ first-rounders have been all over the place. Unfortunately for Niners fans, San Francisco’s most recent drafts have been trending downward, with the fourth-worst AV per pick in the last five seasons after ranking eighth from 2006 to ’10.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-1.1
Biggest hit: Josh Freeman (No. 17, 2009 draft)
Biggest miss:Adrian Clayborn (No. 20, 2011 draft)
With his first two first-round picks as Bucs GM, Jason Licht selected Mike Evans in 2014 and Jameis Winston in 2015. That’s not a bad start to his tenure. Now, Licht and newly-hired coach Dirk Koetter must build on their success in 2015 and find first-round value on the defensive side of the ball.
17. Denver Broncos
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-0.8
Biggest hit: Von Miller (No. 2, 2011 draft)
Biggest miss: Jarvis Moss (No. 17, 2007 draft)
First-round picks Miller, Demaryius Thomas and Sylvester Williams were factors in Denver’s recent Super Bowl-winning season, but the majority of the roster was filled with late-round picks and free agents. Only three of the Broncos’ top 25 players in AV were the team’s own first-round draft picks after players such as Tim Tebow and Jarvis Moss failed to make it out of their rookie contracts with the team.
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-0.6
Biggest hit:Dontari Poe (No. 11, 2012 draft)
Biggest miss: Jonathan Baldwin (No. 26, 2011 draft)
The Chiefs have a number of big-name first-round picks on their roster, including 2015 defensive rookie of the year Marcus Peters. For every Peters, Poe and Eric Berry on their draft ledger, though, there is another player who failed to meet draft expectations. Baldwin was the biggest of the first-round misses — he lasted two seasons and caught two touchdowns for the team after being drafted 26th overall in 2011.
19. New York Giants
Surplus AV per pick: Plus-0.6
Biggest hit: Hakeem Nicks (No. 29, 2009 draft)
Biggest miss: David Wilson (No. 32. 2012 draft)
Wide receiver and defensive back stand out when evaluating the Giants’ draft successes and failures. New York’s top two picks, in terms of surplus AV, are Nicks and Odell Beckham Jr., who each gained at least 1,800 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in their first two seasons in the league. Meanwhile, DBs Aaron Ross, Kenny Phillips and Prince Amukamara all failed to meet the expectations of a first-round pick either because of injuries or overall level of play.
20. Los Angeles Rams
Surplus AV per pick: 0
Biggest hit: Aaron Donald (No. 13, 2014 draft)
Biggest miss: Jason Smith (No. 2, 2009 draft)
The good news for Rams fans is that their five most valuable first-round picks in the last decade have come since 2011. All of those players, including 2014 defensive rookie of the year Aaron Donald and 2015 offensive rookie of the year Todd Gurley, are still on the roster and many are still under their reasonably priced rookie contracts.
21. Seattle Seahawks
Surplus AV per pick: Minus-0.1
Biggest hit:Earl Thomas (No. 14, 2010 draft)
Biggest miss: Aaron Curry (No. 4, 2009 draft)
When looking at all rounds, the Seahawks have been the best-drafting team in the last decade. Yet most of their draft success have come in the later rounds, where they grabbed Russell Wilson (third round),Richard Sherman (fifth round) and Kam Chancellor (fifth round). In the first round, Thomas is the only player in the last decade who significantly outperformed expectations.
22. Miami Dolphins
Six of Miami’s 10 first-round picks in the last decade failed to meet draft expectations, but their most questionable selection was Jordan. Despite a solid defensive line, Miami moved up nine spots from 12th to third to pick Jordan, who has since been suspended twice for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Other than Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona’s top contributors last season were either selected on the second day of the NFL draft or signed as free agents. Meanwhile, 2015 first-rounder D.J. Humphries has not played an NFL snap, and Cooper, Arizona’s top pick in 2013, was benched in the second half of last season before being traded to the Patriots this offseason.
Surplus AV per pick: Minus-1.6
Biggest hit:Ryan Mathews (No. 12, 2010 draft)
Biggest miss: Larry English (No. 16, 2009 draft)
After making the playoffs in every season from 2006 to ’09, the Chargers have missed the dance in five of the last six years. Their inefficiency at the top of the draft is one reason for their recent struggles, but at least players such as Melvin Ingram, Jason Verrett and D.J. Fluker played significant snaps and showed signs of development in 2015.
The Bengals have found value in the second round, but the results have been mixed with their top picks. Green has exceeded the expectations of the No. 4 overall pick, yet other top picks have hardly played. In addition to the 24th selection in the 2016 NFL draft, Cincinnati gets a “bonus” pick, as their top selection from last season, Cedric Ogbuehi, returns after being injured most of 2015.
26. Chicago Bears
The Bears had three homegrown first-round draft picks on their opening day roster, tied for the fewest of any team in the league. Three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long has been one of Chicago’s most valuable contributors — a key reason why the Bears recently picked up his fifth-year option — but beyond Long few players made a significant impact with the team.
Surplus AV per pick: Minus-2.4
Biggest hit:Clay Matthews (No. 26, 2009 draft)
Biggest miss: Justin Harrell (No. 16, 2007 draft)
Green Bay ranking 27th on any draft list doesn’t seem right. The Packers and GM Ted Thompson have consistently built through the draft, and they are among the top drafting teams based on overall surplus AV. While Green Bay has been able to find late-round value better than any other team in the league, their first-round picks in the last decade (particularly the last five seasons) are full of missed opportunities.
Similar to Green Bay, Philadelphia has found late-round success but has whiffed on a number of recent first-round selections. For example, Marcus Smith, the No. 26 overall pick in the 2014 draft, has recorded seven tackles in two years in the league. After trading up for the No. 2 overall pick, the Eagles need to capitalize on their first-round pick in 2016 because they will be without a Day 1 selection next year.
29. Cleveland Browns
Surplus AV per pick: Minus-3.3
Biggest hit:Joe Thomas (No. 3, 2007 draft)
Biggest miss: Brady Quinn (No. 22, 2007 draft)
Cleveland has had an NFL-high 13 first-round picks in the last decade, but more than two-thirds of them failed to meet their draft slot expectations. Three of those players were quarterbacks selected with the No. 22 overall pick (Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn) who never made it out of their rookie contracts with the team.
30. Buffalo Bills
Surplus AV per pick: Minus-4.2
Biggest hit:Marcell Dareus (No. 3, 2011 draft)
Biggest miss: Aaron Maybin (No. 11, 2009 draft)
The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999, the longest drought in the NFL, and their first-round misses certainly have played a part in that streak. Aaron Maybin was the most egregious of the misses. He recorded only 24 tackles and no sacks in two seasons for the Bills before being released after the 2010 season.
31. Oakland Raiders
Surplus AV per pick: Minus-5.7
Biggest hit: Khalil Mack (No. 5, 2014 draft)
Biggest miss: JaMarcus Russell (No. 1, 2007 draft)
If this list were based on the most recent drafts, Oakland would be nowhere near the bottom. Mack and Amari Cooper appear to be franchise-caliber players who will exceed the lofty expectations placed on top-5 picks. Nonetheless, the Raiders’ draft failures from the mid-2000’s weigh them down when evaluating draft success in the last decade.
It’s no coincidence that the Jaguars are picking in the top five for a record fifth straight season. Their history of first-round draft picks has been downright ugly with Blackmon (2012),Blaine Gabbert (2011) and Derrick Harvey (2008) failing to last more than three years with the team. The good news for Jags fans is that Bortles is performing above expectations, and they’ll have another top-five pick making his debut after Dante Fowler Jr. missed all of last season because of an injury.
How we came up with the numbers
What is Approximate Value (AV)? Similar to baseball’s WAR statistic, AV assigns a single, all-encompassing number to each player’s season based on a formula outlined here. AV allows us to compare players across positions and seasons better than base-level statistics, such as snaps and starts.
To determine the best-drafting late-round teams, we compared a player’s AV over his first four seasons (approximate length of a rookie contract) to the expected AV of a player selected in his draft slot to determine which players over-performed and underperformed most compared to expectations.
By adding up the AV differences, or surplus AV, for all players drafted in the first round from 2006 to 2015, we can determine the teams that have been best and worst drafting teams in the past decade.
It’s important to note that the above list is limited to first-round selections and measured on a per-pick basis. Steps were taken to account for the incomplete dataset for the most recent picks. If the biggest hits or misses are surprising, take a look at where the player was drafted (greater expectations for higher picks) and how he performed in his first four seasons.