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Managing expectations: What to expect from first round draft picks

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NFL: Super Bowl LII Experience Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The initial spending spree of free agency is in the rear view mirror, and offseason workout programs are set to begin soon, which means the NFL draft is just around the corner. The Seattle Seahawks hold pick 18 in the first round, and then no more picks until the fourth round, so many observers expect the team to trade back and add some day two picks in the mix. Others, meanwhile, would prefer the team stand pat at 18 and use the pick on an impact playmaker.

The Seahawks have used just a single first round selection in the last five drafts, and needing to replenish their draft capital for rounds two and three, I would expect they are unlikely to do so again this year. There are several reasons why first round draft picks carry significant amount of risks, including the amounts of guarantees that they receive compared to players drafted in other rounds, however, do they offer a return that covers that extra financial commitment?

Here is a table that looks at just first round picks relative to second round picks, covering decades of data for drafts

It’s clear from that table that while the bust rate is very similar for the first and second rounds (54.2% versus 50.2%), the chances of finding an impact playmaker are far greater in the first round. The probabilities a first round pick will end their career with an AV above 50, make a Pro Bowl or an All Pro team at some point in their careers are all slightly more than double than for players taken in the second round.

So, while impact playmakers are more likely to be found in the first round, how much does the risk:reward profile change when the rookie wage scale is accounted for? We’ll dig into that question a little bit more as the draft gets closer, but for today I’ll simply put up this table which shows the size of the four year contract that is signed by players taken at three different spots in each of the first and second rounds.

So, basically, a team can fit four picks from the top of the second round in the same cap space it can fit one pick from the top of the first. So, even though a player drafted at the top of the first may be twice as likely to be an impact player, they are almost identically likely to be a bust. In addition, at four times the cost, the added financial risk does not outweigh the reward, at least looking at it from this admittedly very rudimentary angle.

In any case, I’ll dig more into the expected returns and the upside profiles for draft picks in various rounds of the draft in the coming weeks as the draft approaches and we wait for the inevitable news that the Seahawks are trading back from 1.18.