SALT LAKE CITY — With the NFL draft a little less than a month away, KSL.com reflects on the 10-year draft arcs of each local university to discover which has produced not only the highest count of draft picks, but also which has provided the most marginal value.
Methodology: how to evaluate the success or failure of a draft pick relative to draft position
One of the best metrics for measuring a player’s impact relative to his NFL counterparts is Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) rating, a measure developed by the site’s founder, Doug Drinen, in 2008.
AV can be used in myriad ways, but as a standard, its most practical utility is simplifying comparisons between players with differing positional designations. Functionally, AV is a composite of data sets — number of Associated Press first teams, number of Pro Bowl selections and number of years as a team’s primary starter at the player’s given position — that, when taken together, produce a numerical figure that represents an approximation of a player’s value independent of position.
Because of its relative simplicity, the metric has been abstracted for other purposes in recent years. One such example is Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart, the empirically-driven alternative to Jimmy Johnson’s famed-yet-flawed draft pick value chart created in the early ’90s.
Unlike the original Johnson chart, which arbitrarily assigned a value to each pick based on a subjective mathematical infrastructure, Stuart’s chart used the initial five-year AV scores of each pick from every draft through 2012 to calculate the expected outcome (or predicted value score) of every draft slot.
That expected outcomes exist for every draft slot allows us to conduct a purely empirical analysis. By simply using the projected five-year values as a baseline, one can quantify the course of a draft pick and, in turn, make a value judgment on a given player(s) or entity. Such was the application here.
In the interest of transparency, some extra notes:
- Players drafted within the previous four years were measured against the yearly AV average of their draft position multiplied by their years served in the NFL. For example, if a player taken No. 1 overall (34.6 AV) has only two years of experience, that player would be compared against the expected two-year outcome (in this case, 13.84) rather than the full five-year figure.
- On the reverse, players who were two or more years removed from their last playing time and who also had less than five years of experience were considered to have an inactive or discontinued NFL career status. For the purposes of this study, that designation was significant in that it meant that whatever AV score a player earned was treated as final and thus measured against the full five-year projection.
- Last of all, an explanation on how and why Stuart arrived at five years as the time scale by which each player is measured. In simplest terms, Stuart chose five years mainly because it resembled the amount of time that a team exercises control over a drafted player. Indeed, under the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement, four years is the standard length of a rookie contract, with exception made only for the contracts of first-round picks, whose primary difference is a structure that builds in an additional fifth-year team option. Considering that, five years made intuitive sense for a chart designed to measure draft pick value.
With all that, let’s take a look at the results.
Total selections: 29
Number of selections outperforming draft slot: 19
Average draft position: 128 (4th round)
Combined performance above/below expectation: +125.7
Average performance above/below expectation: +4.48
Number of 1st round picks: 2 (+19.1)
Number of Day 2 (rounds 2 and 3) picks: 9 (+80.46)
Number of Day 3 (rounds 4-7) picks: 17 (+26.14)
Since 2008, the school on the hill has laid claim to the state’s highest marks in both draft pick volume and value, as 16 general managers collectively invested a shade over 140 points of draft capital in 28 Utah products. For the Utes, the NFL’s investment has been significant, and crucially, they’ve lived up to their end of the bargain.
A 10-year snapshot of Utah’s draft history shows that former Utes, as a collective, have outperformed their expected value by a phenomenal 125.7 points, a watermark high enough to hold rank over all of the total AV figures amassed by neighbor schools.
What the data also establish is that while the average drafted player from Utah is outperforming his given projection, the vast majority of the program’s combined relative value came on the back of a few highly drafted prospects. To wit, the program’s Top 5 in AV over the last 10 seasons is comprised of four second-round picks (Zane Beadles, Sean Smith, Koa Misi, Paul Kruger) and one first-round selection (Star Lotulelei), who altogether serve to explain how the sausage is made at Utah.
The high-cost, high-reward effect can be observed in the school’s most recent draft class as well. Coming off a draft that mass-produced a school-record eight players in 2017, fans saw the program’s highly selected tandem, Garett Bolles (#20 overall) and Marcus Williams (#42 overall), both live up to reputation based on the strength of net-positive rookie campaigns.
Now entering their 15th year under the direction of head coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes, notably the state’s lone Power 5 resident, have established a program that acts as a vessel for players earning opportunities at the next level.
Number of selections outperforming draft slot: 8
Total selections: 13
Average draft position: 133 (5th round)
Combined performance above/below expectation: +77.36
Average performance above/below expectation: +5.95
Number of 1st round picks: 0
Number of Day 2 (rounds 2 and 3) picks: 5 (+50.52)
Number of Day 3 (rounds 4-7) picks: 8 (+26.84)
In a somewhat surprising result, Utah State settles as the second-most targeted outfit in the state, having 13 draftees since 2008.
On a draft receipt that reads the names of a litany of mid- to late-round picks, a clear departure looms: Super Bowl champion and current Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (#47 overall in 2013), whose 66 points of AV leads all in-state products during their first five seasons. A soft-spoken personality content to live in the shadow cast by his former teammates' star power, Wagner, 27, has complemented four Pro Bowl selections with three first team All-Pro selections while quietly serving as the linchpin for what was, at its peak, a historically dominant defense in Seattle. By any measure, the Los Angeles native is the most accomplished of the 54 in-state players drafted over the last decade, an appraisal further substantiated by his four-year, $43 million contract inked back in 2015.
Other program notables include Robert Turbin and Kerwynn Williams, who have enjoyed multi-year careers as complementary backs, as well as Nevin Lawson and Maurice Alexander, both fourth-round picks in 2014, who have defended their way into starting roles in Detroit and Los Angeles, respectively. Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell, picked consecutively with the 87th and 88th picks in 2016, have also found modest success during their brief professional stints.
Brigham Young University
Number of selections outperforming draft slot: 6
Total selections: 8
Average draft position: 103 (4th round)
Combined performance above/below expectation: +45.74
Average performance above/below expectation: +5.71
Number of 1st round picks: 1 (+11.7)
Number of Day 2 (rounds 2 and 3) picks: 2 (+3.62)
Number of Day 3 (rounds 4-7) picks: 5 (+30.42)
Despite being outfitted with perhaps the richest NFL history among the local universities, the current state of BYU football shows its players struggling to find audience with the league’s teams in recent years.
Shut out from the draft in three of the last seven years, the Cougars approach next month’s event having exported just eight players since 2008, down from 15 in the preceding 10 years. Just as striking is that the program has failed to submit multiple players in the same draft for seven straight seasons.
What’s also troubling is that not only has BYU struggled with getting players onto NFL fields via the draft, but those that have also had a hard time staying there. In analyzing its recent draft history, it’s clear that BYU draftees of this era were victimized by a high attrition rate, which in turn, artificially depressed their impact. Perhaps the best examples of this effect are found in the careers of Dennis Pitta and Austin Collie, a pass-catching two-piece waylaid by chronic injury. In their first five seasons, only twice did Pitta and Collie each play in all 16 games and thrice in more than nine. More recently is the case of third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi, who has played in three of a possible 32 games over two years.
However, if there’s a silver lining for the Cougars, it’s this: what they’ve lacked in quantity has largely been offset by quality. As evidenced by their state-leading percentage of selections outperforming their draft slots and highest average draft position, there has been substance to most every BYU draftee within the scope of the study, particularly the late-round selections (30 points of added value from its Day 3 picks, which leads all in-state schools).
As for the best of the bunch? That honor is reserved for sack artist Ezekiel Ansah, who’s helped breathe life into the Detroit Lions' pass rush since being picked fifth overall—highest among local players over the last 10 years—in 2013.
Number of selections outperforming draft slot: 2
Total selections: 5
Average draft position: 161 (6th round)
Combined performance above/below expectation: +1.2
Average performance above/below expectation: +0.24
Number of 1st round picks: 0
Number of Day 2 (rounds 2 and 3) picks: 0
Number of Day 3 (rounds 4-7) picks: 5 (+1.2)
After nearly a half-century ticked by without a single draft pick on its record, a revitalized Southern Utah program has heard the names of five T-Birds called since 2011.
In the offensive-oriented Big Sky, SUU has flourished on the strength of its defense, which reflects in its draft history. From 2011 to 2016, the program saw three secondary players—Brandon Burton, LeShaun Sims and Miles Killebrew—taken in the draft, two of whom remain active.
Number of selections outperforming draft slot: 0
Total selections: 3
Average draft position: 201 (7th round)
Combined performance above/below expectation: -2.9
Average performance above/below expectation: -0.96
Number of 1st round picks: 0
Number of Day 2 (rounds 2 and 3) picks: 0
Number of Day 3 (rounds 4-7) picks: 3 (-2.9)
Coming off an 11-3 season that stands as the best in program history, Weber State’s future is looking bright under head coach Jay Hill, who is fresh off being named the best coach in the state for 2017 by the Utah Sports Commission.
For the Wildcats, part of that bright future is expected to include a presence in the NFL draft, from which they have been summarily absent in recent years. In what is currently the longest active drought among Utah schools, Weber State has enjoyed only three drafted players since 2008, and none since 2010, when the Detroit Lions selected wide receiver Tim Toone with the 255th and final pick, earning him the moniker known affectionately as “Mr. Irrelevant.”
However, the streaking Wildcats may be no more if Taron Johnson and Andrew Vollert’s busy offseasons are any indication. Regarded among the best “small-school” prospects by a number of draftniks, both players have remained visible—Johnson at the Combine and Senior Bowl, Vollert at the East-West Shrine game—to the league’s talent evaluators since the conclusion of their season in December. If either or both are drafted, the moment will serve as a fitting punctuation to a banner year for the program.
Until that time comes, though, the state of the program through the lens of the draft is bleak. To sum: fewest players selected over the last 10 years, producers of the state’s lone negative impact and also the lone outfit without an active player—drafted or undrafted—in the league. As a consequence, the forgotten Wildcats’ 10-year run ranks last despite an arrow that is undoubtedly pointing up.
Dillon Anderson is studying literary journalism as a student at the University of Utah. You can follow him on Twitter @DillonDanderson.