First of a four-part NFL draft data series.
There is no sure thing in the NFL draft. No magic potion to unlock this riddle. Each spring, 32 teams beg to differ. They dedicate untold resources, devote countless hours, spend sleepless nights in pursuit of the draft’s hidden treasures.
Then the guesswork commences. First-round picks become busts. A sixth-round pick becomes perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time. March may have more madness, but there are plenty of upsets to be found in late April.
Despite the uncertainty, some bets are better than others. After the draft’s opening round, there is an immense drop in talent. The chance of drafting a Pro Bowl player in the first round has been about 35 percent since 2005. In the second, that number dips below 15 percent.
Related: Complete 2016 Packers draft coverage
The first round is expected to have more talent. In a competitive market, the best players generally will be taken first. The surprise is in how Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson has maximized his second-round picks, compared to his first-round selections.
Thompson, the NFL’s most prolific GM in the draft, has made his mark unearthing second-round value. Since Thompson was hired in 2005, the Packers lead the NFL in games played by second-round draft picks, according to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin study conducted this month. Their five Pro Bowlers drafted in the second round are more than any other team.
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's study broke the draft’s seven rounds into six categories: games played, games started, number of two-year starters, number of four-year players, Pro Bowl players and All-Pros (as voted by the Associated Press). Together, the six divisions gauge a team’s draft production, retention of players and quality of talent — essential elements for any successful draft class.
Thompson’s second-round dominance contrasts sharply with his first-round results, which are about average compared to the league. It also raises an intriguing question with the 2016 draft just over two weeks away. If these past 11 years are any indication, the Packers are the rare team that might increase the likelihood of a successful pick by trading out of its 27th overall slot and into the second round.
Stockpiling raw production
Consider what makes a successful draft class. Talent, yes. Accomplishments, even better. There’s also something more basic, fundamental to the game.
On the clock, general managers search for players they hope eventually will play. Ideally, those players fill starting roles at some point in their careers. That doesn’t mean every draft pick is destined to be a starter.
Last summer, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin interviewed Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert as part of an extensive story on managing the NFL draft. Colbert said he breaks the draft into three segments. At most positions, starting players are expected to be found in the first three rounds. The fourth and fifth rounds mostly produce backup players, while the final two rounds primarily consist of special teamers and raw, developmental prospects.
There are exceptions to the norm. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was drafted 199th overall in 2000. More regularly, starting offensive linemen are found after the third round. They are outliers. Round-by-round data confirms the difficulty of finding starting-caliber players increases with each passing round.
The transition from first to second round is a mild decline, but significant. Of the 86,300 games played from players drafted since 2005, almost a quarter (23.9 percent) came from first-round picks. The slice is larger among the 47,959 games started (34.5 percent).
On average, an NFL team produced 517 starts and 646 games from first-round players since 2005.
The Packers’ first-round production hasn’t varied far from average. Under Thompson, first-round players have made 558 starts (27.5 percent of their total) and appeared in 695 games (19.3 percent).
The difference is how much more production the Packers have gotten from Round 2 compared to their 31 league competitors.
Since 2005, NFL teams have averaged 300 starts and 489 games played from second-round draft selections. With 496 starts (24.4 percent of their total), the Packers have developed considerably more second-round players into key roles. They lead the NFL with 752 games played (20.9 percent).
Thompson’s draft success hasn’t been confined to the second round.
His teams rank second in the league with 340 games started and third with 587 games played by fourth-round picks. Thompson’s propensity to acquire compensatory picks, and his ability to find starting offensive linemen early on the draft’s third day, have boosted those numbers. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton and right guard T.J. Lang comprise 60 percent of the Packers' starting offensive line. All three were taken in the fourth round.
But the second round is where Thompson contrasts most against the NFL’s norm. The Packers' success in that round extends beyond raw productivity.
Draft … and develop
Once rookies arrive in Green Bay, the Packers show uncommon patience with their development. That patience becomes clear when compared to the Patriots, another perennial NFL contender that hordes draft picks.
The Patriots have drafted 100 players since 2005, four fewer than the Packers. While the Packers rank second in the NFL with 35 drafted players retained four full seasons, the Patriots rank 23rd with 25. The Packers lead the NFL with 30 two-year starters drafted since 2005. The Patriots are tied for 29th with 18.
Patriots coach/GM Bill Belichick is known for having a quick trigger when cutting players, even those he drafts. For Thompson, draft picks are a special currency. They have an assigned value. Often, the investment can be a tiebreaker when deciding final roster spots.
Rookie contracts are constructed for four seasons under the collective bargaining agreement, setting draft classes on a four-year track. Before the fourth season ends — and often much sooner — teams know what kind of player they’ve drafted. Thompson’s teams have excelled particularly with retention of players drafted in the second round.
That doesn’t mean the Packers have avoided second-round busts over the years. Quarterback Brian Brohm, drafted 56th overall in 2008, was a poor choice. Jerel Worthy, drafted 51st overall in 2012, never became the interior pass rusher the Packers expected.
But Thompson has retained second-round players at an unprecedented rate. Since 2005, his teams have developed eight second-round picks into two-year starters, tied with the Cleveland Browns for most in the NFL. In our study, players qualify as a “starter” if they made nine starts in a 16-game season, or eight starts if they played only 15 games.
The Packers have made 15 second-round picks since 2005, four more than the NFL average. A league-high nine of those players have stayed with the franchise four full seasons.
The Packers’ ability to retain second-round players far exceeds the NFL model. Of the league’s 877 draft picks who have stayed with their original teams four full seasons, 217 (20 percent) were taken in the second round. That percentage is slightly higher among the 708 two-year starters league-wide (22.4 percent).
Under Thompson, the Packers’ have inverse results with the retention of first- and second-round draft picks. They are one of three teams to have more four-year players and two-year starters in the second round than the first, joining the Browns and Philadelphia Eagles.
Neither the Browns nor the Eagles have matched the talent the Packers have pulled from the second round.
Bridging the talent gap
Nobody questions the best — and most important — player Thompson has drafted in the past 11 years. It was his first pick as Packers general manager, when he accepted the gift of quarterback Aaron Rodgers falling to the draft’s 24th slot.
Over the years, Thompson has found plenty of first-round talent. His two All-Pro players from Round 1, Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, are on par with the NFL’s average of two opening-round All-Pro players per team since 2005. Thompson has drafted four Pro Bowlers from the first round, on par with the NFL average of 3.78.
Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of Thompson’s round-by-round draft history is his ability to duplicate his team’s talent haul in the second round.
From safety Nick Collins to receiver Jordy Nelson, no general manager has drafted as much talent from the second round. The Packers are the only team in the league to reap five Pro Bowlers from the second round since 2005 (Collins, receivers Greg Jennings, Nelson and Randall Cobb and running back Eddie Lacy).
Rodgers is the heartbeat of the Packers' organization. Around him, Nelson, Cobb and Lacy comprise the core of what is expected to be a vaunted Packers offense.
Nelson is the best example of how Thompson used the second round to build an annual Super Bowl contender. Before missing last season with a torn ACL, Nelson had developed into one of the league’s elite receivers.
There are other exceptions, but elite receivers almost always come from the first round — if not top 10. In 2008, Thompson traded out of the first round and into the early second, selecting Nelson 35th overall.
It remains one of Thompson’s best draft decisions. A sign that while his competitors stumble after Round 1, Thompson is just hitting his comfort zone.