What Should the Giants Do With Their First Round Picks?

This is not a post about specific players we might draft at #5 and #7. Instead, it is about what NFL history tells us is the fate of high draft picks. We all want to get "great" players out of the draft, players who will excel and contribute significantly to winning. How many such players are there in a given draft?

I was motivated to look into this by two things: The narrative heard in draft circles that there are few truly outstanding players in the coming 2022 draft, although there is a lot of depth, and a tweet today by Ben Solak of The Ringer reminding everyone of the top of the infamous 2013 NFL draft:

Below is a chart summarizing the past 10 NFL drafts. I've used a partly objective, partly subjective approach to define "great" players: For each draft, I rank the draftees according to Pro Football Reference's career weighted Approximate Value (wAV) metric. I go as far down on the list as is needed to encompass all the really good players, players you would have been happy to have your team draft. The cutoff point is subjective, but I try to include all players who not only pass the personal eye test, but also have multiple Pro Bowl appearances. It's inexact, because the Pro Bowl itself is not completely objective, because there are great players whose wAV isn't as high as you'd expect because of injuries (e.g., George Kittle), or because some players were late bloomers whose stature today is higher than their career wAV might suggest, and so on. So the number of "great" players per year is probably only accurate to within 2 or 3. I make one subjective adjustment to the list: QBs have inordinately high wAVs compared to other positions if they remain starters for a number of years, so I have eliminated a few QBs who have high wAVs but are not considered great QBs, or not great yet (specifically, Tannehill, Cousins, Winston, Mariota, Goff, Wentz, Trubisky, Mayfield, Jones, Hurts, Lawrence).

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Mean
Great 14 14 20 12 21 22 13 12 14 15 15.7
Great round 1 7 5 12 7 9 11 7 7 8 11 8.4
Great top 10 2 2 5 4 7 4 3 4 3 4 3.8
7 best/top 7 0 1 1 2 3 1 2 3 2 1 1.6

There have been a few years with a pretty large number of great players (2014, 2016, 2017), but in most years you get about 12-15 great players out of 254 (+ comp picks + UDFAs) chosen. That's pretty sobering. More sobering is the next line of the table, which shows that in most years fewer than 10 of those players are among the 32 drafted in round 1, i.e., about half the great ones come from 1, and about an equal number from the subsequent rounds.

Of particular interest to Giants fans are the final 2 lines of the table. The third line shows that on average, fewer than half the great players chosen in round 1, and only about a quarter of the great players from the entire draft, were taken within the first 10 draft picks.

This seems to indicate that a team with 2 top 10 draft picks might be better trading down to accumulate more picks, because your chances are only 1 in 4 of your top 10 pick being great, and for the Giants with 2 top 10 picks, a 1 in 16 chance of both top 10 picks being great. You have a little less than a 1 in 2 chance that 1 of your 2 picks will be great.

But I'm using the term "great" loosely. These are players who contribute significantly to winning, but are not necessarily Hall of Fame-caliber. With a top 10 pick, fans are looking for that transformative player, the best of the best, the guy that by himself is going to change the fortunes of a team. The chance of getting such a player is the reason many fans don't like to trade down. So the final line of the table tries to look at that. It asks, how many of the best 7 players (by wAV) to come from a given draft were drafted within the first 7 picks (since we have #5 and #7)? The answer is that only 1-2 of the 7 best players in any given draft are chosen in the top 7.

To be a bit more specific, let's look at the 2021 draft. Only 1 of the best 7 (by wAV) was taken in the top 7 picks (Ja'Marr Chase). In 2020, only Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. In 2019, only Kyler Murray, Devin White, and Nick Bosa. In 2018, only Josh Allen and Quenton Nelson.

Many highly drafted players are useful. A few become great players. Even fewer transform a team's fortunes. So, one chance (or 2, in our case) to win it all? Or more bites at the apple? Whatever you decide, know that for every Quenton Nelson out there to be had, there are more Jeff Okudahs, Clelin Ferrells, and Sam Darnolds lurking.

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