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What are the chances of top-10 draft picks becoming NFL stars?

Not as good as you might think

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Oregon v UCLA
Giants #5 draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Here is a pre-draft scouting report by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com:

“Explosive defender who combines strength, quickness, and a muscle-car motor to drive him around the field making play after play. Has the hands and feet to be a quick-win specialist and the size to fit as a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive end who can reduce inside for pass-rush downs. He has all the athletic traits to become a high-impact player and possesses more than enough skill and talent to believe he will continue to elevate his game as a pro. ...has the potential to become the best defender from this draft class and a future all-pro.”

And from the same report:

“He’s damn good. I don’t think he gets drafted as early as you do because he’s not big enough for inside and he’s not as long as you like on the outside. You have to figure out where you will play him, but he won’t stop. He’s going to be really productive.” — Director of scouting for AFC team

Zierlein’s comparison for this prospect was Justin Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time first or second team All-Pro.

That player is edge Solomon Thomas, the No. 3 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Thomas started for two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and rode the bench after that. He went to the Raiders for a year and now is trying to make it with the Jets. 9.5 career sacks in five seasons. San Francisco drafted him to play edge even though he played all over the DL at Stanford, but he hasn’t thrived since coming to the NFL.

The 49ers never had a chance at Myles Garrett, who went No. 1 that year. But if they wanted an edge they could have had Haason Reddick (No. 11), Derek Barnett (No. 14), Jonathan Allen (No. 17), or T.J. Watt (No. 30).

The 2022 NFL Draft was another one with a run on edge prospects in the first round. The Giants had no chance at Travon Walker or Aidan Hutchinson, but they took Kayvon Thibodeaux at No. 5. Jermaine Johnson, who had been rumored to be a possible top-10 pick, and George Karlaftis, who at one time was considered top-10 caliber, were taken later in the first round.

Recent history of top 10 edge draftees

How confident can Giants fans be that Kayvon Thibodeaux will live up to his draft position? Here are the Pro Football Reference Approximate Value (wAV) scores (weighted to emphasize best years over worst years) and Pro Football Focus grades for every edge drafted in the top 10 in the past five years:

Top 10 EDGE draftees 2017-2021

 Mean wAV PFF year 1 PFF year 2 PFF year 3 PFF year 4 PFF year 5 Mean PFF
 Mean wAV PFF year 1 PFF year 2 PFF year 3 PFF year 4 PFF year 5 Mean PFF
Myles Garrett 10.2 80.0 86.9 86.5 86.0 92.0 86.3
Solomon Thomas 3.2 54.1 62.5 54.4 49.5 40.4 52.2
Bradley Chubb 5.8 67.4 59.4 70.7 45.0 60.6
Nick Bosa 8 89.8 84.9 89.4 88.0
Clelin Ferrell 3.7 62.3 76.1 45.9 61.4
Josh Allen 5 68.4 69.6 78.5 72.2
Chase Young 9 87.1 75.1 81.1

NFL teams have gone edge in the top 10 seven times in the past five years, more often than any other position except QB. Three of those seven draftees have become the type of great player teams (and fans) expect and hope for (Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa, Chase Young, although Young got off to a slow start in 2021 before being injured and missing the rest of the season). All three were top-notch right out of the gate as rookies.

Two other edge defenders - Bradley Chubb and Josh Allen, who many fans wished the Giants had taken No. 6 in 2019 rather than Daniel Jones (looks in mirror) - have become good but not great players. Allen showed signs in 2021 of finally living up to his pre-draft hype. Chubb has missed large parts of two seasons with injuries, and his PFF scores those years make clear the toll it has taken on his career.

Solomon Thomas has been an outright failure, while Clelin Ferrell has had one good season so far, has lost his starting job, and the Raiders have declined his fifth-year option.

This is a sobering thought for Giants fans. The college sack and tackle for loss rates for Thomas and Ferrell were pretty similar to those of Garrett and Bosa, although if you scour the Internet you can find pre-draft misgivings about both players, e.g., this one about Thomas. Of course you don’t have to look too far to find pre-draft criticisms of Thibodeaux, who at one time was a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick.

Seth Walder of ESPN has found an interesting predictor of NFL edge success:

At first glance, the upper diagram shows a strong positive correlation between college pressure rate and NFL pass rush win rate (PRWR, which ESPN defines as beating your man within 2.5 seconds based on NFL Next Gen Stats RFID tag tracking of player movements). The lower diagram superimposes the college pressure rates for four of the edge defenders just drafted. Based on this, it looks like there is a good chance that Thibodeaux could rank with the better edge pass rushers in the league (in 2021, the top 10 in PRWR ranged from .22 to .28).

But there is a concerning second feature of the diagram: A group of players whose PRWR has topped out in the .10-.13 range despite some of them having much higher college pressure rates. Clelin Ferrell for example is in that group despite a college pressure rate slightly higher than Thibodeaux’s.

Another player in that subgroup whose professional PRWR did not match his college pressure rate is Azeez Ojulari (several of his 2021 class counterparts, Jaelan Phillips, Odafe Oweh, and Kwity Paye are there, too). Ojulari had a very nice rookie season with 8 sacks (according to Pro Football Reference, which counts half-sacks as 0.5). But he wasn’t the dominant player he was at Georgia. One knock on Ojulari was that he was a bit undersized and so could only win with speed. Perhaps he agreed, because he seems to have done something about that over the winter:

If Ojulari can draw more attention, this could make Thibodeaux’s transition to the pros on the other side a lot easier since opponents will not be able to focus on him as easily. Utah was able to neutralize Thibodeaux, as Georgia was able to do to Aidan Hutchinson, because they ran plays to the other side, used tight ends to chip or double-team them, etc.

Recent history of top 10 OT draftees

The Giants of course had two top 10 picks, the other being offensive tackle Evan Neal. There have only been four OTs drafted in the top 10 in the past five years, quite a contrast to this year’s draft in which three tackles were taken in the top 10:

Top 10 OT draftees 2017-2021

 Mean wAV PFF year 1 PFF year 2 PFF year 3 PFF year 4 Mean PFF
 Mean wAV PFF year 1 PFF year 2 PFF year 3 PFF year 4 Mean PFF
Mike McGlinchey 5.8 74.8 70.6 79.6 69.8 73.7
Andrew Thomas 5.5 62.4 78.9 70.7
Jedrick Wills Jr. 7 62.6 66.1 64.4
Penei Sewell 7 77 77

Unlike the top edge draftees, there have been no offensive tackles taken in the past five years who have played at an elite level. (Of course there have been elite OTs drafted outside the top 10, notably Ryan Ramczyk, Tristan Wirfs, and Rashawn Slater.) Also unlike the edge players, there have been no outright disasters either, each of the four retaining his starting position and playing at an average or above-average level.

There is a sense at least that Andrew Thomas, post-injuries and beyond an OL coach who tried to completely change his technique, can continue the improvement he showed last year and ascend to elite status in his third year. Likewise, Sewell, a left tackle in college who played at right tackle in training camp, then moved to LT for half the season when the starter was hurt, then moved back to RT when he returned, may blossom in 2022. (PFF ranks Jordan Mailata, Sewell, and Thomas as Nos. 18, 19, 20, in the “young tackles trending in the right direction” tier, among OTs going into the 2022 season.

Giants fans will no doubt remember 2016 No. 9 draft choice Ereck Flowers as one top 10 OT who did not succeed (though he has resuscitated his career at guard). In general, though, going farther back in time, most OTs drafted in the top 10 have been among the best in the league (e.g., Brandon Scherff, Ronnie Stanley, Jack Conklin). So there is good precedent for the idea that Evan Neal, a versatile offensive tackle who played several positions on the line in college, who competed against the best pass rushers in the country in three years, and who gave up a total of five sacks in those three years, will be a success in the NFL.

Besides, how many 337 pound people can do this?

Other positions

QB is far and away the most commonly drafted position in the top 10, with 14 in the past five years. Daniel Jones (No. 6 in 2019) is arguably the seventh-best of these, behind Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert. At least that is what both weighted AV and PFF grades say. The jury is still out on some of the others, although by this point it is difficult to imagine Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen getting noticeably better.

After QB and EDGE, WR is the most commonly drafted position in the top 10, with six having been taken in the past five years. There have been no outright failures - John Ross has been the least successful. He played well for the Giants in 2021, but as in other years, he missed much of the season due to injury. Ja’Marr Chase has been the biggest success by far, but Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith had very good rookie years.

Cornerback has been the biggest top 10 risk of any position. Five have been taken the past five years, two have been flat-out poor (Jeff Okudah, C.J. Henderson), two have been excellent (Denzel Ward and Patrick Surtain II), and one looked good but was injured early in the season and never returned (Jaycee Horn). Only one safety has been taken in the top 10, Jamal Adams. He played at an all-Pro level his first few years but has tailed off badly since being traded to Seattle.

Four LBs have been taken in the top 10 since 2017: Roquan Smith, Devin White, Devin Bush Jr., and Isaiah Simmons. Whether they are successes or failures depends on whom you ask. Pro Football Reference sees Smith and White as very good players, and Smith’s fifth-year option was picked up by the Chicago Bears so they apparently agree about him. PFF sees Smith as mediocre and White as replacement-level. White is perhaps the biggest contrast between PFF and the public perception of any NFL player, although even Jon Ledyard of Pewter Report says that White played poorly in 2021. Bush had his fifth-year option declined by the Pittsburgh Steelers, consistent with how both PFR and PFF see his play. Simmons is one of the greatest cautionary tales: A “Swiss army knife” who supposedly could do everything has not really done anything very well yet in the NFL. Beware LBs in the top 10.

Three IDLs have been taken in the top 10 the past 5 years: Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver, Derrick Brown. All are nice players. None of them really move the needle for their teams. Likewise, three RBs have been drafted top 10 during that time: Leonard Fournette, Saquon Barkley, and Christian McCaffrey. All are good players. Barkley and McCaffrey are great players when healthy. None of them have made their teams winners.

Finally, only one guard has been drafted in the top 10 since 2017. He whom the Giants should have drafted shall remain nameless.