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The drafting habits of good teams

You gotta be in it to win it

NFL Combine
Giants draftee Dane Belton
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

One of the less popular moves that New York Giants GM Joe Schoen made during the 2022 NFL draft was trading down twice in Round 2. The first trade exchanged pick No. 36 for No. 38 plus an extra Round 5 pick (No. 146, which became ILB Micah McFadden). The second exchanged No. 38 for No. 43 plus an extra Round 4 pick (No. 114, which became S Dane Belton).

What bothered many fans was the players taken from No. 36 to No. 42, which included two cornerbacks (Kyler Gordon and Andrew Booth) and a safety (Jalen Pitre). The Giants drafted Cordale Flott and Dane Belton to fill both positions of need later, but fans felt that better choices were lost.

A similar scenario unfolded in 2021, when then-GM Dave Gettleman traded down from No. 11 to No. 20 get an extra Round 5 pick plus extra 2022 Round 1 (No. 7) and 4 (No. 112) picks. The Giants passed on OT Rashawn Slater and LB Micah Parsons, and both had outstanding rookie seasons. (Oddly, few people lamented the Giants not using the No. 11 pick to take QB Justin Fields.) The Giants used the extra Round 5 pick to move up past the Eagles to draft Aaron Robinson, who missed part of the season with injury and didn’t play enough to make a strong impression. The No. 20 pick was used on Kadarius Toney, who had several spectacular games but also lost considerable time to injury.

In this year’s draft names were finally placed on those two extra 2022 picks: No. 7 turned into OT Evan Neal and No. 112 became TE Daniel Bellinger. So for fans who didn’t like the 2021 trade-down, here is the comparison to make:

  • Rashawn Slater, or Kadarius Toney + Evan Neal + Daniel Bellinger + ability to get Aaron Robinson.

Since the Giants had both the No. 5 and 7 picks, and no offensive tackles were taken in the first four picks, Joe Schoen could have taken Neal (or Ikem Ekwonu) with No. 5 and gotten Kayvon Thibodeaux at No. 7 if Carolina took the other OT (“if” being the reason he didn’t do it this way). Looked at that way, critics of the trade-down can make this comparison:

  • Micah Parsons, or Kadarius Toney + Kayvon Thibodeaux + Daniel Bellinger + ability to get Aaron Robinson.

The point is that what looked bad last year may turn out pretty good now. Slater vs. Neal, or Parsons vs. Thibodeaux, could be seen as toss-ups, so if any of Toney, Bellinger, and Robinson become good players, the Giants will have benefited from the extra draftees.

And that is important, because the Giants’ roster that Schoen inherited was pretty bereft of talent. Part of that is a question of drafting the right vs. wrong players. The Giants have certainly had their share of that - think Ereck Flowers, Eli Apple, Deandre Baker. But there is an uncertainty inherent in the draft, and even the best teams make bad draft decisions. At best half the prospects taken in Round 1 become very good NFL players, and for every “gem” that one team finds in Round 5, there are often many others taken earlier by various teams that fail.

The Giants’ draft history vs. that of more successful teams

One way to see which teams are successful in the draft is to look at how many of their current players are home-grown. Not every player on a roster is good, but in general the more of your own draftees you keep over time, the better you’ve done. Let’s compare the Giants to the two most recent Super Bowl winners, plus a subset of other teams that have a reputation for organizational stability and drafting well and are usually playoff contenders. The table below shows the number of “home-grown” (drafted by and remaining on that team) players on each team at the end of the 2021 season, how many came from the previous four drafts, and how many came from earlier drafts (all data from Pro Football Reference):

Home grown players

 Home-grown players 2018-2021 2017 and before
 Home-grown players 2018-2021 2017 and before
Giants 23 21 2
Buccaneers 23 18 5
Steelers 27 23 4
Colts 28 25 3
Packers 29 21 8
Rams 30 26 4
Eagles 30 24 6
Ravens 31 21 10

The Giants have fewer of their own draftees still on the team than any of the others except Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are of course a special case - their formula for success was to be bad to mediocre most of the past decade, then get Tom Brady to sign with them and bring Rob Gronkowski and (for a while) Antonio Brown with him.

All the other teams have been more successful in retaining their own players. Dividing the total into 2018-2021 and pre-2018 roughly isolates the number of players given second contracts, which is a good indicator of success (e.g., Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Donald, Cam Heyward, Fletcher Cox, Mike Evans, Ronnie Stanley). The Giants have only two pre-2018 draftees, and that is a technicality: 2017 pick Davis Webb was released but brought back this year by Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen. The other player is Sterling Shepard. All other teams - even the Bucs, who were woeful most of the past decade - found and kept more players on second contracts than the Giants did. Some teams kept many more, especially the Packers and Ravens.

Dividing the draftees this way also separates the Jerry Reese and Dave Gettleman regimes. The failure of Reese’s later years as GM is clear in this table. Gettleman’s record is more middle of the pack, but it is also more recent and only in the coming years will we see how many if any of his draftees are offered second contracts by Schoen.

The more (draft picks) the merrier

Some of this probably indicates that good teams are better at identifying good players. But there is another factor at work. The chart below shows how many players have been drafted by each team over the past decade, along with how many are still in the league and the percentage that are no longer in the NFL.

Draft performance over the past decade

 Draftees Still in NFL % not in NFL
 Draftees Still in NFL % not in NFL
Giants 71 43 39.4
Buccaneers 69 46 33.3
Steelers 81 46 43.2
Colts 83 51 38.6
Packers 90 54 40.0
Rams 88 55 37.5
Eagles 75 50 33.3
Ravens 92 57 38.0

Other than Tampa Bay, which took a unique road to success that other teams will find difficult to duplicate, every other team has had more draft picks over the past decade than the Giants, who have averaged just more than seven per year. The Ravens and Packers could almost field an entire offense and defense with draft picks they have had beyond what the Giants have had.

The Rams - you know, the team that supposedly dismisses the draft and trades their picks for star players - had 17 more picks than the Giants the past decade. The reason is that the Rams don’t actually ignore the draft - they do trade their high picks, but they accumulate lots of middle- and late-round picks. And still they have retained more of their draftees than the Giants, as the previous chart shows. It seems to have worked out for them.

All of these teams have more of their draftees still playing in the NFL, whether with them or another team, than the Giants. But that’s mainly because they have more draftees to begin with. The percentages of draftees no longer in the NFL doesn’t vary dramatically from one team to another. Tampa Bay and Philadelphia have been the most successful in drafting players that hang around in the league (only 33.3 percent no longer with a team). But the Giants are middle of the pack in this metric (evidence that drafting high often doesn’t help all that much - good teams draft low because they are good at it). They may or may not be noticeably worse in drafting than other teams, but one thing is certain: They just haven’t been getting as many “bites at the apple,” so they have had fewer chances to find good players.

There are three ways to get extra draft picks:

  • By trading players for picks, as Schoen is trying to do (unsuccessfully so far) with James Bradberry.
  • By trading down within a given draft to accumulate extra picks (as Schoen did twice this year and Gettleman did twice the year before).
  • By being awarded compensatory picks for free agents lost and for developing minority coaches and GMs (the Giants are projected to get a 2023 Round 5 comp pick for Evan Engram and a Round 7 pick for Keion Crossen, according to Over the Cap).

The Ravens are the NFL champions of comp picks, having been awarded 53 since 1995 (the Packers are second at 43). This is why these teams have had so many more draft picks than the Giants (who have had 26). Baltimore loves to let free agents walk and sign expensive contracts elsewhere while they draft their replacements on the cheap.

In the past decade, the Giants have had six draft picks, less than the nominal seven picks, five times. During that same time the Ravens have had more than seven picks nine times. Even the Rams have had extra picks eight times in 10 years, despite seemingly always trading their Rund 1 pick. These teams realize that it is hard to be smarter than all the other teams when it’s your turn to pick, so you might as well have more chances to succeed.

In 2023, the Giants are currently in line to have nine draft picks because of those two anticipated comp picks: Rounds 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (x2), and 7 (x3). Why no sixth-round pick and a third seventh-rounder? First, Gettleman gave the Giants’ Round 6 pick to Houston in return for Crossen, who did little for the Giants except (hopefully) bring back a Round 7 comp pick when he left in free agency. Second, Gettleman traded the Giants’ 2022 Round 4 pick to Baltimore (which the Ravens used to select OT Daniel Faalele) for Ben Bredeson, a 2022 Round 5 pick (which became Marcus McKethan), and a 2023 Round 7 pick.

So Faalele, or Bredeson + McKethan + 2023 Round 7? Time will tell. Faalele might become a star, or he might not have the mobility to play OT in the NFL. Bredeson and McKethan may see significant playing time at LG this year, or maybe neither one will even make the 53. It’s a lottery.

Will Wan’Dale Robinson + Dane Belton + Micah McFadden be better for the Giants than one of Kyler Gordon, Andrew Booth, or Jalen Pitre? It’s too soon to know. Maybe, maybe not. But if you try (to trade down and let free agents walk) sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need. That’s the song the Ravens sing, and it may be Joe Schoen’s tune, too.