FanPost

Bill Belichick's Draft Approach Unique and Misunderstood

Dilip Vishwanat

Bill Belichick has taken a lot of heat over the team he has built around Tom Brady. There is a large narrative that Belichick is an excellent coach but not as good a General Manager. As I wrote last week, the Patriots could be facing a situation very similar to one the Broncos were in with former head coach-slash-GM Mike Shanahan where too much power was held by one person and they were spread far too thin with their responsibilities. In the comments, I asserted that Belichick's drafts have been a "crap-shoot" lately and was challenged by Pats Pulpit contributor freemanator to provide examples of a team or person that has drafted better.

Who has drafted better?

Let me know the team, the time frame you’re making your judgement over and the average position of their earned first round pick.

BB is far from flawless, and some of his picks really stick out, but on the whole his drafting record compares to most, and I can’t really think of any team that stands out from the pack.

by freemanator on Oct 3, 2014 | 2:14 PM up reply rec (1) flag

Before going forward, I want to acknowledge that freemanator has a very good point. The average draft position of the Patriots is typically much lower originally because of how successful they are year in and year out. I went and compiled a list of every original first round pick each team held in each NFL draft from 2009-2013. Results can be seen in the chart below. To reiterate, these are what their original first round pick was, not when they actually picked in the draft.

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Average
Browns 5 7 6 4 6 5.6
Rams 2 1 14 2 16 7.0
Bills 11 9 3 10 8 8.2
Chiefs 3 5 21 11 1 8.2
Jaguars 8 10 16 7 2 8.6
Lions 1 2 13 23 5 8.8
Raiders 7 8 17 17 3 10.4
Redskins 13 4 10 6 22 11.0
Buccaneers 19 3 20 5 13 12.0
Panthers 28 17 1 9 14 13.8
Dolphins 25 12 15 8 12 14.4
Seahawks 4 6 25 12 25 14.4
Bengals 6 21 4 21 21 14.6
Broncos 12 14 2 25 28 16.2
Cardinals 31 26 5 13 7 16.4
Titans 30 16 8 20 10 16.8
Eagles 21 24 23 15 4 17.4
Cowboys 20 27 9 14 18 17.6
Vikings 22 30 12 3 23 18.0
Chargers 16 28 18 18 11 18.2
49ers 10 13 7 30 31 18.2
Bears 18 11 29 19 20 19.4
Texans 15 20 11 26 27 19.8
Jets 17 29 30 16 9 20.2
Colts 27 31 22 1 24 21.0
Saints 14 32 24 27 15 22.4
Giants 29 15 19 32 19 22.8
Packers 9 23 32 28 26 23.6
Falcons 24 19 27 22 30 24.4
Steelers 32 18 31 24 17 24.4
Patriots 23 22 28 31 29 26.6
Ravens 26 25 26 29 32 27.6

Since 2009, the Patriots have had the second worst average draft stock in the league. Them and the Ravens are the only teams over that span to not have a first round pick in the top twenty selections. Nine teams averaged a draft position of 20th or worst during this span, so if I was to choose a group to evaluate Belichick against, those would probably be the best choices. But before I get into that, first I need to establish what makes for a good or bad draft.

What makes a good draft? One.Cool.Customer of Blogging The Boys wrote an excellent piece titled "2010-2012 NFL Drafts: Team-By-Team Draft Success In First Three Rounds" that details the expectations of draft picks and grades them on whether or not they became a "primary starter." What he found was actually pretty crazy.

Here's an overview showing how many prospects from each round of the last three drafts ended up becoming primary starters in the NFL. A "primary starter" is a player who has started at least eight games in at least one of the last three seasons:

Primary Starters by round, 2010-2012 Drafts

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Total
No. of Players 96 95 100 107 107 113 146 762
Primary Starters 75 56 36 24 16 12 11 229
In % 78% 59% 36% 22% 15% 11% 8% 30%

Only 78% of the first-round picks over the last three draft classes have become primary starters so far (which means that to date, one out of five first-round picks has failed to become a starter). As is to be expected, the overall percentages decrease the further back in the draft a player is selected. Granted, because we're looking only at a three-year window, these percentages could still improve, but the overall picture won't: The top three rounds are where you can reasonably expect to get your starters; after that it's largely a matter of luck.

I put the last part in bold because this is where my "crap-shoot" comment comes into play. A crap-shoot means that something's outcome is largely attributed to luck. When it comes to the NFL draft, the only thing everyone can count on is that there is no such thing as a sure thing. I believe Bill Belichick knows this. Since he has worse average draft capital to work with, and typically a stronger team top to bottom than most, he deliberately increases his odds of getting starters on his team by increasing the number of picks he has. The following chart comes from the same piece and it details which teams were the most successful over the 2010-2012 span.

Draft Success Rounds 1-3, 2010-12 (click column header to sort)

Team Picks in Rds 1-3 Primary Starters Success rate
Carolina 8 7 88%
Seattle 8 7 88%
Dallas 7 6 86%
Cleveland 12 10 83%
Tampa Bay
10 8 80%
Buffalo 9 7 78%
Denver 12 9 75%
Kansas City
12 9 75%
Atlanta 7 5 71%
Minnesota 7 5 71%
Miami 9 6 67%
Tennessee 9 6 67%
Washington 6 4 67%
New England
14 8 57%
Chicago 7 4 57%
Oakland 7 4 57%
Baltimore 9 5 56%
Detroit 9 5 56%
St. Louis
11 6 55%
Indianapolis 10 5 50%
Philadelphia 10 5 50%
Arizona 8 4 50%
San Francisco
9 4 44%
New York Jets
7 3 43%
Jacksonville 7 3 43%
New Orleans
8 3 38%
Cincinnati 12 4 33%
Houston 9 3 33%
New York Giants
9 3 33%
Green Bay
9 3 33%
San Diego
10 3 30%
Pittsburgh 9 2 22%

Note that a success rate of 57% is the average value in this analysis. Note also that for the purposes of this analysis, "primary starter" is a hard cutoff. It doesn't matter whether a player did not start eight games in a season because he was injured or for any other reason.

The Patriots, by this analysis, fell right at league average at 57%. Bill Belichick was not any better or worse than average. By all accounts, this would state that Bill Belichick does not really draft all that great, but he isn't bad either. However, if you ignore draft success and instead focus on how many primary starters the Patriots got, you will notice something strange. The Patriots had the most picks in rounds 1-3, and ended up with 8 primary starters, tied for the 4th most of any team over that span. It would appear that this justify's Belichick's draft approach. He creates his own value, recognizing that he cannot pick at the elite talent at the top of the draft and so improves his odds of getting lucky.

I devised my own evaluative tool for the drafts that models One.Cool.Customer's approach. My change was simple: a draft pick was considered successful if they were a primary starter for at least half of the years they were in the league. The chart below covers the 2009-2012 drafts based on success percentage. Also included is the number of players ended up being primary starters.

Team Rounds 1-3 Picks Starters Success %
Bills 13 10 76.9%
Dolphins 13 10 76.9%
Browns 16 12 75.0%
Buccaneers 12 9 75.0%
Seahawks 11 8 72.7%
Vikings 10 7 70.0%
Falcons 10 7 70.0%
Cowboys 9 6 66.7%
Bears 9 6 66.7%
Jaguars 11 7 63.6%
Broncos 17 10 58.8%
Eagles 12 7 58.3%
Texans 12 7 58.3%
Jets 9 5 55.6%
Cardinals 11 6 54.5%
Titans 13 7 53.8%
Colts 13 7 53.8%
Bengals 16 8 50.0%
Rams 14 7 50.0%
Chiefs 14 7 50.0%
Raiders 10 5 50.0%
Redskins 8 4 50.0%
Steelers 13 6 46.2%
Panthers 11 5 45.5%
49ers 11 5 45.5%
Packers 11 5 45.5%
Saints 9 4 44.4%
Lions 16 7 43.8%
Giants 14 6 42.9%
Chargers 12 5 41.7%
Ravens 12 5 41.7%
Patriots 20 8 40.0%
TOTAL 390 217 55.6%


In this evaluative method, the Patriots have been the worst team in football at drafting successful starters from the first three rounds. If you look closely, the bottom of the list includes many more of the teams that were on the low-end of the draft capital totem pole. The Patriots 20 selections were three more than the next closest team. Despite being the worst at drafting by this measure, they still came out with 8 successful picks, tied for the 6th most of any team.

Bill Belichick had a method to his madness. What people seem to ignore is that the 2009 Patriots were arguably the weakest team top-to-bottom of the Belichick era in New England. The Patriots had traded Mike Vrabel with Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs. Richard Seymour was traded to the Oakland Raiders. Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired. The Patriots team that was very top heavy suddenly had voids all over the roster. What the team needed was to throw stuff at the wall and see what would stick. Belichick accumulated a bounty of second and third round picks and hoped that the luck would be in his favor.

In 2009, the Patriots drafted 4 second round picks and 2 third round picks. The two successful picks from those six players based on my method would be Pat Chung and Sebastian Vollmer. In 2010, the Patriots drafted five players in the first three rounds. Three of them earned successful grades, those players being Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, and Brandon Spikes. In 2011, the Patriots drafted five more players. Two of them, Nate Solder and Stevan Ridley, earned successful grades.

If you look at that list, it may bother you that Pat Chung gets a successful grade while Shane Vereen did not. It flustered me when I saw it too, but I wasn't sure where to go with it. As with any grading system or statistic, the conclusion needs to pass the eye test. What should our expectations be of draft picks?

I went through the 1994-2003 drafts and compiled the average career of each round broken down by years in the league, years as a starter, and games played for their careers. The chart below shows my findings. I did not want to use decimal points, so I gave rough estimates of my findings. These numbers are not perfect, but they reflect what the expectations should be for a draft pick to be considered "average" in a given round.

Round Years Starts Games Played
1st 9 6-7 118
2nd 7-8 4 97
3rd 6-7 2-3 73
4th 5-6 2 61
5th 5 1 50
6th 4 1 40
7th 4 1 34

Just like every other method so far, the conclusion is that higher picks are better. Duh, right? Well, I also looked at the drafts based on a couple different measures. One was how many draft picks never even played a game in the league. The others were a mix of seasons played, years as a starter, and accolades the players accrued such as Pro Bowls or All Pro selections. Here is that chart.

Picks Never Played Played 10 Years 5 Year Starters 10 Year Starters Multiple Pro Bowlers Multiple All Pros
1994 222 30 44 50 18 17 5
1995 249 41 48 57 17 16 6
1996 254 38 54 58 23 20 8
1997 240 28 51 52 17 18 7
1998 241 37 50 60 13 16 4
1999 253 28 54 56 13 13 1
2000 254 35 51 62 14 15 4
2001 246 26 51 59 21 22 6
2002 261 33 48 59 7 13 4
2003 262 25 57 60 10 18 5
Average Draft 248.2 32.1 50.8 57.3 15.3 16.8 5
% Chance 248.2 12.9% 20.5% 23.1% 6.2% 6.8% 2.0%

Only 20% of draft picks, one in every five, make it 10 years in the league and/or 5 years as a starter. The grand total in a draft is roughly 50-60 players making it that far. What does that mean? Well, the chance of a team getting a significant contributor in the draft is 20%. In other words, if a draft has a Top 100 players, nearly half of them will be nothing more than decent contributors and role players. There are only about 15 players in a draft that start for 10 seasons and/or make multiple Pro Bowls. That means not every team gets a high-caliber player in any draft, let alone multiple. Expectations for the draft are very overblown. Just how overblown? Only about 5 players in a given draft make multiple All Pros. That 2% chance of getting these players means that in a decade span of drafting a team may never select even one of these players.

I realize that I shouldn't have been bashing Belichick for his drafting. While many feel he royally screwed up in 2009, he still walked away with Sebastian Vollmer and Julian Edelman. Vollmer will have started his 5th year by season's end barring injury and Edelman is the Patriots #1 receiver and on his way to his 3rd year as a starter. The Patriots didn't get any decent contributors outside of those two except for Pat Chung. If I told you a team got 3 starters out of one draft, regardless of skill, it would be considered good. Ignoring draft position, the Patriots did ok. Also, it is important to understand that the 2009 draft might be one of the worst drafts of all time. When it came to that draft, quantity over quality was as good a strategy as any.

As for the other drafts, I feel it is way too early to evaluate them. 2010 yielded the Patriots Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes, and Grand Theft Auto (click to view). 2011, despite Ras-IR Dowling, still yielded Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, and Stevan Ridley. The others haven't even had three years to prove themselves, and that is my line for even attempting to grade them.

In conclusion, I owe Belichick an apology. If you look at the success rate of the picks, Belichick certainly sucks. However, in his advanced wisdom, he applied the strategy he felt that would give his team the best chance at short and long term success. The Patriots deep roster is a result of Belichick going for quantity in an effort to get quality. The Patriots 3 straight AFC Championship Game appearances, including last year when the whole team seemed to be on injured reserve, is a testament to Belichick's team-building ability. I'm sorry I doubted you Bill.

As for you freemanator, you win this round.

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