In the absence of any daily sports at this time last year, I took on a project for the first time, analyzing the grades given for each NFL team’s drafts over the previous five years. What I was hoping to find out was whether or not there was any correlation between a team’s draft grades and its success, or lack thereof, on the field. Well, I learned a few things last year, so I decided to update the findings after the 2021 draft, which wrapped up last Saturday.
One of the most consistent, efficient and reliable sources for each NFL draft is Sports Illustrated, as it has typically put out its full analysis within 24 hours of the final pick being made. In the six years I have tracked SI’s grades, I have never seen one lower than a C-, and the average grade is a touch higher than a B. With this steady analysis serving as the foundation of my study, I went back and compared the regular-season won-lost records in recent years to the grades that SI assigned the teams for their draft work.
As you’ll again see this year, there was very little concrete evidence to suggest that anything teams did on draft weekend made a substantial impact on their fortunes on the field in the near-term future.
In general, SI.com tends to grade like a highly optimistic teacher, with a grade point average of 3.05 over the last six drafts, including 2021. That is between B and B+ range. Only one of the 192 teams to draft since 2016 was given a grade worse than C-, and that was the Falcons of 2016, who received a “D.” Did that doom Atlanta to a miserable 2016 season? Absolutely not. In fact, coach Dan Quinn’s team went from 8-8 to 11-5 after that draft, and proceeded to win double-digit games the next season as well.
Similarly, SI.com has awarded four A+ grades over the last six drafts, including the Cowboys last year. Looking at the fortunes of those three other teams, the 2016 Bengals, hot off a 12-4 season, were widely praised for supposedly preparing themselves for the next step on draft weekend. Instead, they dropped to 6-10 after that “stellar” draft. That same season, the Jaguars were looking to improve on a dismal 5-11 season and were thought to have shored up a lot of weak spots with a fantastic draft performance. The result was a 3-13 record the next year.
Then, after the 2017 season, the Super Bowl runner-up Patriots took what was the league’s best draft grade and actually dropped two games in their regular-season won-lost mark. Of course, New England did win the Super Bowl that season, but the Patriots were generally considered a lesser team than their predecessors. Finally, we can all remember what happened to the Cowboys last year. Riding lofty expectations, they succumbed to injuries and bad defense and eventually finished 6-10, two games worse than 2019.
Those rare grades at opposite ends of the spectrum were obvious misses by their authors. That said, what I have found is that they are right more often than they are wrong, thus the term reputable can best be used to accurately describe the predictive nature of the analysis.