I know this is ground I’ve covered before, but I also know we’ve all slept since then. One of the things we have all (me included) taken for granted is how stupid it was for the Houston Texans to win the last game of the season. No matter what happens on Thursday, the Texans could have controlled their own destiny and taken the player they absolutely wanted. They also could have done what the Bears did and maximize trade value.
However history may prove to be different altogether. A lot has been made of the value of quarterbacks taken second in the draft. Since the Texans have entered the league, five quarterbacks have been taken with the second overall pick. Ironically, four of those five are technically still active (Carson Wentz has yet to be signed by anyone). The prevailing wisdom is that they were all busts. So, is the second overall selection cursed or considerably less valuable than the first overall selection?
There are a number of ways to do this, but the way that seems fairest is to use Pro Football Reference’s weighted average value (WAV). It obviously gives more credit to quarterbacks and other skill positions because that’s what most of us would do. You get a certain amount of points for every year you are the primary starter at your position and then more points when you are a Pro Bowl performer. When looking at a whole career, anything over 50 tends to be pretty good. Anything over 100 puts you on a track for Canton.
The Basic Breakdown
First Overall Pick: AVG WAV = 63.1, AVG Pro Bowls: 2.1
Second Overall Pick: AVG WAV = 45.6, AVG Pro Bowls: 1.8
Third Overall Pick: AVG WAV = 40.8. AVG Pro Bowls: 2.3
At first glance it doesn’t look like that big of a difference. Certainly, you would expect some separation as you would between any subsequent selections in the draft. Obviously, when discussing trades there is always the consideration of perceived value. If someone is willing to give you considerably more for the top selection then that has to be baked into how we perceive the top pick overall as compared to any subsequent picks.
First Overall Pick 5+ Pro Bowls: 0
Second Overall Pick 5+ Pro Bowls: 4
Third Overall Pick 5+ Pro Bowls: 4
Now, all of the sudden things look considerably different. This includes the likes of Julius Pepper, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, and Von Miller for the second pick and our own Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Joe Thomas, and Gerald McCoy for the third pick. All of those players are in Canton or likely will be. You could argue that two first overall picks are destined for Canton. You could argue for a few of the guys on the younger end winding up with five or more Pro Bowls, but they aren’t there yet.
First Overall Pick 100+ WAV = 4
Second Overall Pick 100+ WAV = 3
Third Overall Pick 100+ WAV = 1
The fact that WAV includes positional differences is important. Ultimately, it really does matter. Some people try to sell the public on a best player available slant and general managers will use that kind of language because it sounds good. However, that isn’t reality. Some positions are naturally more valuable than others.
First Overall Pick 50+ WAV = 14
Second Overall Pick 50+ WAV = 7
Third Overall Pick 50+ WAV = 6
It’s hard to do a category for busts because what constitutes a bust changes from person to person. In particular, when we move more than six or seven seasons back we should get players that have produced 50+ in WAV on a routine basis. Most would readily agree that Jamarcus Russell was a bust as a number one overall selection. Charles Rogers and Jason Smith were busts as number two overall selections. Zach Wilson may or may not end up there as well.
The aggregate is all well and good, but most people are more interested in what happens when we start getting position specific. In particular, is there really much of a difference between quarterbacks taken number one overall and quarterbacks taken number two overall? If we look at both WAV and Pro Bowl appearances do we get as much of a difference as we seem to think?
Number One Overall Quarterbacks: 15 Quarterbacks: 48.1 AVG WAV, 26 Pro Bowls
Number Two Overall Quarterbacks: 5 Quarterbacks: 38.8 AVG WAV, 3 Pro Bowls
Number Three Overall Quarterbacks 6 Quarterbacks: 47.2 AVG WAV, 6 Pro Bowls
The smaller the sample size, the easier it is for one outlier to ruin the entire study. Matt Ryan was taken third overall in 2008 and has a WAV of 146. That accounts for more than half of the total for quarterbacks taken third overall since 2002. Otherwise, the results for second overall picks are pretty darn close to third overall picks. The Pro Bowl count still demonstrates that you have better luck taking a quarterback number one overall. That would seem to make perfect sense, but let’s see what happens when we change positions.
Number One Overall Offense Non Quarterbacks = 2 players, 58.0 AVG WAV, 6 Pro Bowls
Number Two Overall Offense Non Quarterbacks = 7 Players, 28.4 AVG WAV, 3 Pro Bowls
Number Three Overall Offense Non Quarterbacks = 5 Players, 65.0 AVG WAV, 29 Pro Bowls
We have a sample size problem that is difficult to ignore. We also have to remember that we are comparing people from different drafts and not necessarily the same draft. On a few occasions we saw players from the same position go one and two or two and three, but most of the time the player selected was the first such player from that position group whether it came one, two, or three.
Number One Overall Defensive Player = 4 players, 50.0 AVG WAV, 11 Pro Bowls
Number Two Overall Defensive Players = 8 players, 61.8 AVG WAV, 26 Pro Bowls
Number Three Overall Defensive Players = 10 players, 30.0 AVG WAV, 13 Pro Bowls
It would seem like teams picking second actually do better with defensive players than at first overall and that is certainly true in some sense. However, we have to remember that drafts rarely ever actually went with back to back defenders to start the draft. So, it would be more accurate to say that teams that picked defensive players number two overall enjoyed more success than when they picked any other position on offense at number two overall and simply leave it at that.
Putting It All Together
It is usually better to start with the general and move to the specific. Each drafting position gets progressively worse in aggregate WAV as we move down. I would surmise two things would happen as you move through the first round. First, the trend of each selection being more valuable than the one coming after it would hold. Secondly, the gap would get smaller and smaller as we go.
This simply means that there is a premium on the first overall selection and anyone saying different is just trying to smooth over the fact that the Texans blew it in week 18. However, those gaps change depending on the position group you are talking about. The gaps between defenders and non-quarterbacks on offense are not that steep. It is the difference between quarterbacks that becomes more apparent.
Now, how this impacts drafting strategy is open to interpretation. Every draft is unique and has different positions that may be strong and weak respectively. The WAV system definitely skews more towards quarterback and that probably is the way it should be. It is the most important position on the field. So, there might be more risk there, but there is also more reward there. Defense might be the safest direction to go based on history. Whether you should play it safe or not is up to the beholder.