Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Exercise in Draft Pick Retention, Part One: The Baltimore Ravens

One can look back on the Denver Broncos' 2011 draft class and know that John Elway did a very good job of drafting. Then along came this year's free agency frenzy and most of the Broncos' draft picks departed.

Before Broncos fans get tuned up about how ridiculous it is to let all these valuable players depart, the fact is, a team that drafts well doesn't always keep every pick for the long term. These teams prioritize which picks to retain, and understand that certain draft picks will not stay past their rookie deals.

Every team takes a chance when a draft pick plays well, then departs for another team. The question is whether or not those teams got the most out of those players they drafted, and when it came time for a new contract, when they make the correct decision to extend the player or let him depart.

The Baltimore Ravens are frequently cited as a team that drafts well, makes good use of compensatory picks, and knows which free agents to prioritize retaining. The New England Patriots are another team that gets such a nod, and more recently, the Green Bay Packers are getting recognized as such. Let's examine each of these teams to see what they have done.

The purpose of this exercise is to consider the following:

* Which draft picks stayed with the franchise for at least six years, keeping in mind that contracts for first-round picks went as long as six years before the rookie pay scale came along.

* Which draft picks stayed with the team three to five years, and finished their career with at least eight seasons in the NFL.

* Among more recent draft years (2010 and 2011), which draft picks are still with the team.

* Any more recent draft picks (2008 to 2010) who were with the team at least three years, and are still playing in the NFL.

* Any unusual examples of draft picks who never took a snap for the team that drafted them, but went on to play for other teams and are still in the NFL.

Our focus in this part will remain on draft years up to 2010. In the first part, we'll take a look at the Baltimore Ravens.

What's fascinating about the Ravens is the franchise has had a pretty long history of retaining its first-round picks and getting a lot of years out of them. It starts in 1996, when the Ravens had two first-round picks -- they used the first on Jonathan Ogden, who has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the second on Ray Lewis, who will be a Hall of Famer. Ogden played 13 years and Lewis 16, so the Ravens certainly made excellent use of those picks.

It continues in 1997, when the Ravens got eight years out of first-round pick Peter Boulware, and again in 1999, as they got 11 years out of first-round pick Chris McAllister. They also got a lot out of Todd Heap (2001, 10 years)and Ed Reed (2002, 11 years).

And when you get to 2003, you find several first-rounders who are still with the team: Terrell Suggs (2003, 12 years), Marshal Yanda (2007, eight years), and Joe Flacco (2008, seven years). They also kept 2006 first-rounder Haloti Ngata for nine years, before trading him to the Detroit Lions this offseason. Throw in Jamal Lewis, a 2000 first-round pick, who played six years for the Ravens before departing, and there's plenty to like about their early picks.

So what about players taken in the second round and later who stayed with the team for many years. That list includes Cornell Brown (1997, 6th round, seven years), Edwin Mulitalo (1999, 4th, eight years), Adalius Thomas (2000, 6th, seven years), Jarret Johnson (2003,4th, nine years), Sam Koch (2006, 6th, nine years), Ray Rice (2008, 2nd, six years), and Lardarius Webb (2009, 3rd, six years).
Add in a pair of 2010 draft picks who were re-signed (second rounder Terrence Cody and fourth rounder Dennis Pitta) and that's 21 players the Ravens have drafted who were either past long-time contributors to the team, or are still contributing. Now, when I tell you that the Ravens have had 118 total draft selections from 1996 to 2011, you probably think that if the Ravens are so good at drafting, that they let a lot of talent get away. After all, just 18% of those selections contributed to the team for a long time, or are still contributing.

Except when you look at the picks they did not retain for at least six years, and went on to lengthy careers or are still active, the list isn't at long as you might think. Those players, listed in order of their total years in the NFL, are: Dave Zastudil (2001, 4th round, four years with the Ravens, 12 total NFL seasons), Brandon Stokley (1999, 4th, four, 11), Aubrayo Franklin (2003, 5th, four, 11), Dwan Edwards (2004, 1st, five, 10, still active), Chester Taylor (2002, 6th, four, 10), Chris Chester (2006, 2nd, five, nine, still active), Dawan Landry (2006, 5th, five, nine), Ovie Mughelli (2003, 4th, four, nine), Casey Rabach (2001, 3rd, three, nine), Tony Pashos (2003, 5th, three, nine), Travis Taylor (2000, 1st, five, eight), Kyle Boller (2003, 1st, five, eight), Ben Grubbs (2007, 1st, five, eight), Antwan Barnes (2007, 4th, three, eight), Jamie Sharper (1997, 2nd, four, eight), Duane Starks (1998, 1st, four, eight), Chris Redman (2000, 3rd, four, eight), and Jeff Mitchell (1997, 5th, three, eight).

Those players account for 18 of the Ravens' draft picks. Now throw in other players who were with the Ravens for at least three years and are still active: Oneil Cousins (2008, 3rd, three, eight), Michael Oher (2009, 1st, five, six), Paul Kruger (2009, 3rd, four, six), Ed Dickson (2010, 4th, four, five), and Arthur Jones (2010, 5th, four five) and you have 23. You can also add one player who never took a snap for Baltimore, but has played nine seasons and is still active: Derek Anderson (2005 sixth rounder). That makes 24, which represents 20 percent of the Ravens' picks.

But then ask yourself: Of the draft picks the Ravens did not keep for an extended period, how many of them should have been? You could probably make arguments for Stokley, Edwards, and Franklin, and I imagine some people will argue for Grubbs, but there's nobody else who was imperative to retain. Zastudil has had a long NFL career, but he was easily replaced at punter when Koch came along. Is anyone seriously going to argue that the Ravens would have been better off with Boller, Redman, or Anderson at quarterback? Do you really think the Ravens couldn't afford to lose either Taylor?

In other words, Ozzie Newsome and company go into their drafts hoping that the bulk of the picks will contribute to the team in the short term, but expect that only a few will contribute for the long term, and they especially want the higher picks to do so. At certain points, they have to make decisions about who is really worth retaining. And ever since 1996, it has mostly worked for them. They have their misses (most notably Boller, Travis Taylor, and 2005 first-round pick Mark Clayton), but it's hard to argue they haven't been successful overall.

In part two, we'll look at the Patriots and Packers.

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