We're a couple of weeks removed from this year's NFL draft and plenty of people handed out grades, mostly based on whether or not teams addressed immediate needs.
But as we have learned so many times, how well one drafts doesn't simply come down to how well you addressed needs, but how much the players contributed, particularly based on what round you took them.
Therefore, a better time to analyze how well a team has drafted, is to do so several years after the draft has taken place. It also helps to know what the expectations should be for a player, depending on what round the player is taken.
It's a good time to assess the Denver Broncos 2011 and 2012 draft classes, because each of those drafts took place several three years ago. We have enough time to assess what the players contributed, and how that compares to expectations based on the round they were drafted.
What would be those expectations? Here's my thoughts:
First round: A player taken in this round is one you expect to be part of your franchise for the long term. In other words, after his rookie deal expires, you expect he'll be a player you will want to make every effort to re-sign. There are a few thing to keep in mind, though.
* It is true that first-round picks are signed for four years, with a club option for a fifth year. But to consider the player a good pick, it's not necessary that you pick up the option, as long as you make it clear you want to re-sign the player. The Houston Texans declined the option on Whitney Mercilus, but later gave him a four-year extension. The Seattle Seahawks declined the option on Bruce Irvin, but hope to extend him. Both teams likely want better value than the $7.7M salary the rookie option would have been. But because the Texans extended Mercilus, it's clear they want him for the long term, and the Seahawks' intentions to extend Irvin indicate the same. In both cases, the pick can still be considered a good one.
* If a team clearly wants to extend a player, but is unable to do so, even after picking up the option and using the franchise tag for a year, it's still a good pick. There will be those situations in which a team wants to keep a player, but the player prefers to test the market and get what he thinks will be a better deal.
* One can consider a first-round pick not used well when the team makes it clear it does not intend to extend the player when the rookie deal expires. In such a case, it matters not if the option year is exercised. Washington, for example, exercised its option for Robert Griffin III, but that is likely because it viewed the option year a better deal than declining it, then needing to use the franchise tag, should RG3 have a strong 2015 season. But if RG3 does not perform well the next two seasons, and Washington's front office makes it clear they are not keeping him, then one can call the selection of RG3 a poor usage of a first-round pick.
* We should consider the difference between overdrafting a player and a busted pick. Let's say a team drafted a player in the first round, and either stood pat with its original pick, or traded down in the first round and took the player. If that player becomes one the team decides not to retain when the rookie deal expires, the player should be considered overdrafted. A recent example of an overdrafted player would be Tennessee Titans 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker, who had his moments in his brief career, but the Titans did not pick up the option year, nor make any attempt to extend him. Had Locker been selected in a later round, it still might not have been the best usage of a pick, but expectations for Locker to excel would not have been as high (we'll get to other rounds later).
On the other hand, if the team waives the player at any time prior to the rookie deal expiring, it is safe to call the pick a bust. The same would apply if a team traded up in the first round, particularly if it gave up a lot in return to get the player, then chose not to extend him. The Cleveland Browns' 2012 first-round selection of Brandon Weeden was certainly a busted pick, as he was waived after just two seasons with the team. Briefly getting back to RG3, if Washington does not extend him after the 2016 season, he could be called a bust, because Washington gave up a lot to move up in the first round to select him.
Moving on to other rounds, and keeping in mind all drafted players get four-year contracts:
Second round: Players taken in this round should be starters for at least three of the four years they are with the team, and two of them need to be at least as good starters. If a second-round pick spends four years with the team, but never becomes a good starter, he's an overdrafted player. A second-round pick would be a bust if he not only never became a good starter, but is waived by the team before his rookie deal expired.
Third round: Players taken in this round should be starters for at least a year, and have been at least a good rotational or depth player for two years prior. This is because third-round picks are thought of as players that might take a year or two to develop, and might have to wait behind more experienced players before they get to start. If the player doesn't start by his fourth year in the league, he's overdrafted. A third-round bust is one who is waived before his rookie deal ends.
Before I get to other rounds, I do not consider any players taken in the fourth round or later to be busts, because the expectation is that they are not guaranteed to become starters. But there is a particular expectation for the first of these rounds.
Fourth round: A player taken in the fourth round should become at least a good depth, rotational, and/or special teams player during his time with the team. If the player is waived before his rookie deal ends, he has been overdrafted.
Fifth through seventh rounds: The final rounds are when you pick players who will likely have to compete for roster spots. If they become depth players, that's good. If they become good starters by their second year in the league, then you have a draft-day steal. If they never make the active roster, then it's not necessarily a big deal, because you didn't draft them with the expectation that they were locks for the final roster.
A quick note about trades: If a team drafts a player, and trades him before his rookie deal expires, what determines him a good pick or not depends on what the team gets in return. If the player was drafted in the first through third round, and the team gets far less in return than what it spent to get the player, then the player is a busted pick.
What if the team gets more in return? Well, it's definitely not a wasted pick if you get more in return than what you spent to get the player. On the other hand, because the team is trading the player, you should ask why the team is doing this, before judging the pick as a good one.
I will examine the Denver Broncos 2011 and 2012 drafts in a future post.