It’s been a while since I've written about the Atlanta Falcons. In fact, I sparingly comment here as much as I used to. Something has piqued my interest to write something about my favourite NFL team.
Thomas Dimitroff spoke at the Sloan Conference and there were a number of topics he discussed. One particular takeaway was from the Julio Jones trade.
"Dimitroff used analysis of picks by round to give away 4th rounders (only 14% end up starting) with other picks to draft J. Jones." – Ben Gaines, Adobe Analytics, 1st March 2014.
This is valuable insight into how the Falcons view draft picks. I found it intriguing because it opens up a door into how we can look at what Atlanta has done and speculate as to what they’ll do.
There may not be specifics, but going into the past can be an excellent tool to predict what will come in the future. It’s also fun.
What I want to do in this post is to look at how likely a pick will end up being a starter. Additionally I want to see how successful Atlanta and other teams have been at finding these. From that I also want to see if there's any other top-line information that we can take from previous Falcons drafts to indicate what they might do in the future.
For the purpose of this a starter is anyone who has seen significant playing time on the top of the depth chart.
From 2008 to now…
Many an NFL fan has done his or her draft retrospective. Was a pick a good one or was he a bad one? We’ll save those arguments for later.
In order to simplify things let’s break it down to the basics. We’ll sort things into four categories.
- Starter: Player who has seen the majority of their career as a starter.
- Backup: Player who has served as a valuable backup and/or sparingly seen time as a starter.
- 3rd Tier Player: Player who has some role in the NFL.
- Out of League: A player who never saw significant time in the league.
Every NFL team will say they’re looking for stars on every pick. But the truth is that it will never happen every time. Today we’ll investigate how well Atlanta has found starters in the NFL.
On the surface things don’t seem so bright. Out of 46 picks the Falcons have drafted approximately 9 starters. Before you slice my head off, these are the players that are considered starters that Dimitroff has drafted.
- Matt Ryan
- Julio Jones
- Sean Weatherspoon
- Sam Baker (ducks for cover)
- Desmond Trufant
- Curtis Lofton
- William Moore
- Corey Peters
- Matt Bosher
There are some players that were seen as starters heading into this season but fell off the list (Decoud, Konz and Dent). Poor performance has aggravated their status not just on this roster but around the league.
But Dimitroff and his staff have done a good job of identifying the talent at the top of the draft. Out of his 6 selections in the first round, 5 of them are starting caliber. In the second round out of 4 selections 2 are considered starters with a 3rd (Alford) likely to be considered one this season.
It appears for the most part that Dimitroff & company have done a good job over the years of drafting well early. Sure, some of the early round talent isn’t "Pro-Bowl" good, but he’s found guys that are still in the league and can do an adequate job.
Where things fall a little apart is when we start to look at the later rounds. If we have a look at the graph below, using our criteria, we can see that the Falcons haven’t exactly found starter-level players later in the draft.
(Note: Matt Bosher was drafted in round 6, punters are people too guys).
There appears, despite small sample size, to be an inverse relationship occurring. Starting quality players decline as the rounds go on and backup quality peaks somewhere in the middle. This would fit with common logic as value declines the further you move away from the start of the draft.
Oh and look, the 4th round there are actually less backups than in the 5th round (Dimitroff finding his value). Could this mean that the Falcons view 5th rounds as more valuable because other teams view them as less? That is, they collate more 5th rounders and are more willing to give up 4th's.
Comparing with other teams
The mantra goes that the Falcons front-office are trying to emulate the New England Patriots organisation. Perhaps not exactly in player preference, but in football operations, scouting processes and in leadership structures. It’s likely that they are trying to be similar to the Patriots.
It’s great to talk about the Falcons and how successful they have or have not been in drafting players. But without proper context we cannot determine performance.
For the purpose of this analysis three teams were chosen to compare Atlanta to. These were the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders. The Patriots were chosen for the reasons listed above and the 49ers were chosen because of their perceived continuum of success through the draft. The Raiders were chosen to compare against a team that hasn’t had as much success in recent years. Despite regime changes we will use data from 2008 to 2013.
Going off our previous criteria (Starter-Backup-3rd Tier-OOL) we can gauge how well each team has fared in finding starters and quality backups.
The Patriots have been very successful in finding starters, but they’ve also had a significant amount of players never catching on in the league. This is because they have had a lot of late round draft picks.
The 49ers have had by far and away the most "3rd Tier" players in the NFL. What this means is that they have drafted players that play some kind of role in the league. While you might think they’ve drafted a lot of starters in recent times you’ll be surprised to see that they actually haven’t. (Eric Reid, Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick & NaVorro Bowman). It may be a lower number, but a higher quality of player overall.
Oakland meanwhile has done a poor job of finding quality starters from 2008. They’ve sourced a number of players who play a role in the league (in some capacity), but success means finding those top echelon players.
So if we look at Altanta we can see by comparison that they aren’t exactly "failing." They’ve found a number of starters and some quality backups. A number of their "3rd Tier" players are still waiting to pan out. Looking at most of the names that make it into this category it wouldn’t be surprising to see them out of the league in the very near future.
Utilizing some quantitative measures we can grasp a more accurate perception of the overall success of the drafting ability of the Falcons.
(Note: this is the combined career PFF score for each individual averaged for one season which is then added up for a total).
This is a much clearer picture as to the overall success of Dimitroff and his staff. As we can see here New England and San Franscico are much more superior to Altanta or Oakland.
You might be asking yourself, "How are the Falcons that bad?" Well Lamar Holmes (-10.77 avg) and Peter Konz (-20.9 avg) contribute significantly towards this.
This makes sense when you consider all the injuries that occurred this past season. When players like Sean Weatherspoon, Kroy Biermann and Sam Baker went down it thrust more inexperienced players into the spotlight showcasing that the Falcons didn’t have the depth they thought they had.
Does the research prove Dimitroff’s original point?
The Falcons study showed that 14% of 4th round draft picks end up as starters. Based off our previous four teams and their 2008-13 draft classes we are able to determine (on a far lesser scale) that Dimitroff’s point is right.
3.4% of the teams 4th-7th round draft picks ended up as consistent starters in the NFL. 16.4% ended up as backups and 80.2% either played a 3rd Tier role or never played significant time in the NFL.
While this research is far inferior to the likes of the Falcons, it does show that the further along you go on draft day, the less likely you are to find a starter. It’s sobering for us fans that want to find the hidden gem (like a Richard Sherman or a Tom Brady).
Where Do the Falcons Draft Their players from?
We’ve delved through quite a bit of numbers, so let’s look at some "geography," or the football equivalent.
Many might question the validity of looking at where a team drafts. In this day and age it’d be silly to ignore a region simply because you’re HQ is in one part of the country. However it’s natural to gravitate to environments you are familiar with.
This doesn’t mean the Falcons ignore certain parts of the country to source their football talent. Insinuating this would be foolish. But, they have appeared to of streamlined where they evaluate talent.
Looking at the map below, we can see that the Falcons have drafted from the following areas.
Atlanta has drafted mainly around the southern part of the country, particularly in the surrounding states of Georgia. They also look like they are invested somewhat in the west-coast of the country as well.
The biggest takeaway isn’t where they have drafted, but where they haven’t. The Falcons have only drafted one player from the state of Texas. This is alarming because the lone-start state produces the 3rd most NFL players in the entire country.
I don’t want anyone to panic over this; it’s merely where the Falcons have drafted their players. This doesn’t mean they don’t have scouts in Texas, I mean, it’s Texas for goodness sakes!
What can be taken out of it is that familiarity in your own backyard can give you a scouting edge. It makes perfect sense when you consider that scouts grew up in these regions. They’re familiar with the football programs and other certain factors will give them a competitive edge over other teams.
Further to this, Atlanta has drafted heavily from one college conference in particular, the SEC. Of players drafted, the SEC makes up 29% with the Pac-12, ACC and Big-12 close behind at 16% each. Of note, Dimitroff and his staff have drafted 16% of his players outside major conferences as you can see below.
What Does All this mean for the future?
We can’t predict the future (try telling that to Mike Francesa) but we can have fun trying. Some of the above information may help us understand the operations of the Falcons a little bit better (it may not, but hey it's something).
Atlanta no doubt needs to get better at drafting. Many of their players have not panned out. Matt Ryan being a huge success has certainly helped the franchise accelerate into contender status. Injuries in 2013 opened up a stark reality that many fans, like myself, could not see.
This year’s draft is as important as any other. Whether it has depth is not near as much of a concern as drafting the right players is. The Falcons have to continue to add talent, regardless of whether it seems like a fit, or whether he played near the state of Georgia, or whether he’s safe or has upside.
Bringing in talent and making sure these are the guys that can develop into capable starters is vital.
However, what is frustrating from my point of view is that people expect these 4th, 5th and 6th rounders to be contributors on the team. This past season many had the sentiment that had Atlanta not traded up for Julio Jones they would’ve had depth for the injuries they sustained. The first (2012) and second rounder (2011) would have been great to keep. But, you have to give them up for an elite player like Jones. The fourth round picks? Would they really of given the Falcons that much more depth?
It’s highly unlikely, as the research goes, that these picks will develop into anything considerable. The compulsive gambler in every fan is to look at the Jimmy Graham’s or Navarro Bowman’s of the world and castigate in anger as their team trades away the possibility of their team drafting someone like that.
But this rarely is the case. Moving into the 2014 draft it’s important to remember that picks beyond round-two are very unlikely to develop into anything significant. For every star player in the 3rd or 4th round there are 4 names that never develop into much more than a special-team gunner.
The NFL Draft is fun, we all get excited. However the Falcons roster is ever evolving and there’s no way we’re going to be able to tell whether Dimitroff has succeeded until he hoists that Lombardi trophy.