What's almost as anticipated as the Super Bowl? The annual National Football League draft.
This year, it will be held April 25-26 at New York's Radio City Music Hall. That's when all 32 professional teams will select newly eligible players for their rosters. The event has become, in effect, a second season for football fans, who obsess over which teams drafted the best players.
Here's a thought: Instead of looking at how many draftees make the team's active roster, a better barometer of success might be a survey of the last three years of drafts for all 32 NFL teams. To judge them, we looked at the percentage of players from those three draft classes who were still listed as active members of the team. The results were surprising.
Topping the list of the best drafting teams: the Houston Texans, who have kept on their current roster an amazing 85 percent of the players they've drafted in the last three years. The Texans have also produced two All-Pros (linebacker DeMeco Ryans and defensive end Mario Williams). But the Texans' record over the last three years is a less-than-mediocre 22-26.
The bottom five will surprise fans most. The worst drafting team in the past three years, holding on to only a little more than half of its drafted players: the New England Patriots. With three Super Bowl wins since 2001, the Patriots are the team of the decade so far. They boast a 39-9 record in the past three years. How have they maintained that excellence? Though saddled with low draft picks, the Patriots have been the masters of picking up useful veterans via trades to fill holes in their lineup (see: receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker).
Behind the numbers
To find the NFL's best and worst teams at drafting, we looked at the last three years of drafts for all 32 NFL teams. To judge the success or failure of the drafting teams, we looked at the percentage of players from those three draft classes who were still listed as active members of the team.
We gave a little extra weight to players who had made the Associated Press' All-Pro first and second teams – the players deemed as that year's best at their respective positions. Membership in this elite group is difficult to crack for a young player, as many long-tenured veterans make the All-Pro team year after year based only on reputation (take the N.Y. Jets' Alan Faneca).
The NFL draft is all about potential, a stock market of big men in pads and helmets. Despite all of the scouting, speed trials, interviews and intelligence tests that teams require of potential draft picks, there is no surefire way to know if a player just out of college will be able to make it in the NFL.
The seven-round draft is rife with mistakes on both ends of the spectrum: Ryan Leaf, the first pick of the San Diego Chargers in 1998, turned out to be fool's gold and was out of the NFL within four years. Tom Brady, the three-time Super Bowl winner for the New England Patriots and one of the best quarterbacks of all time, was the 199th player chosen in the 2000 draft, a hidden gem passed over by every NFL team multiple times.
With skyrocketing rookie contracts, the pressure to get a draft pick right is more acute now than ever. When Jake Long, last year's overall No.1 pick, signed a five-year $57.5 million contract with the Miami Dolphins, he became the highest-paid offensive tackle in the league without ever having played an NFL game.
How it works
To help with competitive balance, the NFL organizes the draft positions in a reverse-record manner. That is, the team with the worst record gets the first draft pick going all the way down to the Super Bowl winner, which drafts 32nd. The Texans, with their poor record over the past three years, have continually had a favorable drafting position (average spot: 12th).
Successful teams – those with excellent win-loss records – have also succeeded in finding NFL-caliber players. Take the Indianapolis Colts, with a 37-11 record and a Super Bowl title in the 2006 season. The Colts average drafting position: 40.
The New York Giants, winners of the 2007 season Super Bowl, are another successful franchise. The Giants have held on to 90 percent of their draft picks from the past three years.
After the Patriots, the next team from the bottom makes more intuitive sense: The lowly St. Louis Rams, who have logged a ghastly 13-35 record in the last three years. Though the Rams' average draft position is 10th, they have retained little more than half of their draftees.
Third worst is another surprise: the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers, with only 58 percent of their drafted players still on the team and no All-Pros among them. Like the Patriots, the perennially contending Steelers usually have a low draft spot, but they have fulfilled their needs by finding and developing excellent undrafted rookies over the years, like running back Willie Parker and linebacker James Harrison, the 2008 defensive player of the year.
Rounding out the bottom five are the Miami Dolphins and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Dolphins had pitiful drafts until guru Bill Parcells stepped in as the de facto head of football operations. Parcells' talent-evaluation skills have turned the team around. The Bengals (19-28-1), by contrast, just can't seem to get out of their ugly rut.
The bottom line: Drafting NFL-caliber players is very important, but it doesn't necessarily equal success on the field. Finding other strategies to plug the gaps, like the Patriots and Steelers have done, is essential. So don't judge your team's success at the end of draft day. Wait to see how it all plays out – and watch for what your team does to boost draft deficiencies.
The top five:
1. Houston Texans: Slideshow
2. Indianapolis Colts: Slideshow
3. New York Giants: Slideshow
4. Seattle Seahawks: Slideshow
5. Denver Broncos: Slideshow
• See the worst NFL draft teams, starting with the Patriots