For the last month and a half, every sports network in the country has been focused on the upcoming NFL Draft. (This has been the case even during the best sports month of the year.) But is the draft really that important to a team? I mean, it’s not like the NBA, where a team only starts five players–NFL teams have 33 starters. In the NBA, one draft can make a world of difference. For example, the 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers won 18 more games with LeBron than the previous season, a 102% increase. The 2004-05 Orlando Magic won 17 more games with the addition of Dwight Howard, a 90% increase. But, in the NFL, can drafting that one LeBron or Dwight type player turn a team around in one season? What about an entire draft class?
The answer is yes and no. With 33 starters and 52 players on the roster, it’s hard for seven rookies to drastically affect a team. Before 1993, it was much more likely. In 1993, the NFL draft went from twelve to seven rounds, so it was a little more plausible for a single draft to have a huge impact. An example of a team in the “7 Round Era” that made a huge turnaround in part based on their draft was the 1999 Indianapolis Colts. After the 1998 draft, the Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999. This draft was of course headed by none other than Peyton Manning. Other than Manning, however, the Colts 1998 draft really only yielded one other productive player, OG Steve McKinney. And although McKinney started the majority of the games for the Colts for the next four season, he was never really much more than an average player. Further, the turnaround really took two years since the Colts were 3-13 during Peyton’s rookie season, so the Colts 1998 draft technically did not yield immediate results and was not the only reason for their turnaround.
The 2008 Dolphins (11-5) are another recent team that had a huge turnaround after a horrible previous season (1-15 in 2007). The Dolphins’ 2008 draft included OT Jake Long and QB Chad Henne, but the drastic turnaround was due more to personnel changes in the front office and free agency aquisitions than it was to the draft. In fact, Henne didn’t even start for the Dolphins that seson–Chad Pennington did. Even the Detroit Lions seemingly “instant” turnaround recently where they went from 0-16 to 10-6, actually took three years (2008 to 2011) and four good draft classes.
Pre 1993, there is a little more evidence of a single draft drastically affecting a team. One such example is the 1965 Chicago Bears. In 1964, the Bears were 5-9. Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers were taken in the draft that year and the Bears went on to go 9-5. Even with Butkus and Sayers, however, the Bears didn’t make the playoffs the next year. In fact, the Bears didn’t make the playoffs during Butkus’s entire career in Chicago. (Their next playoff appearance was not until 1977).
The 1991 Dallas Cowboys draft was also a draft that helped instantly turn around a franchise. In 1990, the Cowboys were 7-9. After drafting Emmit Smith and company, they went 11-5 the next year. Although four wins can’t really be considered a huge turnaround, the Cowboys compounded their 1991 draft success with a good 1992 draft class and went 13-3 that season. The two draft classes produced nine starters of the 1992, 1993, and 1995 Super Bowl winning teams.
The 1974 Steelers draft class is regarded as the best draft class of all time. The draft included Mike Webster, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell–all of which were all-pro, four of which are in the hall of fame. But the 1973 Steelers were already pretty good at 10-4. They won the division in 1972 and made it to the playoffs in both 1972 and 1973. The great 1974 draft class bolstered the already stellar Pittsburgh team Pittsburgh, helping them win the Super Bowl the next two years and then two more in 1978 and 1979. If there was any draft class that could make the case for changing a franchise it was the 1974 Steelers class, but as I said, they were already a good team before the draft.
So the 1991 Cowboys and 1974 Steelers may be two of the exceptions, but the twelve-round drafts are over. Today, seven rookies aren’t going to make that big of an impact on a franchise.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the NFL draft doesn’t matter. If a team has several good drafts in a row it can certainly affect a team positively in the long run, and vice versa. But let’s face it, the days are gone where one draft can turnaround an entire franchise. And the NFL is simply not a sport where one player can have an instant and dramatic effect on team (sorry Andrew Luck). It takes more than one player or even one class of newbies to turn around a team. I’m not saying that the NFL draft doesn’t matter, I’m just saying that it’s no where near as big a deal as it’s made out to be.
By: Todd Davis