Good draft hit rates: Lower than you think

Colts president Bill Polian, at right with Jim Caldwell, says drafting is "far more art than science." AP Photo/Darron Cummings

It’s easy language, a common phrase.

But when Colts president Bill Polian talks about the NFL draft, he catches himself when he calls it an “inexact science.”

“It’s not a science,” he said, correcting himself. “It’s data collection and then making judgment based on that data collection. That isn’t science. It’s far more art than science.”

It’s art with a batting average, a hit percentage that’s actually far lower for even the most successful decision-makers than most fans expect. Typically, it can’t be accurately computed for three years -- a long time to wait to see if the line drive in the gap bounces to extend a rally or is caught to end an inning.

“The conventional wisdom, if you would, is completely wrong when you look at the empirical evidence,” Polian said.

Said Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt: “If you take all the percentages, forget the weighting of the round and say, 'OK, what’s the chance of any player being a hit?' It’s 40 percent, 39 percent. I would think fans would think it’d be much higher.”

So what's a good success rate in the draft? A first-round flub and a seventh-round miss are weighted differently, of course. But smash all of it together, and what's a good percentage of hits versus misses?

Polian and Reinfeldt were kind enough to consider the question this week.

Here’s Polian’s formula:

“I think you have to divide it into top 12 and bottom 20. If you’re in the top 12, it ought to be in the .640 range. That’s about 4.5 guys on average per year out of the seven. You measure that at the end of three years and what you are measuring is whether or not those guys become winning players, guys that contribute to wins. Bottom 20 is .571, that’s four out of seven…

“You either make it or you don’t. We’ve been above the .570 mark when you count collegiate free agents like Melvin Bullitt who come in and play, and they count. So we’ve been above the .570 mark. This past year we could get close to the .640 mark drafting 31st but it’s early.” [See box for my breakdown.]

A quick sidenote: Adding a successful undrafted rookie free agent to the total serves to artificially inflate the numbers. Polian can hit on one or two of a group of 12 or 15 and boost his average. But the Colts have the luxury of running systems where they are more likely to find undrafted players who can cut it. It's part of their building strategy and they can count it how they like.

Reinfeldt has different ways of judging his selections and the work of his scouting and coaching staffs and measuring it against the rest of the league.

"If you look historically, teams get 2.3 starters per draft and as a team, I think you need to strive to get three starters per draft, or I should say players worthy of starting. Is Jared Cook a starter? Not really but he’s good enough to be a starter in certain situations. Are Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty? Well, in the right situation, probably."

Getting three starting-worthy players in a seven-pick draft would amount to a .429 hit rate. Reinfeldt joined the Titans in 2007. I score the Titans’ 2007 draft at .300 and 2008 draft at .572 -- a combined .412.

Reinfeldt also looked at a second method for evaluating draft success that combines a number of different factors.

Judging productive players or players who have NFL-caliber traits over the last five or six years, he sees a .560 hit percentage for the first and second rounds; .350 for the third, fourth and fifth rounds; and .333 for the sixth and seventh rounds.

“The hit becomes a little bit easier to define there,” he said. “A guy could be a good role player there and be a hit [based on where he was taken].”

Polian and Reinfeldt understand that misses are just a part of the job. There is no getting around the fact that the Titans’ second-round running back Chris Henry from 2007 was a bust or that the Colts didn’t find the long-term left tackle solution they needed with Tony Ugoh earlier in the same round of the same draft.

“Even in the first two rounds, you’re going to miss 44 percent of the time,” Reinfeldt said. “… It’s a tough business. There is a lot of exposure to it. I think you need to be realistic and compare historically to what other clubs have done.”

Said Polian: “There is a lot of luck involved. I drafted players I swore would be really good players that have gotten hurt and never achieved a thing in the league through no fault of their own. In the end, they wash out and sometimes you don’t make the numbers because of that.”

Polian and the Colts came to their numbers by studying all drafts and rating every team’s success. They use an independent service to verify a hit or miss in Jacksonville or St. Louis, though sometimes the team’s opinion will differ from the service, in which case Polian will defer to his own scouting information.

The Colts judge a draft pick elsewhere on how he fills the role he’s asked to in his team’s system, and sometimes Indianapolis’ verdict may differ from that of the team he plays for.

The numbers have stayed pretty much the same for 25 years, he said.

While Polian wants to measure how the Colts and the league are doing, he said he doesn’t allow himself to get caught up in the numbers or push to improve the hit rate.

“The numbers are just a metric, you don’t ever want to try to reach for a metric any more than you would try to reach for a player,” he said. “That’s a measurement of how well you’ve done. If you haven’t done well -- and we haven’t historically, as you know, in the third round since we’ve been here -- then you go back and take a look and say, ‘Why haven’t we? What are we doing that we shouldn’t be doing? Who are we missing here?’

“Do you judge yourself harshly? The answer is yes. The guy either is a winning player or he’s not.”