The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are division rivals that share similar stories. Both teams are part of the NFC’s new elite: Seattle and Arizona lead the NFC in wins since the start of the 2013 season. And in addition to being led by two of the oldest coaches in the NFL, these organizations also have two of the most talented rosters in the league. But while the teams have arrived at a similar place, their players — especially those on offense — got there in very different ways.
The Cardinals’ offense is filled with highly drafted players: Quarterback Carson Palmer was the first overall pick in 2003, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was the third overall pick the following year, and four other starters — wide receiver Michael Floyd, right tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Mike Iupati and tight end Jermaine Gresham — were drafted in the first round. Three other starters (running back David Johnson, right guard Evan Mathis and left tackle Jared Veldheer) were taken in the third round.
Meanwhile, of the Seahawks’ top 11 leaders in offensive snaps, none were a top-60 draft selection, and only three (quarterback Russell Wilson, center Justin Britt and running back Christine Michael) were taken in the first 90 picks. Four of the offense’s regular starters were undrafted: both offensive tackles, Garry Gilliam and Bradley Sowell, and both starting wide receivers, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse.
Based on the draft value calculator I created to measure the approximate average production level provided by each draft pick, we can convert each draft slot into a draft value (undrafted players receive a draft value of zero). Then, with the help of Pro-Football-Reference.com, I was able to calculate the snap-weighted draft value of each team’s offense and defense. For example, Palmer, as the first overall pick in the draft, has a draft value of 34.6. And since Palmer has taken 77 percent of all snaps for the Cardinals this season and he is one of 11 players on the offense, that means that 7 percent (i.e., 77 percent divided by 11) of Arizona’s snap-weighted offensive draft value is driven by Palmer’s 34.6 rating. This isn’t a perfect proxy for the production we can expect from a top pick — Palmer is on the back end of his career, when we expect even the best quarterbacks to be in decline — but it’s a fun way to look at the rosters.1
Perform this calculation for each player on each team through the first six weeks of the 2016 NFL season and we can calculate the average draft value of each offense and defense, with all snap data coming from Pro-Football-Reference.com. Arizona has the best-pedigreed offense in the NFL; the Seahawks’ offense, on the other hand, has the lowest average draft value.
|TEAM||DVOA||AVG. DRAFT VALUE|
|3||Kansas City Chiefs||-4||11.4|
|5||New York Giants||-1||11.0|
|7||Los Angeles Rams||-16||10.6|
|14||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||-14||9.0|
|17||San Diego Chargers||+7||7.8|
|22||Green Bay Packers||+1||7.0|
|23||New Orleans Saints||+11||7.0|
|26||New York Jets||-16||6.7|
|27||San Francisco 49ers||-10||6.6|
|31||New England Patriots||+15||4.3|
Another NFC West team, the Los Angeles Rams, stands out in these calculations for having significantly underachieved on offense. When Jared Goff, this year’s first overall pick, eventually steps in at quarterback to replace the undrafted Case Keenum, the Rams will rise in these rankings. In the meantime, the rest of the team’s offense is highly pedigreed: left tackle Greg Robinson was the second overall pick, wide receiver Tavon Austin was selected eighth overall, running back Todd Gurley was taken 10th overall, and five other regular contributors were drafted in the first two rounds.
Despite all those high draft picks, the Rams’ offense ranks just 29th overall in DVOA, the preferred measure of offensive efficiency from Football Outsiders. And while the Rams rank 7th in snap-weighted offensive draft value, the teams below Los Angeles in offensive DVOA rank 26th (Jets), 15th (Jaguars) and 24th (Texans) in snap-weighted offensive draft value. But perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: In general, there is no correlation between a team’s offensive DVOA and its (snap count-weighted) offensive draft value.2
We can run the same numbers for defense. From that perspective, the New York Jets are noteworthy because they have the the second-highest-rated defense, by draft value, in the NFL, which stands in stark contrast to the team’s defensive performance.
The Jets starting defense features six first-round draftees: defensive linemen Leonard Williams (6th overall), Sheldon Richardson (13th) and Muhammad Wilkerson (30th), linebacker Darron Lee (20th), cornerback Darrelle Revis (14th), and safety Calvin Pryor (18th). In addition, two other starters, linebacker David Harris and safety Marcus Gilchrist, were second-round draft picks. But despite all that talent, the Jets rank in the bottom of the league in many defensive statistics, including DVOA (30th), points allowed (25th) and passer rating (31st).
The table below shows the snap-weighted average draft value for each defense in the NFL. Again, a higher value corresponds to a player being selected with a higher draft pick:
|TEAM||DVOA||AVG. DRAFT VALUE|
|2||New York Jets||+19||10.2|
|4||Kansas City Chiefs||-9||9.9|
|7||New England Patriots||+4||9.8|
|9||Los Angeles Rams||-3||9.1|
|14||New York Giants||-2||8.3|
|17||Green Bay Packers||-9||8.0|
|20||San Diego Chargers||-5||7.2|
|21||New Orleans Saints||+15||7.1|
|23||San Francisco 49ers||+3||6.9|
|25||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||+4||6.6|
For now, the Texans have the best-pedigreed defense in the NFL. Interior defenders J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork, along with edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, were all first-round picks. Ditto inside linebacker Brian Cushing, along with cornerbacks Kevin Johnson, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. But injuries will likely knock the Texans out of the top spot soon: Jackson and Joseph are both expected to play this week, but Johnson will miss the rest of the year with a broken foot and Watt is on injured reserve. All that talent on the field still hasn’t gotten Houston into the top 10 of weighted DVOA, though — they sit at 11 after Week 6.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks are known for having built a dominant defense without using high draft picks. This season, they’re the top defense by DVOA. Free safety Earl Thomas (a first-round pick in 2010) is the only highly drafted player in the secondary; strong safety Kam Chancellor and top corner Richard Sherman were both fifth-round picks, nickel corner Jeremy Lane was a sixth-rounder, and starting right cornerback DeShawn Shead was undrafted. And on the defensive line, star Michael Bennett and key run defender Tony McDaniel both were undrafted, while starting nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin went in the sixth round.3
Against the top-rated Falcons offense last week, the Seahawks started four undrafted players (Shead, Bennett, McDaniel and safety Kelcie McCray) and three players drafted outside of the top 150 (Sherman, Lane and Rubin). But the defense won the battle, forcing two Falcons turnovers and limiting Atlanta, the fourth-highest-drafted offense, to just three conversions on 11 third-down tries. Score a win for the players the draft overlooked.