No NFL team believes in the power of first-round draft picks more than the Atlanta Falcons. Before they even make their choice with the 16th overall selection in this year’s draft, set for April 23 to 25, the Falcons are lousy with the best of the draft’s best. They’re set to open the 2020 season with at least 10 offensive starters boasting first-round pedigrees — and they could go a perfect 11 for 11 depending on how the battle for the team’s third wide receiver shakes out.1
Of course, starters in April aren’t always starters in September, let alone December. But if Atlanta’s projected offensive starters can stay healthy, they could set a record for draft talent on one side of the ball. In fact, it’s rare for a team to have even half as many first-rounders who start more than half the season.2 From 2015 to 2019, teams averaged just 2.8 first-round starters on offense and 3.1 on defense, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Only one team in the period had as many as seven first-round primary starters on offense: last year’s Falcons. The most on either side of the ball was the eight starters on the 2015 Texans defense.
Six of those 10 first-rounders projected for Atlanta’s starting offense were picks the Falcons made themselves. The other four were either signed as free agents or acquired in a trade. This offseason, Atlanta traded for Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst and signed free agent running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who is competing for the third wide receiver spot.3
“You always bring those guys in if they’ve been dispatched in their first place,” said sportswriter and former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks on his “Move the Sticks” podcast. “You just never know — coaching staff, environment might not have been conducive to bringing the talent to the surface. … They have to go to the right system to really allow that potential to blossom.”
One flaw in this roster-building strategy, though, has been the output of Atlanta’s own picks. Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta’s general manager since 2008, has been at best average relative to his peers in selecting college players who can succeed in his team’s system. Since 2015, Dimitroff’s six picks have averaged a career approximate value of 13.7, good for just 23rd in the league.4 Their average overall selection in the first round came at pick 20.3, which ranks 25th.
Atlanta lags in production from its first-rounders
NFL teams by the average career approximate value (AV)* of their first-round draft picks, since 2015
|Team||No. of picks||Average draft spot||Total Career AV||Average AV|
|L.A./St. Louis Rams||2||5.50||91||45.50|
|L.A./San Diego Chargers||5||14.00||101||20.20|
Cade Massey, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about the NFL draft and hosts the “Wharton Moneyball” sports analytics radio program. He says he’s very interested to see how Atlanta’s novel approach works out.
“We know on average first-round picks are better players than picks from every other round, so they sure seem to have accumulated a lot of talent,” he wrote in an email to FiveThirtyEight. “But of course it depends on what they’re paying for all that talent. A good GM needs to have, at least in part, a trader mentality – buy anything at the right price, sell anything at the right price.”
Gurley, the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, has a cap hit this year of only $5.5 million, which ranks ninth among 2020 running backs, according to contract-tracking site Over The Cap. Hurst is still on a cap-friendly rookie contract, and Treadwell — drafted by the Vikings with the 23rd overall pick in 2016 — was signed for under $1 million. But Gurley has chronic knee issues, Hurst was beaten out by third-round pick Mark Andrews as the primary tight end in Baltimore (even though the Ravens famously picked Hurst ahead of 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson) and Treadwell caught just 65 passes in four seasons in Minnesota.
Massey last year argued that 48 percent of first-round picks fall into the bust category. In his paper “The Loser’s Curse: Decision Making and Market Efficiency in the National Football League Draft,” Massey and Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago wrote: “We find that top draft picks are significantly overvalued in a manner that is inconsistent with rational expectations and efficient markets and consistent with psychological research.”
But don’t tell that to Dimitroff, who collects first-round picks like baseball cards. This offseason, he also signed high-priced free agent Dante Fowler, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, as a pass rusher. Fowler is now on his third team and has compiled 27.5 career sacks.
Dimitroff also tried to sign defensive end Robert Quinn, the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft, but lost him to the Bears. Quinn framed his decision as a coin flip — an apt comparison, since first-round picks, on average, are essentially a coin flip anyway. The Falcons are now going to see if this apparent randomness also applies to veterans who were once selected there, after being discarded by their original teams.