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Analytics-driven 2023 NFL Draft Grades: Cardinals, Colts and Bears lead the way

Paris Johnson Jr. (center) with general manager Monti Ossenfort (left) and head coach Jonathan Gannon (right) during a news conference on April 28, 2023, at the Arizona Cardinals training center in Tempe. Paris Johnson Jr

• Cardinals lead the way: The Arizona Cardinals gained value from trades and made valuable picks, including Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson Jr. 

• The Colts get their guy: The Indianapolis Colts made good trades, smartly drafted QB Anthony Richardson and also made other good selections.

• Steelers play it smart: The Pittsburgh Steelers made no mistakes. They had the best trade-up of the draft, and all of their picks provided positive value over alternatives.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The 2023 NFL Draft is in the books. The Carolina Panthers ended up picking Bryce Young, the Houston Texans drafted C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr. and Will Levis landed with the Tennessee Titans … even if it took a little longer than anticipated. 

All that's left is to answer one not-so-simple question: Which NFL team had the best draft?

It will be a while until we definitively know who the best players from the class are, but we can still attempt to evaluate each team's draft process to measure how they did.

However, the process is inherently complex: We aren't exactly privy to war-room discussions, and we don't really know what fuels the decision to pick a particular player.

The run-of-the-mill draft grades articles published by media outlets are seldom useful when it comes to evaluating the process because they often try to measure the overall talent added. Of course, this is highly subjective and biased toward teams with a lot of draft capital. For example, the C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr. picks are more impressive than whatever the Cleveland Browns could have added with their picks, but that does not tell us whether Houston attacked the draft better than Cleveland.

More PFF draft content:

LIVE Draft Tracker | 2024 Mock Draft Simulator | 2023 NFL Draft Guide
Top 200 Big Board  | 
PFF Mock Drafts | Measureables & Workout Data
NCAA Premium Stats | Draft Rankings By Position | Prospect Superlatives

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Last year, we introduced an analytical way of evaluating picks by combining the concept of surplus value for each position with the predictive power of consensus big boards, which do a fairly good job of describing steals and reaches.

With Day 3 being even more of a crapshoot than Days 1 and 2, we only grade the process of the picks during the first two days. However, we will incorporate every trade from all three days into our analysis.

Here is a short description of how the analytical draft grades work this year:

For each pick, we look at the selected player's consensus big board rank. Since draft position gives us additional information over the consensus, we regress the consensus rank toward the actual draft position. And since we can be more confident in “reaches” than in “steals,” we regress toward draft position by 30% when the pick was a reach and by 60% if the pick was a steal.

Armed with each player’s regressed consensus rank, we can look at the on-field value the selected player is projected to generate based on his rank and position. We’ve estimated these numbers in our work about surplus value. We then compare the projected value to a baseline of alternatives, namely the projected value of the group of players selected afterward, as these were the reasonable alternatives.

The following chart shows the value of each draft pick in the first three rounds:

Obviously, making picks is only part of the process for teams. The other part is navigating the board with trades.

A team will always have a specific player in mind when it trades up, so we can attribute the net value of a trade directly to the pick the team that traded up made. This is the same chart, only it accounts for teams trading up:

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