Ever wonder which teams have had the best drafts over the past five seasons? We certainly have, and recently our own Eric Eager created a model to measure just such a ranking. The rankings were inspired by his “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR) model, which compares the expected wins for a player’s team with or without his contributions. The expected wins for each team are computed using weights for our different grade components (passing, rushing, receiving, etc.) that reflect how predictive each component is with respect to winning football games. Since the passing game is the most predictive of team success, the players with the largest WAR are quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs, linebackers with substantial coverage responsibilities and elite pass-rushers.
We computed WAR for each player drafted while they were with their drafting team, and summed these numbers for each team from the years 2012 to 2016, excluding seasons where a player had a negative wins above replacement as we felt that players that saw snaps yet were below replacement level should be treated the same as draft picks that never saw the field. We weighed the most recent season’s class as if their productivity is going to be repeated for the subsequent four seasons, weighed the second-most recent class as if the combined productivity from 2015 and 2016 is going to be repeated the subsequent three seasons, and so on. Below are the teams ranked from highest to lowest WAR total, along with some of the top scoring players from each squad.
Dallas has drafted extremely well since 2012, and it should be no surprise to see Dak Prescott as the headliner of the group. Prescott was immediately thrust into action when Tony Romo went down with an injury in preseason last year, and Prescott never looked back. As a rookie, Prescott’s 74.4 completion percentage in a clean pocket ranked fourth in the league, while his 118.0 passer rating when unthreatened by the rush was third-best, behind only Matt Ryan and Tom Brady.
The Raiders finish just out of the top spot, due largely to the strength of their 2014 draft. Edge standout Khalil Mack led all edge defenders in total pressures (96) and pass-rush productivity in 2016. Behind him just three spots is QB Derek Carr, who last year he ranked fifth in both adjusted completion percentage (51.8) and passer rating (117.6) on deep passes.
The Seahawks come in third on the list, and Russell Wilson’s play under pressure makes him the highest overall individual value in the league. Last season he finished second in adjusted completion percentage under pressure (72.0), and his 85.8 passer rating when threatened by the rush was fourth-best.
Two defensive standouts have helped elevate the Panthers to the fourth position: LB Luke Kuechly and DI Kawann Short. Kuechly has been nothing short of the best inside linebacker in football since being selected ninth overall in 2012. Among his many impressive traits is his ability in coverage, highlighted by his 2015 campaign that saw him pick off six passes and break up another six while not yielding a touchdown into his coverage. Short finished second in run stop percentage among all defensive tackles last season, which followed up his 2015 season which saw him post the third-best pass-rush productivity mark among his peers.
This one may be a surprise considering the franchise’s record in recent years, but the team’s struggles haven’t necessarily been about the talent accumulated. Joey Bosa immediately thrust himself into the conversation of the league’s elite edge players by posting the third-best pass-rush productivity score during his rookie season, and when healthy, WR Keenan Allen has been a dangerous weapon on the other side of the ball. Allen has dropped just 14 of the 243 catchable balls thrown his way during his career, and posted at least 12 catches three times in just eight appearances last year.
Minnesota is led by WR Stefon Diggs and S Harrison Smith, both of whom rank in the top 40 individually. Diggs has dropped just six of 146 catchable balls during his two-year career, none of them coming on throws at least 10 yards through the air from the line of scrimmage. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of just 71.1 when throwing into Smith’s coverage during his career, and despite missing multiple games due to injury the last two seasons, he’s racked up at least nine QB pressures and 21 total stops in each of his past three campaigns. The league's third highest paid cornerback in Xavier Rhodes rounds out the group.
For the Colts it’s all about the value of the quarterback position, coupled with their best skill player. Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton were deadly on deep targets last year, as the duo connected on 17 of 32 attempts for 528 yards and three scores on throws that traveled at least 20 yards through the air. Hilton’s catch rate of 51.5 percent on deep targets was the best in the NFL in 2016.
The Bucs are led by their own elite skill player, as Mike Evans ranks eighth-overall individually. Evans followed up his fifth place performance in yards per route run in 2015 (2.39) with a fourth place performance last year (2.28). LB Lavonte David also cracks the top 50, bolstered by his 27 total passes defensed and 89 total QB pressures since 2012.
WR DeVante Parker has yet to truly breakout, but is still Miami’s top-ranked player in wins-above-replacement. He dropped just one of 61 catchable balls last season, and did much of his dirty work between the numbers. 35 of his 60 grabs came in the middle of the field, as did 469 of his receiving yards. WR Jarvis Landry finished fourth last season with his 2.33 yards per route run from the slot among all receivers who ran at least 131 routes in the slot.
While unable to contribute to Atlanta’s Super Bowl run beyond week nine last year due to injury, CB Desmond Trufant is Atlanta’s highest-ranked individual player in the metric. During his four-year career he has yielded just 10 touchdowns into his coverage while intercepting seven and breaking up 32.
Green Bay’s appearance this high proves the team’s recent dominance of the NFC North is more than just the play of elite signal-caller Aaron Rodgers. Defensive interior-standout Mike Daniels is their top-ranked player in this exercise, as he has developed into one of the top all-around players at his position. Over the past two seasons he has posted 109 total pressures and 57 run stops.
The Redskins were a surprise playoff contender last year, due largely to the development of recently drafted talent. None were better than Jordan Reed, who led all NFL tight ends with a minuscule 1.49 percent drop rate. Over the past two seasons Reed is also at the head of the class in total touchdown receptions (18) and forced missed tackles after the catch (31) among tight ends.
Dont'a Hightower was a critical re-signing this past off season for the Patriots, as his all-around impact sees him ranked 34 overall on the individual list. His impact on the passing game has been massive, as over the past three years he has accumulated a total of 96 pressures and allowed just two scores into his coverage.
The Giants have five of the top 151 individual players on our list, but far-and-away the top banana is WR Odell Beckam Jr. who led all NFL receivers last year with 30 forced missed tackles after the catch, and finished fifth in yards per route run (2.27). Landon Collins was one of the breakout players of the year in 2016, highlighted by his No. 2 rank among safeties in run stop percentage within eight yards of the line of scrimmage.
Expectations are high in Kansas City this year, certainly in part due to the play of Tyreek Hill last year. Hill caught all five catchable deep balls thrown his way as a rookie last year for 199 yards and three scores, and unsurprisingly considering his three scores, was our highest-graded returner as well.
Nose tackle Brandon Williams has been a strong contributor for the Ravens in recent years, and re-upped with the team this past spring. He makes his biggest contribution on run defense, as he has racked up an impressive 99 run stops over the past three seasons and has missed just 10 combined tackles in that time span.
Arizona has a player on each side of the ball cracking the top 33 individual list. RB David Johnson forced 73 missed tackles rushing and receiving combined, while Tyrann Mathieu’s 70.3 passer rating against on throws into his coverage from the slot in 2015 was the lowest in the league.
Aaron Donald was the best defender in the NFL last season, as his 37 combined sacks and QB hits outdistanced the No. 2 defensive tackle by 14, and he also finished third among the group in run stop percentage. Trumaine Johnson is the only other Ram to crack the top 150 on our individual list, but he is currently playing through his second consecutive franchise tag with the team, and his future status with the Rams after this season is in question.
Jordan Hicks was a surprise standout last year for the Eagles, as his performance in coverage put him among the league’s best linebackers. He gave up just one touchdown and one reception over 20 yards into his coverage in 2016, while he racked up five interceptions, three other pass break ups posted a passer rating against of just 53.7.
Edge phenom Jadeveon Clowney finally stayed healthy last season and had the breakout performance everyone expected when he was drafted first overall in 2014 by the Texans. He posted 38 total defensive stops in 2016, and registered at least four pressures in seven of Houston’s final nine games of the season.
While his 2016 wasn’t quite up to the standard set the year prior, CB Darius Slay is clearly the best draft pick by the Lions over the past five seasons. In each of his three seasons as a starter in Detroit he has racked up double digit total passes defended, and last season he surrendered just one pass longer than 25 yards over the final eight games of the year. RB Theo Riddick finished last season with the 15th highest yards per route run among all running backs with his mark of 1.46.
By some accounts, Jack Conklin was a surprise top ten pick in 2016, but the rookie right tackle more than held his own last season. His pass blocking grade of 87.5 was third-best among all right tackles, 13th among offensive linemen league-wide.
The Jaguars are quietly beginning to accumulate a wide array of young and talented players throughout the roster, with the best to this point likely being CB Jalen Ramsey. As a rookie last year, Ramsey end the season on fire by posting 10 total passes defended without a touchdown against in the final five games of the season.
The Saints look to have struck gold with WR Michael Thomas, who comes in at No. 9 on the individual list. Drew Brees had a lofty passer rating of 117.5 when throwing to his rookie last season, the tenth-highest in the league. His catch rate of 63.6 percent on deep balls was third best in the NFL in 2016.
Joel Bitonio is one of only six guards to crack into the top 100, a position generally not considered to be highly impactful. In three seasons with the Browns, Bitonio has surrendered just four total sacks, and in 2016 he gave up only eight total pressures in pass protection. RB Duke Johnson has impressed enough to encourage coach Hue Jackson to use him all over the field.
Tyler Eifert is the only Bengal currently on the roster to crack the top 100 individual players (guard Kevin Zeitler left for Cleveland in free agency). Health has been a reoccurring issue during Eifert’s young career, but when on the field he’s proved to be a dynamic talent, as he’s led NFL tight ends each of the last two seasons in deep ball catch rate.
We were a huge fan of Cody Whitehair coming out of Kansas State, and he more than lived up to our hype last season. He graded among the top six centers in pass protection, run blocking and overall as a rookie last year for the Bears.
Sammy Watkins is the top Bill on our list, but his inability to stay healthy has held him back throughout his career. In 2015, he snagged 16 balls on throws of at least 20 yards through the air for a total of 606 yards and eight scores despite missing three full games and parts of three others, but last season he appeared in just eight total games and was held to just four deep ball catches for one touchdown.
Sheldon Richardson is the top Jet on the list despite a subpar 2016 by his standards. While he posted 40 total defensive stops last season, only two were sacks and he managed just 38 other pressures, despite racking up 54 total in 2015 on 32 less snaps. Edge defender Leonard Williams made his claim to fame by recording seven or more pressures from five different alignment techniques along the defensive front for the Jets – en route to being placed on our top players under age 25.
No surprise here – Le’Veon Bell is the top Steeler on the list, with guard David DeCastro the only other Pittsburgh player to crack the individual top 100. Bell forced 68 total missed tackles rushing and receiving last season, posting an incredible 1690 total yards after contact. DeCastro has not surrendered more than three sacks or five QB hits in any of his five years in the NFL.
Derek Wolfe and Matt Paradis are the only current Broncos to squeak into the top 100, ranked 90th and 91st, respectively. Wolfe has posted 18 sacks and 98 total QB pressures over the past two seasons combined, and Paradis’ 90.4 overall grade last season ranked No. 2 among all NFL centers.
Seeing San Francisco at the bottom of the list makes perfect sense once realizing the highest-ranked individual player is DeForest Buckner, who comes in at 159th. Buckner did post 48 total pressures and 35 total stops as a rookie in 2016, but ranked just 24th in overall grade among all defensive interior players.