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5 min read
Breanna Wright and Major Bottoms Jr.

The NFL Draft is simple: Over seven rounds, the league’s 32 teams pick players in an order based on performance, with the team holding the worst record picking first and the Super Bowl champion picking last.


During the draft, young athletes hope to hear their names called by the league’s commissioner, announcing their ascent to the professional ranks. Those chosen will breathe a sigh of relief in a moment where their hard work in the film room, weight room and field of play has finally paid off. But what about those not lucky enough to be picked—do their NFL dreams end after the seventh round?


Of the thousands of hopeful players each year, only 235 are drafted on average, and 220 sign as undrafted free agents. The recent viral success of quarterback Tommy Devito, an undrafted free agent who signed with the New York Giants, has reignited NFL fans’ skepticism regarding the league’s ability to identify and draft the most talented eligible players. And many will remember the surprise success of Kurt Warner, who went undrafted in 1994 and entered the Hall of Fame in 2017.


These examples and others lead us to ask: Are drafted players more successful than undrafted free agents? Let’s look at the data.


Looking at the data


Using data collected from Pro Football Reference, we look at the relationship between draft selection and NFL success using four different measurements:


  • Hall of Fame Inductees for players whose NFL careers began between 1994-2009
  • Pro Bowl Selections from 2010-2023 for players whose NFL careers began between 2010-2020
  • Average number of games started and played for players drafted from 2010-2020 for the 2010-2023 NFL seasons


If draft selection is an indication of future NFL success, compared to undrafted free agents, drafted players should:


  • be more likely to be inducted into the Hall of Fame;
  • be more likely to be selected for the Pro Bowl;
  • on average, start more games; and
  • on average, play more games.


Hall of Fame 1994-2009


The Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of professional football. A place in its hallowed halls is reserved for the sport’s elite players who have made Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams, won Super Bowls and stood out as the best in their position. The only restriction for a player to be considered for the Hall of Fame is five years of retirement since their last season.


The data shows that of the 46 players inducted into the Hall of Fame whose careers began between 1994 and 2009, 32 were selected in the NFL Draft’s first round. This validates the craze created by teams and media around the first round, which was moved to its own day in 2010 and is now marketed as a standalone television product.




But the real story is in the number of Hall of Famers picked after the first round. While one might expect this line to be smooth, with higher-drafted players more likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame, this isn’t exactly the case. Of the 46 players we looked at, there were just as many undrafted players as there were third-rounders (4), while just one was selected between rounds four and seven.


Pro Bowl 2010-2023


The Pro Bowl is held annually by the NFL at the end of each season. It features the season’s top players, who are selected based on votes from coaches, fellow players and fans. 


Looking at Pro Bowl selection data from 2010-2023 for players who started their NFL careers between 2010-2020, we see that players selected in the first three rounds comprise over 75% of the total Pro Bowl selections, despite making up less than 25% of the players in the pool. Meanwhile, undrafted players outperformed those drafted after the third round. However, the likelihood of being selected for the Pro Bowl for undrafted players is still lower than that for late-round draft picks due to the larger number of undrafted players.




Breaking down Pro Bowl selection by both draft selection and position, we see that there is a clear difference between Pro Bowl selection for drafted and undrafted players. Nearly 44% of undrafted players selected for the Pro Bowl are selected as special teamers, while less than 1% of drafted players meet the same criteria.  




Average number of games started and played


Looking at players drafted between 2010-2020 who played between 2010-2023, we see a strong relationship between draft selection and average number of games per season started. First-round draft picks start an average of 10 games per season played, while seventh-round draft picks only start an average of 1.87 games.


Undrafted players started the least number of games, with an average of 1.8 games per season played. However, the difference between the seventh-round draft picks and undrafted players is minimal.


The relationship between the draft round and the average number of games played per season is much weaker. There is minimal difference in the number of games played for first- through third-round picks, and the difference between the first-round picks and undrafted players is significantly smaller than the difference in the number of games started.




Breaking down the number of games played by both draft selection and position, we see that players on special teams played more games on average than offensive and defensive positions.




What do the numbers tell us?


Are drafted players more successful than undrafted free agents? Based on the data, the answer to this question depends on the round drafted and the position played. Regardless of their position, first-round picks are the most successful players across all success measures on average.


Differences in success between late-round picks and undrafted players are dependent upon the measure of success utilized. Undrafted players outperformed late-round draft picks on two out of the four success measures utilized.


First-round picks often prove to be top-tier talent, but our findings leave us wondering: How many Tommy Devitos, Kurt Warners and others who have found success outside the draft are out there? And even further, how many talented individuals have had their NFL dreams ended prematurely?


From the draft to the Super Bowl, football seasons are set to create a wealth of data like what we’ve analyzed here. If you’re looking to make sense of your sports data—and how technology can help—connect with our team today.


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