Welcome to part two of our deep dive into the drafting behaviors of teams over the past two decades. In part one, we took a look at the five teams who have drafted the most “Elite” RAS talents over the past twenty years, by percentage. Today, we’re going to take a look at the five teams who have drafted the lowest percentage of “Elite” talents. Who are the bottom teams by RAS grade, and what do they have in common?
RAS, or Relative Athletic Score, is a metric developed by Kent Lee Platte that allows us to quantify the athletic testing prospects undergo at the NFL Combine and their Pro Day. It allows us to compare players against each other at their position with an overall grade. Players who grade out in the top 20% of their position achieve an “Elite” grade of 8.0 or higher.
Just like in part one, we’re going to be looking at two main components, in addition to the percent of “Elite” RAS grades drafted: percentage of “Elite” RAS grades drafted in the first round, and the overall success — or lack thereof — of each team over the past two decades. Which teams have the bottom RAS grades since 2001? Some of the answers may surprise you!
Bottom five RAS grades
5. Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins have lacked consistency arguably since the days of Joe Gibbs. You can blame that on a lot of different factors, including poor leadership and decision making at the top and poor coaching. Or you can blame it on questionable draft strategies over the past two decades.
The Redskins have done a good job of identifying and drafting “Elite” talent in the first round. Of 14 players the team has drafted in the first round over that span who achieved a RAS grade, 12 of them graded out as “Elite”. Only one of their first-round picks since 2001 graded out as “Poor” — a RAS grade of under 5.0.
It’s the rest of the draft where the team has struggled to identify and secure players with elite athletic traits. Since the 2001 NFL Draft, Washington has drafted 126 players who achieved a RAS grade, with only 47 of those (or just over 37%) coming in with an “Elite” grade. That percentage puts them 28th overall in the league during that span.
In this case, the proof is in the pudding, too. Since the 2001 season, Washington has made the playoffs just four times. Over that same 20-year stretch, they have finished last in the NFC East a total of eight times.
4. Detroit Lions
Despite having strong-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford and Hall of Fame-caliber wide receiver Calvin Johnson for a good number of years, the Detroit Lions have been one of the most aggressively average teams of the past two decades. Much like Washington, a lot of the blame can be attributed in many different directions, but much of it has to do with questionable draft strategy.
The Lions come in as our fourth-worst team since 2001 at identifying and drafting “Elite” RAS talent. Of the 122 players the Lions have drafted since the 2001 NFL Draft who have a RAS grade, just 45 of them have come in with an “Elite” grade. Unlike Washington, this trend is also reflected in the Lions first-round picks, with just 12 of their 21 first-round picks achieving an “Elite” grade.
Detroit has finished at the bottom of their division 9 times over that span, including each of the past two seasons. They only have 3 playoff appearances to show for it over that time, with zero postseason wins. The Ford family — owners of the team since 1963 — has proclaimed a renewed dedication to building the Lions into a consistent winner. It remains to be seen if that will trickle down into how the team approaches the NFL Draft.
3. Arizona Cardinals
The third team in our look at the bottom 5 teams by RAS grades is also the first team on the list to have a Super Bowl appearance over the last two decades. The Arizona Cardinals haven’t enjoyed a lot of success over the past two decades, but they have reached the Promised Land.
The 2008 season for the Cardinals resulted in a Super Bowl appearance, ultimately resulting in a loss to Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since 2001, the Cardinals only have 3 other playoff appearances and have finished last in their division seven times in that same span. One look at the team’s draft tendencies over that period can give us a lot of answers as to why.
Since the 2001 NFL Draft, the Cardinals have selected 133 players who qualified for a RAS grade. Of those 133, only 48 — or approximately 36% — have achieved an “Elite” grade of 8.0 or higher. That lack of identifying elite talent has been a particular problem in the first round for the Cardinals.
Since 2001 they’ve selected 16 players in the first round with a RAS grade. Only eight of those players scored as “Elite”, with six achieving a “Good” grade (a score between 5.0 and 7.9), and 2 scoring as “Poor.”
2. San Francisco 49ers
Arguably the most successful team on our list, it may surprise some readers to find the 49ers on the list of bottom five teams by RAS grades. San Francisco has enjoyed a lot of success over the past two decades, and head coach Kyle Shanahan seems to have them poised for long-term success — at least as much as you can be in the NFL. However, it wasn’t that long ago there were some dark days in the Bay.
There’s more to building a successful team than simply drafting elite athletes. You have to have a coaching staff that knows how to develop talent, and schemes that put your talent in a position to win. Good coaching and innovative play-calling can go a long way towards mitigating a lack of elite talent, as the 49ers draft history over the past two decades seems to suggest.
The 49ers have made 148 draft picks over the past twenty years who have had a qualifying RAS grade. Only 53 of those selections have had “Elite” RAS grades of 8.0 or higher — just shy of 36%. Unlike Detroit and Arizona, though, the 49ers have made a concerted effort to draft “Elite” talent in the first round, with 13 of their 21 qualifying picks scoring an “Elite” grade.
That effort to draft “Elite” talent early, along with a handful of innovative coaches and systems, has led the 49ers to two Super Bowls in the past two decades. They’ve also made an additional two trips to the NFL Championship game, falling just short of even more Super Bowl appearances.
1. Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills have been one of the most talked-about teams of the offseason. They’re led by talented, yet polarizing, young quarterback Josh Allen. They just traded for former Minnesota Vikings star receiver Stefon Diggs. They’ve made the playoffs two out of the last three years and could be poised to take over the AFC East with Tom Brady out of New England.
The Bills are a team on the rise, but their inclusion on a list of the bottom five RAS grades over the past two decades shouldn’t surprise most fans. Before the recent resurgence in Buffalo, the Bills were one of the doormats of the league. Perhaps due to poor draft strategy reflected by the RAS data.
Since the 2001 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills have selected 142 players who achieved a RAS grade. Of those 142, only 49 of them have achieved an “Elite” grade of 8.0 or higher, the lowest percentage in the league, and just under 35%.
In their favor, they’ve also been the most risk-averse of the five teams on this list in the first round. Of the 18 RAS-qualifying players they’ve selected in the first round since 2001, 13 of them have scored as “Elite” while none of them have turned in a “Poor” grade.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Bills have not seen much success over the past 20 years. They’ve reached the playoffs just twice in that span, with eight last-place finishes over that same period. Things are looking up, however, with two playoff appearances in the last three seasons, and their most recent last-place finish coming in 2013.