Survivorship Bias & Judging The 2021 NFL Rookie Class After The Fact

NFL Draft is this week. Seven rounds where each of the league’s 32 teams will see how well their talent evaluation processes work as they create a few dozen instant millionaires. The drafted, selected from the ranks of college football, still must prove their worth, as the 254 total players who will have their rights owned by a particular team for the next three years still has to make a roster of 53, with the bulk of the 53 assuming they are still on those rosters not in a hurry to give up their spot.


But the draft is not perfect. Many teams rely on ‘sleeper’ to emerge that are picked up late in the process but end up outshining first-round picks in actual performance. Tom Brady’s status as the greatest quarterback of all time was not predestined, as he was considering being an insurance agent before finally being selected by the New England Patriots with the 199 pick in the 2000 draft. He also had to be ready to take over in an instant when an injury to starter Drew Bledsoe meant he had to take the field and the tenacity to make sure he stayed on the field when Bledsoe eventually healed.

But the biggest fear is for a team to pick a player who turns out to be a bust when another player who turns out to be a boon was still in the pool. Here are five examples from the past 20 seasons.

  • The Philadelphia Eagles traded up 15 spots to take defensive end Jerome McDougle with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2003 draft. At No. 16, the Steelers selected safety Troy Polamalu, who spent his entire 12-year Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh and was one of the more dominant players of his day.
  • The Oakland Raiders hoped they were getting someone who could man left tackle for them for the foreseeable future when they picked Robert Gallery as the No. 2 overall pick in 2004. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was picked No. 3 overall by the Arizona Cardinals and was one of the more dependable and durable wide receivers of his era.
  • Two years later, the Raiders took cornerback Fabian Washington one pick before quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who went to Green Bay. Washington played just three seasons with the Raiders before going elsewhere, while Rodgers would have been playing backup to Rich Gannon and ready to take over after he announced his retirement instead of Kerry Collins
  • Three years after that, the Raiders made what is considered one of the greatest busts in NFL history. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell was the number 1 overall draft pick of his class, but his performance highlights were all from pre-draft day. Number two that year went to the Detroit Lion, who selected Calvin Johnson, who is considered one of the greatest wide receivers of his era and is a recent inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • Later in the 2007 draft, defensive end Adam Carriker was selected number 13 by the St. Louis Rams, ending with what most consider a modest seven-year NFL career. What makes this pick a bust was the man selected next by the New York Jets, legendary cornerback Darrelle Revis, who spent 11 years in the league, was named to the Pro Bowl seven times and was a four-time first-team All-Pro selection.

But remember, hindsight is 50/50. None of these players I highlight were a given to perform extraordinary or terrible and were always one fluke play away from greatness or disaster. Looking back at the career of a stellar athlete and comparing it to a flameout is a classic example of survivorship bias. There is a false conclusion on just how good or bad they are based on the actual circumstances as history recorded them.

Bledsoe’s injury is a fine example of this. If he does not get hurt, Brady may not get a chance to start for the Patriots in 2001, probably does get a chance to play at 20-plus seasons of football, and unlikely to get a shot at being the oldest quarterback to appear and win a championship in Super Bowl LV.

Survivorship bias is seen frequently as we attempt to evaluate business success. Unless due to some catastrophic or extremely quirky failure, we quickly forget a company that is no longer operating when gauging the success of others. So, the companies that thrive seem to have done everything right when very few ventures statically succeed. Most in the current business span do not even look to win, but just to be bought out and purposely forgotten. There are more Mr. Irrelevant style businesses that no one expects much out of, so they quickly forget those top-round companies that flame out spectacularly.

The Raiders did not draft Larry Fitzgerald in 2004 because they did not see a need for a top wide receiver for pick number 2. Chances are since they did not seem to need him, they probably would not have much use for him, and his proficiency would not have been showcased. The same can be said for the pick of JaMarcus Russell, as the Raiders we in serious need of a quarterback of the future, not having someone to throw the ball to Calvin Johnson.

Please do not get fooled by the businesses and people running them that you see as successful because you never really get to examine the failed ones, or even the ones doing fine but operating totally on stealth.

I personally thing the bigest draft busts are in the NBA

Portland Trail Blazers taking Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007, and previously in 1984 selecting Sam Bowie Michael Jordan. In 1983 they drafted Clyde Drexler and in 2007 Oden was seen as a bet that if paid off would have been huge. But what we know now, we know now.

Who do you want your NFL team to take off the board in this week’s draft? This could be a real debate. Email me at jclevelandpayne@gmail.com, and we’ll talk.

Leave a Reply