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, and we’ll talk.

Every Day I Write Something

Every day I write something.

Some of it turns into copy for radio broadcasts and recordings.

Some of it turns into online postings for blogs and podcasts.

Some of it eventually turns into long-form articles and even books.

Some of it languishes in digital limbo for a long time. Some of it will never turn into much more than unfinished thoughts and incomplete ideas.

Some of it takes longer to compose than others. Some of it gets more time in proof and editing than others.

Some of it is garbage. Some of it may make you pause and think. Some of it may make you laugh.

Some of it gets read. Most of it does not.

Every day I write something.

Every day.


J Cleveland Payne is a writer that wishes he was more famous. You can help him reach his desired level of fame by reading his writing on Medium, at the Your Better You Project, or right here at Like everyone else on the internet, you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Three Types Of People You Should Think Of Giving More To

One of the various famous quotables attributed to Zig Ziglar is, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” This is a statement that has launched many an entrepreneurial journey into a dragon’s lair with no hope of survival.

A good entrepreneur should offer goods or services that fulfill a need. A great entrepreneur is looking to solve a specific problem. All entrepreneurs are looking to help other people in hopes of those people helping out the entrepreneur by handing over their money, but how does this really work?

And who does an entrepreneur needs to help?

Begin With Having The Ability (And Resources) To Help

Another famous quotable repeated universally by airline pilots and flight attendances across the world is, “In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.” This quickly reminds anyone who might attempt cabin decompression heroics that these isn’t much you can do for anyone but be a burden if you pass out. The same reasoning applies when you decide to hang your shingle across a shop door downtown without the means to produce the goods or services you think could help the masses, and earn you a living. Your product and service, as stated above should at least fulfill a basic need and should aim to solve a real problem of a real customer.

Karma Is About Caring

For a moment, we need to back away from the sales aspect you offer a potential customer and just focus on the value of helping. You always need to help those who can’t help you. Even if you don’t believe in concepts of karma or ‘higher powers’ keeping tabs on us puny humans, there is a power that comes from sending out good energy. You don’t have to give indiscriminately, but you do need to give to people with little to give back to you that you believe are worthy–and can capitalize on–whatever help you can possibly provide. If this sounds a lot like charity, that’s because it basically is. You know how much publicity a good show of charity can generate?

Reciprocity Is The Word

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with helping a person that can open doors and grant you access special access. Having the ‘universe’ eventually pay you back for your efforts is great. Even better is having a real person for can offer real useful stuff due the ‘Law of Reciprocity,’ which kind of states a mutual exchange of privileges where a person who receives is compelled (by the universe, need to keep their ledger clean, guilt, whatever) to return the favor eventually. Reciprocity does not demand new retail value, but something that inherently useful. Assuming you have offered up something inherently useful to begin with. Just make sure to pay your park back when the Law of Reciprocity is played on you.

Provide Unseen Help For The Unseen And Needy

Offering up help to those unseen is not the hardest to do, but it is very difficult to score for both business and personal concerns. Think of a ‘Pay-It-Forward’ line at a Starbuck’s drive-thru or feeding parking meters in front of City Hall (which is actually illegal, and will cause more trouble than it is probably worth if you get caught). Why would you offer up hard earn stuff to the ether to not even know if it gets used possibly? Mostly, just because. Because you can, because it feels good, because the opportunity just arose at the right time. Because you got stuck doing it and didn’t want to look like a jerk, which is what you look like if you break a ‘Pay-It-Forward’ chain. You have every right not to give to the questionable those, but be prepared for a short bout of public shaming.

How Much Help Are You Offering To The World?

Think about the butterfly effect, the thought that a butterfly flapping its wings in Detroit can eventually become a dust storm in Phoenix (a haboob!) The thought about free and cheerful giving by one single person snowballing into world peace is a pipe dream for sure, but having the ability and willingness to give a little back in gratitude for all that you have been given not only makes sense for you as a person. It can add up to real, tangible dollars as a business owner when word of your generosity spreads between grateful and impressed customers.