First-Round Picks: Necessary or Overrated?

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Kavis Reed Doubts the Utility of First-Round Picks

Alouettes’ General Manager Kavis Reed recently sat down with 3DownNation’s Justin Dunk to discuss the Johnny Manziel trade. After being asked how he processed giving up two first-round picks, Reed revealed to Dunk that he believes the real value in the draft lies from the third round and on:

“I’m going to address this without giving away a lot of trade secrets. I presented a draft style to ownership when I interviewed for the job. I really love studying the draft. Last year we were able to go without a first-round pick and we felt very strongly about the draft. We feel very strongly about the 2018 draft. When you look historically at where really the value in the CFL Drafts are those value picks are in the third round moving back. Not to say the first round is not important but the value picks really are in the third round moving back.” (Bold for Author emphasis)

Is Reed onto something?

What a claim. Could Reed really be onto something? The traditional wisdom in the Canadian Football League community is that the first round often yields multi-year starters who frequently improve a team. Ex-general manager and head coach Danny Maciocia recently used this logic to expound on why he would not have made the Johnny Manziel trade.

In order to examine the validity of Reed’s claim, it is necessary to take a look at a sample of the previous drafts. By doing so we can assess the relative utility of a pick against the pillars of common wisdom.

The Rules

I will compare the 2015-2017 Canadian Football League Draft 1st-Round Selections against the 3rd-Round Selections. Here are some criteria that make sense:

  • Did the player start the first game of the season they were drafted? (i.e. fill an immediate playing need)
  • Did the player start in some capacity, special teams or otherwise, during the course of their first season? (Capable of quickly adapting and playing at a Canadian Football League level)
  • Is the player currently a starter? (Capability to gain or maintain a starting role over time)
  • Is the player on an active roster? (Capability to play within the league over time)

First-Round Picks

2015 2016 2017 %
Positions 6 OL 1 DL 1 DB 1 WR 5 OL 2 WR 1 LB 2 OL 4 DL 2 WR 1 LB Total Players 26
Started Immediately 3 2 4 (2 ST) 35%
Started within 1styear 6 7 7 77%
Current Starter 7 3 5 (1 ST) 58%
Still Active 7 7 6 77%


Third-Round Picks

2015 2016 2017 %
Positions 2 RB 2 LB 2 DL 1 DB 1 OL 1 FB 2 WR 2 DB 2 OL 1 LB 1 K 1 DL 3 DL 3 DB 2 LB 26 Players
Started Immediately 2 (1 ST) 8%
Started within 1styear 5 (3 ST) 4 4 (1 ST) 50%
Current Starter 3 (2 ST) 3 3 (1 ST) 35%
Still Active 4 5 7 (1 Practice) 62%


Head-to-Head Comparison

1st Round Selection 3rd Round Selection
Started Immediately 35% 8%
Started within 1st year 77% 50%
Current Starter 58% 35%
Still Active 77% 62%


So what does it all mean? First, Macocia is correct in asserting that teams often opt to select offensive linemen in the first round of the draft. It makes sense as the offensive line is an easy place for teams to meet the Canadian ratio requirements while maintaining flexibility for the playmaker roles of QB, RB, WR, etc.

Well, there is some truth to the idea that first-round pick will have an immediate impact. Roughly one-third of first-round picks will start the first game of the season. However, interestingly enough over half of the third-round picks end up starting in their first season. That means there is a pretty good percentage chance that a third-round pick will end up helping a team before the playoffs of their first year. However, as we look at current starters the first-round picks seem to have better luck sticking in the starting role. So all in all Kavis Reed is correct in claiming there is value in the third round of the draft but at first glance, it doesn’t appear to mitigate losing a first-round pick.

“Trade Secrets”

Here is where things get interesting. I included players that were drafted by Canadian Football League teams but never played in the league because they were immediately picked up by a National Football League team. Teams will often take flyers on players that could potentially stick south of the border with the hope that the player goes un-drafted or doesn’t make a practice roster.

Here is where Kavis Reed may be onto something. It appears that the third round and below is where Canadian Football League teams start to become comfortable betting on potential Canadian NFL prospects. In the data set above, there was one player in the first round who went to the NFL and three in the third round. Let’s take their numbers out of the total equation and compare the rounds again.

Adjusted for Canadian NFL Players

1st Round Selection 3rd Round Selection
Started Immediately 36% 9%
Started within 1st year 80% 61%
Current Starter 60% 39%
Still Active 80% 70%


Reed is onto something

Look at that! While the chance of a third-round pick immediately starting the following season is still low the chance of them starting in the first year rises to 61%. Over 70% are still active in the league and almost 40% of the players are currently starting.

Now imagine that you pursue a draft strategy of avoiding any chances on Canadian NFL prospects. That decreases your total pool to pick from but overall is a boon for your chances of snagging a player that not only starts in their draft year but will most likely be with your organization over the years to come. This would also leave you free to deal your higher picks for impact players to turn around a losing season (Manziel trade, impact TBD) or to give them up in the supplemental draft. Just like Montreal did for Tyler Johnstone. 

While many people may deride Kavis Reed’s abilities as a general manager, there may be a method to his madness. A value in the third-round indeed.

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