On Monday, I looked at the NFL's top draft grades in recent years and what that might mean for this year's winner, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now it's time to look at the other side of the coin. The Carolina Panthers had the worst draft in the NFL. Trying to attach meaning to that, however, is a different animal, because draft grades tend to cluster in the middle.
From 2011 to 2015, there were 59 different drafts that averaged a 3.00 GPA or higher according to Football Outsiders' annual report cards. From a 2.00 GPA and down? There have been only 12 teams over the same five years. Carolina joins them this year, but only barely, with a 2.00 GPA in 2016.
And while the same few teams repeatedly scored high marks in the draft year after year, only one team—the Buffalo Bills—makes repeat appearances at the bottom of the list. Hindsight is 20/20, but let's look at worst individual drafts in the past five years and see whether Carolina fans have anything to worry about.
2012 Jacksonville Jaguars, 1.96 GPA (List of picks)—Yes, this is the year Jacksonville infamously picked a punter before Russell Wilson was off the board. But first the Jaguars traded a fourth-rounder to jump up two spots and grab wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who looked promising before problems with substance abuse destroyed his career. Second-round pick Andre Branch was a rotational end for four seasons, starting 13 games before moving on in free agency. The most successful player in this class, linebacker "Not That" Brandon Marshall, was waived and caught on with the Broncos.
2012 Denver Broncos, 1.93 GPA (List of picks)—The fact that Denver's draft was graded so poorly is hilarious in retrospect. Defensive lineman Malik Jackson was just given all of Duval County's money, and linebacker Danny Trevathan was also valued highly in free agency. Brock Osweiler got a huge contract that he may or may not be worth. Derek Wolfe is a very steady lineman. When even your less impressive picks, like Omar Bolden and Ronnie Hillman, are still playing roles, you know you've got a good draft.
2012 New York Jets, 1.93 GPA (List of picks)—Now here's a draft that deserves scorn. First-rounder Quinton Coples didn't make it off his rookie contract with the Jets. Second-rounder Stephen Hill was a NFL bust and was waived after two seasons. With Demario Davis, who was disappointing in his own right, and Antonio Allen signing with other teams this offseason, the Jets officially have no members of this class left.
2012 Seattle Seahawks, 1.89 GPA (List of picks)—Did somebody pee in the coffee at the 2012 draft? Seattle drafted Russell Wilson in the third round. That alone makes this an A+ draft in retrospect. The consensus around Wilson at the time, though, was that he was simply too short to be an NFL quarterback; one analyst said that he would be lucky to be the next Seneca Wallace. There's still a huge size bias for quarterbacks, but Wilson is the rare pick that at least may have opened minds a bit more.
Graders also hated Seattle taking Bruce Irvin with the 15th overall pick, since many didn't see him as a first-round player. Irvin wasn't a star for Seattle, but he definitely lived up to his status as a first-round pick. Oakland paid him handsomely this offseason.
The Seahawks also drafted Bobby Wagner, Jaye Howard, Jeremy Lane, and J.R. Sweezy. They did OK for themselves.
2012 Oakland Raiders, 1.41 GPA (List of picks)—The Raiders had neither their first nor second-round picks. One of them was lost in the ill-fated Carson Palmer trade, and the other had been lost in a trade-up with New England in 2011 for Joe Barskdale and Taiwan Jones. The actual picks were, uh, also not optimal. Miles Burris started a few years and then was waived.
2012 New Orleans Saints, 1.04 GPA (List of picks)—New Orleans traded away their first-round pick in 2011 to be able to draft Mark Ingram. They lost their second-rounder earlier in the year in the aftermath of the Bountygate scandal. Of the players the Saints wound up with, lineman Akiem Hicks is a solid starter, corner Corey White was torched a few years in the starting lineup, and wideout Nick Toon was never able to stay healthy.
2014 Buffalo Bills, 1.85 GPA (List of picks)—There was a lot of handwringing over Buffalo trading a future first-rounder to move up for wideout Sammy Watkins. While Watkins isn't Odell Beckham, I think his future is as solid as any player in that class. It's hard to be upset about trading up for him in retrospect. Preston Brown is a solid starting linebacker, and the Bills got a lot of snaps from seventh-rounder Seantrel Henderson. Depending on what happens in 2016, I'd say this is at least an average draft. Possibly above-average.
2013 Cleveland Browns, 1.79 GPA (List of picks)—Nailing a Browns draft takes no real insight. Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland's first-rounder, just never became a true edge-rusher in the pros, and they didn't pick up his fifth-year option. Their second-round pick was used in the supplemental draft, on wideout Josh Gordon, a star who can't stay on the field. Third-rounder Leon McFadden was waived after his first season. Cleveland traded their other mid-round picks for wideout Davone Bess, who caught 42 balls for the Browns before a series of bizarre incidents led to his release.
2013 Dallas Cowboys, 1.63 GPA (List of picks)—Center Travis Frederick was considered a gigantic reach by the draft media. Two Pro Bowls and two second-team All-Pro selections later, I think we can say that the media was wrong. Trading down for Frederick also enabled the Cowboys to draft wideout Terrance Williams. This was by no means an awesome draft, with Gavin Escobar failing to become the kind of star the Cowboys thought he'd be, but it was far better than the GPA would suggest.
2014 Indianapolis Colts, 1.67 GPA (List of picks)—This grade mainly reflects the Colts having traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson. Despite that, this turned out to be a pretty decent class for them. Lineman Jack Mewhort has looked good when not being forced to right tackle, and wideout Donte Moncrief has played well. Jonathan Newsome flashed some upside before being released after getting caught with marijuana. Indy didn't have many picks this year, but they made the most of them.
2015 San Francisco 49ers, 1.99 GPA (List of picks) — Way too early to definitively pass judgment on this class, but except for the punter, not a single one of San Francisco's 10 draft picks was a full-time starter last season on a bad team.
2015 Buffalo Bills, 1.63 GPA (List of picks) -- More punishment for the trade-up. Buffalo's picks actually went pretty well in the draft proper. Second-round rookie Ronald Darby was not overmatched at corner as a 15-game starter; neither was guard John Miller when he was healthy. Running back Karlos Williams bullied opposition and could eventually be Buffalo's lead back. Again, it's too early to call it a good draft, but it looks nice right now.
It seems like these poor draft grades break down into two categories: teams that lost their first-round pick, and teams that picked players, especially first-rounders, who divided football media over their value. Those teams in the latter category actually wind up having fair amount of success. I don't know how you can say that the 2012 Broncos and Seahawks drafts, as well as the 2013 Cowboys draft, were anything but unqualified wins. (The other three teams—the Jaguars, the 49ers, and the Jets—were under some fairly comical circumstances: the Gene Harris GM era in Jacksonville; the Tim Tebow flirtation in New York; and San Francisco had just lost Jim Harbaugh.)
So if I were a Panthers fan, I wouldn't actually be worried about this year's bad draft grade. When a team is as ahead of the curve as the Panthers seem to be, disagreeing with the consensus on a class might actually be a good thing. It certainly did a lot in terms of setting the scene for Denver and Seattle to rise to prominence.