The 2016 NFL Draft is over, and the grades are in. Most experts are calling it for the Jacksonville Jaguars—I don't think I've seen them pegged with less than an A-minus yet. It's hard to fault the consensus, given that Jacksonville wound up with two of the draft's top 10 players in linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. But does a good draft grade actually mean anything?
A draft grade is a snapshot in time: it represents what we, the media, know about players right now. Some talented players will get hurt and never be the same. Some small-school guys we don't have the resources to scout will be better than we expect. You wouldn't expect a draft grade to be accurate on a micro level, because there's a lot of variability in one player. But how about over a five-year sample?
Every season, Football Outsiders compiles the grades of various major media outlets and hand out cumulative "GPAs" for each team in their Draft Grade Report Cards. I looked at the report cards for the past five years to see which teams have consistently scored a 3.00 GPA or higher, and what that has meant for their performance on the field. The Baltimore Ravens led the way, with all five of their drafts hitting that mark. Doing it in four of five years were Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and St. Louis (now Los Angeles).
A few of those teams aren't a surprise. Everybody knows that Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore build from within and develop good players—and that reputation may have a halo effect on their draft grades. They're model NFL franchises, so graders may be giving them a bit of leeway, much like a merely average Steven Spielberg film would still get more Oscar buzz than the greatest movie of Michael Bay's career.
Baltimore is one of the NFL's most consistent teams, their inability to rush a football in 2013 and last season's trip to injury hell aside, and Ozzie Newsome is always lauded for his ability to find value in a draft. While they have had some high-profile flameouts in recent years—Matt Elam and Arthur Brown come to mind, from 2013's critically acclaimed draft—their recent problems have stemmed not from bad picks but from overpaying older pass rushers and their quarterback. That strategy backfired when the most important parts of the team all failed at once in 2015, but I don't think anyone would be surprised to see the Ravens back in the playoffs in 2016.
The Packers are also incredibly consistent: except for 2013, when Aaron Rodgers missed seven games, they have won 10 games in every season since beating the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Pittsburgh has been less impressive in the years since, despite their relatively high draft grades, bottoming out as a .500 team in 2012 and 2013. Pittsburgh had problems fixing their leaky defense, because they spent a lot of the early 2010s trying to fix their offensive line. Graders loved their 2011 draft, the one with David DeCastro and Mike Adams, because protecting Ben Roethlisberger mattered. And while the Steelers wound up with DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, and Martavis Bryant from the draft, I'd argue that Pittsburgh's players on the whole haven't lived up to the grades. Antonio Brown, a sixth-rounder from 2010 who gave the Steelers more value than most teams get out of an entire draft, has helped stave off a collapse.
Now on to the less-heralded teams. Minnesota has been the scene of one of the most impressive turnarounds for a general manager. Rick Spielman's first class as GM, in 2011, was widely panned—his first pick was Christian Ponder—but he grew from that. Now every time a guy falls late in the first round against public consensus, Spielman is there with a net. The Vikings made the playoffs in 2012 even though they were starting Ponder, and they won the NFC North this year with the help of Teddy Bridgewater. While the Packers will always be favorites as long as they have Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings are right on their tails.
Finally, there's the Rams, who are on this chart solely because of circumstance. Even then, they barely made it: two of their drafts were right on the 3.00 GPA nose. Winning draft trades helps draft grades, and extra first-round picks, in particular, helped the Rams make the list. Completing the RG3 trade gave them so many extra first-round picks that it inflated their grades.
As we've seen with the Browns, you can still bungle extra high-round picks if you get them every year, but the Rams have done pretty well with their haul, with tackle Greg Robinson standing out as a notable exception. They definitely have had the defense to compete for some time now, but have been stuck in quarterback hell thanks to the philosophies of head coach Jeff Fisher. Trading up for Jared Goff may help usher in a new era, but they need to use him as more than a game manager for that to happen, and they're still stuck in a tough division even if they do.
You might think that list is also notable for its omission of teams like Seattle and New England, the league's most successful franchises in recent years. A lack of consensus on prospects shows up in grading, and both those teams won—or just got lucky—on players like Rob Gronkowski and Russell Wilson, who many saw as gambles. (At the same time, media consensus isn't going to spend a second-round pick on Tavon Wilson. It runs both ways.) They also hit paydirt in the late rounds of the draft. New England constantly has extra picks to burn from trades, and the Seahawks have been ahead of the game athletically by boarding the SPARQ train. In that way, these teams are exceptional.
What does all that mean for the Jaguars, who will finish their fourth straight year with a 3.00-plus GPA at the draft? Winning the grade game isn't a golden ticket to success on its own—there are always other factors. But for once, the Jaguars look promising on paper. This could be the beginning of a Vikings-eqsue breakthrough in the AFC South.