Georgia Tech draft picks Shaquille Mason, DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller begin their professional careers with rookie mini-camps this weekend with the New England, San Francisco and Baltimore, respectively.
Not surprisingly, the chances aren’t great that Waller will go on to have a lengthy, productive NFL career. But, interestingly, recent history suggest the odds are much better for Mason than Smelter, even though they were selected back to back.
I looked at players drafted at their positions in their rounds (fourth for Mason and Smelter, sixth for Waller. I used centers and guards for Mason.) between 2006 and 2011, draftees who have had enough time for their careers to unfold (and end).
I measured them by metrics from pro-football-reference.com. One was the number of seasons in which players drafted became a primary starter.
Fourth-round wide receivers: 8/27. All but one of the eight were or have been primary starters for more than one season.
Sixth-round wide receivers: 6/28. All but one of the six started or have started for three or more seasons.
Fourth-round guards and centers: 10/17. Of the 10, seven have been or were starters for two or more seasons.
Of the 17 guards and centers, all but two started at least five NFL games. The median number of starts is 24.5. (None has made a Pro Bowl.)
The pre-eminent interior linemen taken in the fourth round in that time are Detroit’s Rob Sims and Pittsburgh’s Willie Colon, who have started 114 and 94 games, respectively, after being taken in the fourth round in 2006.
A more average case is Falcons center Joe Hawley, who has started 23 out of 57 games. (Notably, even though Hawley has hardly been a standout, he signed a two-year contract after his four-year rookie deal ended to stay with the Falcons with a $2 million signing bonus and $4 million in unguaranteed base salary. Quite an incentive.)
This obviously bodes well for Mason.
Fourth-round wide receivers
The hit/miss ratio is considerably worse for wide receivers, a notoriously difficult position to project. Among fourth-rounders, the median average for games started is 5.5, less than a quarter of the median for guards/centers. Of the 27 draftees, two never played a game and five more have never started. On the other hand, four have started 50 or more games. The best, by far, is five-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, whose 773 career receptions are ninth most among active players.
A more common career path might be similar to former Georgia wide out Kris Durham, taken in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. He has played for three teams in four seasons, has largely been a backup and has 55 career catches.
A considerable factor in Smelter's success could be his recovery from his ACL tear. It's hardly unreasonable to conclude that had he not been hurt, he could have been drafted in the third round or even higher, which would put him in a pool of draftees with an even higher expected rate of success. How the remainder of his recovery progresses and how patient the 49ers are with him could play a hand in the trajectory of his career.
Sixth-round wide receivers
For sixth rounders, chances are still strong to make the team. Out of 28 wideouts taken in that round between 2006 and 2011, only three never played in an NFL game. The median number of career starts, though, is one. Still, 10 of the 28 were on an NFL roster as of last season, meaning it’s hardly unlikely that Waller could carve out a decent career.
The two most noteworthy of that crop are Indianapolis’ Pierre Garcon (2008 draft class) and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (2010). Garcon led the NFL in receptions in 2013 (113) while Brown has made three Pro Bowls.
A more common outcome was Cincinnati wide receiver Ryan Whalen, drafted out of Stanford in 2011. He appeared in 17 games over three seasons, caught 11 passes and was cut in 2014 training camp.
Players taken in this round have some sort of considerable concern. For Garcon, for instance, he was coming from a Division III school. For Waller, his lack of production is primary. But his height gives him a niche that he can exploit. It will be up to him to take advantage.
To whatever degree these 72 players are a worthy sample, I’d say about a quarter of the wide receivers drafted in the fourth round 2006-11 had what I would consider a substantial NFL career – started multiple seasons, made it to a second contract after their four-year rookie contract expired. For the sixth-rounders, it was about one in six. For guards and centers taken in the fourth round, it was about one in three.
Factors include going to the right team, staying healthy and taking advantage of opportunities. For both, it would seem the physical attributes won’t be an issue.
A lot it, too, will depend on whether they have the football intelligence to learn the NFL game, the maturity to handle money and lifestyle, the toughness to withstand the game at its most brutal and their level of self-motivation. It’s hardly surprising, but I think so much depends on how willing any player is to pay the price for success – addressing weaknesses, gaining strength, eating right, studying extra.
With their teams investing in them with draft picks, the opportunity is there for each.