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Andy Wittry | | April 21, 2022

How many career games NFL draft picks play, on average, by position

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If you're a fan of a college football program that competes at the FBS level, there's a good chance a player from your favorite school will be drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft. After all, the players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft came from 90 schools, including some that don't compete at the FBS, or even the Division I, level.

So, when that player — or 10 players, if you're a fan of a school such as Georgia, Alabama or Ohio State — is drafted, how long can you expect his NFL career to last?

We analyzed the last 10 NFL drafts, from 2012 through 2021, and analyzed the number of regular season NFL games played by every single player taken. Given the challenges in comparing the production of a quarterback to a defensive tackle to a kicker, we used the number of regular season NFL games played as a basic measuring point. (We didn't include supplemental draft picks in our analysis.)

The data used in this story is current through the end of the 2021 NFL season. Of course, players who were drafted more recently than others have shorter potential career lengths at the time this data was calculated.

Here are some notable takeaways from our analysis:

  • No. 1 overall draft picks haven't had the longest NFL careers, on average. Not even close. In fact, that No. 1 overall draft slot ranks ninth in terms of average career length at 69.8 regular season games played, or just over four 17-game NFL regular seasons' worth of games. The 13th pick in the draft has appeared in the most games in the last 10 years, with 76.8 games played on average.
  • There's a significant drop-off from the No. 1 pick to the No. 2 and No. 3 overall picks in terms of average games played. With a regular season games played average of 52.9, the No. 3 pick ranks 70th among all draft positions, while the No. 2 pick ranks 76th at 52.1 games. On average, the No. 1 overall picks in the last decade have played roughly one regular season's worth of games more than their peers who were selected second or third. In addition to injuries, one easy explanation (or at least partial explanation) is the importance of the quarterback position combined with the fickle nature of the perception of quarterbacks in the lead-up to the draft and early in their careers. Last year's No. 3 overall pick, quarterback Trey Lance, played in just six games for the San Francisco 49ers, which already had a quarterback who had played in the Super Bowl in Jimmy Garrapolo. The No. 3 overall pick in 2018, quarterback Sam Darnold, is already on his second team and he has never played more than 13 games in a season through four seasons.
  • Among all positions, quarterbacks have by far the shortest careers, on average, as they play in just 30 regular season games, which is roughly 30 fewer games than the average defensive tackle, for example.

Click or tap here to view our complete spreadsheet of every draft pick from the 2012 NFL Draft through 2021.

Here's the average games played by round

The table below shows the average number of regular season NFL games played by draft pick by round, as well as how many regular seasons' worth of games that translates to, based on a 17-game regular-season schedule.

Round Avg. Reg. Season Games Reg. Seasons' Worth of Games
1 62.3 3.7
2 56.3 3.3
3 48.1 2.8
4 44.4 2.6
5 40.5 2.4
6 32.5 1.9
7 28.1 1.7

What positions typically have the longest careers?

Using data from Pro Football Reference, we analyzed the length of recent draft picks' careers, based on the number of regular season games played and their listed position. See the note below the table for how Pro Football Reference's positional labels have changed over the years.

The two positions with the longest average career — punters and nose tackles — also had two of the smallest sample sizes, with 18 and 11 players drafted, respectively. Note that the most recent NFL draft that Pro Football Reference labeled a player a nose tackle was in 2017. Given the roles of punters and how the rules are intended to protect them from contact, it's no surprise that their career lasts longer, on average.

It's notable that quarterbacks have had the shortest careers on average, at roughly 30 games, which reflects the difficulty of the position and how short of a leash quarterbacks, coaches and front office personnel have to get the position "right." The next-shortest average career length is cornerbacks at just shy of 38 games — note that Pro Football Reference has also used the all-encompassing "DB" label — and that's still roughly half a regular season longer than the average career of a quarterback. Of course, we're defining a "career" as the number of regular season games played and players such as backup quarterbacks can have lengthy careers in which they play very little, given their role.

Note: We used the positions listed by Pro Football Reference. The designation of "DL" in the 2021 NFL Draft, which inherently limits how long of a career a "defensive lineman" could have, whereas previous drafts almost exclusively listed more specific positions, such as "DE" for defensive end or "NT" for nose tackle. Therefore, we ignored the 27 players listed as a "DL," 25 of whom were drafted in 2021. Similarly, the "OL" designation was only listed for draft picks from 2012-14 and 2021, with 34 of the 70 offensive linemen being selected in 2021, therefore limiting the average career length, so those 70 players were ignored.

Who has played the most games among the players examined?

That'd be a tie between linebacker Demario Davis, the No. 77 overall pick (the 14th pick in the third round) in the 2012 NFL Draft who was selected by the New York Jets, and center Ben Jones, who was selected 99th overall in the fourth round by the Houston Texans. Twenty-one players selected in that year's draft never played in a regular season game.

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