Building the Teams of Super Bowl LI

Julio Jones and Malcolm Butler at Super Bowl LI

Julio Jones (right) of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates a touchdown in front of Malcolm Butler (left) of the New England Patriots in a screenshot captured from EA SPORTS Madden NFL 17. Screenshot © Depth in Gaming (,

Before the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons took the field at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sunday, February 5th, 2017, it took years of drafting, free agent signings, and general team-building to prepare those teams to be the last two standing. Now, on the day that the 2017 NFL Draft begins, we take a look at how the Patriots and Falcons were built for last year’s championship game, including how the draft plays a role in their specific approaches and what we can learn from the ratings of EA SPORTS Madden NFL 17.

The first thing to talk about for this research is the methodology, which admittedly isn’t perfect. In looking at the Patriots and Falcons, we’ve identified rough starting lineups which actually have some wiggle room; for example, we’ve accounted for two halfbacks instead of just one and three wide receivers instead of two, so our “starting lineup” on offense is 13 instead of 11. On defense, we’re counting three cornerbacks instead of two, so we have 12 instead of 11.

Add in the kicker and punter, and we have a full team starting lineup which was then analyzed for their Madden NFL 17 OVR rating post-Super Bowl LI and their draft information.

Using this approach, it’s amazing just how close the Patriots and Falcons were to each other as Super Bowl LI opponents. For example, both teams ended up with an average of exactly 82 OVR for their modified starting line-ups.

Even crazier, out of the 27 players in the modified starting lineups, 19 players on each team were originally drafted–or signed as undrafted free agents (UDFA)–by the team they were playing for at Super Bowl LI.

Here’s a look at those line-ups; first, the AFC Champion New England Patriots:

Super Bowl LI Patriots Starting Lineup

Modified starting lineup for the New England Patriots at Super Bowl LI.

And next, the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons:

Super Bowl LI Atlanta Falcons Starting Lineup

Modified starting lineup for the Atlanta Falcons at Super Bowl LI.

If we look at the average round and pick information, the Falcons starting lineup featured players drafted about a full round earlier than the Patriots lineup. Taking a closer look, over 60% of the Falcons talent was drafted in the first three rounds, compared to 41% for the Patriots.


When it comes to the value of picks drafted in each round, again, the fact that the Patriots and Falcons starting lineups evened out at exactly 82 OVR average means that these numbers will even out as well. Here’s a look at the breakdown against the two-team average:


Generally, the Falcons got better OVR value out of their first and third round picks by comparison, while the Patriots got better value in the other rounds and through UDFA. Note that the Falcons did not start a 7th round pick, explaining the oddity in the graph there.

If you’re looking for the night of the 2017 NFL Draft most likely to show off picks that will impact the Super Bowl–if Super Bowl LI is any indication–your best bet is either tonight or… not at all? Let’s take a look at the breakdown:


That’s right; nearly as many starters in Super Bowl LI were undrafted free agents as were picked in the first round. In fact, UDFA players tied for the second-highest percentage (with second round picks) at last year’s title game.

This is why the NFL Draft can be such a difficult night for the executives and fans of NFL teams; everyone has high hopes that their team can find the next sure-thing or diamond in the rough that will help lead their team to glory. The reality, however, is much murkier. And sometimes, it means that your team’s offense scores 34 points in a massive comeback with only three starters from the first three rounds of the draft. Sometimes, the defense that held that offense scoreless until two seconds remained in the first half features eight starters drafted in the first three rounds, a defense where only one player (veteran Dwight Freeney) wasn’t originally signed by the team.

It’s perfectly okay to be excited by the 2017 NFL Draft as it begins tonight; just remember, the next star that leads their team to the Super Bowl might not even be on that team by the end of the weekend.

Other Super Bowl LI Draft Headlines

  • The two highest drafted players in the game were Chris Long of the Patriots and Matt Ryan of the Falcons, who were drafted #2 and #3 overall respectively in the same 2008 NFL Draft. The difference: Long was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.
  • Top-rated starter in Super Bowl LI: Julio Jones of the Falcons at 98 OVR, drafted #6 overall in 2011.
  • Lowest-rated starter in Super Bowl LI: De’Vondre Campbell of the Falcons at 71 OVR, drafted #115 overall in 2016.
  • Number of 2016 NFL Draft selections who started in Super Bowl LI: 8 (3 for Patriots, 5 for Falcons).
  • Biggest difference in draft pick number by position:
    • Center: Alex Mack (drafted #21 overall by Browns in 2009) versus David Andrews (UDFA by Patriots in 2015).
    • Cornerback: Jalen Collins (drafted #42 overall by Falcons in 2015) versus Malcolm Butler (UDFA by Patriots in 2014).
    • Quarterback: Matt Ryan (drafted #3 overall by Falcons in 2008) versus Tom Brady (drafted #199 overall by Patriots in 2000).
    • Wide Receiver: Julio Jones (drafted #6 overall by Falcons in 2011) versus Chris Hogan (UDFA by 49ers in 2011).

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