Draft Economics

Chad Finn ( Touching All the Bases blog via Boston Globe) encourages readers,  Don’t Rush to Judge Patriots Draft

“The generally negative reaction to Belichick’s approach to the draft among fans is disheartening. He trades around too much! Pick some players, will ya! Well, sure . . . except that he chose nine players this year, 12 last year — six of whom were significant contributors — and a dozen as well in 2009. Last year, he traded down from No. 22 to 24 and then 27, ending up with Devin McCourty in the first round and adding third-rounder Taylor Price and fourth-rounder Aaron Hernandez with the two picks acquired in moving down five total spots. I presume you’re OK with the McCourty pick now that he proved something more than a nickelback/special-terms gunner? Or do you still covet pass-rushers Sergio Kindle or Jerry Hughes? (Since we’re being honest here, I thought Hughes should have been the pick. But I know now to keep my yap shut when Belichick does something I don’t expect.)”

As many have said, NFL drafts can only be judged down the road.  NFL General Managers and coaches face a multi-faceted problem:

1.  Dealing with uncertainty regarding which draftee will be great, good, or bad.  Players in the first two rounds emerge as starters 75% and 50% of the time.  Picking higher increases the likelihood of selecting good players.  Sifting great from the good — that’s tricky.  Looking over the top 5 picks from the last several drafts  (NFL Draft History at Pro-Football-Reference) names of high-performing players like Calvin Johnson, Philip Rivers, Larry Fitzgerald, Julius Peppers, and Andre Johnson pop out but so do busts like Joey Harrington, David Carr, and JaMarcus Russell as well as players who are good but not nearly as good as the pre-draft hoopla would predict such as Reggie Bush.

2. Determining the values of a good or great player at different positions such as QB, cornerback, offensive tackle, or defensive tackle.  Looking at salaries, one can determine a rough estimate of relative values placed on these different positions and how they evolve.  A specific GM, however, does not select the average QB or average CB.  Where a player stands relative to the average matters a lot.  Defensive tackles are relatively low on the pay scale — a combination of impact and relative abundance of players.  However, a rare player such as Warren Sapp, Ndamukong Suh, or Albert Haynesworth (at his best) can have an impact far above the impact of a typical DT.

3.  Adjusting values based on the likelihood of busts across different positions.  QBs are very, very valuable when great and even good so they tend to be selected high in the draft.  (In fact, QB may be the only position for which a Top 5 draft pick will ever be able to contribute enough to justify their compensation.)  Yet, the complexity of the pro job makes identification of collegiate players with those skills a virtual crap shoot (as Brian Billick noted during the draft).  Harrington, Carr, and Russell represent Exhibits B, C, and D with  Tom Brady drafted in the 7th round as Exhibit A.

4. Adjusting values based on current team composition.   Should a team stockpile the “best available” player and seek trades or pick for the position?  The trouble with “best available” is that until a player shows what he can do in the NFL, other teams may be reluctant to offer much.

5.  Finally, determining the best ratio of great to good players.  That may sound strange.   Of course, everybody would like to have 22 great starters, but there is a cost to obtaining these players (or raising the likelihood of obtaining them).  Trading up in the draft can raise the likelihood of drafting a great player.  Championship teams contain great players, but it is interesting how few they have.  The Packers, for instance, have Charles Woodsen, Clay Matthews, and Aaron Rodgers.  An argument might be made for some others, but most of the players on the team would not be labeled as best or near best at their positions now much less over the past decade.  Even these three would be arguable.  The Saints are much the same.  Obtaining a lot of good and very good players to go with a few great or near great players is a path to winning.

All of these elements figure into a team’s selections.  As in other managerial settings, while everyone may try to maximize total player value to the team, exactly how they combine and weigh these different elements differ.  It is easy to say “the market values Reggie Bush very highly” but there are likely some GMs and coaches who would not have picked him high even with the draft pick and a hole at running back.

This brings the discussion back to Bill Belichick, someone well known for cutting his path.   While he has drafted Richard Seymour with the 6th overall pick, Belichick actively seeks to drop a few spots in the draft to pick up another 2nd or 3rd round pick — another shot at a good player — and rarely if ever chases “great” by trading up.  The draft coverage partly focuses on value to teams but also on entertainment value, including the value of focusing on marquee names or on players on the most likely to be a great list.   The coverage influences fans.  One wonders how much media buzz influences some GMs.

Ryan Mallett stands out as a much-discussed side note to Belichick’s 2011 draft.   By nearly every draft grader’s assessment, his arm strength, passing skills, and understanding of pro-style offenses and defenses stand equal to or above all other QBs in the draft.  However, questions about drug use and leadership ability, despite strong support from former coaches and players, sent him plummeting to the 3rd round where Belichick plucked him. A couple of observations:

i) Why would NE pick Mallett when they have Tom Brady?  For supposed experts, the lack of historical perspective on the part of some of the talking heads can be startling.  Charley Casserly on NFL Network quickly reminded the host of Aaron Rodgers who didn’t start a game until his 4th season.  Philip Rivers didn’t start until his 3rd season.  Steve Young became the regular starter in San Francisco in his 5th year with the team.  The “throw them right into the fire” approach was at one time the exception rather than the rule.  Highly decorated QBs such as Staubach, Fouts, Sipe, Moon, Brees and many others did not step in as regular starters until the second year or well beyond.  One wonders how many “failures” are failures to allow development.  In addition, Tom Brady will be 34 by the start of the season.  NE will need a new QB sometime in the next 5 years or so whether by retirement, injury, or decline.  Why pass on a talented project?

ii) The slide of Mallett is very hard to decipher.  Is this a case of the investigative agents of teams finding something that hasn’t publicly surfaced (a “fundamentals” answer) or merely one of a “buzz” driving herd-like behavior?  While markets of all sorts tend to be efficient information processors, they are not perfect or always based on hard info.  Strange things do occur such as silver’s meteoric rise over the past few months relative to gold or the rapid decline in Greek debt from “watch” to “don’t touch.”

Belichick tended away from the herd, but not too much, given that he waited until the 3rd round to take Mallett.  Moreover, in a league where a long list of players carry baggage from their past (and sometimes present), such as the #1 overall pick Cam Newton, how do rumors, innuendo, “feel”, and the like take on such a big role relative to on-the-field, Combine Pro-Day, and testimony of past coaches and teammates in the case of one specific player.  David Hyde for the Sun Sentinel.com provides the most in-depth discussion of Mallett’s off- and on-the-field abilities and issues that are publicly available.


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Author: Brian Goff

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