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Sex, Hype, and Videotape in the Draft (Minus The Sex)

With the advent of the internet, 24/7 sports channels, and the NFL Network, media coverage leading up to the NFL now rivals the playoffs. Here are some econ-related views of the draft.

Stock Picking & The Draft: Burton Malkiel's famous book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, popularizes the academic idea that the expected return from picking one stock is about the same as any other stock. It would be a stretch to say that is exactly true for picking aspiring NFL players, but there is a ton of uncertainty. Will Vince Young be more like Steve Young or Andre Ware? Will Matt Leinart be a second-coming of Joe Montana or more like Steve Walsh? There is also a "Castles in the Air" (Malkiel's term for over-hyped sentiment) element to the upper part of the NFL first round where players get much more attention than warranted. While lots of All-Pros and league MVPs can be found among these, if team rather than individual success is the standard, then one should not place too much emphasis on the ultra-hyped top 10 picks. During the Patriots mini-dynasty, the only ultra-high draft pick to contribute heavily has been Willie McGinest (4th overall). Instead Tom Brady came from the 6th round, Bruschi from the 3rd, and others from the late first through later rounds or by trades. Pittsburgh's 2006 championship team relied more heavily on earlier picks than the Patriots, but Ben Roethlisberger at 11th overall is the highest pick excepting players acquired in trades.

Contributions to Winning: How much will a player contribute to winning, even if he pans out? All positions are not equally valuable. All GMs seem to get this point to some extent in that different positions are not equally likely to be drafted. When O.J. Simpson was taken first overall in the 1969 draft, team rushing yards matched team passing yards. Now, they range from 30 to 70 percent of passing yards among the best teams in the league going after positional players who have the biggest impact on the passing game, QBs, left OT, corner backs, defensive ends, makes more sense among the most expensive picks. Nonetheless, Reggie Bush has garnered lots of attention and may go first overall. The current importance of passing relative to running in the NFL would seem to make the implicit cost of taking a running back -- even one with draft "grades" as high as Reggie Bush -- a questionable proposition. On the other hand, if a team is willing to utilize Bush extensively as both a RB and a kick/punt return man, then his value might be much higher. However, most teams are reluctant to utilize players at both places for very long because of injury fears, lowering the value of any individual player.

Supply, Demand, and Reggie Bush: As readers can see, I'm not a big fan of picking Reggie Bush first. Because of the relative abundance of skilled runners and the contribution of the offensive line to success in running, a first pick and the corresponding salary seems like a lot to obtain Reggie Bush or any other RB. Mike Shanahan has made an art form out of combining off-the-radar runners with a good offensive line to produce one of the most consistent rushing attacks in the league. Pittsburgh did it with an undrafted Willie Parker and a senior citizen, Jerome Bettis. The Texans might be better off drafting an offensive tackle to protect their QB as going after some second-string tailback from Georgia like Terrell Davis.


Matching & Vince Young: While I have written about the need for coaches to think about adjusting their "systems" to their players' skills, almost all coaches exhibit some inflexibility -- some much more than others. Because of this, it can be critical for some players with relatively unique skills to be matched with the right coach and system. Rumors are that Floyd Reese, the Titans' GM, thinks highly of Young as a sort of Steve McNair with even more upside potential. The trouble is that Norm Chow, the Titans offensive coordinator, is probably one of the most system-bound guys in the league. Developing Vince Young as a 3 step-drop "West Coast Offense" (or, at least, Chow's dump and dink version) would be a bit like drafting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then running a motion offense where he scurries around setting picks all the time rather than posting up consistently. According to rumors, Chow wants Leinart. In the near term, that would be a much better fit for Chow, but I'm not sure that Reese is picking a QB for 2006 or planning on Chow being the guy to develop him long term.

Here is Michael Silver (SI.com) with an observation from Trent Dilfer regarding this very point:

People like to compare him to Michael Vick or Randall Cunningham, but the guy he really reminds me of is Steve Young -- a breathtaking runner who is as capable of bulling through defenders as he is of blowing by them, a deft touch-passer with an outrageously untapped upside, a once-in-a-generation talent whose skills are too blatant to be ignored.

OK -- and I know this will crush some of you -- let's forget about me for a second. Instead, let's ask the opinion of a pure drop-back passer, Cleveland Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer. He said, when discussing Young (Vince, not Steve) the day before the NFC Championship Game, "Can he run an NFL offense? No. And you know what -- who cares? If you get a guy like that on your team, you change the offense. It would be bold, and this league is very resistant to change, but it would be awesome and he'd be a star."