Slipping Through the Cracks – How NFL Teams Solve an Information Problem

Reed Albergotti at the Wall Street Journal writes about an information problem in the NFL and how it is imperfectly solved.

Nevertheless, at a time when other sports like baseball are paying more attention to how players have played rather than how they look, many analysts say the NFL is going in the other direction—focusing more on a player’s raw build and athletic ability as measured by his performance in activities like the 40-yard dash, shuttle drill and bench press.

Jeffrey Nalley, an agent who represents both football and baseball players, says the problem is simple: As the NFL draft becomes a bigger event, NFL general managers who waste an all-important draft pick on a player who doesn’t look like a comic book superhero can summon the wrath of millions.

“If you’re going to take a guy in the first round, he’d better fit the height, weight and speed that they’re looking for,” Mr. Nalley says. “Honestly, they’re covering their asses.”

Reed gives a list of players who fit the “doesn’t look like a comic book superhero” who have gone on and been important pieces on NFL teams.

The problem is this: who’s going to be the best available player at position x and what do I have to give up to get him? It’s a basic optimization-under-uncertainty problem – simple in formulating in theory, not necessarily solving in practice. You don’t know who’s going to be the best player over the next x seasons, but there are tangible things positively correlated with future productivity, namely height, weight, 40 yard dash times, and the look of the player’s body.

Mr. Nalley, quoted in the article, says that teams are just “covering their asses” when they pick the specimens. That may be true at the margin, but my guess is that if you randomly picked 22 “comic book superheroes” and I randomly picked 22 comic book authors, your team would whup my team’s ass in repeated games more often than not.

It should be noted that this way of solving an important information problem – who’s going to be a productive football player over the next x years – is also employed by college teams. Chase Daniel, the former Mizzou great, Metroplex high school star, and Texas Longhorn fan, was all but ignored by Texas coach Mack Brown*. Brown, instead, had gone after targets who fit the typical mold better. Daniel went on to be one of the best if not the best QB ever at Mizzou while taking Mizzou to unfamiliar heights. Meanwhile, Texas remained a perennial top-10 football program.

*Brown ended up offering Daniel a scholarship, but only after his main QB target, Ryan Perilloux, reneged on an oral commitment.