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Yesterday, I looked at the number of players drafted at each position in the 2016 Draft, the draft capital spent at each position, and also the draft capital spent at each position on a per-snap basis.

Those numbers are fun, but are more meaningful with some context. So let’s look at the chart I find most useful — the per-snap data — and compare it to the drafts from 2013 to 2015. In the chart below, you can see that in the 2016 Draft (in green), there was 118 points of draft value spent on QBs (of course, only 1 QB per snap), compared to an average of 78 from 2013-2015 (in orange). This means the 2016 Draft was heavy on quarterbacks, which makes sense: after all, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were the first two picks, and Paxton Lynch also went in the first round. In the three prior years, there was an average of just one QB in the top 3 (Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota) and one later in the first round (EJ Manuel, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater). [click to continue…]

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In the 2016 NFL Draft, 32 cornerbacks and 31 wide receivers were selected, making those the two most commonly-drafted positions this year. That’s not too surprising, of course, as cornerbacks and wide receivers litter the field on Sundays. But the graph below shows the number of plays drafted at each position:

players position 2016 draft

A little more interesting would be the Draft Value used on each player: after all, spending a high pick on a player means a lot more than spending a low pick on one. Here, we see that cornerback stands out: teams are more likely to use high picks on cornerbacks and late-round picks on wide receivers, at least in 2016:

value position 2016 draft [click to continue…]

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Today at 538, you can read my thoughts on Ohio State’s insane 2016 draft.  It is, by a large measure, the best in modern history.  And while some have noted that the Buckeyes dominated the draft, I don’t think people have realized exactly how impressive it truly was:

Incredibly, Ohio State had five players drafted in the top 20 and another five in the top 100. As a result, a total of 151.2 points of draft value was used on Buckeyes players. That’s the most — by a very large margin — in 70 years. The table below shows the top 25 draft classes as measured by points of draft value used to select players:

You can read the full article here.

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Longtime commenter Jason Winter has chimed in with today’s guest post. Jason is a part-time video game journalist and full-time sports fan. You can read more of him at his blog: https://jasonwinter.wordpress.com/, and follow him on twitter at @winterinformal.

As always, we thank Jason for contributing.


The 2016 NFL Draft is over, and that means just one thing: It’s time to start talking about the 2017 NFL Draft! Or at least, it’s time to start publishing 2017 mock drafts, for all those sweet, sweet clicks.

A lot can happen in a year, of course. Draft status can go up or down based on a number of factors, from a player’s performance during his final college season to injuries to combine performance to… well, whatever happened to Laremy Tunsil. The draft order – whether set by a team’s record or trades – also plays a significant part. Is it really possible to accurately predict how the draft will go a year in advance? Or is it just a cheap ploy to get people to look at your website?

In the two weeks following last year’s draft, I copied first-round mock drafts from 10 different sources around the web, to see how they would stack up with the real results a year later. Sample size warnings are obvious; this is just one year, just 10 people’s mock drafts, and maybe the draft class was especially predictable or unpredictable. Still, it was a fun project, and I plan to do the same thing with mock drafts this year and see how they stack up in 2017.

All the mock drafts from a year ago were published before Deflategate penalties were handed out, so they have 32 picks, including one from New England. As such, for this article, when I refer to “first round,” I’ll be including the first 32 picks of the 2016 draft, including Emmanuel Ogbah, selected by Cleveland with the first pick of the second round.

I applied two different scoring systems to each mock draft. The first, which I call the “Strict” method, better rewards exact or very close hits: 10 points for getting a pick’s position exactly right; 8 points for being 1 pick off; 6 for being 2 off; 4 for being 3-4 off; 3 for being 5-8 off; 2 for being 9-16 off; and 1 for being 17-32 off. [click to continue…]

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At 538 on Friday, I looked at the trades in round 1 of the NFL Draft. Today, let’s look at the trades that happened on Day 2.

1)

Jacksonville receives: second-round pick (No. 36 overall) (UCLA LB Myles Jack)
Baltimore receives: second-round pick (No. 38 overall) (Traded to Miami), fifth-round pick (No. 146 overall) (Grand Valley St. DE Matt Judon)

Football Perspective Draft Value Chart: Baltimore received 121 cents on the dollar
Jimmy Johnson Draft Value Chart: Baltimore received 102 cents on the dollar

Jack was an outstanding college player who many thought would go in the top five of the first round if he had a clean bill of health.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and Jack’s injured right knee caused him to slide to the second day of the draft. It’s tempting to call this a steal for Jacksonville, but remember that many teams that could use a player like Jack — including Baltimore — felt he wasn’t worth the risk.  The Jaguars paid a decent price to get him, but this trade will be a home run for the Jaguars if Jack stays healthy. As for Baltimore, the team traded down just two picks later, and did even better….

2)

Miami receives: second-round pick (No. 38 overall) (Baylor CB Xavien Howard)
Baltimore receives: second-round pick (No. 42 overall) (Boise St. DE Kamalei Correa), fourth-round pick (No. 107 overall) (Cincinnati WR Chris Moore)

Football Perspective Draft Value Chart: Baltimore received 137 cents on the dollar
Jimmy Johnson Draft Value Chart: Baltimore received 108 cents on the dollar

The Ravens wound up dropping from 36 to 42 and collected a fourth and a fifth to drop six slots; that’s a great haul, as it landed the team three players rather than one. The Dolphins gave up a lot to move up four slots, which is emblematic of an organization that puts little emphasis on depth relative to star power. [click to continue…]

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Over at 538, I provided my thoughts on the trades in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. For example:

Cleveland gives up: eighth pick overall, sixth-round pick (No. 176 overall)
Tennessee gives up:
15th pick overall, third-round pick (No. 76 overall), second-round pick in 2017

The Browns traded down and eventually selected Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman; if he was Cleveland’s target all along, this was an excellent move — Coleman was at little risk of going before the 15th overall pick. Tennessee moved up to take offensive tackle Jack Conklin after the Baltimore Ravens began the run on offensive linemen at No. 6, with Ronnie Stanley. Cleveland extracted significant value in this move, perhaps because of a mental accounting effect, as the Titans may have viewed the picks involved as found money after the Rams trade.

Based on my marginal value chart, the Browns win the trade … even without considering the second-round pick in 2017! The 76th pick is a valuable one — more valuable than the difference between the eighth and 15th picks. If we value the 2017 second-round pick as equivalent to the 48th pick in this year’s draft, the Browns received a whopping 148 cents on the dollar for this trade. (The 48th pick is likely a worse pick than Tennessee’s 2017 second-rounder will be, but we’re eyeballing a markdown for having to wait a year.)

You can read the full article here.

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2016 NFL Draft – Post Your Reactions Here

Let’s use this page as an all-encompassing draft night reaction page. I’ll likely update this post a few times during the draft, but the main reason is to provide a page for the FP community to share any in-the-moment thoughts you have.  Enjoy!

Jared Goff, unsurprisingly, goes #1. First player from the Pac-12 to go #1 since Andrew Luck. He’s the 13th player drafted #1 from the Pac-12 (or predecessor league).

Carson Wentz, of course, goes #2 to the Eagles. 17 years after Philadelphia selected Donovan McNabb at #2.

3) Joey Bosa is a bit of a surprise pick at 3 to the Chargers. Was the consensus #1 pick for awhile before the QB crazy occurred this spring.

4) The Cowboys go with Ezekiel Elliot, which is a surprise to me. The benefit of investing so much in the OL, and at QB and WR, is that RB should be plug and play. Using a premium pick on a RB is tough to justify in many instances, but really tough given the holes the Cowboys have on defense.

5) Jalen Ramsey was an obvious and great (to the extent any draft pick can be great) pick for the Jaguars. As Chris Brown noted on twitter, Ramsey is already an insane NFL athlete. Also, the college guys love him.

6) First offensive tackle off the board…. Baltimore needed an offensive tackle, and Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame) makes a lot of sense. Going ahead of Laremy Tunsil, is a bit of a surprise. Will the Titans move up for him?

The Ravens have done pretty well with top ten picks:

Rk Year ▾ Rnd Pick Pos DrAge From To AP1 PB St CarAV G GS College/Univ
1 2003 1 10 Terrell Suggs LB 20 2003 2015 1 6 11 96 182 166 Arizona St. College Stats
2 2000 1 5 Jamal Lewis RB 21 2000 2009 1 1 9 71 131 126 Tennessee College Stats
3 2000 1 10 Travis Taylor WR 21 2000 2007 0 0 7 32 101 90 Florida College Stats
4 1999 1 10 Chris McAlister DB 22 1999 2009 1 3 9 71 137 127 Arizona College Stats
5 1998 1 10 Duane Starks DB 24 1998 2006 0 0 5 35 97 67 Miami (FL)
6 1997 1 4 Peter Boulware LB 22 1997 2005 0 4 7 60 126 102 Florida St. College Stats
7 1996 1 4 Jonathan Ogden HOF T 22 1996 2007 4 11 12 94 177 176 UCLA College Stats
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/28/2016.

7) San Francisco takes defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, who is an ideal fit for the 49ers 3-4 defense. Buckner was rumored to go as high as 3, so seems like a value pick.

8) We have a trade! Tennessee trades up with Cleveland. According to NFL Network, the trade was:

Cleveland gives up: 8th overall, 6th rounder (176 overall)
Tennessee gives up: 15th overall, 3rd round pick (76 overall), and 2017 2nd

The surprise? The move was for OT Jack Conklin.

9) The Bears trade up, and pay a hefty price for outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who did have the 2nd best vertical at the combine.

10) A head-scratcher for the Giants: After paying big money to Janoris Jenkins and with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the team, New York drafts… cornerback Eli Apple, who had a late first-round grade.

11) The Bucs then take a cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, which makes a little more sense. Most mock drafts had im going in the top 11, with almost all having him go in the top 15.

12) The Saints then took defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, which was a heavily-mocked pick. No surprise there and it fits a need.

13) Miami ends the Laremy Tunsil free-fall; this looks like a great value pick for the Dolphins, assuming the marijuana issues are behind him.

14) Oakland takes safety Karl Joseph: the defense needed help, although this may be a reach based on mocks.

15) As I wrote yesterday, I expected one of the wide receivers to go earlier than was being mocked. The Browns triple down on Baylor, adding Corey Coleman to a passing attack that (maybe) has RG3 and (maybe) has Josh Gordon.

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In 2003, Larry Fitzgerald caught 16 touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s first 8 games, making him one of only three players to reach those marks since 2000. The second was Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree, who had 17 as a freshman in ’07 through eight games. That was eclipsed — by three whole touchdowns — last year, when Baylor’s Corey Coleman caught 20 touchdowns through 8 games. At the time, Coleman had 58 receptions for 1,178 yards and 20 touchdowns. Unfortunately, his numbers tanked after that, thanks (i) to injuries to first starting quarterback Seth Russell and then backup Jarrett Stidham and (ii) the schedule getting significantly harder.

As good as Coleman’s numbers were, though, he didn’t even lead the country in receiving yards at that time. TCU’s Josh Doctson had 71 receptions for 1,250 yards and 14 touchdowns through eight games. In game 9, Doctson had six catches for 64 yards against Oklahoma State before suffering a wrist injury in the second quarter that effectively ended his season.

Now, neither player is being projected to go in the top half of the first round. That maybe isn’t too weird, given the inflated offensive numbers for Big 12 offenses. In a mock draft on November 2nd (which is right before the seasons went downhill for Coleman and Doctson), Matt Miller had Doctson going to Dallas at 12 while Coleman wasn’t even in Miller’s mock (I don’t know if it was because Coleman was a junior or if Miller had him going in another round). A November 16th mock by Dane Brugler had Coleman getting drafted at 29, with Doctson not being selected in the first round. A November 19th draft at the San Diego Union Tribune had the duo going in the back third (23/31) of the first round, although the same author had them going 15th and 23rd a week earlier. [click to continue…]

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Jalen Ramsey, and Defensive Backs In The Draft

Florida State cornerback/safety Jalen Ramsey is going to be the first defensive back selected in the 2016 Draft. Ramsey may go as high as #3 overall to San Diego, as the first non-quarterback off the board. On a recent Bill Barnwell podcast — and by the way, he has a new podcast that you should subscribe to — Bill wondered when we will see the day when a cornerback goes first overall.

Technically, that already happened, when Colorado State’s Gary Glick was the first pick off the board in ’56 (Glick played safety, running back, and even kicked for the Steelers). But in the common era draft beginning in 1967, the highest a defensive back has been drafted is second overall, when the late great Eric Turner was drafted by the Browns. The trio responsible for that pick? GM Ernie Accorsi, head coach Bill Belichick, and
defensive coordinator Nick Saban. Those guys knew a thing or two about defensive back play, and were comfortable taking a safety with the second pick.

But in general, the first defensive back goes off the board at around the 10th pick, although it is happening a bit earlier in recent years (the median spot for the top DB has been 6 over the last 15 drafts). The graph below shows the slot where the top defensive back was taken in every draft, and no, that 1974 Draft is not a bug: [click to continue…]

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Quarterbacks Going 1-2 in the NFL Draft, Part II

A year ago, I wrote that quarterbacks going with the first two picks in the NFL Draft was a pretty unusual thing. From 1967, the start of the common draft, through 2011, it happened just four times. Since then, it has happened two more times, and now will apparently happen in 2016, too, after the Eagles sent way too many draft picks to the Browns for the right to pick second overall. We can save for another day how this was a shrewd move by Cleveland — if nothing else, the Browns do have a history of getting a boatload to move down, including in trades for Sammy Watkins and Julio Jones — and a head-scratcher for the Eagles.

This move also opens up San Diego as the team “in control” of the draft, non-QB edition. The Chargers will now take the first non-QB off the board. Unfortunately, that’s a lot less exciting than it sounds, although it may come with it the ability to extract some trade value, potentially from the Cowboys at #4. Let’s take a look at the six times since 1967 that quarterbacks went 1-2, and who was the first non-QB taken. [click to continue…]

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Perhaps giving Fisher more picks isn't the answer

Perhaps giving Fisher more picks isn’t the answer

In 2012, St. Louis took advantage of one of the most inefficient aspects of the NFL: the top of the draft is a seller’s market, with teams desperately willing to overpay in a variance-seeking endeavor that usually disappoints. That year, the Rams moved down four spots, by trading the 2nd overall pick to Washington for the 6th overall pick…. and also picking up the 39th pick, a first round pick the following year (#22 overall), and a first round pick the year after that (#2 overall, incredibly). That trade was a steal for St. Louis the second it was made, but it became a home run when Washington tanked in 2013 (of course, one could argue that the home run was called back when the 2nd overall pick in 2014 was used on Greg Robinson, who has been one of the worst tackles in football since being drafted).

Today, the Rams — now in Los Angeles, of course — were on the buy side of things. And, as usual, to move up in the draft is quite expensive. THe Rams moved up from #15 to #1, and also gained a 4th (#113) and a 6th (#177) back in this year’s draft. But the price was exorbitant: Los Angeles had to give up both 2nd round picks it has this year (#43, courtesy of the Sam Bradford/Nick Foles swap last season, and #45, the team’s original selection), its third round pick (#76), and next year’s 1st and 3rd rounders. And while that doesn’t have quite the screaming headline of “Washington sends 3 first round picks for RG3,” make no mistake: the Rams gave up a massive amount to move up to #1, presumably to draft either Carson Wentz or California’s Jared Goff.

To simplify things, let’s try to cancel some things out. The 4th and 6th round picks received by the Rams this year is roughly equivalent to the 3rd giving up by Los Angeles next year; given the time value of the draft pick, a 6th round pick, it can be argued, makes up for getting to use that pick a year earlier, even if it’s a round later. I am sure both teams would have done this deal even if you take those three picks out of the mix, and it was probably included just to give Los Angeles a bit more in draft picks (instead of giving up 4 draft picks for 1 this year, now it’s 4 for 3). My hunch is the Rams were the one asking to throw in that last piece of the puzzle, even if it’s probably a better deal for Tennessee (since the time value of the draft pick is usually overstated). [click to continue…]

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The Dallas Cowboys are rumored to be drafting a replacement for Tony Romo with the fourth pick in the first round. In general, teams with bad offenses are the ones that draft quarterbacks, and technically, the Cowboys would fit that mold given the team’s struggles last year. But, of course, the Cowboys expect to have a good offense in 2016 with a healthy Romo, so I was curious how unusual it would be for a good team to spend a first round pick on a quarterback.

The table below shows the offensive SRS grade and the number of wins1 for each team that has drafted a quarterback since 1971 in the year preceding such draft. For example, the 2014 Bucs and Titans had very bad offenses and went 2-14 before drafting quarterbacks with the first two picks. That’s how things typically go, but not always. [click to continue…]

  1. Pro-rated to 16 games for non-16 game seasons. []
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Johnny Manziel And First Round Quarterback Busts

Worse than Tim Couch

Worse than Tim Couch

Johnny Manziel was drafted by Cleveland with the 22nd pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. That wasn’t a very long time ago, but Manziel was released yesterday after two tumultuous seasons. He went 2-6 as a starter with more off-the-field headlines than wins (or, probably, starts). There were 50 quarterbacks who threw 200 passes since 2014, and Manziel ranks 47th among those players in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.

Let’s ignore Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, who were traded for each other the day both players were drafted. And Kelly Stouffer, Jim Everett, and John Elway, who couldn’t work out contracts with the teams that drafted them (Cardinals, Oilers, Colts) and instead began their playing careers with other teams (Seahawks, Rams, and Broncos). That leaves 95 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since the common draft began in 1967.1

Manziel became the 9th of those 95 quarterbacks to finish with zero, one, or two wins with the team that drafted him. [click to continue…]

  1. Excluding quarterbacks drafted in the Supplemental Draft. []
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Carson Wentz and Non-Division 1/FBS Top Ten Picks

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz may be a top-five pick in the NFL Draft this year, although a number of mocks also have him falling outside of the top ten, too. It’s early in draft season, but I thought it would be fun to look at just how weird it would be to have someone from NDSU be selected in the top ten.

The table below shows all players drafted in the top ten since 1967 (the first year of the common draft) from non-Division 1 or FBS schools. The last? Steve McNair, who played at Alcorn State, back in 1995. [click to continue…]

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2014 Offensive Lineman and NFL Draft Value

You probably don’t think of the St. Louis Rams as a team that’s built along the offensive line. And for good reason: according to Pro Football Focus, St. Louis ranked 30th in pass blocking and 29th in run blocking in 2014. Football Outsiders also ranked the Rams offensive line in the bottom five in both power rushing and stuffed rates. But the Rams struggles on the offensive line are not for a lack of acquiring highly-drafted linemen.

Let’s put aside the selection of Jason Smith with the second overall pick of 2009, who would presumably be in the prime of his career right now had he not been a bust. Because even without him, no offensive line had as strong a pedigree in 2014 as the Rams.

  • At left tackle, Jake Long started 7 games; Long was the first overall pick in the ’08 Draft, albeit by the Dolphins. The other nine games were started by Greg Robinson, taken by St. Louis with the second overall pick in the 2014 Draft.
  • The left guard spot generally belonged to Rodger Saffold (who started 16 games), taken by St. Louis with the 33rd overall pick in 2010.
  • Center was manned by Scott Wells, the 251st pick by the Packers way back in 2004.
  • At right guard was Davin Joseph for 13 games, the 23rd pick in 2006 by the Bucs. The other three games were started by Saffold, and during those games, Robinson moved into the left guard spot during (with Long sticking at left tackle).
  • At right tackle was Joe Barksdale for all 16 games. Barksdale was the 92nd pick in the draft in 2011 by the Raiders.

[click to continue…]

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Analyzing Position Values In the 2015 Draft

The 2015 NFL Draft is in the books. The three-day event gives us a unique peek behind the NFL curtain; teams can and do say all sorts of ridiculous things, but the way the draft unfolds is the ultimate in what economists refer to as a revealed preference. Regular readers may recall that after last year’s draft, I analyzed the positions each draft pick was spent on and what that meant about the NFL’s value of each position.

As you probably know, I’ve created a draft value chart based on the expected marginal Approximate Value produced by each draftee in his first five seasons to the team that drafted him. By assigning each draft pick a number of expected points, we can then calculate how much draft capital was spent on each position. I went through the 2015 draft (using the position designations from Pro-Football-Reference) and calculated how much value was used on each position; the results are displayed in the table below.1 [click to continue…]

  1. I’m excluding fullbacks and specialists from this definition. For purposes of this study, the four fullbacks drafted, Alabama’s Jalston Fowler Jr. (Titans), Rutgers’ Michael Burton (Lions), Oklahoma’s Aaron Ripkowski (Packers), and Hawaii’s Joey Iosefa (Buccaneers), were counted as running backs. In addition, one punter (Bradley Pinion, Clemson, 49ers) and one long snapper (Joe Cardona, Navy, Patriots).  Pinion and Cardona were back-to-back picks in the 5th round []
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What Will The Jets Do With Leonard Williams?

Teams should not draft for need in the first round, particularly in the top half of the first round.  So when perhaps the best player in the 2015 draft — Southern Cal’s Leonard Williams — the Jets were faced with an interesting decision.  Williams profiled as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 or a 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3, although he’s lauded for his versatility in playing along the line.  For New York, the team’s best position in terms of talent and age is 3-4 defensive end, where Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson ply their trade.

Last year, Pro Football Focus charted 47 3-4 defensive ends that played at least 25% of their team’s snaps.  The top three were J.J Watt, Richardson, and Wilkerson.  For a team that went 4-12, adding a third dominant (if Williams pans out) 3-4 defensive end seems like a luxury.  But is it?  What are the Jets thinking?

Can’t the Jets Just Switch To A 4-3 Defense?

Not really. Sure, Todd Bowles is famous for his versatile defensive fronts, as Rex Ryan was before him. In a 4-3, the Jets could get everyone on the field, but they’d lack a true pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end. More importantly, the Jets don’t have the personnel to play linebacker in a 4-3.

The Jets two inside linebackers, David Harris and Demario Davis, led the team in snaps last year.  Switching to a 4-3 obviously means either benching one of them or switching one to outside linebacker.  Harris, limited in his speed and agility even by 3-4 ILB standards, would appear to be a terrible fit for a 4-3, and benching him is unlikely given that he has more guaranteed money per year on his contract than any other inside linebacker.  Davis could, perhaps, switch to outside linebacker, but who would be the other option? Calvin Pace or Quinton Coples would be far too slow to cover enough ground at that position.  Frankly, in a 4-3, the Jets would have one of the worst linebacker groups in the NFL.

The Jets would be fine in nickel (4-2-5), but again, where would the pass rush come from?  The farther you put two of Wilkerson, Williams, or Richardson from the center/quarterback, the less you get to take advantage of their true talents.  None of them are true 4-3 pass rushing ends; all could play it, but you move away from their strengths. Williams, Wilkerson, and Richardson are all about 6-4 and 300 pounds.  Last year, there were 19 players who recorded double digit sacks in the NFL.  Twelve of those players weighed 260 pounds or fewer, while another three were between 260 and 280 pounds.  The remaining four: two huge outside linebackers (Paul Kruger and Mario Williams), a defensive tackle (Marcell Dareus), and Watt.  If the Jets switch to a 4-3, the team would probably be worse off when it comes to rushing the passer, and it’s hard to imagine the team being any better against the run.

Okay, what about a 3-4 with those three on the line?

That could work… if the Jets didn’t happen to have one of the best nose tackles in the NFL.  Among 3-4 teams, Damon Harrison rated as the top nose tackle against the run by Pro-Football-Focus last year, which is where he ranked in 2013, too.

Harrison recorded a “stop” on 12.5% of his snaps last year when the opposing team ran the ball.  That was the best of any defensive lineman, regardless of position or alignment, in the NFL in 2014. In 2013, Richardson ranked 2nd to Watt in this metric.  Taking Harrison off the field on running downs makes no sense at all, especially when he’s about 50 pounds heavier than each of Wilkerson, Williams, and Richardson.

Okay, So Now What? Do They Trade Wilkerson?

Richardson is not going to get traded, while Wilkerson is playing out his fifth year option this year.  It makes no sense for New York to trade him right now, though, given that he’s only due to count for seven million against the cap.  And since the Jets could still franchise him, there’s no rush to trade him, either, at least until Williams shows that he’s as good as everyone thinks.  Oh, and by the way, teams aren’t in the habit of just letting All-Pro caliber defensive ends just leave in the primes of their careers.

Okay, so Harrison has to be on the field on run plays, and the Jets probably can’t play a 4-3. So what do they do with Williams?

This was the conundrum faced by the Jets once Williams slid to the sixth pick.  Do you bypass an elite talent because he’s not a need pick? Of course not!  Do you remember Tony Jones and Orlando Brown? Both were above-average tackles, the position of strength for a bad Cleveland Browns team in 1995.  The team was hoping to take Simeon Rice with the 4th overall pick in the ’96 draft, but the Cardinals took Rice with the 3rd pick.  With the 4th pick, the franchise — now in Baltimore — selected Jonathan Ogden.

As a rookie, Ogden … played left guard for the Ravens.  After the season, Baltimore traded Jones to Denver for the 58th pick in the ’97 draft.  The Jets could be in a similar situation, and it wouldn’t shock me to see the team try to trade Wilkerson for a 2016 1st round pick (if not more). That’s what you call a good problem.

But What About 2015?

Again, teams shouldn’t make their draft decisions based on what will happen in the immediate future.  If the Jets took Kevin White or Vic Beasley — the 7th and 8th picks and players at clearer positions of need — both would just be rotational players as rookies.1  And that’s what the team will do with Williams this year.

Richardson and Wilkerson generally play about 80% of the team’s defensive snaps.  Perhaps that number drops to 70-75% this year: and while you don’t want to take either of them off the field, you may be able to extract even better play on a per-play basis if you give them a breather every once in a awhile. That would leave Williams around to play about 55% of snaps as a rookie, which is a pretty reasonable number. And, of course, the team could wind up having all three on the field every once in awhile, so Williams could still feature in about 2/3 of all plays.

Last year, rookie Aaron Donald played in 67% of the defensive snaps for the St. Louis Rams, despite being arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.  And who knows what the team will do this year, with Donald, Michael Brockers, and Nick Fairley all on the defensive tackle depth chart.  But that’s the point: teams need to rotate their defensive linemen, particularly the interior linemen.

So the Jets have three great five technique defensive ends.  Would the team be better off with an elite edge rushing 3-4 OLB than Williams? Probably, but presumably the team’s scouting department didn’t see a player that was on the same talent level as Williams.  And not reaching is the right move in that case.

When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013, the team rotated its top seven defensive linemen.  In Seattle’s 4-3 defense, all seven played between 480 and 600 snaps, and that seemed to work out just fine for the team.  Rotating three defensive stars (and occasionally having all three on the field) may not be the sexiest solution, but it’s the most reasonable. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  1. White would  not start over Eric Decker or Brandon Marshall, and Jeremy Kerley would still get his snaps.  The Jets desperately need an edge rusher like Beasley, but the Jets would still have rotated him with Pace during his rookie year. []
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You may be surprised to learn this, but Jameis Winston is just the fourth black quarterback selected with the first overall pick. In 1968, Oakland drafted Eldridge Dickey in the first round, the first NFL team to select a black quarterback in the first round. But the Raiders switched Dickey to wide receiver, and he never played quarterback in an NFL game.

Then, no black quarterback went in the first round until… 1978! That’s when Tampa Bay selected Doug Williams, a groundbreaking pick for that time. Of course, it didn’t do much to stem the tide: no black QBs entered the league over the next five years. In fact, in 1983, Vince Evans was the only black quarterback in the NFL (Williams was in the USFL at the time).

The third black quarterback selected in the first round since the merger came in 1990, when the Lions took Andre Ware.

Eleven years later, Michael Vick became the first black quarterback to go first overall. He’s since been joined by JaMarcus Russell (2007), Cam Newton (2011), and now Winston.

There was a clear tipping point, and that was 1999. That year, five quarterbacks went in the first round, with three of them (Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, and Daunte Culpepper) being players who would have had no chance of being first round picks 25 years earlier.

In the graph below, the X-Axis represents each draft year from 1970 to 2015, while the Y-Axis shows overall draft pick. In the graph, I’ve plotted the first round of each draft since the merger, with black quarterbacks represented by red dots and all other quarterbacks in blue dots.1 As you can see, the chart is pretty homogenous prior to 1999:

black qb first round

There’s no clearer way to show the institutional prejudice the NFL had in the ’70s and ’80s than this chart. This isn’t breaking news, of course, but it’s interesting to see just how highly-drafted black quarterbacks have been recently after being completely shut out of the first round for many years.

And Winston himself is something of a different player. He rushed for 65 yards his last year in college; compare that to guys like Newton (1473) or Vick (617, and more runs than completed passes). Winston going first overall is hardly a triumphant moment signaling the end of racism, but perhaps the most positive development is how little you heard about his race during this pre-draft process.2 That was most certainly not the case with Vick, Russell, or Newton. Then again, Winston had enough other issues to keep us occupied.

  1. To avoid any such questions in the comments, yes, I’ve got 2015 on there, and no, Marcus Mariota is not black. He’s Samoan. []
  2. Why yes, I have now ruined everything. []
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Yesterday, I was a guest on the Wharton Moneyball show on SiriusXM Channel 111 (@BizRadio111), discussing the NFL draft. As always, it was a lot of fun, but the hosts threw me a curveball in the final seconds:

Which will produce the best quarterback from the 2015 Draft — the Jameis Winston/Marcus Mariota group, or the field?

Now I am quite familiar with the value of taking the field in these sort of bets. We are prone to being overconfident in our ability to predict things, especially when it comes to the NFL Draft. But I still said I’d take Winston/Mariota and leave you with everyone else, and be reasonably confident that I would end up with the draft’s best quarterback.

But am I right? How far down the quarterback slots do you have to go in the average draft to find the best QB? Would taking the top two generally be enough?

This is, of course, a question without a clear answer because there is no objective answer to the question “who was the best quarterback in the [__] Draft?” It’s much too early to grade the 2013 or 2014 drafts, and you will get no shortage of debate as to whether Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson is the best quarterback from the 2012 draft. In 2011, Cam Newton was the first overall pick, but Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick were the 5th and 6th quarterbacks taken.

In 2010, Sam Bradford does appear to have been the best quarterback from that draft, and should be remembered that way absent Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, or Jimmy Clausen having a magical career turnaround.

In 2009, getting the top two quarterbacks would give you Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, while the field would give you…. Josh Freeman and Curtis Painter.

In 2008, the top two quarterbacks were Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. The book is not yet written on which one of them will be remembered as the best, but we can say that both will wind up being better than the field of Chad Henne, Matt Flynn, and Josh Johnson.

In 2007, the quarterback class was… ugly. The top guy will probably go down as one of Trent Edwards (most starts, most wins, most yards), Kevin Kolb (a positive TD/INT ratio!), or Drew Stanton (highest ANY/A but only 12 starts). Although for our purposes, we don’t need to finely split hairs. That’s because it’s clear the top quarterback was not JaMarcus Russell or Brady Quinn, the top two quarterbacks in that draft. Score one for the field.

Say what you want about Jay Cutler, but he was the clear top quarterback of 2006. In fact, he has thrown for more touchdowns than the rest of the class combined! As the 11th overall pick, he doesn’t quite meet the spirit of today’s question, but he is part of the field technically. That’s because Vince Young and Matt Leinart were the 3rd and 10th selections.

We need not spend much time on 2005. It was Aaron Rodgers, the second quarterback selected. Although Rodgers was much closer to the field (Jason Campbell was taken 25th overall, one pick after Rodgers) than being the first pick (Alex Smith).

For 2004, we can at least ignore the pretend Eli Manning/Philip Rivers debate, but that doesn’t help us when Ben Roethlisberger is in the mix, too. Call this one a push between top 2 and the field.

In 2003, it’s easy: it was Carson Palmer, the first overall pick. Nobody else comes close. Well, I guess that depends how you define class: Tony Romo went undrafted that year. Does the field include undrafted quarterbacks?

In 2002, not only is the answer David Garrard, but I think it’s Garrard by a wide margin. Garrard had a winning record, the most yards, the most TDs, and the best ANY/A out of the group with him, Patrick Ramsey, Josh McCown, and the first and third overall picks: David Carr and Joey Harrington. Score another one for the field.

In 2001, it’s Drew Brees, who was the second quarterback selected, albeit 31 picks after Michael Vick.

For 2000, let’s put that one down for the field.

1999 isn’t particularly close: Donovan McNabb made six Pro Bowls and started for 11 years; Daunte Culpepper is the runner up with three and five, respectively. And we know about 1998. So that’s two more for the top two. [click to continue…]

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We all know the story of the 1991 Washington Redskins, one of the best football teams in NFL history. The team had an SRS of 16.6, the second highest since 1990 (to the ’07 Patriots), and that’s with the team losing a meaningless week 17 game.

So it always takes me a second when I look at the 1992 draft and see that Washington had the #4 pick in the draft. How did that happen?? Well, on Draft Day 1991, Washington was sitting with the 47th overall pick, the 20th selection of the second round, when the team found a taker. San Diego, desperate for … a guard … wanted to trade up to Michigan State’s Eric Moten. The Chargers had already picked George Thornton with the 36th pick and Eric Bieniemy with the 39th, but I guess the team was really, really in love with all three players. That’s because San Diego was willing to trade its 1992 first round pick in exchange for the 47th in the ’91 draft and a fifth rounder in the ’92 draft.

That trade, as it turned out, was really bad. San Diego, 6-10 in 1990, slipped to 4-12 in 1991. Four teams finished with fewer than four wins that year, and the tiebreakers landed San Diego in the middle of the three teams that finished 4-12. That meant the 6th overall selection was headed to D.C.

But Washington really coveted Howard, the Heisman Trophy winner. And, ironically enough given what Howard is mostly remembered for during his pro career, the biggest threat to dressing Howard in burgundy and gold was Green Bay, holders of the fifth pick. So Washington traded its 6th and 28th picks to Cincinnati to move up to 4th overall, while also getting to jump from 84 to 58 in the third round. Not a great trade according to my calculator (Washington was getting about 80 cents on the dollar for its picks), and the team only received about 87 cents on the dollar according to the traditional draft chart. But hey, how often can a defending Super Bowl champion add a top-five draft pick with a Heisman Trophy on his bookshelf?

That anecdote made me wonder: what other cases are there of really good teams holding high picks in the draft? Some would be by trade on draft day, of course, which probably doesn’t mean all that much. But many, presumably, would be a result of strategic planning earlier that worked out beautifully after a trading partner had a down year. And where does “Washington getting Howard” rank on this list? [click to continue…]

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Teams that select quarterbacks in the first round of the draft generally struggled in the passing department prior year, although not as much as you might think. On average, these teams1 had a Relative ANY/A of -0.71, meaning those teams were 0.71 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt below average. For reference, that’s right about where the 2014 Bears finished, and Chicago ranked 27th in the NFL in ANY/A last year.

There have been 91 teams that have selected a quarterback in the first round of the regular NFL Draft since 1970; the Tampa Bay Bucs are almost certainly going to be the 92nd.2 Every once in awhile, a good passing team will dip its toes into the quarterback waters and select a passer in the first round. Over this time period, there have been eight teams that had a RANY/A of at least +1.0 and then selected a quarterback in the draft.

The 2005 Packers are not that team. In ’04, Green Bay behind Brett Favre had a RANY/A of +1.42, which didn’t stop the franchise from drafting Aaron Rodgers in the first round in the following draft. But there are four other teams that had an even better RANY/A the year before selecting a quarterback in the first round during this period. Can you name the team with the best RANY/A? [click to continue…]

  1. Since 1970, excluding quarterbacks taken in the supplemental draft, and including the 2015 Bucs. []
  2. Note: Kerry Collins, Tim Couch, and David Carr all were drafted by expansion teams in the first round. These examples are being deliberately excluded in this analysis. []
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Read one profile of an offensive lineman projected to go in the top ten of the draft and you’ve read them all. You’ll hear that the player is “one of the safest picks in the draft,” a future Pro Bowler, and someone “you can pencil into your starting lineup for the next decade and forget about.”

We know that quarterbacks are tough to project coming out of college: it’s the most challenging position to evaluate, so we’re told, and quarterback production is so dependent on things like system and teammates. Wide receivers are notoriously risky, too, while running backs have become devalued in recent years.

So the default safe offensive pick high in the draft is at tackle. But that hasn’t been working out so well in recent years. Not only have there been a number of underachievers, but top picks have produced some of the league’s worst starting linemen.

  • In 2014, Greg Robinson was the second pick in the draft. The Rams tackle rated as one of the worst offensive tackles last season according to Pro Football Focus.
  • Taylor Lewan was the 11th pick to the Titans. He began the season on the bench, first starting in week 6 against the Jaguars. Lewan started for six games, but missed the remainder of the season with an ankle injury.
  • In 2013, offensive tackles went in three of the first four picks! Eric Fisher was the first overall pick in the draft but has been a disastrous pick. Fisher was terrible at right tackle as a rookie, and no better as a left tackle last season. The Chiefs have been successful over this time period, limiting the media blowback, but the pick has been horrendous by first overall selection standards.

[click to continue…]

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Colleges, The NFL Draft, and Heat Maps Since 1990

You may recall that last year, I looked at which college conferences dominate the NFL draft. Today, I want to look at which teams have dominated the draft since 1990.  And while there are no surprises, it’s fun to put numbers to what we all can sense.  Here’s what I did:

1) Using these draft values, assign a value to every pick in every draft from 1990 to 2014.

2) Calculate the amount of draft capital assigned to each college team by summing the values from each draft pick for each player from that college.

3) Create a heat map of the results, where red = more draft value and blue = less draft value.

Below are the top 75 schools in draft value created over the last 25 years.  You won’t be shocked to see that Florida State ranks 1st, with its players being worth 1,165 points of draft value over that span.  And with Jameis Winston headlining a host of Seminoles expected to be drafted this year, Florida State can probably comfortably settle into that top spot for the foreseeable future. [click to continue…]

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Quarterback Trivia: Going 1-2 in the NFL Draft

It seems likely that Florida State’s Jameis Winston will be the first pick in the 2015 Draft. And if he isn’t the first pick, that will probably be because Oregon’s Marcus Mariota went first overall.

It’s been three years since Andrew Luck and RG3 went 1-2 at the top of the draft; in fact, Luck is the last quarterback to go first overall, with Jadeveon Clowney and Eric Fisher being selected at the top of the last two drafts. The graph below shows what draft pick was used on the first (in blue) and second (in red) quarterbacks drafted in each year since 1967. [click to continue…]

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Since 1970, there have been just nine times where two teams agreed on a trade knowing that it was for the first overall draft pick. Will a trade up for Jameis Winston make number ten? Let’s go in reverse chronological order and look at every instance since the AFL-NFL merger when the first overall pick was traded:

2004: Giants trade up to acquire Eli Manning

New York trades the rights to Philip Rivers (the fourth pick), the first pick in the third round (Nate Kaeding), a 2005 first round pick (Shawne Merriman) and a 2005 fifth round pick (Jerome Collins) to San Diego for the rights to Manning

This one technically wouldn’t count as a trade of the first overall pick, because San Diego selected Manning before trading him. But I am counting it because it this meets the spirit of the question. Prior to the draft, the Chargers and Giants had been in a standoff on compensation, and San Diego upped the ante by actually selecting Manning. New York gave up an enormous haul to move up three spots in the draft, and the Chargers then hit on the additional picks they received (Merriman went to three Pro Bowls; Kaeding went to two). The Chargers flipped the pick that became Collins for Roman Oben, who started 24 games at tackle for San Diego. On top of that, many will view Rivers as the best player in the deal, but this is one of the few trades where I suspect each team is happy with the trade.

2001: Atlanta trades up to select Michael Vick.

Falcons trade the 5th pick (LaDainian Tomlinson), third round pick (Tay Cody), and 2002 second round pick (Reche Caldwell) to San Diego for the first overall pick

At the time, it felt like an enormous haul was being given to acquire Vick, but this is actually less compensation than San Diego would get from the Giants three years later. Vick obviously never reached his full potential in Atlanta, while the Chargers were able to acquire the best running back of his generation. Oh, and they did pretty well when they snagged a quarterback at the top of the second round, too.

1997: St. Louis trades up to select Orlando Pace

Rams trade the 6th pick, third round pick (Dan Neil), fourth round pick (Terry Day), and seventh round pick (Koy Detmer) to New York for the first overall pick

The Jets had the first pick for the second year in a row, going 1-15 a year after selecting Keyshawn Johnson. Things would have turned out much differently if a certain Tennessee quarterback had decided to declare for the draft after his junior year, but as of this time, the Manning family was not yet focused on being in New York.

With the luster on the first pick gone, the Jets — now under the management of Bill Parcells — chose to trade down and rebuild. The Rams didn’t have to offer all that much to move up six spots in the draft, as the top six or so players were all generally considered to be in the same tier. Things worked out nicely for the Rams, as the team went to two Super Bowls during Pace’s standout career, winning one in 1999.

The Jets then traded down from 6th to 8th, acquiring a fourth round pick (Leon Johnson) from the Bucs in the process. The Jets finally selected James Farrior, who a role player but not a star during his Jets career (before a decade of strong play in Pittsburgh). Tampa Bay sent the 6th pick to Seattle in exchange for the 12th pick (Warrick Dunn) and the third pick in the third round (Frank Middleton); while the Bucs hits on those picks, the Seahawks were the big winners, trading up to select Walter Jones.

1995: Cincinnati trades up to select Ki-Jana Carter

Bengals trade the 5th pick (Kerry Collins) and the 36th pick (Shawn King) to Carolina for the first overall pick

Cincinnati had the 1st pick in 1994 and used it on Dan Wilkinson; the Bengals then went 3-13. But because the Panthers and Jaguars were entering the NFL, that only entitled Cincinnati to the 5th pick.  The Bengals running game was putrid in ’94, with Derrick Fenner, Steve Broussard, and Harold Green combining for just 1,094 yards and 4 touchdowns on 311 carries (3.5 YPC) as part of a three-headed attack.

Carter rushed 198 times for 1,539 yards and 23 touchdowns during his junior year at Penn State, culminating in a 21-carry, 156-yard, 3-touchdown performance in a Rose Bowl win over Oregon, capping a perfect 11-0 season for the Nittany Lions. Carter’s next game would be much worse. On the third carry of his first preseason game, he tore his ACL, causing him to miss the entire 1995 season.

He struggled in 1996, the days of when a torn ACL was really a two-year injury. In the third game of the ’97 season, he rushed 13 times for 104 yards, but tore his rotator cuff. He would later miss nearly all of ’98 with a broken wrist, while ’99 was lost with a dislocated right kneecap.

The trade obviously didn’t work out for Cincinnati, although in an odd twist, he actually lasted longer in Cincinnati than Collins did with the Panthers. Carolina was happy to grab Carter’s teammate with the 5th pick in the draft, but an immature Collins wore out his welcome in Carolina. Of course, he would turn things around, and wind up playing for 17 seasons. King, a defensive end from LSU, started just ten games in his four year career, and only two of those starts came with the Panthers. This was a trade with no winners.

1991: Dallas trades up for Russell Maryland

Cowboys trade Ron Francis, David Howard, Eugene Lockhart, the 11th pick (Pat Harlow) and a second round pick (Jerome Henderson) to the Patriots for the first overall pick

The Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson were not shy about taking Hurricanes that Johnson had coached at Miami.  Here, Dallas sent the 11th pick and a bunch of spare parts1 to move up ten slots, as the Patriots were desperate to retool their roster. Maryland had a good but not great career: he played for ten years, mostly as a starter, and was a force in the middle.   But he was rarely dominant, and never had more than 4.5 sacks in a single season. Basically everything the early ’90s Patriots was a failure, this trade included.  Harlow was a nondescript starting tackle for four years in New England, while Henderson made just ten starts with the Patriots.

The other part of the story here concerned Rocket Ismail, the Notre Dame star receiver who was the consensus best player in the draft. That is, until Ismail decided to head to the CFL for more money. The Cowboys thought they might convince Ismail to come to Dallas instead of New England, but after the Toronto Argonauts offered more money, Dallas settled on Maryland. [click to continue…]

  1. Francis never played for the Patriots, Howard started 15 games over two years, and Lockhart started 21 games in two seasons. []
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Stafford wins the prize for best quarterback drafted by the Lions since 2000

Stafford wins the prize for best quarterback drafted by the Lions since 2000

There are some teams — the Lions, Jaguars, and Raiders come to mind — that have spent most of the last 15 years looking for their next quarterback of the future. And others that seem to ignore the position in the draft, either because they found a Tom Brady or Tony Romo in a haystack (to go along with some Drew Bledsoe) or organizational indifference to drafting quarterbacks (Chiefs, Saints).

Today, I want to quantify those numbers. At the top of every page at Football Perspective is a link to the Draft Pick Value Calculator, based on the values derived here and shown here. If we assign each draft pick its proper value, and then sum the values used to select quarterbacks by each team over the last 15 years, we can see which teams have devoted the most draft capital on quarterbacks.

Here’s how to read the chart below. Detroit leads the way in draft capital spent. The Lions have only selected five quarterbacks, but spent 78.4 points of Draft Value on passers. That averages out to 15.68 points of draft value spent on each quarterback, the second highest (to Jacksonville) among the 32 teams. The far right column displays each quarterback selected in the draft since 2000. [click to continue…]

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Weekend Trivia: Supplemental Draft

Given that the NFL draft and the lead-up to the draft have become so remarkably over-exposed, is there anything about the NFL that is under-exposed at this point? Or at least not over-exposed? Maybe the answer is no, but today’s trivia questions at least look at the hidden part of the draft: the supplemental draft.

After producing Steve Young and Bernie Kosar in the 1980s, the supplemental draft mostly went dead at producing quarterbacks from 1990 until Terrelle Pryor in 2011. Who is the only quarterback that was drafted in the supplemental during that time?

Trivia hint 1 Show


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Click 'Show' for the Answer Show

Just as only one quarterback was selected in the supplemental draft in the 90s, there was only one quarterback chosen in the supplemental draft in the 1970s. Can you name him?

Trivia hint 1 Show


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Trivia hint 3 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer Show

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Friend-of-the-program Matt Waldman had some thoughts on the topic of wide receiver size, and then asked if I could contribute with some data. Matt posted our joint effort on his Matt’s site, but I’m reproducing it below for the Football Perspective readers. On twitter, some asked if I could do a separate study on wide receivers and weight rather than height. I’ll put that on the to-do list.


 

Matt Waldman: Stats Ministers and Their Church

I’m a fan of applying analytics to football. Those who do it best possess rigorous statistical training or are disciplined about maintaining limits with its application. Brian Burke wrote that at its core, football analytics is no different than the classic scientific method. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are some bad scientists out there, who behave more like religious zealots than statisticians. I call them Stats Ministers. They claim objectivity when their methodology and fervor is anything but.

Stats Ministers scoff at the notion that anyone would see value in a wide receiver under a specific height and weight. They love to share how an overwhelming number of receivers above that specific height and weight mark make up the highest production tiers at the history of the position, but that narrow observation doesn’t prove the broader point that among top-tier prospects, taller wide receivers fare better than shorter ones. In fact, what the Stats Ministers ignore is that a disproportionately high number of the biggest busts were above a certain height and weight, too. Having a microphone does not mean one conducted thoughtful analysis: it could also mean one has a bully pulpit where a person with less knowledge and perspective of the subject will look at the correlation and come to the conclusion that it must be so.

However, correlation isn’t causation. Questioning why anyone would like a smaller wide receiver based on larger number of top wide receivers having size is an example of pointing to faulty ‘data backed’ points. Pointing to historical data can only get you so far: it’s not that different than the reasoning that led to Warren Moon going undrafted. That’s an extreme comparison, of course, but the structure of the argument is the same: there were very few black quarterbacks who had experienced any sort of success in the NFL, so why would Moon? Sometimes you have to shift eras to see in a clear light what “correlation isn’t causation” really looks like.

It was overwhelmingly obvious that Moon could play quarterback if you watched him. But if you’re prejudiced by past history rather than open to learning what to study on the field, then it isn’t overwhelmingly obvious. Data can help define the boundaries of risk, but when those wielding the data want to eliminate the search for the exceptional they’ve gone too far. Even as we see players get taller, stronger, and faster, wide receivers under 6’2″, 210 pounds aren’t the exception.

Analytics-minded individuals employed by NFL teams — who have backgrounds in statistics – don’t follow this line of thoughts. Those with whom I spoke acknowledged that there is an effective player archetype of the small, quick receiver. They recognize the large number of size of shorter/smaller receivers who have been impact players in the NFL that make the size argument moot: Isaac Bruce, Derrick Mason, Wes Welker, Marvin Harrison, DeSean Jackson, Torry Holt, Steve Smith, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Antonio Brown, Pierre Garcon, Victor Cruz, and Reggie Wayne are just a small sample of players who did not match this 6-2, 210-pound requirement.

This size/weight notion and discussion of “calibration” or what I think they actually mean–reverse regression–is also a classic statistical case of overfitting. There are too many variables and complexities to the game and the position to throw up two data points like height and weight and derive a predictive model on quality talent among receivers. The only fact about big/tall receivers is that they tend to have a large catch radius. Otherwise, there is no factual basis to assume that these players have more talent and skill.

The dangerous thing about this type of thinking is that many of these “Stats Ministers” were trained using perfect data sets in the classroom and their math is reliant on “high fit” equations. When they tackle a real world environment like football they still expect these lessons to help them when it won’t. However, there are plenty of people who are reading and buying into what they’re selling. I showed my argument above to Chase Stuart and asked him to share his thoughts. Here’s his analysis:

Chase Stuart: Analysis of the Big vs. Small WR Question

We should begin by first getting a sense of the distribution of height among wide receivers in the draft. The graph below shows the number of wide receivers selected in the first two rounds of each draft from 1970 to 2013 at each height (in inches):

wr draft ht

The distribution is somewhat like a bell curve, with the peak height being 6’1, and the curve being slightly skewed thereafter towards shorter players (more 6’0 receivers than 6’2, more 5’11 receivers than 6’3, and so on).

Now, let’s look at the number of WRs who have made three Pro Bowls since 1970:

wr pro bowl ht

The most common height for a wide receiver who has made three Pro Bowls since the AFL-NFL merger is 72 inches. And while Harold Jackson is the only wide receiver right at 5’10 to make the list, players at 71 and 69 inches are pretty well represented, too. I suppose it’s easy to forget smaller receivers, so here’s the list of wide receivers 6′0 or shorter with 3 pro bowls:

Mel Gray
Mark Duper
Mark Clayton
Gary Clark
Steve Smith
Wes Welker
Harold Jackson
Charlie Joiner
Cliff Branch
Lynn Swann
Steve Largent
Stanley Morgan
Henry Ellard
Anthony Carter
Anthony Miller
Paul Warfield
Drew Pearson
Wes Chandler
Irving Fryar
Tim Brown
Sterling Sharpe
Isaac Bruce
Rod Smith
Marvin Harrison
Hines Ward
Donald Driver
Torry Holt
Reggie Wayne
DeSean Jackson

Recent history

Now, let’s turn to players drafted since 2000. This next graph shows how many wide receivers were selected in the first two rounds of drafts from ’00 to ’13, based on height:

As you can see, the draft is skewing towards taller wide receivers in recent years. Part of that is because nearly all positions are getting bigger and taller (and faster), but the real question concerns whether this trend is overvaluing tall wide receivers.

It’s too early to grade receivers from the 2012 or 2013 classes, so let’s look at all receivers drafted in the first round between 2000 and 2011. There were 21 receivers drafted who were 6’3 or taller, compared to just 14 receivers drafted who stood six feet tall or shorter. On average, these taller receivers were drafted with the 13th pick in the draft, while the set of short receivers were selected, on average, with the 21st pick.

So we would expect the taller receivers to be better players, since they were drafted eight spots higher. But that wasn’t really the case. Both sets of players produced nearly identical receiving yards averages:

TypeRookieYear 2Year 3
Short535669709
Tall567676720

Taller wide receivers have fared ever so slightly better than shorter receivers. But once you factor in draft position, that edge disappears. If you look at the ten highest drafted “short” receivers, they still were drafted later (on average, 17th overall) than the average “tall” receiver. But their three-year receiving yards line is better, reading 563-694-790. In other words, I don’t see evidence to indicate that shorter receivers, once taking draft position into account, are worse than taller receivers. If anything, the evidence points the other way, suggesting that talent evaluators are more comfortable “reaching” for a taller player who isn’t quite as good. Players like Santana Moss, Lee Evans, Percy Harvin, and Jeremy Maclin were very productive shorter picks; for some reason, it’s easy for some folks to forget the success of those shorter receivers, and also forget the failures of taller players like Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Jonathan Baldwin, Sylvester Morris, David Terrell, Michael Jenkins, Reggie Williams, and Matt Jones.

But that’s just one way of answering the question. What I did next was run a regression using draft value using the values from my Draft Value Chart and height to predict success. If the draft was truly efficient — i.e., if height was properly being incorporated into a player’s draft position–then adding height to the regression would be useless. But if height was being improperly valued by NFL decision makers, the regression would tell us that, too.

To measure success, I used True Receiving Yards by players in their first five seasons. I jointly developed True Receiving Yards with Neil Paine (now of 538 fame), and you can read the background about it here and here.

The basic explanation is that TRY adjusts receiver numbers for era and combines receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns into one number, and adjusts for the volume of each team’s passing attack. The end result is one number that looks like receiving yards: Antonio Brown, AJ Green, Josh Gordon, Calvin Johnson, Anquan Boldin, and Demaryius Thomas all had between 1100 and 1200 TRY last year.

First, I had to isolate a sample of receivers to analyze. I decided to take 20 years of NFL drafts, looking at all players drafted between 1990 and 2009 who played in an NFL game, and their number of TRYs in their first five seasons. (Note: As will become clear at the end of this post, I have little reason to think this is an issue. But technically, I should note that I am only looking at drafted wide receivers who actually played in an NFL game. So if, for example, height is disproportionately linked to players who are drafted but fail to make it to an NFL game, that would be important to know but would be ignored in this analysis.)

To give you a sense of what type of players TRY likes, here are the top 10 leaders (in order) in True Receiving Yards accumulated during their first five seasons among players drafted between 1990 and 2009:

Randy Moss
Torry Holt
Marvin Harrison
Larry Fitzgerald
Chad Johnson
Calvin Johnson
Keyshawn Johnson
Anquan Boldin
Herman Moore
Andre Johnson

First, I ran a regression using Draft Pick Value as my sole input and True Receiving Yards as my output. The best-fit formula was:

TRY through five years = 348 + 131.3 * Draft Pick Value

That doesn’t mean much in the abstract, so let’s use an example. Keyshawn Johnson was the first pick in the draft, which gives him a draft value of 34.6. This formula projected Johnson to have 4,890 TRY through five years. In reality, he had 4,838. The R^2 in the regression was 0.60, which is pretty strong: It means draft pick is pretty strongly tied to wide receiver production, a sign that the market is pretty efficient.

Then I re-ran the formula using draft pick value *and* height as my inputs. As it turns out, the height variable was completely meaningless. The R^2 remained at 0.60, and the coefficient on the height variable was not close to significant (p=0.53) despite a large sample of 543 players.

In other words, NFL GMs were properly valuing height in the draft during this period.

In case you’re curious, the 15 biggest “overachievers” as far as TRY relative to draft position were, in order: Marques Colston, Santana Moss, Brandon Marshall, Darrell Jackson, Terrell Owens, Anquan Boldin, Antonio Freeman, Chad Johnson, Coles, Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Chris Chambers, Marvin Harrison, Hines Ward, and Steve Johnson.

In this sample, about 50% of the players were taller than 6-0, and only about 30% of the receivers were 5-11 or shorter. We shouldn’t necessarily expect to see a bunch of short overachievers, but I’m convinced that height was properly valued by NFL teams in the draft at least over this 20-year period. There may be fewer star receivers who are short, but that’s only because there are fewer star receiver prospects who are short. Once an NFL team puts a high grade on a short prospect, that’s pretty much all we need to know.

Of the 33 players drafted in the top 15, just one-third of them were six feet or shorter. As a group, there were a couple of big overachievers (Torry Holt, Lee Evans), some other players who did very well (Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, and Donte Stallworth), and a few big busts (Desmond Howard, Ted Ginn, Troy Edwards, and Peter Warrick). Ike Hilliard and Mike Pritchard round out the group. But I see nothing to indicate that short receivers who are highly drafted do any worse than tall receivers who are highly drafted. It’s just that usually, the taller receiver is drafted earlier.
wr draft 2000 2013 ht

Waldman: Why the Exceptional is Valuable

Chase’s analysis echoes what I have heard from those with NFL analytics backgrounds: There are too many variables to consider with raw stats to indicate that big receivers are inherently better than small receivers and there are viable archetypes of the effective small receiver.

What concerns me about the attempts to pigeonhole player evaluation into narrower physical parameters is that if taken too far one might as well replace the word “talent” in the phrase “talent evaluation” and use “athletic” or “physical” in its place. I may be wrong, but I get the sense that some of these Stats Ministers–intentionally or otherwise–dislike the exceptional when it comes to human nature. They’re seeking a way to make scouting a plain of square holes where the square pegs fit neatly into each place.

The problem with this philosophy is that once a concept, strategy, or view becomes the “right way” it evolves into the standard convention. Once it becomes conventional, it’s considered “safe.” However this is not true in the arena of competition. If you’re seeking the conventional, you’ve limited the possibilities of finding and creating environments for the exceptional to grow.

Many players who didn’t match the ideal size for their positions and had success were difference makers on winning teams–often Super Bowl Champions. I’d argue that exceptions to the rule that succeed are often drivers of excellence:

  • Russell Wilson didn’t meet the faulty “data backed” physical prototypes for quarterback and picking this exception to the rule in the third round earned them exceptional savings to acquire or keep other players for a Super Bowl run.
  • Rod Smith was too short, too slow, a rookie at 25, and not even drafted. But like a lot of his peers I mentioned above, his production was a huge factor for his team becoming a contender. The fact he was the exception to the rule freed Denver to acquire other pieces to the puzzle.
  • Joe Montana was too small, threw a wobbly ball, and was a third-round pick who was more of a point guard than full-fledged pocket passer, but he was just the type of player Bill Walsh was seeking in an offense that changed the entire course of the game. But at the time, the west coast offense was the exception to the rule that turned the league upside down.
  • Buddy Ryan and the Bears drafted a bunch of defenders that didn’t meet physical prototypes for traditional roles in a 4-3, but the 46 defense took Chicago to Super Bowl dominance.
  • Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, and Marques Colston were exceptions to the rule. The Saints offense has been the driver for this team’s playoff and Super Bowl appearances.

I could name more, but the point isn’t to list every player. Why should I? Players who become top starters in the NFL are by very definition the exception to the rule. The only thing height gives a wide receiver is potential position on a target due to wing span, but it doesn’t help hand-eye coordination, body position, route running, comfort with physical contact, and understanding of a defense.

There are also smaller players with good arm length, leaping ability, quickness, and strength to earn similar, if not better position on a target. Even when the smaller receivers lack the same caliber of physical measurements as the bigger players, if they possess all of the other traits of a good receiver that these big athletes lack then size doesn’t matter.

There are legitimate archetypes for smaller, quick receivers with change of direction. However, there are social biases with these correlations that filter out players from the earliest stages of the game. These biases include the idea that the vast majority of these types of players are in the highest levels of football so anything different should be discouraged at the high school and college level–think white wide receivers, running backs, and cornerbacks as examples.

Players who succeed in defying these social biases and also possess the skill and persistence to overcome them. I’ve shown this video before, but physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a strong point against “data backed” arguments of this nature when he answered a question posed about the small number of female and black scientists in the world. Harvard President Lawrence Summers hazarded a guess that it was genetics. Tyson’s answer is a great example why correlation isn’t causation.

The greatest irony about this specific crowd of data zealots is that they are often the first to complain about coaching tendencies that have same biases.

Maybe rookie receivers with the dimensions of Paul Richardson – or for that matter Jeremy Gallon or Odell Beckham – don’t become productive fantasy options or football players as often as bigger players based on correlating data. However, pointing to past history and scoffing at the wisdom of making an investment is like stating that it was a fact in the 15th century that dragons lie at the edge of the flat world we live in.

If you’re going to avoid investing in a player–or encourage others to do so–use good reasoning. Looking at the data is helpful, but the NFL isn’t a perfect data set. There are some data analysts writing about football that derive ideas reliant on a lot of highly fit equations that don’t work in a real world situation. However, they expect perfection and it’s not going to happen. They also behave as if data only tells the truth–and when that data lacks a fit, context, or proper application, it’s a little scary.

I want to see analytics succeed in the NFL, but like film study it’s not the answer. These two areas–when executed well–can contribute to the answer. However, the NFL–beyond some individual cases–hasn’t made significant advances in either area.

I suppose when you have a monopoly in the marketplace combined with a socialistic system for spreading the wealth owners don’t have significant motivation to become innovative with player evaluation. If they did, they’d be spending more money on making these processes rather than cycling through coaches and GMs every 3-5 years.

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Bush played with some talented teammates at USC.

Bush played with some talented teammates at USC.

Last week, I wrote about whether having great college teammates might cause quarterbacks and wide receivers to be overvalued in the NFL draft. The results were inconclusive on the impact of teammates on quarterbacks, but they indicated that wide receivers who played with first-round QBs in college tended to underperform in the NFL relative to their draft position. Receivers such as Mike Williams of USC (#10 in 2005) and Marcus Nash of Tennessee (#30 in 1998) may have gone too high in the draft in part because they played with great college QBs who made them look good.

Today, I look at running backs drafted since 1984. I use a slightly different way of looking at the data that I think is a little better. I also revisit the QBs and WR/TEs with that method. Instead of considering the number of first-round college teammates that a player has, I consider the total draft value of college teammates at different positions, as determined by Chase’s chart.1 Going this way makes it possible to look at the entire offensive line’s value, for example, rather than just the number of players who were high picks.

For example, according to PFR’s Approximate Value (AV), Ki-Jana Carter is the biggest underachiever at RB relative to his draft position (since 1984). After being drafted #1 in 1995, he generated just nine points of AV in his first five years.2 Carter also had a lot of help from his friends in college. He ranks 10th out of 104 RBs picked in the top 32 in terms of the total value of his college offensive linemen according to my measure. His tight end also went in the top ten in 2005; Carter would be 2nd in total line value if we included TEs. Two of his offensive lineman went in the first round in the following year. Two Penn State fullbacks were drafted that year, too.3 Could Carter have looked better than he was because he ran behind those great college blockers? Or is the NFL success of the running back who ranks fourth in terms of offensive line help (Warrick Dunn) more representative of RBs, in general?

In addition to looking at the offensive line, I’ll consider whether the total value of college teammates at other offensive positions predicts that running backs become overvalued in the draft. While we might think that RBs are particularly dependent on line help, it actually appears that having a great QB is again the one clear predictor for players being overvalued. [click to continue…]

  1. I thank commenter Stuart for suggesting this approach in the comments to last week’s post. []
  2. Carter averaged 3.3 yards on 227 carries over his first five injury-plagued seasons. []
  3. Two Penn State halfbacks were drafted in 1996, as well. One of them was Stephen Michael Pitts, who went to Middletown High School South (NJ), a school that also graduated Knowshon Moreno and, only slightly less famously, me. []
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Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: the traditional draft value chart is outdated, and it never made much sense in the first place. Trying to use logic to explain why teams operate in an illogical manner is a tall task, and probably a waste of time. So, let’s try anyway.

First, I recreated my draft value chart. To do that, I looked at the first 224 players selected in each draft from 1970 to 2009. PFR assigns Approximate Value grades to each player in each season, but since AV grades are gross units, we need to tweak those numbers to measure marginal value. As a result, I only gave players credit for their AV above two points in each season; that difference is a metric I’m defining as a player’s Marginal AV. For example, if a player has AV scores of 8, 1, and 3 in three straight years, those scores are translated into Marginal AV scores of 6, 0 and 1.

The graph below shows the average Marginal AV produced by each draft pick in each season from ’70 to ’09. The blue line shows the average Marginal AV produced by draft picks as rookies, the red line represents second-year players, green is for year three, purple for the fourth season, and orange for average Marginal AV in year five. [click to continue…]

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