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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:

Type
Rookie
Year 2
Year 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.

{ 20 comments }

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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Bradford had a lot of surrounding talent in Norman.

Bradford had a lot of surrounding talent in Norman.

Do players get too much credit when teammates make them look good? Take Johnny Manziel. In the last thirty years, no quarterback has had teammates around him drafted so highly. Last year, his left tackle (Luke Joeckel) was the second pick in the draft. This year, his new left tackle (Jake Matthews) was the sixth pick in the draft and his talented wide receiver went immediately after. That’s three top seven picks from his offense in two drafts. Does this means, perhaps, that Manziel was riding those players’ coattails? Or is it Manziel who helped make his teammates look better?

The first round quarterback with the closest comparable surrounding college talent — a left-handed former Florida QB drafted in 2010 — doesn’t appear to be a very promising comparison. Tim Tebow’s top wide receiver was drafted 22nd overall (Percy Harvin) in 2009, and successive linemen Pouncey brothers were drafted in the top 20 the next two years (Maurkice went #18 in 2010 and Mike #15 in 2011).1 Tebow is obviously very different from Manziel, most notably in lacking the important skill for a quarterback of being able to throw a football well. But Tebow may have looked better as a college player in part because of the great talent around him, a situation which may be similar to Manziel.

In general, does having better college teammates cause QBs like Manziel to be overvalued in the draft? Or, do better QBs cause their college teammates to be overdrafted? To check these ideas out, I compared how draft picks performed in their first five years (according to PFR’s Approximate Value) relative to their expected value given their draft position.2 I then compared performance relative to expectation for players who had the benefit of teammates who were drafted in the first round to those who weren’t so lucky. The results are certainly not what I expected: by the end of this post, it might be Bucs fans who worry the most that they overvalued a high pick in the 2014 draft.

Quarterbacks

I first considered the value above expectation (VAE) for quarterbacks drafted in the first three rounds since 1984. It looks like having a lineman drafted in the first round either in the same or subsequent draft has no clear impact on the QB’s VAE. Those QBs who played with first-round linemen do about 1.8 points worse in VAE than QBs (relative to a baseline of 22.2), but this difference isn’t close to being distinguishable from zero.3

Here’s the list of QBs from the first three rounds who had at least one lineman drafted in the first round of the same or subsequent draft.4 The VAE for the last few entries is missing because those players have not finished their first five seasons. Keep in mind that the VAEs cannot be too low for third-round picks like Bobby Hoying, since little was expected of them given their draft position.

Quarterback
Year
VAE
School
OL
Boomer Esiason198441.3MarylandRon Solt
Chuck Long1986-18.7IowaMike Haight
Todd Marinovich1991-21.2USCPat Harlow
Matt Blundin1992-19.2VirginiaRay Roberts
Billy Joe Hobert1993-8.4WashingtonLincoln Kennedy
Rick Mirer1993-5.8Notre DameAaron Taylor
Kerry Collins1995-6.8Penn St.Jeff Hartings; Andre Johnson
Todd Collins1995-10MichiganTrezelle Jenkins
Bobby Hoying1996-9.6Ohio St.Orlando Pace
Charlie Batch199814.9East. MichiganL.J. Shelton
Eli Manning20049.5MississippiChris Spencer
Brian Brohm2008-15.7LouisvilleEric Wood
Chad Henne20086.4MichiganJake Long
Matt Ryan200837.9Boston Col.Gosder Cherilus
Sam Bradford20100OklahomaTrent Williams
Tim Tebow20100FloridaMaurkice Pouncey; Mike Pouncey
Andrew Luck20120StanfordDavid DeCastro
Ryan Tannehill20120Texas A&MLuke Joeckel
Russell Wilson20120WisconsinKevin Zeitler; Travis Frederick

There are definitely some classic failures on this list, notably Todd Marinovich, but there are some big successes, too. And, for the more recent QBs, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson will more than balance out Tebow. Overall, there’s little reason to think getting to play with a first-round lineman causes QBs to be overdrafted in general. As a result, Manziel critics may not have much support if they want to point to Matthews and Joeckel as the reason for Manziel’s college success.

But what about the presence of Mike Evans? Does having an elite wide receiver or tight end mean that a QB might be overvalued in the draft? I ran a separate regression looking at whether having a first-round WR/TE predicts a QB to succeed or flop relative to his expectation. Here, there’s more reason to think there might be something going on, but there is still not clear evidence that teammates make the QB. Part of this is just the relatively small number of QBs with first-round WR/TEs in the sample. On average, QBs with first-round WR/TE teammates in college do 6.5 points worse relative to expectation than other QBs. That gap is still indistinguishable from zero, however.5

Below are the QBs since 1984 who had at least one WR/TE teammate in the same or following year drafted in the first round.

Quarterback
Year
VAE
School
WR/TE
Vinny Testaverde1987-4.5Miami (FL)Michael Irvin
Tony Sacca1992-17.7Penn St.O.J. McDuffie
Rick Mirer1993-5.8Notre DameIrv Smith
Kerry Collins1995-6.8Penn St.Kyle Brady
Kordell Stewart199519.9ColoradoMichael Westbrook
Bobby Hoying1996-9.6Ohio St.Terry Glenn; Rickey Dudley
Peyton Manning199840.5TennesseeMarcus Nash
Marques Tuiasosopo2001-14.2WashingtonJerramy Stevens
Chris Simms2003-2.3TexasRoy Williams
Matt Schaub200410.9VirginiaHeath Miller
JaMarcus Russell2007-30.5LSUDwayne Bowe; Craig Davis
Sam Bradford20100OklahomaJermaine Gresham
Brandon Weeden20120Oklahoma St.Justin Blackmon
Robert Griffin20120BaylorKendall Wright
Geno Smith20130West VirginiaTavon Austin

The repeats from the earlier list who were blessed with great help both on the line and at WR/TE were Rick Mirer, Kerry Collins and Sam Bradford.6 As you can see, Peyton Manning swings this upwards, but JaMarcus Russell swings it down just as much. Both of those would seem to be anecdotes that fit the story of teammates potentially inflating another player’s perceived value, with the QB inflating the WR (the instantly forgotten Marcus Nash) in Manning’s case and the WR (Dwayne Bowe) perhaps inflating the QB in Russell’s case.

Overall, though, it’s unclear whether WRs in general tend to inflate their QBs, making them overvalued in the draft. The effect size is substantial and just three of the 11 QBs have positive VAE, but it could be driven by random chance given the small sample size.7 Given what I find below for predicting WR success, I suspect that the Manning-Nash example may happen more often than the Russell-Bowe situation.

Wide Receivers

Do great college quarterbacks cause NFL talent evaluators to reach for their wide receiver and tight end teammates? It seems like the answer to this question might be yes. Receivers selected in rounds 1-3 who come from schools with first-round QBs drafted the same or following year do 6.4 points worse relative to expectation from their draft position. Here, we have more data and the results are statistically significant that having a first-round college QB has led to their wide receivers being overvalued in the draft.8 WRs drafted in the first three rounds without a top QB generated an average value in their first five years of 17.6, so the predicted drop in value is down to about 11.2. Having a first round QB thus predicts a WR gets taken a little more than a round too early.9

In fact, from 1984 to 2009, only 20% of the round 1-3 WR/TEs who played with first-round QBs had a positive VAE.

WR/TE
Year
VAE
School
QB
Jonathan Hayes1985-11.9IowaChuck Long
Flipper Anderson198817.3UCLATroy Aikman
Mike Bellamy1990-16.9IllinoisJeff George
Derek Brown1992-26.7Notre DameRick Mirer
Irv Smith1993-14.9Notre DameRick Mirer
Cory Fleming1994-10.4TennesseeHeath Shuler
Malcolm Floyd1994-7.9Fresno St.Trent Dilfer
Tydus Winans1994-9.8Fresno St.Trent Dilfer
Kyle Brady1995-20.4Penn St.Kerry Collins
Bryan Still1996-10.9Virginia TechJim Druckenmiller
Joey Kent1997-15.7TennesseePeyton Manning
Marcus Nash1998-21.1TennesseePeyton Manning
Patrick Johnson1998-8.7OregonAkili Smith
Kevin Johnson199910.6SyracuseDonovan McNabb
Jabar Gaffney2002-1.1FloridaRex Grossman
Reche Caldwell20022.7FloridaRex Grossman
Taylor Jacobs2003-16.2FloridaRex Grossman
Mike Williams2005-25.8USCMatt Leinart
Anthony Fasano2006-2.3Notre DameBrady Quinn
David Thomas2006-2.5TexasVince Young
Dominique Byrd2006-10.7USCMatt Leinart
Maurice Stovall2006-6.1Notre DameBrady Quinn
Craig Davis2007-15.1LSUJaMarcus Russell
Dwayne Bowe200713.4LSUJaMarcus Russell
Fred Davis2008-2.3USCMark Sanchez
Jordy Nelson200812.8Kansas St.Josh Freeman
Juaquin Iglesias2009-10.1OklahomaSam Bradford
Mohamed Massaquoi2009-2.9GeorgiaMatthew Stafford
Patrick Turner2009-10.4USCMark Sanchez
Percy Harvin200917FloridaTim Tebow
Jermaine Gresham20100OklahomaSam Bradford
Coby Fleener20120StanfordAndrew Luck
Justin Blackmon20120Oklahoma St.Brandon Weeden
Kendall Wright20120BaylorRobert Griffin

And at least one of the successes on this list is an exception that fits the broader idea. Percy Harvin played with a QB who just maybe was a slight reach as a first round pick. It’s hard to think that Tim Tebow made Percy Harvin look good.10 At least based on these results, having a great college QB has caused wide receivers to be drafted much too highly over the last thirty years.

Conclusion

So it seems like Bucs fans might have more to worry about than Browns fans. The evidence is unclear on whether QBs such as Manziel generally become overvalued from playing with first-round receiver talent, although there might be something going on there. But the evidence is much clearer that WRs such as Evans become overvalued from playing with premier college QBs. Perhaps it’s not surprising from what we know about the NFL that there’s a pretty good chance that Manziel’s excellence helped inflate Evans’s value.

Of course, the last example of a 6’5 receiver drafted in the top ten who played with a first-round Heisman-winning QB doesn’t bode well for Evans, either.11 And while Evans will likely still be in the NFL after six years unlike Mike Williams, it is likely that he would have gone lower in the draft if he played with a quarterback not quite so good as Johnny Football.

  1. And he had a talented tight end go in the fourth round in 2010, too. Like Tebow, he is also no longer playing football. Let’s move on. []
  2. I did this by running a regression of a player’s value in the first five years on a fifth-order polynomial in draft position. This is pretty much the same thing as looking at the value a player generates compared to their expected value according to Chase’s chart, except I also control for whether a player went to a major football school. []
  3. The p-value is 0.70 []
  4. All analysis in this post ignores the supplemental draft. []
  5. p = .20 []
  6. All of those first-rounders were actually TEs (Irv Smith, Kyle Brady and Jermaine Gresham, respectively), although Collins also threw to a second-round WR in Bobby Engram. []
  7. Kordell Stewart is one of those three and he did play a little WR in his first few years, too, but almost all of his value was at QB []
  8. The p-value for this effect is .01 []
  9. For wide receivers, I estimate 17.6 as being the expected value generated by about the 46th pick, with 11.2 the expected value generated by the 89th pick []
  10. I’d argue the same for Dwayne Bowe and JaMarcus Russell, but Russell at least was a legitimately excellent passer in 2006 []
  11. The similarities don’t stop there. Mike Williams is listed at 229 lbs and ran a 4.56 40 at the combine. Evans is at 231 and ran a 4.53. And they’re both named Mike. []
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Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater were selected in the first round of the 2014 Draft. The Jaguars seem intent on giving Bortles a redshirt year, but it seems likely that the Browns and Vikings will hand their rookie quarterbacks the reins at some point early this fall.

From the first common draft in 1967, until 2013, there were 96 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the draft.1 Today’s post looked at how long it took each quarterback to start his first game. For each quarterback, I assumed 16 game seasons for all seasons where the quarterback sat on the bench. Two quarterbacks, Jim Kelly and Aaron Rodgers, sat three full seasons before starting in week 1 of their 4th year; that means both players get an estimated first start of game 49.2 Twenty-eight quarterbacks (29% of our sample) started their team’s first game in the year they were drafted; as a result, those quarterbacks get an estimated first start of game 1. The graph below shows how long it took each quarterback to start his first game; the X-axis represents draft year, and the Y-axis estimated number of games.

QB starts [click to continue…]

  1. Ignoring Rich Campbell, the only quarterback in the study to never start a game, and all quarterbacks taken in supplemental drafts. []
  2. Of course, Kelly and Rodgers didn’t start for pretty different reasons: Kelly was in the USFL, while Rodgers was sitting behind Brett Favre. []
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Age and the NFL Draft

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Kevin Clark noted that the Eagles targeted college graduates in the 2014 NFL draft. Six of the seven players selected by Philadelphia are on track to get their degrees before entering the NFL, which is important to Chip Kelly.

Kelly said a degree is more than proof of intelligence. “It’s also, what is their commitment?” he said. “They set goals out for themselves and can they follow through for it? A lot of people can tell you they want to do this, this and this. But look at their accomplishments.”

Kelly’s quote has a certain air of truth to it, but is it verifiable? Do players with college degrees turn out to be better pros than players who don’t obtain their degrees? Unfortunately, I don’t have historical data on whether players graduated college before entering the pros. So this post can’t and won’t answer that question.

But we do have player age for all NFL players, subject to a big caveat1 So here’s what I did:

1) Record the top 250 players selected in each draft from 1990 to 2009.

2) For each of those 5,000 players, calculate their Career AV in their first five years.

3) Create an expected AV curve for players by draft slot, which mirrors the myriad of other draft curves I’ve created. [click to continue…]

  1. Unfortunately, we do not have such data on players who were drafted but did not make it to the NFL. This is a potentially serious issue with trying to analyze Kelly’s claim: if a non-graduate was selected in the draft but because of his “lack of follow through” he fails to even make a roster, he would be a shining example of Kelly’s claim but would be ignored in this study.. That’s a problem, but there’s no way around it. []
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Declining Running Back Value in the Draft

A first round pick in '08, an afterthought in '14

A first round pick in '08, an afterthought in '14.

Running backs had a very rough time on the open market this year. To be fair, other than perhaps Chris Johnson, the market was full of question marks, platoon guys, or second stringers. And while players like Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew were big names, they were devalued because of the “tread on their tires.” After all, we have been told time and time again that running back is a young man’s game, and that’s mostly true.  But one might argue that college running backs should be viewed as substitutes for veteran running backs. If teams are spending less capital on veteran running backs, they would start spending more capital on college running backs.

Except that’s not the case. It appears as though veteran running backs and college running backs are like Coke and Pepsi at a time when a lot of consumers have decided to stop drinking soda. In 2013, for the first time since 1963, no running back was selected in the first round of the draft. The top back off the board was Giovani Bernard at 37, the longest a draft had ever gone without hearing a running back’s name called. That was until this year, when the first 53 picks came and went without a single running back being selected. Bishop Sankey was the first back off the board to Tennessee with the 54th pick, although Jeremy Hill, and Carlos Hyde were drafted with two of the next three picks.

You’ve heard a lot about how running backs are being devalued in the draft. By nature, I’m a bit of a contrarian, but even I can’t spin this graph, which shows the percentage of draft capital spent on running backs in each NFL draft since 1950: [click to continue…]

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Interesting tidbit from Peter King this week about how the Vikings nearly acquired Johnny Manziel:

As the picks went by, starting soon after the Rams chose at 13, Cleveland GM Ray Farmer worked the phones, trying to find a partner to move up from their second pick in the round (26th overall) to grab Manziel. He couldn’t find a fit. Finally, with less than three minutes to go in Philadelphia’s 22nd slot, Farmer heard this from an Eagles representative over the phone: “If you’re not gonna jump in here, we’re gonna trade the pick right now.” It’s cloudy what his offer had been to this point, but now he had to sweeten it, and he offered the 83rd pick overall, a third-rounder, in addition to their pick four slots lower than Philly. Done deal. The Eagles liked that offer better than an offer from Minnesota, because the Vikings would have been moving up from 40.

As discussed in my round 1 recap, the Eagles made out like bandits picking up the 83rd pick to move down four spots. Not only did Philadelphia received 137 cents on the dollar according to my trade chart, but the Jimmy Johnson trade chart — which overvalues high picks and therefore cautions against trading down — had the Eagles receiving 112 cents on the dollar. [click to continue…]

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Best and Worst Drafts since 1970

Not all drafts are created equal. The 2014 NFL Draft was said to be very rich in talent, while last year’s iteration was considered relatively weak. We don’t have much data on which drafts scouts have labeled as “good” or “bad”, but I thought it might be fun to see which drafts have turned out to be the best and worst.

To do this, I looked at every draft from 1970 to 2008. Since there were only 222 picks in the 1994 draft, I looked at only the top 222 drafts in each of these drafts. The formula I used to measure each draft was pretty simple: use PFR’s Approximate Value grades to produce a value for each player, and then sum the values for each of the top 222 picks in each draft. More recent drafts will obviously be disadvantaged by this formula, since AV is a counting metric, which means the 2008, 2007, 2006, etc., drafts will look stronger in a few years. Regardless, take a look:

best worst drafts [click to continue…]

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Will Blake Bortles be the Best QB of the 2014 Class?

A rare shot of Blake Bortles in a two-tone helmet.

A rare shot of Blake Bortles in a two-tone helmet.

The Jaguars drafted Blake Bortles with the 3rd pick in the 2014 draft. Nineteen picks later, the Browns took Johnny Manziel, and with the 32nd pick, the Vikings traded up to acquire Teddy Bridgewater.

If you believe in the efficient market theory, this means Bortles is the most likely of that group to wind up being the top quarterback from this year’s draft. But I wanted to look at other drafts where the top quarterback was selected very early but the next quarterback wasn’t drafted in quick succession (like say, Andrew Luck and RG3).

Since 1967, the first year of the common draft, a quarterback was selected in the top 61 in 34 of 48 drafts. But in 22 of those 34 drafts, another team spent a top-12 pick on a quarterback, too.2

That leaves 12 drafts where (a) a quarterback was drafted really, really early, and (b) no other quarterback went off the board for awhile (at least 14 picks between the quarterback selections in all 12 cases). Some further slicing, however, is required if we really want to do an apples-to-apples comparison. In six of those cases, a quarterback was selected with the number one overall pick, and based on research conducted by Jason Lisk, it doesn’t seem appropriate to compare quarterbacks not selected with the top pick to number one overall selections.3 I’d also throw out the 1973, 1976, and 1981 drafts, as the number two quarterbacks were all drafted after pick 30. [click to continue…]

  1. Why the top 6 and not the top 5? Only once was the top quarterback drafted with the fifth overall pick, but in three other drafts prior to 2014, the first quarterback went off the board at number six (and never was the first passer selected at seven, eight, nine, or ten). Plus, since the Jaguars were rumored to be considering a trade down to #6 to draft Bortles, it seemed to make sense to use 6 as a cut-off. []
  2. Why top 12? In none of these drafts was the 2nd quarterback selected with the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, or 17th picks, which made 12 seem like a good cut-off. []
  3. In reality, the number one picks in this sample were pretty underwhelming: Sam Bradford, JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Michael Vick, Troy Aikman, and Steve Bartkowski are the six quarterbacks who would have otherwise made the cut-off. []
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College Observations from the 2014 Draft

Messing with Texas

By now, you’ve probably heard that no player from the University of Texas was drafted. Jackson Jeffcoat was the Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year, but that honor wasn’t enough to enable him to hear his named called on any of the three draft days.1 The draft was first instituted in 1936, and not since 1937 had an NFL draft has been Longhorn-free.  From 2000 to 2013, players selected from the University of Texas were, in the aggregate, responsible for about 37 points of value per season using the values from my pick value chart.  That’s the 10th most of any school during that period, behind only Miami (FL) (51), Southern Cal (49), Florida State (42), LSU (39), Ohio State (39), Georgia (39), Alabama (38), and Florida (38). But UT wasn’t the only school that had a rough weekend:

  • Illinois, which ranked 37th in draft value from 2000 to 2013 (14 points), was the next highest-ranked school after Texas to get shut out of the 2014 draft.  Hawaii (53rd), Rutgers (59th), and Cincinnati (66th) were other top-70 programs from ’00 to ’13 that did not have a player selected this year. A couple of other schools from power conferences — Northwestern and Kansas — were also left out in the cold.
  • For Texas and Illinois, injury was added to insult. No only were no Longhorns drafted, but three Aggies — Jake Matthews, Mike Evans, and Johnny Manziel – went in the first round, while TCU had a first round pick (Jason Verrett), Texas Tech had a second round pick (Jace Amaro) and Baylor had five players drafted.  No Illini went in the draft, but Northern Illinois had two players (including 1st round safety Jimmie Ward), Eastern Illinois had a second round pick (Jimmy Garoppolo) and even Illinois State had a player selected (Shelby Harris in the 7th round).
  • It was also a rough draft for a few other schools. Miami normally dominates the draft, but only three Hurricanes were selected: two offensive lineman and a punter.  Brandon Linder was drafted 93rd overall to Jacksonville, followed by Pat O’Donnell to Chicago at 191 and Seantrel Henderson to the Bills at 237.
  • The Georgia Bulldogs had just two players drafted, both in the fifth round: quarterback Aaron Murray and tight end Arthur Lynch.
  • Sooners fans probably want to gloat over Texas, but this was a pretty ugly year for Oklahoma, too.  The school’s highest-drafted player was Jalen Saunders at 104. That marks the first time since 1997 that no Sooner was drafted in the top 100 picks.

Small Schools Making Draft History

There were four players who came from schools that haven’t had a single player drafted in the last 20 years.

  • At pick 198, New England took defensive end Zach Moore out of Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s not only the first player ever drafted from the school, but no player from the Division 2 program has ever made it to the NFL. Last year, Concordia only ranked as the 26th best football team in Division 2 through 13 weeks (by reference, Pittsburgh State ranked 8th).
  • Finally, Terrence Fede out of Marist was drafted by the Dolphins with the 234th pick. Fede, like Desir and Moore, made history by becoming the first player ever drafted out of his school. Marist, located in New York state, plays in the Pioneer Football League, but ranked as just the 70th best FCS school last year.

The Crimson Tide Reign is Over

For three straight years, more draft capital was spent on Alabama players than those from any other school. The reign is over, as Alabama tumbled all the way down to … fourth place. Texas A&M led the way: while only three Aggies were selected, they were drafted high enough to make College Station the most valuable town for the 2014 draft with 60.3 points of value. Next up was LSU (57.0), which also led the way with 9 players drafted (but only one in the top 50). In third place was Notre Dame (54.7 points, 8 players drafted, three in the top 75), followed by Alabama (54.3, 8 players), Florida State (54.2, 7 players), Auburn (52.4, 4), Louisville (49.9, 4), and Ohio State (49.8, 6).

Texas A&M, Louisville, and Notre Dame had excellent drafts especially by their standards: none of the three ranked in the top 20 from ’00 to ’13 in draft value provided (the Fighting Irish were 21st, the Aggies were 24th, and the Cardinals were down at #50).  Other schools that had comparably big years: UCLA, Auburn, Buffalo, Central Florida, South Carolina, and Clemson. Okay, in the case of UCF it was just because of Blake Bortles (running back Storm Johnson, at pick 222, was the only other Knight drafted) and for Buffalo it was Khalil Mack and done. But still, neither program had ever had a player drafted in the top ten before, so a top-five pick is a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

  1. as Bill Barnwell points out, Jeffcoat’s tumble provided a good counter to those arguing that Michael Sam was going to go undrafted despite being the SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year solely because he was openly gay.  As it turns out, being co-DPOY isn’t worth as much as you might think.  Jeffcoat landed with the Seahawks, though, so he and Sam will both get a chance to prove their mettle in the NFL’s toughest division. []
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The NFL Draft and the Wisdom of Crowds

[Chase note: Take a look at the name at the top of this post. Our good friend Andrew continues to desire to post here, and we thank him for that.]

Not the focus of Galton's experiment.

Not the focus of Galton's experiment.

In 1906, Sir Francis Galton probably wasn’t thinking about the NFL draft when he asked almost 800 fair goers to guess the weight of an ox. No one person accurately guessed its weight, and the guesses were all over the map, but the mean of all the guesses (1197 lbs) was within one pound of the actual weight of the ox. As I looked through endless mock drafts leading up to last Thursday night, I wondered if there was anything to be gained by looking at the wisdom of the crowds. Could we do a better job of predicting the NFL draft if we took all the knowledge and tried to put it together?

And the answer appears to be yes… to an extent. The NFL draft is not exactly a place where we’d expect the wisdom of crowds to be particularly strong. The power of the wisdom of crowds comes from lots of people bringing their own independent information to the table. For example, prediction markets appear to do a great job of predicting events like a president’s chances of being reelected. Sports prediction markets (a.k.a sportsbooks) similarly succeed in predicting game outcomes. And the stock market often reveals companies’ true values. In each case, every individual transaction represents a piece of information which gets reflected in the price.

Of course, the crowd is not always so wise. Stock markets can go haywire. Betting lines can be affected by people’s biases. The wisdom of crowds can break down when groupthink occurs and people stop having independent opinions. The NFL draft certainly looks like such a case. All the mock drafts are out there and the experts have the implicit pressure to not be too different.1 In those circumstances, we could lose in a haze of groupthink much of the original information that people have. [click to continue…]

  1. In some cases, there may be incentives to stand out from the crowd with an original prediction, too. Overall, there are incentives that can make predictions depend on those made by others. []
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Analyzing Position Values In the 2014 Drafts

The 2014 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. For example, NFL decision makers might say that running and stopping the run is the key to winning football games (particularly likely if those decision makers reside in Indianapolis), but the NFL draft revealed that no team preferred to spend a top-50 pick on a running back. Only one pure inside linebacker was drafted in the first two rounds (Alabama’s C.J. Mosley), and only two more (Louisville’s Preston Brown and Wisconsin’s Chris Borland) were selected with picks in the top 125.

As regular readers 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 2014 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 three fullbacks drafted, Auburn’s Jay Prosch (HOU), Oklahoma’s Trey Millard (SF), and Arkansas’ Kiero Small (SEA), were included as running backs. For those curious two kickers — Arkansas’ Zach Hocker (WAS) and Boston College’s Nate Freese (DET) — and one punter (Miami(FL)’s Pat O’Donnell (CHI) were also drafted. []
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In the first round of the 2014 draft, five cornerbacks were selected:

  • the Browns traded up from 9 to 8 to ensure that Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert would be coming to Cleveland;
  • at 14, the Bears drafted Virginia Tech corner Kyle Fuller;
  • at 24 and 25, the Bengals and Chargers took Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) and Jason Verrett (TCU), respectively;
  • the Broncos, perhaps still reeling from the Legion of Boom’s Super Bowl performance, took Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby with the 31st pick

In addition, four safeties were drafted in round 1:

That’s nine defensive backs in the first round.  At one point, we saw a string of 7 defensive backs taken in 14 picks at the back end of the round. This was the first time in NFL draft history that nine defensive backs went in the first 32 picks. So this is the new normal and the NFL is now a crazy passing league, right? [click to continue…]

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The action got started on day two even before the round began. Buffalo, after giving up next year’s first and fourth round picks to move up to acquire Sammy Watkins, responded by trading Steve Johnson to the 49ers on Friday afternoon.  Buffalo was able to at least get back a 2015 4th round pick from the 49ers, which could become a 3rd rounder depending on Johnson’s performance this season.  This gives Colin Kaepernick another weapon in a contract year, and it provides some short-term insurance (if Father Time outraces Anquan Boldin) and long-term insurance (Michael Crabtree is a free agent after the season) at the position.

The trades in rounds 2 and 3 weren’t very exciting, and they followed a very predictable formula: the team trading down won according to my draft value chart. The fact that my metrics said every team overpaid when trading up does not mean my metrics are wrong; my grades, in addition to being objective, are designed to be aspirational, not predictive.  These ratings tell us the actual value provided by players based on historical results. In reality, teams fall in love with a player — and are overconfident in their abilities to scout — and as a result, are willing to lose value when trading up.

My chart recognizes that the right to choose between a mid-2nd and a mid-3rd round pick is not that significant; to a decision maker who believes his scouting skills descended from the heavens, that right to choose is really, really important. Of course, the data suggests otherwise. That said, let’s take a look at what happened on Friday night using my chart and the JJ Trade Value Chart.

1) Washington trades the 34th pick to Dallas for the 47th and 78th picks

According to my chart, this was an amazing trade for Washington, who received 140 cents on the dollar.  Even the JJ chart thinks Washington picked up 112.5 cents on the dollar. Picking up an extra 3rd round pick to move down 13 spots was a very nice haul.

The Cowboys traded up for Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Dallas was worried the Falcons would take him and apparently viewed him as the clear best RDE available. That’s fine, but the Cowboys gave up two important picks to secure his rights.

2) Seattle trades the 40th and 146th pick to Detroit for the 45th (2nd), 111 (4th), and 227th (7th).

My chart liked the the Seahawks side of the deal, as Seattle picked up a 107.5 cents on the dollar.  The JJ chart, on the other hand, thinks Detroit got the slightly better deal , giving up 524 points of value for 533 points.

The Lions traded up for BYU outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy. This is the rare trade up I’ll approve, because well, I watched the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl.

In all, Van Noy made 7.5 disruptive plays in the box score: 3.5 tackles for loss (1.5 sacks), a forced fumble (which he recovered for a touchdown), an interception he returned for a touchdown and a blocked punt.

Van Noy single-handedly scored more points than the BYU offense and accounted for two of BYU’s five takeaways.

Van Noy may not be a great NFL player, but he was an excellent college player and a fun one to watch. Rumor has it the Lions wanted Anthony Barr in the first round, but pairing Eric Ebron with Van Noy might wind up working out even better.

3) The Bills traded the 41st pick to St. Louis for the 44th and 153rd picks

As you might suspect, my chart thought this was a very smooth move for Buffalo, trading 11 points for 13 and receiving 118 cents on the dollar.  The JJ chart thought this trade was exactly even, trading 490 points for 490 points.

We know that Jeff Fisher loves his cornerbacks, and the Rams traded up for Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner.  I’m not a slave to my own chart — I recognize that giving up a 5th round pick to ensure that you get your player can be worth it. But my chart recognizes that 5th round picks still have value, and there’s not much difference between the 41st and 44th picks. The Rams probably had a 1st round grade on Joyner and were willing to sacrifice the pick to get him, but the million dollar question is always why didn’t enough other teams have a first round grade on him?

4) Three picks in a row, three trades.  Tennessee sent the 42nd pick to Philadelphia for the 54th and 122nd selections.

My chart says the Titans got a nice deal, picking up 122 cents on the dollar.  Meanwhile, the JJ chart says the Eagles killed it on this trade, and Tennessee only picked up 85 cents on the dollar.   In retrospect, the Seahawks may have won their deal with Detroit, but they almost certainly could have done better than they did in their deal with the Lions. Seattle clearly got the worst deal of the three teams that traded down in the 40 to 42 range.

Philadelphia moved up for Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews and paid the price. Matthews may not have made it to 54, so it’s easy to understand why the Eagles made the move. This trade was interesting because of the wildly disparate values on the two charts, but the 122nd pick is not a throwaway. Of course, the Eagles tend to manage the draft very well, so giving up the pick here is not so disheartening: Philadelphia got an extra pick in the Johnny Manziel trade, and didn’t even give up their own pick in the Darren Sproles trade (the Eagles used the pick they got from New England for Isaac Sopoaga).

5) Miami sends the 50th pick to San Diego for the 57th and 125th selections

The Chargers tossed a 4th round pick in to move up 7 spots.  That might sound okay, but Miami picked up 132 cents on the dollar in this deal. On the other hand, teams like San Diego are probably using the JJ chart, which says San Diego won this trade (Miami received 94 cents).

San Diego moved up for outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu. Presumably the Georgia Tech player was the last pass rusher in the Chargers’ top tier, but a 4th round pick is not pocket change. Like most 3-4 teams, the Chargers really want to add edge rushers. What separates San Diego from the rest is the amount of capital they keep throwing at the position with little results: Jarret Johnson, Dwight Freeney, Larry English, Melvin Ingram are all still on the roster.

6)

7)

The next two trades are best analyzed together.  San Francisco owned the 56th pick and sent it to Denver; moments later, the 49ers traded for Miami’s 57th pick.

Combined, San Francisco moved down from 56 to 57 and lost their 242nd pick; in return, the 49ers picked up Denver’s 2015 4th round pick. That’s just beautiful.

This year, Denver picks at 131 in the 4th round.  If we say the Broncos will be around there next year, and then apply a 20-spot discount for the time value of draft picks, that would put this at equal to the 151st pick this year.  That’s some fuzzy math, of course, but….

If we do that, San Francisco gave up 56 and 242 for 63, 171, and something equivalent to the 151st pick.  That means the 49ers robbed the Broncos, getting 143 cents on the dollar.  Unfortunately, some of that was then given up when San Francisco sent 63 and 171 for number 57.  In that deal, Miami received 113 cents on the dollar according to my chart.

Denver traded up for Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer; San Francisco traded for Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde. Both players could turn into starts, and in general, I’m less disturbed by a trade up for skill position players. Then again, the Broncos have Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders (not to mention Andre Caldwell and Jordan Norwood), while the 49ers have Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore. That doesn’t even include LaMichael James, who is probably going to be traded soon.

8) San Francisco gets back into the trading business, sending the 61st pick to Jacksonville for the 70th and 150th selections.

Trading down would seem to make more sense for say, Jacksonville than San Francisco, but what do I know.  As you’d expect, the 49ers won the deal, picking up 121 cents on the dollar.

The Jaguars traded up for Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson.  If nothing else, I admire Jacksonville’s dedication to improve the passing game, using the team’s first three picks on Blake Bortles, Marqise Lee, and Robinson. The most important thing, of course, is hitting on the picks, but those players — combined with Cecil Shorts, Ace Sanders, Denard Robinson, and Toby Gerhart — could be part of a fun Jaguars offense in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, 2014 probably will look a lot like 2013 still.

9) Oakland sends the 67th pick to Miami for the 81st and 116th picks.

The Dolphins did a nice job adding value with a pair of trade downs earlier, but go the wrong way here.  The Raiders pick up 140 cents on the dollar.

The Dolphins traded up for Billy Turner, who is an offensive linemen from North Dakota State. That’s the extent of my scouting report.

If you’re a Miami fan and dismayed that your team traded up (and paid a pretty price to do so) for an FCS offensive linemen, well, over the three trades, I have Miami up 106 cents on the dollar (in total, the Dolphins sent 50/81/116 for 63/67/125/171).

10) Philadelphia trades the 83rd pick to Houston for the 101st and 141st picks

As you’ve come to see, the trading down teams tend to get the (much) better end of the bargain.  Here, the Eagles picked up 128 cents on the dollar. On the other hand, the Texans move up for Louis Nix III.  This move is okay by me: Nix was a first round pick on some boards, and is a monster nose tackle. Teams can probably neutralize him by double-teaming him, and double-teaming Jadeveon Clowney, and triple-teaming J.J. Watt and yeah I’m okay with what Houston did here.

11) New England trades the 93rd pick to Jacksonville for the 105th and 179th picks

The Patriots receive 116 cents on the dollar here. But again, shouldn’t New England be the team trading up and Jacksonville the one trading down?

12) In what was essentially a mirror of the last deal, San Francisco sent the 94th pick to Cleveland for the 106th and 180th picks.  Here, the 49ers received 112 cents on the dollar.

Jacksonville traded up for Miami (FL) guard Brandon Linder.  Cleveland traded for Towson running back Terrance West.

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Round 1 2014 NFL Draft Recap

Let’s get started! As always, I’ll be using my Draft Pick Value Calculator and the JJ Trade Value Calculator to analyze all trades (well, all trades except for one).

1. Houston Texans – Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

Little drama at the top. Clowney’s been expected to be the first overall pick in the 2014 draft for about three years.  He’ll be joining J.J. Watt to create a scary front seven in Houston. The Texans need to do something to counter the Colts landing Andrew Luck, and this isn’t too bad of a plan.

2. St. Louis Rams - Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

Not much of a surprise here, either, at least according to most mocks. Robinson is an incredible athlete and a dominant run blocker. The early word, though, is that he’ll play left guard right away, as Jake Long remains on the left side (Robinson could play the right side, but the Rams may be happy with Joe Barksdale).

3. Jacksonville Jaguars – Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

Surprise! I had the Jaguars taking a quarterback, but Bortles was the first real shock of the draft. That’s a risky move by the Jaguars: Bortles seems to have pretty high bust potential and this pick means the clock is now beginning to tick on the rebuilding project. [click to continue…]

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Drafting Diamonds in the Rough

Guest blogger Andrew Healy, an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University, is back and the author of today’s post. As a reminder, there a tag at the site where you can find all of his great work.


Small school defender takes down big school quarterback

Small school defender takes down big school quarterback.

Asante Samuel. Jahri Evans. Robert Mathis. These three players share something in common that offers a hint to finding steals in the middle rounds of the draft. All three eventually made Pro Bowls. Each was drafted in Round 4 or later. And each played for a notable football powerhouse in college: Central Florida1, Bloomsburg, Alabama A&M.

The success of these smaller college players relative to their marquee school competitors turns out to be a much more general phenomenon. In the middle rounds of the NFL draft, players from outside the traditional power conferences have been more than twice as likely to eventually make the Pro Bowl as players from the most famous programs. On defense, small school players have been even more likely to make the Pro Bowl than their major school counterparts.

Let’s use the 2003 draft as an example. Only 5% (6 out of 116) of the major college players selected in round 4 or later eventually made it to a Pro Bowl. At the same time, 12% (6 out of 50) of small college players would eventually be selected for Hawaii. At the very least, if you were watching the draft and wanting to know what the chances are that your team drafted a future star, those chances increased in the middle of the draft when your team picked a player from a school like Bloomsburg than when it picked another player from the SEC.

In fact, it’s hard to think of anything else that can match the impact of simply picking small-school players as a way to find stars in the middle rounds. The data suggest that this logic has even applied at the top of the draft for comparisons such as those between Buffalo’s Khalil Mack and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. But the big gains from focusing on smaller football schools have come from finding the gems that the draft buzz mostly bypasses. Consistently, general managers have wasted picks on players from major conferences, missing chances to find difference-makers―particularly on defense―from schools such as Northern Colorado and Idaho State.2

The Data

I look at all players drafted from 1998-2007, stopping at the later year to give players time to make a Pro Bowl. The measure of excellence is making a Pro Bowl, but I’ll also look at All-Pro selections. I ignore players listed at special teams positions (P, K, and KR), although it’s possible you could make a Pro Bowl as a special teamer after being drafted at an offensive or defensive position. I also did not include fullbacks because it became so easy to make the Pro Bowl at that spot.

Major conferences are defined according to the traditional BCS definitions: Big East/American, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10, SEC, and ACC. Notre Dame is also included with these bigger (in terms of football) schools. A school such as Wake Forest gets defined as a big football school by this measure and it probably shouldn’t be, but adjustments from this definition would be judgment calls and so this simple rule seems best.

Note that almost none of the middle-round small-school Pro Bowlers during this time period come from schools such as Boise State that were big football schools at the time. The two possible exceptions are Brett Keisel of BYU (drafted in 2002) and Paul Soliai of Utah, who was drafted in 2007 before Utah joined the Pac-12.

Comparing Average Success Across Schools

Small school players get drafted later than big school players, so we need to control for draft position to get a fair comparison between them. Later, I’ll use regression to do that. Here, I’m just going to break down results according to ranges of draft position. The chance of making the Pro Bowl is much higher in the early parts of the draft, so I’ll break things down there according to selection number rather than just the round.

The table below looks at the first three rounds of the draft. Overall, the chances of drafting a Pro Bowler tend to be higher for small school players in the first three rounds. The small school samples are limited in the first round, but the share of small school players who make a Pro Bowl is higher throughout than for big schools. Out of all the rounds, the 2nd round is the only one where we see a small trend the other way.

 
Small schools
Big schools
Round# of selections% Pro Bowlers# of selections% Pro Bowlers
1 (Pick 1-10)771.4%9355.9%
1 (Pick 11-20)850.0%9141.8%
1 (Pick 21-32)1145.5%9929.3%
2 (Pick 33-48)2623.1%13124.4%
2 (Pick 49-64)3511.4%11215.2%
38310.8%2449.0%

The largest differences, and the clearest benefit from drafting players from smaller schools, come in the middle rounds. The table below shows the differences in rounds 4-7. In round 4 over the ten-year period, teams have been about three times more likely to draft a Pro Bowler when picking from a small school rather than a big one. 12.9% of small school draftees in Round 4 have made the Pro Bowl, compared to just 4.1% of big school players.

 
Small schools
Big schools
Round# of selections% Pro Bowlers# of selections% Pro Bowlers
49312.9%2474.1%
51088.3%2283.5%
61353.7%2203.6%
71572.6%2941.7%

In round 5, we see a similarly large difference. Round 5 players from small schools have been more than twice as likely as big school players to make a Pro Bowl. Altogether, across rounds 4 and 5, despite 475 non-special teams players being drafted from big schools, just 18 (3.8%) have made a Pro Bowl. On the other hand, out of just 201 players drafted in those rounds from small schools, 21 (10.5%) made a Pro Bowl. If you wanted to find a future star in rounds 4 or 5, you would have increased your chances by more than double by looking at the Northern Colorados and Alabama A&Ms of college football rather than the USCs and Alabamas.

[Chase note: It is at this point that I decided I needed to stop reading the article.  I trust Andrew, but found his claims too remarkable to just blindly accept. So I decided to open up my database to confirm. I removed punters and kickers but kept everyone else in the database.  To my amazement, the numbers not only seem legit, but perhaps even under-reported.  The average player selected from the 4th or 5th round from a Big School made 0.06 Pro Bowls, compared to 0.22 Pro Bowls for players from non-major schools!]

Regression Results: Controlling for Draft Position in a Flexible Way

To figure out the average bonus small school players offer compared to large school players, we can use linear regression to control for draft position. In the regressions, I predict whether a player became a Pro Bowler with a cubic polynomial in draft position and whether the player went to a major school. The regression results indicate that, looking across rounds and controlling for draft position, players from small schools are about 3 percentage points more likely to become Pro Bowlers. ((We get almost the same result if we include higher powers of the pick number. We also get similar results if we use a logit instead of a linear regression. The standard error for the estimate is in parentheses.))

All rounds ( N = 2427 (0.014)):

[math]Pro Bowl = f(Pick, Pick^2, Pick^3) + 0.030 *Small School [/math]

The three percentage point bump for small school players is a substantial boost. Across all rounds of the draft, about 11.8% of the main position players made a Pro Bowl. Compared to this baseline, teams increase their chances of drafting a Pro Bowler by about 20% by drafting a small school player.

We can see more of this pattern by breaking things down according to the early and later rounds. If we look at rounds 1-3, nothing statistically significant emerges. The point estimate follows the overall pattern, but the result is not clear, in part due to the relatively small number of small school players drafted in the first three rounds.

Rounds 1-3 (N = 947 (0.034)):

[math]Pro Bowl = f(Pick, Pick^2, Pick^3) + 0.021 *Small School [/math]

On the other hand, in rounds 4-7, we get a very clear impact of picking small school players, an effect that is even more striking given the much smaller share of players who make the Pro Bowl in those rounds compared to earlier ones.

Round 4-7 (N = 1480 (0.011)):

[math]Pro Bowl = f(Pick, Pick^2, Pick^3) + 0.033 *Small School [/math]

We see that, controlling for the selection, small school players are 3.3 percentage points more likely to make the Pro Bowl.3 This represents about a doubling of the chance that a major school player makes the Pro Bowl. Just 3.1% of major school players drafted in Rounds 4-7 at the main positions made the Pro Bowl. The model predicts that around 6.4% of small school players drafted in those same positions would have made the Pro Bowl.

All-Pro Appearances

So focusing on small school players offers a much better way to draft a future star according to Pro Bowl appearances. And it doesn’t look like this is just about Pro Bowls. Instead, it’s pretty clear that small school players perform better more generally than major school players, once we control for draft position, with these differences primarily driven by the middle rounds, particularly 4 and 5.

Small school players drafted in rounds 4-7 are also about twice as likely to appear on an All-Pro team as their major school counterparts. Controlling for draft position, small school players are about 1.3 percentage points more likely to make an All-Pro team, relative to a baseline where 1.5% of major school players made an All-Pro team.

All-Pro (N = 1480 (0.008)):

[math]All-Pro= f(Pick, Pick^2, Pick^3) + 0.013 *Small School [/math]

Particularly given the relatively small number of players who made an All-Pro team, we can look at this another way by considering the number of appearances a player made on an All-Pro team. Controlling for draft position, players drafted in the middle rounds from small schools have an average of .036 more All-Pro selections than major school players. The mean number of All-Pro selections for major school players is .022, so small school players are predicted to have more than twice the number of All-Pro selections as their major school counterparts. ((The small school players drafted in rounds 4-7 who made an All-Pro team are (with the number of appearances in parentheses): Adalius Thomas (2), Asante Samuel (3), Brandon Marshall (1), Cortland Finnegan (1), Jahri Evans (5), Jared Allen (4), Jerry Azumah (1), Lance Schulters (1), Matt Birk (2), Michael Turner (2), Robert Mathis (1), Terrence McGee (2), and Trent Cole (1). Of these, McGee made it as a special teams player. Amongst major college players drafted in rounds 4-7, Dante Hall and Leon Washington made All-Pro teams as special teamers during this time.))

Number of All-Pro Appearances (N = 1480 (0.015)):

[math]All-Pro Appearances = f(Pick, Pick^2, Pick^3) + 0.036 *Small School [/math]


The Best Defense Comes from Small Schools

One other interesting pattern in the data is the offense/defense breakdown. All of the above effects are driven by the defense. If we look just at offense, there’s basically no difference between big and small schools, which mimics what Chase found using a different methodology last year.  However, there are large gaps for defensive players.

Take the regression from before for rounds 4-7. Now let’s break it down separately for offense and defense:

Round 4-7, Offense only (N = 749 (0.016)):

[math]Pro Bowl = f(Pick, Pick^2, Pick^3) + 0.003 *Small School [/math]

Round 4-7, Defense only (N = 731 (0.015))::

[math]Pro Bowl = f(Pick, Pick^2, Pick^3) + 0.060 *Small School [/math]

The last gap is pretty enormous. Even if we don’t control for the spot the player is selected―which works against small school players since they get drafted later―we see the huge differences between small and large school defensive players. Out of 499 defensive players drafted in rounds 4-7 from major conference schools between 1998 and 2007, 10 (2.0%) made the Pro Bowl. On the other hand, out of 231 small school players drafted in those same rounds, 18 (7.8%) made the Pro Bowl. The gap for all-pro appearances is similarly large. There were a total of 10 all-pro appearances for the 499 large-school defensive players (.020 per player) and 17 all-pro appearances for the 232 small-school players (.073 per player) drafted in rounds 4-7 during this period.

Even though we have fewer than half as many draftees to pick from compared to major school players, look at the starting 11 we can field from small school players mostly picked in round 4 or later, with two round 3 draftees to fill in a couple of holes:

DE      Robert Mathis
DT      Paul Soliai
DT      Aaron Smith
DE       Jared Allen
OLB    Joey Porter (3)
MLB   Jeremiah Trotter (3)
OLB   Adalius Thomas
CB      Asante Samuel
CB      Cortland Finnegan
FS       Kerry Rhodes4
SS       Antoine Bethea

Note that if you go back a few more years, you can substitute La’Roi Glover (5th round, 1996, San Diego St.) for Soliai and Rodney Harrison (5th round, 1994, Western Illinois) in at SS, sliding Bethea in for Rhodes at FS. That is a pretty sweet defense, all built on middle-to-late round picks from small schools.

Conclusion

The data show that picks in the middle rounds of the draft have been substantially more productive when spent on players from smaller schools. Despite picking major-school players more than twice as frequently, teams have found as many stars from the smaller schools. On defense, they have actually found substantially more stars from schools such as New Hampshire than ones such as LSU. A defensive player taken in round 4 or later has been almost four times more likely to eventually make a Pro Bowl when that player comes from a school outside the traditional power conferences. Stars such as Jared Allen, Asante Samuel, and Robert Mathis are part of a larger pattern. Teams have found those essential mid-round steals by drafting players from smaller schools.

Why has there been this opportunity to do better by picking small school players? One possibility is that there was less information out there about those players, a gap that would have been decreasing as film and televised college games have become ubiquitous. That explanation makes some sense since the benefit to smaller school players emerges in the middle rounds, long after the Brian Urlachers (New Mexico) and Joe Greenes (North Texas) who were impossible to miss had been selected. However, with the sample going from 1998-2007, this explanation seems unsatisfying since teams have had relatively easy access to information about any college player.

The explanation that I think could make more sense is some kind of risk aversion, kind of like the bias that leads to punts on fourth down. Maybe teams in the middle rounds, not seeing clear standouts, felt that it’s safer to pick the player from Alabama instead of the one from Idaho State. Even though it’s anything but safer, general managers can say to themselves that they’re getting a player who’s a known quantity due to the college program he comes from. Picking the major school player might even be the kind of move that’s harder to criticize, putting the general manager in a similar position to the coach facing 4th and 3 at midfield, where the best choice for the team may not be optimal for the decision maker. Whatever the reason, the bias towards major school players in the middle rounds has left available potential stars to the teams that have chosen players from overlooked schools.

However, this potential opportunity may already be gone. Since 2008, six defensive players have made Pro Bowls and were drafted after round three. All six were actually from major schools: Kam Chancellor (Virginia Tech) and Richard Sherman (Stanford) in Seattle, Geno Atkins (Georgia), Henry Melton (Texas), Alterraun Verner (UCLA), and Greg Hardy (Mississippi). Across offense and defense, it’s eight Pro Bowlers for large schools (adding Carl Nicks and Jordan Cameron) versus four for small schools (Alfred Morris, True Receiving Yards champ Antonio Brown, Josh Sitton, and Julius Thomas, and not counting Jerome Felton, who plays FB), about the same ratio as players drafted altogether. Still, the biggest stars here are clearly the big school players.

Even though we need more years of data on all the players in these drafts, it is possible that the previous trend has shifted. Assuming that’s right, why might that have happened? One possibility is that ever more schools are getting national media attention, meaning that small schools aren’t so small anymore.5    Another possibility that seems even more plausible to me is that the increasing information on high school players means that great players are now less likely to be at small schools in the first place. Even though there will always be some great players who end up at small schools (see Watt, J.J.), maybe Jared Allen would have been recruited more heavily if he played now. There may now be fewer diamonds in the rough than there used to be. That idea suggests there might have been even more diamonds in the rough if we look at earlier years. And that looks like it might be exactly the case. Just looking at rounds 4 and later in some of these earlier drafts is kind of incredible. In 1989, there were five (non-kicker) Pro Bowlers from small schools and only one from a large school. In 1990, there were nine small school Pro Bowlers (including HOFer Shannon Sharpe) compared to just four from major schools. In 1991, it was eight small school Pro Bowlers compared to just two major school players.6 All of this appears even though substantially more large school players are drafted in rounds 4-8. While the chance to find a small school steal was just on defense from 1998-2007, it seems like the opportunities may have been all over the field in earlier years.

  1. In 2003, Central Florida went 3-9 in the MAC. While the Blake Bortles Knights may not be a football powerhouse, either, the 2013 UCF team that went 12-1 in the American Conference bears little resemblance to where the program was a decade ago. []
  2. Bonus points for getting those players. Aaron Smith was a 4th round pick out of Northern Colorado in 1999 and Jared Allen was a 4th round pick out of Idaho State in 2004. []
  3. The t-statistic is 3.04 and the p-value is .002. []
  4. Rhodes has actually never made a Pro Bowl, but he was second-team All-Pro in 2006. He did not count in the players from small schools who have made a Pro Bowl. []
  5. Another possibility is that NFL teams have changed their behavior. There has been almost no change over time, though, in the share of small school defensive players selected at certain points in the draft. []
  6. Some of the late round diamonds in the rough may have become undrafted free agents in later years. For example, James Harrison (Kent State) and London Fletcher (John Carroll) are two small school UDFAs who made Pro Bowls. []
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The NFL Draft is this week, which means we have something resembling real football to talk about. But how much impact will the players who hear their names called during the 2014 Draft have on the 2014 season? Here’s the short answer: as a group, they will make up about 10% of games played by all players and 8% of all starts.

What do I mean by that? Each year, every team’s players start 352 games, which is the product of 16 (games) and 22 (starters). Players selected during the 2013 Draft started 27 games per team last year, which is in line with the recent average of eight percent. I also looked at the number of games played by all drafted rookies, and divided that by the number of games played by all players on that team. Take a look: the blue line represents games played by drafted rookies and the red line represents games started; both numbers on shown on a percentage basis for the league as a whole. [click to continue…]

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Clowney's potential is too tantalizing for Atlanta to ignore

Clowney's potential is too tantalizing for Atlanta to ignore.

1. ***Trade*** Atlanta: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

The Falcons are desperate for a pass rusher and Thomas Dimitroff doesn’t anticipate being this close to landing a top-flight talent like Clowney ever again. After successfully trading up for Julio Jones in 2011, Dimitroff rolls the dice again, sending the 6th pick in the draft along with number 68 (Atlanta’s 3rd rounder), and the team’s 2015 first round and third round picks to Houston.

It’s a heavy price to pay, but the best way for the Falcons to cure their pass-rushing woes.  On the first day of free agency, Atlanta signed three run-stuffing, interior defensive linemen; with Clowney, the Falcons now have a legitimate pass rusher to help them close out games against Drew Brees and Cam Newton. Atlanta is switching to a 3-4/hybrid defense this year, but that won’t deter Dimitroff from making this move.  The Texans like but don’t love Clowney, and just hours before the draft, finally get the ransom they’re demanding.

2. St. Louis (from Washington as part of Robert Griffin III trade): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

Jeff Fisher was the Titans coach for 16 drafts and has been with the Rams for two more.  In that time, he’s never spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman, and has only twice used a top-80 pick on the position (Michael Roos in 2005 and Jason Layman in 1996). St. Louis really wants to trade down here, but simply can’t find a partner.

Instead, Fisher harkens back to his days with the Bears, and decides one can never have enough pass rushers. Having Robert Quinn, Chris Long, and Michael Brockers is nice, but having them and Mack is even nicer. The Rams drafted Alec Ogletree last year, which leaves Jo-Lonn Dunbar as the odd man out at right outside linebacker. It also means Mack will get to line up behind Quinn, a terrifying prospect for every team that plays the Rams.

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Compensatory Draft Picks From 2003 to 2013

Here’s a good story from Jenny Vrentas about compensatory draft picks in the NFL. The NFL provides extra picks to teams who lose more unrestricted free agents than they sign, and no team has manipulated the system quite like the Ravens.

The NFL’s formula for doling out these compensatory picks is a secret, but in general, the best players and the players signed to the biggest deals yield the best draft picks the following year, although compensatory picks are limited to rounds three through seven. Last year, Baltimore lost Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Ed Reed, and Cary Williams to other teams; as a result, the Ravens now have an extra pick at the end of the third round, two at the end of the fourth, and another at the end of the fifth. The maximum number of compensatory picks a team can receive in a year is four, so Baltimore and Ozzie Newsome fared about as well as possible under the system.

The Jets are the only other team that will receive four compensatory picks in the 2014 Draft. New York lost Dustin Keller, Matt Slauson, Yeremiah Bell, Mike DeVito, Shonn Greene and LaRon Landry. Teams get credit for their net free agents lost: with a max of four picks, the Jets could go out and sign two UFAs from other teams in 2013, and that’s exactly what John Idzik did by signing Mike Goodson and Antwan Barnes. As a result, the Jets will get a 4th and three 6th rounders.

Since the actual NFL formula is a secret (and may be tweaked from year to year), nobody knows exactly how the picks will be awarded in any season (Philly.com has a very good article about the process).  One thing to keep in mind is that not all free agent signings will hurt a team in the compensatory picks game.  As Vrentas notes about the Ravens decisions during free agency:

They added receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, but since both players had been cut by their previous teams, they don’t count in the league’s compensatory picks formula. Nor do players signed after June 1, which helped the Ravens last year, when they filled a void at inside linebacker by signing Daryl Smith on June 5.

I did my best to compile all compensatory picks from 2003 to 2013.1 Then, I assigned the appropriate AV draft value to each slot to see which teams have fared the best over that time frame when it comes to receiving free picks.

This analysis ignores 2014, but the Ravens easily lead the pack in both picks awarded and draft value awarded.  Take a look:
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  1. Why 2003? The compensatory pick scheme began in 1994.  That year, the Eagles received a pick at the end of the first round for losing Reggie White.  The 2002 draft was a bit funky because the Texans received several supplemental picks in the middle of rounds, so the 2003 cutoff was a result of me being lazy.  By limiting the sample from ’03 to ’13, I was able to label all picks after 32 in each round as compensatory picks — which works, in theory.  Of course, you then need to include compensatory picks that are earlier than 32 in a round because a team used a supplemental draft pick in the prior year.  I’ve done that, but it’s a bit tricky, and there’s a non-zero chance I’ve erred.  That’s why I’ve presented the full list in this post. []
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As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, most rookies sign four-year contracts. But as further evidence of the owners’ success during negotiations in connection with the 2011 lockout, teams were granted a club option for a fifth year for all players selected in the first round. The option is only guaranteed for injury, however, so a team can exercise the option for 2011 first round picks and still release the player after the 2014 season.

For players in the top ten, that fifth year salary is equal to an average of the top ten highest-paid players at their position from the prior year. For players selected with picks 11 through 32 — and boy, that number 11 pick never looked as valuable as it did in 2011 — the fifth-year deal is worth an average of the salaries of the players with the 3rd through 25th highest salaries at their position.

The deadline for exercising the fifth-year option on 2011 first rounders is tomorrow, May 3rd.  As a reminder, here is a review of the first round of the 2011 Draft: [click to continue…]

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Why Aren’t Teams Better At Drafting Now?

The NFL Draft has emerged from an afterthought to the center of the sports world every April spring. A cottage industry of draftniks has emerged. Teams spend more time, money, and other resources on scouting than ever before. Scouting departments have grown exponentially in both size and sophistication. The Draft used to be much less important, as evidenced by the way teams happily traded away future first round picks like they were fringe benefits. Over the last 45 years, teams should have become a lot better at drafting. But have they?

Measuring how well teams draft in the aggregate is not easy.  But suppose teams were perfect at drafting. In that case, the first pick would always turn out to be better than the second pick, the second pick would always turn out to be better than the third pick, and so on.  Right?

Well, maybe not. Nobody quite knows the ratio, but player development is a crucial part of the drafting process. Prospects do not come to the NFL as finished products, and it’s up to the team (and the player) to turn that college athlete into an NFL player. Making a selection on draft day is just step one, not the final step. When a player busts, is it the fault or the person in charge of the draft or the person in charge of the development?  When a player booms, is it because of the GM or the coach? I don’t know.  You don’t know. Nobody knows.

But we do know that player development is an important variable, so even in a perfect drafting world, we probably wouldn’t expect each player to turn out to have a better career than the player drafted after him. But comparing draft status to player production seems like the most basic and obvious way to measure draft efficiency. Frankly, I don’t know even how else one would measure draft efficiency than by comparing draft slot to player production.  I’m open to other ideas in the comments, but here’s what I did. [click to continue…]

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Last Wednesday, I looked at every time a team traded away a future first round draft pick in the last ten years. Today, the reverse: the times a team traded for a future first round pick.  I’ll again be focusing on the general manager or other person responsible for making the trade: that’s because future first round picks are generally discounted, and I’m curious to see how often patience is rewarded.  As we’ll see in our first example, hurting the team in the short term — even if the move looks brilliant in retrospect and is a win in the long term — does not necessarily mean much for the man making the deal.

1) Cleveland trades Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first round pick (Sept. 2013)

As a reminder, it was Tom Heckert who drafted Richardson with the third overall pick, so Lombardi doesn’t deserve any blame for the poor decision there.  In theory, Lombardi should have been rewarded for managing to still get a first round pick for Richardson, but instead, he just stacked the 2014 draft for Farmer.  For the franchise, it’s hard to view this trade as a great deal, because it’s connected to Richardson the draft pick (the Browns turned the 3rd pick in 2012 into the 26th pick in 2014). But as an isolated move, this one looks pretty strong for Cleveland and definitely for Lombardi, especially after how poorly Richardson performed in Indianapolis in 2013.

2) St. Louis trades 2012 first round pick (#2; Robert Griffin III) to Washington for 2012 first round pick (#6; Morris Claiborne), 2012 second round pick (#39; Janoris Jenkins), and 2013 first round pick (#22; Desmond Trufant) and 2014 first round pick (#2 overall) (March 2012)

A year ago, this trade arguably would define the Snead/Fisher era — in a bad way. Now, the Rams have managed to use one very valuable asset to restock the roster. Along with other trades, St. Louis wound up with four top 50 picks in 2012, two first round picks in 2013, and two more this year, including the second overall selection.  That hasn’t translated into much success on the field yet for Snead and Fisher, but it’s important to remember how bare the cupboard was when the duo arrived in 2012. Right now, this trade looks like a lopsided deal, but if RG3 can replicated his rookie season in 2014 — and Sam Bradford had another mediocre year — and the pendulum could swing again.

It’s worth noting that few decision makers would have been tempted to pull off this move. Fisher came to St. Louis in 2012 and was handed significant control.  That’s vital when a major part of the compensation involved a two year wait; that wasn’t a concern for Fisher, but I suspect it would be for most.

3) Cincinnati trades Carson Palmer to Oakland for 2012 first round pick (#17; Dre Kirkpatrick), 2013 second round pick (#37; Giovani Bernard) (October 2011)

Bernard and Kirkpatrick both look to be long-term starters in Cincinnati, while Palmer may have retired if the Bengals hadn’t traded him. This was an all-time great trade for Cincinnati and Lewis. The cherry on top is that Hue Jackson, who orchestrated the trade for Oakland, was Bernard’s position coach last year and will be the Bengals offensive coordinator in 2014. While the compensation wasn’t quite as generous, that’s as if Mike Lynn, the Vikings old general manager, moved on to the Dallas front office after the Herschel Walker trade.

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When a general manager trades away a future first round pick, it’s worth wondering if the transaction was the effect of the principal-agent problem. A general manager is supposed to act in the best interest of the franchise, but he may instead choose to act in his own self-interest. If he’s on the hot seat, trading a future first round pick for something right now may be a pretty attractive option, as he may not be around when the bill comes due.

Does that happen in practice? The most obvious example I can think of involved the Raiders in 2011.  On October 8th, Al Davis passed away. Eight days later, starting quarterback Jason Campbell went down for the season with a collarbone injury. With the owner and general manager positions unsettled, head coach Hue Jackson became the de facto head of football operations. And he traded first and second round picks to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer. Had the move worked out and the 4-2 Raiders gone on to make the playoffs, Jackson would have been very happy. When the move failed, the Raiders missed the playoffs and Jackson was fired. As a result, it was Reggie McKenzie sitting at the table when the bill arrived.

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Johnny Jaguar

Johnny Jaguar.

A couple of years ago, I wrote that when a team misses on a first round quarterback, someone tends to gets fired (update here). I identified 22 quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 1998 and 2010 who did not turn into stars: in nearly every case, the offensive coordinator and/or head coach was fired.

Jacksonville has underdone significant upheaval over the past few years. In January 2012, Shahid Khan acquired the Jaguars. The general manager at the time was Gene Smith: after a 2-14 season, Smith was fired, and Khan brought in his man, David Caldwell.

Caldwell brought in his own man, too, when he replaced Mike Mularkey with Gus Bradley. The new management team also inherited Blaine Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft. After two poor seasons from Gabbert before they arrived, Caldwell and Bradley could have decided to select a quarterback in the 2013 draft. But with the 2nd overall pick, there was no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III available, and the Jaguars selected offensive tackle Luke Joeckel.

When Jacksonville was on the clock at the top of the second round, the only quarterback off the board was EJ Manuel. The Jaguars could have drafted Geno Smith, but instead selected Jonathan Cyprien. In the third round, Mike Glennon was still available, but the team picked Dwayne Gratz. In the fourth round, before Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson, and Landry Jones were drafted, the Jaguars took Ace Sanders.

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Which College Conferences Dominate the NFL Draft?

On Sunday, I used my draft value chart to determine how NFL teams valued various positions. Today, I’ll use the same method to see which schools and conferences dominate the NFL Draft. You are not going to be surprised to discover that USC Trojans have dominated the draft over the last ten years. You’ll be even less surprised to see that SEC teams have accumulated the most draft value, and the most value per team, of any conference. But let’s put some numbers on what we all know. Here’s what I did:

1) Using these draft values, assign a value to every pick in every draft from 2004 to 2013.

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) Sum the values for each school in each conference. Note: I am using the school-conference affiliations as of the 2013 season, so the SEC gets credit for the last ten years of Texas A&M, and the ACC gets a decade worth of Pitt draft picks. (Speaking of Pitt, regular readers may recall last year’s two posts on college and NFL team connections). On the other hand, Maryland and Rutgers are not credited to the Big Ten… yet. This is almost certainly not the ideal way to handle the situation, but any other approach would be too time consuming and as a reminder, nothing about college football makes any sense, anyway.

Based on that methodology, the table below shows the 100 schools that have produced the most draft value from 2004 to 2013. By default, I’m listing only the top 10, but you can change that in the dropdown box to the left: [click to continue…]

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Analyzing Position Values in the NFL

Every draft pick has a value, as seen in my draft value chart.  When the first overall pick is used on a quarterback, that means the quarterback position gets credited with 34.6 picks. If you assign a value to every pick in each of the last ten drafts, you can get a sense of the amount of value spent on each position in the NFL in an average draft. The graph below shows the percentage of the draft value pie attributed to each position; for example, quarterbacks are selected with 7% of all draft capital:

[click to continue…]
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The Best 40-Yard Dash Times since 1999

A month ago, I looked Jadeveon Clowney’s impressive time in the 40-yard dash. In that post, I argued that all 40-yard times must be adjusted for weight. Well, thanks to the good folks at NFLSavant.com, 40-yard dash times are available for many players going back to 1999. Which made me wonder: which players have posted the best and worst times after adjusting for weight?

After playing around with the data, I noticed that two other variables were correlated with 40-yard dash times: height and year. The best way to explain the relationship is through the best-fit linear regression formula, which is:

40 yard time = 10.0084 – 0.00326 * Year – 0.00214 * Height + 0.00605 * Weight

What does that mean? For every year since 1999, the average time has been increased by three thousands of a second. That may not seem like very much, but it does make a 4.45 time from 1999 equivalent to a 4.40 time today. Similarly, taller players have an advantage, to the tune of two thousands of a second per inch. The effect is so tiny not to matter, but an extra eight inches means you should expect a 4.5 to turn into a 4.48.1 The big variable, of course, remains player weight. A 6’5, 260 pound player in 2014 would be expected to run the 40 in 4.85 seconds; make that player weigh 220 pounds, and his expected time drops to 4.61.

Courtesy of the data from NFL Savant, I calculated the expected 40-yard dash time of about 4500 players since 1999; the expected time is based solely on the formula presented at the top of this post. A couple of disclaimers: I’ve tried to link each player to their appropriate PFR page, but there is some name overlap, so forgive any errors. Also, in order to make the tables sort correctly, I’ve included an 8 for the round of any undrafted player or 2014 prospect. [click to continue…]

  1. In retrospect, I think this understates the effect of height. There are enough tall, slow quarterbacks — who are really outliers on the speed scale, since they are not particularly heavy — to confuse the regression. At least, I think. []
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Chris Berman has already copyrighted Teddy 'Bridge over troubled' Water.

Chris Berman has already copyrighted Teddy 'Bridge over troubled' Water.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that it’s 2014. With draft season now in full gear, I wanted to take a few minutes and look at the stats of the top college quarterbacks from last year. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. I couldn’t find a site that presented a full list of all college quarterback stats, including sacks, which is, of course, insane.

College football records sacks as rushing plays for the offense; as a result, knowing how many sacks Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater took last year is not that easy to find. So here’s what I did:

1) Using team game log data, I found the number of sacks for each defense in each game.

2) Next, I recorded the percentage of team pass attempts recorded by each quarterback for his offense in each game (usually close to 100%).

3) I synched up these two sets of data, and multiplied each quarterback’s percentage of team pass attempts by the number of sacks by his opponent’s defense in that game.

That provided me with some useful estimated sack data. From there, I calculated each quarterback’s Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt average, which is simply (Gross_passing_yards + 20*PassTDs – 45*INTs – Estimated_sack_yards_lost) / (Pass_attempts + Estimated_sacks). I did this for the 140 quarterbacks with the most pass attempts in the FBS (sorry, Jimmy Garoppolo fans) in 2013.

Since the number of pass attempts vary wildly at the college level, I also calculated a Value Over Average statistic. The 140 quarterbacks had an average ANY/A of 6.44, so the Value metric (which is what the table is sorted by) is simply (ANY/A – 6.44) * (Pass_attempts + Estimated_sacks). Here’s how to read Bridegwater’s line, the Louisville quarterback who many believe will be the first quarterback selected in the draft.

Bridgewater provided the 5th most passing value by this formula, completing 303 of 427 passes for 3,970 yards with 31 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He took 25.5 sacks and lost 185 yards, and had a sack rate of 6% (if I included the percent sign, the table would not sort correctly). Bridgewater also averaged 13.1 yards per completion and had a 9.34 ANY/A average, which combined with his number of dropbacks, means he added 1,310 adjusted net yards of value over average. By default, the table below only shows the top 25, but you can sort and/or search to find each of the 140 quarterbacks (and you can change the number of quarterbacks displayed via the dropdown box to the left). [click to continue…]

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Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald Was Your Combine MVP

Building on yesterday’s post, I decided to crown a combine MVP because it’s February and there’s nothing else to do. I looked at each player’s combine results, courtesy of the great NFLSavant.com, in four different tests.

40-yard dash

There were 268 players with 40-yard dash times posted at NFL Savant. I ran a regression using weight as the input and 40-yard time as the output, and the best-fit formula (R^2 of 0.75) was:

[math]Expected 40 Time = 3.433 + 0.00554 * Weight[/math]

Using this formula, Jadeveon Clowney, with a weight of 266 pounds, would be projected to run the 40 in 4.91 seconds. Since he actually ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds, he gets credited for finishing +0.38 seconds above expectation. That was the best of any player in Indianapolis this year. The table below shows, for each of the 268 players (the table, by default, displays only the top 10, but you can change that in the dropdown box), their weight, their actual 40 time, their expected 40 time, and the difference. Auburn tackle Greg Robinson hopes be a top-five pick, and his 40 time does a good job displaying his athleticism. Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald comes in third, but there will be plenty of reasons to talk about him later. [click to continue…]

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