April 15, 2008


IT AIN'T EASY BEING #1: With the likes of Darren McFadden on the board, what fan wouldn't be psyched about this year's draft? But inside NFL war rooms, top picks are nothing short of a curse. (David Fleming, ESPN the Magazine)

In 2006, two professors, Yale's Cade Massey and the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler, published a study of the 1991 to 2002 drafts. They found that a first-rounder is nearly as likely to be out of the NFL after five years (8%) as he is to make the Pro Bowl during those five seasons (9%). And it gets worse. While top picks do perform better than lower ones, Massey and Thaler also discovered that performance falls off much faster than compensation, making No. 1 and No. 32 nearly indistinguishable from a value standpoint. In other words, at this year's draft, the Giants, selecting at No. 31, will likely grab as valuable a player as the Dolphins will at No. 1. If the Dolphins truly understood what they were up against, they'd let the clock expire on their choice 20 times and ultimately risk only $10 million instead of $60 million. "There is no science to the draft," admits Giants GM Jerry Reese. "If you guess right, you look smart. If you make a couple of wrong guesses, you look dumb. You just try to get more right than wrong."

Of course, evaluating skills is a cinch compared with putting a finger on intangibles. Despite the battery of physical and psychological tests administered to every prospect, there's simply no way of knowing how a 21-year-old will respond to the challenge of being the Chosen One. Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell describes his experience of being the 2007 No. 1 overall pick as living 24/7 with the feeling that every eye is on you. In contrast, Tom Brady credits part of his success to the fact that he was allowed to develop slowly and anonymously as a sixth-rounder in 2000. "When you're a first-round pick, everybody's counting on you to save the franchise," Brady says. "That's an incredible amount of pressure to place on one player."

Teams know that too. After all, picking at the top is often a struggling franchise's only chance to be in the spotlight for something that brings fans hope—even if it's false. But if the team did the wise thing and traded down, it might face a fan revolt.

But in the end, the biggest obstacle to overhauling the draft might be NFL culture. This is a league that sticks by a Vince Lombardi, white-socks-and-black-shoes approach to talent evaluation, where front office humility is tantamount to bed-wetting. Teams think of quantitative analysis the same way your grandpa looks at the Internet. Only a few franchises have evolved enough to accept their inevitable draft failings and do something about it. It's no coincidence that two of the teams that have been more active in trading down over the past 20 years—the Pats and Cowboys—have also been the two most successful franchises during that time. As Massey, who has advised several NFL teams, points out, "You have a league full of people, grizzled old scouts, whose entire identity and worth are wrapped up in being able to use tape, instinct and lore to predict who's going to be a good player, when the actual data say they're wrong 50% of the time."

In Miami, Parcells has the power to evoke change. If he's truly the freethinking lone wolf he wants us to believe he is, he'll tear up his draft-value chart, take the best trade-down offer he can find and resist the lure of the fan-pleasing fix. "It's like AA: The first step is admitting there's a problem," says Massey. "Why is that so hard? There's no crime in admitting the instability of the draft."

Somehow the Pats are about the only team to have processed this insight and the owners--in the only pro sports league to beat its players in a strike--failed to grasp the lesson the replacement games taught: only the helmets and uniforms matter in the NFL, not the players, who are completely interchangeable.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2008 11:40 AM

If the players are all interchangeable, how come the Cardinals never win anything?

Posted by: Brandon at April 15, 2008 12:40 PM


Because everyone that has ever served Bill Bidwill has followed his exact instructions to the letter: The cheaper the better. And that includes talent judging.

Posted by: Brad S at April 15, 2008 1:19 PM

They haven't had a professional coach since Don Coryell.

Posted by: oj at April 15, 2008 1:48 PM

I know Brad, you're right. But that also means that OJ is wrong - players matter.

Posted by: Brandon at April 15, 2008 2:20 PM

The Pats always trade down and let their free agents go because the players don't matter.

Posted by: oj at April 15, 2008 4:28 PM

And yet they never won the Super Bowl until they got Tom Brady. I wonder how many they'll win after he's gone?

Posted by: Brandon at April 15, 2008 5:00 PM

Parcells didn't need Brady. Neither does Belichik. Matt Gutierrez would have won the Super Bowl.

Posted by: oj at April 15, 2008 6:55 PM

Let's poll a hundred NFL head coaches and assistant coaches and ask them if players matter.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 15, 2008 9:42 PM

Bingo! A hundred, the bad ones, would say yes, else their coaching is at fault. Ask the good ones--Belichik, Parcells, Gibbs--and they'd say no (privately).

Posted by: oj at April 16, 2008 6:03 AM