NFL Draft: Is it really that simple?

In its recent Analytics Issue, ESPN The Magazine had the following to say about the NFL Draft:

“NFL Draft math is simple: Stockpile picks for more shots at a jackpot.”

But is the strategy really that simple? Of course a team would like to turn unwanted or unneeded players into draft choices and a team with a surplus of selections would like to turn them into earlier and more selections. But beyond such cases there is considerable debate, both about the strategy and ESPN’s meaning. For example, did they really mean to say stockpile high draft choices or all draft picks? In short, I do not agree that formulating the right draft approach is all that simple. The key is to be opportunistic and to always make the higher value decision. Also, the probabilities play such a large role that it is also difficult to ignore the “luck factor” in a team’s success. Even give the luck issue, though, it is the ability to evaluate talent that is the differentiator among teams. This article will explore various aspects of draft strategy. We will keep it simple and do the analysis by draft round rather than the Draft Ranges we prefer. Since it is also highly likely that the answers will differ depending on the metrics used, we will provide multiple answers as appropriate. Kickers are excluded from the analysis for comparability reasons. The analysis was conducted for a 10-year period and includes players drafted from 2005 through 2014. What Is a First Round Pick Really Worth? First, let us take ESPN’s statement to the extreme. What if you had a first round selection and wanted to get the maximum possible number of picks in exchange. How many later picks could you possibly acquire? This article considers only historical trade information and individual trades that are straightforward (e.g., no trades where a first plus another pick is traded cases when a player is involved and trades involving selections for the subsequent year, etc.).
Here is what you might acquire in our theoretical exercise:
So a first round selection can, in theory, be turned into ten late round picks. (We are not commenting on the feasibility of actually being able to execute the required trades.). Now let us compare the value of a first round selection with the ten late round picks using various metrics. The next table shows the number of players that should achieve each metric. The analysis shows, for example, that there is an 87% chance that a first round draft choice will have a five-year or longer career, so a single first- round choice will yield 0.87 players who play five years or more.
This shows that the multiple selections yield more players who may contribute on a limited basis but less in terms of players who should make an impact (defined as a five-year starter or a player who earns post-season honors at least once). Our definition of Pro Bowl selection is stricter than most, and is limited to players who are original selections, not alternates or injury replacements. We next looked to determine whether there is a “sweet spot” along the way to acquiring the maximum of selections that would yield the best result. The following table shows the comparative metrics after each of the theoretical exchanges.
This shows that there is little difference when comparing each step along the way to the ten selections and, therefore, there is no sweet spot. Accumulate Early Picks vs. All Picks
We next looked at the crux of the ESPN statement - - more choices lead to more success. The first table shows the number of total selections by team and the aggregate number of wins by each quartile. The first table shows the number of selections for all rounds by team:
The win totals and a review of the table show that there is no apparent correlation between the number of overall selections and on-field success.
The next table shows the number of selections for the first three rounds by team:
This table does show somewhat of a correlation between the number of selections and the number of wins. This supports our theory that loading up on early selections may be the best strategy. The first three rounds of the draft provide most of the NFL talent:
  • 80% of All Pro and Pro Bowl selections are from the first three rounds
  • 50% of All Pro and Pro Bowl selections come from the first round
  • Setting the bar lower, nearly 70% of games started come from players drafted in the first three rounds
Despite the apparent correlation there are winners and losers at both end of the draft selections spectrum. A few highlights are as follows:
  • 31 extra third-round selections were handed out as compensatory picks
    • Four picks were lost by penalty (Broncos, Patriots, Saints (2) )
    • Four selections (Redskins picking Jeremy Jarmon, Browns selecting Josh Gordon, 49ers picking Ahmad Brooks and Raiders taking Terrelle Pryor) were used in the supplemental draft
  • Despite losing a 1st round pick as a penalty for Spygate, the Patriots are tied with the Rams as having the most selections
  • Three of the Rams extra selections come from the RG3 trade
  • The Patriots extra selections came from trading players for selections (Deion Branch, Mike Vrabel, Matt Cassel) and trading down and accumulating extra picks
  • The Patriots record is not spotless, though
    • They traded up to take WR Chad Jackson while Greg Jennings was selected at the position they traded out of
    • Other players like Carl Nicks, Joe Staley, Clay Matthews and Darryl Washington slipped through their hands in trade-down transactions
  • The Seahawks lost six draft choices in the first three rounds through the acquisition of Deion Branch, Nate Burleson, John Carlson, Percy Harvin and Charlie Whitehurst
  • The Saints lost two second-round selections through Bountygate and did not receive any compensatory picks
    • They used high selections to move up and take Jamaal Brown and Jahri Evans
    • The Saints ranked last in number of picks in rounds 4 through 7
  • Besides the RG3 trade (which may or may not work out), the Redskins wasted high picks on Jason Taylor (waived after one season) and T J Duckett (38 carries for the Redskins)
Should Team Focus on Acquiring Fewer but Higher Draft Choice?  Another strategy worth considering is trading late round picks to have fewer but earlier selections. The Ricky Williams trade in 1999 epitomizes this strategy as the Saints traded their 1999 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picks and their 1st and 3rd round picks in 2000 to move up seven spots and take Williams in a trade with the Redskins How did that work out? Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints and rushed for over 3000 yards and went on to play 12 seasons in his NFL career and rush for 10,000 yards. He was certainly a legitimately good NFL running back. The Redskins, though, landed Lavar Arrington and used a number of the draft selections acquired to facilitate trades for Champ Bailey and Jon Jansen. Two tables have been compiled to show the minimum cost of moving up to the preceding round. This was done for both five-year starters and players earning at least one All Pro selection. The cost of moving into the first round using post-season honors is prohibitive but it is included anyway. The following table shows the minimum cost to move up a round while using five-year starters as the metric. The rows in the table show the round a team is moving to. The columns show the picks that must be relinquished by round. An “X” indicates that a pick in that round is not being traded. The number in the column shows the number of selections surrendered in that round. For example, the table indicates that it would take a 2nd, 4th and 7th pick to move from the 2nd round to the 1st round. The next table shows the cost of moving up a round based on achieving the metric of earning Pro Bowl honors at least once. The one oddity in the above table is that it costs more to move from the 4th round to the 3rd round than it does to move from the 3rd round to the 2nd round. This is due to the 4th round having a higher percentage of one-time Pro Bowl players than the 3rd round. This is the only round where this occurs. It is hard to say that this is a better approach than adding draft choices. It all comes down to what the market will pay and correctly analyzing the respective opportunities. Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics

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