SportsProf

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mistakes and the NFL Draft

Did you ever wonder how the MLB and NFL drafts differ so much?

In baseball, territorial scouts figure out who the best prospects are in a region and report them up to the front office. The front office then sends out regional cross checkers, and, sometimes, national cross checkers are used. The ultimate goal is to come up with a list of priorities for the Major League Baseball draft. The scouts use all sorts of metrics and gather as much information as they can. And, since the advent of Billy Beane, they are more likely than not to rely upon past performance and the player's current skill set as an indication of future performance (that is to say, it's hard to teach a wild swinger the strike zone, whereas Kevin Youkilis's knowledge of the strike zone propelled him to the majors, even though many old-school scouts would have knocked him because of his physique). Sure, they like upside, but if you haven't produced reasonably well, you're not going to be a high draft pick (even under non-Moneyball theories; to the contrary it's struck me that unless someone ran like a deer, had a rifle for an arm and a powerful bat, you'd get marked down despite your accomplishments because of flaws in your skill set as opposed to upgraded because of hope). Baseball people are funny that way.

Andy Staples' column at SportsIllustrated.com regading overrated and underrated players brought this home for me. Major League Baseball doesn't have pro tryout days at colleges, there isn't a scouting combine, and players don't take Wonderlic tests or other personality compatibility tests. But, in the NFL, there are those front offices who get caught up in the feeding frenzy of mining data other than what the player did on the field to determine who has more of an upside and who will continue to improve and excel as a pro. Unfortunately, these front office folks can be prone to ignoring stellar on-field play as an indicator of future performance. Which means, of course, that there are plenty of opportunities for future Billy Beanes of football.

Read Staples' column, and particularly the reference to linebacker DeMeco Ryans and see what I'm talking about. All Ryans did at Alabama was make plays for four years and establish himself as the best defender in the SEC, yet he didn't go in the first round (he's shined in the NFL). And the conventional wisdom -- shared by every GM despite evidence that Means made the plays -- was that Means lacked the "it" factor to go in the first round. Huh? I also read Mel Kiper's draft guide last year, and the most appealing running back to me was a kid who, while a little bit small and from a school not known for football, had a sub 4.3 time in the 40-yard dash, caught the ball well and had a great writeup as to his makeup. Yet, this kid, despite his production, didn't go in the first-round, either. His name? Chris Johnson (of East Carolina), who starred at RB for the Titans last season. Yet, all GMs passed on Johnson in the first round too.

Why doesn't production at a high level in college suggest future performance? And why do scouts get giddy on guys who haven't had that many starts (such as Mark Sanchez and Aaron Maybin). What's the matter with the standout who started for 28 games at an SEC school, made all-conference twice, got some honorable mention all-American publicity, made the plays and has good size and reasonably good speed? He's a known quantity. Yet, GMs insist upon selected guys with a little more flash and dash because they project better.

But the fact is that it doesn't appear that those high-ceiling guys fare better. At any rate, read Staples' column and decide for yourself whether unrealistic expectations of high picks in the NFL draft reflect the victory of hope over experience.

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