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Friday, April 29, 2016

The NFL Draft

Analytics have taken over the world, particularly those analytics that can help us predict outcomes.  But I wonder if anyone has done a detailed analysis of the NFL draft and demonstrated how right or wrong teams were in making their picks.  Much of what we have is anecdotal or pronounced, as the massive failures (see Walt Patulski, Tony Mandarich, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf) get significant press while the overall draft gets very little.

For example, conventional wisdom has it that the best drafter in the past thirty years was Jimmy Johnson when he was in Dallas, one of the main stories being that when he was watching film of prospects at Texas Tech, he kept on seeing this undersized linebacker making many plays.  When he asked his scouts about the player, they replied that he was too small and that the coach should watch the players they had identified.  But Johnson kept seeing this linebacker make plays and became enamored of him, so much so that he took the linebacker in the fifth round.  That kid turned out to be Zach Thomas, who appeared in many Pro Bowls and anchored the Dallas defense at middle linebacker.  He was about 5'9", 220, didn't look like he could leap buildings in a single bound or take on the 49ers' offensive line singlehandedly.  All he did was make the plays. 

But how does everyone else do?  I don't know why I said this to my son, but I offered that of the top-10 picks, Jack Conklin of Michigan State will be the most successful.  Why would I have said that?  Well, the one thing I like about Conklin is that he really wants it, started out as a walk on and keeps on improving.  The risk with some of these draft picks is that they have peaked, the money will spoil them, they have injury issues, etc.  Conklin just seems like a riser.  My son didn't ask me who will be a failure, but history tells us that one of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz will not succeed.  Mike Greenberg offered a stat the other day that suggested that only 41% of quarterbacks taken in the first round in the past couple of decades have won a Super Bowl or made the Pro Bowl.  That's telling.

In any event, I felt badly for the young men who traveled to Chicago only to not have their names called.  Myles Jack's health issues are serious, and I don't know what was up with the Alabama Three, the two defensive linemen and linebacker Reggie Ragland, except that I read on Twitter that Ragland has a heart issue that concerns some teams.  Still, it goes to show you that while Nick Saban can coach defense, that doesn't mean that everyone on his squad is a first-round pick.  It just means that they're close, which is pretty amazing in its own right.

The funny aspect of all of this is that somewhere out there is a kid who will go in the fifth round who will turn into Josh Norman or Richard Sherman.  That seems to happen every year.  And somewhere out there is a big fellah who can push people off the line who will go undrafted just because he's an offensive lineman and, well, picking good ones is a risky business.  And he'll go on to have a Pro Bowl career.  For all that analysis and scouting, you would figure that teams would get better at drafting players. 

But they don't. 

Enjoy Day 2 tonight.


Blogger Phil L said...


I've been mulling over your last two posts and thinking how this year's draft has held up a mirror to the issue of race in America.

Like you, I'm flabbergasted by the benefit of the doubt that made Carson Wentz a second overall pick. I've no doubt he's a young man with a special talent, but that talent is unproven at any meaningful level. He's never seen a Jalen Ramsey closing on one of his throws or had to react to the pass rush of a Joey Bosa. I re-read Moneyball recently and was reminded of Billy Beane's preference for college players over high schoolers. In his mind, the gap between high school and the major leagues is just too wide to predict success with any degree of certainty, even in the inherently uncertain world of a professional sports draft.

To put the question bluntly, would a black quarterback at the 1-AA level ever be projected as a first-round pick, let alone second overall? It's pretty hard to imagine.

Contrast Wentz's treatment with that of Laremy Tunsil, a guy who's proved his worth at the highest collegiate level in the SEC. Sure, the video made his character a doubt (as was mine at his age), but you have to wonder at how NFL franchises were so stingy with the benefit of that doubt for Tunsil having been so lavish with it for Wentz.


11:47 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Phil: Thanks for a great and insightful post. As for Wentz, he became the feeding frenzy in a process that overvalues quarterbacks. The egos of coaches and GMs are such that if they "have to have" a player, reason loses out to compulsive competitiveness. The pundits had Wentz at about #12 or #13, but he goes at #2. Hard to figure.

As for the race question, I don't know whether I agree with you or not. Thankfully, the term "black quarterback" has long since been retired. And it's not as though Cam Newtown, admittedly a 1-A quarterback, has wowed those other than his teammates (and it took some doing at the pro level) with his personality (and with a lingering character issue because of what cash his father might or might not have requested as a payment for his son's going to a school) and he went #1 overall in a very competitive draft class. Put differently, the Vikings I think looked to Germany for a wide receiver in the mid-rounds, so my view might be that if the kid could really play, they'd call him the next Doug Williams and draft him that high. I would think that the competition to find the next great star trumps race.

That said, I was surprised to see Tunsil drop the same way I was surprised at 3 of the Eagles' last four picks. Tunsil did something stupid, but the guy can flat out play. Remember when Warren Sapp sank like a stone -- to Tampa Bay. That turned out well for both Sapp and the Bucs. Tunsil should do fine. What surprises me more is how many kids have issues. The Philadelphia 3 were accused of witness intimidation, beating up a girlfriend and repeatedly violating team rules. All could have been taken higher. All of this gets so confusing. Young men deserve second chances, for sure, but did some of these guys really belong in college?

I suppose they did because that's the only way they can advance to the NFL. But then again, were they prepared. I'm digressing, for sure. As for Wentz versus Tunsil, again I am not sure I agree with you given the backdrop of Johnny Manziel. You would figure that if Wentz had a few blemishes on his character, he would have sank like a stone. The theory being, of course, that you cannot trust your team to someone you cannot trust to run his own life.

Amazing that these issues are the ones that capture our time. And, the thing of it is, Tunsil projects to be an all-pro. Not so sure about Wentz.

12:51 PM  

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