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NFL Draft Theory: Slaying the Draft Dragon

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The final installment of our "Rethinking the Conventional Wisdom of the NFL Draft" series. How do we apply what we've learned?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed the 1st installment or the 2nd installment, check them out so you're all edu-ma-cated, mmmkay?

Let's quickly rehash what we've learned so far:

  • A draft's return, the data says, is overwhelmingly luck. Yet, GM's walk around with a gangsta lean and think they be ballin' and (expletive).
  • Jimmy Johnson's hair never moves. Even in the shower.
  • JJ's Draft Day chart is completely overrated, and is more proof of GM overconfidence in their drafting abilities than a heuristic device.

If you have the attention span of a gnat, I'll save…c'mon man…pay attention. I was gonna say, I'll save you some time and give you the moral of the story right upfront: beating the NFL Draft means drafting more. In other words, we should treat the NFL Draft as a hedge fund, with volatile commodities that will explode in our faces (will await Alpha joke later) and reveal dusty gems beneath the rubble, with the most important caveat being managing risk. The only way to minimize the risk in the NFL Draft is to have lots of picks, thus affording you the opportunity to F up and still be able to offset the failure.

But don't take it from me, in 2014, The MMQB at Sports Illustrated interviewed the Baltimore Ravens Assistant GM Eric DeCosta, and here's what he said:

"We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player," DeCosta says. "When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else, it seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players."


How do we get more/better picks?

1) Trade players (not in the teams' long-term vision). No better example than trading Mike Wallace after the 2014 season, and although the Miami Dolphins got limited draft capital in return (swapped 7th rounder for the Minnesota Vikings 5th rounder), the Dolphins turned that 5th rounder into Jay Ajayi.

2) Win compensatory picks. There's no better sensei at this than the Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, and the above MMQB article speaks in-depthly about his rationale behind the compensatory pick process. If there were some evil alternate universe where teams actually lost picks for spending too much in free agency, we'd likely be arguing what we'd do with our 2 7th round picks because that's all we'd have. "C'mon bro, you know that LB from Hofstra played really well against Joe's College for the Deaf and Blind in the No One Gives a (expletive) Bowl." "No way holmes, I like Scabby McWillies from McNeese A & M way better, and it's not even close. He absolutely destroyed Appalachian Technical Institute with a pass deflection and 2 tackles on special teams."

3) Draft Day trades. The bulk of creating draft capital will be through the swaps we make during the NFL Draft. Let's take a closer look at this.

Trading down carries with it its own risk - one of the mantras from the 1st installment is that if you undervalue the commodity, someone else might invest in it before you. No better example than trading down from #12 with the San Diego Chargers to #28 in 2010, bypassing what I estimate as 7-9 starters for this team, and this list includes Dez Bryant, Earl Thomas, Tim TebowDemaryius Thomas, Mike Iupati, and Devin McCourty. But the overwhelming majority of the data says that the smarter investment is trading down. Drafting is difficult, and the only way to hedge against this difficulty is to have more picks from which to roll the dice. Theoretically, it's conducive to gain, because it inherently takes advantage of the ubiquitous overconfidence found in NFL front offices making draft day decisions.

Last year, Miami moved down 5 spots in the 2nd round in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, while we sent a 6th rounder in exchange for 2 5th rounders. So, we lost 5 picks in Round 2, but got a free 5th rounder, and moved our 6th rounder up to a 5th rounder. We turned these 2 5th rounders into Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett. I'm higher on Lippett than most (unofficially ranked higher than Grimes per PFF), and McCain was average, but both young players are at a position of need for the Miami Dolphins and show promise (one could argue "showing promise" is already a win with a 5th rounder) and received live game action in their rookie year (injuries/poor play opened the door for them, allowing us to see what we have). According to Bill Barnwell at Grantland, the Miami Dolphins had the 6th-best draft day trades in the 2015 NFL Draft. Based solely on our draft day trades, we acquired the equivalent of the 134th pick for free. That's some silver lining going forward, yeah?

But, but, but…I'm not sold on this whole trade down thing, SUTTON. Hey, it's cool to have your doubts. Remember the research we discussed in the first 2 installments by economists Massey and Thaler? (Fascinating reads if you have 3 trillion hours of free time and are uber-nerdy like me). They shed some light on the trade up vs. trade down discussion. Or better yet, I should say: Sammy Watkins vs. Odell Beckham Jr.

The Buffalo Bills traded up (side note: the Bufallo Bills' front office, knowing of an ownership change, said F it and traded up because they didn't expect to have jobs the following year. Their ego clouded judgment. Remember another mantra from our NFL Draft theory talks - ego is the enemy of long-term growth) and selected Sammy Watkins. Had they stayed put, they could've kept all those picks and drafted the better player in Odell Beckham Jr. But what is especially interesting about this trade is that it highlights some of Massey and Thaler's research: At any given position, historically, the odds of the top player being better than the THIRD best player is……55%. I think it's worth repeating: teams have a 55% chance at distinguishing the best player at a position from the THIRD best at a position.

The Buffalo Bills paid a ransom to essentially be the ones who called the coin flip in the 2014 NFL Draft. Overconfidence reared its ugly head - and this happens when teams trade up when they need a specific position and they're certain they've found the best. The data, simply put, shows that teams aren't very good at figuring out when this scenario is true.

Here is some more data from Massey and Thaler's research:
  • On average, teams who trade down more (a standard deviation compared to the norm) acquire 1.5 more wins per season. Doesn't seem like much, until you realize there's only 16 games played. [This was based on a correlation, so trading down does not cause this effect in and of itself. Just that the two are connected.]
  • On average, trading down and getting 2 players is overwhelmingly more successful than trading up to get one player. Most teams get to keep these 2 players, and it leads to more starts and more Pro Bowls. (Side note: Pro Bowl was considered in the research to help differentiate the quality of the players in the trade, as it should be expected that 2 players get more starts than 1 player. I'll (expletive) all over the Pro Bowl next week in my next article because a Pro Bowl doesn't carry as much weight as it used to, but I can see why they included this in their parameters to have some objective measure of quality.)
  • Considering the bullet point above, even if the team that trades down only gets to keep the better of the 2 players, they still get more starts and the same amount of Pro Bowls compared to the team that trades up.

Simply put, trading down is risk diversification at its finest. It depends on how far down you go (will await Alpha joke later) and carries with it risks of its own if you undervalue the commodities in that section of the draft, but the overwhelming data points to trading down as the optimum draft methodology. Trading down gets you more selections, takes advantage of other teams' overconfidence (manifesting in draft capital), and if you really do think you're the best at drafting, wouldn't you want to have more opportunities to seize that advantage?

Let me know your thoughts! Much love from the SUTTON family and FINS UP!!