SportsProf

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The NFL Draft

I've always enjoyed following the talk surrounding the NFL draft, especially because it always seems to me that teams seldom take the players that the draft boards and experts say they will. Perhaps the reason for this is that NFL teams adopt the strategy that the Allies did in 1944 regarding the potential invasion of France -- they spread lots of misinformation so as to confuse the enemy as to when and where the attack would take place. It seems to me that teams may go so far as to fly players in whom they have little interest to their facilities for a look-see with a view toward masking who they are really interested in.

Naturally, there are players who fall markedly and players who rise unexpectedly. One player getting a lot of press right now is USC tailback Lendale White, who announced that he had torn a hamstring, which probably explains why he didn't have the best day before the scouts at USC's Pro Workout Day. Does White fall in the draft? I heard Mel Kiper, Jr. on ESPN Radio this weekend say that White's body of work makes him a first rounder even after the bad workout day. Yet, another respected football person at ESPN is predicting that White falls to the second round. Sounds like a case where the rich will get richer, White will fall to the bottom of the first round, and, presto, the Steelers will have their replacement for Jerome Bettis.

What cocktail of analyses do teams really use? What algorithms do they come up with? How important are interviews, workout days, post-season bowl game performances, combine tests, the Wonderlic test and the entire body of work. One player, Mathias Kiwanaku, a defensive end out of B.C., was initially projected as a first-rounder, and a high first-round pick at that. Since that time, his stock has dropped as precipitously as anyone else's. Why? Well, when the Mel Kipers of the world analyzed his body of work, they found that he got his sacks in bunches and that some of them came against bad DI teams. In addition, Kiwanaku apparently had a bad series of practices at the Senior Bowl, where he was opposite UVA's uber-tackle, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who is predicted to go in the top five picks. As a result, his stock dropped.

Everyone wants to avoid picking the next Ryan Leaf, who had all the tools but as it turned out didn't have the football brain to run them. Everyone wants to avoid picking the next Mike Mamula, who had all the workout scores but was a tweener who didn't have a real position. No one wants to be responsible for selecting the next Andre Ware, David Klingler or Akili Smith.

If it were a science, then parity would be even more the case in the NFL, because teams would re-load with some equality year after year. But given all of the factors that teams take into account, it's still more of an art. Which means that you really won't be able to tell how we'll your team did until you see the players play in real games. If I were picking, I would emphasize bodies of work over test scores at the combine, whether workout- or Wonderlic-related. After all, you find Zach Thomases through watching film and seeing kids make plays. If the kids don't make 'em in college, it's hard to say that they will in the NFL. Jimmy Johnson knew that in Dallas, and that's what made him so formidable.

So, if you're team talks about draft picks as projects, the bet here is that they'll continue to be the case three years down the road. With that said, mostly every player coming into the draft has some flaw -- not big enough, not fast enough, didn't do enough reps with the 225-pound bench press at the combine, didn't score high enough on the Wonderlic, might have one disciplinary incident on his record, got hurt his junior year, whatever the case may be. The art that the draft gurus work is to figure out what really matters and what doesn't. You can read in the draft manuals that they don't like someone's feet, that someone's arms are too short or what have you, but in the end, the question is whether they made the plays or not.

There is no such player as the perfect draft pick. Every year we hear about how great this one and that one will be, but most that go into the draft as potential Hall of Famers can come out as people who won't make Canton. So, when your team's front office starts talking about the draft picks its made, don't buy into all the hype, because the guys talked about on draft day aren't always the guys that show up come the fall.

For a variety of reasons.

2 Comments:

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

Prof:

I looked at the NFL Draft - and by extension the drafts in the other major pro sports - in a slightly different light. Thought you might find it interesting. Here's the URL:

http://www.sportscurmudgeon.com/topical/draft_and_parity.html

9:09 PM  
Anonymous Phil the Brit said...

Prof

This year's draft has been illuminated for me by reading Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink'.

The main thrust of the book is encapsulated in his jam tasting exercise. When asked to taste and rate jams, everyone can classify them as tasty, nasty and those in between with near enough the same accuracy as jam connoisseurs (yes, such people exist).

However, when asked not simply to make their judgement on what they've tasted, but to evaluate each jam according to individual criteria of jam tastiness, our judgement suffers. In Gladwell's words, we become 'jam idiots'. The need to justify the judgement empirically warps the judgement itself.

Looking at draft prospect analysis at nfl.com, I wonder if there aren't more than a few quarterback idiots and defensive tackle idiots out there also.

The more we break down a role into its component parts and assign numerical ratings to each, the less likely the result with match our gut's 'hey, this guy can play' evaluation. The shopping list for quarterback includes technique, arm strength, accuracy short in pocket, accuracy long in pocket, etc, etc, ad nauseum.

Clearly, there's a lot riding on draft selections, and in the corporate NFL world, I guess the breakdowns have a certain cover-your-ass appeal. 'Yeah, he was a bust, but no-one looking at his scouting breakdown could have anticipated that'. Confusing a guy's ability to bench press with his ability to ram his helmet into the chest of a defensive tackle at the end of a playoff game on the road seems like a mistake no sports person should make.

One of the great attractions of sports is its instinctive nature. Am I alone in resenting all efforts to reduce it to dismal science?

7:24 AM  

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