southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Premature Evaluation: The Absurdity of Grading the NFL Draft

The NFL Draft has metamorphosed over the years from a non-descript off-season occurrence, to the marquee event connecting the end of one season to the start of the next, to what is today a stand-alone phenomenon which garners prime-time television coverage for much of the draft’s three days. Just as one exuberant team hoists the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions, the fans of the other 31 teams, and indeed the teams themselves, are looking ahead to who might be available in the upcoming draft to summarily transcend their team to that same lofty position. In fact, the unfortunate fans of those truly underperforming teams (I’m looking at you, Cleveland) often begin contemplating the next draft as early as a few games into the current season. In this way, the NFL Draft serves as a perpetual renaissance of sorts – always providing renewed hope and promise for the next year.

Undoubtedly, the draft is an important tool that each team utilizes to replenish talent and build an organization under its own philosophy. Historically, there is a direct and overwhelming correlation between those teams that draft successfully and the ones which perform consistently well on the field. Accordingly, each NFL team employs an extensive scouting infrastructure whose only job is devoted to those 3 days in April when teams select their new players. NFL scouts get paid solely to study college football players 365 days a year, both on the field and off, to determine who might fit their team’s needs, schemes and culture. The significant dollars that NFL teams spend on scouting highlights just how important the draft process is viewed by each franchise.

The rise of the NFL Draft as a truly important event in American sports, and the hoopla which surrounds it, has produced all sorts of entertainment and economic benefits for so many involved. There is, however, one regrettable byproduct of all this good fortune – that is the out-sized voice given to the copious draft analysts and experts (both terms I use loosely herein) who render grades on the 32 teams for their annual performances. These folks are like pervasive and unwanted grass weeds, springing to life the same time every year, ruining an otherwise perfect lawn. Before, during and immediately following the draft, Mel Kiper, the most notable and recognizable of all weeds, blasts his pearls of draft wisdom into the megaphone known as ESPN to opine as to each team’s competence in a particular draft. Kiper, though, is not alone; he is joined by countless other “experts” who insist on grading each team’s draft stock.

I, for one, find this annual ritual of the talking heads to be the height of hyperbole and, frankly, an exercise in futility. There is a gross absurdity to placing instantaneous judgment on such an inexact science, like that of the NFL Draft. Sure, these players are scrutinized and scoured until every nook and cranny of their lives, and bodies, are explored, dissected and understood. Admittedly, there are “measurables” that provide useful comparisons between and among the athletes, e.g., a player’s performance on the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 3 cone drill tests. Although, sports writers, and rational observers alike, question whether these tests have any real relationship with future NFL performance. Empirical research conducted by Brian D. Lyons, Brian J. Hoffman, John W. Michel, and Kevin J. Williams (2011) found that these various tests provide limited insight into a prospect’s future success in the NFL.

In addition to these tests, of course, there are reams and reams of tape from the collegiate games in which a targeted player participated. This vast collection of data, it seems to me, is far more valuable in the evaluation process. In fact, the Lyons et al. (2011) study suggests that a prospect’s past performance in college is a far better indicator of future NFL performance as compared to the aforementioned physical ability tests.  But even collegiate performance is not a precise, error-free predictor of professional success.  One glaring issue relates to the level of competition that each prospect encounters, which can vary greatly throughout the college football landscape.  What’s more, many college programs utilize offensive and defensive schemes that do not translate well to pro-style strategies and philosophies.  The point here being that comparing and evaluating athletes through analysis of game film, or in-person, presents its own set of unique challenges.

The fundamental problem with all of these evaluative techniques, in my view, is that they do not possess the capacity to measure intangible assets – including an individual’s leadership abilities, competitive drive, work ethic, capacity to accept and understand coaching, likelihood of remaining healthy, ability to work and blend with teammates, and, in most cases, proclivity to adapt to sudden wealth and acclaim. I would argue that this litany of non-measurable characteristics play a more consistently vital role in a collegiate football player’s transitioning into a successful one at the professional level.

There are boundless examples of players faring far better than their draft position would indicate, and vice versa. Famously, Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round, the 199th pick overall, in the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots. To date, Brady has won 4 Super Bowls, 3 Super Bowl MVP awards, 2 league MVP awards, 10 Pro Bowl appearances, and 1 scandal (in which he is presently starring). He is also married to Gisele Bundchen.

Sitting squarely on the other end of the spectrum is Ryan Leaf. Leaf was drafted with the 2nd overall pick in 1998 by the San Diego Chargers after a spectacular collegiate career at Washington State University, culminating in his being a finalist for the Heisman Award following his junior year. Leaf’s professional career is best, if generously, characterized by poor play, bad behavior and injuries, which led several publications to finger him as the #1 “draft bust” in NFL history. Adding insult to injury, Leaf spent time in federal prison after pleading guilty to felony burglary and drug possession charges, and he is not married to Gisele Bundchen. While these are the two most famous, or infamous, examples, the list runs aplenty. Tellingly, 20 of the 44 players who actually saw playing time in the last Super Bowl were drafted in Rounds 4 – 7, the later rounds.

I would submit that there is general agreement that it typically takes 3 years on average to accurately determine whether a particular team had a prosperous draft three years prior. Consequently, it seems to me that attaching a grade to a draft class immediately following that year’s selections is a fool’s errand – premature at best, and irresponsible at worst. It would be tantamount to buying, or disparaging, a work of art after seeing only a few strokes on the canvas. A food critic surely would not grade a dish before the chef had added and blended all the necessary ingredients. A farmer would not judge the productivity of a cucumber plant while still a seed, before having been exposed to the benefits of water and sunlight. Mercifully returning to sports analogies, race car drivers engage in qualifying sessions whereby each driver attempts to set the fastest lap and improve his (or her) pole position – the position in which they will commence the race. Pole position, however, has proven to be a terrible indicator as to how each car will ultimately finish on race day.

The accusation might be levied, by the cynics among you (including most of my football-loving friends), that I am venting in this “pet peeve” column largely due to my Carolina Panthers being roundly panned for their 2015 draft class. Indeed, most pundits felt as though we “reached” in the first round (25th pick) by drafting Shaq Thompson, a versatile linebacker from the University of Washington, especially given our current strength and depth at the linebacker position. We did not address need, and did not select the best player available, they say. A double negative, or something like that. In the second round, we traded away our 3rd and 6th round picks to the St. Louis Rams to move up 16 spots to draft a behemoth wide receiver from Michigan, Devin Funchess. While receiver was a position of need, we gave up far too much in terms of additional picks for the enigmatic Funchess, they say.

I have no way of knowing whether Shaq (though the name alone should count for something) or Devin will be Pro Bowl caliber NFL players. What I do know is that they will not succeed, fail or fall somewhere in between as a result of what the experts had to say on draft day. The universal truth concerning sports, and the primary reason we love them, is that they are unpredictable, much like the weather. And draft prognosticators, like their weather counterparts, seem to be right about half the time. Despite this, oddly, we still follow the news every day to hear the weather forecast, and we tune to ESPN every April eagerly awaiting Kiper’s draft predictions. What did Einstein say – fool me once, shame on you….?

I fully understand that we live in the age of instant information and gratification. Patience might still be a virtue, but not one to which we strive, particularly as it relates to our sports teams. But a draft class can only be truly judged through the lens of experience, i.e., what happens between the lines every Sunday. Patience, then, is required; it is not optional. I suppose I subscribe to the John Locke theory of player evaluation. Essentially, each player enters the NFL – like humans enter this world – with their very own tabula rasa, a blank slate. Not knowing what will be written on that slate is what keeps things interesting, and the experts guessing…and prematurely grading.

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May 15, 2015 Posted by | Carolina Panthers, Devin Funchess, ESPN, Mel Kiper, NFL, NFL Draft, Ryan Leaf, Shaq Thompson, Tom Brady | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment