How to Value an NFL Draft Pick: Arbitrary Precedents vs Actual Data

In the 1980s, Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson sought to determine a baseline expected value for every pick in the NFL draft. This was a very good idea. Rather than just winging it each year when considering draft pick trades, expected values would provide the Cowboys front office a framework to build upon. Should Dallas trade the 20th and 80th overall picks for the 5th overall pick? How about the 50th pick for a first round pick next season? These questions require a sound process for good answers. Draft picks are precious commodities; aside from players, they are the currency teams use in deals with each other.

Coach Johnson’s system was not perfect. His extensive knowledge of football through years working in the NFL made the chart a good starting place.1 It contributed to the famous Herschel Walker trade (which has its own Wikipedia page), and helped set up the Cowboys three Super Bowls championships in the 1990s. But Coach Johnson’s preliminary valuation lacked a scientific process. Entire decades have gone by. There are oodles of data on players taken in the NFL draft, the length of their careers, salaries earned, touchdowns scored, tackles, expected points and win probability added, etc.

In the fall of 2011, Kevin Meers, of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, revalued NFL draft picks using the Career Approximate Value statistic compiled by Pro Football Reference. (Do read Mr. Meers’ actual article, which details the process.) This system is also presumably not 100 percent perfect, but it is a vast improvement, examining the career output of every single pick from 1980-2005.

How do the two systems compare? These are their respective charts:

Jimmy Johnson’s Draft Pick Value Chart, 1980s

Jimmy Johnson Draft Pick Value Chart

Kevin Meer’s Draft Pick Value Chart, 2011

Kevin Meers Draft Pick Value Chart

Notice first that Johnson’s system is more extreme, valuing the first overall pick at 3,000 and the 224th pick at three.2 Meers’ system values the first pick at 494.6 and the 224th at 39.8. Theoretically, the first pick is probably not worth 1,000 (!) last picks. Even if one of those picks is Tom Brady only one in one hundred times, 1,000 last picks would still yield ten Tom Bradys (Tom Bradies?) while just one first overall pick could yield a maximum of one Tom Brady. Of course, that sentence illustrates that theory is sometimes ridiculous! What would a team do with 1,000 late round draft picks, even over a period of several years? Only 53 people can make the team. Nonetheless, Johnson’s system appears to overvalue the first overall pick by at least a factor of ten, if not a hundred.

The key problem with Johnson’s chart is that it overvalues earlier picks and undervalues later picks. Earlier picks are still better! (Duh.) Meers’ chart, a product of data, still indicates that with each additional pick, the likely career output of the drafted player declines. And Meers’ chart still finds that the rate of decline is decreasing: the drop in expected value from the first to the second pick is many, many times larger than the drop from the 223rd pick to the 224th. The theory and logic behind each chart is the same. Meers’ simply uses actual data, which reflects a different, more accurate picture.

As I wrote yesterday, the San Francsico 49ers are in excellent shape for the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft. Meers’ chart is a big reason why. The 49ers will likely have SIX picks among the first 100 in the draft this spring. That the 49ers first pick comes 30th overall is not a reason to get down in the slightest. The antiquated valuation undervalues such picks: the 100th pick is worth only one-three-hundredth of the first pick in Johnson’s system. But, actual data indicates the 100th pick is more likely worth one-fifth of the first. The 49ers should have six picks with fairly high expected values. And with an already talented roster, they may trade to move up and get a player even more likely to succeed, without giving up all their picks in later rounds.

Remember, draft picks are free money in the NFL; teams get them every year just by being in the league. With the most picks in this draft, the 49ers are rich. Big spending is not just a thing for free agency.


  1. Similar to Dick Vermeil’s Two Point Conversion Chart, which I wrote about here. 
  2. The first overall pick is worth 3,000…what? Dollars? No, just units. The charts have been scaled to simple numerical values, as their purpose is for relatively ranking the picks within them. 
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