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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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Note: This piece theorizes a good, broad drafting strategy for the 49ers (and teams in general). Tomorrow’s post will feature some hard data, featuring work by economist Richard Thaler as well as the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, in support of this theory.

The 49ers are currently in terrific shape for this spring’s NFL draft. How can that be, given that the 49ers, having lost the NFC championship game, will be one of the last four teams to pick in every round? Well…

The 49ers Have the Most Draft Picks

Per CSN Bay Area beat writer Matt Maiocco, the 49ers currently own 11 draft picks, giving them more than any other team. The league has yet to announce additional compensatory selections, which are awarded to teams with net free agent losses and cannot be traded. However the 49ers are expected to receive one, as they lost five free agents and added only four. Due to the significant playing time of the players who left, this pick may be at the end of the third round. As the exact number of compensatory selections are unknown, the overall order of picks is somewhat unknown beginning with the end of the third round. That gives the 49ers the following draft layout:

49ers 2014 Draft Picks
  1. First round, 30 overall
  2. Second round, 56 overall (via trade with Kansas City)
  3. Second round, 61 overall
  4. Third round, 77 overall (via trade with Tennessee)
  5. Third round, 94 overall
  6. Third OR fourth round, compensatory selection, TBA
  7. Fourth round, TBA
  8. Fifth round, TBA
  9. Sixth round, TBA
  10. Seventh round, TBA (via trade with New Orleans)
  11. Seventh round, TBA (via trade with Carolina)
  12. Seventh round, TBA

Every Pick Has Value

49er fans need not envy the Houston Texans organization, which picks first overall. Sure, drafting Jadeveon Clowney would be nice. But it is not important for success in the long term. With this many picks, general manager Trent Baalke and Co. can trade up to get a player more likely to make an immediate impact. Perhaps not of Clowney’s talent, but guys like defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, wide receiver Marqise Lee, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are within reach. Last year the 49ers moved up from 31st to 18th in the first round, giving the 74th overall pick (third round) to the Dallas Cowboys in order to take safety Eric Reid. Reid started throughout his rookie season, finishing as the 16th highest graded safety by Pro Football Focus, among 86 safeties who played 25% or more of their teams’ regular season snaps. Best of all, the 49ers still had two picks in the second round, and another in the third.

And players do not just come from the top rounds. Tom Brady is the most striking example of a late round success, but more mild finds also add value. The 49ers drafted fullback Bruce Miller 211th overall (seventh round) in 2011. PFF has graded Miller ninth or higher among all fullbacks each of his three seasons in the league, as he clears the way for Frank Gore week after week.

No Such Thing as a Sure Thing

Draft busts happen, to all teams and general managers. Some evaluation methods of prospects are certainly better than others, but no system is perfect. The Patriots epitomize long-term success, having made the playoffs ten of the last eleven seasons.1 Has every draft pick along the way been perfect? Certainly not. In 2006 the Patriots drafted running back Laurence Maroney 21st overall; he started 17 games in five years before dropping out of the league. 36th overall (second round) that same year they took wide receiver Chad Jackson; he started one game in three years before leaving the NFL. In 2009 they took defensive tackle Ron Brace 40th overall (second round); he started seven games over four years and is now out of the NFL. During this time the Patriots also drafted left tackle Nate Solder, tight end Rob Gronkowski, safety Devin McCourty, and others who have become stars in the league.

The draft process involves a lot of skill, but also some luck. Despite what one may tell you, no one knows for sure how a college player will turn out in the NFL. A team should do its best to predict a prospect’s future accurately. Then a team should maximize its chances of getting lucky. Earlier picks are better than later picks, but not at the risk of seeing millions wasted and future seasons ruined by one or two big busts. With twelve picks in the upcoming draft, including five to six in the first 100 overall, general manager Baalke and the 49ers are well-suited to maintain the team’s high level of performance far beyond the coming season.


  1. And going 11-5 in 2008 when they just missed the playoffs. Not bad. 

For a breakdown of how this works, check out last week’s 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team: Offense. In brief, contract quality measures how much a player’s performance outperforms (or under performs) other players at his position, relative to how much more (or less) he is paid compared to other players at his position. Data is for the 2013 NFL regular season, for players who played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps. Player grades are from Pro Football Focus; salaries from Spotrac.com. Enjoy!

The 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team: Defense

Position Name Team Contract Quality
4-3 DE Robert Quinn STL 4.94
4-3 DE Greg Hardy CAR 2.38
3-4 OLB Justin Houston KC 3.04
3-4 OLB Jerry Hughes BUF 1.74
DT/NT Jurrell Casey TEN 2.66
DT/NT Damon Harrison NYJ 2.65
3-4 DE J.J. Watt HOU 5.12
3-4 DE Cameron Jordan NO 1.61
4-3 OLB Lavonte David TB 2.8
4-3 OLB Von Miller DEN 1.43
ILB Brandon Spikes NE 2.2
ILB Sean Lee DAL 2.07
CB Tyrann Mathieu ARI 2.7
CB Richard Sherman SEA 2.35
S Will Hill NYG 2.94
S Devin McCourty NE 2.65

Position Averages

Position Average Grade Average Salary
4-3 DE 2.12 $3,951,495
3-4 OLB 4.56 $3,951,155
DT/NT 6.33 $2,659,400
3-4 DE 9.71 $2,942,473
4-3 OLB 1.61 $2,220,254
ILB -4.43 $3,157,462
CB 0.16 $2,683,442
S -1.37 $2,381,485

Player Breakdowns

Position Name Team Grade Rank (of) Average Salary Rank (of)
4-3 DE Robert Quinn STL 77.2 1 (52) $2,359,013 27 (52)
4-3 DE Greg Hardy CAR 27 3 (52) $693,946 42 (52)
3-4 OLB Justin Houston KC 31.8 1 (42) $696,562 38 (42)
3-4 OLB Jerry Hughes BUF 19.7 8 (42) $1,950,000 26 (42)
DT/NT Jurrell Casey TEN 36.1 4 (69) $683,109 52 (69)
DT/NT Damon Harrison NYJ 34.8 5 (69) $482,333 68 (69)
3-4 DE J.J. Watt HOU 111.6 1 (45) $2,809,375 17 (45)
3-4 DE Cameron Jordan NO 34.9 4 (45) $1,932,850 23 (45)
4-3 OLB Lavonte David TB 26.4 2 (35) $867,933 24 (35)
4-3 OLB Von Miller DEN 40.3 1 (35) $5,250,095 5 (35)
ILB Brandon Spikes NE 9.8 5 (55) $800,000 37 (55)
ILB Sean Lee DAL 8.7 7 (55) $872,500 35 (55)
CB Tyrann Mathieu ARI 15.5 3 (109) $717,230 77 (109)
CB Richard Sherman SEA 12.4 6 (109) $555,606 96 (109)
S Will Hill NYG 15.7 2 (85) $480,000 81 (85)
S Devin McCourty NE 18.7 1 (85) $2,000,000 32 (85)

Reading one of Andrew Sharp’s whimsical #HotSportsTakes yesterday on Grantland (which I still agreed with in parts), I discovered this tweet from Detroit Tiger’s ace/2011’s American League Cy Young winner/Kate Upton’s “on-again” boyfriend Justin Verlander1:

Just a quick aside: Verlander’s current profile-description-about-me thing on Twitter reads: “My house smells of rich mahagony and I have many leather bound books! -Anchorman”. Hold on, I have to go follow Justin Verlander on Twitter. Back. Wait, I have to tell Justin Verlander that he’s misspelling mahogany.

Okay, back. Hang on, that’s not even the quote, Ron Burgandy mentions the leather-bound books first… one sec.

Okay, all set. Remember this?

It’s David Ortiz, at home in the playoffs, hitting a game-tying grand slam off Tigers’ closer Joaquin Benoit with two outs in the eighth inning. What if after circling the bases, Ortiz had screamed this into the cameras:

I’M THE BEST HITTER IN THE GAME! WHEN YOU TRY ME WITH A SORRY PITCHER LIKE BENOIT, THAT’S THE RESULT YOU GON’ GET! DON’T YOU EVER TALK ABOUT ME! DON’T YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH ABOUT THE BEST!

Questions to consider: Would baseball be better or worse? How quickly would Ortiz be forced to apologize (if at all)? Would people like to see him suspended? Would people be concerned he was taking performance enhancing drugs that also affected his behavior? (And wouldn’t people find this outburst just f#!%ing bizarre?)

Setting aside those questions, one thing is clear: if Ortiz had said that, Verlander, and presumably other Tigers pitchers, would throw 95+ mile-per-hour fastballs at Ortiz’s head.2 Baseball has a built-in corrective mechanism for such antics. There is a league office to fine players, the risk of ejection, and rarely a beaning will start a full-scale brawl, but players learn to keep their showboating to a minimum, lest they spend the rest of their at bats fearfully ducking for cover.

This got me thinking about other sports. As a fan, my general perception is that the NFL and NBA have more rude, childish behavior than the NHL and MLB. Perhaps this has more to do with the physical consequences–both their magnitude and their ease of execution–players can inflict on one another.

Such physical dangers are relative to the baseline for the sport. Football is quite physical already. The little catfights NFL players get into, while perhaps drawing a 15 yard penalty, do not pose any additional pains. Basketball has a lot of contact, although less forceful. Shoving matches and the occasional punch are more or less on par with the physicality in the game itself.

Baseball and hockey are different. In MLB, physical contact is very rare, while pitchers can easily brush off opponent hitters. Hockey has a lot of hitting, though it’s often more fluid than in other sports. A hockey player is a scarred player, but longer-term tears and breaks are less common.

Like baseball, hockey has a built-in mechanism for players who show off, taunt, and are generally just dicks. Enforcers and fighting are ingrained in hockey, and the two-minute penalties that come with them are frequently off-setting. NHL fighting penalties are usually not worse than any other penalty, and the players who receive them are usually less skilled. The NHL and MLB have milder deterrents for hitting back.

Is there actually less needless, immature, look-at-me, plain obnoxious behavior in MLB and the NHL than in the NFL and NBA? It’s hard to say. An exhaustive study would take a lot of thought and work. Googling a few things and drawing sketchy conclusions, however, is not too hard.

The table below shows the number of Google hits for some particular search terms, as of earlier this afternoon, January 23rd, 2013. The search terms are on the left; for example, the NFL search terms were “nfl”, “nfl football”, “nfl playoffs”, “nfl taunting”, “nfl taunts”, “nfl trash talk”, and “nfl insults”.

Trash Talk by Sport, Google Hits, 1/23/2014

[league] + “…” NFL NBA NHL MLB
[league only] 118,000,000 186,000,000 52,300,000 105,000,000
[league + sport] 553,000,000 360,000,000 189,000,000 136,000,000
Playoffs 126,000,000 98,000,000 61,400,000 87,700,000
~([league + sport] – Playoffs)~ 427,000,000 262,000,000 127,600,000 48,300,000
Taunting 515,000 241,000 147,000 132,000
Taunts 533,000 295,000 162,000 189,000
Trash Talk 13,800,000 11,600,000 956,000 1,050,000
Insults 2,710,000 1,900,000 392,000 296,000

Neat-O! While “taunting” and “taunts” did not yield much difference, there are many times as many hits for “trash talk” and “insults” in the NFL and NBA than in the NHL and MLB. Might that be conflated by the fact that some leagues are more or less popular than others? That is why I have included baseline numbers for each league. How about the fact that MLB is in the off-season currently, while the NBA and NHL are in full swing, and the NFL’s popularity is likely peaking as Super Bowl XLVIII nears?

Those are valid concerns, also this is not a scientific study in any way. To maybe-sorta-kinda get an idea, here are the Google hits for each sport’s “trash talk”, as a percentage of the playoffs-adjusted number of Google hits for [league + sport].3

Trash Talk by Sport, Google Hits Percentage, 1/23/2014

[league] + “…” NFL NBA NHL MLB
Trash Talk 3.23% 4.43% 0.75% 2.17%

There you have it! Football and basketball have to put up with more of this nonsense than hockey and baseball because it is easier for hockey and baseball players to punch back, with more bite, and fewer punishments from their leagues’ offices. From an individual (or microeconomic) perspective, running your mouth is more costly in the NHL and MLB than in the NFL and NBA.

As much as I might respect Sherman as a football player, and loath his (un)professional conduct, I have got to hand it to the Stanford communications major. He is really good at what he does. In the span of just a few hours he gave us this:

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle SeahawksAnd this:

Screenshot (89)The adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is there, if you want it. But in this case, I choose another old favorite: hate the game, not the player.


  1. Tagline for this already-extensively-titled post: “the intersection of Andrew Sharp, Cy Young, Kate Upton, and Justin Verlander”. Catchy, right? 
  2. If not immediately, in the midst of a tight playoff game, then later in the series during a game that was in hand, or certainly in a game this coming season. 
  3. Ie, the number of hits for “nfl football” minus the number of hits for “nfl playoffs”. Why this number? It scales better than other figures to the number of hits for “trash talk” and “insults” across all four sports, and more importantly, WHY NOT

There were some technical difficulties today, presumably all around the world and definitely in my own laptop. Specifically, said difficulties concerned my ASUS “SmartGesture_Win8_64_VER225” touchpad driver, or whatever. This was not the first time. I was Not in the mood. Technology ultimately prevailed, but has left me exhausted and weak, physically and emotionally, much like yesterday’s NFC Championship game.

So this is not a post, but a repost, indeed a reposting. The following have been the most popular articles on Crossroads:

  1. Confessions of an Economic Sportsfan: I Just Spent 8 Hours, 1/4 of a Bottle of Whiskey, & 5,000 Words On the Greatest Sports Plays of All Time (Part 1 of 2)

    Around midnight of December 18th, I sat back with a fairly comprehensive Bleacher Report article (as they go), my laptop, a bottle of whiskey, a recliner chair, a big screen TV, and a YouTube to investigate what makes the “All Time Classic Plays” just so. Eight hours later, I had many thoughts, maybe even answers.

  2. Confessions of an Economic Sportsfan: I Just Spent 8 Hours, 1/4 of a Bottle of Whiskey, & 5,000 Words On the Greatest Sports Plays of All Time (Part 2 of 2)

    The results of this positively unscientific and whimsical process couldn’t be clearer: it’s a play’s impact on a game’s outcome, and how unusually the players pull it off, that are most likely to set a play apart.

  3. Confessions of an Economic Sportsfan: I Am Going There! NFC Wildcard EXCLUSIVE Preview-49ers at Packers-with Pictures! (Part 1 of 2)

    “Arctic blast”? What kind of s#$% is that? Most times there’s a winter storm, or even a blizzard. This time there’s going to be an “arctic blast”? Hell no. WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

  4. Early Betting Super Bowl XLVIII: Who Will Win “The Big One”?

    As they were months ago, Seattle and Denver seem to be the heavyweights, but then, so did the 2007 Patriots six years ago.

  5. Home Economics: The Sportsfan’s Cost-Benefit Analysis of Snowshoeing This Chicago Winter

    By assigning probabilities to different outcomes, the expected net benefits of both owning versus renting snowshoes this winter (between January 1st and March 15th) become apparent.

  6. Weighting the Coin: A Theoretical Case for Nomentum

    Forget sports (just for a second, don’t worry) and think about a coin flip. Say it’s a fair coin, and you flip heads two times in a row. Does the coin have momentum? Is the coin more likely to come up heads on the next flip? You’re smart, you know the answer is no.

  7. The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Winners & Losers of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw

    Who got off easy? Argentina, no question. In addition to being in their element in South America (theoretically), they drew a Bosnia-Herzegovina team playing in its first tournament as its own nation (being formerly part of Yugoslavia), ranked 21st, Nigeria, ranked 36th, and Iran, ranked 45th.

  8. Mike Tomlin, Player Fines, and What the NFL Really Cares About

    The average NFL salary is $2.016 million ($2,015,942), with a median of $0.753 million ($753,229). The average fine ($14,543) is 0.72% of the average salary, and 1.93% of the median salary. For half of all players, the average fine is a harsher punishment than Tomlin’s 1.74% loss.

  9. ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst) Contract in Football, LBs

    You should not be surprised to see that as quarterbacks are the most expensive players, the most expensive defenders are those whose job it is to get to the quarterback.

  10. NEWS FLASH: Many of the Best NFL Players Are Pro Bowl Snubs

    Flowers and Talib, 85th and 66th respectively among all cornerbacks, both make the cut with impressive negative grades. Anyone want to bet how many times announcers mention their Pro Bowl inclusion tomorrow in a context affirming their, uh, “quality” play this season?

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