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Long ago, before Twitch started playing Pokémon, before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, before Richard Sherman reminded us why it is a good thing baseball pitchers can throw at players’ heads, the Indianapolis Colts traded their 2014 first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for their 2012 first-round (and third overall) pick, running back Trent Richardson. It is quite curious that months later, the two teams involved in the spiciest mid-season trade of the last few years should find themselves on opposite ends of the 2014 draft potential spectrum.

As blogged about previously, the Jimmy-Johnson-arbitrarily-created draft chart of the 1980s is precisely that: the chart of the 1980s. The chart of the modern, savvy NFL general manager at least resembles that of Kevin Meers’, President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. Meers’ utilized decades of data from Pro Football Reference‘s career approximate value statistic to estimate the expected value of each pick in the NFL draft. Meers’ chart is not perfect–it estimates the relative value of draft choices based on performance data of all the players chosen in every draft between 1980 and 2005. It is an excellent guideline to every pick’s worth. How do all 32 teams stack up? [SPOILER: The team that received the first-round draft pick is better off.]

Team Rank Meers’ Valuation Score
CLE 1 1343.3
STL 2 1279.7
JAC 3 1178.2
HOU 4 1072.7
SF 5 999.7
MIN 6 958.6
ATL 7 900.5
OAK 8 880.6
BUF 9 845.2
TB 10 829.8
DAL 11 794.4
CHI 12 786.2
NYG 13 770.7
NYJ 14 751.6
DET 15 751.4
MIA 16 745.5
PHI 17 722.1
GB 18 718.4
CIN 19 705.7
TEN 20 701.6
SD 21 695.6
ARI 22 691.1
CAR 23 672.2
PIT 24 657.9
DEN 25 653.1
NE 26 652.6
NO 27 641.3
SEA 28 620.4
KC 29 576.8
WAS 30 572.9
BAL 31 567.3
IND 32 383.3

Without the Trent Richardson trade, the Colts’ 2014 first-rounder–26th overall, valued by Meers at 218 units–would still be in their possession. And the Colts’ total estimated 2014 draft value would be 29th instead of dead last, and the Browns’ would be fourth overall, not first. Of course, the Colts received Richardson in the trade, and as a second-year player he went on to record a…-4.8 grade from Pro Football Focus through his 16 games with the Colts so far. Hmm.

As Brian Burke notes, overall draft value may not be worth much, if it comes from several low-round picks. To be sure, low-round picks are undervalued. However, a team may only have 11 players on the field at once; if all of them are average, while they may have been obtained at good value, they likely will not win a championship. Which teams have the highest average valuation across all their 2014 draft picks?

Team Rank Average Meers’ 2014 Draft Pick Valuation
HOU 1 153.24
STL 2 142.19
BAL 3 141.83
TB 4 138.30
CLE 5 134.33
ATL 6 128.64
NYG 7 128.45
OAK 8 125.80
DET 9 125.23
BUF 10 120.74
MIN 11 119.83
JAC 12 117.82
TEN 13 116.93
ARI 14 115.18
CHI 15 112.31
PIT 16 109.65
NYJ 17 107.37
NO 18 106.88
MIA 19 106.50
PHI 20 103.16
GB 21 102.63
CIN 22 100.81
SD 23 99.37
DAL 24 99.30
KC 25 96.13
CAR 26 96.03
WAS 27 95.48
DEN 28 93.30
NE 29 93.23
SF 30 90.88
SEA 31 88.63
IND 32 76.66

Indianapolis is still dead last; Houston, however, armed with the first overall pick, the most valuable by any analysis, is ready to strike. Oh, and most likely they were the unluckiest team last season, not the worst.

It is still too late to give the final judgement on the Trent Richardson trade. But unless he plays as one of the top five backs in the league starting in week one of next season, it is a dominating win for the Browns. Even if he does, it could still be a win for the Browns; the added benefit of a first-rounder is nothing to sneeze at. Yes, the Browns did spend the third overall pick on Richardson, which no mater what will seem somewhat wasted. But it is much better to cut your losses for as high a value as possible (the 26th overall pick two years later) than be left with scraps. Despite the chaos going on in Cleveland, they have at least one thing going for them: the most draft capital in the NFL. No matter what, Browns fans will likely not be consoled until mayor of Cleveland Frank Jackson bans Brandon Weeden from the city forever.

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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. 

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. 
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