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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. 

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?

Last Week: 1-3. Playoffs: 3-4-1. Regular Season: 53-49-3. My Entire Life: 56-53-4.

Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

Patriots (+5) over BRONCOS

I cannot believe I just did that. That is a dumb pick. It is ridiculous. But then, so is the Pats’ season. This quote from Grantland’s Robert Mays describes the Patriots chances as thus: “I think they can win, but it’s hard for me to imagine how they might win.” Yeah. Agreed.

Actually, no. Be rational, Colin! Peyton Manning in of his best passing attacks ever, against a wounded Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, the guy who assaulted a police officer the night before the NFL draft?

Patriots (+5) over BRONCOS
BRONCOS (-5) over Patriots

Hmm. That looks better, right?

49ers (+3.5) over SEAHAWKS

Seattle 71 – San Francisco 16. That is the cumulative score of the last two games these teams played in Seattle. As written about before, the “extra” home field advantage of Century Link Field is something of a myth, but home field advantage is certainly a thing. Additionally, my mother informs me that Alaska Airlines is offering early boarding to all passengers sporting Seahawks garb at the gate. Hm. In the end, I just believe in the 49ers. Yes, this could just be Blowout 3.0, but… if the 49ers stay focused and avoid mistakes, they will be in good shape. GO, TEAM, GO!

Most football analysis requires expertise. But some plays, even amid unknown audibles, blocking schemes, options, etc, are simple enough for the common fan (such as myself, or yourself) to understand. Sometimes it is clear that no matter what else was going on, player X beat player Y for a big play. Let’s look at two very similar, very big plays from the 49ers 23-10 victory over the Panthers in the NFC Divisional Round game from last Sunday.

Up 7-6 with 6:35 left to go in the second quarter on a first and goal from the 49er seven, Cam Newton rushes around left end before NaVorro Bowman tackles him at the one for a six yard gain.

Here is the scene at the snap. Bowman is the right inside linebacker on this play, next to Patrick Willis, their other inside linebacker, who is standing on the hash marks five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is lined up in front of Willis, directly over center with his left hand in the grass at the line of scrimmage.

Screenshot (2)Three seconds later the Panthers have four blockers to handle the three 49ers on the left edge at the line of scrimmage, between the six and seven yard lines. Newton’s chances of reaching the end zone look good. Panthers guards Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott–numbers 70 and 75–are closing in on Bowman, number 53. Center Ryan Kalil has moved Dorsey–number 90–back a couple yards, but Dorsey is still upright and in pursuit.Screenshot (6)Wharton engages Bowman on the five yard line, just in front of the rushing Newton. Dorsey–number 90–has shed Kalil–number 67–but he likely will be unable to move his 297 pounds into Newton’s path in time; Scott–number 75–sees him coming into the play.Screenshot (9)Now Wharton is blocking air, and Newton–number one–is going down, grabbed by the mostly hidden Bowman. Scott has broken away from Bowman and moves to block Dorsey, number 90. This has all happened in one second, from 6:32 on the game clock to 6:31.Screenshot (11)And what just happened, exactly? Let’s take another look, Joe! This is another view from the instant replay provided by FOX.  Newton breaks around the edge as Wharton–number 70–moves to block Bowman.

Screenshot (49)Wharton engages Bowman. Scott–number 75–sees Dorsey coming in. The Panthers look all set to escort Newton into the end zone.Screenshot (51)Bowman starts to shed Wharton and clear his path to Newton, number one. Scott–number 75– breaks towards Dorsey, number 90.Screenshot (53)Bowman, having freed himself of Wharton, and with his teammate Dorsey occupying Scott’s attention, meets Newton head-on at the five yard line. Just from these screen shots, it seems that if Newton had cut left around Wharton, he would have scored. Watching in real-time reveals that Bowman purposefully sheds Wharton in this direction to meet Newton after Newton had already cut inside.1

Screenshot (55)And there is our hero, emerging triumphant from the pile at the one yard line. Dorsey himself ended up getting in there too; he is the horizontal 49er next to Bowman.Screenshot (58)At the time Bowman’s outstanding effort (along with the teamwork of Dorsey, not to mention the other nine 49ers out there) seemed trivial. The Panthers would still have second and goal from the one yard line. The 49ers defense, as indicated by plays such as this, and their previous goal line stand, is certainly good, but generally even bad offenses against good defenses are going to score a touchdown given second and goal from the one. Brian Burke, of Advanced NFL Stats, noted on Twitter that in the past two seasons, the 49ers had given up touchdowns on 10 of 15 plays from their own one yard line. But they did not this time. The held the Panthers through third down, and Ron Rivera quite unwisely2 opted for a field goal. Bowman’s tackle, aided by Dorsey’s continual pursuit, saved four points.

Up 13-10 with 8:59 left in the third quarter on a second and goal from the Panther four, Colin Kaepernick rushes around left end and scores a touchdown.

This is the snap. Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence is following 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton–number 11– to the offense’s left side. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is lined up on the goal line just to the referee’s right; safety Mike Mitchell is at the near hash marks, on the goal line to the right of Kuechly. 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree is wide left, with Anquan Boldin in the left slot.

Screenshot (19)Kaepernick breaks left, following Patton. But left tackle Joe Staley is down on the goal line after having missed his block on Luke Kuechly, now at the two yard line on the far hash marks and breaking into the play. The corner Florence, originally chasing Patton, is now a yard deep in the end zone, also unblocked, and seemingly in good position to stop Kaepernick. The safety Mitchell is moving in from the two yard line on the near hash marks. Patton is now Kaepernick’s only blocker for the three Panthers.Screenshot (21)Patton engages Mitchell, but Kuechly is covering the lane to Kaepernick’s right, and Florence the lane to the left.Screenshot (22)Kaepernick (or “Fleetfeet”, as is about to become appropriately apparent) breaks left. Mitchell–number 21–has released off of Patton and is closing in. Kuechly–number 59– has come around them both and is also closing in. Florence is also closing in–wait, no, he is heading up field and taking himself completely out of the play, unless merely brushing Kaepernick with his outstretched hand will suffice. Boldin and Crabtree, in the lower left, finish their blocks on the outside.Screenshot (25)Kaepernick dashes past Florence and Mitchell, and Kuechly reaches out with his right hand…Screenshot (26) …and gets nothing. Kaepernick strides into the end zone.Screenshot (27)Touchdown 49ers! Screenshot (28)None of the three Panthers–not Florence, not Mitchell, not Kuechly–even register a missed tackle, because they do not even get close enough to attempt one. But all three of them miss Kaepernick, Florence by far the hardest of all. His poor angle, combined with Kaepernick’s speed, were enough for a touchdown, despite the fact that the 49ers blockers were outnumbered.

The Panthers are a very good football team. These two plays show how the 49ers beat them.3 Being a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, and making better snap judgements (whom to block, what angle to take) a little more quickly is often all the difference in the NFL.


  1. Unfortunately video of the play, outside of NFL Game Rewind, seems to be unavailable. 
  2. Personally, I have never been so delighted to see my team’s opponents kick a field goal in my entire life. I am not even going to break out Brian Burke’s fourth down calculator and check to see what the baseline percentages for going for it are. Remember that earlier 49ers goal line stand? Remember how when the 49ers offense took over the ball on their own half yard line, they were so concerned about a safety/blocked punt/etc that they ran a quarterback sneak on first and ten? Remember on when Colin Kaepernick almost threw an interception inside his ten yard line? Remember when Andy Lee punted after the three and out and Ted Ginn Jr. returned the ball to the 49er thirty-one yard line, and the Panthers scored a touchdown on the next play? Remember how seven points is more than twice as many as three? Even if the Panthers had not converted yet again, they would still have been in great shape. 
  3. There were some questionable calls by the referees. They seemingly missed catching the 49ers with 12 men in the huddle; however, apparently they did notice this, but as they had not marked the ball as “ready to play” this did not warrant a penalty. More outrageously, they did not call Anquan Boldin for a headbutt, despite calling Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn4 for one earlier. And there was also a questionable unnecessary roughness call on the 49ers’ first drive. But then, there was also one on a terrific Dan Skuta sack of Cam Newton. And they let four extra seconds run off the clock on Vernon Davis’ end-zone-catch-eventually-ruled-touchdown, which would have robbed the 49ers of a final chance at a touchdown if the call had gone the other way, so… maybe this is not the big conspiracy theory Panthers fans have been calling it? 
  4. Inception footnotes! Captain Munnerlyn is his given name. He is not one of the Panthers’ captains. 
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