It's all about Value
By Chad Reuter
April 13, 2008 - "Value"
will undoubtedly be of the most often used words during media coverage the NFL
Draft April 26th and 27th at New York's Radio City Music Hall. But what does that word really mean or represent? Turns out the term has
multiple meanings, all of which are important in the draft evaluation process.
rate players as first round picks, second round picks, etc. But when NFL teams
talk about prospects with "first round value", they are not
necessarily referring to the first 32 players taken (31 this year, thanks to
the Patriots and "Spygate"). Teams consider 15-25 prospects, depending
on the class, as the elite players in the draft truly worth a first round
course, there are other "tiers" of value within that group; in a
typical draft, there are 5-7 players at the top, another group or 6-8 prospects
rated just below them, and another 10-15 prospects at the next level. A team's
breakdown of the top players of the 2008 draft may look something like this:
with "First Round Value":
"value tier" concept certainly makes sense considering the arbitrary
nature of the number of picks in each round. The number of teams in the league
has no correlation with the value of players in a particular draft class. If
there were half the number of NFL franchises, would that mean there were 16
top-notch players making up the first round instead of 32? Of course not…but
that's how the draft is evaluated by many outside of the league. All first
round picks are supposed to become Pro Bowl-caliber players, in the casual
fan's mind, because it they are the first selection for their team (barring
trades), the highest paid, and the most hyped.
But this is
certainly not the case…all first, second, third, etc. rounds are not created
equal. The table below displays the differences by breaking down the success of
draft picks by ten-pick groups, thereby eliminating the round consideration and
focusing on where exactly the players were selected. The three bars per group
show the average games played (blue), starts (red), and Pro Bowl appearances (green)
per season. Only the first five years of a player's career are analyzed to make
easier comparisons across selection groups.
average figures multiplied by ten for graph visibility. Actual figure for top
ten picks is 0.192 appearances per season, or one appearance every five years.
The number of Pro Bowl appearances for most late-round picks is so small that
they barely register on the graph, even with the adjustment.
there is limited information about the quality of players here and the Pro Bowl
is often referred to as a popularity contest, it is clear that draft rounds
have no real correlation to the value of players available to a team when they
mentioned earlier, there are definite reductions in value throughout the first
round. Top ten picks from the 1994-2003 drafts averaged 11.8 starts over their
first five seasons while late first round picks averaged 8.6 starts, a 25%
decrease. The elite players were also selected to three times as many Pro Bowls
as those selected from picks 21 to 30 (96 to 31). Similar reductions in those
figures occur from early to late second round (8.1 to 6.4 starts, 26 to 13 Pro
Bowls) and third round (6.1 to 4.2, 19 to 5).
with NFL personnel men, as well as my own previous research, points to breaks
in player value around picks 10, 20, 50, 80, 120, 160, along with a very slight
dip at 200. That means there are at least three tiers of value within the first
round, a break in the middle of the second, third, and fourth rounds, and again
in the late fifth and sixth rounds. Each draft is different in terms of where
these value tiers lie, but generally there are changes in player value within a
few picks on either side of those points. And the point in the round in which
prospects fall has little to do with their appropriate value.
beginning and ending picks in rounds three through seven depends on the number
of free agent compensation picks awarded by the league during the late March
owner's meetings; this is yet another example of arbitrariness of draft round
As would be
expected, the difference in value between early tiers and later tiers lessens
as the draft progresses. It is very difficult to get a starter once past pick
#120, or the mid-to-late part of the fourth round. Even third round selections are
not likely to become regular starters, as they average around five starts a year
in their first five seasons. That can be loosely translated to mean that about
one-third of these picks will become regular starters. The decline in playing
time for late third round picks in the round shows they have less of a chance to
succeed than early third round picks, where the percentage of potential regular
starters increases to about 40%.
the value of mid-to-late third round picks is closer to fourth round picks than
second round picks. So the league's decisions to hold only the first two rounds
on Saturday not only shortened the more hectic first day, but should also help
put more realistic expectations on players selected outside the top 70.
a team likes
evaluation of players, and therefore their value tiers, differ based on their
evaluation criteria. Teams' draft boards look much more different than one
would think. Even the three tiers of first round grade players listed above
differ, especially in the 14-24 category, because some teams "value"
certain types of players more than others do.
schemes have great influence over how draft prospects are ranked. Those using
3-4 defensive schemes value players considered "'tweeners" by teams
using 4-3 base alignments. That means smaller or leaner college defensive ends
with good all-around agility and larger defensive ends who eat up blockers are likely
to be more valued by teams relying primarily on the 3-4.
example, larger ends like Clemson's Phillip Merling and Miami's Calais Campbell
may receive a first round grade by 3-4 teams, but USC's Lawrence Jackson
garners more consideration in the late first round by 4-3 teams because he has
decent size (6'4", 270) but is more explosive. Merling and Jackson also
not considered 3-4 OLB prospects because they are not as fluid in space as top
10 prospects Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey, and Chris Long…who could all
transition from college end to pro linebacker.
have an underrated part in determining a team's draft board. Those looking for
quarterback help may place Matt Ryan in the top 10, as is done above. And they
may place QBs Brian Brohm and/or Joe Flacco in the third tier, as well. But
some teams not in desperate need of a signal-caller ranked all three as
personnel men like to think they take the best player available by picking the
highest-ranked player off their board when their turn comes around. But the
fact is that throughout the evaluation process, scouts and administrators are
aware of a team's weaknesses and take them into account when putting the board
together…whether consciously or subconsciously. It's hard to imagine a team
would not study players at need positions more closely than prospects where
they have veteran depth.
difference in player evaluation among teams negates the idea of a consensus
"best player available". Very rarely is there one player truly better
than all of the rest still on the board at a particular pick, although it can
happen around the value tier breaks outlined above. But throughout the first
round, three or four players could be picked at every selection with equivalent
chances of becoming great players. In the later rounds, there are dozens of
players of equal value waiting to be selected at every slot.
So I guess
if can be said that the attributes a team values has a lot to do with the value
assigned to each player.
place, right time
analysts for ESPN, NFL Network, and all other media outlets use "value"
to compare consensus player grades against the point at which the player is
selected. Talking heads may say a pick was of "great value" because
they had the player rated as a first round pick, but the team found him waiting
to be picked in the second round.
other hand, a player picked in or within a round earlier than expected may be
considered poor value, or a "reach". Sometimes teams do go down their
board to find a player who fits an immediate roster need, but most times their
high evaluation of a player is due to factors or criteria not recognized by the
general public. A player considered a "steal" may have off-field
issues or received less-than-glowing reviews from his college coaches to which
people outside of teams are not privy. And other times, the consensus player
value is simply wrong.
how value tiers work also helps understand whether a player is truly a reach or
of good value. A player picked in the beginning of the second round may be
considered a "steal", while some picked at the end of the first round
are reaches. But as the data above shows, the likelihood for success of both
players is about the same. Both players were probably selected where they
should have been, but the first rounder happened to meet a need for teams at
the end of the round, where the second rounder did not. The same applies for
late second and early third round players, and late third to fourth rounders.
non-sensical to call a fifth, sixth, or seventh round player a reach, but still
possible to consider them fair value, because the historical likelihood of
success for players in that part of the draft is minimal. Certainly there are
exceptions to the rule, but the late-round finds like Pats QB Tom Brady are few
and far between.
recent draft pick production, there is a slight bump up for picks 191-200. That
is referred to as the "Brady Effect" because he was selected 199th
in the 2000 draft. In fact, without this bump there may not be a significant
break in value after pick #160, combining the two final tiers mentioned above.
This is a
bit of an oversimplification because other players in the 191-200 range have
also performed well, but the effect of a few players causing any visible
increase shows the relative lack of success of late round prospects. Assuming
your team can trade down and pick up a player like Brady or Terrell Davis, or
even a more typical starting player, just isn't realistic.
your money's worth
there's another definition of value that most NFL fans closely identify with:
getting the most bang for the buck. Discussions about changing rookie contract
structures to mirror the NBA's slotting system have been more frequent in
recent years because of the extremely high contract amounts awarded to the top selections.
below compares the average annual dollar amount of 2007 rookie contracts to a
typical team's draft pick trade value chart (blue bars). That chart assigns a
numeric value to each pick in the draft, so that when teams call to inquire about
switching selections they are prepared to quickly analyze the benefits and
costs of such a move. The top pick, for example, may have a value of 3,000
points while seventh round selections may be "worth" less than 30
trade chart published by Gil Brandt on NFL.com multiple times over the past few
years, it's clear that first round picks are simply not as good of a bargain as
most second round picks. The value per dollar figures are greater for picks
31-40 and 41-50 than either of the top two selection groups, and the value per
dollar for picks 51-60 equals that for selections 11-20. (Note: using average
rookie contract values can be problematic due to incentives and other complex
contract language for early picks, but it was the best number available for
teams' evaluation of the value of top twenty selections in the trade chart is
optimistic at best. There is a 56% decrease in value on the trade chart between
the first overall selection (3,000 on the NFL.com chart) and the 10th
overall pick (1,300). So the likelihood of the number one pick being the best
player in the draft is almost twice as large as the 10th pick?
That's unlikely. In fact, the games played, starts and Pro Bowl figures for
the 9th and 13th overall picks (9th-14.5,
13.4, 0.20; 13th-14.8, 11.8, 0.20) are not significantly different
from the number one pick (13, 12.2, 0.26). A similar drop occurs between the 10th
pick and the 30th overall pick (620), which also overstates the
difference in value between those players.
these values a bit closer to reality results in the revised value per dollar
figures (red bars) in the graph above. A revised trade value chart was
constructed, where instead of nearly a 5-to-1 ratio between the value of the
first and last picks in the first round, slightly more than a 2-to-1 difference
is used. This results in a much higher relative value per dollar figures for
second round picks…and even third round selections are consider better bargains
than first rounders in this data.
are over-valued by teams on their trade chart, however, partially because they
need to drive up the price of top picks so the team does not appear to be
giving away the farm when taking themselves out of the race for the top players.
Even though teams know there is little real difference between the first and
fifth picks, they would be lambasted if they only took a fifth or sixth round
pick to move down those four spots. And, indeed, the team trying to move up is
often desperate enough to pay the higher price, so the team in the higher
position should demand more.
precipitous drops also occur in contract amounts for the top one or two players
and later mid-to-late first round picks. QB Jamarcus Russell averages about
$4.9M over the six years of his deal, while #11 selection ILB Patrick Willis
received about $2.5M per year. Even considering the premium placed on
quarterbacks that disparity seems a bit wide, especially considering the
production of both of those players so far in their young careers.
makes second round picks the best value of the draft, which is not surprising
considering the contract premium placed on being a first round selection. The
average annual contract value for the last pick in last year's first round, WR
Anthony Gonzalez, was just under $500K more than that of the first pick of the
second round, DT Alan Branch. That's almost $2.5M over five years. The
difference between Gonzalez's contract and the penultimate first round pick
(Chicago TE Greg Olsen) was only $30K, or $150K over five years. There's not a
whole lot of sense behind those dollar figures.
A study by
professors Richard Thaler and Cade Massey, called "The Loser's
Curse", analyzes how losing teams in the top ten are actually penalized by
receiving the top picks because of the large difference between those players'
values and the amount of the rookie contract. Most young players simply do not
produce enough in their first few seasons to justify the size of the contract,
which also hurts the team's ability to improve their team by signing veteran
free agents. Teams having top picks may also have a difficult time signing
veteran backups at those positions because they know the team invested a lot in
the young players.
amazing how one word can have so many meanings on draft weekend. Whether it's
grading a team's pick, analyzing how a team evaluates a player, understanding
the historical trends of the draft, or identifying players that will be
bargains due to lower contracts, the term "value" will be repeated
throughout network coverage of the draft…and for some time later in media
outlets and on the Internet.
no one will really know the player's worth for at least three years. But in
today's analysis-crazy media world, that sort of patience is not a virtue.