Publishing Your First Draft: Why We Have A Problem Discussing The NFL Draft
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
By that standard, every NFL draft analyst is a damn genius.
Read enough post-draft content and the patterns become painfully obvious. Every team snags a player they graded as a Day One at some point later in the draft, a ‘steal’. The next year that same team have to defend taking a player at a spot higher than the conventional grade of the player. They’re geniuses and idiots at the same time. Doofuses and savants.
The concept that teams are ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ is so incredibly simplistic it’s disingenuine. In a general sense, yes, teams can make smart picks or stupid picks. But in reality, the NFL Draft is a little bit like asking a mathematician to call heads or tails on a single coin toss. Even with all of their intellect and study on the subject, they are just as likely to be incorrect as correct. With more tosses – i.e. context and data – the mathematician’s advantage slowly will show itself, even as they are making a call that will either be correct or incorrect. This is the level of NFL decision makers compared to those who cover them.
Which is why teams shouldn’t be considered smart for taking a player who slid. First, it should be considered why that player slid in the first place. As the draft has taught us, that generally means the player wasn’t going to bring the kind of return a higher draft slot would have warranted. It may sound redundant, but that’s why some players are simply put first round players.
As much as some people may question why JJ Watt wasn’t a top-5 pick in hindsight, he still went in the top-15 – putting him in the 6th percentile for his class. And as much as some people may question why Aaron Rodgers fell to the 24th pick, he still warranted a 1st round selection as one of the best players in his class. Joe Thomas was the 3rd pick in his draft class and Tyron Smith was the 9th – should Tyron Smith have gone higher? Sure, but not without knowing what we know now. And yet Smith still fell within the top 4% in his class, just as Thomas did, and both were proven so.
Once you get out of the 1st round, people get really crazy. We ignore that the draft is an incredibly, hyper efficient market for pursing out talent. Later picks go there for a reason. Without a significant amount of research, it’s safe to say that a player picked, say, 162nd, is not much better of a prospect than that. Like a good math result, some players are simply +/- only so much relative to their draft placement.
Players tend to go where they should go. The chances your team has picked the next Tom Brady is nil – otherwise, players with careers like Brady’s would be popping out of every draft.
Brady’s story, and others similar to him, is a story not because so many teams missed on him but because Brady essentially broke the process for evaluating talent. He was and is a terrible athlete. He did and does have a bad body. He did have a middling stat line at Michigan. Objectively, what did Brady do in college that his fellow classmates did not that would have indicated he was capable of what he has achieved? (in hindsight, scouts overlooked his propensity for outworking his competition, see: Henson, Drew, and for leading clutch comebacks).
The fact is that at the time with the information at hand, 32 NFL teams passed on Tom Brady through four rounds of the NFL Draft. That includes genius, all-time great coach, Bill Belichek. A recent example of this is Dak Prescott. Again, 32 teams including the team that picked him, allowed him to drop to the 4th round.
How does this happen?
The driving factor, as it always is and will be, is fit and utilization. The Detroit Lions received a fair bit of flack for drafting Tavai in the second round. Draft pundits had hot takes aplenty. Except, of course, draft pundits also don’t design practice schedule, run defensive installs, or lead study sessions. In other words, draft pundits make their hay passing off opinions on 260+ players relative to 32 NFL teams – not analyzing an entire draft class fits into one.
Bob Quinn, GM of the Lions, made a compelling case for why Detroit took Tavai. Let’s not take the cop out of simply saying ‘the Patriots wanted him, too’ to justify Tavai’s value (when the greatest coach alive, Bill Belichek, wants you, you must be good). In more detailed terms, Quinn and his scouts felt Tavai was one of the few prospects who had the physical traits (length and bulk), applied football traits distinguished on film (setting the edge playing outside linebacker, taking on lineman in the middle, and dropping into coverage), and character traits (team captain), that fit into what coach Matt Patricia wanted to do. Quinn wanted even so far as to say the combination of those traits are so rare, you may only see a player like that once a draft class. If you don’t get one now, you might not get one for another two years.
Maybe this is all lip service, but it stands to reason. Based on the sheer volume of traits that players are assessed on, how many of them can have all those particular things in one package? Teams and scouts are far more granular then a draft pundit could possibly be because it’s their job to do so day-in and day-out. Mel Kiper or Todd McShay can only evaluate so well (and, in reality, don’t even do that part of the job so much as talk to league sources to parse that information).
I’ll always remember what a friend of mine told me when I was frustrated with my coworkers at a not-for-profit, “Listen, most of those people work in not-for-profit because companies that pay for smart people don’t hire them.” He was right. And that applies to the NFL Draft, as well.
You may have loved or hated your teams’ draft. Either way you would be wrong. We simply do not know enough about the players and the rationale for their drafting to know anything. When 32 teams ‘miss’ on the Brady’s, Prescott’s, and Rodger’s of the world it’s because they all didn’t know something. And when NFL teams don’t have a clue with all their resources, what makes anyone else more qualified?
Rhys Dowbiggin is a co-founder and contributing writer to Not The Public Broadcaster