Matt Waldman shares an essay on the impact of draft capital in the NFL from his 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio Post-Draft publication, now available for download.
Draft Picks in a Micro-Society
Author’s Note: This essay was written in March of 2018. Remember this as you read about the players mentioned below.
Every year after the draft, I’m asked when I would draft specific Day 3 or UDFA players I rated higher the consensus. Sometime during the season or the following offseason, fantasy owners ask me if I still think one of these players is talented and worth keeping because “they didn’t have a good year.”
And 2-3 years down the road, fantasy owners, and analysts will make presumptions about a player’s skill and talent. The player never earned significant playing time and based on a few reps, fans concluded the player wasn’t good enough.
On the surface, their assessments appear true—and often they are correct. However, we have seen our share of NFL prospects surprise the fantasy community and produce at a high level 2-4 years into their careers with a new coach, a new team, a new scheme, or the retirement of a player ahead of them on the depth chart. At first, fantasy owners will rationalize the performance: he’s a one-year wonder; argue that some data points (with no viable statistical correlation to all the variables involved with football) suggests it’s a fluke, or his teammates and scheme created an easier situation for him to thrive that won’t exist in the future.
These assessments also may appear true—and again, are often correct even if the process is flawed. However, we’ve also seen these surprise producers sustain or build on that production after they were written off. The truth is that these players were always capable talents.
Some had skills to learn or improve upon, but many already possessed the baseline ability to produce immediately. One of the greatest reasons why players don’t emerge earlier in the NFL has to do with the privilege-based micro-society that the NFL Draft creates in training camp.
You may buy all the rhetoric that former players and coaches spew about the equal opportunity of competition that occurs after the draft—and there are dozens of storied examples where the late-round or undrafted player fights his way to the top of the depth chart to become a star. However, practices are almost never an open competition with equal reps split among every player on the depth chart.
For reasons good, bad, and other, NFL practices are privilege-based systems that reinforce inherent bias about draft order. The higher the pick, the more opportunity he has to succeed—and fail, which is just as important.
As my friend Ryan Riddle wrote in The Hidden Advantage of Being a High NFL Draft Pick, NFL leadership generally gives more practice reps to early picks and far less to late picks and free agents. After all, teams have invested more money into early picks. However, there’s a flawed assumption that the early picks are significantly more talented.
I’ve seen fantasy owners and writers argue that a historical look at the draft reveals that early-round players have more success than late-round players. While true, it’s an analysis based on the result and it only reinforces belief in a faulty process. The NFL’s evaluation process is not based solely on the most talented players earning the highest grades. The draft has a significant portion of risk management built-in. The highest picks tend to have the greatest number of these factors on their resumes:
- Big-time college program.
- No significant injuries.
- No significant character issues.
- Prototypical physical dimensions (height, weight, arm length, hand size, etc.).
- Top percentile workout metrics.
While we can all cite exceptions to one or more of these points, many of these exceptions marked the league changing its mind on the specific allowances on an existing maxim. The point is that none of these resume points are about skill.
Workout metrics and physical dimensions influence skill. However, one of the most glossed-over aspects about talent evaluation is that once a player meets the baseline expectations of physical dimensions and athletic skill, that’s all that matters. A wide receiver isn’t better because he runs a 4.28-second 40-yard dash if a team has determined that the acceptable baseline time for a flanker of his height and weight is 4.6 seconds.
Any experienced player or coach will tell you that a technically- and conceptually-skilled player meeting the baseline athletic allowances is better than a player with great physical skills but difficult-to-correct technique and sub-par understanding of the position and the game. Despite this truth, the NFL Draft is weighted heavily in lowering its financial risk factors by paying more for players who they’ve deemed less likely to fail.
Health history and character have significant influence over a draft spot. Teams also place more weight on players who “look the part,” so if they’re wrong with their evaluations, their picks weren’t as questionable in the public arena (better to fail on a wide receiver with prototypical measurements from a big-time program than an undersized and slower small-school option).
None of this has to do with talent and skill. Unfortunately, the risk management process underlying the NFL Draft influences how coaches distribute practice reps, and the dynamic creates an unintended bias during this on-field evaluation phase.
Upper management expects early-round prospects to develop and contribute fast. This is a reasonable expectation if the differences in talent among rookies isn’t as narrow as is often the case and that draft pick status has significant factors beyond skill and talent. Practice management decisions are also a vital factor, and it includes the logical thought that the players slated to contribute need the most reps.
Combine these dynamics and it creates biases surrounding the draft spot. Higher picks get more reps and coaches and upper management gives these players more opportunities to learn. Making mistakes is a big part of learning and higher picks get to make them without the staff writing off their ability to become viable contributors.
Lower picks earn far fewer reps and when they make a mistake, the error stands are more due to the number of reps. This leads to a confirmation bias among upper management who believe the errors validate the pick status of the player when the lower rep count is a significant factor for the errors. This dynamic leads to high picks having more privileges to fail—and learn—than lower picks and still earn additional opportunities.
The privilege also generates a situation where lower picks have to perform significantly better—and with a much lower rate of error—just to earn enough reps to legitimately compete with the prospect holding the high-pick privilege. Even when this happens, the low pick still has to overcome the existing confirmation bias that the draft round sets in place.
The team is making a direct correlation between draft spot and round when it’s often not the truth. This is why we often read stories about late-round players emerging during the season after a starter falters despite that late-round guy have a strong camp but “losing” during a tight competition during the summer with the front-runner.
Fans should be aware of draft privilege because it will allow them to keep an open mind about players who may someday earn a chance to contribute. Fantasy owners, writers, football analysts, and talent evaluators should become familiar with draft privilege because there are cases where they shouldn’t overthink the reasons that a player hasn’t emerged. It’s dangerous to change a process when the result is wrong but the reasons remained right.
Although draft privilege is an important dynamic in the emergence of players, it doesn’t always play out in this straightforward manner. There are late-round and priority free agents who a coach, coordinator, or general manager hand-picked for the team. These are extreme examples of players with talent and skill on par with high-round talents but risk management issues (injury/character) that made them untouchable during the first two days of the draft.
Players hand-picked by management often land in situations where there are fewer short-term obstacles (1-2 years) and they’re poised to earn a shot at playing time. Because these are management-championed players, the biases are often lessened or removed completely from the equation.
The fact that Denver didn’t draft a quarterback despite everyone projecting them to do so is a sign that Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly are management-championed players. I’ve been told that GM John Elway still believes in Lynch turning a corner. While the influence of Jim Kelly helped sway Elway to pick Kelly, I was told a prominent member of the Broncos coaching staff championed Kelly the most.
After the draft, Elway told the media that Lynch and Kelly would compete for the backup role. Lynch failed to impress for two years, displayed slow processing in the red zone, and reportedly spent a lot of time at home playing video games instead of time at the facility. In contrast, Kelly has been putting in extra time, turning down opportunities to go out, and even had to be told last year to curb his expectations to compete for time.
Lynch is a good example of high-pick privilege. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelly outplays Lynch, and Lynch still gets the nod due to experience. At the same time, Kelly might not have to outplay Lynch by a great margin, because he has a significant champion in his corner.
The same could be true with a player like Justin Jackson in Los Angeles. A seventh-round pick, Jackson could be an example of a championed late-round pick that will get a real shot to unseat UDFA Austin Ekeler for the backup role to Melvin Gordon.
These dynamics are by no means straightforward, but it’s why talent and opportunity are separate factors. The more aware we are of their influence, the more nuanced an approach we can have about talent, talent evaluation, and personnel decisions.
This analysis s only the beginning of what you’ll find every year in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication and the Post-Draft addendum. For most in-depth analysis of skill players available, get the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. If you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2018 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each. You can pre-order the 2019 RSP beginning in December.