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The Value of Things: Tanking Part Two

How valuable are high first round picks?

Green Bay Packers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Last time we took a look at tanking in the other major sports along with the NFL. We determined that generally speaking tanking was not usually as successful in the NFL as it was in the other two major sports. Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules, but we need to work in generalities for now. We determined that there were three considerations as it pertains to the success of tanking. The first one is the use of draft capital. That’s the one we are looking at today. We will also look at institutional limitations to tanking in another piece down the road.

Methodology is very important when looking at something like the draft. Essentially, most fans are subject to two forms of bias as it pertains to evaluating something like the draft. The first form of bias is what I would call the “local bias.” Essentially, we get tunnel vision for our own team and think that trends only pertain to them. The best example I can think of off the top of my head is when I watch the Houston Astros struggle to manufacture runs. They can’t get in a runner from third and less than two outs. So, the idea becomes that the Astros are inefficient at producing runs. Yet, when you study the whole league you discover it’s a league wide issue.

The second form of bias is selectivity bias. We remember draft busts and forget about successful drafts. Usually, it is the guys that are solid players, but not spectacular that we forget. So, when we combine the two we end up thinking our team is terrible at drafting when that probably isn’t the case. We need to look at how the entire industry drafts to get a handle of where our team exists in that paradigm.

How valuable is the number one overall pick?

I had to pick a stat to use to grade out number one overall picks. I went to pro-football reference and looked at the stat labeled weighted average value (WAV). It accounts for different positions and production. So, a dominant quarterback will rank higher than a dominant offensive lineman. However, a dominant offensive lineman might rank higher than a decent quarterback.

So, we will start below by looking at the top player in each draft according to WAV since the Houston Texans came into the NFL. Below is a summary of what I found. Included in this initial summary is the average pick that produced the top player. We will also look at how often the number one overall player was also the most valuable player from that draft. Theoretically it should be most of the time.

Number One Overall WAV 2002-2021— Kyler Murray (2019), Jameis Winston (2015), Cam Newton (2011), Matt Stafford (2009)

Average Pick for top WAV player— 8.6

Teams with top WAV Player— Panthers (Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Julius Peppers) Ravens (Lamar Jackson, Maloti Ngoata, Terrell Suggs) Chargers (Justin Herbert, Philip Rivers) Lions (Matt Stafford, Ndamukong Suh)

So, immediately we notice three things. First, we notice that the number one pick produced the most valuable player only four times in 20 years. So, while we could rag on the Texans for “missing” with the first overall pick three times, we would have to note that most teams miss with the first overall pick. Second, only four teams had multiple players that registered as the most valuable player from their draft. Only one of those four teams has been a mainstay in the playoffs throughout those 20 years.

It should be noted that the Texans had one in Deandre Hopkins. Since only 14 teams had at least one, we can say the Texans have done better than most. The Packers (Aaron Rodgers) and the Ravens were the only two that have been in the playoffs a majority of the time. So, even getting the most valuable player in a draft is not a guarantee of ultimate success.

What about quarterbacks?

It’s a quarterback league. If you have a dominant quarterback then all of the rest doesn’t matter. Certainly there is some truth to that. Quarterbacks have been taken number one overall 15 times in the past 20 drafts. Ironically, of the five times they weren’t, the Texans represent two of those times. It certainly could be said that when you suck is more important than how competent you are. The Colts have only been awful in a few seasons, but they were awful at the right time.

To evaluate quarterbacks we will simply look at the first quarterback taken in each draft. How many Pro Bowls were they elected to and how often did they have the top WAV of all the quarterbacks in the class? We will also separate it out by quarterbacks taken number one overall just for fun.

First selected quarterbacks: 30 Pro Bowls, 8 of 20 top QB in their class

First Overall Quarterbacks: 23 Pro Bowls, 7 of 15 top QB in their class

The numbers are nearly identical. Not quite half of the quarterbacks taken number one overall were the best quarterback from their class. Obviously, if you isolate the five quarterbacks taken as the first quarterback, but after the number one overall pick you’d see the odds of him being the top quarterback go way down. Teams thinking about Kenny Picket and Malik Willis should consider that going in.

Essentially, the top quarterback in the class averages 1.5 Pro Bowls whether they are first overall or not. However, these numbers can be deceiving and the anecdotal evidence is even more underwhelming. Jared Goff, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, and Sam Bradford were number one overall selections and the top quarterback in their class. No one is carving a bust for them in Canton. So their position as a positive mark in this particular study is more an anomaly than proof of anything positive.

Breaking it all down

Is the draft important? Of course it is. Anyone worth their salt would tell you that win by building your team through the draft. However, the results here would seem to indicate that success in the first round is random and even for those teams that are successful more often than not aren’t ultimately successful unless they are also successful in the middle and late rounds.

In other words, the teams that are successful are the teams that take multiple players that become core contributors on their team. This seems simple enough and belies the advanced metrics and long-winded diatribes. Yet, for people that think losing gets you key draft capital, they have to ask themselves how much more valuable a fourth or fifth round pick is in the beginning of the round and in the middle of that same round.

A comprehensive study of team success in those middle rounds would take a lot of time. However, I think what it would show is that those teams in the playoffs consistently are also consistently hitting more often on those mid to rate round picks. Teams that are consistently out of the playoffs aren’t.

Of course, it also could be said that a rookie going to a good team with good coaching has a greater chance of succeeding that one that doesn’t. So, it is open to debate as to whether the initial scouting process is more important the process of developing a player after you draft them. That kind of analysis is difficult to parcel out. What we know is pretty clear. Having the pick of the top player in the draft is not necessarily a recipe of getting the best player from that draft.