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Bad News Bills

Sports commentatary is often bad, but when the topic dips into areas where people have trouble thinking straight in general it can get terrible. Anyone who gave a good or even average grade to the Bills trading up to get Sammy Watkins is, to my thinking, wrong. Part of it is discounting the future and the abstract, probably, but I’m not going to give the topic of what they’re thinking too much thought. That way lies madness. The best sports journalist grade I’ve seen is some version of “well he’s a great prospect and even though they gave up too much I think a C- gets the point across”. Worst is “A+, BOLD MOVE”. Where were they when I drunkenly hit on 17 playing blackjack in Vegas? Of course, many people who don’t give draft grades on network websites think the Bills bombed this one. That’s the idea I’m going to flesh out here.

Giving up Pick 9, Pick 109, and next year’s estimated Pick 16 (depending on how well the Bills do this year) is trading away an estimated 104 Weighted Career Approximate Value/CAV. Here are the wideouts with careers in or above that neighborhood drafted 1980-2006:

Jerry Rice HOF159
Marvin Harrison124
Randy Moss123
Terrell Owens119
Reggie Wayne112
Michael Irvin HOF106
Tim Brown104
Isaac Bruce102
Torry Holt100
Andre Reed HOF98
Henry Ellard96
Jimmy Smith95
Art Monk HOF93

It’s a short list. Another way to put it: The Bills are betting that Watkins, like Tim Brown, performs better than have 95% of wide receivers drafted in the first round from 1980-2006.

There are some caveats and clarifications. It’s generally slightly better to have one great player than two good ones (you can only play eleven at a time, after all), and just adding CAV numbers together ignores that. There is the merchandise/ticket sales/marketing of having an elite player on a team that doesn’t have many. And that’s about the end of the good news caveats. Somebody could claim that Watkins is the missing piece that will let them make a Super Bowl run this season, but for that a lot is going to have to go right for the Bills. Finally, I suppose it could be a decision that makes more sense in the short term to people who want to make sure they’re around for more than just the short term, though of course that’s not a great thing if you’re a fan.

The bad news is that they’re not just betting that Watkins is “as good as” Tim Brown was. They’re betting he is as good as Tim Brown AND has the same durability and productivity. More bad news: this draft had a lot of good wideouts. Twelve were taken in the first 64 picks / two rounds, which is the most taken going back to at least 1980. If you like the Bills’ move, you should also like a hypothetical trade for Watkins where you give up Odell Beckham Jr. AND next year’s round 1 pick AND this year’s round 4 pick.

The real bad news, though: even if Watkins IS Tim Brown take two, the Bills only broke even, here. It’s an awful pick.

NFL Draft Analysis (Part 1)

The NFL draft starts this Thursday and ends sometime in 2015 I think, so I finally cranked out some graphics that I have been wanting to look at for awhile. This work depends on the player valuation that Doug Drinen came up with: Career Approximate Value/CAV. I should also mention that Kevin Meers did a pick valuation chart I found really illuminating here.

Data are from the 1980-2006 drafts. Average CAV starts falling off after 2006 because players haven’t been in the league long enough to assess their career (though you could fudge in a couple/few more recent years by scaling up the CAV of players who are still in the league if you had to). For most of these I dumped everything after pick# 250, so we’re looking at 7 rounds + a little into round 8 pre-1993. Data are from Pro football reference.

Finally, for some reason the vast majority of CBs and FS/SSs were all called “DBs” in the dataset. I’ll do a lookup and post an updated version of this for part 2.

Let’s start with what kind of Career Approximate Value you see by draft pick:
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That QB at pick 199 is, of course, Tom Brady. The distribution is very bottom-heavy no matter where you slice it, but the first pick average CAV is ~67, your average pick CAV~=16, and your median pick CAV~=6.

Breaking that down by position:
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Drinen wisely didn’t let any K or P or FB have a stratospheric CAV.  TE probably looks different in recent years/will look different going forward.  First thing that jumps out at me is that historically your best bet, late in the draft, are Guards and Centers, and as they’re similar positions the higher valley might not be a fluke.

So when have teams tended to pick which position?
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This isn’t a great graphic, and a lot of it is “no duh” stuff.  Most of the action is in the first line segment (difference between picks 1-25 and 26-50), and this would be my summary:
-Positions that were disproportionately selected in early/mid round 1: QB, T, RB, DE
-Positions that were disproportionately NOT selected in early/mid round 1: LB, DB, G, C, TE
-Positions that were rarely selected early and slightly less rarely selected later in the draft: P, K, FB
-Positions that were selected steadily through draft: WR, DT
-I’m not sure if that plunge in late-round-7 flyers on LBs and DBs is due to a pre/post-1993 difference or what.

Let’s take a look at picks that boom (overachieve) or bust (underachieve). Here is a plot with the players at CAV “deciles” (e.g., 20% = better CAV than 20% of players at that pick and worse CAV than the other 80% at that pick), with lines fitted to each decile.
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One could make a case for different definition of a bust pick or boom pick, but I went with:
Boom: Above the “70%” curve AND CAV AT LEAST 15 (Late in the draft less than 30% of picks are CAV>=15)
Bust: Below the “30%” curve OR CAV <=1. (Late in the draft more than 30% of picks are CAV <=1)
Middling: Everything else

Note that this means an average player picked in round 7 is a boom pick, while an average player picked in round 1 is a bust. The overall picture is the following:
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Finally, let’s look at the proportion of boom/busts by draft pick window and position:
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-QBs were the most prone to boom/bust (have the thinnest green ribbon), unsurprisingly.
-Early picks on TEs and RBs have been prone to bust.
-OLs drafted early (relatively) rarely bust.

Here’s a quick look at the quality of draft classes:
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I knew 1983 was considered a great class. I did not know the year before was so bad! 2014-05-11 edit: it occurs to me that this class was disrupted by the strike, but for another take see the 538 piece pingpack in the comments below

For evaluating team draft performance it makes sense to consider how good their picks were relative to how good an average pick at those positions are to control for their draft position, whether they had traded picks away, etc.:
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This is mostly a descriptive post but: there was no statistically significant effect of team on draft performance. (If I had asked ONLY “did Pittsburgh draft reliably better than other teams 1980-2006?”, the answer would be p~=0.01 “yes”, but with alpha inflation you can’t say this wasn’t a fluke because we’re looking at 32 teams). That said, if you are a Bengals fan you are probably not surprised that they are anchoring the scale, here.

The draft looks more like a crap shoot when you break it down by year:
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Finally, let’s use that actual-expected CAV measure to see the biggest booms and busts drafted 1980-2006. LIST MODE (at least I’m just putting them in a table and not in a slideshow):
Biggest Booms

RankNameTeamYearPickAct-Exp CAV
1Tom BradyNWE2000199130.81
2Ray LewisBAL199626121.18
3Brett FavreATL199133120.22
4Jerry Rice HOFSFO198516116.53
5Dan Marino HOFMIA198327107.63
6Zach ThomasMIA1996154105.66
7Derrick Brooks HOFTAM199528103.07
8Terrell OwensSFO199689102.11
9Tom NalenDEN199421896.57
10Jason TaylorMIA19977395.08
11Rod Woodson HOFPIT19871094.57
12Will ShieldsKAN19937492.35
13Ronde BarberTAM19976691.06
14Mike Singletary HOFCHI19813890.28
15Michael Strahan HOFNYG19934089.08
16Richard Dent HOFCHI198320388.96
17Karl MecklenburgDEN198331088.5
18Trent GreenSDG199322287.74
19Peyton ManningIND1998187.67
20Emmitt Smith HOFDAL19901787.01
21Aeneas Williams HOFCRD19915986.88
22Bruce Matthews HOFHOU1983986.06
23Rickey Jackson HOFNOR19815185.18
24Hardy NickersonPIT198712284.09
25Rich GannonNWE19879883.83
26Drew BreesSDG20013283.8
27Mark BrunellGNB199311883.61
28Greg LloydPIT198715083.46
29Marvin HarrisonIND19961982.96
30Randy MossMIN19982182.9
31Clyde SimmonsPHI198623381.16
32Kevin GreeneRAM198511380.99
33Keenan McCardellWAS199132680.84
34Andre Reed HOFBUF19858680.44
35Curtis Martin HOFNWE19957480.35
36La'Roi GloverRAI199616680.31
37Thurman Thomas HOFBUF19884080.08
38Bruce Smith HOFBUF1985179.67
39Lawrence Taylor HOFNYG1981278.43
40Seth JoynerPHI198620878.15
41Steve McMichaelNWE19807378.08
42Randall McDaniel HOFMIN19881977.96
43Earnest BynerCLE198428077.73
44Jared AllenKAN200412677.57
45Matt HasselbeckGNB199818777.38
46Brian DawkinsPHI19966176.52
47Anthony Munoz HOFCIN1980375.96
48Reggie WayneIND20013075.94
49Matt BirkMIN199817375.74
50Kevin MawaeSEA19943675.47
51LaDainian TomlinsonSDG2001575
52Marshall Faulk HOFIND1994274.43
53Pat SwillingNOR19866074.2
54Adam TimmermanGNB199523074.05
55Jesse SapoluSFO198328973.98
56Randall CunninghamPHI19853773.88
57Boomer EsiasonCIN19843873.28
58Alan FanecaPIT19982673.18
59Junior SeauSDG1990573
60Ray BrownCRD198620172.88
61Lance BriggsCHI20036872.65
62Warren Sapp HOFTAM19951272.57
63Shannon Sharpe HOFDEN199019272.57
64Jessie ArmsteadNYG199320772.11
65Ricky WattersSFO19914572.01
66Derrick MasonTEN19979871.83
67Mark ClaytonMIA198322371.78
68Brian UrlacherCHI2000971.06
69Hines WardPIT19989270.73
70John Elway HOFBAL1983170.67

(It’s admittedly a little weird to have 1st overall picks be considered “biggest booms”)

Biggest Busts

RankNameTeamYearPickExp-Act CAV
1Ryan LeafSDG19982-57.57
2Akili SmithCIN19993-56.04
3Ki-Jana CarterCIN19951-55.33
4Charles RogersDET20032-54.57
5Steve EmtmanIND19921-54.33
6Bruce PickensATL19913-53.04
7Art SchlichterBAL19824-51.52
8Heath ShulerWAS19943-51.04
9Mike JunkinCLE19875-51
10Rich CampbellGNB19816-50.48
11Kelly StoufferCRD19876-50.48
12Trev AlbertsIND19945-50
13Reggie RogersDET19877-49.96
14Brian JozwiakKAN19867-47.96
15Andre WareDET19907-45.96
16Bo JacksonTAM19861-45.33
17Alonzo HighsmithHOU19873-45.04
18Andre WadsworthCRD19983-45.04
19Kevin AllenPHI19859-44.94
20Jamal ReynoldsGNB200110-44.43
21Curtis EnisCHI19985-44
22Mossy CadeSDG19846-43.48
23Troy WilliamsonMIN20057-42.96
24Brent FullwoodGNB19874-42.52
25David KlinglerCIN19926-42.48
26Johnathan SullivanNOR20036-42.48
27Aundray BruceATL19881-42.33
28Clyde DuncanCRD198417-41.99
29Huey RichardsonPIT199115-41.96
30Shawn KnightNOR198711-41.93
31Lawrence PhillipsRAM19966-41.48
32Yatil GreenMIA199715-40.96
33Kenny JacksonPHI19844-40.52
34Dan McGwireSEA199116-40.47
35Leonard ColemanIND19848-40.45
36David VerserCIN198110-40.43
37Wendell BryantCRD200212-40.43
38Rickey DixonCIN19885-40
39Jerome McDouglePHI200315-39.96
40David OverstreetMIA198113-39.94
41Derek BrownNYG199214-39.45
42Courtney BrownCLE20001-39.33
43Gabe RiveraPIT198321-39.1
44David PollackCIN200517-38.99
45Todd BlackledgeKAN19837-38.96
46Blair ThomasNYJ19902-38.57
47Eric KumerowMIA198816-38.47
48David TerrellCHI20018-38.45
49Tim WorleyPIT19897-37.96
50John ClayRAI198715-37.96
51Ted GregoryDEN198826-37.82
52Reggie McGrewSFO199924-37.72
53Lam JonesNYJ19802-37.57
54Desmond HowardWAS19924-37.52
55Willie ScottKAN198114-37.45
56Cade McNownCHI199912-37.43
57Tim CouchCLE19991-37.33
58Billy CannonDAL198425-37.27
59Clifford CharltonCLE198821-37.1
60Perry TuttleBUF198219-37.04
61Tony SmithATL199219-37.04
62Junior MillerATL19807-36.96
63Ron FaurotNYJ198415-36.96
64Michael BookerATL199711-36.93
65Jim DruckenmillerSFO199726-36.82
66Patrick BatesRAI199312-36.43
67Andre JohnsonWAS199630-36.06
68Bob BuczkowskiRAI198624-35.72
69Todd MarinovichRAI199124-35.72
70Leonard RenfroPHI199324-35.72

(JaMarcus Russell was drafted in 2007, but unless he has an improbable comeback he will edge out Leaf by a few points, here, just because he was 1st pick overall)

Part 2 will look at the relationship between draft success, which teams bet on which positions, and team success (in terms of winning actual NFL games).