Poor NFL. (This is the first time in history that those two words have sat next to one another.)
In the NFL Draft, the NFL can't really win. If it picks a great player early on, it's an obvious move undeserving of acclaim. If it finds a great player late in the draft, the NFL is at fault for not picking him earlier. A large chunk of a great draft is spent rummaging through the middle rounds and picking up the little un-sexy odds and ends that might give a quarterback an extra half-second in the pocket, or provide essential insurance in case their middle linebacker tests free agency next year. When done right, it's masterful work, but it's also subtle work that most fans -- fans like me, for instance -- don't notice or care about.
Aside from those thankless maneuverings, there is nothing left for NFL teams to do but screw up and look stupid. Collectively, the NFL spends an estimated $50 million or more to scout the players it will eventually draft. Maybe their failures are telling us that $50 million is being wasted, or that $50 million isn't enough. A team must look at a prospect and plot out how good he really is and how much potential for growth he really has.
At least as daunting, though: the team must determine how this person, with these metrics, will fit into the NFL machine. It's an enormous and hopelessly complicated machine of hyper-specialized parts that break down at random and occasionally fail to work in tandem with other parts for reasons unexplained. So maybe we're to conclude that no money, no resources, would be enough to project the future of a system that's sometimes simultaneously rigid, and sometimes nonspecifically blob-like. Whichever happens to be more confusing, really.
Even if their failures in the draft are understandable, it doesn't mean they aren't funny. Y'all, they are funny as shit.
How can the only people in the world who don't understand that Warren Sapp will be better than Kyle Brady be the same exact people who are in charge of an NFL franchise? Why is a team spending a second-round pick on a kicker? When the Browns select one of the greatest busts of the century in Brady Quinn, why is the great surprise not that he was picked in the first round, but that he wasn't picked far earlier?
With the benefit of hindsight and massive volumes of statistics, these errors are every bit as funny to me as a snap that pops an inattentive quarterback upside the head. After some stat-gathering and number-crunching, I've found lots to laugh at.
I chose to look at the five NFL Drafts between 2004 and 2008. With a minimum of five years of distance between then and now, we have a pretty solid idea of which players did and didn't pan out, and we can identify which picks were terrible. I found a few decisions that were staggeringly, comically bad. But before we get to those:
FIRST, SOME BASIC TRUTHS OF THE NFL DRAFT.
1. When studied as a single, giant organism, the NFL was actually not too bad at drafting.
For most of my analysis, I've relied upon a couple of pre-existing statistical models. The first was Pro-Football-Reference's Career Approximate Value (CarAV) score. For starters, Approximate Value (AV) is Pro-Football-Reference's attempt at reducing a player's overall value to a single number. This season, Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman led the league in AV with 19. LeSean McCoy had 15, Tony Romo had 13, et cetera. This stat should be handled carefully -- "approximate" is right there in the dang name -- but it's quite useful for comparing the value of large groups of players across different positions.
CarAV represents the AV of a player throughout every season of his career, but weights it so that his best seasons count a little more. That's swell for our purposes, since a player's maximum potential is what we're really after.
The other is the Harvard Draft Value Chart, which was created by Kevin Meers a couple years ago. The chart assigns a value to every pick number in the draft. The No. 1 overall pick is worth about 494 points, and the 200th pick is worth about 40 points. As the plot to the right demonstrates, pick values don't drop off in a straight line. They start really high with the top pick, bottom out dramatically in the first round, and sort of level off slowly after that.
This statistical model is also just an approximation, and should be regarded as such. But if we wanna cackle at teams for making terrible decisions, we need some way to understand exactly how much value they wasted on their bullshit conclusions.
With all that out of the way: no, as a whole, the NFL was not so bad at drafting. They didn't even display bias toward any particular position on the field; I was struck by how similar their grades were from position to position.
A report card full of Bs and Cs may not seem so impressive, but I put them to an almost impossibly difficult test. A perfect score would represent that every NFL team drafted every player in the precisely correct order, according to the CarAV he would one day accumulate. From that perspective, they did quite well.
There has to be some causality at work here. A team is naturally going to be invested in the future of its top picks. It will spend more time developing that guy and give him more chances to succeed. We can observe this in the career of Alex Smith, the top overall pick in 2005. In his first year, he played like absolute crud and ended up with arguably the worst quarterback season of the 21st century. The 49ers kept starting him, though, and he eventually evolved into a completely serviceable quarterback. In his seventh season, he held one of the best passer ratings in the NFL.
That works the other way, too. Have you heard of Mark Sanchez? The Jets took him fifth overall in the 2009 draft. Through four seasons of bad-to-terrible stats, they stubbornly refused to bench him, and the result was perhaps the worst quarterback career in NFL history.
2. When studied individually, some teams were absolutely God-awful as Hell at drafting.
I know I've taken a couple shots at the Jets so far, but look at that! Between 2004 and 2008, they actually drafted 12 percent better than the NFL average. The Chargers did quite well, having grabbed the likes of Shawne Merriman, Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson. Similarly, the Giants--
--you scrolled straight to the bottom, didn't you? That's cool, I'll join you there. The Lions were twice as bad at drafting as any team was good. Anyone who paid attention to the drafts during those years is not surprised by that, but the specifics of that awfulness are just staggering. We'll get to that later.
Teams, when examined on an individual basis, were more profound in their failures than they could ever hope to be in their successes.
3. The rules of NFL drafts apply to every team but the Patriots.
I took those figures above and plotted them against how much success each team found over the next five seasons. As one would expect, they're sprinkled diagonally: by and large, teams that drafted better won more games, and teams that drafted poorly lost more.
Bill Belichick's Patriots are the only team to exist outside of these rules. Their middle rounds were littered with guys who did nothing, or next to nothing, in the NFL. Their draft success ranked in the bottom third of the league during these seasons.
But even in 2009, those guys made up a large chunk of the roster. Nearly a third of the roster was made up of guys who were never drafted at all; the Patriots signed them for cheap and plugged them right in.
The rest of us mortals are confined by the oppression of common logic, our feet held to the ground by laws that stood for millions of years before anyone came around to write them. Bill Belichick is confined by none of them. He is a wizard whose command of elements real and abstract stretches beyond time, space, or any other dimension that the universe fecklessly tosses at his feet, like a single sandbag against a high tide. One day he will run out of idle curiosity, leave football, teleport to the Seahorse Nebula, and cook stews in the craters of unseen planets until animals crawl out. For now, he is content to outsmart your favorite team into oblivion.
He is the best. And now, the worst.
THE FIVE WEIRDEST, MOST ADORABLE DRAFT ERRORS.
1. After the first five picks of the draft, everyone in the NFL took a nap.
The NFL Draft will wear you out, man. You have to sit in a giant room in the company of stodgy NFL decision-makers and yelly, pouty football fans, which is exhausting enough on its own. And unlike nearly every other work of drama, you don't get a long, slow crescendo in which you can emotionally prepare yourself for the climax. The top overall picks hit you right away.
After a few of those top picks, you need a nap. According to the data I've found, that is exactly what NFL general managers decided to do.
In terms of eventual success, the 6th through 10th picks were only about half as good as the five picks that came afterward. If we were talking about one pick, or five picks, I'd figure this as a completely normal aberration. Each bar in the chart to the right, though, represents 25 picks (five picks over five years).
It's the only segment of the draft that stands out in this way, and it's weird.
2. Of all players taken in the first three rounds, less than half became long-term starters.
Over that five-year period, there were 38 guys who "deserved" -- based on their CarAV -- to have been drafted within the first three rounds, but weren't drafted at all. An 8.3 percent failure rate in that respect really isn't that bad, but I still wanted to review the points at which they did fail.
The NFL is a fluid, uncertain industry. Even if you're selected within the first round, your chances of becoming a long-term starter -- four or more seasons -- is less than 50 percent.
A whole lot of undrafted guys eventually made it into the League. In 2010, of every player to play in a regular-season game, 698 of them were drafted between 2004 and 2008. Meanwhile, 257 of them were of drafting age within those years, but weren't drafted. This means that 36 percent of that age group was undrafted.
As someone who was 22 years old in 2005, I take solace in this. I have long feared that I will never be drafted by an NFL team, but it appears as though my worries have been completely unfounded. I even own my very own football, so I have that going for me, too. I bought it at Walgreens, but it's pretty good.
3. The Seahawks drafted their guys in reverse.
A limited sample size of highly significant events can produce some really fun spectacles. Here we observe the Seattle Seahawks of 2004-08 drafting backwards. Within the first three rounds, they drafted 13 guys. On average, their third-round guys were more successful than their second-round guys, who in turn were more successful than their first-round guys.
In the 15 years prior to this statistical stuntsmanship, they'd made they playoffs twice. During, they made the playoffs four times. In the five years afterward, they made the playoffs three times and won their first Super Bowl.
I look at that chart and I get the image of Mike Holmgren performing a backside rail grind on a skateboard. These are the same Seahawks who finished 7-9 and won a playoff game, so perhaps, like Bill Belichick, they occasionally live outside the realms of logic.
3. The Jets spent a second-round pick on a kicker.
It's the 2005 NFL Draft. The Jets are on the clock for the 47th overall pick. Frank Gore, Vincent Jackson, Justin Tuck, and a wealth of other valuable players are still available. They draft Mike Nugent, kicker, Ohio State.
Unlike a lot of other draft follies, the motivation behind this crap-ass decision is pretty easy to guess. The previous season, their kicker was Doug Brien, an 11-year veteran with a perfectly fine field goal percentage. But in the Divisional round, the Jets found themselves tied with the Steelers with about two minutes left. They trotted out Brien to attempt a go-ahead 47-yard field goal, and he missed.
Miraculously, thanks to an interception on the following play, the Jets regained possession. They milked the clock down to four seconds and sent out Brien to kick again, this time from 43 yards. He missed again. The Steelers won in overtime.
The decision to release Doug Brien after that catastrophe is maybe just a little logically dubious -- he was a serviceable kicker who had one terrible game -- but it's an understandable and unsurprising one.
But months later, they spent a second-round pick on his replacement. It's as though they regarded every football season as the same video game, and believed they would go up against the very same level boss in the AFC Championship the next year, and needed to plug in a guy who would hit those very field goals. The reality, of course, is that if that was really how it worked, Doug Brien himself probably would have successfully kicked one of those field goals nine times out of 10.
Mike Nugent, their brand-new kicker, went on to have a merely decent career, but I would argue that this is irrelevant. Let's suppose that the Jets thoroughly scouted Nugent and truly believed he was the next Morten Anderson, a guy who would become the NFL's best kicker for years and years, and he'd be 47 years old in the middle of the Willow Smith administration, and he'd still be out there popping 49-yarders.
The thing is, the majority of the great kickers of the contemporary NFL were undrafted and cheap to sign. A good kicker is quite valuable, yes, but he's probably also not in limited supply, and can be signed on the cheap. There's no good reason to spend something as valuable as a second-round pick on him.
It's like trying to build a really great house and spending $10,000 on the doorknob. Yes, you need the doorknob to enter the house, and entering a house is one of the best things about having a house. But every hardware store sells doorknobs that cost $15 and are 99.9 percent as good.
It's hard for me to look at that pick and not believe the Jets were playing on tilt. They drafted sad and angry, and their reward was three years from a decent kicker.
1. The 2006 Lions: dumber than a dart board.
As noted earlier, the Lions were the very worst at drafting between 2004 and 2008. They did make a handful of fine moves. They snagged Cliff Avril at No. 92, and Manny Ramirez at No. 117. There isn't a much better way to spend the second overall pick than to draft Calvin Johnson. But their modest successes were lapped a dozen times over by their categorical failures.
The most infamous and long-remembered failures are the big busts -- the JaMarcus Russells or Ryan Leafs. Most of the time, though, the difference between a great and terrible draft is around the second and third rounds. The correct decisions are usually far less obvious than they are in the first round, and toward the end of the draft, the expected value is so low that a team can't be faulted much for whiffing on a diamond in the rough like Marques Colston.
I'd argue that the second and third rounds test decision-making ability more than any other portion of the draft. This is precisely where the Lions failed, and miserably -- the points at which their picks still had value, and required tact to deliver that value. They drafted player after player who would go on to do almost nothing of consequence in the NFL.
You might conclude that the person making this decisions was perhaps unqualified to do so, and you would be right. Matt Millen played for 12 years in the NFL and worked for a few years as a broadcaster before leaping directly into the Lions' general manager position. He had never been a coach, and had no football management experience.
Let's visit a few quotes from Mr. Millen so as to better understand his approach to football players and the NFL Draft.
Ask any polack from Buffalo how they like them, right Jaws?
- Matt Millen, delivering impassioned commentary on fried bologna sandwiches at the 2010 NFL Draft
Earlier in the telecast, the draft, I made a humorous remark to Ron Jaworski that could have been misconstrued to people of Polish descent. And I want to apologize, because that has absolutely nothing to do.
- Matt Millen, shortly thereafter
- Matt Millen, referring to one of his own players, who he did not name
You f****t! Yeah, you heard me! You f****t!
- Matt Millen, to Johnny Morton, a former player of his, after Morton told him to kiss his ass
Oh dear. Do you think Matt Millen was good at drafting? I'll give you three guesses.
Millen led the Lions through several horrifically bad drafts, but none were worse than his 2006 effort. His first-round pick, linebacker Ernie Sims, panned out to be an above-average player in terms of CarAV, but he produced less than the vast majority of players taken in the first round that year. Millen chose him over a wealth of great players, including Tamba Hali, Haloti Ngata, Joseph Addai and Nick Mangold.
His next two picks, safety Daniel Bullocks and running back Brian Calhoun, both played with the Lions for a season before tearing their ACLs in 2007. Both would return to the Lions, but before and after their injuries, neither players produced nearly as much as one would hope for in a second- or third-round pick. Millen's fifth-round choice, tackle Jonathan Scott, went on to become a serviceable journeyman. His final two picks, Dee McCann and Fred Matua, never played a game in the NFL.
Here, poor decisions were coupled with some bad luck, and the result was a draft effort so disastrous that I began to wonder: would the Lions have done any better if they'd simply written down every single player in the draft, and pulled names out of a hat?
I decided to find out. I collected the names of every single player of the 2006 NFL Draft who Millen could have chosen at each stage of the draft. Then I used a random number generator to select them entirely at random, and added up the CarAV numbers of all the players I ended up with.
This, of course, could result in some horrible selections. For instance, I could end up spending the ninth overall pick on Kevin McMahan, who was picked 255th in the actual draft and never played in the NFL. Nonetheless, I ran this completely random draft 10 times, and I was hoping to beat Matt Millen's effort once or twice.
I beat him six out of 10 times.
The cumulative CarAV of Millen's 2006 draftees was 59. On average, my random drafts scored 80. In terms of both average and number of instances, I drafted better than Matt Millen by figuratively tacking the name of every player on a wall and chucking darts at it.
In a sense, if the Lions knew nothing, they would have tied with the dart board. They did worse. They knew a negative amount of things.
Drafting with any degree of relative success is a daunting task. A team must familiarize itself with hundreds of players from all over the country, weigh each player's value against its specific needs. They must plan for an array of contingencies in case, for instance, Player A was chosen but Player B is available but Player C, who they thought would be taken, is available, but Player D fits their needs but might still be hanging around in the next round, but Team A is offering to trade you two later picks for this one, but Player E is available and one of your scouts loves him, but player F is a high risk/reward guy, but Player G is a low-ceiling player who would provide sorely-needed support on the offensive line, but Player H is still on the board, but carries a wealth of injury concerns with him, but Team B just called and would like to trade you Pick X and Player Y for Pick Z, but -- oh God, there are 23 seconds left and you want a sandwich.
It's hard. By and large, I cannot find too much fault with teams who fall short in the draft. Their only sin is in pretending they always know what the Hell they're doing and have any idea of what's going on.