Keith Strudler: NFL Draft Probability
The NFL draft isn’t just an exercise in bizarre hiring practices. And it’s not simply the world’s most public meat market, although that is what it seems, with all the measuring and prodding and touching the merchandise of typically scantily clad men. Perhaps that makes it society’s answer to the swimsuit calendar, where the male physique is as quantified and deconstructed as the female form, even for entirely different purposes.
The NFL draft, which commences tomorrow evening and lasts until about next December, is, more than anything, an exercise in economics and probability. It is, in some regard, the thinking man’s answer to the pure physicality of the game, which seems brutish beyond comprehension. The NFL draft is predicated on several key factors. First, in order to dominate the other 31 teams with similar aspirations, you need to have, maintain, and replenish superior talent. And while this talent can be cultivated over time, it also is most pure and savored in its virginal form, before years of NFL wear and team diminish the vital skill sets that make NFL players the statistical anomalies that they are.
Second, teams aren’t simply a group of talented individuals, but rather a cohesive unit that play quite disparate positions. So even if a team has 10 talented wide outs, a soft offensive line makes for a long day at the office. So teams are constantly looking to upgrade part by part, like they’re building a model engine.
Third, the draft is more than simply an acquisition of talent. It’s the acquisition of hope, which counts for far more than any known commodity. This is like comparing the night before the prom to a three year relationship. One is thrilling, the other well known, both the good and bad.
And lastly, the draft is a way for teams to reinvigorate economic engines. Using below market talent, thanks to a rookie salary cap, teams can draw fans and eyeballs by rearranging the furniture and adding some accessories. Think of the NFL draft as Restaurant Impossible for the struggling franchise, like say Cleveland and Jacksonville.
Which leads back to original premise, and Johnny Manziel of course, who himself has become synonymous with this year’s entire process, a metaphor of the experience. There are a lot of things that teams can have during the NFL draft. They can have a quarterback. They can have a safety. They can have a trade. Some of them even have a reality show. But what they can’t have is a sure thing. The thing about hope is that it’s only that. So while you may hope that third round sleeper pick won’t pull a hamstring for the third time in four years, you won’t know for sure until is does or doesn’t happen. And while you hope that Johnny Manziel is the reincarnation of Fran Tarkenton, we’ll only know three years down the road, when the athletic risk taker is vetted by an NFL defensive line.
So how do NFL teams, who for the record don’t enjoy risk, deal with this? They do it a bunch of different ways. Some roll the dice and take the possible over the probable. Like the Denver Broncos, who drafted long shot Tim Tebow in the first round. Some opt for the low risk, possibly lower reward. They draft players with chart popping numbers in positions that require less precision. That’s why guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Jake Matthews look particularly good to some GM’s. These guys are far less likely to fail, with their well measured athleticism and well-rehearsed roles. And even if they do, people won’t notice it as much as the guy who throws four interceptions a game, like Ryan Leaf, the poster boy for draft bust.
And some teams take the easy way out, trading high picks for veteran players. That might be the case of the St. Louis Rams this year, who just might trade that number two pick to avoid the stress of making a mistake. That may not sell tickets like Johnny Manziel might, or even Blake Bortles of Central Florida, but it will make your average mathematician happy, taking the known commodity over the high risk choice. That’s the game of probability that is the NFL draft, which is far more gambling than football.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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