How to Avoid a Debacle on NFL Draft Day
Four ways teams can defy conventional thinking and leave next week’s draft a better team
By Andrew Beaton and Michael Salfino
April 21, 2017
NFL teams know almost everything about the best college football players. Scouts spend countless hours dissecting game film minutia. Evaluators sweat hundredths-of-a-second differences in timed drills. Front offices sleuth for every potential red flag in prospects’ off-field histories.
Before next week’s NFL Draft, teams will know enough to buy perfectly tailored suits for their players—and to answer their security questions to reset their email passwords.
But the one thing teams aren’t capable of assessing turns out to be pretty important: Which ones will become good NFL players? Just a year ago the Rams decided quarterback Jared Goff was worth the No. 1 pick. The early returns—he went 0-7 as a starter, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns—gave fans little more hope for a future Super Bowl than when Los Angeles didn’t even have an NFL team.
The NFL Draft can be a crapshoot and there’s no foolproof formula for acing it. Or if there is, nobody has shared it with the Cleveland Browns or New York Jets. Still, recent trends and research have illuminated a handful of simple tips that teams should consider for the best possible chance at not torpedoing the franchise with this once-per-year opportunity.
The “Best Player Available” Myth
One of the most ubiquitous expressions on draft day is “take the player best available.” There’s reason to think this decades-old advice is utterly wrong.
The philosophy is based on the fallacy that teams actually know who the best player available is. But one 2012 study, for example, found in the first round a player has just a 53% chance at being better than the next player drafted at the same position. Essentially, teams who insist on drafting the player they consider best have similar odds to the roulette player convinced the ball will land on black.
On the other hand, teams have far more certainty about their needs. And freed from the delusion that teams can actually decipher the best players, they may as well take ones at the positions where they could use help the most.
An author of that study, Wharton professor Cade Massey who researches judgment under uncertainty, says that NFL teams make the common mistake of focusing on one factor—who the best player is—and can ignore something that’s mundane and practical: team need may be the biggest factor of all.
Prioritize Positions by Their Value in Free Agency
Two safeties, LSU’s Jamal Adams and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, could go in the top five of next week’s draft. Whoever takes them will have essentially wasted a premium pick by taking a player at a position that teams place relatively little value on.
LSU safety Jamal Adams #33 is projected to be one of the first picks in next week’s draft.
LSU safety Jamal Adams #33 is projected to be one of the first picks in next week’s draft. PHOTO: MICHAEL CHANG/GETTY IMAGES
Adams and Hooker immediately would become among the highest paid safeties in the entire league—without any guarantee they’re actually worth it—because highly drafted players automatically receive fairly lucrative salaries while safeties are among the most inexpensive positions to fill in free agency. And this is a common mistake league-wide as nearly half (8 of 17) defensive backs selected with top eight overall picks since 2000 were safeties. This is despite the fact that the best cornerbacks are 40% more expensive when it comes to their second contracts.
The easiest way to think about this is in terms of kickers and punters. They’re the cheapest players, or in other words, they’re the least important and easiest to replace. That’s why only one team thought it was a good idea to take a kicker or punter in the first round in the last two decades. And that team was the Raiders.
While safety is the lowest-valued position on defense according to this year’s Franchise Tags—an average of the top five salaries at a given position—that distinction on offense belongs to tight end. So then why is Alabama’s O.J. Howard viewed as a consensus top 10 pick?
Instead of Howard, teams needing receiving help can generate more potential value by selecting Clemson’s Mike Williams, given the franchise tag for wideouts is a whopping $15.7 million for one year versus just $9.8 million for the top veteran tight ends.
Good Hands are Big Hands
In recent years, people have paid increasing attention to a quarterback’s hand size for predicting their success in the league. Among other factors, big hands are better for avoiding fumbles and gripping the ball in inclement weather. Many people, except the Rams, saw a big red flag when Goff’s hands measured at nine inches last year—well below the average for quarterbacks.
But it’s possible teams should pay even more attention to this measurement for the players catching the ball. The reasoning is simple: big hands make it easier to catch a football.
Wide receivers with bigger hands are less likely to be busts than their small-handed brethren, and it also correlates significantly to improved performance, according to research done by NumberFire. And at this ultra-important position, this is potentially groundbreaking because other traditional measurements used to differentiate receivers have proven to be fruitless. According to the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, no drill or measurement taken at the NFL Scouting Combine has been found to predict how wide receivers ultimately perform in the NFL.
Two of the best pairs of hands in the NFL are also among the biggest: Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald has 10.5-inch mitts and Jarvis Landry’s are 10.25 inches, even though he is only 5-foot-11. These two receivers combined for just five drops last year and 201 catches, an eye-popping catch rate of 97.6%.
Velocity Isn’t Just for Baseball
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has almost every desirable quality in a quarterback. He’s fast, strong and tall. He even beat Alabama for the national championship. That’s why he could be the first quarterback off the board. But one of the most overlooked indicators of quarterback success says he won’t be able to sling it on Sundays.
Watson’s ball velocity at the NFL combine measured 49 miles per hour, while the average in recent years has been about 55 mph. That’s the equivalent of a MLB pitcher having an 82 mph heater. No quarterback prospect since 2008 has ever had lower recorded lower velocity and been drafted, according to Ourlads Scouting Services, which tracks the data. The other top-rated quarterbacks—Mitch Trubisky (55 mph), Pat Mahomes (60 mph) and DeShone Kizer (56 mph)—all rated average or better on the radar gun.
Of only six drafted quarterbacks in the period at 51 miles per hour or less, just one was selected in the first round: Christian Ponder in 2011 by the Minnesota Vikings. Ponder hasn’t thrown a pass in the NFL since 2014.
Former Super Bowl winning Ravens head coach Brian Billick, now a NFL Network analyst, says the style of today’s college games makes it hard to judge quarterbacks’ arm strength because “so many throws are pop passes and bubble screens.” That means velocity readings may tell teams more about how a quarterback can complete deeper NFL throws more than college game tape.