Each year, 32 franchises look to improve their football team through the NFL draft. With stricter salary cap rules and a rookie wage scale now in effect, the draft has become more strategic than ever. More media time and more money are being invested into the draft. Some teams appear to be missing the trend while others are turning the draft into a practical use of economics and strategy.
Teams like the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers have set the bar. The Patriots are known for trading down and bulking up on second day picks. They also tend to avoid drafting skill players (RB, WR, & QB) in the first round. The last skill player they drafted in the first round was RB Laurence Maloney in 2006. In contrast the 49ers will go after guys they have highly rated and build through the draft letting high-priced free agents sign with other teams and recuperating compensation draft picks to bolster their draft day ammunition.
The Patriots use a system that I have dubbed, for lack of an actual name, the Bulk-Value System. The strategy is based on economic approach of the NFL draft. The economic model the Patriots uses states that first round draft picks are the most inefficient picks when you look at the level of performance they provide versus the amount of money they are paid. For example Tavon Austin was paid (or at least was a cap hit of) $3,187,571. He had 40 catches, 418 yards and 4 touchdowns. For the production he brought he was vastly overpaid when you compare him to Aaron Dobson selected in the second round who was paid (or was a cap hit of) $857,093. Dobson caught 37 passes for 519 yards and 4 TDs, similar numbers to Tavon but for almost two and a half million less. Obviously Tavon has more potential and Dobson is in a better system (with a healthy QB), but it still shows the rationale of the Patriots system. The Patriots want to avoid overpaying and so they use economics to value their picks.
Research created by two students shows some of the economics the Patriots likely use. The study published in the Management Science Journal found that on average second round picks are 15 percent more valuable on the dollar than first round draft picks. They also state in the study that second round picks can offer up to a 25 percent better value than a first round pick based on the salary expectations of those players and the actual performance teams get from them. The idea is to bulk up on second day picks and select several athletes that are likely to provide very good value.
The strategy appears genius in the era of the salary cap and rookie wage scale but does it work without the hated, but brilliant football mind of Bill Belichick or without the Hall of Fame play of Tom Brady? That we cannot quanify, but it does show that if you have the right key pieces, you can build your entire team with efficient players that are not likely to be elite players (this is explained below) and still win.
A report done by the Wall Street Journal points out that on average first round picks make $14 million a year while second round picks make $2.2 million. And a study from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute states this: "…the past 13 seasons shows that second-round picks represent the best value with 70 percent of the production of first-round picks but at just 40 percent of the salary."
The one glaring weakness is that teams that employ this strategy do not often draft elite players. In a study I will show below, you will see that most of the top athletes come from the first round. Teams that follow the Bulk-Value system choose quantity over quality and for the Patriots it has worked. Their roster is filled with many young, cheap and talented players. Some of those players have emerged into legitimate stars like Rob Gronkowski while others have not panned out. The system minimizes risk by basically diversifying their draft investment. Instead of investing a lot to one the player, the Patriots invest a little money into several players.
In contrast to the Bulk-Value System there is what I have dubbed the BPA-Tier System. The BPA-Tier system is what I believe the Cardinals employ (and so does San Francisco but they are more aggressive in moving up and down board attempting to accumulate draft picks). As we have seen, the draft process of the Cardinals relies heavily on pre-draft player grades that are assessed after a long process of reviewing each draft potential athlete. Each player is than put into a tier. For example elite athletes, respective to their position, like Patrick Peterson and Jonathon Cooper are players that represent the first tier of the ranking system. When Patrick Peterson was drafted CB was a need but not as much the Cardinals needed a pass rusher or OL help. I believe Peterson was drafted over those needs because of the players available he was the absolute best and still fit a need, if not a big one.
This system employs BPA by selecting the best player from the best available tier but also takes need into account. For example if you have two players, say top 2014 WR prospect Sammy Watkins and the second rated OT Greg Robinson available to the Cardinals at the 20th pick and both have been rated by the FO as tier 1 athletes (which would be a dream come true), the Cardinals would select Robinson because he is a top tier athlete and fits a position of need. However say Watkins dropped and 4rd ranked OT Cyrus Kouandijo was available, and Kouandijo was considered a tier 2 player, the tier system says you take Watkins because he is by your estimations a vastly superior talent and the talent outweighs the position of need. The system is by no means perfect as you have to trust your grades.
So far it seems that Cardinals have made this system work for them because they follow it throughout the entire draft. It explains why the team drafted two RBs last year. To most pundits the team did not necessarily need RBs having Rashard Mendenhall, Alfonso Smith and the tantalizing but ultimately disappointing Ryan Williams on the roster. Despite this the Cardinals drafted both Andre Ellington and Stefan Taylor. It appears they saw the athletes as great value picks and so far appear to be spot on as Ellington was one of the top performing rookies and Taylor appears to be a future contributor.
Obviously there is much more and this is just one fan's surface level perspective, but these two systems appear to be the best Day 1 and Day 2 drafting (Day 3 is a crap shoot no matter the system). One is about economics and the other is about securing top talent. Teams like the Patriots, Steelers and Ravens have made their franchises on smart drafting strategy and it appears as of late that the whole NFC West is drafting very well which should guarantee that the NFC West will be dominate for years. This year will be interesting to see how the Cardinals draft and what players they value. Will they reach for need or stay true to their board of best value?
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