The NFL draft and the power of knowing what you don’t know
The NFL draft is an annual endeavour of herculean proportions. Armies of scouts fan out to college campuses across America in search of star prospects. Front offices work days, nights and weekends updating their draft boards. Hundreds of media members and amateur draftniks pour over video tape of college players.
It’s the most important part of the year for every single entity in one of the world’s wealthiest companies, where even getting one or two picks right is enough to help set up teams for success years down the road.
It’s also a notorious crapshoot.
That’s why the most successful teams not only understand the limitations of their own knowledge when it comes to the NFL draft. They embrace them.
You would think that, by now, NFL teams would have this down to a science. That the “best players” would go in the first round, with the quality following a steady declining trend in the subsequent rounds.
It’s really anything but.
First-overall picks, whose every movement on and off the field is tracked down to the millimetre, go bust. Undrafted free agents, those players whom scouts and general managers deemed unworthy to go in the draft’s seven rounds, go onto long (and wealthy) careers.
Some of the NFL’s biggest stars (in fact most of them) were bypassed in the first rounds of the draft. Russell Wilson, the star quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, was skipped by some of the league’s most quarterback-needy teams three times before Seattle snapped him up in the third round. Richard Sherman, before he was the cover star of EA Sports’ famous Madden video game and one of the game’s best cornerbacks, fell to the fifth round. Tom Brady, who just won his fifth Super Bowl and is now widely heralded as the GOAT, went in the sixth round.
Some of the biggest failures, meanwhile, are first-round draft picks. Running back Trent Richardson, selected two rounds before Wilson (third overall), can’t find work. Robert Griffin III, picked second overall, flamed out spectacularly before Washington released him.
So is everyone just flailing around in the dark? Would teams be better off picking players at random, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style?
One thing is clear to those who study the NFL draft: The more picks you have, the more likely you are to succeed.
The order of the draft is designed to give the worst teams a first crack at finding new talent. The team with the worst record picks first in each round, followed by the next worst team. The previous year’s Super Bowl winner picks last.
The fallacy into which many teams fall is thinking that it’s worth sacrificing the volume of draft picks they have in exchange for the privilege of selecting closer to the start. They trade up for draft picks, relying on the false assumption that what they’ve seen in college means the player “can’t miss” in the NFL.
Not only that, they also wildly undervalue picks in future drafts. Teams will regularly trade a pick in next year’s draft for the privilege of moving up in this year’s.
The problem is that this tactic belies an assumption that that they are that much smarter than their counterparts, that their ability to forecast NFL success is better than everyone else’s.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
Smart teams do the opposite: The more chances you take the more likely you are to succeed. That’s why, as often as possible, they trade down for more picks. The New England Patriots do it all the time. So do the Green bay Packers.
The overconfidence, mismanagement and stupidity of their counterparts becomes a market inefficiency available to them to exploit.
It’s not that smart teams don’t make bad picks. They do. It’s just that when they do, it has less impact. Missing on three picks is less important if you had 11 in total than in you only had four.
Every day we are confronted with challenges to which we have no definite answers — but which are nevertheless essential to our work and home life. How much will I spend on maintenance for my 16-year-old car? How many hot dogs are people going to eat at Fenway Park this year?
The solution is not to double down on our ignorance, but to embrace it. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. Build a strategy that will give you a more likely chance of success.