Tuesday, May 1, 2012

NFL Draft Strategy, Adjustments, and Implementation

Moving to Pittsburgh was a bit of an existential dilemma for me. As a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, it meant walking into the belly of the beast and having to live side-by-side with the fans I had been bread to hate. There was actually a time when Browns-Steelers was a real football rivalry rather than just two regional towns pitted against one another. Now I get to watch firsthand as Steelers' fans revel in their team making the playoffs year-after-year, while I eagerly await Thursday's NFL Draft.

For Browns fans, the draft has become our Super Bowl. We look forward to it with great anticipation for how this will be the beginning of the process that finally turns around our beloved team. So imagine how I felt a few days ago when Sarah forwarded me this article that ranked all the NFL teams by their ability to find all-pro players through the draft. The New England Patriots were first. The Browns were last. So I thought I would take a closer look at the Patriots' draft strategy and how they have been able to consistently find top flight talent through a mechanism that is highly unpredictable and contingent on what the 31 other teams picking in the draft do.

While conventional wisdom is that the most talented, or best, players can be found in the first round of the draft, New England has become known around the league to consistently trade early picks in a current draft to accumulate picks in future drafts, typically in the middle rounds (i.e. rounds two and three). According to DJ Bean of WEEI in Boston, "[s]ince 2008 the Patriots have moved down or out of the first round a total of six times...[seeking] value in compiling more picks." You could interpret this as New England preferring to play the numbers game, whereby they'll "hit" on more players because they have more rather than relying on a smaller number of players chosen in the first round. Others may see this as a way for them to maximize their value since first round picks come with considerably higher salaries. Either way it is hard to argue with their results.

What makes New England's strategy particularly interesting is that it may actually help to mitigate the amount of uncertainty they face during the draft. With 31 other teams choosing players before and after you, one can imagine how difficult it is to predict what the competition will do and, perhaps more importantly, how you can design a draft strategy flexible enough to account for all the different outcomes. Picking in the first round and placing so much emphasis on possibly choosing such a small number of players only makes the situation more dire. So if the players they wanted are gone by the time a team picks, they may be forced into making a rash decision. Andrew Brandt, a former executive with the Packers who now writes for ESPN, explains the situation during draft weekend by saying, "[t]he best decision-makers, in my view, 'trust the board.' Players have been poked, prodded, analyzed and discussed for seven months. It's time to let the board do the work...The biggest downfall of decision-makers is becoming impulsive and emotional, straying from the board...Ego and insecurity dominate draft weekend." If these feelings decrease during the later rounds of the draft, then perhaps the Patriots are able to operate in a more rational, logical environment and marketplace.

Do you guys think this strategy makes sense? Is it worth limiting your exposure to high-priced, top flight talent to increase your ability to develop and adapt your strategy within a more rational marketplace? Would you rather try your hand at finding great players from a larger, lower risk pool than a couple high-priced, "sure-fire" prospects?

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