Why our thinking on the NFL draft is all wrong


The NFL draft started Thursday, April 26, and the Washington Redskins had the second overall draft pick. (Seth Wenig/AP)
April 26, 2012

Redskins fans were predictably excited when team owner Daniel Snyder signed off on a blockbuster trade to acquire this year’s second overall NFL draft pick from the St. Louis Rams. The Rams, in turn, received the Redskins sixth overall pick and second-round pick in this year’s draft, and first-round picks in 2013 and 2014.

But who really got the better end of the deal?

Before Redskins fans put too much hope in their high pick and future franchise quarterback, let’s hear what Cade Massey has to say. Massey, a behavioral economist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleague Richard Thaler from the University of Chicago, recently updated their paper, A Loser’s Curse. We spoke with Massey about the research, and what about what leaders could stand to learn about decision-making from studying the NFL draft.

Question long-held ‘truths’

In each of the seven draft rounds, the teams that were the least successful during the previous season pick first, while teams that were most successful pick last. The NFL structured the draft in this manner to encourage league parity.

So after a losing season, most NFL fans find solace in the fact that they get one of the high picks in the upcoming draft. Their assumption: A talented player will improve the team more so than the less talented players chosen later in the draft. However, as Massey and Thaler dug into NFL performance data, they were surprised. “Even though performance is best at the top of the draft,” Massey says, “the cost is so much higher that it doesn’t end up being a valuable pick…the ‘loser’s curse’ is because of how expensive those early players are, the first pick is the least valuable pick in the first round.”

But it’s not just the fans that are mistaken. Some NFL general managers still use The Chart to determine the values of their draft picks. The Chart is a document developed prior to the salary-cap era and it defines the value of each slot in the draft using previous trades as benchmarks. For example, the Chart suggests that the first pick is worth three times the value of the 16th pick.

But Massey found that the prices on the chart don’t accurately reflect the right values of the players. In fact, a player’s performance value relative to his salary actually increases as you progress through the first round. In other words, the most valuable picks in the draft are the ones at the end of the first round — where the already successful teams make their selections! Of the early picks, Massey says, “you’re actually saddling those teams with the most expensive picks relative to their value.”

Kill your overconfidence

With all of their experience evaluating talent, why do NFL executives continue to make the same mistakes, year after year? Massey says that, as a rule, “we’re overconfident in what we think is going to happen.”

In the great quarterback draft of 1983, Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and John Elway were each selected in the first round. Yet Massey suggests that the real lesson of the ’83 draft wasn’t that high-caliber quarterbacks were taken early, which is the classic moral that NFL pundits and executives pull from the story. Rather, the real lesson came from the quarterbacks taken in the first round who were believed to be sure things (such as Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason), but who never ended up making a mark in the NFL. History repeated itself when the first pick in the ’99 draft, Tim Couch, played for Cleveland for five years and led the team to only 22 wins and 37 losses. Not to be outdone, the third pick, Akili Smith, started only 17 games in his four-year career and led the Bengals to 3 wins and 14 losses.

The larger lesson is that NFL talent evaluators are overconfident in their ability to distinguish the good players from the great players. Yes, draft order is related to performance, and it does take skill to rank players. But, as Massey states, “when it comes down to picking between the next two running backs, or defensive ends, the odds of picking the best one is 52 percent.”  In other words, they might as well flip a coin

Don’t flip a coin

But there are ways for decision-makers to protect themselves from the proverbial coin-toss. First, says Massey, it’s important to get empirical support. “If you pay attention, demand evidence, push for better evidence, as opposed to believing what you’ve seen in the past will continue,” Massey suggests, “you’re not going to fall prey often.”

Additionally, Massey says that one of the most powerful tools that leaders, in the NFL and otherwise, have at their disposal is their ability to invite dissent. “You’ve got to be able to tolerate conflicting opinions.” Because many leaders receive less dissent the higher they climb in an organization, it may be necessary to be creative. Aside from simply asking for differing opinions, a leader may need to leave the room, have one-on-one conversations, or assign someone to play contrarian.

As for the Redskins and the Rams, the trade might end up working out well for both teams — but at this point, we can guess who Massey thinks got the better end of the deal.

Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of the forthcoming book Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass. Email them with comments and ideas for future pieces, or connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

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