April 2012


In my last post, I introduced ways to determine the risk of NFL trades, using Pro Football Reference’s average AV per draft slot metric to assess the relative risk of the trade. I wish to continue the work done in the first post, by also taking a look  at the Eli Manning trades, and also the Robert Griffin III trades.

Eli's debt will be paid off in 2 more years of his current level of play.
RG3 will have to have a Sonny Jurgenson-like career, all in Washington, to pay off the value of the picks used to select him.

In the Eli trade, the New York Giants assumed a ‘AV debt’ comparable to that of Michael Vick, and a relative risk approximately the same as Michael Vick or Julio Jones. Looking, Eli has  rolled up perhaps 87 AV at this point, netting 12-15 AV a year. So, in two years, in purely AV terms, this trade would be even. Please note  that NFL championships appear to not net any AV, so if the value of the trade is measured in championships instead, I’d assume the New York Giants would consider themselves the outright winners of this trade.

The appropriate comparison with the Robert Griffin III trade is actually the Earl Campbell trade. The risk ratio is about the same, assuming the Washington Redskins go 8-8 and 9-7 the next two years, and end up with the #16 pick in 2013, and  the #20 pick in 2014. The lowest  value the AV Given column could total is 106, if the Washington Redskins ended up with the #31 pick twice. In any event, the Redskins are betting that RG3 will have a Sonny Jurgenson-esque career, and not just his Washington Redskin career, but his Eagles and Redskins career, in order to pay back the ‘AV debt’ that has been accrued by this trade.

There were eight trades in the first day involving the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Most of them involved small shifts in the primary pick, with third day picks added as additional compensation. The one outlying trade was that of the St Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, which involved a substantial shift in  the #1 pick (from 6 to 14) and the secondary compensation was substantial. This high secondary compensation has led to criticism of the trade, most notably by Dan Graziano, whose argument, boiled to its essence, is that Dallas paid a 2 pick price for Morris Claiborne.

Counting  picks is a lousy method to judge trades. After all, Dallas paid a 4 pick price for Tony Dorsett. Was that trade twice as bad a trade as the Morris Claiborne trade?  The Fletcher Cox trade saw Philadelphia give up 3 picks for Fletcher Cox. Was that trade 50% worse than the Morris Claiborne trade?

In order to deal with the issues raised above, I will introduce a new analytic metric for analyzing trade risk, the risk ratio, which is the sum of the AV values of  the picks given, divided by the sum of the AV values of the picks received. For trades with a ratio of 1.0 or less, there is no risk at all. For trades with ratios approaching 2 or so, there is substantial risk. We are now aided in this kind of analysis by Pro Football Reference’s new average AV per draft pick chart. This is a superior tool to their old logarithmic fit, because while the data may be noisy, they avoid systematically overestimating the value of first round picks.

The eight first round trades of 2012, interpreted in terms of AV risk ratios.

The first thing to note about the 8  trades is that the risk ratio of 6 of them is approximately the same. There really is no difference, practically speaking, in the relative risk of the Trent Richardson  trade, or the Morris Claiborne trade,  or the Fletcher Cox trade. Of the two remaining trades, the Justin Blackmon trade was relatively risk free. Jacksonville assumed an extra value burden of 10% for moving up to draft the wide receiver. The other outlier, Harrison Smith, can be explained largely by the noisy data set and an unexpectedly high value of AV for draft pick 98. If you compensate by using 13 instead of 23 for pick #98, you get a risk ratio of approximately 1.48, more in line with the rest of the data sets.

Armed with this information, and picking on Morris Claiborne, how good does he  have to be for this trade to be break even? Well, if his career nets 54 AV, then the trade breaks even. If he has a HOF career (AV > 100), then Dallas wins big. The same applies to Trent Richardson. For the trade to break even, Trent has to net at least 64 AV throughout his career. Figuring out how much AV Doug Martin has to average is a little more complicated, since there were multiple picks on both sides, but Doug would carry his own weight if he gets 21*1.34 ≈ 28 AV.

Four historic trades and their associated risk ratios.

By historic measures, none of the 2012 first round trades were particularly risky. Looking at some trades that have played out in  the past, and one  that is still playing out, the diagram above shows the picks traded for Julio Jones, for Michael Vick, for Tony Dorsett, and also for Earl Campbell.

The Julio Jones trade has yet to play out, but Atlanta, more or less, assumed as much risk (93 AV) as they did for Michael Vick (94 AV), except for a #4 pick and a wide receiver. And although Michael is over 90 AV now, counting AV earned in Atlanta and Philadelphia, he didn’t earn the 90+ AV necessary to balance out the trade while in Atlanta.

Tony Dorsett, with his HOF career, paid off the 96 AV burden created by trading a 1st and three 2nd round choices for the #2 pick. Once again, the risk was high, the burden was considerable, but it gave value to Dallas in the end.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison is the assessment of the Earl Campbell trade. Just by the numbers, it was a bust. Jimmie Giles, the tight end that was part of the trade,  had a long and respectable career with Tampa Bay. That, along with the draft picks, set a bar so high that only the Ray Lewis’s of the world could possibly reach. And while Campbell was a top performer, his period of peak performance was short, perhaps 4   years. That said, I still wonder if Houston would still make the trade, if somehow someone could go back in to the past, with the understanding of what would happen into the relative future. Campbell’s peak was pretty phenomenal, and not entirely encompassed by a mere AV score.

These are numbers that have been published before, but not presented as artfully as this. PFR has the average draft value of a draft pick on a per draft slot basis. They then find a representative player with that AV. Also, they’ve listed the best picks in the slot as well. Looking to pick a world beater?

The url for this page suggests that  the page is temporary. Hopefully it will become a permanent part of Pro Football Reference.

Which of these players was drafted at a premium?

Sebastian Vollmer, drafted in the seond round in 2009.
Wikimedia image.

Derrick Burgess
Second round choice by Philadelphia in 2001.
Wikimedia image by BrokenSphere.

In my  mind, the answer is “both of them”.

One of the meatier passages in War Room comes in chapter 14, where Bill Belichick discusses the thought processes behind his selection of Sebastian Vollmer in 2009:

“Sebastian Vollmer is a good example”, he says of the Patriots’ starting right tackle, one of the team’s four second-rounders in ’09. “There’s no way he was really a second-round pick. Based on film or really based on the player he was at the end of the ’08 season. You know, East-West game and all  that. We knew there would be an undertow of Vollmer. And it was just a question of, ‘When’s this guy going to  go?’

“He should have been a fourth or fifth-round pick, by the film, by his performance. But  you saw him as an ascending player and he had rare size, and  there were a lot of things that you had to fix and all that. But it was clear the league liked him. Now,  the question is always, “How much do  they like him and where are they willing to buy?’ I’m sure for some teams it was the fourth round. For some teams it was the third round. But we just said, ‘Look we really want this guy. This is too high to pick him, but if we wait  we might not get him, so we’re going to  step up and take him.’

“And sometimes when you do that  you’re right and sometimes when you do  that  you’re wrong and everybody looks at you like, ‘Damn, you could have had him in the fourth.’

The Patriots aren’t the only team that practices the overdraft or the premium draft. If the Eagles really like someone, they tend to take them a round ahead of where he is commonly valued. Odd that teams that maintain plenty of draft picks practice this.  Offhand, I can recall the Eagles doing this for Derrick Burgess (generally viewed as a fourth rounder). The Steelers have done this as well;  they drafted Casey Hampton a full round above his common valuation.

In the 2012 draft class, players who appear to be attracting premium attention (we’re a day before the draft, mind you) are Ryan Tannehill (late first by talent, thought to be going to Miami at #8), Stephon Gilmore (drafted #3 in a mock draft by Greg Cosell), Fletcher Cox (mid first talent, seen as high as #5 in respectable mocks), Kevin Zeitner (mid second round talent, often in mocks with Pittsburgh in the first round), Chandler Jones (appearing in the first in some mocks), and Mark Barron (some people claim he’s the #7 now, often ranked as a mid first rounder).

If you feel you need the player, sometimes you have to just go out and get him.

Last year I published a study of the run success of Julius Jones and also Marion Barber, in which for comparison I added, among other good runners, Michael Turner.

Michael Turner. Wikimedia image, CC license, courtesy of the Georgia National Guard.

And now, as it turns out, a common conversation piece in Atlanta talk radio is the notion that Michael Turner is washed up, past his prime and should be replaced. At the time this topic emerged, I didn’t have a data set capable of taking a closer look at the issue. But with Brian Burke releasing his 2011 regular season data set, now I do.

So just how well did he do in 2011?


dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2008
run success rate = 39.9
run 40 succ rate = 48.3
run 3d succ rate = 68.8 ( 11 per 16 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 60.0 ( 3 per 5 plays )
short runs rate = 49.1
dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2009
run success rate = 39.2
run 40 succ rate = 53.4
run 3d succ rate = 66.7 ( 2 per 3 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 0.0 ( 0 per 0 plays )
short runs rate = 46.6
dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2010
run success rate = 36.1
run 40 succ rate = 46.7
run 3d succ rate = 66.7 ( 10 per 15 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 100.0 ( 3 per 3 plays )
short runs rate = 47.3
dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2011
run success rate = 37.8
run 40 succ rate = 46.6
run 3d succ rate = 75.0 ( 9 per 12 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 66.7 ( 2 per 3 plays )
short runs rate = 52.0

His run success rate is either better in 2011 than 2010 (my definition) or about the same as 2010 (the Chase Stuart definition). His third down success rate is high. His short runs rate (percentage runs 2 yards or less) is high, but the Falcons also lost a good guard in 2011. The Falcons could use an upgrade at left tackle, and more toughness at guard.

Now to note, when Marion Barber’s short runs rate hit 53%, Dallas let him go. I’m not going to suggest there isn’t cause for concern. But it’s going to take a better tape hound than me to lock down cause and effect here.

The Falcons are a team geared to play close to the vest football and turn their ball control tendencies into wins late in games. If they lack the core runner to set them up for the late winning drive, they seem, as a team, to lose focus. They weren’t ready in 2011 to turn into a pure passing offense. If they decide to part ways with Michael, their plan B had better be well thought out. To this analyst, it’s not clear that Michael was “finished” in 2011.

I picked up this book after Greg Cosell gave it a big thumbs up on Rob Rang and Doug Farrar‘s radio show for KJR in Seattle, curious what it might actually say about the NFL draft.

Turns out this book is an update and rewrite of his earlier book, Patriot Reign, and for 11 of the chapters of this book, really has almost nothing to do about the draft, other than teasers spiked throughout the work. One interesting comment about the draft ranking system implemented by Belichick goes:

One of the things that made the system different was that it absolutely required a scout to know his college area or region of coverage in addition to each member of the Patriots’ fifth-three man roster. All reports, without exception, were comparative, and were based on what a given prospect could do vs. any current Patriot playing his position.

As a book, it initially has no sense of overarching storyline, content to wander about the narrative landscape the way a 60 year old grandfather would, telling one story in deep depth and then switching abruptly to another. It follows a variety of points of view. They all do not make much sense until you get to the end, where Michael actually starts talking more in depth about the draft in chapter 12. It finally becomes clear that he has three points of view, all intertwined, that of Belichick, that of Thomas Dimitroff, GM of the Atlanta Falcons, and that of Scott Pioli, GM of the Kansas City Chiefs. But to get there, to the three chapters of new material, he has you read about 11 chapters that I suspect were mostly all told in Patriot Reign.

Disturbing is the often myopic point of view of the book. Most notable in this regard is the coverage of Spygate, which can be summarized as (A) It was all Eric Mangini’s fault (B) Everybody does it and (C) People are picking on us needlessly and hurtfully. It’s in these segments where the book descends even from rambling history and becomes a fanboy lament. When you have to complain, in Poor Poor Pitiful Me fashion, about Gregg Easterbrook talking you down – in football terms, a comic, mind you – then you really do need to step out of the narrative a while and reexamine the facts. Tom, of the blog Residual Prolixity, puts it this way:

There are also a couple things Holley doesn’t seem to get, either from a Boston-centric viewpoint or they’re not obvious and nobody actually bothered to explain them to him, with the foremost example in my mind that Spygate (covered only briefly) exacerbated an existing anti-Boston sentiment arising from a belief that the Patriots were willing to push to the edge of the rules and beyond, if they could get away with it, which they could (see increase in illegal contact penalties, 2004, post Colts-Patriots).

All that said, once you get to Chapter 12, there are three chapters of useful insider stuff on how three teams conduct their draft. The background info on Dimitroff and Pioli are good enough to be useful to fans of the Falcons and Chiefs. Just, the new stuff isn’t substantial enough to be a book on its own – more like a long extended article in the New Yorker or the Washington Post. But, book sales being what they are, the new stuff was tacked onto the old stuff and sold as an entirely new product.

Up to you, whether you should read it. It can be interesting given the limitations of the material. Scaled in the measure of a draft pick, this is day two material.

It’s hard, sometimes, getting past the hopes, dreams, assumed truths, the outright lies, the hype and blather of the draft season and dig down to real assessments, real evaluations, and for that matter, the real news of the day. I don’t consider much of what Pro Football Talk reports as real news. I tend more to fellas like Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas, Dan Graziano of ESPN NFC East, and these days, Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News.

"All we want are the facts ma'am"
Image from Wikimedia.

Les, yesterday, came out with a series of tweets with regard to Eagles GM Howie Roseman where he was content to play the straight man. Sometimes, we need that and it is appreciated. I am happy enough to let the Florios and Skip Baylesses of the world be my cynics. Sometimes I need a guy who doesn’t look up and horse laugh when a news figure delivers a dubious line. Les’s followup article is here. Dan Graziano’s take on Howie is here.

That said, Les isn’t without his wits. The best NFCE draft related tweet of yesterday was this one:

Roseman talks danger of taking guy high who is “the best of a bad bunch” rather than a really good player. I think this means no Mark Barron

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