The NFL draft is a kind of auction, with auction-like dynamics. It’s also akin to a marriage. It only takes one, not a crowd, to get married and the opinion of the one outweigh the many. When analyzing the draft, I’ve been known to say things like between three players of the same true value, the one that gets drafted is the one whose value is most overestimated (1). I’ve also said things like one scouting opinion isn’t important, but the envelope of opinions is. The distribution of those opinions is crucial to knowing when a player can be drafted (2).

The distribution of player rankings can affect the possible draft positions of a player.

The distribution of player rankings can affect the possible draft positions of a player. Hand drawn curves on a brand new pen tablet, so they’re not perfect curves. Imagine the purple curve with more extensive tails.

In the diagram above, there are three distributions, with different peaks, means and spreads. Player A, in black, has a tight distribution of values and barring any issues with uniqueness of position, there is a consensus where he will be drafted. Player B, in red, has a broader distribution, but is unlikely to suffer more than half a round of variance in draft position. Player C, in purple, has an envelope encompassing two whole rounds of the draft. It’s the player C types that create a lot of controversy.


Travis Frederick and ZZ Top: Separated at birth?

The player the Dallas Cowboys drafted in the first round, Travis Frederick, is exactly one of those types. He was highly ranked before the combine, but suffered because of his bad 40 time. People like Gil Brandt, who had him ranked 27th best at the time, dropped him because of his 40 time. Perusing various links, such as this one, you see rankings ranging from 31 (Gary Horton) into the 90s. Now please note that draft pundits really don’t count, NFL teams do. But for the sake of argument, we’re using media scouts as an estimator of the envelope of NFL opinions. And that envelope of values encompass two whole rounds of variance.

So, what happens when you must have a player whose valuation envelope is a broad distribution? This player must be taken pretty far from the mean, in the tails of the “high value” side, or else you risk losing him (3). What is guaranteed though, is that the pundits on the other side of the mean from you will undoubtedly scream bloody murder. That’s because a draft pundit’s opinion is his life’s blood, and they make their money validating and defending that opinion, usually in print, and sometimes on television. That it’s one of many doesn’t matter if that’s how you make your living. So of course pundits will scream.

2013 was a draft with few good players. If estimates are valid that there were only 16 or so players truly worth a first round pick, then by default you’re overdrafting your quality by a half round by the middle of the first round. If the span of Frederick’s valuations really ran from, say, mid second to the beginning of the fourth, then the so-called overdraft is not, it’s entirely the function of three things: first, the perceived need for the player and second, such a broad valuation envelope that Dallas had to draft him in the tails of the distribution. Third factor, the lack of talent overall in the draft that led to overdrafting in general.


1. Jonathan Bales, before he became a New York Times contributor, favored this comment (common sense, IMO) and used it to help validate a pet drafting theory of his. I never saw enough rigor in his theory to separate it from the notions of BPA or need, as it was more a collective efficiency concept. IMO the notion hardly led to the invalidation of BPA or needs based drafting.

2. In the early 2000s, I wrote a Monte Carlo simulator of the draft, which explicitly used those distributions to estimate where players would be drafted. More discussion of that code, released as a Sourceforge project, is here.

3. Let me note that in “must have” situations, teams whose draft record no one complains about .. New England say .. will draft players above their worth. Belichick’s rationale, given in the link, is instructive. An excerpt is:

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.’

PS – tskyler, a Cowboys Zone forum contributor, has a very nuanced fan analysis of the Frederick draft here, one worth reading.

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