When trying to value drafts, we tend to think only in one direction: how to get as much talent for the kinds of draft picks we have.There is another kind of optimization that often goes under the radar, and that is having the coaching talent and foresight to construct a winning offense that doesn’t require extreme athletes. If, for example, you can get the same caliber running game out of 4th round draft choices as other coaches would with a mid first round choice, you’ve lowered the cost of the offense (Mike Shanahan and his zone blocking-cutback running scheme). If you can get high quality play out of quarterbacks with modest physical skills by making their reads simpler and jobs easier, you’ve lowered the cost of your quarterbacks (the West Coast offense). If by looking for smaller players with plenty of speed, drafting linebackers from strong safety-linebacker tweeners, putting linebackers at defense end and defensive ends at defense tackle, you markedly increase your team speed. Further, because you’ve fruitfully used so many tweeners, you’ve cut the cost of your defense (Miami 4-3, notes here and here and here. Coach Hoover talks about it here, defending the flexbone, and I’m pretty sure the Penn State defense, described here, is a derivative of this defense as well).
You can probably formalize the cost of an offense (or defense) by treating the draft as a market and assigning the players on a team their draft value, either by methods we touched on here, or a fit to a Weibull distribution, as shown in figure 1 of this manuscript, or by analogy using AdamJT13’s chart here. To note, the cost of a free agent in this context is zero, since no draft choice was spent purchasing them. I don’t claim ideas like these are original to me. On the site LiveBall Sports – very nice multisport site with a nice analytics bent – they have a 2 part series (NFC and AFC) evaluating the usage of free agents, and the language of the author, Greg Trippiedi, makes it clear he’s thinking in terms of draft value. How valuable are these no-cost free agents? Please recall that in this article, we quote Bobby Beathard as saying the first Super Bowl team under his watch with the Redskins had 26 free agents on the roster. But it also had excellent coaches, who could turn sow’s ears into.. well.. Hawgs.
Since a player that makes a roster is occupying a slot that others could also occupy, I suspect a true valuation of the cost of a player would also have to include development time. If it takes 5 years for a player to become a starter (or major rotation player), there is the cost of his draft choice and the time cost of his development. Both need to be assessed in terms of his cost. A player that never starts, never plays and occupies space becomes a dead weight cost.
One final issue. Dynasties can’t be constructed with expensive players. Think about it. Dynasties don’t have particularly good draft position. Winning in the early years guarantees that. The average player lasts about four years. So in general, they will have a few elite players with long careers and a large corps of pretty good, inexpensive players. If costs of the team model can’t be lowered adequately, sustained winning can’t be achieved. Replacement players will simply come at an unsustainable cost.