Last fall, members of a group called the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective attempted to create a new pick value chart for the NFL draft. While the value of NFL draft picks has been elusive and difficult to standardize across teams (the 32 team boards vary greatly, so every team will value picks differently), the old "Jimmy Johnson" chart that the HSAC calls "arbitrary" was a decent approximation of what it would take to move up in the draft.
For instance, last year, the Jaguars gave up a mid-second to move up from No. 16 to No. 10 to draft Blaine Gabbert. The Jimmy Johnson chart had the value gauged at a late second.
The HSAC used the excellent Career Approximate Value statistic created by Pro-Football-Reference.com to look backwards and see what the average value of the players chosen at each pick were worth in hindsight. This, as an exercise in and of itself, is valuable. It shows us that success is not ensured by being drafted high, and failure is not ensured by being drafted low.
Where the HSAC goes off course is using these values to create a chart of actual value for picks. For instance, the HSAC chart dictates that the Jaguars should have only given up an early seventh-round pick to move up from No. 16 to No. 10.
That just feels wrong on its face, as just about any other equivalency dictated by the chart does. Why is this measure of what picks have been worth in the past so unsuitable for valuing picks in current or future drafts?
The right to pick 10th is worth a lot more than what the average player picked 10th did over the course of his career.
Yes, there have been many Top 10 busts, but no war room picking 10th expects their pick to be a bust, or even equal to the average of the No. 10 picks of the last 25 years. Heck, the player they are picking 10th is probably a top-5-7 player on their board. So, they expect the player to perform like the best of the No. 10 picks in the past, and so would anyone asking to trade for the pick.
The right to pick 10th and the expected value of the player acquired in the mind of the team making the selection should dictate the value.
Past failures at a pick slot have no bearing on future value.
I'll use the analogy of choice, downtown real estate for bars and restaurants. The rents will be as high as any commercial property in town. If a string of businesses rent the spot and fail, that should barely impact the rent, if at all. The real estate still has the very valuable potential to create a lucrative business because of the unique opportunity presented by its location.
First-round picks, especially Top 10 picks, are that choice real estate in the draft. Just because previous GMs have failed there doesn't mean that current and future GMs won't and shouldn't covet that real estate.
Predicting a player's reaction to his first big contract is difficult.
Matt Waldman's piece "The Great Emotional Divide" is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the leap from college football to the pros. Many exceptional talents fail not because of football issues, but personal issues. Many need career near-death experiences and to play on a second or even third team before they find success.
The potential to lose desire after getting the first check for millions of dollars is high, but the new CBA's reduced rookie salaries should keep the rookies hungrier than they had been in the past, when Top 5 picks started out among the higher paid players at their position. First-round busts are spectacular, which brings down the average of the group in a study like this.
Predicting how young, talented football players will perform in the pros is an inexact science. This is why teams spend so much money to have scouting departments. Even after a team evaluates a player's talent, production, character and fit in its system, unforeseen obstacles to that player's success can arise. Obstacles that were assumed to be too high to overcome can create late-round and undrafted success stories.
That doesn't invalidate the value of early draft picks to the extent that the HSAC chart does. If anything, the positive correlation between draft slot and career value with all of the unknowns that go into a player's translation from college to pros only validates the job the NFL is doing evaluating talent and the worth of draft picks.
The HSAC approach is terrific for proving how difficult NFL success is regardless of a player's "starting position" based on draft slot, but it shouldn't be used to draw any conclusions beyond that one.