With Greg Childs' recent bilateral patellar tendon rupture, many fans are quick to castigate Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. They are wrong to do so—Greg Childs was the right pick to make at the bottom of the fourth round of the NFL draft.
Not only does the general talent pool of the fourth round encourage picking players with red flags, but fourth-round picks aren't a particularly valuable loss to incur. Moreover, Greg Childs' "warning signs" were none too serious.
High-risk/high-reward picks in the fourth round are winning bets
Since 2001, the Vikings have picked a number of players with red flags, but high upsides, in the fourth rounds. While they have more often picked reliable players who have limited talent but work hard, the Vikings have not shied away from occasionally rolling the dice.
2003: Onterrio Smith
2006: Ray Edwards
2010: Everson Griffen
2012: Greg Childs
All of them had red flags, and all of them had starter talent. Out of that small sample size, that's two hits—assuming you're high on Everson Griffen—out of four shots, producing a starting-level player 50 percent of the time.
Given that 91 percent of fourth-rounders do not find themselves consistently starting for three solid seasons (or starting for 48 games), the Vikings' hit rate vastly exceeds the field .
In fact, fourth-rounders only grab 10 percent of all available NFL starting slots.
That is, on average, 4.4 of the starting slots in an NFL game will be given to people who were fourth-round picks. By comparison, 11.9 of the spots will be given to first-rounders (which is over a fourth of the available spaces) and 8.4 of the starting slots will go to second-rounders.
It is inaccurate to call a fourth-round pick a "high risk," as many of them wash out of the NFL within two years, more often due to an inability to compete at the NFL level than because of any character or injury concerns.
Fourth-rounders do an admirable job helping fill out depth charts, so the pick isn't useless. However, if a team has a chance at picking a good starter on a gamble that works out half the time, that's more useful than making the safe pick for the "reliable backup" that works out every time.
You'll get more snaps over the course of the season (and better play in those snaps) out of your good starters, even if the odds are that you have fewer hits in your drafting to find those good starters.
Put another way, the amount of NFL snaps you get from backups is less than half the amount of snaps you get from starters—and with worse results.
Depth picks do not always provide depth—the cost of wasting a pick is low
The cost of a failed draft pick is two-fold. First, general managers are forfeiting their right to draft one of the other plays available at that slot, and the second is the direct financial cost to the organization.
Those draft picks, when not used on players with high upside, are generally used for players who are consistent and designed to fill out the bench.
"Reliable backups"—which should probably be defined as bench-warmers who can maintain a roster spot for three years (the average life of an NFL player)—are not by any means guaranteed. When the Vikings (or nearly any team) have picked "safe" picks, they fail at a fairly high rate.
The Vikings' "safest" fourth-round picks since 2001:
2001: Cedric James (two years in MN before being cut, active for five games)
2002: Brian Williams (reliable backup)
2003: Ed Ta'amu (injured, put on the practice squad, then cut)
2004: Nat Dorsey (one year, then cut)
2005: Ciatrick Fason (two years as a backup, then cut)
2004: Mewelde Moore (good steal)
2007: Brian Robison (good steal)
That's about a 50 percent hit rate, with a bit more upside talent than one expects from fourth-round picks. At any rate, the Vikings have produced starters at a similar rate as they have produced
good fill-ins when picking risky, but talented players.
This isn't just a relic of poor drafting history by the Vikings—it is in fact a better record in the fourth round than most teams. It just happens to be difficult to play in the NFL, especially for fourth-rounders.
Knowing that a generic fourth-round pick will produce a good backup at the same rate that risky fourth-round picks produce starters should give pause to people who advocate that the Vikings "play it safe."
Other than the use of the pick, however, the Vikings are on the hook for Childs' pay.
While Childs' salary is going to be amnestied from the cap that restricts total spending by NFL teams, the Vikings will still owe him his full salary—only $300,000. The Vikings will retain his rights in the case of a full or nearly full recovery, as low as that likelihood may be.
Beyond that, Greg Childs was not expected to start for the 2012 season, others potentially being slated to fill in for Jerome Simpson between Weeks 1 and 3. Heading into the next offseason, the Vikings will simply treat split end as another need in the case that Jerome Simpson either does not work out or requires too high a salary to fathom re-signing.
Greg Childs was a lower risk than people gave him credit for
In 2010, Arkansas wide receiver Greg Childs entered a game against Vanderbilt with a sprained ankle, and left the game with a ruptured patellar tendon. Considered one of the top receivers in the country at the time, Childs was never the same when playing for the Razorbacks.
It was this injury that caused so much worry for the draft intelligentsia and why Childs' stock plummeted. Despite posting an impressive pro day showing, teams were worried about the possibility of a future injury.
But teams should not have been worried about a repeat catastrophe. Much of the medical knowledge surrounding patellar tendon ruptures is generally open, and this writeup provides insight into the Childs' injury. It will explain in much more detail many of the concepts below.
One can determine susceptibility to future patellar tendon tears by the location of the tear.
Athletically induced tears or tears as a result of traumatic injury occur near the top of the tendon, where the tissue connects with the bone (in this case, the bone is the patella, or kneecap).
When this fully heals, there's generally no expectation of future weakness because of the nature of the way that tendons heal—tightly packed collagen doesn't lose strength, merely elasticity (which is resolved with activity).
If the patellar tendon tears in the middle (between the patella and the tibia), it's a sign of already existing weakness, usually tendonitis or a problem with the collagen structure of the tendons—something that would have been detected in Childs before college in the form of chronic pain or the other types of tendon tears.
This is the type of patellar tendon injury that bears risk of repeating itself, and not the likely scenario in this case—after all, the associated diseases, like chronic renal failure and diabetes, would have presented themselves.
This is important insofar as the Vikings' staff know what questions to ask the Arkansas medical team in order to determine the future likelihood of injury—regardless of how often you think the Vikings gamble on players, know that every NFL team does their due diligence in this department.
What's most surprising, and perhaps, the hardest to swallow is that it is more probable that the two patellar tendon tears (referred to as bilateral patellar tendon ruptures) are unrelated to his initial injury than it is that they are related.
What's interesting about tendon and ligament injuries is that, once the associated muscle movements are back at full strength, the tendon is healed. Even a poor rehab process would have meant that Childs' tendons did not exhibit any of the residual weaknesses that would cause a repeat occurrence. That would not, at any rate, explain the tear occurring in the left leg.
Childs amply demonstrated complete recovery after his pro day exhibited an appreciable increase in his speed.
Because patellar tendon injuries are often nonrepeatable, Childs was not as big an injury risk as people make him out to be. It wasn't an extraordinary gamble.
Rick Spielman did the right thing selecting Greg Childs at the bottom of the fourth round. With a potentially high-value player in the offing, the Vikings pulled the trigger on an opportunity—one that looked like it would bear out before a freak accident robbed Childs of the ability to play, perhaps, forever.
If faced with the same choice once more, the Vikings should make the same decision.