The Moneyball Guide to the 2018 NFL Draft
Moneyball is much more than a set of commandments about how to build a team, a talk-radio euphemism for stuff "Real Football Guys" hate or an excuse for going 1-31 for two seasons.
Moneyball—or analytics (a more accurate, less loaded term)—informs everything the NFL does these days, from running a trick play on 4th-and-goal in the Super Bowl to—you guessed it—deciding who to draft and when.
Analytics are, like, the air we breathe during draft season, dude. And this primer will catch you up on some of the mathematical models and trends that are determining your team's draft strategy and its future.
Why are Moneyball-types boffo for Baker Mayfield but sour on Josh Allen? Is there a better playmaker in this draft than Calvin Ridley? Why are nickelbacks like Minkah Fitzpatrick so important these days? Why is this a draft like none other for the Browns?
The answers to these questions, and more, can all be found inside the numbers.
And don't panic: We did the math so you don't have to.
The Browns Cannot Screw Up This Draft...(Or Can They?)
As you probably know, the Browns have gone 1-31 over the last two years, but they have used that time to stockpile a historic amount of draft capital.
Draft capital is just a technical term (precisely defined by Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com) for the weighted value of all of their picks, from the first and fourth overall (worth a ton) to their pair of sixth-rounders (chump change). It's based on those old charts teams used to guide trades of draft picks but updated with better data.
According to Warren Sharp on Sharp Football Analysis, the Browns possessed 117.5 points of draft capital at the start of free agency, most in the league by a staggering margin and the third-highest figure since the merger. Only the 1991 Cowboys (still benefiting from leftover capital from the Herschel Walker trade) and 1982 Patriots entered the draft with more capital than the Browns had entering free agency—though the Browns have spent a little bit of that surplus on trades for veterans like Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry.
The Cowboys used their 1989-91 draft bounty to build the Wowboys. The 1982 Patriots added Hall of Famer Andre Tippett and built a team that would soon reach the Super Bowl. So all the Browns have to do is draft like those teams did and it will vindicate two years of extreme Moneyball veganism under deposed Sashi Brown, right?
Perhaps. Bill Barnwell's 2017 ESPN breakdown of historic teams with high levels of draft capital is full of franchises that selected shrewdly and built powerhouses, like the Wowboys and 1985 Bills. But there are also cautionary tales like the 2007 Raiders (JaMarcus Russell). And Barnwell was writing before the 2017 draft: The Browns have been amassing this historic stockpile for quite a while with depressing, counterproductive on-field results.
Hoarding draft capital is not an end in itself. It's supposed to be used to build Super Bowl teams. The outgoing Browns regime made a historic sacrifice. New general manager John Dorsey and the incoming front office must use it to produce 1990s Wowboys-caliber results.
It's not enough for the Browns to "win" next week's draft; with so many picks, they essentially already have. They must dominate it. This draft is their Super Bowl.
Why the Analytics Love Baker Mayfield
Say it was your job to select a rookie quarterback for your NFL team, but you were forbidden from watching any of the prospects ever throw a single football.
Given such a ridiculous restriction, you would probably cross your fingers and scan the stat sheets for a quarterback who:
• Started a lot of college games...
• For a major program...
• Which faced a lot of great defenses...
• And who put up impressive totals and rate stats...
• But wasn't obviously a product of a system full of great supporting talent.
Now, imagine taking all of those common-sense criteria, defining and quantifying them precisely, and creating a metric to guide your scouting department when selecting a quarterback.
That method would look a lot like the Football Outsiders' QBASE system. And like QBASE, that method would love Baker Mayfield.
You probably know Mayfield started for three seasons for Oklahoma (and a fourth for Texas Tech) and threw for precisely 54 zillion yards and infinite touchdowns (14,607 and 131, actually). Mayfield's rate stats, including his 68.5 percent completion rate and 9.8 yards per pass attempt, are exceptional, even by wide-open Big 12 standards.
Mayfield has has been helped along the way by some great playmakers and offensive linemen, but as Aaron Schatz wrote in this year's QBASE report, his schedule wasn't as Big 12 playground-tastic as you might think. Mayfield had a big game against Ohio State and held his own in the CFP semifinals against Georgia, after all. Shake the numbers out to remove some distortions, and Mayfield still laps this year's field.
Moneyball is all about providing context and meaning for statistics. Sometimes, that just means confirming what's obvious. Mayfield is the most productive, experienced quarterback in this draft class. It shows in the numbers. And it shows on the game film, too.
Why the Analytics Hate Josh Allen
Hate is such a strong word. But raise serious questions about makes a crummy header.
Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen's 56.2 percent completion rate is the battleground statistic of this year's draft. His critics cite it as damning evidence of his inaccuracy. His supporters attack the number with arguments like:
• Allen's completion rate is low because his receiving corps was weak, and...
• Allen's completion rate is low because he threw more bombs and fewer high-percentage screen passes than most prospects, and...
• Stats are for losers, you loser.
Every good football analyst knows it's highly misleading to equate completion percentage with accuracy. But completion percentages should be used to inform detailed examinations and film breakdowns for every quarterback.
Derrik Klassen of the Optimum Scouting Draft Guide uses a metric called True Accuracy to take some of the fluff and bubble screens out of college completion percentages. The system awards bonuses for deep completions and penalties for completions behind the line of scrimmage to put every prospect from every college system on equal footing.
And? Josh Allen finished dead last among this year's quarterback prospects, with a 59.7 percent True Accuracy rate. Every other significant prospect checked in at over 65 percent.
Klassen's research also revealed that Allen's completion rate was shockingly low on 11- to 15-yard passes (50.0 percent complete), as well as one- to five-yard passes (71.8 percent) and even passes behind the line of scrimmage (64.1 percent). Allen's completion rate on screen passes is lower than most quarterbacks' completion rates on all passes!
The Football Outsiders QBASE projection model, which incorporates completion rate as a primary variable, gives Allen an alarming 62.7 percent chance of becoming a draft bust. Quarterback prospects with statistical profiles like Allen's in recent NFL history? C.J. Beathard, Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg, Jake Locker and Andrew Walter—a who's who of big-armed guys whose stats were given the "Um, actually" treatment.
Oh, and Allen's numbers were not significantly better in 2016, when he had better talent around him, than they were last year.
Discard or explain away completion percentage at your own peril. A low college completion rate is a reliable historic indicator that a quarterback will struggle in the NFL. Allen may prove to be an exception, but every NFL evaluator knows that when you start drafting exceptions, you had better be right.
Saquon Barkley and the Great Moneyball Running Back Debate
Running backs are not as valued by the NFL, particularly in the draft, as they were 20 to 30 years ago. There are a variety of reasons: RBs have short careers, teams are now more pass-oriented, two- to three-back committees are often more effective and affordable than the one-man workhorse model, and so on.
But recent seasons have seen an uptick in early draft selections for running backs like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. Is that a trend that bodes well for Penn State's Saquon Barkley—arguably the best pure prospect in this draft class—and the deep pool of running backs behind him?
The answer is "yes and no."
Chase Stuart's research at FootballPerspective.com reveals that teams are categorically not investing any more draft capital in running backs than they did during the dark days of the mid-2010s, when first-round running backs nearly went extinct.
While the recent successes of Gurley and Elliott—and a 2011 rookie wage scale that prevents teams from signing rookies to Reggie Bush-sized cap-buster contracts—should buoy Barkley in the top 10 selections, lots of successful, popular college running backs will still have to wait until Day 3 to hear their names called. There were 30 running backs or fullbacks selected last year and 22 of them left the board in the fourth round or later.
Running back talent is plentiful, both in this class and the NFL. Increased supply and steady demand leads to lower prices, or draft slots. It's basic economics.
Moneyball-minded teams will frustrate fans and fantasy gamers next week by drafting cornerbacks and defensive linemen early and then bargain-hunting for running backs on Saturday afternoon. History tells us that tactic will be worth it in the long run.
Feeling the Need for Speed (and Size) at Running Back
Moneyball principles may not recommend drafting a running back early, but the analytics love big, fast running backs just as much as scouts do.
ESPN's Bill Barnwell developed Speed Score for Football Outsiders in 2008. It's a deceptively simple way to combine a running back's weight and 40 time into one easy-to-understand number. That way, no mental arithmetic must be done to compare a 233-pound back with 4.40 speed (Saquon Barkley) to a 198-pounder with 4.38 speed (NC State's Nyheim Hines) or a 250-pounder with 4.69 speed (Texas' Chris Warren).
Barkley blew this year's crop of running backs away with a 124.3 Speed Score. Hines and Warren also posted very good results for projected mid-rounders. You can find the full list here, which has its share of surprises, like Nick Chubb beating Georgia teammate Sony Michel.
Speed Score is far from foolproof. After all, it's just a blend of two combine results. But it's a handy item to keep in the toolkit for informing the scouting process. A 1,000-yarder from a powerhouse program with a low Speed Score could be a product of his system. On the other hand, an unheralded rusher with a great Speed Score could be a diamond in the rough.
For example, Arizona State's Kalen Ballage finished second to Barkley in Speed Score despite low production totals as part of a committee backfield in college. The measurables indicate that he deserves a closer look. You may want to keep an eye on him when it's time to draft your fantasy team as well.
Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore and the Analytics of Playmaking
Successful NFL receivers almost always start out as successful college receivers. They catch a high percentage of their college team's passes, score a lot of touchdowns, rack up high yards-per-catch rates and run fast and jump high in their predraft workouts.
Boy, Moneyball sounds more like plain-old common sense with every new header, doesn't it? But college production can be tricky to interpret because of all of the different systems, levels, calibers of quarterback and other variables.
Calvin Ridley's raw stats look pretty good—224 career catches, 2,781 yards and 19 touchdowns in three seasons—especially factoring in Alabama's run-heavy offense and option-style quarterbacking. But for someone touted as a DeSean Jackson-level deep threat, Ridley caught a relatively low percentage of his team's touchdown passes, and his vertical leap at the combine (just 31") suggests that he may not be as explosive or capable of hauling in a contested pass as the NFL's elite receivers.
By contrast, D.J. Moore's raw numbers in three seasons at Maryland are less impressive than Ridley's (146-2,027-17), but his career yards-per-catch rate is higher (13.9 to 12.4) and his production came in a Maryland scheme that's even more run-oriented than the Alabama offense. Throw in a 39.5-inch vertical leap, and there are many reasons to believe Moore will outperform Ridley at the start of his NFL career.
Football Outsiders' Playmaker Score takes the variables mentioned above, and others, and turns them into projection ratings for all of the top wide receiver prospects. You can read more about the method and find this year's ratings here.
Keep in mind that variables like the vertical jump weren't chosen randomly or picked by some Alabama hater who wants to see Ridley fail. They were selected based on years of analysis to determine what variables were true indicators of future success.
That's analytics in a nutshell: finding useful variables and eliminating meaningless or misleading ones. Often, the results end up sounding a lot like common sense.
The Not-So-Secret Sleeper Among Edge-Rushers
There are many difficulties with performing statistical analysis on college edge-rushers. Sacks are relatively rare, which can distort results. Blockers range from future NFL starters to pudgy future high school phys ed teachers. Many top edge-rushers rack up big sack totals against Middle Nowhere State or benefit from schemes that give them unblocked paths to the quarterback. Others are double-teamed on every snap.
There are several methods for sidestepping these problems. One is to meld analysis with game study. Anthony Chiado does just that each year for the Optimum Scouting Draft Guide, tracking how often each top pass-rusher is double-teamed, how often he's unblocked, where he lines up, which of his pass-rush moves are most successful and so forth.
NC State's Bradley Chubb looks as solid as you might expect in the breakdowns. Marcus Davenport of Texas-San Antonio blows the field away, albeit against lower competition levels. But Chiado's research uncovers a variety of secrets about other edge-rushers, most notably Oklahoma's Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
Okoronkwo pressed opposing quarterbacks on 25.4 percent of passing plays, second only to Davenport. He was rarely unblocked (just 3.6 percent of his pressures) and beat his opponent with some sort of countermove 25.0 percent of the time.
The countermoves reveal Okoronkwo's ability to do more than just explode out the gate and beat a left tackle to the edge. The Optimum Scouting analysis quantifies Okoronkwo's ability to work through blocks and find alternate routes to the quarterback, two important skills for success as an NFL pass-rusher.
Okoronkwo also performed well at the combine and the Senior Bowl and was a major-program superstar, so he's hardly a "sleeper." Analytics aren't just about evaluating players but also describing them in more precise and useful terms than "he's explosive" or "he's a winner."
(And if you are protesting that counting double-teams and countermoves is scouting, not Moneyball, then here's a news flash: That's a false distinction. Good analysis and careful observation always go hand-in-hand. It's when one rejects the other that teams start making foolish decisions.)
The Changing Game of Football, by the Numbers
One basic goal of analytics is to create an accurate model of what is really happening on Sundays. Coaches still talk about "dropback quarterbacks," "4-3 defenses" and "establishing the run." But they cannot afford to allow old cliches to guide their draft strategies.
These percentages, calculated from spreadsheets compiled by Sports Info Solutions in conjunction with Football Outsiders, provide a snapshot of types of players teams need to win on Sundays:
Offensive plays from shotgun formation: 59.7 percent
Impact: Prioritizing a college quarterback because he has "experience under center" or played a "pro-style offense" is a great way to draft a player perfect for the 1980s. Dropping back from under center can be taught. Or, in some offenses, practically omitted from the game plan.
Defensive snaps with five or more DBs: 65.3 percent
Impact: Every NFL team needs three starting cornerbacks, not two. And Minkah Fitzpatrick-types who specialize in playing the slot are starters, not role players. On the other hand, that old-school Josey Jewell-type run-stuffing linebacker may make older scouts salivate, but he could spend two-thirds of the game on the bench in the NFL.
Offensive snaps with three or more WRs: 62.6 percent
Impact: This percentage only counts players listed on the depth chart as wide receivers, not snaps where Rob Gronkowski or Alvin Kamara lines up in the slot. Just as every team needs at least three cornerbacks, every effective passing game needs three quality receivers. And teams only use two-back personnel groups (including plays with a Kamara-type in the slot and a Mark Ingram-type in the backfield) about 13.5 percent of the time, which is more bad news for the nation's few remaining fullbacks.
Percentage of running plays in the first quarter: 43.0 percent
Coaches who claim they "establish the run" are lying to themselves and you. Teams throw the ball 57.0 percent of the time in the first quarter, before either side is forced to adjust its play calls because they are nursing a lead or playing catch-up. So while run blocking and run defense remain important, some teams overemphasize them in the draft process. Passing is the name of the game in the NFL, from the opening whistle to the final gun.
Moneyball Makes the 2018 Draft Tricky to Predict
Quarterbacks are the most important players in football. This draft has a bunch of them, and flawed though each of the prospects may be, the best ones will all be selected near the top of the draft board.
So far, so good.
Cornerbacks, edge-rushers and offensive tackles rank next on the Moneyball leverage/marginal value scale. This year's cornerback crop is solid enough, but both the edge-rusher and offensive tackle classes are thinner than phyllo dough.
Running backs, guards, off-ball linebackers and safeties rank at the bottom of the marginal value scale. As mentioned, running back talent is plentiful, while the difference between average, great and all-time great players at the other positions is less visible in the win-loss column than the difference between an average quarterback and a Tom Brady.
But this year's class is overflowing with talent at those low-leverage positions. We've covered the running backs. Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson is one of the best guard prospects ever, and there is depth behind him. Georgia's Roquan Smith leads a tremendous linebacker class. Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick spearhead a strong safety/nickelback class.
Teams that follow the Moneyball "rules" will avoid the top players on the guard/running back/etc. draft lists, even if that forces them to reach or gamble on a second-tier edge-rusher or left tackle.
But teams that follow the underlying principles of analytics will seek the best values. That may mean gobbling up the guards, running backs and linebackers who slip through the cracks (Barkley and Nelson won't be overlooked for long, but Derrius Guice, Will Hernandez and others might), even if that means taking a low-leverage player higher than they are "supposed to."
It makes draft prognostication tricky. It's also a reminder that Moneyball isn't a template laid out in a Brad Pitt movie. It's an approach to team-building and a method for solving problems. Different teams can use the same methods and approaches to arrive at very different conclusions.
The Eagles, after all, are as committed to analytics as the Browns are. They traded up for Carson Wentz when the Browns were trading down to collect picks.
We'll learn more about how analytics are shaping the market after the draft. Until then, we'll use the numbers to make the best possible projections. Because that's what teams do.