Examining the First Round

Like many fans, Ajit Kirpekar has been critical of Bill Polian’s drafts recently. Unlike many fans, he took the time to do some research to see if his complaints were valid. I think you’ll find his conclusions fascinating.

If you are a Colts fan like me, this has been a very strange and surreal season.  I admit, before the lockout was lifted, I had very high hopes for the team. Despite FO’s rather pessimistic outlook, there were many reasons to expect a bounce back year, injuries being the primary one. But of course, injury’s and the Colts seem to go hand in hand, and as it turns out, the Colts’ motto of “next man up” really applies to every player but one. The 2010 Colts were a deeply flawed team that Manning dragged to the postseason. What’s more remarkable than the 2010 Colts winning 10 games was the fact that had it not been for a Josh Scobee 60 yard field goal and two inanely foolish timeouts by Caldwell, the Colts might have won 11 games and advanced to 2nd round.  Such was Manning’s greatness and his absence effectively put the nail in the 2011 season.

After the 62-7 smack down by the Saints, Colts fans unanimously felt that both Caldwell and Coyer deserved the axe. However, what is a much stickier and more debated issue revolves around the Polians. Nate, as many of you know, has routinely railed against the anti-Polian camp. I personally have never been a fan of Polians. Even back in 2009, I saw a flawed roster that was overly reliant on its elite stars.  Throughout the decade, the Colts have provided an interesting case study on just how valuable a transcending player can be. Freeney, Clark, Glenn, Wayne, Sanders, James, Stokley and others have all been injured at one point or have moved on and yet the Colts continued their winning ways. As far as I was concerned, how could anyone continue to praise Polian with the apparent lack of talent supporting Manning?  Wasn’t the fact that the Steelers and Patriots managed to win despite missing their QBs a clear sign that all was not right with Polian?

Partly due to my back and forth with Nate, I decided to look into the evidence myself. I constructed a table that recorded every draft choice from 1993 to 2010 and tried to grade their draft value based on their career ( I’ll explain more on this later). There are two major things that jump out, and I can say that the results did indeed surprise me. I will leave it to the reader to come up with his or her own measured conclusions, but I do want to say that my results neither absolve nor condemn the Polians.  After all, GM duties include more than just drafting players. There are many elements and roles to the front office and the success of a player being drafted can be as much about coaching as scouting. The best thing we can do is consider as much of the evidence as we can before making our judgments.

My method was to grade each draft choice based on a set of criterion that he had achieved. The value of each criteria was based on how likely a draft pick was to achieve that criteria. As it follows, a draft choice is more likely to starting for 4 years or more than he to earn multiple all pros honors. Thus, players who managed to earn multiple all pros were awarded more points than players who had merely started 4 years or more.  I setup the point system so that the maximum any draft pick can earn, assuming they have achieved every criterion, is 100. This is regardless of position, as the system rewards players like Peyton Manning, Michael Strahan, Charles Woodson and Ray Lewis all with 100.

A few things to note: I did not give points for MVPs, DPOY, OPOY, ROY, or super bowl recognition. These awards tend to be highly biased against certain positions and/or are heavily influenced by overall team success. Now obviously, things like pro bowls and all pros suffer from the same type of bias, but at the very least, each position is given an equal chance of earning them and they are frankly the only achievements that are easily measurable. The other big point to mention is that the more recent draft choices were unable to earn as many points largely because they hadn’t played for very long. For example, I included the 2010 draft even though each pick could at most only start for 2 years and earn at most 1 pro bowl and all pro vote. For the recent draft picks, I awarded a point for having started at least 50 percent or more of their eligible career but awarded the same amount of points had they achieved 1 pro bowl or all pro. As a result, recent picks had fewer points than preceding picks, but since each team was affected equally, this did not bias the results.

There is one final thing to add. I largely omitted all the rounds past the 2nd. This was because after grading all the draft rounds from 1993-2010, it became apparent just how little value most teams received from past rounds. To be sure, a team’s depth and backups along with the majority of special teams come from these rounds, but the fact is, very few players from the lower rounds last long enough to even qualify for any points. The few stars and starters that do emerge are unpredictable and no team has shown an ability to consistently find such players. Thus, for the purposes of this article, I only present the 1st and 2nd rounds:

Round 1

All picks

4yrs Started*

6

yrs started

8+

yrs started

1-2

pro

bowls

3+

pro

bowls

5+

pro

bowls

1 All pro

2+ All Pros

# of picks

560

412

314

208

184

101

58

97

43

%

100%

73.6%

56.1%

37.1%

32.9%

18.0%

10.4%

17.3%

%7.7

 

Round 2

All picks

4yrs Started*

6yrs started

8+yrs started

1-2 probowls

3+pro

bowls

5+pro

bowls

1 All pro

2+ All Pros

# of picks

567

297

194

97

68

33

16

26

13

%

100%

52.4%

34.2%

17.1%

12.0%

5.3%

2.8%

4.6%

2.3%

Round 1

Point Total

Average

18.032

Median

7.01

Round 2

Point Total

Average

7.23

Median

3

The first thing that surprised me was just how big a difference the first round yields versus the 2nd round.  It wasn’t just the likelihood of finding a starter as every single criterion saw a major decline between the 1st and 2nd round. None was more obvious than the difference in average and median Point Value.  On average, a 1st rounder is 2.5 times more valuable than the average 2nd rounder and a little more than 2 times the median value.

Given that the first round is so much more valuable, the next step is how the talent value breaks down within the first round.

Top 5 Pick

Point Value

Average

26.84

Median

15.5

6-10

Point Value

Average

22.46

Median

10

 

 

11-15

Point Value

Average

20.822

Median

7

 

 

 

16-20

Point Value

Average

12.88

Median

6

 

 

 

21-25

Point Value

Average

13.86

Median

6

 

 

 

26-32

Point Value

Average

12.5091

Median

3

 

 

 

One thing that becomes apparent is the how fast point value descends the further down the draft you go.  On average, as you descend each tranche of 5 picks, you lose 4.6 points, or roughly, a decrease of 17% per tranche. Of course, once you get to the 16s and lower, the value seems to plateau.  I can’t offer a conclusive explanation about why this is, but it might be due to things like draft picks going to better teams or very little talent dropoff between draft picks at the tail end of the 1st round. However, the data suggests the top of the 1st round offers the best chance at the best assets. Unlike most perceptions of the NFL, here the evidence seems to match the narrative: If you want elite players, go draft in the top 15.

Additionally, these finding seems to offer an explanation for the Colts. Consider the bulk of their best players and where they were drafted in the 1st round: Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning, Edgerin James, and Dwight Freeney were all taken within or very near the top 10. To further the point, since 1998, the year Polian was hired as GM of the colts, the average draft position of all 32 teams was 16th ( which should make sense given that there are 32 teams and 32 draft positions).  In that period, the Colts average pick was 23rd, or easily the worst draft position average of all 32 teams, with NE the next worst at 21st.   What is perhaps most surprising though is that the Colts finished with the BEST 1st round point value of any of the 32 teams at 33.4 pts. The NFL average for the 1st round 17 pts.

Admittedly, these results are over a certain period and based upon criterion that is potentially flawed. In addition, it is hard to know how much value is derived from playing with Manning or the Colts’ scheme or through media favoritism. Despite all of these potential shortcomings, the evidence seems to clearly indicate that the Colts have had a remarkable run of success and that Polian’s draft performance has been spectacular, especially considering how often the Colts pick in the later rounds.

I will conclude this by giving my own two cents. I was quick to bash Polian because the evidence felt so obvious at the time. Faced with the results, I have had to revise my opinions. As I mentioned earlier, the data does not absolve or condemn Polian, but the fact is, the 2011 Colts are where they are. From my own perspective, I will say that I am still of two minds about Polian.

As far as the drafting goes, it is wrong to blame him or the front office for the recent draft failures. A run of success in the late 1st round is frankly unsustainable for even the best GMS and eventually, things return back to earth. Despite their winning ways, the Patriots are also suffering from continually drafting late. Like the Colts, the Patriots netted a pair of great players in the later rounds in Wilfork and Mankins, but their own recent late round picks have hardly yielded any stars. Their current survival is as much related to Brady, Mankins,  and Connolly along with free agents Welker and Brian Waters. Their tight ends have added a new dimension to the team, but after years of stellar defensive play, they are now one of the worst in the league and ostensibly have few answers lurking within. The truth is, for every Wayne and Mankins, there are a litany of Maroneys, Watsons, Browns and Marlin Jacksons that just aren’t going to develop. That’s not the fault of a GM as much as it is just the nature of the beast.

There is the other side of me, however, that still doubts the front office from a team building concept. The Colts’ philosophy is one that is based on maximizing elite talent while cost managing the rest of the roster as much as possible. Linebackers, corners, offensive linemen and special team players are rarely resigned and willingly replaced with smallish players that are easy to find and fit in and often neglected by other teams. This has led to perennially horrid special teams and long injury lists. The Colts survived so long as Manning and their few elite players were healthy, but the elite talent on the team is fading. I’m not sure how Polian or the front office is planning the future, but it is becoming very clear that the strategy employed for the last decade can last at most one more year before serious revisions are needed.  Caldwell and Coyer need to go, but maybe the whole idea of smallish players and offensive line does too. Should the colts move in a different direction altogether? Maybe, but if the results of his drafting tell us anything, Polian has at least earned the benefit of the doubt.

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