It’s that time of year. Mel Kiper Jr. emerges from his bunker like a groundhog. Clichés like “high motor,” “upside,” “steal,” “football IQ,” are uttered so often you could start a drinking game. (You’ll be intoxicated in 15 minutes on draft night.)
And you might become emotionally invested in a player you don’t know from a school you’ve never heard of. (Defensive end Quiznatodd Bidness from Southwest Alabama Tech in the fourth round to New England? Don’t know him but he had 13 sacks for the NAIA national champion. Damn, Bill Belichick must know something.)
Welcome to the NFL Draft! The annual player selection meeting starts Thursday in Philadelphia. Three days of large men in suits, shaking hands and hugging Roger Goodell, speaking to the media and then sitting down. That’s it. No tackles, no blocks, no passes, no catches, no runs, no kicks. Not even a fair catch. You won’t have the foggiest idea if your team is appreciably better. All you can cling to is hope. You won’t see your team’s latest acquisitions make a meaningful play until September.
This is ridiculous. And yet, people love watching the NFL Draft. Last year, ratings were up three percent. It set records on the WatchESPN app, as it was the most-viewed draft overall and during each day on the platform. America’s appetite for football is almost insatiable. Imagine thumbing through a menu, considering choices and ordering. But you don’t get to actually bite into the meal until five months later. And there’s only a 50 percent chance that you’ll enjoy it.
It’s a culinary Russian roulette: Try this filet mignon. It may taste like heaven or an armpit. That’s what the draft is like. The draft is a meat market except the success rate for meat markets is far better.
I'm not gonna rain on the parade of folks that still love the NFL Draft. I'm just over the hope trafficking. Nobody knows anything.
— Pedro Pontificate (@ThaTrail) March 16, 2017
There’s an inherent element of risk in any sport. But at least in other sports, there is a proper amount of perspective. In Major League Baseball, most people have never seen these college kids or high schoolers and most players won’t appear in the big leagues for a few years. In the NBA Draft, fans understand that usually only lottery picks have a chance to become long-term starters and only a precious few are impactful.
The NFL and media have cranked up the hype volume to decibel levels that will make you ears bleed. You would think that every quarterback with a strong arm, successful college career and 6-foot-4 stature is going be the next Peyton Manning when most aren’t even the next Jay Cutler.
In the NFL, the amount of media attention and fan interest devoted to the draft is way out of line with the actual production. The first-round success rate is essentially a coin flip (at best). According to Atlanta Falcons executive Thomas Dimitroff, only about 56 percent of first-rounders become regular starters. Not superstars. Starters. Even picking high in the draft doesn’t necessarily lead to success. According to fivethirtyeight.com, teams with top-five picks in the draft correctly identify the player who goes on to have the best career only 10.3 percent of the time.
That’s an alarmingly low batting average for a league which invests millions in player evaluation. Scouts, personnel directors and general managers have plenty of time, plenty of information and (generally) plenty of experience. They have crafted their entire careers to unearth talent which they can develop into franchise-changing players. And yet, they are merely making educated guesses.
This is a con job. The NFL Draft is marketed as though these teams know exactly what they’re doing. They don’t. All they can do is stack the odds and hope for a favorable outcome. Luck plays a huge role. The higher you are in the draft order, the more likely you are to get a good player. That’s the only thing we know for sure. As FiveThirtyEight puts it, “teams can’t regularly predict which prospects will outperform or underperform relative to where they were drafted.”
This would be a lot more palatable if there was a full disclosure. Can’t Goodell read a pre-draft disclaimer? “Warning: These picks are a guess and only a guess. The production of the players your team selects may vary. No refunds!”
Let’s take last year’s draft for example. Jared Goff was the No. 1 overall pick out of California. He certainly looked the part: 6-foot-4, from a major-conference program and broke Aaron Rodgers’ school records. While it’s still early in his career, Goff looks terrible as a pro. He went 0-7 as a starter with a passer rating of 63.6 – which would have been the worst in the league if he played enough games.
To put that in perspective, Johnny Manziel’s career passer rating is 74.4. “Sad!”
The road to hell is paved with the remains of terrible No. 1 overall quarterbacks (JaMarcus Russell, Tim Couch, David Carr, etc.). But what makes the NFL Draft feel fraudulent is how executives can completely miss on players who vastly exceed expectations. That’s not ability; it’s just luck.
Take the case of Rayne Dakota Prescott, aka Dak Prescott. You can credit the Dallas Cowboys if you want. More appropriate: How lucky did they get? There were seven quarterbacks (134 players overall) selected before the Cowboys took a flyer in the fourth round. Prescott, only thrust into service after starter Tony Romo got hurt in the preseason, set an NFL rookie record for passer rating at 104.9, led Dallas to a 13-3 record and was the league’s offensive rookie of the year.
If anyone knew Prescott would be that good, he would have been the first overall pick. So what happens this year? An anonymous scout is quoted as saying the following about Clemson’s Deshaun Watson: “You can say he’s better than Dak Prescott.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s a smokescreen to get another team to reach for Watson. Either case, where’s the eyeroll emoji when you need it?
the eye roll 🙄 is hands down my most used emoji
— Casey (@casey_weaver) April 25, 2017
Look, you can watch the NFL Draft live, if you want. Just know what you’re watching is pure speculation. Instead, why not go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather? Work on your tan. Enjoy an adult beverage. You can always read about the results later.
C’mon, who’s with me?
Cue the sounds of crickets.