Thoughts on the 2009 NFL Draft

Posted on April 26, 2009 by


For a fan of the Detroit Lions, the annual NFL draft is the highlight of the year (yes, it’s sad to be a Lions fan).  After a 0-16 season – which in the perverse world of American professional sports was rewarded with the number one pick in the draft – the draft was an even bigger deal than normal.

Drafting Stafford

When a team has the first pick in the draft it obviously has an abundance of choices.  In nine of the last twelve years, though, that first pick was a quarterback.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t always worked out.  At least, it clearly hasn’t worked out for Alex Smith, David Carr, and Tim Couch (and the jury is still out on JaMarcus Russell).

When we move past the top five we see quarterbacks like Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington, and Akili Smith.  At one point Mel Kiper – and the other draft experts — were extolling the virtues of all these players.  But when these quarterbacks took the field in the NFL the grand expectations were simply not met.

At this point we wonder if Matthew Stafford will be the next Manning (Eli or Peyton), Donovan McNabb, or Philip Rivers.  Or will he be the latest first round bust at quarterback?

Although many people “know” the answer at this point, the data suggests we don’t “know”.  At least, this was the story told by two economists (yes I was one of these and Rob Simmons was the other) to Malcolm Gladwell for a New Yorker article last December.  

Of course, just because we don’t know it doesn’t mean we can’t have an opinion (if that were the case communication on-line might collapse).  So as a Lions fan, I “know” Stafford will be a future Pro Bowler.  And this is because he can now throw to Brandon Pettigrew, who I “know” is also going to be a future star. 

ESPN Should Listen to the Magazine

Then again, maybe the odds are stacked against Stafford and Pettigrew.  ESPN the Magazine – in the May 4, 2009 issue — provided a wonderful chart on the draft that every person watching draft coverage on ESPN and NFL network (and I was one of these people) should have kept in mind.  Across the past 10 years, 2,548 players were drafted by NFL teams.  Of these….

46.9% appeared in the post-season,

6.9% appeared in the Super Bowl,

7.7% appeared in the Pro Bowl,

0.12% were league MVP,

and 13.0% never played in the NFL.

So 92% of players drafted do not make the Pro Bowl. Of course that isn’t the story you hear on draft day.  Each first round pick is expected to be a star.  And the same tale is told about many players selected in the second and third round.  The numbers tell us, though, that much of what we heard about these players will never come true.

On Sunday we moved to the end of the draft, where we often hear how many of these players are going to make a contribution.  But 13% of drafted players do not make it at all.  That statistic suggests that a significant number of players taken in the 6th and 7th round- who the pundits are spending Sunday discussing at length — will never make it on the field.

Listening to Massey and Thaler

The research of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler – which detailed inefficiencies in the NFL draft — has appeared to have an impact on the 2009 draft.  

Recently reported the following story:

Lions reportedly turned down an offer from Kansas City to move up in the draft to the No. 3 overall pick, according to Kansas City Star’s Adam Teicher., April 25: I’m hearing they offered the Lions that pick plus a fourth-round choice in return for Detroit’s other first-rounder (#20) and Detroit’s second-rounder (#33).

The Lions rejected the offer. Too bad for the Chiefs. Since they don’t have a second-round pick, this stands a chance of being a one-player draft for the Chiefs. And they need more than one player from this draft.

If the Lions were really divided between Stafford and Aaron Curry, this would have been their best opportunity to grab both, but it appears the price tag was too high. Detroit’s rejection also might prove that Stafford was its main target all along.

According to, this trade offer could be proof that the draft trade chart has dramatically changed.

PFT, April 25: Under the current trade chart, there’s a sizable gap. The third pick is worth 2,200 points; No. 20 is worth 850 and No. 33 is worth 580.

That’s a gap of 770 points, which equates to the midpoint of the No. 22 and No. 23 overall picks in the draft.

And the Chiefs were willing to swallow that gap to get out of the three spot.

It appears to me that many teams wanted to trade down.  But that simply didn’t happen much in this draft. In fact, it’s beginning to look like the top picks in the draft are increasingly being recognized as a curse.  The amount of money that is being paid to these players is unlikely to be justified by the player’s future production.

Burke on Basketball

Let me close by recognizing some recent work by Brian Burke.  People who follow stats and the NFL know that Brian’s site is a wonderful source.  Brian, though, is branching out from football. A few weeks ago Brian offered a model of win probability in college basketball. Now he has done the same for the NBA playoffs.  This means that as you watch a playoff game in 2009 you can actually see how the probability of victory changes for each team as the game progresses.  And that should make watching the playoffs even better (though I am not sure I needed to know exactly when the Pistons season was mathematically over).

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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