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Today’s Note: More on Sports Economics

February 18, 2012

Today’s Note revisits some earlier posts about the economics of sports. Today’s feature article is another post on freakonomics.com, “Football Freakonomics: What Can Linsanity Teach Us About the Upcoming NFL Draft?

This post, by Freakonomist Stephen Dubner, discusses work by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler, who have analyzed the correlation of draft position with productivity among NFL players. The piece begins by discussing NBA phenom Jeremy Lin, who has bounded to superstar status after having been cut by two teams. Lin was not drafted in the NBA draft. “Let’s be honest: the reason we’re hearing so much about Lin is because he was overlooked.” [italics here are Dubner’s] Dubner points out that many star athletes perform far better – or far worse – than their draft position would predict. He goes on to tell us that ” if you look closely at the NFL, you’ll find Jeremy Lins all over the place. ”

Dubner also points to substantial statistical evidence produced by Massey and Thaler. In his words,

Our latest Football Freakonomics episode — the last one this season — argues that the draft is much more of a crapshoot than most of its practitioners would have us think. The evidence is everywhere. Consider the research of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler, who find top draft picks to be seriously overvalued. Consider the data presented in the interactive graphic here, which reveals the average draft position for the top five players this season in key categories.

Dubner’s article is downright excellent. And in his main point – “Granted, these numbers aren’t exactly encyclopedic. But they do a good job of showing just how much luck is involved in the draft — to say nothing of how much Luck — and how hard it is to forecast the future.” – is spot on. But I’m not sure the Massey and Thaler numbers in the post really illustrate that very well.

If you look closely,

  • 4 of the top 5 quarterbacks listed are 1st round draft picks
  • 5 of the top 6 sack leaders were also 1st round picks
  • The top 5 sack leaders were taken in the 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd and (Undrafted) rounds
  • 4 of the top 5 rushers were drafted, and 3 of those 4 in the second round.

At first glance, the wide receivers slot seems to support the statisticians’ premise. Two of the top five were undrafted. But three of the top five were drafted, none lower than the 3rd round. And two of them were drafted second and third overall, respectively. And let’s face, it, each team can have one feature running back, but may have three to five receivers contribute serious catches and receiving yards. It only stands to reason that some of those will be drafted late, or not at all. If you watch the draft, you will see quality receivers available far later than top sack masters or tall “pro style” quarterbacks.

I think what these numbers tell me are the following:

1. You can get lucky and find a quality contributor late in the draft, or as an undrafted free agent. In fact, many teams will carefully not draft hidden gems in late rounds, preferring to sign them as free agents if they believe other teams undervalue them;

2. Many high draft picks don’t work out. They get injured, don’t transition to the pro game, or were just mis-evaluated from the start. That makes projecting draft picks a dicey business.

3. Most importantly, strong performers are very likely to be drafted early. Put another way, the draft is a very iffy business, but on the whole, you are far better off going with a player that projects high than rolling the dice on one that doesn’t.

As always, Dubner’s post is absolutely excellent. I recommend it very strongly. You may also want to look at these other recent Notes on similar topics:

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