Luck of the draft

Andrew Luck might very well be the first pick in this year's draft but will he be the next Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? Stephen Dubner digs deep into the true value of past draft picks.


Draft Luck

By Stephen J. Dubner

What can Linsanity teach us about the upcoming NFL draft?

In his first six starts in the NBA, Jeremy Lin averaged 24.3 points and 9.5 assists in six straight wins for the Knicks. If those numbers were attached to someone like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, you wouldn't bat an eye. But until a couple weeks ago, Lin was little more than roster fodder, an undrafted player already cut by two teams and about to be cut by his third. That's what a desperate coach who had run out of able-bodied point guards threw him into the fire. The rest -- for the moment, at least -- is history.

Let's be honest: the reason we're hearing so much about Lin is because he was overlooked. This might lead you to think he's a true anomaly, a great game-time athlete who somehow slipped through a pro sports league's finely-tuned talent-scouting machine. But if you look closely at the NFL, you'll find Jeremy Lins all over the place. And with the NFL draft coming up in April, you have to wonder just how scientific the science of drafting football players really is. Is Andrew Luck really the golden goose that Indianapolis is banking on, or might he turn out to be yet another top-tier bust?

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 research of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler, who find top draft picks to be seriously overvalued. Consider the data presented in the interactive graphic above, which reveals the average draft position for the top five players this season in key categories. For instance:

2011 Passing Yards (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 51.4)

Player Overall Pick Number
Drew Brees 32
Tom Brady 199
Matthew Stafford 1
Eli Manning 1
Aaron Rodgers 24

2011 Rushing Yards (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 115.84)

Player Overall Pick Number
Maurice Jones Drew 60
Ray Rice* 55
Michael Turner 154
LeSean McCoy 53
Arian Foster** Undrafted (255)

*Rice was the MVB (Most Valuable Bargain) in our inaugural Dough Bowl

** We generously counted each undrafted players as if he was the first player chosen after "Mr. Irrelevant," the last player chosen in that year's draft. In Foster's case, that would make him pick No. 255.

2011 Tackles (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 78.6)

Player Overall Pick Number
London Fletcher Undrafted (242)
D'Qwell Jackson 34
Chad Greenway 17
Pat Angerer 63
Curtis Lofton 37

2011 Receiving Yards (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers =118.2)

Player Overall Pick Number
Calvin Johnson 2
Wes Welker Undrafted (256)
Victor Cruz Undrafted (256)
Larry Fitzgerald 3
Steve Smith (CAR) 74

This year's sack leaders represented the highest average overall draft position:

2011 Sacks (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 32.7)

Player Overall Pick Number
Jared Allen 126
DeMarcus Ware 11
Jason Babin 27
Jason Pierre-Paul 15
(T5) Aldon Smith 7
(T5) Terrell Suggs 10

Keep in mind that an average draft position of 100 is equivalent to a top pick in the fourth round. What's most interesting is that in several major categories, the top five performers included at least one undrafted free agent. Or, put another way: One of the top five performers in these categories includes a player who wasn't even thought to be among the top 254 draft picks of his rookie class!

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.

That's why more and more teams, in all sports, are doing a deep statistical dive to try to identify undervalued players before spending too much money on the overvalued ones. So if you're an NFL team looking to optimize your draft picks this year, maybe you'll consider hiring a young guy to crunch the numbers for you. Maybe some economics major from Harvard who happens to know his way around the gym? Maybe someone like ... Jeremy Lin?